Author Archives: Andy Grimsrud

Looking Ahead: Wolves Need Another Big Man

 

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Festus Ezeli and Joakim Noah should be Timberwolves free agency targets.

This Timberwolves season is moving along really quickly. Tonight’s game against the Lakers at Staples Center will be their 50th. Eighty two games is too many to begin with, but when the night-to-night results become predictable — and especially when the usual prediction is another loss — the individual contests blur together and feel like one collection of themes instead of distinct stories. The Wolves have lost 18 of their past 21 games, so it’s pretty easy to know how each is going to turn out, most nights.

These Wolves have established themes:

KAT’s brilliance and Rookie of the Year campaign.

Zach LaVine’s ongoing education in Basketball Fundamentals.

Ricky Rubio’s positive on-court impact.

The Timberwolves immense struggles when Rubio sits on the bench.

Consistent scoring from Andrew Wiggins.

The yearning hope that Wiggins will expand his game over time.

The list goes on.

The next big event on the NBA calendar is All-Star Weekend. As always, this is soon followed by the trade deadline. The 2016 deadline falls on February 18. By all indications, the Timberwolves figure to be minor players, at most.

Since the unexpected passing of Flip Saunders right before the season began, the Wolves have seemed to defer large-scale decisionmaking until next offseason. They have been extra clear that Sam Mitchell is the “interim” head coach, not the permanent one. (They even introduce him as “interim” coach before home games.) They have not promoted Milt Newton from his general manager title. They have not hired a president of basketball operations. Glen Taylor is reportedly in the process of selling the team to a group of investors led by someone named Steve Kaplan.

Who is They? is a good question itself.

With so little certainty, and no clear boss of basketball operations, the Wolves will not make any aggressive moves between now and the trade deadline. The most significant move imaginable might be a trade involving Shabazz Muhammad or Gorgui Dieng. The most significant realistic move is probably something involving Kevin Martin and/or maybe Adreian Payne.

As these losses pile up, the deep craters in the roster become more apparent. The collective desire of fans to see them filled becomes palpable. Everybody grows tired of losing, even when patience is sometimes required.

The roster hole that I’ve been thinking about lately is the starting frontcourt spot next to Towns.

Towns is second on the team in minutes, and he’s been fantastic. He’s averaging 20 & 12 per 36 minutes at All-Star efficiency levels. He continues to improve and is one of the best rookies in modern NBA history. KAT can probably play either the 4 or 5, depending on who his frontcourt mate is, and who is opponent is. The problem, this season, has been that he has had no consistent partner up front. His best teammate, Kevin Garnett, has logged only 556 minutes, good for 10th most on the team. The vast majority of KG’s time (518 minutes) has been spent next to KAT, and their lineups have outscored opponents by 59 points. Clearly, it’s a combination that works. In KAT’s other 940 minutes of action, sans KG, Wolves lineups are outscored by 147 points. Clearly, the Wolves would be having a much better season if they had a good, full-time big man to pair with KAT. If they can find a player who replicates Garnett’s aggregate impact in ways that complement KAT’s skillset — and who does it in a starter’s load of minutes — their team will improve significantly.

That player is not Gorgui Dieng. He is a useful utility big man who can play spot minutes at either the 4 or 5, but is not talented or consistent enough to be a starter on a good team. He recently turned 26 years old and does not figure to improve significantly beyond this season.

That player is probably not Nemanja Bjelica. He has interesting skills — particularly as a perimeter-based initiator of offense from the 4 position — but has struggled to find confidence in the NBA setting. He somehow both carries a funny nickname that befits a sharpshooter — “Professor Big Shots” — yet refuses to take open three-pointers upon receipt of a nice kickout pass from a teammate. Defensively, Bjelica fouls too much and is not very athletic. He might improve. He probably will improve actually. But he’s older than Dieng — he turns 28 in May — and given his professional accomplishments in Europe, it’s a little bit alarming that his learning curve doesn’t appear to be steeper. It isn’t clear that he’s gotten better as opposed to worse, as this season has gone on.

