INBOX: Timberwolves Season in Review Part I: The Backcourt

Ricky Rubio

Patrick J: On Wednesday night at Target Center, the Timberwolves faced the Oklahoma City Thunder in the final game of their 2014-15 season. That game was meaningful for OKC–the Thunder needed the win, as well as a Pelicans loss, in order to make  in the playoffs. (Eds. Note: The Pelicans did not lose. New Orleans is the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Wussell Restbrook is left to stew at home, leap over tall buildings, or do whatever restless superstars who miss the playoffs do. He may want to consult his former UCLA roommate, Kevin Love, who had plenty of experience missing the playoffs until this season.)

For the Wolves, Wednesday’s finale didn’t feel significant at all. It was a continuation of most of ‘Sota’s season, really. The Wolves were out of the playoff race almost as soon as it began, and — through a series of roster management decisions — signaled many times over that they were much less interested in fielding a competitive night-to-night lineup than they were in securing a high 2015 draft pick under the guise of squeezing every ounce of potential out of rookie Andrew Wiggins.

We thought it made enough sense to kickstart the recap process and look at some things we learned about this Wolves team, this season.

Part I will focus on the guards. Part II, which will come over the weekend, will look at the wings.

In this entry, we don’t dwell on Mo Williams or Lorenzo Brown. You already know why.

Read below the fold for more on Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Zach LaVine.

Ricky Rubio

Andy G: The disappointing thing about the backcourt is more what we did not learn; that is, very much about Ricky Rubio. Back on Halloween 2014, the final day in which the Wolves and Rubio were allowed to extend his contract in lieu of him entering restricted free agency this coming summer, they reached an agreement. He would remain a Timberwolf for at least 4 more years after this one and earn about $56 Million for his point-guard services.

Rubio’s value is subject to reasonable debate. He seems to positively affect winning (his on/off differential in 2013-14 was +12.0, best on a team that had Kevin Love’s greatest ever season part of it), but does so unconventionally and with historically inaccurate shooting percentages. The Wolves hired a coach, Mike Penberthy, for the primary task of improving Rubio’s shooting. During training camp, at the club’s training facility (which is inside a Lifetime Fitness Center, for those who don’t know) Rubio could be seen working with Penberthy in the evenings, when people like me sneak in a workout and all of his teammates were long gone, done with practice hours ago. Putting in extra hours after practice, Rubio’s dedication to rebuilding his jumper seemed real.

Unfortunately, Rubio’s season took an unexpectedly disastrous turn in the season’s fifth game against Orlando. He severely sprained his left ankle when driving into the lane and rolling it on an opponent’s foot. He was put in crutches, and the early estimates had him out for as many as 7 or 8 weeks of action.

It turned out to be more like 12.5 weeks. To be exact, Rubio missed 42 games after that ankle sprain. (!) While the recent development of Ricky undergoing exploratory/arthroscopic ankle surgery lends some credibility to the injury’s seriousness, there is no question that Rubio was held out longer than necessary. (He could be seen working out hard before games with Penberthy, during his absence, with no visible struggle. Also, ankle sprains are not 42-game injuries. There is that.) The reasoning for withholding Rubio seemed threefold:

1) Now absent even delusional playoff hopes, with Ricky’s injury setting them back out of the gates, keeping him out for extra time allowed them to stockpile losses and establish high-lottery position for the next draft.

2) Keeping Rubio out of the regular-season-game grind allowed him to spend much more time and energy with Penberthy on his shooting. Ricky does not really need game reps to improve, at this point. He has world-class instincts, vision, and fundamentals. Except for shooting. Clearly, the team saw the injury as good cover for what amounted to on-the-clock training time with his specialized skills coach.

3) By not only keeping Rubio out, but also his teammates like Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin, the Wolves provided themselves with a comfortable context in which to shift gears from “normal game strategy” mode to “throw Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine into the deep end of the pool and see if they can swim” mode. This reason also doubled as extra help for #1, as a LaVine & Wiggins-centered attack amounted to near-certainty of a loss, on any given night.

