In 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.
The Timberwolves, through acting coach Sam Mitchell, have announced that this season will be more about developing their young players via actual in-game experience than it will be about trying to win those games. We are seeing evidence of this already. Despite the fact that the Wolves won their first two games against weak opposition, there are trends in their rotation to suggest they may not seriously compete against most playoff teams.
In tonight’s game at Target Center, the Wolves faced their first good opponent in the Miami Heat. Eleven different Timberwolves played over 10 minutes in the game. Rubio, the team’s best playmaker and defender, played only 23:50, while his backup, the mostly overwhelmed LaVine played nearly as many (20:11). When asked about Rubio’s minutes, Mitchell went on the defensive. He explained that he wasn’t going to leave his starting point guard out there when they’re down 19 points with 6 games coming up in the next 9 days. “Want to just put a dunce hat on my head and just say I don’t know what I’m doing?”
The problem with that answer is that misrepresents how the rotations actually went in this game. Rubio was taken out with 4:44 to go in the 3rd Quarter, when the Wolves were down by 10 points. He did not check back in until 5:17 was remaining in the game. Now the Wolves were down by 18 and, yes, the game was out of reach. If the rationale was to hold him out because of the stated reason, then why sub him back in at all? But more importantly, why is Ricky sitting for nearly an entire quarter straight, in the middle of the second half?
Ricky hasn’t played enough in any of the games, this season. In four games he’s played 32, 30, 32, and 24 minutes. He’s averaging fewer than 30 minutes per game, despite the fact that he’s by far the Timberwolves best guard, he’s young and under contract for three more years after this one, and the team does not currently have a backup that can lead a functional offense. (To say nothing about defense.)
Shabazz Muhammad and Kevin Martin are the second unit wings, and each is aggressive in hunting for his own shot. The problem with that second unit is that it does not have a playmaking guard to make sure that the offense starts correctly, and that the ball moves at least a little bit to make defenses work. If it were up to me, I’d play Rubio 6 or 7 more minutes per game, to get him staggered in with the second unit scorers, and then play Andre Miller for at least one shift as well. As things are going, with the LaVine/Martin/Muhammad trifecta of non-passers, the Wolves second unit is learning more bad habits than good ones during games.
Speaking of Muhammad, he is the other Wolves player that clearly needs more minutes. It’s probably worth starting him over Prince, which would accomplish two basic things: (1) Get a non-gunner in that second unit (assuming LaVine continues to play heavy bench minutes at the point); and (2) Take some pressure off of Andrew Wiggins as a first-unit scorer. Prince is a longer, and better defender than Shabazz and the first unit D (which has been very good so far) would take a hit. But on balance, against the league’s better teams, it’s worth exploring what a foursome of Rubio/Wiggins/Muhammad/Towns can do as it develops chemistry on both ends of the floor, over time.
Some of this is rambling and repetitive, and barely any of it touched on tonight’s game. The Wolves were handled by the Heat and they looked really bad for most of the game. Ricky actually played pretty solid basketball, but his opponent Goran Dragic played a beautiful game and was frustrating him at times. Wiggins and Towns couldn’t buy a basket; Wiggins’ struggles continue. Nemanja Bjelica lost some minutes to Adreian Payne after he continued to pass up open shots and instead commit traveling violations. Payne remains out of control and unpopular with his teammates. LaVine and him exchanged words after they screwed up an entry pass. Shabazz shoved him in the face after Payne cracked him with an out of control attempt at a rebound. (Payne concussed Gorgui in a similar way, last year.)
D-Wade was smooth and effective. Bosh was solid. Hassan Whiteside was at times overwhelming. The Heat second unit played very hard, particularly in perimeter defense. They were impressive.
The Wolves play next at Chicago in a rare 5:00 Central Time game. That’s on Saturday night. Here’s hoping that, even with development on the mind, Mitchell tightens up the rotations to allow for competitive basketball against the league’s best teams. Sure, they’ll get whacked a few times regardless of who they play what minutes, but they should at least try their best. There should be no reason that this team cannot feel like learning is happening while also trying to win with players like Rubio, Wiggins, Towns and Muhammad doing the heavy lifting.
Season Record: 2-2