The Timberwolves regular, real season begins on Wednesday night at the Staples Center. They play against the Lakers at 9:30 CST on ESPN. On Friday, they play at Denver; a game that will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus. Then, on Monday, they play against the Portland Trail Blazers. This will be their home opener and will undoubtedly feature an emotional tribute to the team’s recently fallen leader, Flip Saunders.
Flip’s passing is going to weigh heavily on this team for a while, but the games will be played. The show will go on. I am qualified on neither a personal-relationship basis, or a simple “writing chops” basis to dig deep into the happy story of Flip’s life or the sad story of his death. The best I can offer on this tragedy are some words about what Flip accomplished in rebuilding this Timberwolves team, setting it in such a positive direction. I did that yesterday afternoon when the news broke and I could not focus on basketball. This is my awkward way of saying that I am going to move on, as far as this blog is concerned, and write about basketball again. As many have written in the past 24 hours, Flip understood better than most that “at the end of the day,” basketball is supposed to be fun. That is how I view it, and to me, it is fun that the Timberwolves are about to begin another season, and that is what I wanted to write about tonight.
For this piece, which I guess is ostensibly a “season preview,” I thought it would be fun to break down the Wolves roster by positions, and pose what I find to be important questions facing each player in the season ahead. Some of these will involve stats, some will involve style of play, and some will be a bit more big-picture or random. I’ll offer some quick guesses at my own questions, and open it up to commenters to weigh in on where they agree or disagree.
I’ll go through the positions in (what I believe to be) reverse order of importance to the Wolves future, for DRAMATIC EFFECT.
Without further ado…
[Eds note: This post is running longer than I anticipated, so this will be Part I, and I’ll publish a Part II either tomorrow or Wednesday that covers Wiggins and then the big men.]
THE POINT GUARDS
- How many minutes per game will appease “Professor Miller?”
When this season opens, and as long as Ricky Rubio is healthy (knocks on all of the wood) Andre Miller will be this team’s backup point guard. I think it seems reasonable to assume that a healthy Rubio will average about 35 minutes per contest. Given that neither he nor Miller are very good shooters, they will probably not share the floor much. This means that there might only be about 13 minutes per game for Miller – and that is if they play rookie Tyus Jones ZERO, and they play Zach LaVine exclusively off the ball. If the plans to prioritize development are sincere, Jones will probably see a few spot minutes here and there, and LaVine will probably play some point, too. (The part about Jones is especially likely, given the Wolves lack of a D-League affiliate where he might otherwise have spent most of the year.) Miller is going to turn 40 years old (!) in March, so his expectations for playing time might be realistically low. But consider that he finished last year in Sacramento, playing for his favorite coach George Karl, and was logging over 20 minutes per game.
My guess: Miller will be okay sitting some games out completely — with some communications and “heads up” from the coaches — but will expect some floor time, too. I think he will probably average 12 minutes per game and be happy enough with that.
- Does Tyus have any interesting upside, and will we see any teases of it this year?
Tyus Jones was possibly the most acclaimed prep basketball star in Minnesota history. He was widely considered one of the very best prospects in his national class throughout his entire high school career, eventually made the McDonald’s All America Team, and chose to attend Duke, instead of, well, every other basketball powerhouse. In his lone season in Durham, he earned third team All ACC honors, led the Blue Devils to a national championship and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
If that was all that you knew about him, you would probably imagine someone who looks a lot different than Jones does. From McDonald’s games past, you might imagine somebody who looks like Jonathan Bender or Kobe Bryant or, locally, Kris Humphries. Somebody big, strong and super athletic.
But Jones is none of those things. He is only 6’1″ and very skinny. He plays with a nice pace, but is not particularly explosive. He has a lot of physical development ahead of him, if he is going to make an impact at the NBA level the way that he did in high school and college.
What I am curious to see is if there are early signs — this season — of upside that exceeds “quality backup point guard.” I notice people putting this type of ceiling on Jones’s potential, before he plays a single game. Given that Jones has been much, much better than his peers through this point in his life, and he has won championships at every level, through this point in his life, I suspect he imagines an NBA career that involves him making an impact on games; a career better than just backup duty. As a point guard, I suspect Jones envisions himself running a high-power offense — like he did at Duke — with not only smart decisions and crisp passes, but clever plays, too. Once the speed of the NBA game slows sufficiently down for him, and his body matures, can he do some of the things that Chris Paul does to clear so much space for himself around the elbows, shrugging off defenders with hand-check-deterring flops, and just generally make a positive impact on team performance?
My guess: He is one year away from showing us much to be excited about, but he may have a bright future and long career ahead of him.
- Will Ricky Rubio run the Wolves offense, or will it be run from the bench?
This question will have more impact on the Timberwolves season than any other. If they decide that post ups and isolations for Andrew Wiggins (and presumably Karl-Anthony Towns) are the go-to offensive strategy, you can withdraw all of the money from your savings account, take the soonest flight to Las Vegas, bet all of it on the “under” on the Wolves 25.5 wins, and feel great knowing that you just doubled your money.
