Timberwolves 2015-16 Season Preview: A Question for Every Player (Part II)

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 19:  Karl-Anthony Towns #12 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts against the Hampton Pirates during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the KFC YUM! Center on March 19, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

[Eds note: I decided to preview this Wolves season by going player-by-player, posing one question for each. See Part I here. This is Part II, spanning from Andrew Wiggins as the last wing player through the entire front court.]

Andrew Wiggins

  • How many threes will Wiggins shoot this year?

This seems like a boring question to ask about the Timberwolves’ most important player; one who at this point seems best positioned to become their next franchise cornerstone. A reason for Wiggins having a boring, statistical-detail question asked about him is that he went a long way in answering the bigger, broader question about him last year. The one about whether he could be an alpha dog, go-to guy. Did he have the proverbial killer instinct?

In case you missed the answer to that question, let’s ask Rudy Gobert:

That epic flush was just one of many aggressive highlights that Wiggins made last season. Particularly in the final couple months, he was becoming more assertive as a first-option scorer. He had a lot of success both finishing in the paint and drawing fouls to score from the free-throw line. He won the Rookie of the Year easily. In the final month of the season, he had per-game averages of 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists. His ability to draw fouls was improving steadily from January through the end of the season, at which time Wiggins was shooting over 10 free throws per game in April.

That brings us to this year, and how he can improve. Wiggins can improve by learning ways to score without expending so much physical energy and putting his body through so much abuse. That will help him save energy to be the defensive stopper the Wolves hope he will eventually become. Wiggins can also improve by scoring more efficiently. One concern is that, despite his foul-drawing prowess, Wiggins is not a particularly efficient scorer yet. He shoots too many contested two-point jump shots.

The way for him to both ease his physical workload, and score more efficiently is to shoot more standing three-point shots; the type that both Rubio and Nemanja Bjelica will be able to set up for him this year, if he positions himself properly behind the line, with his hands ready. Andrew Wiggins shot only 1.5 three pointers per 36 minutes last year. I think a good reference point for Wiggins to compare himself to is Kevin Durant – in terms of what an ideal offensive career looks like for a rangy, athletic wing. KD has a career average of 4.2 threes per 36, but has shot a few more than that in recent seasons. Wiggins should aim to triple the frequency of his triples, starting as soon as possible.

By pulling defenders out to the three line in aggressive close-outs, Wiggins will only open up more opportunities for drives and huge slams like the one he put on Rudy Gobert. Extending his range and improving his scoring efficiency is a winning idea, all around.

My guess: He will shoot 2 to 3 threes per 36, this year. Not as many as we’d like, but an improvement.

THE BIGS

Adreian Payne

  • Will Payne get his career set on a sustainable path?

It is difficult to sugar coat the rookie season that Adreian Payne had last year. He began it as an Atlanta Hawk, finished it as a Minnesota Timberwolf, and struggled immensely on both ends of the floor. On the Timberwolves, where Payne played the vast majority of his rookie minutes (720 in MN, 19 in ATL) Payne had the worst defensive rating (team defense with the player on the floor), allowing 115.8 points per 100 possessions. For a comparison, the Wolves had the worst defensive rating in the league (109.6) followed by the Lakers at 108.0. The league’s best defenses allow under 100 per 100, which is all to say that when Payne was on the floor the Wolves were playing defense at a remarkably worse level than what is acceptable. While some of this was undoubtedly “correlation” — most of his teammates were weak defenders, too — he was causing a lot of the problems. Payne was the worst on the team, after all. Despite his four years of Tom Izzo tutelage and advanced rookie age (Payne turned 24 last February) Payne did not demonstrate much awareness on defense, or discipline in resisting shot fakes. He plays very hard, which seems to work more to his detriment than his benefit, based on how often his hot motor sends him in the wrong direction.

On offense, Payne was similarly bad. He barely averaged 10 points per 36 minutes, shooting just 41 percent from the field. He posted a PER of 7.8, which is about half of where it needs to be if he wants to survive in the NBA.

The Timberwolves recently picked up all of their player options for the 2016-17 season, which included Payne’s. So they are not giving up on him yet, and I imagine he will get some playing time this year. In order to crack the regular rotation, however, he will need to show improvement. Whether he tightens up his defensive rotations, sharpens up his offensive decisionmaking or shot making, it has to be something. He was a nightmare last year and will not be in the NBA for much longer if things don’t turn around quickly.

My guess: No, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Nikola Pekovic

  • Is Pek’s career over?

This is a sad one, not only because Pek is a good player but because he’s such a cool dude who quickly became popular with fans both in Minnesota and around the entire league. The 815 minutes that Pekovic logged last season were the lowest of his NBA career. He underwent surgery on his right Achilles tendon in April. Around the time of the procedure it was not entirely clear if it was career threatening. Flip said, “You hope it doesn’t become career-ending, and at least we haven’t gotten any indication from our people that it’s going to be.

“Our indication has been that this is going to be a cleanup procedure that will clean up some of the stuff that is involved in there and will put him in a situation where he can play at a higher rate.”

Pek himself sounded less optimistic, stating that, “(Surgery is) kind of the last thing that I can try. I want to try whatever I can try.”

He admitted that he was worried about his future and life after basketball, battling these lower leg injuries.

On Media Day, Pek showed up looking bigger and less chiseled than usual, and acknowledged that he had not been able to exercise much in the offseason, having trouble with simple daily tasks like showering after his surgery. He is the Wolves lone player on the injured list right now, and does not figure to return to action anytime soon.

This is just me speculating, but I’d guess the Wolves have already begun looking into their options to get Pekovic off of their salary cap. Since he would be very difficult to trade and may never play again, their best recourse might be waiving him and applying for a “career-ending injury” waiver, a procedure which Larry Coon outlines in Number 63 of his outstanding “NBA Salary Cap FAQ.”

A few things about this, as it might apply to Pekovic:

  1. The Wolves (or their insurance company, if they have coverage on him) would still pay him his full salary for this season and the two after it, which amounts to do about $36 Million.
  2. Ideally, if they go this route they would get his contract off of their cap for the 2016-17 season, opening up about $12 Million in cap space.
  3. There is a waiting period for applying for this, after the team waives the player. The big things to know are that if Pekovic plays more than 10 games in a season (as he did last year) then it runs for one year since his last played game. If he plays fewer than 10 games, then the waiting period runs for 60 days after his last played game, or one year from his last game played in the previous season, whichever is later. In other words, if the Wolves want to go this route, they will not play Pek in more than 10 games this year, else they will push back their chance to waive him for another year. Right now, his one-year anniversary for playing a game falls on March 11, 2016. They could, as things stand, potentially get him off of next season’s salary cap by summertime free agency.
  4. In order to get Pekovic off the cap, a doctor would have to say that his career is over. The doctor is jointly selected by the NBA and the players association. The legal standard is “whether the injury or illness will prevent the player from playing for the remainder of his career, or if it is severe enough that continuing to play constitutes a medically unacceptable risk.” Unless there is nothing objectively wrong with Pek’s legs and feet, I have a hard time believing that this test would not be passed. I’m just imagining the examination, where 300-pound Pekovic explains to the doc how much running hurts, and how he could barely get out of the shower after Achilles tendon surgery last summer. It can’t be too difficult to convince a hired-gun doctor that this is a “medically unacceptable risk.”

Anyway, there is your CBA minutiae for this year’s preview. Get well, Pek.

My guess: Pekovic plays this year, but fewer than 10 games before the Wolves initiate the process to get him off their salary cap for medical reasons.

Kevin Garnett

  • Is this KG’s final season?

The Big Ticket signed a two-year contract that will pay him a combined $16.5 Million. However, by next season he will be 40 years old and have 21 NBA seasons under his belt. He will have played over 50,000 career minutes, and that doesn’t include the 5,283 he’s logged in playoffs past. His knees hurt, and it is possible that he might hang it up if he doesn’t feel good when next September and October roll around.

However, Garnett is also planning to become a Timberwolves owner and continuing his playing career — and receiving that $8 Million check from Glen Taylor, the current owner — would seem like the best way to accumulate more money. According to quick Google searching, KG’s net worth was measured at $190 Million in 2013, which is roughly the same as recent player-turned-owner Grant Hill, whose worth is listed at $180 Million. (Hill is now a minority owner of the Atlanta Hawks.) KG will probably never have the money to become a majority owner like Michael Jordan, but he seems excited about this opportunity to own the Timberwolves which suggests that he will want influence in the organization. For that he’ll need more than a nominal stake and every dollar counts. I think there’s a good chance that he plays out this two-year contract and, as Jalen Rose would say, “keeps gettin’ dem checks.”

Garnett played 47 games last season in Brooklyn and Minnesota. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he exceeds that number this season or next. He’s still pretty good when he’s out on the floor.

My guess: No. KG plays out his contract and then retires in 2017.

Gorgui Dieng

  • Is Gorgui more valuable to the Timberwolves as a player or a trade asset?

When the Wolves drafted Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky, their player whose future was most directly affected was Gorgui Dieng. He was second on the team in total minutes last season (2,193) and in some ways had a pretty good year. He averaged a per-36 minutes double-double (11.7 points, 10.0 rebounds). Per 36, he also averaged over 2 blocks and assists. His PER of 17.2 is better than league average, and statistically his career is off to a good start.

The problem with Gorgui is that he cannot defend his position (center) at a starter-level. He is not big and strong enough to hold post-defense position, and last year he seemed to allow the frustrations of losing affect his defensive awareness and discipline, too. Gorgui was far from “the problem” with the Wolves defense. (That list would probably begin with Zach LaVine, and run through a bunch of names like Anthony Bennett, Adreian Payne, Mo Williams, Shabazz Muhammad and Kevin Martin before we got anywhere near Gorgui.) But he was, disappointingly, not a solution either. Dieng was billed as a rim-protecting defender when he was drafted out of Louisville, and that was what he showed flashes of becoming in his rookie season while being coached up by Rick Adelman and his staff. Last year, many expected Gorgui to have an impact, building off some huge performances at the end of his rookie season. That did not happen, and with Towns now locked into the center position long term, it seems possible that Gorgui could be traded. He would be very easy to move, since he only makes $1.5 Million this season.

My guess: He is not traded during the season. But if he is, it will be as part of a package deal including Kevin Martin that brings back a protected future first rounder; an asset the Wolves might be wise to collect in light of the fact that they owe protected first rounders to both Boston and Atlanta in the near future.

Nemanja Bjelica

  • Will Bjelica redeem David Kahn’s infamous 2010 Draft?

Wolves newcomer Nemanja Bjelica figures to be one of the better rookies in his class. He is 27 years old, won the Euroleague MVP last season, and wowed everybody who watched this past summer’s Eurobasket tournament where in a performance versus Spain he dropped 24, 10 and 4. In the Wolves preseason, he often times looked like their best player on the floor. He is 6’10” with range that extends beyond the three-point line, but can also slash into the lane and — more than anything else — set up teammates for open shots with his excellent court vision. Bjelica’s style of play seems to positively influence this young Wolves team and what it needs to do from a ball-movement perspective. On nights when KG is out resting his knees, Bjelica might be the starting power forward.

However, it will take a lot to redeem the 2010 Draft, when David Kahn selected Wesley Johnson with the 4th Pick. DeMarcus Cousins was taken 5th and he is a long-shot MVP candidate nowadays. Gordon Hayward and Paul George went 9th and 10th and each has a good chance of making the All-Star Team this year. Wes still stinks, even if he might (somehow) start for the Clippers this season.

My guess: Professor Big Shots won’t fully redeem Kahn, but he’ll make the 2010 Draft seem a bit less terrible after he makes the All-Rookie Team in 2016. (After Steph Curry’s 24-point first quarter last night, I’ll just move on now and stop talking about Kahn…)

Karl-Anthony Towns

  • Is he the real deal?

It’s the same question that Wiggins faced last year after going first in the draft. It’s the biggest question facing the Wolves organization going forward. They are trying to do the Oklahoma City thing where they bottom out, draft high, and build around superstars. With the Love/Wiggins trade, it seems likely that they found one there. Wiggins is a foundational building block. He answered that big-picture question last year with bigtime production and steady improvement.

Now Towns has to do the same thing. Flip’s stated vision after trading Love was to build the Timberwolves around two-way players; players like the one he first build the team with, KG. That is what Flip had in mind when he chose Towns over other strong draft prospects with less defensive upside, like Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell. He picked the guy who could protect the paint on defense, and make plays on offense.

Where exactly Towns fits into the Timberwolves offense in 2015-16, and foreseeable struggles adjusting to things like the defensive three seconds rule are less important than the big picture, often times eye-test-only question of whether this kid is going to be great in the future. It’s something that you know when you see, and we’ll all be watching closely. For this rebuild to be a successful one, and for the Wolves to finally make it back to where they had things in the late nineties and early aughts — consistent playoff appearances — they need Wiggins and Towns to be the foundation. They should be both difficult to score on and difficult to prevent from scoring.

Towns does not need to win Rookie of the Year, or — as he is publicly stating as a goal — lead this team to the playoffs right away. There are other high-draft picks better positioned to win that award and way too many good teams in the West for the Wolves to seriously contend. But he needs to occasionally stand out with great plays, and show improvement over time.

My guess: Yes, I think he is. He’s looked really good in the summer and preseason, and appears much more versatile than he did at Kentucky when he was confined by Coach Cal to the low post. I expect big things from Karl-Anthony Towns and feel really optimistic about Flip’s last big move in rebuilding his team.

That’s it for the preview. I participated in a roundtable discussion at the On the Prowl blog (link here) – that included some of the basic prediction-type stuff. I’m going with Warriors over Cavs in the Finals again. It proved correct last year and I can’t see any reason to change it now. Anyway, check that out, too.

Go Wolves.

 

 

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2 responses to “Timberwolves 2015-16 Season Preview: A Question for Every Player (Part II)

  1. Rodman99

    Great read Andy. As usual. I feel like it’s gonna be a great year. After a challenging start.

  2. Pingback: Wolves Beat Jazz & Other Jottings | Punch-Drunk Wolves