Most disappointing of all candidates, the KAT sidekick will not be Nikola Pekovic. As the fresh Star Tribune story makes clear, Pek continues to experience pain in his lower extremities from playing basketball. The Achilles surgery didn’t do any magic trick to fix the simple reality that he has chronic problems and he’s much too heavy to be able to run up and down a basketball floor on a regular basis. Through a dozen games, Pek is shooting just 38 percent from the field, and pulling down a measly 4.8 rebounds per 36 minutes; about the same number as Zach LaVine. Pek is a shell of his former self.

With this in mind, I think there are two pretty basic ways that the Wolves can approach the task of lining up a quality big man next to Karl-Anthony Towns. And I think they would be wise to do both of them, as opposed to just one or the other.

The first is to sign a free agent this summer.

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Running with Ricky: A Way for this Wolves Team to Improve & Have Fun

Late in the second quarter of last night’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Andrew Wiggins was smiling. Shabazz Muhammad had just been fouled on a fast break shot attempt, and Wiggins helped him off the floor with a big grin on his face.* For the last few minutes of action, they — led by Ricky Rubio’s passes — had been running the Grizzlies off of the Target Center floor. Just a few minutes earlier when Rubio checked in, Memphis was leading by 5. After Shabazz went to the line and made both of his free throws, the Wolves led by 14. Wiggins was presumably smiling because he and Shabazz were having such an easy and fun time scoring on the fast break.

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Quarterly Report Card: Wolves Slide into Season’s Halfway Point

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After last evening’s blowout loss at Oklahoma City, the Timberwolves reached the season’s midway point. They have a 12-29 record. That they were at one time 8-8 and have not suffered any serious injuries this season (knocks on all of the wood) tells you just about everything you need to know about how their second quarter of the season — the last 20 games — went for them. They won 3 of those 20, defeating the Nets, the Kings, and the Jazz who were without most of their best players due to injuries. Many of the 17 losses, like last night’s, were lopsided.

However, since I need to write something and this represents a calendar benchmark of sorts, I’ll dig into the bloody details of the past quarter of the Wolves season. Just like last time, I’ll do letter grades, with each one representing the player’s performance in the last 20 games only.  All advanced stats referenced come from nba.com if they aren’t otherwise linked, and refer to the last 20 games of the season.

As with last time, grades take role and expectations into account. An A for one player doesn’t necessarily mean he’s playing better basketball than someone else with a B.

Ricky Rubio: A- (First Quarter Grade: B+)

Rubio grades out slightly better than last time (B+) for the simple reason that he played in all 20 games of the season’s second quarter. Health has been a major concern for Rubio in his career to date, and it’s nice to see him playing without any injury problems. His minutes remain a little bit low compared to how crucial he is to the team (30.4 per game) but some of that owes to the lopsided losses the Wolves have suffered in recent weeks. In those 30 minutes per game, Rubio has compiled impressive all-around stats including an assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.7 to 2.3. He averaged 2.7 steals per game in the second quarter of the season. Russell Westbrook leads the NBA with a 2.4 average overall. (Rubio trails him slightly at 2.3, playing fewer minutes.) Rubio’s net rating (+/- per 100 possessions) has been negative (-2.4 to be exact) but much better than all of his teammates who play significant minutes.

The two most interesting Rubio stats from the season’s second quarter: (1) When he sits on the bench, the Wolves are outscored by 18.3 points per 100 possessions. That is simply incredible. This team has simply been unable or unwilling to address its backup point guard problem in the last few seasons and it remains an abject disaster in the minutes Rubio doesn’t lead them; (2) Rubio is shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range. His form doesn’t look any different, but hey: We’ll take it! Almost nothing would be better for this team’s progress than Rubio improving as a perimeter shooter. In the occasional possession where the Wolves properly space the floor around a double-teamed Andrew Wiggins, the ball often ends up in Ricky’s hands with a three-point shot to be had, if he’ll take it. The better he becomes at knocking those down, the better the team will be.

Rubio remains a good player and despite how disastrously his team has been playing, he continues to do everything he can to help them try to win.

Zach LaVine: D (First Quarter Grade: B+)

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A Simple Play

If the Wolves spread the floor with uninvolved players standing behind the three-point line, particularly in the corners, they’d have more success. Last night, one simply play involving Bjelica and Wiggins demonstrated as much.

