This afternoon, Duke’s freshman center, Jahlil Okafor, played dominant basketball in front of a huge international audience. Showing off his “best since Duncan, maybe Alcindor” freshman post game, Okafor racked up 26 points on 12-16 shooting in an easy win over San Diego State. All signs point to Okafor entering the draft this summer (even Coach K, who has not traditionally been accepting of the one-and-done culture, seems to acknowledge this) and he’ll be one of the first two picks, depending on whether the lucky team picking wants his offense, or the defense of Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, going forward.
Tonight, the Minnesota Timberwolves played a game on their home court. They hosted a mediocre Charlotte Hornets team that entered the contest with a 29-38 record in the weak Eastern Conference. The Wolves could have won this game if they wanted to.
But they didn’t. And they didn’t.
The Wolves are tanking. Tonight they started a [one and done] rookie point guard, a [one and done] rookie small forward, a rookie power forward, and a second-year center.
Ricky Rubio tweaked his right ankle on March 13 (9 days ago) versus the Thunder. On video replay, you could see he rolled it, but it didn’t look particularly serious; not like his first one back in November, to his left ankle which kept him out for much of the season. Rubio sat out the rest of the Thunder game, again in the next game versus the Spurs, and again the next night when the Wolves hosted the struggling Brooklyn Nets. Without him, they lost those games by lopsided margins.
He returned to play at Toronto in a game the Wolves would certainly have a hard time winning due to their other missing men (in fact, they played pretty well with Ricky back in the lineup, but lost by 5) and he was then removed again from the lineup, accordingly, in the next two games against weak opponents: Thursday’s Tankapalooza at Madison Square Garden (which they won, probably to their chagrin) and again tonight at home versus the Hornets.
You need to understand that the Wolves have played 692 minutes with Rubio on the floor, and in that time they have lost to opponents by 1.6 points per 100 possessions. For a reference point, that’s the same net rating of the Miami Heat, who will be a playoff team this year in the East and have great players like Dwyane Wade and (currently injured) Chris Bosh. It’s obviously not good to be in the red like (-1.6) is, but it’s not terrible performance and it means that wins will happen.
When Rubio is off the court the Wolves are an unmitigated disaster. In those 2635 minutes, they’ve lost to opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions. There is no current NBA team that plays that poorly. The Knicks are the worst (Wolves are 29th) with a net rating of (-9.6). Right now, they are the only team with a worse record than the Wolves.
Rubio is the key to all of this. Sure, it would be nice to have Kevin Garnett in there. If even for 15 or 20 minutes, his defense and screen setting makes a difference. And Nikola Pekovic, while not pain free, understands defensive positioning and fends off would-be offensive rebounders better than Adreian Payne and Gorgui Dieng, who are currently logging undue playing time in his absence. But when Rubio plays, the offense improves, the defense improves, the transition game improves, and there is real, live, leadership on the floor, instead of Flip Saunders trying to (literally, per his post-game remarks) direct traffic from the sideline.
With Rubio, the Wolves have a chance to win most games. Without him, they do not have a chance to win most games.
The Wolves (presumably like every other team) are reportedly very high on Okafor and Towns. Either would be slotted in at the center position for the long-term lineup envisioned with Andrew Wiggins and whoever else shakes out of this season and next as part of the “core.” If you watch them play, you’ll understand why. Okafor will be an All-Star in the NBA for the simple reason that he’s already unguardable at an age when most bigs (like Towns) are a little bit more awkward. Towns is huge, with a body that looks like it might later resemble Derrick Favors’ or even a poor man’s Dwight Howard. He moves well on defense and has a nice touch on his jumper. Either guy would be a great get.
And the Wolves obviously feel the same way.
Tanking is ugly business, as tonight’s game showed. After a hot-shooting start against a passive opponent content in clanking jumpers, the Wolves built up a lead as big as 13, shortly before half. But it was unsustainable, as many could’ve imagined. Again, three rookies started. The defensive awareness — as has been the case all year — was just not there. Charlotte worked to generate more dribble penetration and cuts to the basket where the Wolves defend worse than any team all year. They also forced turnovers, and crashed the offensive glass. They ended up winning by 11.
A bright spot of sorts was Payne, whose mid-range jumper looked smooth, and whose time on the court saw the Wolves outscore the Hornets by 4 points. (Oddly, his starting frontcourt partner, Gorgui Dieng, had the team’s worse plus-minus, with a (-17).)
LaVine played a nice first quarter, but struggled from there on out. Kevin Martin shot poorly, but collected 9 assists. Wiggins posted up a lot and made some shots. He defended pretty well. Other than that, he was not much of a factor. Flip says he and the other young players are tired. That could be true for Wiggins, who is near the league lead in minutes, but seems less so for the others who are not rookies or have not played nearly as much.
In any case, you can consider it a Rule of Rubio: when he plays, the Wolves might win. I expect that to happen against top-notch competition, like that game at Toronto. When he sits, they won’t have a chance. I realize this is pretty straightforward and I’m probably not telling you something you don’t already know.
But it’s worth acknowledging since these games continue to be played — the “show must go on” — and we continue to watch and fans continue to pay for tickets.
Wolves play at Utah tomorrow night. The Jazz have been playing great basketball lately. They’re a young team who struggled early this year, figured out their preferred rotation and developed a defensive identity, and are now winning games. They’ll enter next season with playoffs-expectations.
But barring some incredible lottery luck, the Jazz will have no shot at Okafor or Towns.