Author Archives: Andy Grimsrud

On Role Players & D’Angelo Russell

Al Jefferson should’ve made the All-Star Team.

His numbers in 2009 were better than Shaq’s. Big Al averaged 23.1 points and 11 boards to O’Neal’s 17.8 and 8.4. Jefferson’s lack of team success could hardly be held against him. Ryan Gomes led that Wolves team in minutes. Randy Foye was second, Mike Miller was third, and Sebastian Telfair was fourth. Kevin Love was just a rookie. Shaq’s Suns only won 46 games that year, which seems like a decent season until you notice it was the low outlier amongst basically their entire Steve Nash Era. It wasn’t like Diesel was driving team success either. Yet Shaq made the All-Star Team and Jefferson didn’t, probably due to name recognition and as a lifetime achievement award.

So, yes. Al Jefferson should’ve made that ’09 All-Star Team. Even if his torn ACL wouldn’t have allowed him to play in it.

I used to believe that was true, anyway. I’m not really sure anymore. Big Al was the Wolves first “star” after the Kevin Garnett Era, and there was a natural sense to rally behind him as a new foundation to build upon. In a league that was moving away from traditional low-post play, Big Al had the best back-to-the-basket footwork in the league. The hope was that one or two high lottery picks could be used to fill out a bigtime nucleus, with Jefferson right at the center of it.

There was a fundamental problem, or at least a fundamental limitation, on Big Al, however, that I probably didn’t appreciate back in 2009 when I thought he should be an All-Star. That problem was this: Jefferson pretty much commanded a central role on his team’s offense, and as the central “go-to guy” piece, he was never going to be dominant enough to carry a team deep into the playoffs. He was “good/not great,” but his style was such that he took on the role of a great player.

He had better teammates after leaving the Wolves. Playing with the likes of Deron Williams and Paul Millsap in Utah, and then with Kemba Walker in Charlotte, Big Al played on some teams that won about half their games. He usually led those teams in scoring. And that’s kind of how he should be remembered: a guy who could put up numbers on mediocre teams.

Jefferson was unable to function as a role player, which would help explain why he never played on any great teams. Some players enter the league as high draft picks on bad teams, put up numbers for a few years, and eventually carve out a lower-statistics role on teams that have great success. Usually this involves greater dedication to the defensive side of the floor, as well as learning how to play more off the ball, not requiring such a central role in the offensive attack. I’m thinking of players like Andre Iguodala, Al Horford, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, Ron Harper.

Al Jefferson could not make that sort of transition, and I’m pretty sure D’Angelo Russell cannot make it either.

D’Lo’s put up numbers everywhere he’s been. And his teams have tended to win about as much as Al Jefferson’s did. His two Lakers teams won 17 and then 26 games. His first Nets team won 28 games. The stars aligned for him in that ’18-19 season, making the All-Star Team as an injury replacement, and they won 42 games. He averaged 21.1 points per game that year, attempting 18.7 shots per game. Next highest on the team was Spencer Dinwiddie’s 12.2 shots. Russell showed that he could, in the right circumstances, be the first option on a .500ish team. Kinda like Big Al.

From there he went to Golden State for half a season, and they were horrible (finished the year at 15-50). He came to the Wolves, which was hardly any better – he played 12 games of their 19-45 campaign. In ’20-21, Russell helped get Ryan Saunders fired. That team went 23-49 with Russell putting up 19 points and 5.8 assists per game. Last year’s 46-win campaign was a second stars-aligning season for Russell. He averaged 18.1 points and 7.1 assists on that Wolves team. Of his seven seasons in the league before this one, five involved mass losing, two were slightly over .500, and all but maybe his rookie year had D’Lo as a central piece to the action.

This matters because this year’s Timberwolves team desperately needs some role players. They need at least one, but preferably two or even three, starters who are primarily focused on their defensive assignments and on participating in team offense without holding the ball or hijacking the play. We know that will never be Anthony Edwards just as well as we know that will never be Karl-Anthony Towns. Jaden McDaniels has the clear-cut potential to be an elite role player, and yet he isn’t quite ready to be one. He’s a little too ambitious offensively (probably at Finch’s urging, based on the coach’s oft quoted “Scottie Pippen” comparison) and he fouls too much defensively. Rudy Gobert is a multiple-time All-Star whose literal physical presence around the basket kind of necessitates at least a reasonably large role in the offense.

The Wolves are underachieving. They are 7-8 as of this writing, and that sub-.500 record comes against an incredibly soft opening schedule. Their wins have come against the Thunder twice (one without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander active), Spurs, Lakers, Rockets, Cavs without Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen, and then the Magic. They haven’t beaten a good team yet. They’ve lost to the Jazz, Spurs twice (!), Suns twice, and once without Chris Paul, Bucks, Knicks, and Grizzlies. They’re ranked 13th in offense and 18th in defense. As the schedule toughens up over time, those rankings will drop further if things don’t change.

The starting five should theoretically be excellent offensively, but the opposite is true, so far. In 198 minutes, they have an offensive rating of 105.7. That would rank 29th in the league. This is a lineup that has Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert in it.

It also has D’Angelo Russell, and he seems to be a harmful presence. He seems to be unable to adjust to a role-player position. Jordan McLaughlin, on the other hand, is nothing if not a role player. He comes in the game high on energy and low on natural ability. He’s small and he can’t even shoot, but just by pushing the ball, getting rid of it quickly, and trying his hardest, he’s able to fulfill the needs of this team out of its point-guard position. A team that has sufficient firepower on the wing and in the post does not need a point guard stalling the movement or taking contested jumpshots off the dribble. McLaughlin leads the team in net rating by a big margin, at +13.5 points per 100 possessions. When McLaughlin is off the floor, the Wolves are outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions.

This is really less about J-Mac than it is about D’Lo. For a team with Ant, Jaden, and KAT to hum offensively, they need the other guard to just stay the hell out of the way. Bonus points if that guard will give a shit defensively. It is hard to overstate just how little talent the Timberwolves require out of that point guard spot.

When LeBron went to Miami, the Heat started off with a 9-8 record. LeBron and Wade were arguably the two best players in the world at that point in time, but they did not have a natural fit as teammates. Chris Bosh would ultimately become one of the most overqualified “role players” in league history, without which they might not have won any titles. Consider how various iterations of the Team USA Dream Teams, loaded with superstar talent but short on gritty role players, sometimes struggle to beat far inferior international teams that have better chemistry.

In last week’s win at Cleveland, D’Lo had 30 points and 11 assists. He was instrumental to getting that particular win. There was an instant urge felt by many to declare that to be some sort of good news; as if maybe something clicked that will sustain going forward. I guess I felt kind of the opposite; that it bought him another 10 or so starts before Finch eventually, belatedly, pulls the plug. It has not been difficult to observe the failed chemistry of this year’s underachieving team through 15 games, nor has it been difficult to identify the primary source of toxicity. They need a humble point guard with little to no expectations for himself who will put 80 percent of his energy into defense and the other 20 percent into getting the ball up the floor and in someone else’s hands asap. That player is not D’Angelo Russell, and it never will be D’Angelo Russell. Asking D’Lo to transform into a role player would’ve been like asking Big Al to transform into one. What are they gonna do, play defense?

It’s time to move on from Russell.

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The Wolves are Loaded

The Timberwolves are loaded.  

Whatever one thinks or believes about how they came to this point, there is no escaping the basic reality. It’s a sentence that has rarely ever in history been able to be said with a straight face. While 2004 was a great team, it did not have major preseason hype – Cassell and Sprewell were getting older, and it was not clear they’d mesh as amazingly-well as they did. The rest of KG’s teams were either in the “super exciting, but still too young” or “My God, Kevin Garnett needs a supporting cast already” buckets.  

Nobody was really saying “The Timberwolves are loaded” – not that I can recall, anyway.  

When Thibs got Jimmy, there was a ton of excitement and big expectations. I certainly had them. That moment might even rival this one for generating preseason hype, but I think this one deserves a slight edge.

The Rudy Gobert Trade was the major NBA event of this past offseason. It is uncommon for a player as good as Gobert to be traded long before his contract is set to expire. It is uncommon for a team as far from title contention as the Wolves have been to send out a whole bunch of unprotected first round draft picks. 

When the news broke, my reaction was probably a common one amongst Wolves fans: Major shock, followed by a brief fear that we sent away Jaden McDaniels, followed by a brief sigh of relief that we didn’t send away Jaden McDaniels, followed by a near-cardiac event caused by the number of future first round picks listed on Woj’s next tweet, followed by a gradual realization that the major, immediate, and probably lasting improvement to this roster is likely to make the Wolves one of the league’s best teams for the foreseeable future.  

With the trade and with their other offseason moves, the Wolves should be solid at every position and elite at two or three of them.

PG – D’Angelo Russell
SG – Anthony Edwards
SF – Jaden McDaniels
PF – Karl-Anthony Towns
C – Rudy Gobert

The bench will have some position battles ahead. However it shakes out, there should be ample veteran competence at Chris Finch’s disposal, between Kyle Anderson, Austin Rivers, Taurean Prince, Bryn Forbes, and the holdovers Jordan McLaughlin, Jaylen Nowell, and Naz Reid.

The Timberwolves are loaded? 

Yeah, they really are. 

While ending it right there with a handful of LFG!!! gifs would be fine and reasonable, that would be bad blogging. There are plenty of questions to ask — after all, nobody will have the Wolves as their 2022-23 preseason championship favorite. What might go wrong? What might go right that people expect might go wrong? What else can be said?

Here’s a few to chew on:

  • Can “Twin Towers” work in the current NBA?

Great question! For most teams, the answer seems to be “No,” at least if you’re talking about a primary frontcourt duo that will spend a great deal of time together, including the closing minutes of close games. There are two main problems with playing two oversized big men, only one of which might apply to the Towns-Gobert tandem.

First is offense, and the need to have at least 4 shooters on the floor at all times to maximize efficiency. With KAT establishing a reputation as one of the greatest shooting big men to ever play (Eds note: let’s let him advance a single round in the playoffs before we take this too far. Put some respect on Dirk Nowitzki’s name!!!) this should not be a problem. Gobert will operate as a screen and roll man, occupying the lane when they share the floor. Karl — ***IF HE KEEPS HIS HEAD ON STRAIGHT AND RIDS HIMSELF OF STRAY VOLTAGE*** — will space the floor, knock down threes, and be back on defense. Finch would do well to stagger the two bigs a great deal in the middle of games, so that Karl can punish backup big men in the post when Rudy’s taking a rest. I expect that to happen quite a lot. From an offensive side of the floor perspective, there shouldn’t be anything but optimism for the Towns & Gobert Twin Towers.

