Monthly Archives: November 2015

Talking Ricky’s Ankle & Next Year’s Draft Pick

Ricky's back. This is gonna be fun.

The Wolves played against the Clippers this afternoon at Staples Center. They lost by 8, but nobody felt too bad about the proverbial “moral victory,” because, well…

For the second consecutive game, Ricky Rubio sat out with what is being described as ankle soreness. It is the sixth game he’s missed of this 17-game season. The Wolves are 7-4 with him and now 1-5 without him. The only Rubio-less win came on Friday night against the Kings who did not have DeMarcus Cousins, their only great player. The Wolves cannot realistically compete against good teams without Rubio, so a reasonably-close loss (they beat the spread by 1.5) has to suffice.

On Saturday, Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune wrote that Rubio “began to experience that soreness two or three games ago, then jammed the ankle just before halftime in Wednesday’s home win over Atlanta.” According to Darren Wolfson of KSTP — as reliable a Minnesota-sports beat reporter as there is — Rubio wants to play, but is being held out per the decision of others. In both the Hawks and 76ers games — the last two that Rubio has played in — he has looked every bit his usual self, having a noticeably-positive effect on both games, particularly on defense. The only evidence of injury concerns was the wrap he put on his leg during his stints on the bench.

As was the case last season when Rubio was being held out of games that he reportedly wished to play in, he can be seen going through pregame work with assistant coaches, demonstrating no apparent disability; at least not to my untrained eyes in the times I’ve witnessed it. Rubio was described as a “gametime decision” today, but nobody paying attention believed he would play after that much was announced. It feels the same as last year, when his ankle never gets better despite the passing of time.

This leaves us with two general possibilities, and you can decide for yourself which is better or worse, and more or less likely: either Rubio’s ankle has not recovered well from the “diagnostic” surgery that he underwent back in April, over 7 months ago — a procedure described as minor and “clean up” — and he is increasingly unreliable as a healthy starting point guard, or he is able to play but the Timberwolves don’t want him to. The latter sounds like a juicy conspiracy theory, until you consider a few different things.

First, the Wolves used this precise tactic last year with great success, when the franchise goal was to lose games and improve draft position. They sat Rubio out and subbed in the 19-year old shooting guard, Zach LaVine. The rookie had no idea how to play point guard, but he had endless athleticism and general potential as a player. His on-the-job basketball training doubled as effective tanking. Rubio was held out of 60 games due to ankle issues. They were 7-15 in the games in which he played, and 9-51 in the games in which he sat out. The 26-win pace with Rubio would’ve placed the Wolves between Orlando and Sacramento for the 5th worst record in the league, and 5th best odds of winning the lottery. Holding him out led to the lottery win and budding superstar Karl-Anthony Towns. On draft night, after selecting Towns, Flip all but admitted to the tanking in his remarks to the press, made with an ear-to-ear smile.

Second, the Wolves have another tanking incentive this year. No, they will not be bad enough to draft at the top again; not without incredible Magic/Webber or Bulls/Rose type of lottery luck, anyway. But the Wolves owe their first round pick to the Boston Celtics, unless it falls inside the top 12 of the draft. Why do they owe this pick, you ask? Well, because David Kahn included it in a trade with the Suns that sent out Wesley Johnson’s contract. That’s right, the Wolves had to pay the premium of a protected first round pick in order to unload the salary of the player drafted ahead of DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George.

Importantly, if the Wolves keep the draft pick this year, they do not owe a first rounder for that trade and it instead becomes a pair of second-round picks; a much lower cost.

Also importantly, the Wolves owe their 2018 first-round pick to the Hawks as partial consideration of the Adreian Payne trade. In other words, they risk losing 2 first rounders in 3 years if they win too much this year.

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Back to .500: Wolves 101, KINGS 91

So the Timberwolves won another game, another road game actually, and are back up to .500 at this not-quite-so-early point, 16 games into the 2015-16 season. This is an overwhelmingly-positive position for the team to find itself in, for the reasons mentioned in yesterday’s post that took a shot at evaluating Sam Mitchell’s performance as coach.

