At the season’s quarter point, I handed out letter grades to each player. At the halfway point, I laid out team superlatives. We’ve just reached the third quarter point, and with the team fresh off a franchise-altering trade, and without hope of making the upcoming playoffs, I thought it a good time to lay out the big issues they face as the season hits its springtime homestretch.
The following are five issues that the team faces and will hang over the last 21 games of the season. I listed them in increasing order of importance, as I see things:
1. What is Zach LaVine’s position?
On one hand, I don’t view this as a particularly important question despite the emphasis many knowledgeable Wolves pundits place on it; specifically, many criticize Flip Saunders for playing LaVine at point guard when he has struggled there, and they feel his future is off the ball, at the two. I don’t get quite as hung up on that positional distinction in Zach’s case because I think his “upside” will be realized if and when he can get comfortable enough with his handles, against pressure defense, to explode to the rim from the top of the key. That’s a “combo guard” type of play that athletic dynamos like Russ Westbrook have proven to be effective.
Even if LaVine doesn’t have traditional point guard instincts, he’ll create plays for himself and teammates if and when he can master that skill; and he obviously has the athleticism to do it. So from that perspective, I think playing him at point guard right now makes sense. Flip has played him almost exclusively at point guard this season, to the chagrin of fans (and sometimes himself, it seems) and I can only believe he’s doing this with an eye toward the future and the type of player he wants LaVine to become.
But the question matters considerably more in the short term — next season, specifically — if the Wolves are planning to try to win games rather than tank for the draft and develop young players outside of their comfort zones, as they did this year. Because in that case, they need a backup point guard and this year’s version of LaVine is simply not good enough to play that role on a competitive team.
The on/off numbers for LaVine paint an ugly picture. In the 1148 minutes he’s been on the floor this year, the Wolves were outscored by 17.1 points per 100 possessions. In other words, over a large sample size, the Wolves were consistently blown out when LaVine was in the game, and he was almost always playing point guard. Some of that statistic is the fault of other players. Consider that he played by far his most minutes in December (15 games, 29.3 minutes per game) when the Wolves best players (Rubio, Martin, Pekovic) were all on the shelf with injuries. Those lineups were outmanned across the board. Combined with the “Force Feed Wiggins At All Costs” philosophy that Flip implemented, there was no getting around some awful plus-minus stats.
But LaVine’s ineptitude on defense, and in initiating the offense as the lead guard, were substantial contributing factors to the lopsided defeats, too. He dribbles the ball high, and when defenders pressure him, he struggles to do anything beyond a cautious entry pass to the wing. On defense he is pretty good against isolation drives, because of his supreme athleticism and solid effort level. But he does not yet have the court awareness, or the physical strength and developed tricks to navigate pick and rolls with any success. The Wolves allow 113.4 points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the floor, and just 105.5 when he’s off. That 7.9 point differential is enormous, considering the sample size on each side of it.
So in the season’s final quarter, it will be worth paying attention to every minute LaVine takes the floor and mans the point guard spot. They need to know if he’s improving rapidly enough to be penciled in as a point, or even combo guard in next year’s rotation, or whether they need to find somebody else on the open market or in the draft to back up Ricky Rubio.
2. Is there a starting frontcourt player on the roster?
This is a disappointing question to have to ask. Late last year, Gorgui Dieng emerged as one of the best rookies in his class. In increased minutes at the end of the year, when the playoffs were out of reach and Pek taken out of the lineup, Gorgui put up numbers. Per 36 minutes as a rookie he scored 12.6 points and pulled down an impressive 13.2 rebounds. This year, with increased playing time and responsibility (again, filling in for injured Pek) those numbers have dropped to 11.6 points and 10.5 rebounds. A production drop would be more palatable if it seemed to result from improved all-around defense, but if anything the reverse has seemed more true; particularly in the past month or so. Gorgui has become the team’s most frequent target of criticism of coaches and teammates alike. At times it seems like he is overaggressive in helping or trapping, but Flip Saunders instead believes he has hit a “wall” from playing a lot of minutes against larger teammates. I don’t find that excuse credible, given Gorgui’s lack of injuries (that we know about, anyway) his relatively young age of 25, and the fact that he has played less than 30 minutes per game this year; hardly an exhausting workload for a player his age. In response to a question about Gorgui perhaps improving as a shooter, Flip didn’t seem to agree – saying that he still feels a little surprised when Gorgui’s shots go in. He seems frustrated with Dieng.
All of this is to say that Gorgui has not taken the step forward that we had hoped, and it is not at all clear that he is a starting-caliber NBA player. Not on a good team, anyway. If he was a little bit more mobile, with a little bit better shooting ability, maybe he could play the four. If he was a stronger, more disciplined defender, maybe he could play the five. But those are “if’s” and right now he isn’t there yet.
This question is also disappointing because Pekovic has a contract that pays him like not only a starter, but a star. He’ll earn about $36 Million over the next three seasons. This is a problem because he seems like a bigger injury risk as time passes. This year he’s played only 784 minutes — 9th most on the team — in just 29 games. He is shooting just 42.8 percent from the field. His previous career low was 51.7 as a rookie. If Pek cannot score efficiently in the post, he is not a good NBA player. That is his specialty perhaps more than anything else, and his lack of mobility on defense is a weakness that needs to be offset in other ways.
Pek played pretty well last night, posting 11 & 8 in about 25 minutes of action, with a great plus/minus. The team will need to see a lot of that in the final month of the season in order to feel okay about him as a starting center next year.
Beyond Gorgui and Pek, the options are quite clearly below starter caliber. Anthony Bennett is inconsistent and unproductive, at this point. Adreian Payne is brand new, and too raw and nervous to fairly evaluate. Robbie Hummel is too small to be a starting power forward. And Kevin Garnett, while playing well and technically starting, cannot play full-time minutes or even all the games.
The Wolves might draft a big man in the lottery this summer, but relying on rookies is a terrible strategy when winning is the goal. I suppose they might draft a big man, play him a half-load of minutes right away, and figure that between KG, Pek, Hummel, and either Payne or Bennett they’ll have enough frontcourt competence to hold down the fort most nights. Thinking back a few years, Utah had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, and also tried to implement young Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. The Wolves could have something similar going on next year. In any event, it would be nice to see progress from the current big men in the season’s final stretch.
3. How good, exactly, is Ricky Rubio?
This is an ongoing question that will probably be asked for the next few seasons. It’s also a really important one for the Timberwolves for a few, fairly obvious reasons. Starting next season, he becomes a very rich man, beginning the $56 Million contract that he signed last fall. With that money comes greater responsibility and scrutiny. Also, Rubio is the team’s point guard and primary facilitator of offense. There is only one basketball, and Ricky is the Timberwolf who touches it most. Many wonder if his ceiling is limited by his poor shooting ability. The Wolves have invested so deeply in fixing it that they hired a special shooting coach — who even sits on the bench during games — to work with Ricky. After his game-clinching three last night against Portland, Rubio immediately celebrated with Coach Penberthy on the sidelines.
If Rubio becomes a reliable late-game shooter — particularly in catch-and-shoot threes and in dribble 17-footers — he can absolutely be an All-NBA guard and core member of a title contender. The rest of his game is that good. He has no equals as a passer, and he’s in the top tier of point guard defenders. But the shooting has a long way to go, and it’s fair to bring up as a factor that limits both his individual potential and his team’s.
Now that he’s back from injury and playing full minutes, we have a good chance to evaluate whatever progress he might’ve made in that extended absence where he worked with Penberthy on shooting mechanics while his team focused on Andrew Wiggins’ improvement and the upcoming NBA Draft Lottery. In terms of basic shooting percentage, he has not yet shown improvement. He is hitting just 36.7 percent of field goals right now, which is a hair below his career average of 36.8 percent, and further below the 38.1 percent he hit, last year. That’s a really poor percentage by anyone’s estimation.
The picture is a little bit less bleak if you pick apart his shooting chart. Right now he’s missing a disproportionate amount of shots in the restricted area; presumably contested layups. He’s just 12-38 right now on those, hitting 31.6 percent. Last year, he hit 47.9 percent of shots in the restricted area. But his mid-range shooting has shown improvement. Last year he shot a dreadful 60-210 from the mid range, which is just 28.6 percent accuracy. (For a helpful comparison, Chris Paul is making 49.7 percent of his mid-range shots this year.) So for this season, Ricky has hit 42-101 from the mid range, good for 41.6 percent which is much more respectable. His three-point shooting is still poor (27.9 percent, which is actually his career low) but hopefully the progress he’s showing on mid-range shooting form is representative of something greater — something both psychological and technical — that will help set him on a long-term track of improvement in the one area that has held him back.
It’s something to watch down the stretch.
More generally than just shooting, Rubio’s impact on the Wolves has been measurable and significant. When he has played their record is 7-11, which is a 32-win pace. They actually outscore opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s been on the floor, versus the 11.7 they get outscored per 100 when he is off of it. Furthermore, his 4th Quarter offensive rating of 115.8 is phenomenal (some small sample size bias here, admittedly) and better than any team’s in the league. Last year, the Wolves were awful in the 4th Quarter, even with Ricky on the floor — his 2013-14 rating was just 103.2 in the final period.
4. How should Andrew Wiggins try to improve next?
Wiggins has been, by far, the Timberwolves season bright spot. He scores on offense. He checks the other team’s best player on defense. He runs the floor in transition. He has incredible physical gifts, and uses them intelligently instead of wastefully. He improves, and never seems too happy with himself. For a little bonus, he does all of these things without seeming like a weirdo psychopath or anything but a likeable person.
But Wiggins is not yet a star player, and there is plenty of work to be done for him to reach that point, even if it sometimes seems inevitable that he will get there. The next thing I’d like to see Wiggins do is spot up for three-point shots when Rubio is creating off the dribble. This year, Wiggins is hitting a respectable-for-a-young-rookie 34.6 percent of threes. The problem is that he only shoots 1.7 of them per game. I’d like to see him shooting more like 4 or 5 threes per game, like Carmelo Anthony has in recent years for the Knicks. Not only are threes an efficient shot generally, and one that Wiggins seems perfectly capable of making frequently, but it’s also a less physically demanding play than the constant driving into the lane that we’ve seen from him this year. A little bit more standing on offense will help him preserve his energy for defense and avoid excessive wear and tear on his body all at once.
The evolution of Wiggins, like Rubio’s shooting, is a huge franchise issue. When Kevin Martin first returned from injury and was jacking up about 20 shots per night, I worried that Wiggins might get phased out. I asked Flip if he thought Martin might get in the way of Wiggins development and he said flatout that “great players don’t ask other players to defer.” In other words, he wants Wiggins to demand the ball and be great.
5. Setting Expectations for Next Season
To me, this is the most significant issue that the team faces as it plays its last 21 games of this season. In question form, I guess I would ask, “What happens if they start to look like a playoff team?” They just beat the Blazers. Since Rubio returned they’ve also beaten Memphis and blown out Washington. They’ve had very close losses to those same Grizzlies and then to the Clippers. If the chemistry between Rubio and Wiggins picks up a bit, and they start winning half of more of their games against a tough schedule, how does that impact their off-season and how they, as an organization, approach next season?
If Rubio-Wiggins appears like a playoff-ready 1-2 punch, might they entertain trade offers for their draft pick, which promises to be a good one? Consider that Ricky is finishing his fourth playoffs-less NBA season and — his new contract notwithstanding — is certainly not content to go through another losing season, let alone two or more of them. People talk about “windows” for championship runs, and at some point the Wolves hope to enter one of those. They thought they might last year, but things didn’t work out that way. If Wiggins is what we are starting to think he might be, the Wolves will want to both ensure that they find a window, but also maximize the length of it. They want it to look closer to Tim Duncan’s in San Antonio, which spans nearly 20 years, than KG’s here in Minnesota, which was only one.
This is a bigger, broader issue than the first four, but when we watch the remainder of this season, we will all have one eye on next fall; what that team will look like, and what its expectations will be.