Second is defense, and that’s a little different. When teams go with two big men, the defensive challenge is in contesting perimeter shots; especially against quick ball movement that requires dedicated close-outs. Now, I don’t know exactly what Karl weighs right now. Depending on the article you read, he might’ve gained 30 lbs of muscle or lost 120 pounds to illness. But he usually looks pretty much the same, and that’s a pretty big dude; an NBA center’s body more than a modern NBA four man’s. He’s spent most of his career playing the five spot, and most of that time doing so in a “drop” scheme that kept him closer to the basket than to the three-point line. When he shares the floor with Gobert, he’ll have that inverted. Closing out after that final kick-out pass is thankless work — it doesn’t get rewarded with a statistic — but do it enough times, and it gets rewarded with winning, and that brings about the reputation that Towns so desires. #WhatGoesIntoWinning

Do I sound a little like Thibs? Maybe I should move onto the next question. Offense should be great. Defense could be great (Did I just bury the lede? We just added the best defensive player in the league. There is that. Maybe the Wolves will be incredible on defense?) but it requires a full Towns buy-in to the little things, especially the ones that don’t show up in the stat sheet. If Karl can defend the stretch-4 position at even a slightly below average level, the addition of Gobert and the surrounding athleticism of Ant and Jaden should have the makings of a very good, if not elite, defensive ball-club.

  • Just exactly how good is Ant going to be?

This is a big question, maybe the biggest question. It’s just not a terribly interesting one to think about because we can really only wait and see. Will he keep improving as a shooter? Will he open up his passing field of vision and become a primary playmaker? Will he — as Zach Lowe just predicted on his podcast will eventually happen — become an NBA All-Defense performer?

The best answer is: We hope so!

ESPN’s Top 100 was just released, and the local buzz involved the Wolves being the only team with three guys in the Top-25. Ant himself came in at 25th, which was the surprise of story — that’s a high rank for someone yet to really sniff an All-Star appearance. But that’s what people are seeing in him. He’s got the physical tools of a Dwyane Wade or a Kobe Bryant. He’s certainly got charisma and swagger and whatever it is that usually gets summarized as that “it” factor. What’s left now is delivery on that promise, and hopefully a long career of high-level success.

  • What about D’Lo?

The Wolves are coming off of a surprisingly competitive season where all reasonable expectations were exceeded and tons of fun was had along the way. They just made a huge offseason trade that figures to launch them farther up the standings in a competitive Western Conference. Positivity is flowing right now, and it should be.

The D’Angelo Russell situation, however, could be cause for concern. Exactly one year ago, at the 2021-22 Timberwolves Media Day, D’Lo was excited to point out that he was entering a “contract year.” This wasn’t self-evident to me or probably most people listening to him that day, because his contract was not expiring; it just happened to include extension eligibility following the season. Based on his remarks, he was pretty clearly hoping to earn a long-term deal.

That didn’t happen, and that didn’t happen right after Chris Finch benched D’Lo in the final minutes of the final playoff game of the season. While there were aspects of Russell’s season that were somewhat good (in particular, in the early part of the year when he was the team’s plus-minus king over an extended stretch and found a helpful role in a blitzing defense spearheaded by Pat Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt) it was more generally a disappointment. Nobody who analyzes the league objectively is especially high on Russell right now. He’s a poor defender, a streaky shooter, and while his highlight passes are some of the best the world has to offer, he just as often dribbles the air out of the ball and disrupts offensive team chemistry.

For this upcoming season, Russell is as big of a wildcard as the team has. The strategic approach that would maximize Timberwolves success would involve snappy passing decisions that get the ball out of his hands and into KAT’s or Ant’s asap. It would involve sacrificing a little bit of his body on defense for the greater good. These are not the sorts of strategies that got D’Lo his last max contract, however, and they are not the sorts of strategies that would get him another big one. Essentially, he’s facing a complicated incentive structure and it’s anyone’s guess how it plays out.

To put a positive spin on D’Lo’s continued presence on the Timberwolves roster – he adds quite a lot of Regular Season Anthony Edwards Insurance. If Ant sprains an ankle or has a flare-up of knee pain and misses two weeks, D’Lo is more than qualified to effectively sub in as the team’s primary initiator. With Russell grabbing the wheel, they can still compete. That is meaningful. But in the broader question of “just how great can this team be?” there are legitimate reasons to wonder if D’Lo will hold them back.

  • What happens with greater expectations?

This question could be interpreted or answered in any number of ways, but it is maybe the biggest one of all. Last season’s team outperformed expectations and great fun was had. Karl saw the his first reputational bump in years, and made All-NBA. Fans fell even more in love with Ant. Chris Finch’s approval rating was one hundred percent.

Expectations will be higher this year. With Gobert and such a deep lineup overall, pundits are already starting to see the Wolves as a clear-cut playoff team and possibly even a Top 4 seed. This is in a healthier Western Conference that should generate a harder schedule, too.

A concern would be that higher expectations will cause more adversity and the most important people will respond poorly to it. That could be Ant and KAT sharing the spotlight, or KAT and Rudy trying to share the frontcourt, or Chris Finch and a player or two getting tired of each other. It would be the exception to the rule if the Timberwolves entered the ranks of the league’s most competitive teams and did NOT face some sort of personality or locker-room conflict, and it’s impossible to foresee how that shakes out. It is almost too certain a thing to bother worrying about it — like feeling anxiety over the possibility of sub-zero temps in Minneapolis this winter.

With that said, however, the whole premise begins with a positive note; the one at the front of this post. The Timberwolves are loaded. Good basketball is better than bad basketball. If more winning causes more tension at times, we file that away as a “good problem to have.” Additionally, with this Wolves team, I look forward to watching them face the best teams in the league this year. Of course in an 82-game season anything can happen on any night — winning one of those games does not necessarily mean much. But fans of the Wolves understand that when they’ve faced the Sixers or Bucks — teams with physically dominant superstars — they were the underdog, and might even get blown out. With Gobert, that should no longer be the case. As basic a concept as it sounds, a fun part of this season will be watching the biggest matchups in hopes of not only winning the game, but appearing as the better team.

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Connelly & the Road Ahead

The big news around the Timberwolves is the recent hiring of Tim Connelly to head up the basketball operations. While the former Nuggets POBO technically supplants Sachin Gupta as Wolves Basketball Boss, it would be truer to say that he’ll succeed Gersson Rosas as the next in a line of Timberwolves franchise leaders. This is major news; certainly the biggest since Rosas himself was unexpectedly fired, and it will undoubtedly determine the course of things for the next several years – for better or worse.

Connelly (Eds note: in the spirit of the Punch-Drunk Glossary it takes all of my restraint to not obnoxiously spell this “Kahnnelly,” and on Twitter you can just expect that I’ll buckle and resort to stupidity often) was apparently wooed by new owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, and — more importantly, I’m sure — a huge financial boost from his Denver situation. Glen opened the checkbook and got it done. When you combine Connelly’s track record of success and reputation around the league with the Timberwolves… well, their entire history, this is a shocking development. Glen is still the majority owner who will primarily fund this venture, and his history strongly leans toward local and parochial. When he has ventured outside of that country club comfort zone, he’s generally been burned. (Eds note: He’s also been burned with the local and parochial.) It is a credit to A-Rod and Lore that they were able to sell their senior partner on investing big in franchise leadership.

Just because it’s good news doesn’t mean I have any idea what happens next. The Wolves just completed a feel-good 46-win season, one year removed from a 23-49 (26-win pace) debacle that had me fairly certain Karl-Anthony Towns was done in Minnesota and a full rebuild was the responsible course. Chris Finch fully settled in and showed everybody that the Timberwolves are well-coached again. KAT got healthy and rededicated, after a difficult couple of years on and especially off the floor. Ant made more strides after a promising rookie campaign. Pat Beverley arrived, played good basketball, and rocked the everliving shit out of the Wolves boat. That was a really fun Wolves team, and — along with 2017-18 and pre-ACL 2011-12 — one of the only on-court enjoyable seasons since the KG days.

With that said, and as I last wrote about on this space, at least some of that uptick in quality might’ve been fool’s gold. The league was unusually injured last season, especially in the Western Conference. Next year, teams that missed the West playoffs figure to bring back megastars mostly or entirely absent from 2021-22. Zion Williamson, Kawhi Leonard, Dame Lillard… The Wolves themselves were relatively healthy. Despite their strong showing against the 2-seed Grizzlies in Round 1, there is a prevailing sense that the team has considerable work ahead of it, to become the legitimate contender that everyone wants to see.

Where does this leave us?

I guess that’s a good first question for Tim Connelly, huh?

A few different thoughts and observations on all of this, in no coherent order:

  • Marc Lore on Reading, Thinking, etc.

I can’t get this little segment of Steve Marsh’s excellent profile of Marc Lore out of my head:

“It’s why I don’t watch any TV and why I don’t read…If it takes me six hours to read a book, do you know how much thinking I can do in six hours?”

What kind of Russ Hanneman shit is this?! Lore doesn’t read because he wants to spend that time…thinking? What does he think happens when one reads? They zone out? Reading is a pretty common vehicle to think about stuff….I think? Okay, to be fair, Loren did elaborate a little bit:

“[S]omebody else’s opinion could give you tunnel vision. They make the argument, and because you don’t know enough about the topic, it’s very logical, but you don’t know there’s a whole other argument.”

This sounds more like The Anxiety of Influence that I touched on a couple of posts ago — the way that encountering someone else’s work can inhibit one’s own creativity. I suppose if Lore was articulating something along these lines it’s less bizarre, but Billionaire Speak can be pretty wild. Read the entire Marsh piece when you have time. Lore seems like a different dude. Most relevant for our purposes, however: he helped get Tim Connelly, and the basic financial reality of that investment suggests he got Connelly so that Connelly can lead his team. That’s unequivocally good.