In and of itself, yesterday’s win was nothing too special. This is because their opponent, the Sacramento Kings, was missing its by-far-and-away best player, DeMarcus Cousins. When Boogie plays, the Kings are a respectable 5-5. When he has been out with injuries, they are a not-so-respectable 1-6, after last night’s loss to the Wolves. When assessing the difficulty of last night’s Wolves win, however, it must be noted that they were once again without both Ricky Rubio (ankle soreness) and Nemanja Bjelica (knee contusion). The combination of Rubio and Bjelica might approximate the importance to the Wolves’ present-day competitiveness of Boogie’s to Sacto. The Wolves had lost their previous 16 games without Rubio, if that seemed like an unrealistic comparison.

The Wolves won for a few reasons. On their own end, Andre Miller came off the bench and played some of the most spectacular old-man ball you will ever see. If Miller wasn’t knocking down an open shot, he was posting up a skinny opponent. Or he was using his will-always-be-quick hands to poke away a pass. Or, as things went, he might randomly open field tackle Willie Cauley-Stein, who didn’t even have the ball. (Yes, that actually happened. Upon review, it was deemed a Flagrant One.) Anyway, Miller ended up logging 18:46 seconds of vital action off the bench. In that time, the Wolves beat the Kings by 12. He had 12 points and 4 assists, without missing a field goal or free throw. In the minutes that Miller sat out, the Wolves were outscored by 2 points. He was possibly the biggest difference in the game.

Andrew Wiggins played his usual brand of aggressive-scorer basketball. It seemed like his most physical drives to the hoop were not rewarded as usual with free throws (he shot 6, probably could’ve had 12 attempts with favorable whistles) but he managed to score a reasonably-efficient 22 points, and pulled down an unusual 5 offensive rebounds.

Zach LaVine filled the stat sheet, as he is prone to do, with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. LaVine was not without mistakes, and his (-2) probably represents the all-around game he played pretty well, but his production was not inevitable for the Wolves team by any stretch of the imagination and it is really encouraging to see his play improve, even if it remains at the wrong position.

Shabazz Muhammad came off the bench to score 15 efficient points (8 field goal attempts) in 15 minutes of action. When Bazz provides this spark, the Wolves have a much greater chance of winning games. Their first unit has had a lot of success this year — built on its defense — and a bench scoring burst will tip the scales for them more often than not.

On the Kings side, they simply got a terrible game from Rudy Gay, who shot 1 for 13 from the field. Credit to Andrew Wiggins for his defense — after a shaky first quarter, it was very solid — but a lot of this was Gay’s own difficulties. Had he played well, this game would’ve gone down to the wire. He didn’t, so the solid performances they got from Rajon Rondo, Marco Belenelli and Kosta Koufos were for naught.

The elephant in the room, with respect to last night’s game which came in the wake of the win over the Hawks, is the limitation put on Karl-Anthony Towns’s playing time. Without any injuries or foul trouble, Towns has had his minutes cut in favor of Gorgui Dieng for two straight games. Last night at Sacramento, Towns played 21:20, while Dieng played 26:40. Towns had 6 points on 3-5 shooting, along with 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. Dieng, to his credit, had 8 points of his own (2-4 shooting) along with 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. The plus-minus differential between the players (minus 4 for Towns, +14 for Gorgui) is effectively attributable to everything Andre Miller did, which came exclusively during Dieng’s stints.

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Evaluating Sam Mitchell’s Coaching Performance

mitchell

Evaluating NBA coaching performance is a difficult and imperfect exercise. This is because the overwhelming majority of the work done by coaches happens during the part of the season that outsiders are not privy to; basically, everything outside of the in-game experience. Coaches prepare and conduct practices, scout opponents and present reports to the players with game-to-game strategies. These include their own plans of attack on offense and how to counter the opposition with defensive matchups and principles. While trying to carry out these fundamental tasks, NBA coaches are often faced with the less scientific duty of managing egos and expectations; egos and expectations of twenty-somethings earning million-dollar salaries. With a decision to insert Player X into the starting lineup comes the task of telling Player Y that he’s now coming off the bench. Unlike fans managing their fantasy or 2K rosters, this cannot be done coldly and without regard for the human elements.