Kevin Martin actually brought the ball up the floor in a semi transition scenario and 4 Timberwolves spread out evenly around the arc, with Karl-Anthony Towns posted near the lane.

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Bjelica is playing the 4 and has Rockets big man Clint Capela on him. Capela’s natural instincts are to protect the paint first, so when Martin swings the ball to Bjelica, Capela has to close out hard.

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Wolves Keep Losing, Need Backup 1 & 4

The Timberwolves lost at home to the Dallas Mavericks yesterday, extending their current losing streak to 6 games. They’ve lost 10 of their last 11, and face a difficult upcoming schedule. Their next three games include an away game against James Harden’s Rockets bookended by a pair of matchups against the Thunder. The All-Star Break is 16 games and about a month away. Of those 16, the only ones that feel potentially winnable right now are the pair of games against Anthony Davis’s Pelicans, the home game against the dysfunctional Phoenix Suns, and a game at Staples Center against the Lakers. If I had to bet right now, I’d say the Wolves will win 2 of those 4, and maybe 1 random game out of the other dozen, which involve legit NBA teams that are putting away this Wolves team with ease.

Coming into the season, the Wolves were predicted by gamblers and experts to struggle. This was largely because of how young the roster is. Part of me wanted to believe that they’d exceed expectations for the simple reason that every time Ricky Rubio has been healthy, the Wolves have been competitive. Although Kevin Love was obviously a great teammate, there were times when Rubio-led Wolves teams had poor supporting casts, but he was able to set up enough dunks and open jumpers to make his teammates better and win games; sometimes against the best teams in the league. They beat the Spurs twice in Ricky’s first season with players like Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams logging significant minutes. I figured that if Ricky could win with those players, he might be able to do the same with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, too — even despite their extremely young ages and lack of experience.

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Talkin AAU Blues

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Last night, the Timberwolves lost another game. Not just another game, but they lost another home game, and another home game against a mediocre opponent. This time it was the Milwaukee Bucks, who came into the contest rocking a 13-21 record, near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The Wolves lost for a variety of reasons. They shot the ball poorly; even rookie phenom Karl-Anthony Towns, whose shot is one of the few reliable things about this year’s team. After stingy defense in the first quarter, led by the usual cast of defensive characters — Ricky Rubio, Tayshaun Prince, Kevin Garnett — they defended worse and worse as the game went on, surrendering dunks out of pick-and-roll sets down the stretch of the game. They ended up losing by 10 points, after leading by 17 at one point, late in the first quarter. It was one of the team’s ugliest performances of the season.

Afterward, the wait for Coach Sam Mitchell was longer than usual. Chatting with fellow bloggers in the media room, I joked that someone should open with a question about Zach LaVine’s huge alley-oop dunk; it came late in the game, after the damage had been done, and if nothing else probably upset Mitchell even more. The spectacular dunk, in the context of a terrible performance, highlighted the apparent gulf between his young players’ physical potential and their realized basketball ability.

Nobody asked that question, and that was certainly for the best. Not only because it would have been silly and ruined the presser, but because Mitchell was ready to talk last night, and get something off of his chest. Mitchell wanted to talk AAU basketball, and what it’s done to spoil the young players on his Timberwolves team. The bad habits that they have developed as a result of “coaching” from the likes of non-coaches such as “the guy who owns the hardware store” and “some dude that’s got some money for sneakers and gear.” William Bohl typed up the full quote at A Wolf Among Wolves, and I encourage you to check it out in full.

This quasi-ideological rant against The State of Basketball by Mitchell was met with a wide range of reactions on Twitter. I personally loved it, but that had more to do with the insight we were provided about How Sam Really Feels than any clear agreement with what he was saying. There are plenty of old school, former players willing to denounce modern basketball. The high-profile examples of late usually involve the Golden State Warriors championship-winning style of play. Charles Barkley focuses on their lack of interior size, and how (he believes) they would lose to teams from his era. Mark Jackson believes that Steph Curry is “hurting the game” because of how young kids are shooting too many long jumpers before rounding out their complete skill sets. When these people say these things, the NBA blog engines heat up with reaction pieces, and Twitter arguments ensue.