  • Wolves History & A New POBO’s Incentive

This wouldn’t have to be true, but it feels intuitively correct:

Any new president of basketball operations has an incentive to start from scratch, or at least start from a roster place where there is considerable space to be filled before the team realizes its potential. I’m sure this isn’t an original thought, and I’m definitely sure it’s not the first time I’ve expressed some version of it. A great and/or terrible part of Twitter is that you can search all the old takes. Since it’s increasingly become my medium for vomiting out Wolves thoughts, I did a quick “@PDWolves + ‘new POBO'” search, and sure enough I was on the case in Summer 2019, when Rosas was laying waste to his new roster:

3 Basic reasons for why this is or at least might be true:
  1. Blowing up the roster and starting from scratch allows for the most room to improve. It creates the circumstances for the POBO to personally achieve greatness in the field. Ego.
  2. It allows for the most time to improve. Starting at 20 wins and moving up allows more time to show progress and be considered successful. Job security.
  3. A blank canvass allows the POBO to create his ideal team, rather than the best realistic one under whatever practical limitations exist on the roster. Vision.

The main POBOs in Wolves history have been Kevin McHale, David Kahn, Flip Saunders, Tom Thibodeau, and Gersson Rosas.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the Wolves are the losing-est franchise of the major men’s professional sports, only McHale and arguably Kahn took over when the team was at one of its especially low points. This is relative of course — I’m talking Timberwolves standards.

McHale joined the front office in 1994, and in ’95 became the general manager/front office leader. In the three years leading up to that point, the team had won 19, 20, and then 21 games. They were flatlined at the bottom of the league. He drafted KG and earned himself about 15 years of job security.

Kahn took over for McHale, and while the team was bad – no doubt – it had recently teased some competence before Al Jefferson tore his ACL in early February. They had the league’s best record in January 2009! (#NeverForget) Kahn would’ve been well within his rights to keep the essence of that roster intact, and try to build incrementally with more draft picks to supplement his core that was winning before the best player got hurt. His first major move was ultimately his best roster move ever, however: he flipped Randy Foye and Mike Miller to Washington for the rights to the 6th pick in the draft. From the Wizards perspective, that ultimately shakes out as having traded the chance to draft Steph Curry for a Foye & Miller Poo Poo Platter. For purposes of this discussion, the move signaled Kahn’s (ultimately correct!) assessment that the inherited roster was not going to cut it, and so he took out the bulldozer and got to work. Kahn had a lot of big ideas that might’ve worked splendidly, had he ever chosen the best or even the second or third or fourth best available players with his war chest of lottery picks.

Flip took the wheel from Kahn when the team was in healthier shape. This was May 2013, after the 2012-13 season in which Ricky Rubio gradually returned to form after ACL surgery, but Kevin Love had gone and broken the bones in his hand in some type of accident that he infamously characterized as “knuckle push-ups.” Even without Love or healthy Ricky, the ’12-13 team won 31 games. By Timberwolves standards that deserves a freaking banner. Also, never forget how great of a coach Rick Adelman was. But I digress. Flip was not one for inaction, and his first moves were to add veterans and go all-in on a Kevin Love-led team. This is not “blowing it up,” but when that team failed to deliver as needed (40-42 in 2013-14, before Love’s trade request) he soon took out the same bulldozer as Kahn. Love was gone, so were other healthy veterans, and we were soon watching Zach LaVine’s on-the-job training en route to a 16-66 season and the rights to Karl-Anthony Towns in the 2015 NBA Draft. Job well done, at least in terms of getting the best tanking result possible.

Thibs likewise took over a better-than-usual Wolves situation. With Flip’s roster and Smitch’s coaching, the 2015-16 Wolves won 29 games, nearly double the 16 of the prior season. Progress was visible, hope was in the air, and a new high-profile Basketball Caesar was the last big step before lots of rings would happen. Thibs, for his part, was patient. Many expected immediate “win now” moves. Instead he coached and observed, waiting until the no-brainer Jimmy Butler trade materialized the following summer, at a time when LaVine was rehabbing his own torn ACL. Thibs’s legacy is generally misrepresented by anyone other than me and like 4 of my friends on Twitter, but there is no escaping that — for his own reasons, maybe more peculiar than basic “ego” — he gradually developed a team that was more to his liking and familiarity. The TimberBulls eventually included not only Butler, but Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, and even Luol Deng. This is not the same as “blowing it up,” but it is an example of a POBO’s personal quirks directly shaping what the roster comes to look like.

Rosas inherited a legitimately competitive roster, and one that had ample young talent to continue improving. I’ve lamented the way he blew it apart too many times to rehash in detail here. The arrogance he showed in his early roster demolition portended the drama that unfolded not long after, resulting in his shocking fall from grace and the POBO Chair.

  • What does Connelly do then?

Connelly inherits a slightly better situation than Rosas did. Even if last year’s 46 wins was a little inflated, he’s still got a KAT that he can sign to a long-term extension and an Ant who is STILL NOT EVEN 21 YEARS OLD. (Sorry– caps lock got stuck.) This roster needs work, and the first order of business is navigating the D’Angelo Russell Is Up For a Kahntract Extension that Nobody In Their Right Mind Would Give Him, But You Also Don’t Want Him Checked Out Next Year If He’s Not Extended terrain.

For those of us who have been here for the last 3 seasons, there’s probably some type of rough consensus of wanting to see a bright future with Ant, Jaden, and KAT.

But Connelly hasn’t been here. He’s new, like Kahn was once new, like Flip was new for the second time in 2013, like Thibs was new, and like Rosas was new.

He’s apparently going to be paid a ton of money for a five-year deal. That should hypothetically erase some of the “job security” incentive to start at the bottom. But there’s still the other New POBO psychology to consider, along with the roster questions about how good this team really is, as presently constructed.

On Tuesday, we’re going to meet Tim Connelly for the first time. Take some notes.

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Timberwolves at the All-Star Break: What’s true, what’s interesting, and what’s the difference?

It’s All-Star Weekend, and things are peaceful in Wolves World.

The team has a 31-28 record through 59 games. Through three quarters of the season they’re pacing for a favorable spot in the Play-In Tournament, with a chance at cracking the top six in the West and going straight to the actual playoffs. Compared to last season’s 23-49 campaign with most of the same key players, the progress is undeniable.

Sprinkled on top of the massive uptick in #winning are the spoils that go to the more frequent victors: On Friday night both Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards participated in the Rising Stars Challenge. On Saturday night Karl-Anthony Towns will participate in the Three-Point Contest, before playing in the All-Star Game itself on Sunday evening. Wolves players are being celebrated by the league this weekend. Coach Chris Finch, at this point, seems to be developing a reputation for being good at his job.

Things are good with the Timberwolves.

The truth is good, but interesting is better.”

Christopher Walken referenced that quote without attribution when explaining his acting process, and how he will sometimes have completely random thoughts and inspirations behind his work that nobody could ever know about. “Sometimes I do things just to amuse myself. I’ve played scenes pretending that I was Elvis or Bugs Bunny or a U-boat commander. I just don’t tell anybody.” I suppose he means here that the “truth” is what the character is on the script, and the “interesting” is everything he puts into it that is undefined and even unknowable. It would be possible, but far from necessary for the two things to contradict one another.

Over the past couple of Timberwolves seasons, the truth was as clear as it was interesting, if that’s the right word — if “interesting” in NBA Twitterverse discourse roughly equates with the temperature of a “take.” Put differently, interesting in this space might often refer to the difference between perception and reality.

The truth about the last couple Wolves seasons was that they made terrible decisions, and performed terribly as a result. Right as their franchise player was supposed to be entering his prime, they gutted the roster of veteran supporting talent and nepotistically hired an unqualified coach. In the COVID-shortened seasons of 2019-20 and 2020-21, they compiled a combined record of 42-94. In a savage twist of the knife, amid all of this losing, their new president traded AWAY a mostly-unprotected first round pick; one that immediately turned into the seventh overall selection in a strong draft class. He did this to obtain D’Angelo Russell, whose Wolves tenure prior to this season was defined by missing games for vague injuries, and performing badly on the nights he did suit up.

The truth was not pretty.

What was interesting was that so much of this was tolerated or even sometimes celebrated by the media and the fan base. Everything from Ryan to Rosas to Russell was met with consensus approval, despite most all evidence — some immediately available, some accumulating gradually — that Things Were Bad. One could speculate on the reasons for this disconnect, but first I just need to share Stephen A. Smith’s recent outburst as an example of what big-market media does when its team is falling short of expectations:

Okay, enough about all that. I’ve belabored the points about the last few seasons of post-Thibs mistakes enough times. I probably do it every time I write anything about this team.

Back to the present, because the present is better than the recent past. What’s true and what’s interesting, and do they diverge from each other?

I opened this piece with what’s true. The team is performing well and getting its flowers for doing so. Things are good.

What’s interesting is what could be underneath some of this progress.

The question some are asking themselves, even as we enjoy winning more than half the games, is how much of this is real, versus how much of it might be the product of a fluky season of star-player injuries that seems to bizarrely benefit the Timberwolves in a disproportionate way?

Before I dig into the Wolves-schedule specifics, just to hopefully help highlight that this is a real thing – I’ll paste in the remarks made by NBA gambling guru and recent Dallas Mavericks front office decision-maker, Haralabob Voulgaris, about the good fortune of the Phoenix Suns, for essentially the same reason:

Essentially, Voulgaris says that while the Suns ARE a great team, their amazing record (48-10) should be discounted a bit by the fact that they have not had key players miss too many games. If you take a closer look, however, it isn’t as if the Suns have been immune to key-guy injuries. Yes, Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges are a perfect 58 for 58, but Devin Booker has missed 7 games, and Jae Crowder’s missed 10 games, and Deandre Ayton has missed 21. In the 2021-22 Western Conference, this constitutes a noteworthily clean sheet of health.

Why is this so?

Let’s just run down the list of teams that have been good or even great, but this year have been decimated by injuries:

The Clippers have been without Kawhi Leonard all season. Paul George has played just 26 games.
The Nuggets have been without Jamal Murray all season. Michael Porter Jr. has played just 9 games.
The Blazers have been without Dame Lillard for all of calendar year 2022, and have traded away CJ McCollum in what seems like the first big step toward an inevitable rebuild.
The Lakers, to the extent they might’ve been pretty good despite the front-office mistakes, haven’t been helped by missing LeBron James for 17 contests or Anthony Davis for 21 (and counting).
Zion Williamson hasn’t played a minute for the Pelicans. His co-star Brandon Ingram has missed 14 games himself.
The Warriors 42-17 record is all the more impressive when you consider that Draymond has missed 25 games. He remains out with a back injury that will heavily factor into this year’s title race if it doesn’t heal up.

We’re talking about the best players in the world here. Kawhi, PG13, Dame, Davis, Zion, Draymond. The conference as a whole has been watered down by so many of these superstar players missing so much of the season. The teams with relatively decent health have obviously propped up a bit as a result.