The Wolves had the league’s 26th best (5th worst) offense last year, with a rating (points per 100 possessions) of 99.8. When Rubio played, that increased to a more respectable 101.7; a number that would’ve ranked them tied for 20th with the Celtics, much closer to league average. When you consider how little time Rubio had to develop chemistry with his young teammates, I think it’s reasonable to figure that he could potentially get this group playing offense at an average level, starting this season.
If he is allowed to. They need to stop setting so many damn pin-down screens for Wiggins and Martin, and instead have Ricky set up much easier shots for everybody. This is the best, and most fun to watch way for the Timberwolves to play. We saw it during Ricky’s rookie season all of the time, and less so after Rick Adelman installed his preferred offense — a Princeton type, that made Kevin Love a fringe MVP candidate but set Ricky in the back seat. With Love in Cleveland and the Wolves roster now replete with young athletes ready to catch and shoot, and catch and dunk, they need to give Rubio the ball and let him do what he does best.
Is there a more promising half-court look for the Timberwolves than Rubio moving from the left perimeter to the right, freed by a ball screen or two, and surveying the entirety of the floor with the most panoramic vision in the game?
That is what makes him fun to watch. That is what makes him a potential All-Star. That is what could get the Timberwolves playing competitive basketball again.
My guess: I think the Wolves will begin the season with delusions that last year’s offense will be acceptable, and they’ll have some amount of common sense beaten into them by the opposition, over time. High ball screen is what the NBA is about in 2015, and the Wolves have a really good high ball screen point guard. They need to let Ricky Rubio do his thing.
- Will Rudez be a sneaky-good plus/minus guy?
Wolves newcomer and sharp-shooter Damjan Rudez led their preseason squad in “net rating” (plus/minus per 100 possessions) with a +4.6. Last year, on a scrappy, Paul George-less Pacers team, Rudez logged over 15 minutes per game as a 28-year old rookie. His most notable stat is the 5.8 threes he shot per 36 minutes, knocking down almost 41 percent of them. For the season, playing his first NBA ball ever, he posted a net rating of -0.7 (basically even basketball) on a Pacers team that collectively posted a -0.1. It seems possible, if not likely, that he would have a second year bump in overall playing quality, having adjusted to life in America and basketball in the NBA.
My guess: Rudez will not play much, but his time on the floor will help contribute to relatively good basketball. They need as much floor-spreading shooting as they can get.
- Can he provide tangible leadership to the Wolves young wing players?
More than Andre Miller at point guard or even Kevin Garnett in the post, I am hoping that Tayshaun Prince can share his expert understanding of his NBA position with the other young Wolves wings who play it. This is for a few different reasons. For one, Prince is younger than Miller and Garnett and will probably feel much more invested in his own playing role. He does not necessarily view this season (or this team) as his last. In other words, he will want to compete. On the floor. During games. That is where a lot of learning happens in the NBA, and Prince will be out there, in the fire, communicating with Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine. Also, Prince played all of his prime on some really great TEAMS. Lined up with Billups and Rip and Sheed and Big Ben, Prince played on the quintessential team of teams in the Aughts NBA: the Detroit Pistons, the rare team to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy without a traditional, “alpha dog” superstar player. As the NBA moves continually toward five-man concepts and away from isolation matchups, playing like Prince knows how to play becomes more valuable. I think all of these young Wolves — particularly Muhammad, whose tendencies veer toward the tunnel-visioned — could stand to learn as much as possible from Tay.
My guess: (I have no idea.)
- Will he remain a Timberwolf for this entire season?
Consider the following:
Kevin Martin is undeniably one of the Timberwolves best handful of players, if they needed to win a game tonight. He is a weak defender, but remains an efficient volume scorer who has had a lot of individual success in the NBA and contributed significantly to some good teams in Houston and Oklahoma City. He is 32 years old, which is generally a much more useful age in the NBA than 19 or 20. Martin on Media Day announced that he would be the team’s starting shooting guard despite that this didn’t seem so obvious to anyone else in the room, or his own coach who later made a contrary announcement: Zach LaVine would start at the two. When that did not work out in some terrible preseason showings, Mitchell shook up the lineup. But instead of subbing Martin back in, he slid Andrew Wiggins over to the two and started Prince at the three. Martin remained on the bench.
Now, on ESPN’s “depth chart” page for the Timberwolves, Martin is listed as the team’s third string shooting guard behind Wiggins and LaVine. (!)
He is not going to ride the pine, but I don’t think he will be around much longer either.
My guess: No, Martin will be traded relatively soon to clear minutes for the team’s younger players.
- Will he repeat as Slam Dunk Champion?
Just kidding. The answer to that is obviously “yes” and it is also nowhere near the most important question that LaVine faces this season.
Let’s try another one.
- Can LaVine eliminate any of his weaknesses in Year 2?
