Andy G: Wolves Making a Mistake
He’s so talented in a variety of areas that we needed to just simplify what we expect of him. If he does that, the rest of it is (going to) fall into place.
—-Jay Triano, head coach of Team Canada, on Anthony Bennett
The Wolves are working on a contract buyout with Anthony Bennett, according to Woj. The report indicates that Bennett’s representatives are pushing for this so that he can find a better opportunity for playing time. Minnesota has no clear long-term option at AB’s power forward spot, but their current roster includes a lot of competition at that position and in the frontcourt as a whole. Depending on health over the course of the season, they could have Kevin Garnett, Nemanja Bjelica, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne, Nikola Pekovic, and maybe even Shabazz Muhammad vying for frontcourt minutes.
Presumably more important to Bennett and his agent Jeff Schwartz than his immediate playing time, however, is his longer term contract situation. The Timberwolves, or whatever team holds his rights in the next few weeks, has to decide before November whether or not to exercise Bennett’s option for the 2016-17 season, which would put them on the hook for that year’s guaranteed salary ($7.3 Million) but also avail themselves of his restricted free agency matching rights, in the event that his career takes off and he eventually becomes a hotter commodity than he is now.
Clearly, the Timberwolves have already decided that they will not be picking up that option. If that was not the case, his agent would not be trying to get him out of Minnesota in such a hurry. I don’t know the exact mechanics of a buyout and what it means for Bennett’s current contract status (and since it won’t impact the Timberwolves I don’t plan on researching it) but if he can find another team that will give him some minutes and an active role in a functional offense, it probably increases the odds that he’ll sign a second NBA contract and find some stability after what has been one of the rockier starts for a high-lottery pick in league history.
This news does not reflect well on the Wolves operations. They have done a lot of things well since Flip Saunders took over for David Kahn, and they have been blessed by some long-overdue luck, but it is kind of absurd that they are letting a 22-year old forward with Bennett’s physical tools and skill set walk away for nothing. Not only would I not buy him out or trade him, but I would exercise that contract-year option and make a serious commitment to developing him like they are trying to do with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and hopefully Ricky Rubio.
While last year’s singular offensive strategy of “feed Andrew Wiggins in the post and continually challenge him to dunk on people,” seemed to work for an important-but-limited purpose (DEVELOP THE SHIT OUT OF ANDREW WIGGINS) it is probably not a good idea to spend multiple seasons with such separated, individual strategies. Next year, Karl-Anthony Towns will be the shiny new number one pick. Do they then have to isolate Towns while Wiggins takes a backseat? At some point soon, the Timberwolves need to develop a team identity where their young players learn how to play together. They need to begin to develop team basketball principles, and a successful system that most of their young talent can succeed in. And Anthony Bennett should be a part of that process, because who knows what might come of it, after all of the work, development, and competition for playing time sorts itself out?
Despite his struggles so far in 1,557 minutes of NBA basketball (for a reference point, Zach LaVine has already played 1,902) it is surprisingly easy to defend Bennett against much of the criticism that he receives from fans and pundits.
First, is why there is reason to believe he might become a good player. It’s pretty straightforward stuff: He was a highly-touted prep star (generally ranked about 7th in his national class, out of Nevada’s Findlay Prep) who was named to the McDonald’s All-America Team, before starring as a freshman at UNLV.
Basically, he’s just a really talented basketball player.
In his lone collegiate season, Bennett averaged an efficient 16 points per game while pulling down 8 rebounds in 27 minutes, all while battling a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery. Bennett was first-team All-Conference and Freshman of the Year as a Runnin’ Reb and selected first in the NBA Draft for all of these reasons.
He has had, since his high school days, a really unusual combination of physical bulk, long arms and athleticism, and refined basketball skills. There just aren’t many people on this planet who can hammer home dunks the way AB does, while also demonstrating near-perfect mechanics on a jumper. Bennett can rebound the ball, particularly on the defensive end. And if you are open minded enough to believe that athletes can develop skills beyond the age they would normally be college juniors, then you might see possibilities for Bennett as an effective defender, too. That combination of athleticism, length, and physical strength has become en vogue as teams try to spread out their offenses to have shooting at every position while doing “the best they can” at defending the post. (See: basically the last 4 games of last year’s NBA Finals. Andrew Bogut and Timofey Mozgov finished 7th and 6th in minutes played on their teams, respectively, and it wasn’t because they are poor centers.) While AB is not a good NBA defender yet (most one-and-done youngsters aren’t) he has shown an aptitude for tipping away passes, and using his strength to defend the post. His athleticism suggests he could expand his defensive versatility further to the perimeter over time, and become valuable.
That’s the good stuff, and it’s more recent than it seems. People have short memories in their pro sports fandom, and Bennett’s reputation has suffered rapidly.
The second thing about AB: Why his professional struggles are explainable by a number of reasons that have nothing to do with his long term prospects as an NBA player. If you are the sort of person who believes in things like context, facts, and nuance, there is a lot of room for the belief that Bennett could still become a good pro, even after some mighty struggles in Cleveland and Minnesota.
About those NBA places and times:
The 2013-14 Cavaliers were a dumpster fire of an operation. There’s a reason that they were positioned to draft and trade Andrew Wiggins after it ended. They were coached by Mike Brown, who has long held a reputation for being a poor offensive tactician, dating back to the LeBron’s-first-time-in-Cleveland days, when LBJ was always having to go one against five from the top of the key. The ’14 Cavs were floor generaled by Kyrie Irving, who is awesome at scoring but not as good at passing or creating opportunities for teammates. Lined up across Irving for over 2,000 minutes was his intra-team rival, the enigmatic Dion Waiters. (Ahem, excuse me. DION WAITERS!) The backcourt chemistry and floor leadership on that Cavs team was such that Waiters openly complained of Irving and teammate Tristan Thompson playing “buddy ball,” and phasing him out of the offense. There were rumors that somebody — possibly Waiters — punched Irving, after a bad loss (at Minnesota, actually). Apparently it wasn’t true, but that it became a story is representative of that team’s chemistry.
This might be where you say to yourself: “Sure, the Cavs had some dysfunction, but Bennett could’ve at least worked hard in practice to get better. I’m sure they had assistant coaching doing helpful assistant coach stuff.”
Cavaliers practice was more of a circus than their games were. Along with the Irving-Waiters backcourt feud, the Cavs had Andrew Bynum at the center position, and it was not going well. Bynum played out what was effectively his last NBA stint for those Cavs (he later played 2 games for the Pacers, and is not on a current roster or rumored to be close to signing with any team) and was misbehaving in practice, before getting kicked off the team. Things got so bad that he reportedly started shooting the ball instantly upon catching it, no matter where he was on the floor. So when Kyrie and Waiters weren’t hogging the ball from one another, Bynum might have been jacking up a half-court shot. Just to mix things up.
This is the NBA scenario that Anthony Bennett entered as a 20-year old rookie, a few months removed from his freshman year in college.
Oh, and he was injured too. A lot. Before his rookie year, he had left shoulder surgery and (with only himself to blame) allowed himself to fall out of basketball shape. He was diagnosed with sleep apnea and also has asthma, which perhaps complicated some of that recovery process. He suffered a left knee strain shortly after the All-Star Break in his rookie year and ended up playing only 663 minutes in 52 games. He probably got worse more than he got better, in Cleveland.
Things were somewhat better last year, Bennett’s second season, in Minnesota. But he was still fighting an uphill battle from a developmental standpoint. Once again, he played almost exclusively with a poor passing backcourt. Of Bennett’s 894 minutes last year with the Wolves, only 49 of them came with Ricky Rubio, who missed a bunch of time due to his own injuries. Instead of playing with Minnesota’s backcourt magician (who managed to create at least one sick highlight in those 49 minutes) AB was left with Zach LaVine, a woefully overmatched point guard just learning NBA basketball himself, and Mo Williams, who is an outstanding shooter but incapable playmaker and unwiling defender, at this stage of his career.
For a reference point of how difficult “power forward in the Zach & Mo Offense” was, consider that Thaddeus Young was playing the worst ball since his rookie season during that same stretch. It was dysfunctional, much like AB’s experience in Cleveland one year earlier. And despite suffering more injuries in another bad situation, Bennett did actually improve statistically from his awful rookie year. His PER, a basic measure of all-around efficiency, jumped from 6.9 to 11.4. Still not where he needs to be, but significant improvement nonetheless. It’s more than reasonable to wonder what a good passing point guard and functional team system might do for Bennett’s overall performance.