For their part, the Wolves have lost key players to some games – especially during the Omicron COVID-19 surge – but their numbers look more like the Suns’ than their other Western Conference playoff team counterparts. KAT’s played 52 (out of 59) games. Ant’s played 53. D’Lo’s played 45. Patrick Beverley’s 18 missed games, for a variety of minor injuries, is their biggest injury excuse, to date.

And it’s not only that the conference has been generally watered down by star-player injuries. It’s also that the Wolves on a night-to-night basis have had an almost unbelievable pattern of facing teams missing at least one key player. I’ll just take the recent schedule in reverse order, as the pattern has been unmistakable. Absent opposing player’s listed next to the game.

02/16/22 vs Raptors — Fred VanVleet, 2022 All-Star who’s played in 50 other games this season.
02/15/22 vs Hornets – Gordon Hayward, by far the Hornets highest paid player
02/13/22 vs Pacers – Myles Turner & Malcolm Brogdon, their top guys
02/11/22 vs Bulls – Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams — relatively bad example of this trend, but 3 key role players
02/09/22 vs Kings – no key absences
02/08/22 vs Kings – (immediately after big trade with Pacers) Domantas Sabonis, 2020 & 2021 All-Star
02/06/22 vs Pistons – Cade Cunningham, #1 Overall Draft Pick (Pistons are terrible, but have beaten the Celtics and Cavs recently, on nights Cade actually played.)
02/03/22 vs Pistons – Cade Cunningham
02/01/22 vs Nuggets – Jamal Murray & Michael Porter Jr.
01/30/22 vs Jazz – Donovan Mitchell & Rudy Gobert – the foundation of a title contender
01/28/22 vs Suns – Deandre Ayton & Jae Crowder
01/27/22 vs Warriors – Draymond Green
01/25/22 vs Blazers – Dame Lillard
01/23/22 vs Nets – Kevin Durant
01/19/22 vs Hawks – Clint Capela (*Onyeka Okongwu filled in admirably and this is a bad example of the trend)
01/18/22 vs Knicks – Derrick Rose, without whom the Knicks seem unable to function
01/16/22 vs Warriors – Steph Curry & Draymond Green (1 of just 5 games Curry has missed this year)
01/13/22 vs Grizzlies – Jarrett Culver (hehe – Grizzlies were at full-strength)
01/11/22 vs Pelicans – Zion Williamson
01/09/22 vs Rockets – Rockets don’t have any good players to be missing in the first place

Anyway, that’s the last 20 games. The Wolves went 12-8 over that stretch. I’m not able to put any analytics on this, but it sure seems like the Wolves have had a soft schedule. You can go back earlier in the season and find other examples. A back-to-back set with the Mavs that featured a Luka Doncic absence comes to mind. Out of three Lakers matchups, LeBron’s missed 1 game and Davis has missed 1.5. (He suffered one of his injuries in the middle of a Wolves game.) The fun early-season game at Milwaukee did not include Jrue Holiday. They’ve of course never had to face Kawhi, Jamal Murray, or Zion. They’ve had one Philly matchup, and like everyone else’s, it didn’t include Ben Simmons.

Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

All of this exhaustive recapping of opponent-injury health is to say that it’s possible the Wolves are winning at a rate they might not be able to sustain if and when health around the league returns to something closer to “normal.” Yes there are always injuries, and yes the Wolves have played without key guys for some games too, but this isn’t normal.

If your broad brush belief about the franchise is that winning something like 43 games (traditionally a record on the fringe of the playoffs) is a huge difference from winning something like 37 games (outside looking in, unless the conference sucks) then this pattern is definitely relevant, and also pretty interesting in how it does or does not impact the path forward.

Big picture, in the less peaceful moments, we think about timelines — KAT and D’Lo’s, versus Ant and Jaden’s — and whether this team as constructed is kind of “it,” or whether some form of a rebuild is on the way. Sachin Gupta, in his first move of significance since succeeding Gersson Rosas, signed Pat Bev to a one-year extension. Much bigger and potentially-expensive and stone-setting decisions will need to be made this summer with Towns and Russell. Both are extension eligible. (Obviously the Russell decision is more controversial on the Wolves’ end than the KAT one, which has more to do with his satisfaction level and plans.)

Sources of future progress remain, no doubt. Again, two Rising Stars participants. They own their future first rounders, thanks to trade-deadline restraint shown by Gupta. Finch seems to know what he’s doing. This team absolutely could get better, and it could get better progressively to the level everyone wants to see.

But this opponent injury thing is crazy. I think it’s kind of interesting. And if it really is boosting up the Wolves record in a way that proves unsustainable, there might be a few members of Wolves Nation crying out next year like Stephen A Smith, aghast as to why things are moving the wrong direction instead of the right one.

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Towns, Edwards, Wolves History, and the Season Ahead

If you Google search “Christian Laettner + Kevin Garnett + Flip Saunders,” a top entry should be a Chicago Tribune story from February 20, 1996. The headline is, “Laettner Aims Tirade at Garnett,” and the text reads as follows:

It was no surprise that Christian Laettner complained after another embarrassing loss by the Minnesota Timberwolves. What was surprising was that popular rookie Kevin Garnett was among Laettner’s targets.

“You’ve got to have the rookies and young kids shut up, and you’ve got to have the coaches and the veterans take care of the team,” Laettner said after Sunday’s loss to Washington. “We’ve got some big britches on this team. We’ve got a lot of people who know everything.”

Garnett, who has moved into the starting lineup one year after playing at Chicago’s Farragut High School, had left the locker room and was unavailable for comment. Coach Flip Saunders acknowledged some of his players might be jealous of Garnett, who has become a fan favorite at Target Center.

“The sad thing is they can say whatever they want, but that kid knows how to play basketball and he’s better than anyone in that locker room,” Saunders said.

BIG BRITCHES!

Stay on Google and this time search “Timberwolves trade laettner” and “nbatrades.tumblr.com” has a long news story (“Atlanta Hawks Acquire Christian Laettner” that is dated February 22, 1996 — just two days after the Tribune’s about the post-game blow-up. The whole thing is worth reading, as it outlines much of the early-Wolves forward’s issues. But in the pertinent part, it addressed the timing of the trade:

The Wolves started off 2-12 in the Saunders era. The team was still struggling to figure out roles among a large group of young players. The team was 15-36 when they decided to deal Laettner to the Atlanta Hawks. Recently, Laettner had alienated his teammates when he offered veiled criticism towards the organization and Garnett during the season. After a February 18, 1996 loss to the Washington Bullets, Laettner gave his view–in the Chicago Tribuneon how to best manage the Wolves roster:

“You’ve got to have the rookies and young kids shut up, and you’ve got to have the coaches and the veterans take care of the team. We’ve got some big britches on this team. We’ve got a lot of people who know everything.”

While not saying Garnett’s name specifically, it was clear to everyone that the tirade was lobbed in the direction of Minnesota’s prized rookie. The next day, the Timberwolves held a players only meeting where Laettner’s public comments were addressed. Laettner didn’t speak or address his comments during the meeting and that angered his teammates.

Garnett was untouchable, and had seen his playing time gradually increased to the point that he was moved to the starting lineup in January. With Gugliotta, Laettner and Garnett all starting, it was obvious that all three were not meant to play together permanently. 

While Laettner’s comments didn’t directly lead to the trade according to the Timberwolves brass, there’s no doubt that the situation had an influence on the trade. Before he was traded, Laettner had appeared in 44 games and posted 18.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.9 SPG and 1.0 BPG in 34.5 MPG.

Some time ago, I was perusing the NYT’s book review section when I learned of a deceased literary critic named Harold Bloom. Some readers might be familiar with him, but I was not. Bloom developed a concept applicable to writing called “the anxiety of influence.” The Times briefly summarized it as “the way poetic genius has been both nurtured and threatened by the genius that preceded it.” Wiki sums it up as: “poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintain with precursor poets.”

Well, I’m not a poet and NBA basketball isn’t poetry or even literature. Nevertheless, reading about The Anxiety of Influence brought to mind a couple of thing that I find affect my own writing about the Wolves:

First is that it’s a million times harder to write if I’ve already read everybody else’s stuff, and you don’t have much else to add. Major aims are to be both authentic and original. If before you put the virtual pen on paper you already know how you’re failing in originality, it becomes that much more difficult to stay true to your feelings and beliefs.

Like most others seem to, I think the Wolves will win between 35 and 40 games this year. That’s a little above their Vegas over-under, which probably takes into consideration the “will KAT get traded midseason?” variable, along with the franchise’s almost-always-disappointing history. Like most others, I think the starting lineup has 3, maybe 4 locks: D’Lo, Ant, KAT, and probably Jaden. As has been the case since Rosas donated Dario to Phoenix, they don’t have a starting caliber 4 man, and Chris Finch will need to figure that one out. Like most others, I think the team will score points more easily than it will stop opponents from scoring points. Defense will be a challenge. Like most others, I loved the Patrick Beverley pick-up, but otherwise found the offseason uneventful and a little disappointing. At the outset of this season, I don’t have any scorching hot takes or insights that feel particularly unique. Barring a significant injury or a Ben Simmons trade, it feels like most people are on the same page right now when it comes to assessing the current state of the team.

The second dose of influence anxiety stems from the ways in which past Wolves experiences forever shape our perspective of what’s happening in the moment. Before each was fired, Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders were continuously compared to their predecessor, Tom Thibodeau. Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Love have each been compared to Kevin Garnett. It’ll be Anthony Edwards’s turn next. In his wonderful story about Ant for The Athletic, Jon Krawczynski dabbled in exactly that comp, specifically as it pertained to their mental approach and drive to improve as winning players. The past shapes the present, and for the Timberwolves franchise, that can lead us to some interesting places. That brings me back to the Laettner clips, the history of high-profile Timberwolves duos, and what I expect to steer the direction of the team’s future.

What happens with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards as teammates?

There are two main angles to this: the basketball one, and the personalities one. For a future to realistically include both Ant and KAT, two things must happen: They’ve gotta win now, and it has to be in a way that satisfies Towns’s ego.

On winning:

A 38-44 season won’t be good enough. That’ll mean another absence from the playoffs — 6 out of 7 for KAT, and 4 in a row since Jimmy left. It might also mean another All-Star snub, which would be 3 in a row. What’s the magic number for “good enough?” I’m not sure. 45 wins seems like a threshold.