Coaches do other things too, like coordinate organizational priorities with the front office. This can mean emphasizing the development of young talent over “winning now.” Who needs to play, and who might need to be traded? In places like Houston, it seems like the coaches are required to implement specific x’s and o’s tactics, such as the three-point shot. Coaches need to speak to media on essentially a daily basis, which can be difficult when trying to both maintain positive vibes with the fan community while not disclosing sensitive or secret material.

Despite this mountain of data that we do not and never will possess, we still sound off on coaching performance and talk ourselves into some pretty high levels of certainty about who are the best and worst in the profession. People generally agree that Gregg Popovich is a great coach, and Byron Scott is a bad one. In recent years in Minnesota, it has seemed like a coaching-competence roller coaster going from Dwane Casey (good) to Randy Wittman (bad) to Kevin McHale (good) to Kurt Rambis (bad) to Rick Adelman (good) and then to Flip Saunders and his unexpectedly-quick replacement, Sam Mitchell, whose job is just beginning.

How good of a job is Sam Mitchell doing? How would we measure it?

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Good Stat/Bad Stat: A Run Through the Wolves Roster

calculator

Since we last posted, the Wolves have played three times. They won at Miami in another impressive road performance. By this early stage of the season, these young Timberwolves have now defeated the best Eastern Conference teams outside of Cleveland: the Bulls, Hawks, and Heat. The next night, in an always difficult second end of a back to back, they narrowly lost to the Orlando Magic.

In both games, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns gave Wolves fans more to be excited about. Wiggins continues to produce points with aggressive drives to the basket that often end in thunderous dunks or free throw attempts. Towns is playing at a higher level than any NBA rookie in recent memory. The future here is obviously bright, if for no other reason than the Wolves have Wiggins and Towns.

Last night, the Wolves lost another home game – they remain winless at home – this time to Stan Van Gundy’s Detroit Pistons. Detroit did not play particularly well on offense in the first half, but seemed to have the Wolves’ strategy mapped out well and exploited its limitations, such as the inability of Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett to threaten defenses. Probably more than any other time this season, the limitations of those two cagey veterans has people wondering if Sam Mitchell should consider a lineup change. Beyond that issue, the Wolves got bad performances from the second-unit front line. With Nemanja Bjelica out nursing a knee contusion, the combination of Adreian Payne and Gorgui Dieng struggled. Each player has a good motor and athleticism that suggests an upside might be in there somewhere, but each also tries to do too much, too often. Instead of making simple rotation passes to more competent playmakers, Dieng and Payne like to hold the ball for a moment or two, and try to initiate a play of their own. The results are usually not good.

In any event, the Wolves are now at 5-8, and host the winless Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night at Target Center. It’s a game they will be predicted to win; probably by double figures.

As a way to keep the conversation moving, and without any new hot takes or conspiracy theories about Wiggins struggling to score or Rubio sitting out with injuries, I thought I’d just run through the roster of players and identify something good, and something bad, in the stats about their play, to date.

We’ll do this by position, beginning in the backcourt:

Point Guards

Ricky Rubio

GOOD: On/Off Differential of 13.1 points per 100 possessions.

As always seems to be the case, the Timberwolves play much better with Rubio on the floor than they play when he is on the bench or sidelined in street clothes. So far this year, Rubio has played 277 minutes. In that time they outscore opponents by 7.0 points per 100. He has been off the floor for an unfortunately-large 357 minutes. In that time they were outscored by 6.1 per 100. Whether Rubio plays determines if the Wolves are a good team or a bad one.

BAD: Field Goal Percentage of 36.3.

Rubio’s shot is not going in, and — notwithstanding that first game against the Lakers — does not look different in any significant way than it did in years past, before his well-documented work with Mike Penberthy last year. Sometimes when Rubio catches a pass with an open, seemingly good shot for the taking, there is a palpable hesitation in his slow setup, as if (R. Kelly voice) ‘his mind is telling him no’ the whole time before he finally, slowly releases an errant shot. That is no way to play and he’ll never be any good at shooting if he doesn’t want to take shots.