Zach LaVine is a difficult player to assess for so many reasons. He was terribly ineffective last season as an overwhelmed-but-fantastically-gifted rookie, just one year removed from high school, and with only bench-level experience in the college ranks. LaVine has good size for either guard position and has more vertical explosiveness than any player I can remember seeing. But he is terribly thin, does not respond well to contact or even defensive pressure, and his handles — while solid from a streetball or And-1 mixtape perspective — do not seem to be very good from a functional standpoint, in NBA games. He only shot 3.4 free throws per 36 minutes (barely half the foul-drawing frequency of Wiggins and Muhammad) and rarely seemed to get dunks in halfcourt settings (as Wiggins frequently did).
LaVine had a catastrophic plus/minus last year that ended up at -540 for the year. Only Andrew Wiggins was worse in the entire league at -550, but Wiggins logged 1,067 more minutes than LaVine. Per 100 possessions, LaVine-included Wolves lineups lost by a whopping 14.5 points. The worst team net rating was the Knicks at -10.1. (The Wolves were -9.8.) In other words when LaVine played the Wolves were playing almost 50 PERCENT WORSE than the worst teams in basketball.
And yet, in his final month of his rookie season, LaVine posted sort of ridiculous per-game NUMB#RS. Logging almost 40 minutes a game in April, LaVine averaged 21.1 points (on 47% shooting), 6.6 assists, and 5.8 rebounds. The Wolves were losing all of these games, mind you, but still: that’s a lot of across-the-board production from a wet-behind-the-years rookie, barely 20 years old.
Plus, all that freaking athleticism?
LaVine has the following weaknesses that need to improve dramatically for him to reach his potential (whatever that is, I’m not sure):
- Dribbles too high; struggles against pressure defense
- Terrible at feeding the post, poor fundamentals in pivot position on the wing
- Poor shot selection, takes way too many long twos, early in the shot clock
- Very poor defensive awareness, does not anticipate where screens are coming from
- Very weak physically
His demeanor remained so unfazed last year, amid all of that big losing and all of his own mistakes, that many wonder if he is aware of how much he needs to improve.
My guess: I think he’ll start to improve on defense. Personally, I worry more about his overall fundamentals on offense. His upside is based on exploding to the basket, but he will never be able to do that effectively until he learns when and how to cut and dribble effectively. He needs to get a lot stronger, both from a muscles standpoint and from the standpoint of taking better care of the basketball. Whereas Wiggins is developing his game from the rim outward, LaVine will be trying to do the reverse and that seems less likely to happen. We’ll see.
- Does Shabazz have star potential?
Last season, as a 22-year old in his second year in the NBA (with just one year of college basketball experience) Shabazz Muhammad was arguably the Timberwolves best player. There are a few things to quickly counter with, if that comes across as huge praise: (1) the Wolves were awful; (2) Shabazz only played 38 games, and less than 23 minutes per game in those; and (3) the Wolves had other players, like Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, who would’ve had better years had they not been injured for most of them.
But notwithstanding those caveats, Shabazz was arguably the team’s best player and he was only 22 years old and playing what basically amounted to his first real NBA basketball. He scored 21.3 points per 36 minutes on 48.9% shooting. He pulled down 6.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. He even averaged 1.8 assists per 36, which is not good but better than his dreadful college stats projected. ‘Bazz led the Timberwolves in PER (19.9) and trailed only Justin Hamilton in win shares/48 (.110) (I’m only including players who registered a few hundred minutes or more).
Despite all of this production at such an early stage of his career, Shabazz does not necessarily get a lot of respect from Timberwolves pundits. From what I observe on Twitter and comment sections, I get the impression that many feel his best case is to become a good sixth man.
I don’t necessarily agree with that, or even understand it (given what he has already shown) and it sort of reminds me of some of the thinking I had about early-career Kevin Love. I was too focused on the things that I thought he would not be able to do (create his own shot, become an impact scorer or adequate defender) rather than focus on the things he was already doing at a high level, like rebounding and generating ways to score efficiently. Both Love and Muhammad are UCLA Bruins, but another quality they might share is the skill of improving.
Shabazz Muhammad is obsessed with getting better. If you didn’t notice how much he improved — without game minutes — during his rookie season, then you were not paying attention to what he looked like in the nervous spot minutes that Adelman gave him in the first half of the season, versus the forceful displays he showed during the last month of the season, when he gained some momentum for what became a very impressive sophomore campaign. Throw in those crazy physical training sessions that he puts himself through out in California, and I think we have a growing body of evidence that Muhammad will not be satisfied with a career coming off the bench. He seemed to love the question I posed for him on Media Day: whether he thinks he and Andrew Wiggins can make each other better on the court. Certainly understanding that hand-cuffing himself to Wiggins as a wing pairing means a starting spot, Shabazz nodded emphatically and explained how defenses would struggle to contain both of them at the same time, each capable of scoring inside in the post, or spacing the floor as a shooter.
My guess: In order to become a star player, Shabazz needs to extend his defensive range and awareness, and continue to mix in kick-out passes to his strong drives in the lane. If he channels his drive to be great in those areas, I think he could become a very, very good NBA player that would start for just about any team.
[Eds note: We’ll pick up with Andrew Wiggins in Part II.]