This AAU thing of Mitchell’s is common, it’s not new, and it blends in with the related discussion about college basketball as training for the pros, as opposed to allowing and encouraging the most talented players to enter the NBA as early as they possibly can. But the general discussion about how 18, 19 and 20 year olds prepare for their futures in basketball is not usually as specific as Mitchell’s was, so let’s think about What He is Saying when he says these things after a bad loss to the Bucks.

First, Mitchell is focusing on “stance.” He’s focusing on the stance that his young players are [not] in, on both ends of the floor. Instead of having their knees bent at all times, he’s noticing that they stand up, which is more of a resting position than a basketball-ready one. On defense, he mentioned how they had to do “slide drills” in training camp, an unanticipated degree of basic that Mitchell felt should have been better coached to these guys when they were younger. On offense, he mentioned how they catch the ball “standing up” and bring the ball up over their head, as opposed to clearing through in a real triple-threat position.

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Wolves Beat Jazz & Other Jottings

The Wolves got a much-needed win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night, holding a lead for nearly every second of the game and ultimately winning 94-80. It was much-needed because the Wolves were on a 4-game losing streak and play at Detroit tomorrow night, and because the Jazz were severely undermanned, missing their two big men, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, as well as the up-and-coming wing Alec Burks. It would have been ugly, had the Wolves lost, so a 14-point win felt good for the team, its fans, and its coach. After the game, Mitchell was in a much better mood than he was during it. He could be seen yelling at his young players throughout the entire game after each mistake they made, sometimes using timeouts to emphasize a point, and other times — such as twice with Karl-Anthony Towns — simply yanking the player after the game. (In his presser, Mitchell laughed about pulling Towns, and went out of his way to talk about what a great attitude KAT has. During the game, KAT seemed upset to come out of the game.)

A few miscellaneous jottings about the game, the Wolves recent play, and team issues:

Rubio
Ricky Rubio has been playing arguably the best ball of his career, of late. His PER before tonight’s game was 18.3, while his career-best before this season was 16.2. After 17 assists against the Jazz, that PER will rise up closer to 19. He’s averaging 9.2 assists to just 2.4 turnovers per game, his 2.3 steals per game are second in the NBA to Russell Westbrook. (Per-36 minutes, Rubio edges out Westbrook in steals, 2.7 to 2.6. Per minute, Rubio is second to Rajon Rondo in assists.) His oft mentioned on/off splits remain an ocean apart, as the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.8 per 100 possessions with Rubio and lose by 8.0 points per 100 without him. While his shooting remains very poor (though he did hit some shots tonight against the Jazz!) the rest of his game is simply so good that it all adds up to a good basketball player. The specific chemistry that he developed — seemingly instantly — with Kevin Garnett has been a joy to watch, and it’s hard not to think that, over time, Rubio and Towns could team up for similar action, connecting on those pick-and-pop assists, and leading the defense top to bottom to get stop after stop in first and fourth quarters. Continue reading

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A Turn Toward Tyus?

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Andy G: Through 30 games, the Timberwolves have already gone through a series of different chapters in their 2015-16 season. Early on, they earned impressive road victories against some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and raised expectations that most had just a few weeks earlier. Then Ricky Rubio started sitting out winnable games with a confusingly-described ankle condition, they played LaVine at point guard, Wolves lost those games, and nobody was quite sure what to think of this team. After Rubio returned, and with Karl-Anthony Towns already playing like a veteran star, the Wolves faced a soft schedule phase that included seven consecutive games versus weak opposition (Lakers, Nuggets, Suns, Nuggets, Knicks, Kings, then Nets). Had they been able to string together 5 or 6 wins in that relatively easy stretch, they’d inch back towards .500 and re-enter the Western Conference Playoffs discussion. That did not happen, after they lost four straight in the middle of that stretch and only came out of it with three wins.

Most recently, the Wolves find themselves in a more difficult stretch of games that began at Boston, then came to Target Center for a Spurs matchup, and then again at home against the Pacers. The Celtics and Spurs games were one-sided losses. The Pacers game was close for three and a half quarters, and then became a 14-point loss. On Monday the Wolves play the Spurs again, this time at San Antonio. After that they play the Jazz, who as of this writing would be in the West playoffs. After that they play the Pistons, who are three games over .500. The Wolves record is now down to 11-19, and could easily drop down to 11-22 before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve after the game in Detroit.