I wrote last year about trading Towns and I wrote recently about Rosas’s primary failure as Wolves POBO: he thought he could blow up the roster he inherited without losing the star player in the #process. When a player of KAT’s stature starts a downward reputational slide as he’s ostensibly entering his prime, the odds of a break-up inch closer and closer to [100 emoji] percent. At this point this seems less controversial than when I first wrote about it: If they don’t win now, it’s over with Towns. When asked about KAT’s potential unhappiness with more losing in his interview with Britt Robson, Finch himself answered, “And if that is the case, then you have talent [to trade with] and you can pivot.”

For any chance of an Ant & KAT Era of Wolves basketball having any lasting memories, they gotta win and they gotta win now. If not, there will be trades and this concept will never get off the ground.

On ego:

A “cross this bridge when we come to it” issue, no doubt. But whatever, let’s humor ourselves. Let’s say the Wolves are the pleasant surprise of this year’s NBA. The stars align, the offense is top notch, the defense is amazingly average, they win 50 games or even 46.

What exactly does that look like? (Leave Ben Simmons out of this – no cheating.)

History says it would involve KAT spending less energy on scoring and more energy on defense. That’s at least what happened in 2017-18 when Thibs and Jimmy took over, the team won way more than it lost, and KAT made his only All-NBA appearance.

Towns is an offensive-minded and offensively-gifted player who plays the position that’s least important on offense and most important on defense. When they moved on from Thibs, Towns relished the opportunity to explain how much better things were going to be, shackled no longer on offense.

“I think I’ve been held back to 40 percent of my talent…It’s going to be fun to be able to tap into a little more with Ryan Saunders at the helm. I’m going to have a lot of fun being able to play more freely and be able to do things I’ve been doing my whole life that I’ve been held back from doing in the NBA so far.”

That quote aged about as well as “Bahamas was not a joke.” While he did up his scoring under Saunders, it was in a pretty pathetic state of affairs, going 19-45 and 23-49 in the two seasons that followed the “40 percent” line.

Here’s the possible dilemma in all of this. If the Wolves are going to win this season, it will be due to a big leap made by Ant into superstardom, and that is going to involve him running the show on offense and racking up numbers. With Ant carrying the offense, KAT will have more energy available on defense. He will probably spend more time at the top of the key as a floor spacer, which will help him be the first one back in transition. He’ll embrace the central duty of a winning NBA center, protecting the basket and quarterbacking the defense.

Of course in this hopeful hypothetical, Towns would receive all sorts of accolades and praise. If the Wolves win 50 games and he averages a mere 21 or 22 points per game, KAT would be both All-Star and All-NBA, as he was in ’17-18. The comparisons to Jokic and Embiid would begin anew. He’d get that validation.

The history with Thibs and Jimmy, and the available evidence before and after it, just cast a lot of doubt on the idea that Towns knows any of this to be true. His idea of accountability has always been to score the most points and then tell the press that all the blame falls on his shoulders, when nobody (very much including KAT) believes that to be true. At Media Day this year, he more or less bragged about how humble of a leader he is, without any apparent recognition of the irony there. What might one of his role-player teammates of these losing seasons — a Josh Okogie, perhaps — think when listening to the star player explain how he defers all the credit to everybody else and takes all the blame. Yikes.

The personality contrast with Edwards is stark. Both will frequently say silly things, but only one of them is doing it on purpose for its intended effect. If the Wolves win more games and Edwards is doing more and more of the stuff that KAT would like to be doing — scoring — is that a scenario that feels realistic or sustainable, knowing what we know about the personalities involved? Towns has been fawned over by Wolves fans and leadership more than any player since KG. Is he prepared to take a backseat?

I don’t know. I just know that hope is a prerequisite to enjoying this experience, so we should allow ourselves to wonder what winning might look like. I don’t envision anything here that resembles the Laettner Locker Room, but there are reasonable questions to ask about how these unique personalities will or will not mesh.

On Wednesday night against the Rockers, we’ll begin to get our answers.

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Recapping Rosas

The news that Gersson Rosas was fired came as a complete shock. No matter what anyone says, there was ZERO indication that the Wolves might can their POBO with less than a week to go before training camp. Sure, some assistant coaches were leaving at questionable times, and there were some rumblings about tension within the front office. But the Numero Uno Timberwolves Plotline of the last several weeks has been Ben Simmons, and whether Gersson Rosas will be able to pry him away from his old boss Daryl Morey, as the Philly situations further deteriorates.

Nothing about Rosas losing his job before the trade could happen.

By now, Wolves fans understand the two basic parts of the story: the background front office tension stuff, and the inappropriate office relationship stuff. Jon Krawczynski, as always, delivered the full story Wednesday night for The Athletic.

Hired two years ago to replace Tom Thibodeau as the Timberwolves president of basketball operations, Rosas’s authority over the franchise has has always seemed near-complete. (Eds note: Well, with the exception of the initial head-coaching hiring, which I maintain was Glen Taylor’s work.) Whether it was hiring front office and assistant coaching staff, making trades, taking Taylor’s payroll over the luxury tax in a losing season, acquiring D’Angelo Russell at substantial draft-pick cost, firing and hiring the head coach on the same midseason evening, or going full-steam into the public Ben Simmons trade rumors, Rosas was always the man in charge. There was no evidence in the public domain that would prepare us for even the remote possibility that he’d be canned, less than a week before the break of training camp.

But, these are the Timberwolves, and surprise is the norm. Whatever is supposed to happen, the other thing is usually the safer bet. Rosas is now gone, and we all wonder what’s next. But this event itself requires some proper digestion before moving onto that.

For what should Gersson Rosas, Timberwolves POBO, be remembered?

Let’s begin most recently and most generously. The positive side of the Rosas Legacy Ledger includes the 2020 Draft, when he acquired Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, each of whom outperformed expectations in their rookie campaigns. He also drafted Leandro Bolmaro, who arrives this season with some buzz. These young players form the reasonable basis for hope of a brighter future — even if it still might take a while. Rosas deserves credit for getting them.

He also hired Chris Finch, and so far/so good on that one. Low threshold as it was, Finch outperformed his predecessor after grabbing the reigns midseason without any familiarity with the Timberwolves or their players. Finch’s no-bullshit personality is refreshing, and seems in step with Ant’s. Rosas entered a uniquely Timberwolvesian dilemma with the Ryan Saunders baggage. Was it possible for him to get hired without keeping Ryan on as coach? Maybe, maybe not — my best guess is that had he signaled to Glen Taylor in interviews that he would hire a different coach, his chances of getting the POBO job would’ve gone down, even if not totally eliminated. It took him a season and a half to wrangle out of the mess, but he was able to eventually hire someone who seems qualified and ready to succeed as an NBA head coach. Kudos for that.

The negatives outweigh the positives, however, and it isn’t particularly close at this point.

Least tangible, and therefore most susceptible to argument over its actual importance, is the culture that was molded in Rosas’s image. Even if the Summer 2019 Anti Thibs Campaign was your cup of tea, it should not have taken long to sense that something wasn’t quite right about the new POBO and the words that would come out of his mouth.

He lost his benefit of the doubt with me when he so adamantly endorsed Saunders as the absolute best candidate for the job. Like: there were ways to massage that question where we know what you can and cannot say — how about, “You know, Ryan and I have a relationship and I have great respect for his coaching mind, and I really thought his familiarity with this group was an asset that outweighed the potential benefits of hiring someone from the outside.”

No no. With Rosas, everything was big and bold, laid on thick. Ryan was the BEST candidate for the job. Whether it was Juwan Howard or David Vanterpool or even if Gregg Popovich signaled a desire to move north to end his career, none had stronger credentials than Ryan. Either Rosas was being honest and stupid, or straight-up lying to us. Which is worse? For me, it didn’t really matter, I guess, even if I think I know the answer.

It went on from there. There was the incessant preaching of the Timberwolves being a “family,” while almost every player was out there dangling on the trade block. It took Rosas half a season to rid himself of 90% of the original “Bahamas” crew. A pro-sports executive being transactional in nature is fine, but maybe just cut the bullshit already. And why was he socializing with these guys to begin with? That part always seemed a little off to me, but maybe I misunderstand the business.

No two personalities are the same, and not everyone must speak with the blunt-force candidness of a Charles Barkley. The late Flip Saunders, in my experience around him for one season, was a good example of someone whose words may not always have been true if taken literally, but his tone conveyed what he meant, often in a friendly or even entertaining way. With Rosas, if you were paying attention (note: not blinded by Anti Thibs Euphoria), you soon detected things were a bit shadier. And for an organization professing such obsession with top-to-bottom culture, such disingenuous vibes raining from the top could not have been a good thing.

A final thing that always bugged me about the Rosas Culture: the team’s constant, public celebration of all the hard work it was supposedly doing. The videos of offseason workouts or drills in practice, the photos of Rosas on the damn telephone during the draft in which he didn’t actually own any picks. (FFS.) Let somebody else describe that background stuff for you (like Thibs does!) — it’s more convincing, especially when the game results actually validate the preparation.

Okay, now more tangibly. A lot of the basketball stuff was bad, too.

I’ll start with a caveat to this, of sorts. Actually, I’ll just paste in some more tweets on the subject — my Twitter-to-Blogging ratio has been way off for a while now, so bear with me while I recycle my own takes:

Rosas did enter a somewhat unique situation here. Low morale and a deep desire for change were not neatly aligned with the roster situation. His team had legitimate talent, some of it still young and improving. He also possessed all of his future first round picks, which is the main “flexibility” currency that exists in the league today. But, to be fair to Rosas, a couple of things were also apparent: (1) without Jimmy Butler, the team no longer had a championship upside, as presently constructed; and (2) they were carrying some large Kahntracts. And, I suppose, (3) It is natural and understandable for a new POBO to want to build the team in his or her own image.

This is to say that Rosas was not handed a blank canvass with unlimited possibilities.

But the job is to work with what you’ve got — within reality — not with what you wish you had.

Rosas’s primary asset was Karl-Anthony Towns, set to begin his 5th NBA season. Towns was one of the more heralded young players in recent league history, a player whose reputational arc and self-consciousness needed to factor into the team’s decision-making. Towns had been unanimous rookie of the year, the two-time “player most GMs would choose first to build around,” and all that. By his third season he was All-NBA and in the playoffs. And Rosas was taking over after KAT’s first real adversity, faced with the question of whether and to what extent he could retool the roster while keeping the ship sailing on the Towns Timeline.