Rubio suffered another ankle sprain — this one to the right ankle, and far less serious — on March 13 versus the Thunder. While he clearly was not disabled from playing after this injury (he played 30 good minutes on March 18 at Toronto) the team decided it was time to shut him down. They also shut down the team’s other good players like the newly (re)acquired Kevin Garnett, Shabazz Muhammad, Gary Neal, Pekovic, and — for some games — Kevin Martin. Tanking went in high gear, and they even caught the Knicks last night for the league’s very-worst record and pole position in the lottery.

But the two ankle sprains and consequential tanking decisions cost everybody a Season of Rubio, which is a precious thing in and of itself, but doubly so when we were all so curious to see if he did in fact improve as a shooter, and other things like how he would mesh with Wiggins, and whether he could be the best player on a decent team.

In 22 games, Rubio averaged 10.3 points, 8.8 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 31.5 minutes per game. The Wolves record in those games was 7-15, which amounts to a 26-win pace. (They will finish with 16 wins, as things are.) Their net rating (differential per 100 possessions) with Rubio on the floor this year (for 692 minutes) was -1.6, which isn’t too bad; it’d be better than 10 other NBA teams this year. When he was off the floor (for 3221 minutes), the Wolves were a dumpster fiery -11.3 points worse than opponents per 100 possessions; a mark that would rank worst in the entire league.

So the general idea that the Wolves are much better with Ricky than they are without him was reinforced this year, but that doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. If that was a lot of words dedicated to a non-conclusion, then perhaps you can better understand what made this year so frustrating: the seeming opportunity cost and wasted time spent not only by fans watching overwhelmed guards playing disproportionate roles, but also for the team and what it could’ve spent the past four months or so working to learn and improve on.

Rubio’s season was a huge disappointment; not for what he failed to do but for what he was prevented from even trying to do.

Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin also missed a lot of games due to various injuries and also (probably) due to pure tanking reasons. Martin’s injury was another one surrounded by bizarre circumstances. Against the Knicks on November 19, he broke a bone in his right (shooting) hand in the first quarter. However, he went on to score 37 points that night in what was his best game of the season. Weird, right?

In any event, he went on to miss the next 34 games. The Wolves won 4 of those games. (!!!) In the later stages of his absence, Flip mentioned how Martin was healed but he wasn’t ready to play yet because he hadn’t done any running. I wondered why that would be the case given that, you know, he had only injured his hand and not his legs. You start to understand why I haven’t taken the Wolves at their word, regarding injuries this year.

In the 38 games he played, Martin produced as a scorer about like he always has: 19.7 points per game (career average: 18.0) and 21.3 per 36 minutes (career average: 20.9). His field goal percentage of 42.3 was a bit lower than his average of 44.0, but his three-point percentage of 38.7 and his free throw percentage of 87.6 were slightly above his respective career averages of 38.5 and 86.9 percent.

Martin is who he is, and that has some positive qualities like scoring as a cutter and shooter, and some negative ones, like defense. Somewhat interestingly, this inexperienced and beaten up Wolves team played better with Martin off the of the floor (-9.2 per 100) than it did with him on it (-10.4). That -1.2 on/off differential is sort of damning, considering that the other veterans fared pretty far the other direction: Ricky Rubio led the team with a +12.9 differential, Mo Williams was +5.0, Pekovic was +4.5, and Thad Young was +3.7.

K-Mart has two more years left on his contract which will pay him about $7 Million per season. He is an adequate starting guard who probably fits better into Flip Saunders’ preferred style of offense more than most players would. In fact, some of his poor on/off numbers this year might be attributable to how dysfunctional that “system” became when Rubio sat out with his own injuries. (Martin was -2.0 when playing with Rubio, and an astonishing -26.9 (over 450 minutes, no less) with Zach LaVine. So, provided the Wolves get “healthy” and fill out next season’s roster with a decent front line, I think Martin is an adequate solution at the two guard spot. He just isn’t one to get excited about.