Zach LaVine

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What is going on with Ricky Rubio?

“He is our starting point guard, so if you take the starting point guard off any team, you’re going to see a difference.”

–Sam Mitchell, commenting on Ricky Rubio’s injury absence, after yesterday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

One of the most striking features of the Minnesota Timberwolves of recent years past is the gap between their performance with Ricky Rubio on the floor, and without him. Before the season I wrote a short piece about this, running through Ricky’s history in Minnesota and pointing out how his “on/off” statistics consistently show what positive effect he has on team success. The decision to write that piece wasn’t random, out of thin air, but in response to reading something that David Aldridge wrote in a column:

That the Timberwolves do not think of Rubio as one of the franchise’s top three talents.

Taking that number literally causes you to start listing possibilities for who might be ahead of him on the franchise-importance pecking order. Andrew Wiggins would come to mind first. He was the top pick in the 2014 Draft and cruised to Rookie of the Year honors. Karl-Anthony Towns, even if he hadn’t played a game yet, would probably be second. He was also a number one pick, and many feel he has potential even higher than Wiggins. Neither of those would be unreasonable assessments, given their enormous talent and potential.

The likely third choice is more controversial. Contrary to the hard basketball-performance evidence to date, I think there’s a strong chance that the other player the Timbewolves higher ups prioritize ahead of Ricky Rubio is second-year guard Zach LaVine. The handling of LaVine has been a source of ongoing debate among Wolves fans and pundits, and it has evolved in a number of different ways since he was drafted out of UCLA where he played just one year, coming off the bench.

I don’t need to detail the history again, but the short version is that the Wolves entered last season with expectations of playing competitive basketball, but then used Ricky Rubio’s early-season ankle sprain as cover to tank for the next draft, and by far and away the most effective tanking weapon at their disposal was playing LaVine at point guard. Had the Wolves played Rubio 40 or 50 games last year instead of 22 — and if you ever watched Rubio working with special shooting coach Mike Penberthy on gamedays, drenched in sweat after cutting-and-shooting drills, you probably agree with me that he was capable of playing — they would not have Karl-Anthony Towns today, which would make their future much dimmer than it is now.

But along with sitting Rubio to lose games, it also allowed them to play LaVine a ton of minutes; 1902 to be exact. That was third most on the 2014-15 Timberwolves. In some broad, basic ways, it was a successful season for LaVine. He logged all those minutes, scored 778 points (on a not-terrible 42 percent shooting) and earned second-team All-Rookie Team honors. Add to that the celebrity status he attained by blowing away the field in the Slam Dunk Competition, and there was a lot for the Wolves and LaVine to feel good about, after his first season was complete.

A more detailed assessment of LaVine, however, is not favorable. He has played most of his minutes at point guard where he does not effectively run an offense. He is also, at this point, an inept defensive player whose mere presence on the floor — contrasted with Rubio — causes the Wolves to lose games instead of potentially win them. Very few would argue with those critiques, at this juncture. More debatable is how high his potential is, and what might be the best way to develop it. Before Flip Saunders was tragically and unexpectedly stricken by cancer, the subject of Zach LaVine’s future was presumably a frequent and high-importance subject of front office discussion.

This history brings us to the present, where Ricky Rubio has now missed the last 4 games — 40 percent of this short season — due to what is now described as a hamstring injury. (When he missed his first game against the Charlotte Hornets, it was called a knee injury.) Right before the home game against Charlotte the Wolves had unexpectedly won at Chicago and Atlanta, beating two of the very best teams in the Eastern Conference on their home floors. They were two games over .500, and reshaping the expectations for what all of a sudden figured to be a more competitive season than fans anticipated.

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LaVine at Point Guard: An Ongoing and Complex Question

2015 NBA Slam-Dunk champion Zach LaVine

We have a Zach LaVine issue.

He’s been playing a lot of minutes at point guard and many feel that this is a bad idea. The Wolves are winning more than most expected before the season (4-5 record, as of last night’s loss at Indiana) but possibly less than they could’ve, if LaVine played fewer minutes at the point. It’s a difficult question — whether playing him there makes any sense — and probably not answerable within a great deal of certainty.

What we know:

  • LaVine is not good at point guard; not yet anyway. He is not a strong enough ball-handler to initiate good team offense, and he is a very, very poor defensive player, when tasked with defending point guards. Eric in Madison of Canis Hoopus wrote an outstanding piece this morning that details why playing LaVine at point guard has been a losing proposition for the Wolves this season. I strongly encourage readers to click through and read his piece, if you have not already.
  • He is an unbelievably explosive athlete; possibly the greatest leaper in the history of the game. LaVine’s performance in last year’s dunk contest rivaled the best ever, including Vince Carter’s 2000 exhibition that many thought could never be topped. If in this year’s contest he tries to dunk from the high school three-point line, I won’t be completely surprised. LaVine, though very skinny and in need of more upper body strength, sometimes blows past a defender with a first step that leaves people wondering what might be in store for him if he ever learns the nuances of the game. His physical upside as a guard who destroys defenses off the bounce seems unparalleled.
  • LaVine has had some success playing off the ball, in his short NBA career. Last night at Indiana, he played much better next to Andre Miller, and eventually ended the game with a not-at-all-shabby line of 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. His plus-minus was a net-zero, and without digging into the details I’m sure that it was decidedly positive when he was playing at the two instead of the point. After the All-Star Break last season, LaVine shot a clean 38 percent (38 out of 100) from three-point range, and of those, 34 were assisted. (Also, for what it’s worth 32 of them were “above the break” threes, farther out and more difficult than threes shot from the corners.) Making assisted threes is a valuable shooting guard skill, even if it isn’t necessarily the play that best signifies Zach’s upside.

What we don’t know:

  • Are all of these point-guard minutes in NBA games the ideal way to develop his game for the future?
  • Would it make more sense to play him more at shooting guard in NBA games?
  • Would it make more sense to give him point-guard minutes in a D-League setting?
  • How much do in-game minutes matter for development, as opposed to developing in practice?
  • Is LaVine at point guard stunting the potential development of the players who share the floor with him? Players like Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gorgui Dieng?
  • Could this Timberwolves team fight for a playoff spot, if Ricky Rubio quickly returns to full health and they move forward with a better use of the backup point guard minutes – either via a minor trade or simply playing Andre Miller over LaVine?

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Warriors 129, WOLVES 116: Champs’ Tactics No Longer in Question

The Warriors used to be the team of counterintuitive truths, the one that went against old conventions. They built an offense around a skinny 6’3″ jump shooter. Instead of trade for Kevin Love, a 26 & 12 superstar, they thought it made more sense to hold onto Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Instead of starting Andre Iguodala, a recent All-Star and First Team All-Defense performer, Coach Steve Kerr thought it made more sense to start Barnes, a significantly worse player at that time. David Lee was likewise a former All-Star, and was the team’s highest paid player. When Lee suffered an early season injury, Draymond Green took his spot and never gave it back. Green was a second round pick making less than a million dollars a year.

There are a lot of ways that Mark Jackson’s and then especially Steve Kerr’s Warriors have bucked conventional wisdom in becoming what appears to be an all-time great NBA basketball team. Now, we’ve reached a point where the wisdom of those decisions and tactics are long past doubt.

Curry is not just a great shooter, but a great player; quite possibly the best in the NBA today. Instead of last year’s MVP being some type of fluke, it seems more likely that it is the first of more to come. Kevin Garnett compared Curry to Michael Jordan yesterday, saying both were like this “whole other thing,” that is beautiful for basketball. He’s not wrong. Curry had 46 points last night, shooting 8 of 13 from downtown. When dribbling off of ball screens way out court — 26 or more feet from the hoop — Curry draws double teams. He’s plenty clever as a dribbler and passer, so this early action inevitably leads to the screener receiving the ball with a scrambled 3 defenders trying to stop 4 Warriors.

Green is often times that roll man, tasked with setting up the score. And last night, he could hardly have done a better job of doing it. A bulky 6’8″ former college center, Green has become the most versatile player in the NBA. He can defend all five positions, he can shoot from the perimeter, he can post up, and — maybe more than anything — he can facilitate offense for his teammates, off the dribble. When he catches that roll pass from Curry, and it’s 3 against 4 for the defense, Green is looking to the corners for three-point shooters, or up high to Festus Ezeli for a lob dunk. Last night, he made both passes look effortless. The lobs were dunked. The kick-outs were converted for threes. Green, the former second-round pick, had 23 points on 8-10 shooting, to go along with 8 rebounds and 12 — TWELVE — assists. He’s become undeniably one of the best forwards in the league.

Last night, the Wolves played their second straight game without Ricky Rubio, who is battling a sore hamstring. When this “gametime decision” was announced, a great deal of the excitement for this matchup was drained. The Warriors — 9-0 and coming off another big win at Memphis — are bound to lose a game eventually and these upstart Timberwolves playing on more rest seemed like a potentially sneaky and fun team to hand them their first L. Without Ricky, that simply was not possible. Rubio’s replacement, Zach LaVine, is one of the worst defensive point guards in the league, and the Wolves had no chance with LaVine defending Curry. Had Coach Sam Mitchell instead put Andrew Wiggins on Curry, and had LaVine guard Barnes, it’s possible some of the damage could’ve been mitigated.  But Mitchell has been pretty clear on the LaVine issues in terms of what he’s trying to accomplish with him this year; it is about development — even in the middle of real games — more than it is about short-term strategies for team success. In Mitchell’s plans, LaVine had the good learning experience of defending Steph Curry MVP last night, which is more important than the Timberwolves trying to win that game.

Curry had 21 points in the first quarter, most of which came on LaVine. The crowd mixed oohs and ahhs, with groans of frustration.

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INBOX: Why is Shabazz Muhammad Struggling So Far?

CREDIT: Todd Bigelow (Photo by Todd Bigelow /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

CREDIT: Todd Bigelow (Photo by Todd Bigelow /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Andy G: Any theories on why Shabazz Muhammad is struggling so far? After his 2014-15 breakout season was interrupted by injury, Shabazz came to training camp in the best shape of his life. Big(-ish) things were expected. Certainly bigger than what he has shown in the Wolves’ first seven games.

Patrick J: I have several theories, some of which are better than others. In no particular order:

(1) His playing time fluctuates and he doesn’t know his role.

(2) He isn’t playing to his strengths like he used to because he “expanded his game” over the summer and is still trying to figure out when/where to use his new skillz within the framework of his role.

(3) He isn’t used to playing with ball movers like Rubio and Towns. Those guys are obviously a net + for the offense, but Bazz came up playing without any good passers, so he focused all of his attention on being a junkyard dog who made his own offense from offensive rebounding and general relentlessness rather than exploiting good spacing and passing from talented teammates.

(4) Some combination of 1, 2, and 3.

(5) He’s afraid that if he makes a mistake, Smitch will pull him. (Bazz needs to play off of instinct. If he thinks too much, he’s a step behind everyone else and consequently struggles.)

(6) Personal issues we’re unaware of.

What say you?

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Beating Bulls & Hawks, Wolves Reshape Hopes…Expectations?

On Saturday the Timberwolves won in overtime at Chicago. They beat a Bulls team that won 50 games last season, and had just beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder the night before, in the primetime TNT game. Andrew Wiggins had 31 points. Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns had 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks. This came as a surprise, as the Wolves had just lost a one-sided affair on their home court to the Miami Heat and did not show signs of being able to compete with the likes of the Bulls, especially on the road.

Tonight, the Timberwolves won at Atlanta. The Hawks won SIXTY games last season, and came into tonight’s contest with a 7-1 record; the best in the East. This morning in his weekly power rankings, Marc Stein of ESPN listed them third in the NBA. This time Wiggins had 33 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He dominated crunchtime on offense. Karl-Anthony Towns again had 17 points, this time with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. He dominated crunchtime on defense.

Just four nights after that expectations-lowering egg they laid on Target Center floor against the Heat, the Timberwolves have fans excited again.

Not about the future, we’re pumped about the future no matter what. Eventually, a team with this much talent will be good. But fans are going to be excited about the present – the basketball being played right now – if this Wolves team can go on the road and win at Chicago and Atlanta in back-to-back games. They’ll be doubly excited if these wins are coming on the backs of Wiggins and Towns (and Rubio, whose overall play continues to lead the team) instead of the older vets like Prince, Martin and Garnett. The vets are helping, don’t get me wrong, but the heavy lifting is being done by the Timberwolves that figure to be here for many more years.

This game tonight in Atlanta was a crazy one, as everybody who watched it knows. The Wolves played FLAWLESS basketball in the first half and led by a whopping 30 points at the break. Seriously, it’s hard to emphasize enough how perfectly the Wolves were playing on both ends of the floor. Along with the usual defense and passing from Rubio, scoring from Wiggins, and the interior presence of Towns, the Wolves were getting unexpected contributions all over the place; nowhere more significant or unexpected than Zach LaVine who might’ve played better than any of his teammates through halftime.

While some type of Hawks comeback was plenty foreseeable, I think most would’ve expected Atlanta to show some veteran pride, cut the Wolves lead down to 15 or even 10, before running out of gas before the game got too close.

Not how it went.

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Heat 96, WOLVES 84: Wolves Rotations Not Competitive

ricky33In these rebuilding stages that the Timberwolves have unfortunately found themselves in for the better part of the last decade, it seems there are two basic ways to watch their games. One way is to watch them as if what happens on the floor matters, and the other is to watch them as if it doesn’t.

Last season, we were basically forced to go the latter route.

The Wolves began with high hopes; higher than most people found reasonable, anyway. Flip Saunders was running the front office, and named himself head coach after Rick Adelman stepped down. In a move that signaled an interest in coaching a competitive team, Flip added a detail to the Love/Wiggins swap that sent out a future first round pick to bring back Thaddeus Young, a quality veteran forward. Coming off a 40-win season and having replaced Love with Young, Flip spoke confidently that he could lead his team to a competitive season, while also developing his new young talent.

He might have been right, if not for some early injuries and then his organizational audible to focus on the next draft instead of that season’s win-loss record. Consider that the Wolves opened the season with a close road loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, who went on to lead the Warriors 2-1 in the Western Conference Finals. After beating the Pistons, the Wolves lost a heartbreaker to the Eastern Conference Finalist Bulls; you might remember Andrew Wiggins fouling Jimmy Butler with a second to play. After that, the Wolves beat the Nets by 7 to get back to .500.  The Nets were not bad, and that was a decent road win.  And after THAT, at Orlando, Ricky Rubio sprained his ankle, causing the Wolves to lose in overtime and then tank the season.

Once Rubio went down, Saunders saw that his team had no chance to contend for a playoff spot.  Rather than grind out 24 or 25 wins, he sat his quality veterans for most of the season’s games, and instead won 16, and eventually the draft lottery, too. He drafted Karl-Anthony Towns, and the rest is history.

It’s great that the Wolves got Towns. It really is. David Thorpe just tweeted that Towns has a higher ceiling than Anthony Davis. That seems like hyperbole — it probably is — but enough people latched onto it that it shows how much excitement there is right now about Towns’s potential. Between he, Wiggins, Rubio, and maybe one more of the Wolves youngsters with upside, there might be a nucleus forming that can make the playoffs in a few years and contend for a championship a couple years after that.

But for now, there’s the question of what happens in a typical game at Target Center. We go to 41 of them each season, and expect to draw some takeaways. If the games are going to be like last season’s, that becomes very difficult. Zach LaVine was producing like an All-Star last April, but nobody thought too much of it, because of the context in which those numbers came. More advanced stats pegged him as one of the league’s worst players. Andrew Wiggins also produced a lot, and looked more professional doing it – hence his Rookie of the Year award – but likewise drew skepticism from the analytics crowd that felt he was inefficient and not necessarily a future star.

The point is, when the games are not competitive, the entire framework of the discussion is destroyed. It is supposed to begin with each team trying to score as many points as possible, and prevent its opponent from doing the same. When one of the teams has a different objective, then we begin to wonder why we are watching in the first place.

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a quick debate with myself about Andrew Wiggins

Glass Half Empty: Andrew Wiggins is off to a pretty terrible start to the season.

Glass Half Full: How so?

Empty: Well, he’s shooting 30 percent from the floor, and averaging just 1.3 assists compared to 3 turnovers. He’s got a PER (7.6) you’d more expect from Adreian Payne, to go along with negative win shares.

Full: Yeah, but there’s only been three games. Small sample size much? Last year, when he played 82, he was the runaway Rookie of the Year. Plus, isn’t he injured?

Empty: Good point. Small sample size, and possible minor injury noted. Still, it’s the WAY that he’s struggling that is sort of discouraging. The types of things I hoped to see from him to take the next step – like shoot less contested two-point shots, more threes, and develop synergy with Ricky Rubio – we have not seen much of. Instead, it’s been a worse-looking version of the 1994 Isolation stuff that they did with him last year, only without such sympathetic defenses facing a tanking Wolves opponent.

Full: That’s a little unfair. Wiggins was going at real defense last year, when he was drawing 10 free throws a game in the last month of the season. Plus, he worked out with that special coach in the offseason and he supposedly improved his handles quite a bit.

Empty: Yeah, I remember reading about that. They edited up some cool highlight videos. But so far his handles look about the same. He has that nice spin move, but still looks shaky off the dribble. He lost the ball twice during crunchtime last night when the Wolves needed points. He needs to spot up for 3 more, and cut to the basket more. Maybe the handles will improve slowly over a few years, but there’s no reason to force it.

Full: What about defense? He locked up Kobe during crunchtime the other night?

Empty: Kobe isn’t good anymore. But you’re right, Wiggins looks like he might become a very good defender. It’ll be more telling to see him guarding Klay Thompson (or even Steph Curry) and the top scorers in the Western Conference. Dwyane Wade is in town on Thursday, so that’ll be a better test.

Full: He’s probably just adjusting to a different role; one that doesn’t involve him as a primary go-to scorer. With his size, athleticism, work ethic and shooting ability, there’s no reason to have doubts that he’ll figure it out. It might not even take very long.

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Blazers 106, WOLVES 101: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Wolves lost by 5 to the Blazers tonight. For a recap of sorts, I’ll do this one Good/Bad/Ugly style which is an inherently more sensible structure following a Timberwolves loss.

The Good: Everything about how the night started.

In the days leading up to tonight’s game the Timberwolves put out the word that fans should try to be in their seats early, and in time for the tribute they planned to remember Flip Saunders. By the time Tom Hanneman grabbed the mic at center court, Target Center was nearly filled to capacity. Hanny said a few words before turning it over to the jumbotron, where they showed a series of touching testimonials from both around the NBA and then within the Wolves organization. There was live music accompanying a bunch of old Flip photos and videos. The whole thing was done spectacularly well; so much so that not only were there few dry eyes in the arena stands, but on the floor as well. Karl-Anthony Towns was seen crying during the tribute, and later admitted that it may have drained some of his energy for the game.

Bravo to everybody involved in putting tonight’s events together. If you missed the FSN telecast and were not in the arena, much of the tribute is available or viewing at timberwolves.com.

Along with the Saunders tribute, the opening to the game falls decidedly in the “good” category. Whether it was due to extra hype, playing for Flip, or just sound execution of a gameplan, the Wolves first unit came out strong against the Blazers. They built an immediate 7-point lead after a couple of quick baskets from Towns. Ricky Rubio made three pull-up jumpers, and the second unit even came in and kept things rolling. The Wolves were up by 17 points late in the first quarter, and maintained a 13-point lead as late as 7:07 to play in the second.

From that point on, things just didn’t go their way.

The Bad: Coach Mitchell’s Rotations

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Ep. 12: A New Day

In which we discuss Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, and early impressions on the 2015-16 Wolves season.

(Eds. Note: We taped this yesterday. As usual, we had some technical difficulties during this one. ymmv.)

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