I think it’s clear by now that… well, let’s just paste in more tweets on the subject:

Instead of tinkering with this or that, Rosas moved Karl Towns into a fallout shelter before dropping a nuclear bomb on Tom Thibodeau’s roster. Dario Saric: Donated to Phoenix for the exciting opportunity to draft Jarrett Culver with the 6th pick, rather than somebody like Tyler Herro or Cameron Johnson with the 11th. Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose? Bye, go play for Thibs again instead. RoCo, I don’t care how close you’ve become to Towns or that you play defense — you’re outta here. Tyus Jones, everybody likes you, but you cost too much. Go help the Grizzlies win, we’re not trying to do that here.

In place of these Serious NBA Players were guys who either weren’t drafted, or maybe shouldn’t have been drafted.

Whether by design or negligence, the Rosas roster moves amounted to a “half measure.” I’ll allow Mike Ehrmantraut to explain what can happen with half measures.

Inheriting a 5th year Karl Towns with a declining-for-the-first-time-ever reputation, he really had 1 of 2 options: (1) make the team better; or (2) start from scratch. Instead, by going the half measure and wanting to have his cake and eat it too, he proceeded to waste precious entire seasons (plural) from his best player’s prime.

And I haven’t even gotten to the D’Lo trade yet!

Another half measure of epic proportions.

Rosas paid a large premium to swap Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell: a barely-protected first round pick in the much-anticipated 2021 NBA Draft. Clearly, a move such as this one would signal that he and the organization were now prepared to move forward on some serious #winning. They’d probably acquire a few additional veteran role players to round out a rotation that could credibly vie for a playoff berth. At minimum, they’d add a real power forward, one would think. After all, nobody sends out first round picks while they’re tanking…

Right?

Well, it turns out Gersson Rosas does, and the cost has been immense. Last year’s team won 23 and lost 49, surrendered the 7th overall pick, Jonathan Kuminga, to our good friends in Golden State, and even now is projected by Las Vegas to win something like 33 games. The chatter about a KAT trade on the horizon is picking up predictable steam. If they don’t somehow acquire Ben Simmons, a full rebuild, with And & Jaden, and without Towns & Russell, seems all but inevitable. That could be okay, in time, but if the intentional roster moves were going to steer it this way, there should never have been the needless waste of KAT’s multiple prime seasons, and especially not a precious lottery pick in the middle of all the carnage.

It’s easy to slide into hyperbole when discussing how bad a Wolves president was. Many did it with Thibs. I’m not trying to do it here with Rosas. But he inherited a team whose best player was young and under long-term contract, and he leaves it in worse shape than he found it, by preseason over/under standards. Rosas wanted to make a splash with D’Angelo Russell, but he never gave his new “core” a chance at realistic success. He also just plain overrated D’Lo. His best moves, ironically enough, were his most recent, and we’ll never know how he would’ve navigated the parallel terrains of KAT’s uncertain future in Minneapolis and Ben Simmons’s in Philly. My best prediction was what it still is: that we’re headed toward a full rebuild around Ant and whomever else. Hopefully we’ll at least have a clearer sense of what the plan is.

No more half measures.

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Notes on a Media Day

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The Wolves hosted Media Day on Monday, marking the beginning of the 2019-20 season.  Aside from the visual experience of seeing each player — many new faces among them — the main event is the line of press conferences.  They began with a joint conference from #RosasAndRyan, and then ticked off every one of the guys on the preseason roster.

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NOTICE OF BLOG CHANGE

In case you missed it, we are now writing for A Wolf Among Wolves. (awolfamongwolves.com).

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Tyus Jones: The 1 & Done Who Wasn’t?

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A few years ago, I heard about a conversation that Rick Pitino had about local prep star, Tyus Jones. I was one layer of hearsay removed from it, and it’s been a few years, but here is the general gist of what Pitino apparently said about the Apple Valley prospect:

“Tyus Jones is not a ‘one-and-done.’ He thinks he’s a one-and-done, but he is not a one-and-done.”

It wasn’t an earth-shattering assessment of Tyus, if you had seen what he looked like — scrawny and maybe not even six-feet tall — but I found the phrasing sort of interesting, especially from somebody in Pitino’s position. Pitino probably recruited Jones to play for him at Louisville, and in that process he came away thinking that the kid was more confident about his pro prospects than he should have been. (Also, Pitino’s son Richard had recently taken over the University of Minnesota coaching job, and he was definitely trying to recruit Jones. I’m sure father and son compared notes.) Despite his high hopes for himself, thought Pitino, Jones was not going to be ready for the NBA within nine months of stepping foot on whatever campus he chose. (Duke, as it turned out.)

A few years later, was Pitino right or wrong?

I mean, Tyus was, literally, a one-and-done. He went to Duke, won a national championship (and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors) and was selected by Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft.

In that respect, Pitino was wrong.

But last year as an NBA rookie, in terms of Tyus’s actual production and overall readiness as an NBA player, Pitino’s assessment was probably validated too. Tyus was overwhelmed in many of his rookie-year stints on the floor. Sam Mitchell remained loyal to the unexpectedly-fallen Flip Saunders and committed to development over “win now” strategies. He played youngsters like Jones the minutes they needed to learn on the job. But in Tyus’s case more than anyone else’s, there was question of whether those minutes were constructive or discouraging.

Jones shot a miserable 35.9 percent from the field. Worse than his shooting percentage was the drop-off in Timberwolves quality of play when Jones manned the point instead of Ricky Rubio. With Rubio at the helm they actually outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions, With Tyus, they were outscored by a whopping 10.0 per 100. That is like dropping from a 7 or 8 seed level of play down to the worst team in the entire league.

But watching Jones, three things stood out that gave some hope that his future might still be bright, even if it would require patience.

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KAT the 5, or KAT the Eventual 5?

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Free agency begins tomorrow, and the Timberwolves will be looking to add a big man. While NBA positions are less rigid than they used to be, I think there’s a reasonable chance that the Wolves will try to acquire a “true center.” I have two basic reasons for expecting this:

  1. I believe Tom Thibodeau wants to start winning right away; not in a year or three.
  2. Last season, the Wolves were absolutely destroyed on the interior whenever the 7’1″ Kevin Garnett was unable to play. Which was most of the time.

Karl-Anthony Towns has a big future ahead of him (Captain Obvious) and most of that future will probably involve him playing the center position. The sorts of matchup nightmares that he will present at that position are probably the biggest reason Thibodeau took this job in the first place.

But last year, he was not able to defend very well as a five, and — again, if they are trying to win right away — the Wolves will probably sign a full-sized big man to at least insure themselves against certain types of matchups when KAT would be better off at the four spot.

In case you forgot one of the primary negative themes of last season, I’ll run a few quick numbers by you:

  • 107.1. This was the Wolves defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). It ranked fourth worst in the league.
  • 108.8. This was their D-rating without Garnett. This was just a hair better than the Lakers, who were the league’s worst defensive club.
  • 96.4. Their D-rating WITH Garnett playing. Instead of playing league-worst level defense, with a talented seven footer out there, the Wolves defended slightly better than the historically-great San Antonio Spurs.

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The Rubio Referendum

This was me, a week ago, after reading some mocks and predictions that had the Wolves selecting either a point guard (Kris Dunn) or a shooting guard (Jamal Murray) with the fifth pick in the draft:

Right around the time that the Wolves selection of Dunn was announced on Thursday night, Woj crystallized my earlier sentiment with this:

These intertwined pieces of important Timberwolves information hit us like a 1-2 punch; leaving Timberwolves Nation collectively… well, perhaps a little bit “punch drunk,” in the 48 hours that followed. On Twitter, I think I pretty much observed the gamut of “takes.”

“This doesn’t necessarily mean Rubio is gone. Maybe they can play together.”

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The Punch Drunk Running Draft Diary

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Bowties were the look, last night. H/t Stephanie, Patrick J’s wife, for this collage.

[We decided to do a running diary of last night’s draft. This started about a half hour before the draft began, and it ended around the time Orlando drafted Sabonis at 11 and quickly traded him to OKC. At that point, it still seemed like a Kris Dunn/Jimmy Butler trade was imminent. Over the weekend, we’ll digest all that emerged from last night — most significantly, the reports that Ricky Rubio’s days in Minnesota might be numbered. For now, enjoy the live reactions to the draft, outlined below. -AG]

Andy G: We’re both watching this draft on our respective couches, fully equipped in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh with Twitter, ESPN, and cold beverages. Let’s do a live diary from now (apprx 6:25 CST, 35 minutes until draft time) until after the Wolves pick at 5. (Or until they trade, or whatever they do.)

Wolves Twitter is an uneasy place right now. Woj is at the wheel, telling us that we’re taking Buddy Hield if Kris Dunn is off the board. He’s also saying that Rubio’s name is coming up in trade talks. Ian Begley from ESPN says that the Wolves dangled LaVine and the 5 for Jimmy Butler.

Are we going to recognize the Timbewolves roster beyond Wig & KAT tomorrow?

Patrick J: I hope so. It took this long to get to where we are, which isn’t so bad.

Andy G: Booing Adam Silver just seems wrong.

Patrick J: Booing Adam Silver should be a crime of some sort. #CasualObservation

Andy G: They’re showing ‘96 Draft footage. That was the most excited I’ve ever been about the Wolves. Turns out maybe keeping Shuttlesworth would’ve been the right play. Kevin McHale and 8th Grade Me had no way of knowing.

Patrick J: I wanted Marbury then too. Still probably would, against my better judgment. Will we be thinking the same about Ben Simmons (for the 76ers) or for whoever the Twolves pick at #5 tonight? (Eds. Note: Patrick J is weaving between his keyboard, saag paneer takeout, and beer. Even the most ambidextrous might have trouble with that combo.)

Andy G: BEN SIMMONS! I think I’ve been over-thinking the Ben Simmons question marks. He’s a pretty awesome talent.

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Go Big or Go Home: Thoughts on this Timberwolves Draft Pick

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Buddy Hield & Dragan Bender

I’m sitting here watching Jalen Rose and Jay Williams on TV, discussing who the Timberwolves should draft tomorrow night with the fifth overall selection. Their mock of course has Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram off the board before the Wolves pick. They also have Providence’s Kris Dunn — a player the Timberwolves have reportedly shown interested in — taken before five. And they have Washington’s Marquese Chriss going fourth to the Suns, one spot ahead of the Wolves.

Rose: At number five–

Williams: –Minnesota, a team of slashers, what are you gonna do?