Zach Lavine

Patrick J: Zach LaVine is one of the most polarizing players one the Timberwolves, and one of the most polarizing figures of the 2014-15 rookie class.

There are a lots of things that could be said about LaVine’s rookie season. I’ll say a few.

First, LaVine, as a 19-year old rookie, played in almost all of the games. A big deal? Probably not. NBA players are paid to play an 82-game season. But given that most of the Wolves on the roster whom a studious fan would and should care about did not play anywhere near that number of games–tanking–LaVine’s health is worth noting.

More than that, it’s worth noting that not only did LaVine stay healthy and play in 77 of the team’s 82 games, he got better as the grind (and, one could say, the “grit”) of the season wore on. In fact, LaVine took over the starting point guard job after Ricky Rubio’s aborted comeback and the Mo Williams deadline trade. And you know what, LaVine showed signs of maturation during that second half of the season that bode well for his development as an NBA player.  He scored better, assisted better, and overall, he looked more comfortable running the show, no matter who it was with–including what is basically a second unit with the preternatural talent of Andrew Wiggins–#eyesontherise–sprinkled in. LaVine didn’t play with better players, but played better–and the big difference seemed to come after the All-Star Break. (Eds. Note: The All-Star Break may in fact have been an important moment for LaVine–he seemed to gain confidence, or at least a sense of validation, from winning the Sprite Slam-Dunk Contest and participating in the menswear fashion show that preceded it.

Zach LaVine Fashion Show!

Zach LaVine Fashion Show!

That’s the kind of thing Zach thrives on–he wants to be a star in the League, and, right or wrong, he seems to believe that the swag is a part of that. So this stuff is important to him.)

Lavine’s splits show the difference that we saw from him, both in terms of responsibility and performance. The March and April games are especially telling, from a development perspective. Yes, LaVine picked up more minutes, but with worse company with him on the floor. This was the height of the Wolves tank-fest that has yielded them the worst record in the NBA and the best chance at Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns at number 1, should the ping-pong balls for once bounce in their favor.

The most glaring statistic you see is that LaVine averaged 21 points, 6 assists, and 6 boards through 7 games in April. Those are no-shit pro numbers, and then some, no matter how bad the team. Zach LaVine is not a bust. He was a good pick at #13, and he will be in the NBA for a long time. (Eds. Note: LaVine was also solid during March–the real month that he took over the point guard position as his own–averaging 13.3 ppg and almost 4 assists per game.)

The big question about LaVine is no longer whether he can play in the NBA–although there remain questions about how high his NBA upside is–but rather they involve where he should play in the NBA. Is he a one or a two, a point guard or a shooting guard? Personally, I don’t really think it matters. As a point guard, LaVine does have problems running the offense, but so do his teammates at executing anything that look like modern NBA plays. There was little continuity to build on, and in the end, my “eye test” suggested that LaVine is more “rough diamond” than “polished turd.” In the second half, his rate of unforced errors decreased, he assisted better, and he shot much better. You probably don’t want to take lightly the decision to toss the keys to your offense to Zach LaVine–he might drive you right into a telephone pole while trying to take your Dodge Stratus to 110 MPH–but after Rubio got hurt for the second time, when Mo Williams was no longer an option, Wolves didn’t have much choice. LaVine responded much better than I expected. I look forward to seeing a stronger, and possibly a savvier, Zach LaVine next season.

***

Hey! The playoffs are here. Smile, grab your favorite beverage, and enjoy a couple months of world-class basketball. Until then, here’s some Zach LaVine dunks to pregame to.

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “INBOX: Timberwolves Season in Review Part I: The Backcourt

  1. In one of the final games, I listed to the TV announcer from the opposing team. He said, “Do not take bad shots today. The Timberwolves are very poor on defense and we can get any shot we want.”
    That’s been the story for several years — bad defense. Getting layups are easy against the Wolves, especially in the 4th quarter. In the draft, get a tough guy, a leader on the defensive end.