Winning one out of three is much better than last season (when they won almost exactly one out of five games), but falls smack in the middle of lottery territory, too. In and of itself, a .333 winning percentage is bad.

There are problems on this team that have now crystallized as they approach the midpoint of the season.

First is the most obvious, the least disturbing, but also the most controllable: The Timberwolves are incredibly young. Their top three leaders in total minutes are each 20 years old. More than anything else (and despite how talented each one of those players is) this is a factor that would prevent any team from seriously contending for a playoff run. Twenty years old is the typical age of college sophomores and juniors, not good NBA basketball players. Andrew Wiggins is great for his age and experience level, but he has flaws. Zach LaVine is getting better, but he was drafted as an athletic “project” and has a long way to go. Karl-Anthony Towns is as good a one-and-done rookie as I can remember watching, but… well, he’s still a rookie and will make certain mistakes now that he won’t make when he’s a few years older. The minutes being played by 20 year olds is something that absolutely should happen, but absolutely will prevent the Wolves from winning a lot of games.

Second is the power forward position. Kevin Garnett is a good defensive player, but he’s tenth on the team in minutes, and that’s without having suffered any injuries. Nemanja Bjelica is currently ninth in total minutes, after beginning the season with solid play in a significant role. Ideally, the Wolves would play Garnett as the ostensible starting four, but Bjelica would play as a stretch and playmaking forward for 25 to 30 minutes per game. Unfortunately, Bjelly is getting worse instead of better with more NBA experience, and now Mitchell has benched him entirely from the playing rotation. (Well, that’s what happened on Saturday versus the Pacers, anyway. He was barely playing in the games leading up to that DNP-CD, and it seems that whether he plays 0 minutes or 5, he’s low on the totem pole.) This means Adreian Payne is playing more, and that’s not going to be good for the Wolves performance. He just makes too many mistakes and has too poor an understanding of basic positioning and fundamentals. As things stand, the Wolves might be best off playing their two young centers together — Towns and Gorgui Dieng — and simply utilizing a “best players on the floor” approach, without regard for positioning and spacing. (Natural segue…)

Third is the team’s offensive system, which encourages a lane jammed up with offensive and defensive players alike, so that they rarely find easy baskets, and rarely cause defenses to move enough to create open three-point shots. It seems like the objective on many Timberwolves sets is either to find an open mid-range shooter, or to feed the low post. This is in contrast to good modern NBA offenses, which generally try to create open driving lanes for layups, or drive-and-kick action where help defenders have to scramble all over the place to try to run shooters off the three-point line while not giving up a layup to a different player after the ball is moving. The Wolves shoot 16.3 threes per game, which is second only to the Brooklyn Nets for fewest in the league. The shoot 25.6 shots in the restricted area — very close to the hoop — which is tenth-fewest in the league. As you might expect, knowing that the Wolves shoot so few threes and layups, they lead the league in mid-range shots, attempting 28.4 of them per game. Mid-range shots are not necessarily bad, but they only make sense if they are wide open, and if there is a great shooter taking them. For instance, the Clippers and Spurs both shoot a lot from the mid-range but that’s because opponents forfeit wide open Blake Griffin shots from there as a way to avoid him from dunking after Chris Paul starts bending the defenses off of a ball screen. For San Antonio, they just picked up LaMarcus Aldridge, a great mid-range shooter with enough size to couple his shooting threat with playmaking for teammates. The Spurs and Clippers shoot 42 and 40 percent from mid-range, respectively, while the Wolves hit just 38 percent of them.

Fourth and lastly, is the team’s backup point guard situation. As mentioned previously, Rubio missed some games earlier in the season with ankle soreness. It was 6 games total and the Wolves lost 5 of those. Their 10-14 record with Rubio in the lineup would give them a winning percentage right between the Jazz and Kings; the current 8 and 9 seeds in the West. When Ricky’s on the floor, the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, and when he sits they are outscored by 7.8 points per 100. That 11.1-point swing is enormous, and it comes largely by the choice of the organization; the choice of not playing Andre Miller as the regular backup point guard. On the entire roster, only Miller has a better net rating (+5.2) than Rubio. For much of the season, the backup point guard was LaVine, who most by now believe is better suited to play off guard. Very recently, Mitchell has indeed moved LaVine to off guard, but not next to Miller. Instead, the team called back Tyus Jones, the rookie doing D-League service for six games, and has slotted him into the rotation as the backup point guard.