Rose: You need a spot-up shooter. You have Wiggins, you have LaVine, you have Karl-Anthony Towns inside, you have Rubio at the point. That’s my spot up shooter. [Rose points at the screen, where he’s got Jamal Murray going to the Wolves.]

Williams: Really? See, when I think about Minnesota, I think about THE BEST spot-up shooter in the draft. I’d replace him with Buddy Hield. I think you already have enough guys who can handle the ball with LaVine and Rubio and that whole cast of characters, and Wiggins. I think Buddy Hield is a really good fit on that team.

Rose: When Coach Cal is on the phone with his good friend TOM THIBODEAU, he’s bringing out lottery picks every year, and what Coach Cal wants he normally gets!

Chad Ford, ESPN’s draft expert and prognosticator, also has Jamal Murray going to the Wolves at five. In his Mock Draft 9.2 (Insider) he writes that, “Murray’s shooting and ability to play both the 1 and the 2 give them a versatile, go-to scorer to put alongside Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine.”

In other words, Ford views a Murray selection as the Wolves drafting a “third guard,” which is either a bench player or the starting two, depending on how LaVine’s career shakes out.

A couple days ago, Ford and Jay Bilas co-authored a mock draft piece where Ford predicted who each team would select, while Bilas analyzed who they SHOULD take. In that piece, Ford predicted Murray to the Wolves, while Bilas thought they should take Hield.

…….

To me, this is a little bit alarming, and I hope Thibodeau & Layden (that sounds like a personal injury law firm) are thinking much differently than ESPN’s finest seem to be.

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On enjoying Thunder-Warriors

The highest praise that I can think of for this Thunder-Warriors matchup — and I guess I’m thinking about tonight’s Game 6 more than anything — is that I cannot even decide how to best experience it.

Whether to invest emotions into the outcome is a starting point. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been cheering for OKC in these playoffs. I loved seeing them take down the Spurs, and I have enjoyed even more how they’ve been upsetting these incredible, 73-win, defending-champion Warriors. I could make up a rationale about wanting to see Durant validated with a ring, or something about Westbrook being the best live entertainer in the league (which is true), but I think the truth is that I just tend to cheer for the best team that hasn’t won it yet.

Sports fandom at this level has an inherent ridiculousness to it, and it only gets dumber when people try to rationalize their feelings. But one problem with caring too much about whether the Thunder win, or the Warriors win — setting aside the risk of being upset if things don’t go your way — is that by doing so you forfeit the simple experience of witnessing history play out with clear eyes.

That might mean focusing too much on officiating, or whether a certain elbow or kick is worthy of a Flagrant 1 or 2. It might mean chalking up Steph Curry’s on and off struggles to injury, or perceived uncalled fouls instead of thinking about, and observing how this is the first time he’s been seriously tested since becoming the world’s top player. It might mean, depending on how things shake out, missing the moment when Durant takes that title back away from him.

There is so much going on in this series to fascinate hoops junkies:

  • Splash Brothers
  • Thunder’s switching defense, which might be Curry’s Kryptonite
  • Small ball vs Offensive rebounding
  • Draymond Green teetering on the line between intense and insane
  • Westbrook also teetering on the line between intense and insane
  • Durant being amazing
  • Durant being decidedly less amazing when Iguodala is checking him
  • Steve Kerr’s trust in his bench
  • Dion Waiters inexplicable giving Billy Donovan new hope that he can trust his bench too
  • How should (or shouldn’t) the Warriors defend Andre Roberson?
  • Steven Adams
  • Steven Adams and Draymond Green

The list could go on.

I don’t mean to suggest that cheering for one team or the other means going blind to all of the basketball greatness. But attention is a resource and it’d be a shame to waste too much of it on things that don’t matter very much. The best basketball in the world is going to be played tonight, and I plan to do my best to enjoy it for that reason alone.

But I’m also gonna be pissed off if the Thunder blow this chance to close on their home court.

 

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Wolves Drafting 5th: What now?

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We now know where the Wolves will be drafting on June 23rd. Well, unless there’s a trade between now and then. Or a trade on draft night.

Anyway, the Wolves landed 5th overall last night in the lottery. They had the 5th worst record in the league, and the draft order went right in line with reverse league-wide rankings. For the first time ever, the draft order disregards the usual jumble of the lottery format.

About as soon as the order was announced, the takes started coming in hot. Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune immediately published a column that calls for the Wolves to draft Buddy Hield, the Oklahoma Sooner who won over the hearts of college basketball fans this past season, winning Naismith Player of the Year honors. Chad Ford published his 7th Mock Draft (!) — first after the order was known — and has Minnesota drafting Kris Dunn from Providence. Dunn is a point guard, and Ford speculates about a future Ricky Rubio trade. (Without such speculation, the choice makes little sense.)

As I write this, Twitter is running hot with takes about trading the pick. Maybe the pick gets packaged with Gorgui Dieng, or Shabazz Muhammad, or even Zach LaVine (or some combination of the three) to land a bigtime veteran like Jimmy Butler. I’ve been teasing the idea of “LaVine and the 5 for Boogie Cousins” for months, while realizing that is a long shot.

The main point is, with the fifth pick, there are countless ways that this could play out. After Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, there is no consensus about who ranks third best, fourth best, fifth best, and so on. The Wolves do not have any clear idea right now about who will be available to draft at 5, and they will undoubtedly survey the league between now and draft night to discover any intriguing trade offers that might arise.

I think there are a few basic guidelines they should try to follow when making decisions with this prized asset that is the fifth pick in the 2016 draft:

  • If you trade it, only trade it for a star.

Along with the whole, “it’s your best chance of adding a star” thing, a lottery pick has value because it gives the team an opportunity to  hold a good player’s rights for 8 or more seasons.  You do not give that up in exchange for a veteran role player via trade who only has 2 or 3 years left on a contract before they either: 1) are no longer any good, due to age and injuries; and/or 2) decide to leave via unrestricted free agency.

You don’t give it up, that is, unless you are getting somebody good enough to justify it. When Boston traded away the 5th Pick (became Jeff Green) for Ray Allen in 2007, that was great for them. Allen was a star. They already had Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson (and quickly flipped Big Al for KG, even better!) and they were able to win a championship and build a mini-dynasty in the East.

Less cool was when the Wizards (led by Flip) traded the 5th Pick to David Kahn in exchange for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. The Wiz wanted to win now, and the move backfired. Whether Washington would have used it on Ricky Rubio like Kahn did, or Steph Curry, the decision to trade the pick for veteran role players proved to be a terrible one.

The Wolves will have a ton of cap room to target role players this summer. They should not use the fifth pick to land one.

  • Do not draft a player to fill a short-term need. Especially shooting.

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Takeaways from Thibs: Wolves Introduce New Coach

The Timberwolves held a press conference this afternoon at Target Center to introduce Scott Layden as General Manager and — more importantly — Tom Thibodeau as President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach. Alan Horton kicked things off with brief biographical information about the two newest Wolves employees before handing it off to Glen Taylor for a more personal introduction. Young Wolves players were there in the front row, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, and Tyus Jones.

What follows are some bullet-point takeaways of mine from the presser. This type of event is a lot like Media Day where most of the statements made are at least partially canned or prepared answers, replete with cliches or phrases, and very few remarks that can be construed as controversial or meaningful. However, I do my best as a fan-blogger with more interpretative leeway than a professional journalist to listen closely and parse what’s said, looking for any shreds of substance possible.

Here goes:

  • Glen wants a championship, badly.

This isn’t very interesting and it certainly isn’t controversial. But it was sort of interesting how Glen compared this particular opportunity to “go for the top,” to two others in his time as Wolves owner: When they had Marbury and Garnett (as my last post discussed) and the 2004 run when they teamed KG with Cassell and Sprewell. Taylor views this as a third opportunity, and he made clear that he views this as a very long-term situation. He all but stated that he is going to remain owner as long as Thibs and Layden are here, and that he thinks it will be longer than the five years each is under contract. He’s committing to something big, deep into the future.

  • Thibs has friends in the Chicago media.

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Wolves Sign Thibs & Things Have Never Looked Brighter

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I think I’ve written before that the 1996 Draft was the apex of my excitement and optimism about my favorite basketball team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. There were a few different reasons for this:

First, it was the summer before eighth grade, so something like excitement about my favorite sports teams was more easily generated. Second, Kevin Garnett, straight out of high school one year earlier, had begun to look like a future superstar toward the end of the previous season. The franchise had its first true sign of positive momentum. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders did what fans had desperately hoped they would do, by trading up in the draft to get Stephon Marbury, the freshman from Georgia Tech.

Marbury, an explosive point guard from New York City, was going to be the Stockton to KG’s Malone; the Payton to Garnett’s Kemp. Everything about it made sense. To make it even more storybook-perfect, the two had already established a friendship. It was a matter of “when,” as opposed to “if,” they would start winning championships together as the best 1-2 punch in basketball.

Of course, those championships never came. Not even close. Things started out great when they made the playoffs immediately. Steph (he wasn’t “Starbury” yet) and Da Kid played like stars together. But everything unraveled after KG signed his massive, lockout-inducing contract extension. Jealousy set in, Marbury was traded away, and — despite Garnett ascending to “all-time great” ranks in Minnesota — the Wolves never even reached the Finals.

The question is, was it wrong to feel excited on that June night in ’96?

And the answer, of course, is no.

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Final Timberwolves Report Cards, 4th Quarter & Season

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We were hardly given a minute of time to digest The Season That Was before all discussion shifted toward the new search for both a head coach and president of basketball operations. What follows here is my final run through quarterly report cards — this one covers the final 20 games of the season — with some thoughts about each player’s season as a whole, and a final grade.

The 4th Quarter was the Timberwolves best, as they hit a .500 record (10-10). This was much like how they started the season 8-8, but only this time it was on the backs of KAT, Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, and even Tyus Jones, instead of the crucial early-season contributions of Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince; elder statesmen who don’t factor into the team’s future. This stretch included road wins at Oklahoma City (!) and Golden State (!!). They also won at Portland and Washington. The Wolves closed the season the way everyone had hoped they would, with momentum heading into next year when reaching the playoffs will be a realistic goal for the first time since 2013.