You know, Charles Barkley’s nice eulogy at Moses Malone’s funeral had me thinking about veteran leadership and this current Timberwolves roster. Barkley seems to credit the late Malone (whom he referred to as “Dad”) for a lot of his later success; citing the many times “Big Mo” pulled him aside to provide needed advice that could only come from age and experience; success and failure. Wisdom. The Wolves just brought in Kevin Garnett — a player who will soon join both Barkley and Malone in the Hall of Fame — for the express purpose of mentoring and developing all of these young players.
Why the hell would they cut the one who plays KG’s position?
Patrick J: Where Bennett Ends Up Matters
There is no clear frontrunner to sign Bennett once he clears waivers. According to Woj, there was no trade-market demand for Bennett. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that neither contending teams that need depth nor young teams looking for high-upside talent at relatively low risk are reported to be lining up for his services.
But Woj refuses to disappoint those few rapid Bennett fans and NBA junkies whose mouth-froth will not allow them to go out in public until they have written speculation about where Bennett might end up this season. According to Woj:
The Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers have the salary-cap space to claim Bennett and his $5.8 million salary for the 2015–16 season. Cleveland has a trade exception that could absorb Bennett, but that scenario is farfetched. A third team – the Utah Jazz – could waive two non-guaranteed contracts and have the space to claim Bennett, but they are unlikely to be interested, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
If Bennett lands in Philly, there are pros and cons. The pros include that he’d probably have a good shot at the backup PF job. Nerlens Noel will be starting at the four and Jahlil Okafor will be the starting five. Bennett’s main competition for the backup PF job is Carl Landry, according to the Sixers’ current depth chart. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that Bennett would win the job, but assuming that the Sixers spend another season tanking or Bennett improves significantly this season after a nice offseason with Team Canada (or both), he would probably get plenty of garbage minutes in Philly immediately. The main con is that those minutes would be garbage minutes. No matter what improvement Bennett might show, he be playing on the second team of perhaps the worst team in the League, sharing the floor with terrible players, and matching up mostly against opposing backups. Even if he puts up encouraging numbers, would they mean anything? The 76ers would be the third dysfunctional organization Bennett would’ve suited up for in his three NBA seasons. I haven’t run the numbers, but I don’t think that’s a strong predictor of long-term impact in the NBA.
Portland would be more interesting. And it would potentially be a better situation for Bennett to develop into a Quality NBA Basketball Player–the kind of player who’s useful on competitive teams. Portland lost superstar power forward LaMarcus Aldridge this summer to the Spurs in free agency. In Portland Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh–the latter is another young, talented four who was a lottery pick but has underperformed so far in his brief NBA career. Bennett can’t really play small forward or center, but even if he could, Portland’s center position is fairly deep, and at small forward, the Blazers will be starting al-Farouq Aminu and back him up with other young talent better suited for the three position.
Cleveland could be a wildcard because of Tristan Thompson’s bizarre contract negotiations, but a neither a Bennett reunion with the Cavaliers nor a seat on the bench behind Kevin Love is likely to do much for Bennett’s ability to cash in on his contract as Andy mentioned above.
The Jazz are a well-coached team on the rise, but again, Bennett probably wouldn’t play many minutes as Derrick Favors’ backup. Further complicating things is the fact that the Jazz would have to shed two contracts to acquire Bennett (albeit non-guaranteed ones).
Regrettably, of all these scenarios, the 76ers might be the best one for Bennett. Brett Brown is a good coach, tanking might end, and he could compete for significant minutes while practicing with other young, talented bigs on defense (Noel) and offense (Okafor). He could continue to learn valuable skills and techniques while retaining the best chance to put up better numbers and hopefully play a full season. And then, perhaps, he could disappear to a better, more stable, organization where he could combine the experience he’d gain from a season in Philly with indoctrination into a winning professional basketball culture.
All of this is equal parts speculation and wishful thinking, but Anthony Bennett’s career trajectory may be extremely sensitive to the situations in which he finds himself. Here’s hoping that the right situations find him, and soon.