The turn toward Tyus is a fairly unmistakable sign that the team is done trying to flirt with a competitive season. Jones might have a future (I tend to believe he does, others worry about his lack of size and explosiveness) but nobody reasonably believes he is presently able to play NBA point guard at a competitive level. These minutes that he receives — 20 versus the Spurs in (-11) action, and 11 more consequential ones versus the Pacers in (-13) action — will be the same type of on-the-job training that LaVine experienced last year. They might pique the interest of Minnesota sports fans, and will probably help accustom Jones to NBA game speed. But they will also frustrate the diehard Wolves fans watching most or all games, and possibly frustrate some of Tyus’s teammates — through no fault of his own — if he is incapable of hanging in there against top competition.

I just wrote a lot of words about a lot of Wolves stuff.

Patrick J, what are your thoughts on any or all of it? Do you like the move toward Jones as the backup point guard?

Patrick J: Do I like the move toward Jones as the backup point guard? Yes, but with caveats. Continue reading

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The Spurs & A History of Success

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The Spurs used the first pick in the 1987 NBA Draft to select David Robinson from the United States Naval Academy. Because Robinson had a two-year active-duty obligation with the Navy, his basketball career did not begin until the 1989-90 season. As an older-than-usual rookie, The Admiral averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game. He made the All-Star Team and the Spurs made the second round of the playoffs. They won 56 games that season, one year removed from winning only 21, marking the greatest one-year turnaround in league history, up to that point in time.

After that 56-win season, the Robinson-led Spurs went on to have season win totals of 55, 47, 49, 55, 62, and 59. In 1995, the 62-win season, Robinson won league MVP and the Spurs reached the Western Conference Finals. They lost to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets — the eventual champions — and parts of the foundation began to crack around Robinson.

Dennis Rodman was the league’s leading rebounder and Spurs’ second-best player. He missed a bunch of games in the ’95 season due to team suspensions and a motorcycle accident. In the playoffs, Rodman’s behavior became a terrible distraction. In the Game 3 of the semifinals versus the Lakers, Rodman was taken out of the game by Coach Bob Hill. After exchanging words with Hill, Rodman took his shoes off and sat down on the end of the sideline, yelling at Hill not to put him back in the game. In Game 4, a Spurs win to go up 3-1, Rodman didn’t play at all.

Rodman was traded to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason — he went on to win three more championships (in addition to the pair he won with the Detroit Pistons) — and the Spurs took a step back in the ’96 season. They won three fewer games than the year before, and this time only made the conference semifinals. When Robinson was hurt early the next season, Hill was fired and replaced by the self-appointed general manager, Gregg Popovich. Pop held Duncan out of all but six games to preserve him for the future and “tank” for a better draft pick.

They finished with the third-worst record in the league, and went on to win the much-anticipated draft lottery; anticipated because whoever landed the top pick would get to select Tim Duncan from Wake Forest.

Duncan, like Robinson before him, was a seven-foot tall college superstar picked first in the draft. Together in San Antonio they formed the “Twin Towers” and immediately won 56 games (surpassing the previous turnaround record set in Robinson’s rookie year by 1 game) and reached the second round of the playoffs. Like Robinson, Duncan was an All-Star rookie. Like Robinson, Duncan was great at every part of the game: scoring, defending, rebounding, passing, and blocking shots.

The Twin-Towers Spurs won championships in 1999 and 2003, bookending the Shaq & Kobe Lakers threepeat. Robinson retired after the ’03 title.

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KAT & Gorgui: Did the Wolves just discover their new frontcourt?

Prior to Sunday’s game at Brooklyn, the Timberwolves had only played Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng together as the frontcourt pairing for 80 minutes spread over 13 different games out of the 26 they each had played in. That means Sam Mitchell was utilizing them as an entirely “either/or” proposition in half of the games, and trotting them out together for about 6 minutes per game in the other half. In those 80 minutes that Gorgui and KAT played alongside each other, the Wolves outscored opponents by 19 points. It was a small sample size, but suggested that it might be worth trying more, as finding enough minutes for these two has seemed to be an ongoing struggle for Mitchell.

Against the Nets, Mitchell deployed the KAT-Gorgui combo for over 16 minutes of action, and it worked well. In the first half, Towns started out with some uncharacteristic struggles on his jumper. When Gorgui checked in for Kevin Garnett midway through the first quarter — a rare move this season, probably reflecting a diminished faith in the struggling Nemanja Bjelica — the offense began to flow his direction. Ricky passed it to a pick-and-popped Towns, who then fed Gorgui, who had his man posted up under the hoop. He made a jump hook. Later in the first half, after Towns had rested and then returned to join Dieng again, KAT set an early high ball screen for Ricky and rolled toward the hoop on the right side. With Brook Lopez needing help defense, Rubio stared at Towns while dishing it instead to Dieng on the left side of the lane, who threw it down with authority.

Dieng had a lot of success as the ball screener, too. During the time when KAT was getting his first-half rest, Rubio found Gorgui on three assists for easy baskets. On two of them, Gorgui had sealed his man on the correct side so that Rubio’s pass — one of them thrown behind his back — led directly to an easy layup. Later in the game, Dieng set an early, semi-transition high ball screen (a staple set of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns that the Wolves would be wise to adopt as one of their own) and rolled toward the hoop. With the immediate entry pass not there, Rubio instead kicked it back to KAT at the top. The angle now better for entry, Towns fed Dieng on the high-low, as he did in the first quarter, and again Dieng converted the jump hook.

Towns got going as the game went on, developing the sort of synced-in chemistry with Rubio that Gorgui had in the first half. He ended the game with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks. Dieng finished with 20 points, 10 boards and 3 assists.

In the time they shared the floor on Sunday, the Wolves outscored the Nets by 3 points. I had, and maybe still have, some doubts about whether this is a viable starting caliber frontcourt. Those doubts mainly exist because Dieng has struggled to defend big centers in the past, and may not have sufficiently refined skills to play power forward. However, Dieng’s defense seems to be improving, and Towns’s outstanding shooting allows them to use Dieng as the ball-screen roller and post man, with KAT stretching the defense out to the perimeter.

But perhaps more than anything about “fit,” the issue just comes down to these two being the team’s best big men, and benefits of getting both of them as much playing time as possible. If you remove the little-used Andre Miller, the Wolves field-goal percentage leaders are Dieng (54.7) and Towns (53.5). They’re both excellent foul shooters, with Dieng currently at a crazy 90 percent, and Towns just behind him at 85. Per 36 minutes, Towns leads the Wolves in rebounding at 11.7. Dieng is third on the team (also behind KG) at 9.8. Per 36, they lead the team in blocks. Towns gets 2.6, Gorgui gets 1.6. Dieng also gets 1.7 steals per 36; an underrated part of his game, reflecting his high motor and activity level. Scoring is where Towns shines much brighter than Dieng (20.3 points per 36, versus 13.0) but Gorgui is a better scorer than the alternatives that might play next to KAT for a lot of minutes — players like the struggling Bjelica and the largely written off Adreian Payne.

Mitchell must have had this pairing on his mind after the win on Friday over the Kings. They did not play together very much that night, but he said this after the game:

“I like Karl and G, the way they play. It’s almost like when G comes in for KG, it keeps us big and athletic and I think G’s defense has just been outstanding all year. He’s probably, of our young guys, he’s probably been the most consistent, defensively.”

After enduring the worst part of their season to date — going 1-8 in a nine-game span that included a soft schedule — the Wolves now have a winning streak. Andrew Wiggins was the star in the first win over the Kings. Ricky Rubio was incredible in the second win at Brooklyn. This new wrinkle of pairing Dieng and Towns might have staying power, if it continues to click like it did today with each player putting up over 20 points and 10 rebounds.

We’ll have to see how Mitchell feels about it tomorrow night at Boston, where the Wolves will try to extend this streak to 3 wins against a good Celtics team.