Here are the final grades, and just a reminder that these are on my subjective curve that takes expectations and role into account:

Ricky Rubio: A- (Previous Grades: A-, B+, A-)
Season Grade: A-

Rubio’s play was pretty steady all season long. In the final quarter, he shot the ball above his averages (40% from the field, 36.4% from three) but was otherwise about the same as usual, statistically. His per-game averages were 10.4 points, 8.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 steals, and 2.9 turnovers in 30.5 minutes. These are pretty much right in line with his season averages. Ricky ended the year with career bests in advanced stats like PER (17.6) and win shares per 48 minutes (.119) owing to his combination of career bests in per-36 minutes assists (10.2) and turnovers (3.0, tied with one other season).

For the season, Rubio would get an A- grade. He remains very good or great at most aspects of the game, except for shooting. He might make one of the NBA All-Defense teams. And even with his shaky shot, Rubio helps lead a good team offense. His season offensive rating was 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which was the best among regular Wolves players and signifies good team offense. (Only 5 teams scored better than the Wolves did with Rubio on the floor, this season.) Rubio is a spectacular transition passer and developed chemistry with LaVine, Muhammad and Wiggins on the fast break, as the season moved along.

We often talk about plus/minus, and on/off differential with Rubio, because it so clearly captures his value to the Timberwolves. This season, in the 2,323 minutes that Rubio was on the floor, the Wolves outscored opponents by 18 points. In the 1,653 without him, the Wolves were beaten by 308 points.

He may never make an All-Star Team due to his limited scoring output, but he is clearly a helpful starting point guard, and probably one of the best dozen of them in the world.

Zach LaVine: B (Previous Grades: B+, D, B-)
Season Grade: B-

In the last 20 games of the season, LaVine played almost exclusively shooting guard. This was a welcome change for fans tired of watching Zach struggle to man the point. In the final quarter, LaVine posted great three-point shooting numbers, hitting 2.5 per game on 5.7 attempts (44.2%). His assist-to-turnover ratio was solid for an off guard (2.9 to 1.8). His worst stats, as is usually the case with LaVine, are in the team performance, on/off categories. Even in the shooting guard role, LaVine’s presence on the floor seemed to correlate with worse team performance than when he was on the bench. The numbers reveal that the performance downgrade comes on the defensive end. With Zach in the game, the Wolves had a net rating of (-1.9) in 701 minutes, and when he was on the bench they were (+5.0), which was the best of all “off” ratings during the season’s final quarter.

LaVine gets a B- for the whole season. As a rookie last year, he was not even close to ready for the NBA. This season, he improved a lot, but still has a ways to go. His jumpshot looks more and more like his most useful skill, and if he can work on his defense and court awareness, he could potentially make for an ideal backcourt pair with Rubio. His athleticism, best showcased at the Dunk Contest where he is now a two-time champion, is breathtaking and unmatched by his peers. LaVine learned this year how much easier scoring comes in transition, and he has also embraced three-point shooting. Those are two big steps. His turnovers are down from last year, probably because he isn’t playing point guard.

LaVine’s upside remains high, but this year was more about raising his “floor.” He seems destined to have a long career, which was not necessarily a given when this season began back in October.

Tyus Jones: B (Previous Grades: Incomplete, D+, C)
Season Grade: C

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INBOX: Mitchell Out, Coaching Search Underway

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Once upon a time, Tom Thibodeau, Sam Mitchell, and Scott Brooks were all members of the Timberwolves organization.

Patrick J: BREAKING: SAM MITCHELL WILL NOT BE RETURNING AS THE TIMBERWOLVES COACH IN 2016-17. Last week, you made the case for the Wolves to bring back Smitch for another season. But roughly one hour after the team’s final game – a 144-109 EVISCERATION of the Unibrow-less New Orleans Pelicans – the Wolves fired Mitchell (de facto) and announced that they’re teaming with an independent firm that specializes in “searches” to fill the coaching vacancy. As a Smitch defender – or at least an expemplar devil’s advocate of his – do you think Glen Taylor has made a bad decision?

Andy G: I’ll give you my answer to most questions:

“It depends.”

If KORN FERRY (the hiring firm) brings us Tom Thibodeau, then I’m all for the change. Thibs is on the short list with Popovich, [Stan] Van Gundy, and Rick Carlisle of the world’s best coaches. If you can get Thibs, you hire him and replace whoever you’ve got — as long as it’s not somebody else on that short list, of course.

As I’ve said many times, in different ways, Sam’s situation with the Wolves improved over the past couple months from, “He’s gotta go,” to “It depends on who replaces him.” That’s how I feel right now. Sam had the Wolves moving in a clear, positive direction in the final stage of the 2015-16 season, and there was every reason to expect more improvement with him as coach next year. Whether Sam deserved the job is less important than the fact that he had the job all season, and he had things going the way people should have wanted them going.

Any change will initially need to bring some level of extra credibility (Thibs) or excitement (Tom Izzo) for fans to feel a sense of positivity about the change. (Eds note: I don’t want Izzo or any other NCAA coach. But a lot of Minnesota-sports fans would love that.) If they instead hire Hoiberg away from the Bulls or Joerger away from the Grizzlies, I don’t see how there’s been a meaningful change.

After the initial announcement and rationalization for New Coach over Sam Mitchell, New Coach needs to prove it on the floor. Next year, that probably means a playoff berth, given the strength of this roster and how this team was playing at season’s end. (This also assumes some roster improvement in the frontcourt and backup guard slots.)

Give Taylor credit for making this decision immediately, though. I very much feared that this would drag out, which would not only cost the Wolves potential opportunities at marquee candidates, but could also jeopardize their draft and offseason preparation.

What did you think of the announcement?

Patrick J: KORN FERRY! (Eds. Note: Patrick J embraces the notion of hiring an “independent” firm with expertise in supporting targeted job searches, but he would have more confidence in a firm not named Korn Ferry.) Continue reading

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The Case for Keeping Sam Mitchell

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The 2015 movie “Bridge of Spies” tells the story of an American insurance-defense litigator (played by Tom Hanks) who finds himself tasked with defending a Soviet spy (played by Mark Rylance) against espionage-related charges. This is during the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s. The Hanks character, in the course of representing the Rylance character, becomes disturbed by what he finds to be a charade of a “trial” offered the Russian defendant. The Fourth Amendment violations committed by the cop don’t matter. The judge explains the defendant’s guilt in open court. And everybody hates Hanks for his surprisingly-zealous advocacy of a man aiding The Enemy.

The movie was good. I just saw it for the first time a couple of weeks ago. (The Rylance performance, awarded with an Oscar, was great.) As with many random things that have nothing to do with the Timberwolves or even basketball, it got me thinking about the Timberwolves and basketball. Specifically, it got me thinking about Sam Mitchell, and what a “defense” of his position as Timberwolves head coach might look like. For such a long part of this season, Mitchell has been an unpopular coach with fans. Anyone in the Timberwolves social media community knows this. One of the big Twitter themes of this season has been the call for Mitchell to be replaced at the end of the season by a better coach.

There are a handful of reasons typically cited: He doesn’t manage rotations very well. (Earlier in the season, he often limited Ricky Rubio’s and Karl-Anthony Towns’s playing time in ways that seemed to cost the team potential wins.) He continued to use Flip Saunders’s outdated offense that was heavily geared toward pin-down screens and mid-range jumpers, and away from the “pace and space,” that predominates the league today. In the middle of the season when Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince stopped playing as much, the team’s defense was horrendous, and it wasn’t clear why such an athletic team should be so easy to score against. Amid all of this, Mitchell was unusually — sometimes unbelievably — disrespectful to media members asking the most basic, rational, not-even-remotely-unfair questions. The coach who yells at the media while his team is playing like shit is not going to win over many fans.

With this in mind, I just thought it would be an interesting post idea to try to come up with the best argument(s) possible to support KEEPING Sam as coach, instead of replacing him this summer. As it turned out, in the time between the inspiration for this post and its publishing, Mitchell’s case became a stronger one.

Here goes nothing…

THE CASE FOR KEEPING SAM MITCHELL

Qualifications

The first thing to consider is Mitchell’s credentials before his season as Timberwolves interim head coach.

It must be acknowledged that he came upon his current job in tragic, and totally unexpected circumstances when Flip Saunders died of cancer. Mitchell was not brought here to be head coach, and he is only presently in that role due to exigency. To the extent any NBA coach does or does not “deserve” his job, Mitchell has a flimsier hold over his own because he did not interview for it. He fell into it unexpectedly.

But regardless of how he found himself manning the Wolves Wheel, Mitchell has a resume that qualifies him to be an NBA head coach. He played 13 seasons in the league. Many of them were for Saunders and the Wolves, but he also played for Larry Brown in Indiana. He played with Kevin Garnett, Reggie Miller, and many others. He played on good teams and bad ones. His breadth of playing experience in different roles and circumstances taught him how pro basketball should and should not be played, and how success can come in different ways. As a Timberwolves player, Mitchell was known as a great mentor to Garnett when he came into the league. He was the type of player that seemed like future coach material.

In fact, he has coached. Mitchell has been an assistant coach in three different places, including Milwaukee under George Karl and then Terry Porter, New Jersey under Avery Johnson, and last year in Minnesota under Flip Saunders. More importantly, Mitchell was the head coach of the Toronto Raptors for four seasons where the team saw significant improvement under his watch. Mitchell took over the Raptors job when they had been significantly under .500. Worse than their losing record, the Raps were not well positioned to rebuild. They had an aging and unhappy Vince Carter, and a Jalen Rose who was transitioning into the “Keep Gettin’ Dem Checks” phase of his career. They had enough talent to win 30 games, but no upside think about doing much more than that.

In three seasons, Mitchell led the Raptors out of that miserable purgatory and into a division title with a new superstar, Chris Bosh. Mitchell’s Raptors won 47 games in 2007, despite the fact that his team’s minutes leaders after Bosh were Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, and Andrea Bargnani. Had Toronto been able to surround Bosh with another star or two, it’s possible that they could’ve made some deep playoff runs and even contended for a championship. That they didn’t has nothing to do with Mitchell, who did a very good job of coaching the players on his roster. He won NBA Coach of the Year for the 2007 performance.

After being fired in Toronto, Mitchell spent a few years working as an analyst on TV. This is another helpful avenue for coaches to learn. Hubie Brown had worked TV for years before a very successful return to the bench in Memphis. Steve Kerr, widely considered one of the best new coaches in the NBA, spend a lot of time as an analyst on TNT. Mark Jackson had success turning the Golden State Warriors around after spending his immediate post playing career as an analyst. The list goes on. Mitchell probably gained perspective and knowledge in his time spent on TV, after coaching in Toronto.

Clearly, Mitchell has a resume that warrants strong consideration for another head-coaching job in the NBA.

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