Kevin Martin Returns from Injury
Kevin Martin came back to the lineup last night in the Wolves’ victory over the Boston Celtics at Target Center. Martin had 21 points in the win and felt like a spark plug for the team, even though his +/- rating was -3 for the night. (Eds. Note: A fairly meaningless statistic in a single game, especially when close to zero.) I dislike Martin’s style and defense, and his fugly-j, nerdy, weak, aesthetic. But Martin did what he does–score–and the Wolves won. That’s what matters.
Martin was excellent off the bench. A sixth man role might be the one he’s best suited for in the future–if he’s ever going to play an key role on a high-end contender, that is.
Pekovic Also Returns, Thaddeus Young Moves to Small Forward
The recent lineup changes are not limited to Martin’s return. Nikola Pekovic, another of the team’s season-opener starters, is back. This is more unexpected and, frankly, better news.
Pekovic has a bigger contract than Martin and his injury issues (chronic foot problems) are more worrisome. Some “in the know” fear(ed) that Pek’s entire future is in jeopardy. But he’s back, he’s playing relatively well, and — more pertinent to this discussion — he’s logging substantial minutes. Since returning on January 21, Pek has played in 5 straight games, logging at least 21 minutes in every one (and even played 36 the other night in Atlanta).
With Pekovic back, and Gorgui Dieng playing solid basketball on the front line, Flip decided to “go big” and move Gorgui to the 4, and Thad Young down to the small forward spot. So far, the results of been good. Andrew Wiggins plays the 2. In last night’s win, Thad played over 39 minutes. Wiggins did too. Martin, in his first game back, played a hair under 30. Chase Budinger rounded out the wing minutes with 13:49 of his own.
Implications for Muhammad
What I’m wondering about is how Martin’s return, combined with Thad’s move to small forward, will affect Shabazz Muhammad’s role on the team. (This might seem like premature worrying, but what can I say: I’m a fan of Shabazz, and have never really enjoyed Martin’s game from a fan’s perspective.)
Shabazz has been one of the team’s two bright spots this season. He shined the brightest after his minutes increased in November, and continued to play well after he was elevated to a starting role. The additional minutes were a key to Shabazz’s maturation. The starting role was one he seemed to wear as a badge of honor–he earned it.
Shabazz wants to be an all-star. If he’s going to achieve that goal, there would be a straightforward progression. First, he must become a clear-cut starter in the NBA. Second, he must progress to “fringe star” status. And finally–if all the stars and planets align perfectly for him–he would enter the All-Star conversation.
Shabazz’s attitude has been a key to his positive transformation as a Timberwolf. But there’s a chance that a demotion from the starting lineup could negatively affect Muhammad’s development here.
My reasoning goes like this: Shabazz had made significant progress in his professional development before he was injured. He and Andrew Wiggins appeared to be a potent duo together on offense. Shabazz gave defenses a different look and a physicality that complemented Wiggins in a way that Martin can’t match. (Eds. Note: The opposite is also true, of course–Martin obviously brings a different look and feel than Muhammad, but prior to Martin’s injury, the Wiggins-Martin combo looked less than synergistic. This was probably due both to the lack of opportunities Martin facilitates for others [Shabazz does this mainly through being in scrums around the offensive glass] and also because Wiggins was less mature then than now.)
If Shabazz is demoted because of Martin’s return (or Pekovic’s, because of the need to play Thad Young more at the three), it’s possible that he will regress some. For one, his role will be smaller. There’s simply less “pie” for everyone. Not only would there be fewer minutes for him, but Martin is a notorious shot hunter whose usage would likely cut into Shabazz’s. Not a bad thing, necessarily–Martin’s efficiency stats have been excellent when he’s been healthy enough to play–but a thing that will affect Shabazz more than anybody the rest of the season.
Hypothesis: Shabazz’s psyche seems at once resilient and fragile.
If true, the Wolves should be attentive to this. For all the resilience and patience he showed in getting to where he did, a demotion seems like it could turn this attitude for the worse. Pure speculation, but in his shoes, a demotion may feel like the Wolves are unappreciative of his hard work and production, especially in losing his starting job to Martin, who took his time in coming back from a wrist injury and has never been known to play hard or with courage or with any of the “heart” intangibles Bazz’s effort produced this season while K-Mart was out.
Hopefully this fear is unfounded–and it might be. So far, Shabazz has defied all expectations, including an expectation among critics that he would lack professionalism. But to the contrary, he has looked like a model of a young professional basketball player. If that’s who he is, we needn’t worry about how he might handle the adversity of becoming a bit player coming off the bench for the worst team in the League.
But in the worst-case scenario–the one where Shabazz loses faith in the system or brings fewer of the “effort intangibles” that have made him stand out as a prospect–the outlook gets gloomier for the Wolves.
The two bright spots of this season would decrease to one, with Shabazz becoming a question mark instead of a building block. The Wolves already have enough question marks in their young stable of recent first-round picks. I hope Shabazz doesn’t end up back in that category, which is right back where he was before the season.
The Wolves are off today before taking on the 9-37 76ers tomorrow night in Philadelphia. The at-the-time win-less 76ers defeated the Wolves 86-77 on December 3rd. (Eds. Note: REVENGE GAME!) Is anyone else feeling a (two-game) winning streak coming on?
While you wait for The Battle of the Titans to tip-off tomorrow night, here’s some young Bazz to pregame to: