Andy G: The Wolves have played 4 preseason games. They have won 1 game (Wednesday night versus the Raptors in a game where both Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola sat out) and lost three; the first two in blowout fashion to the Thunder and Bulls and then a closer loss to the Raptors in their first leg of the Canadian double-header the two teams put on, in Winnipeg and Ottawa, respectively.
We could over-analyze these try-things-out, audition-type games to death, but I’d like to instead focus on something that I think might actually have relevance to the regular season to come:
Nemanja Bjelica, and how his style of play might positively influence the (outdated) style of offense that both Flip Saunders and now Sam Mitchell seem to prefer when putting together their default sets.
Allow me to briefly explain what I mean.
In these preseason games (and in the intrasquad scrimmage that was played at Target Center a short while back) the Wolves have been running an offense that has looked largely similar to what Flip ran last year. It involves down screens (“pin-down screens” in modern NBA lingo) set by bigs for wings, who either look for their own moving mid-range jumper, or catch the wing entry pass and then look to feed the post.
That’s the default setting. A lot of specific set plays are blended in — often times when Kevin Martin checks into the game, or if Andrew Wiggins has not been sufficiently involved in the offense — that are completely engineered to free up a wing player for either a quick jumper, or an isolation set of his own. These plays usually involve a few seconds of dribbling the air out of the ball on the wing while an assortment of big Timberwolves clump together near the paint to set a double or triple screen for the chosen teammate to be freed up for an isolation set.
Almost none of this action is good. (I think a limited exception involves Shabazz Muhammad posting up certain opponents.) It wastes precious shot-clock time and is purposefully engineered to create inefficient shots. The goal — a chance to shoot a defended two-point shot — does not make sense, in today’s NBA. There was a time when these were the premier play designs for legends like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing. That type has passed.
This is where Bjelica comes in. I don’t know if it is because he struggles to understand the plays at this stage, or if the Wolves are intentionally running different sets to utilize his skillset or because he is just purposefully hijacking the offense, BUT:
When Bjelica checks into the game he tends to get the team playing smarter offense.
As a 6’10” forward who can shoot from 27 feet out with ease, he stretches the opposing defenses out, and thus creates more room for his teammates to operate in space. Along with the simple “he’s a threat to shoot from way outside” factor, Bjelica is also a facilitator of screen-and-roll sets both as a screen setter, and also as a dribbler who will call for ball screens to come his way, too.
- Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Does the offense look better with Bjelica out there, and does it seem to be in large part because of how he plays and influences their approach?
- Should we expect a better look from the starting squad when Ricky Rubio returns? He hasn’t played yet, and — thus far — the Wolves starters are the worst-looking group they have.
Patrick J: To answer your questions:
- Absolutely. The offense immediately runs differently and has at least the veneer of efficiency after Bjelica checks into the game. On your competing theories of why this is, it’s pretty clearly because of how he plays, and thus influences the team’s spacing and ball movement. The reason I don’t think his relative unfamiliarity with Sam Mitchell’s stank-leg, Flip Saunders-lite offense underlies his success is because of Bjelica’s superior instincts and skills within the framework of a system and with teammates who played in the system under Saunders show how Bjelica is a difference-maker. He spaces the floor well around the perimeter not only because he is a stretch-four threat, but also because he sees the floor and reads defenses well. Whereas a lot of the young Wolves players appear to be laboring to get themselves to the correct spot in the Wolves’ set plays, Bjelica has a canny sense of timing and improvisation that results in him ending up in the right place to make good things happen. Without dominating the ball, Bjelica certainly does have the potential to live up to the “point guard in a power forward’s body” hype that crescendoed in his MVP run in Europe last season and his stellar international play this summer. When it was announced that Bjelica would play for the Timberwolves this season, most Wolves writers met the news with equal parts curious enthusiasm and low expectations of the 27-year old Euro rookie. A few months later, Bjelica is the most pleasant bright spot right now on a team that is still focused on developing 19-21 year old rookies and sophomores who haven’t yet internalized the kind of feel for the game that Bjelica has. He deserves to be a starter on opening day. Although it’s almost sacrilege to say, the Wolves’ talented youngsters might be able to more to learn about today’s essential NBA skills from Bjelica than from Garnett.
- As for Rubio, yes, we should expect a better look from the starting group when he’s back. A much better look. Karl Towns, Bjelica, and Shabazz Muhammad will be the biggest beneficiaries. Towns and Bjelica look extremely savvy in terms of positioning, ball movement, shooting, and their overall skillsets. And Muhammad moves extremely aggressively without the ball to spots from which he can score. Rubio’s plus-skills as a point guard are most complementary when he plays alongside teammates with these qualities. His playmaking skills are still criminally underrated, in part because of injuries but also because he hasn’t had good teammates. Even though the Wolves might not win a lot of games this year, our offensive looks and execution will be night-and-day better this year–as long as Rubio stays healthy.
Andy G: I hope and think you are right about Rubio. What I really hope to see is a good chemistry not only between he and Towns, but between Ricky and Wiggins. Andrew Wiggins is not going to have the career that he should have, if he doesn’t spend more time shooting threes, and Ricky Rubio is great at setting up standing three-point shooters. If the time comes when Rubio is setting up action that causes defenders to have to close out hard on Wiggins, I think we’ll see more consistent stretches of those 25-point, 10-free throw attempt performances from him, and he’ll start to make All-Star Teams.
Anyway, the Wolves have really struggled in the preseason so far, and I think expectations have probably been lowered by this performance and by Mitchell’s professed (and acted-on) priority of youth development. But in Rubio and Bjelica, there remains in this roster some quality basketball substance that could get this team playing more competitively in time.