Until then.

Season Record: 11-16

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KAT = Great. Wolves = Bad. What to think?

kat

On Sunday afternoon, I posted a quarter report for this 2015-16 Timberwolves season, grading each player’s performance (relative to role and expectations) one fourth of the way through.

Since posting that, the Timberwolves have lost three times and some of those grades seem a little bit generous.

On Sunday at Phoenix, the Wolves played the (currently) 11-16 Suns. They lost 108-101. The game was not as close as the score suggested. Shortly before the end of the third quarter, after a barrage of Timberwolves turnovers led to Suns layups, Minnesota trailed by over 20 points. In the fourth, they had a crew of bench players led by Andre Miller chip away at that margin, but not seriously threaten the inevitable Suns victory. For the Wolves, it was a horrible performance without much by way of silver linings. It marked their sixth loss in seven games.

On Tuesday, back at home, the Wolves played the (currently) 11-14 Denver Nuggets. They lost 112-100 on their home floor. If turnovers were the problem on Sunday, it was defense on Tuesday; particularly defense against three-point shots. At one point in the the game the Nuggets were 7-9 from downtown as they built up a sizable halftime lead behind the hot, wide-open shooting of former Wolves guard and journeyman role player, Randy Foye. After the game, Sam Mitchell spoke in greater detail than usual about how his young players have so much to learn about playing NBA basketball, and how that was probably their most disappointing loss of the season.

Last night, on Wednesday, the Wolves faced off against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Derek Fisher’s squad came into the game with an 11-14 record. Once again, the Wolves struggled to keep up. They trailed by a lopsided 60 to 40 margin at halftime. Arron Afflalo, a solid, but decidedly unspectacular veteran guard, had a dozen second-quarter points; many times scoring with ease over Shabazz Muhammad’s suspect defense. Afflalo had 29 points in the game on 9-14 shooting. The Wolves made a better effort in the second half, cutting the Knicks lead down to 6 a couple of times with a little over 2 minutes to play, and even closer than that during more desperate situations in the game’s final seconds. But that general game trajectory — a struggling team surrendering a huge halftime lead, then making it sort of close, only to eventually lose — is a pretty common one for bad teams. The game was defined by the pace set by Afflalo and the Knicks in the first half.

Just like against the Suns on Sunday and the Nuggets on Tuesday, the Wolves were not ready to play on Wednesday at New York, and they lost to another sub-.500 opponent. Their schedule included this seven-winnable-games stretch that began with the home Lakers tilt and ends on Sunday at Brooklyn. With two games left in it, they have a single win — the overtime squeaker that saw them survive a last-second Laker miss in overtime — and four losses. Their season record has gone from 8-8 to 9-16. They have lost 8 of 9 games. Of the 8 losses, only two — both against the Clippers — came against a clear-cut playoff-caliber opponent.

If, before the season, you told me or any other interested Wolves fan that the team would be 9-16 after 25 games, that would have sounded fine. It’s a pace of about 29 or 30 wins, which would beat their preseason “over/under” in Las Vegas. It would show progress from last year, when they had the league’s worst record (tanking/injuries noted).

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Timberwolves Quarterly Report

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After a pair of overtime games this week — a home win over the Lakers followed by a road loss to the Nuggets — the Timberwolves are now past the season’s quarter point. They have a record of 9-13, which sets a pace to win about 35 or 36 games; more than people expected before the season began, but perhaps a little bit worse than people feel the team is capable, having had the chance to see them play. Managing expectations is funny that way: exceeding them early can lead to raising them too high later on.

This is one of the most interesting Timberwolves teams in history. It has the much-talked-about combination of veteran leadership and athletic young talent. It has the franchise’s all-time great, Kevin Garnett, playing his twenty-first season. It has the franchise’s pair of great young hopes, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, playing their first and second. This Wolves team has a version of Ricky Rubio that seems both more comfortable with who he is (and isn’t) as a player, and more dissatisfied with his team losing more than it wins. This team has a lot of players — too many, really — who have a valid expectation of playing time. Managing that long and complicated rotation is Sam Mitchell, an interim head coach whose promotion from the assistant ranks came about by the worst circumstances imaginable when his boss, former coach, and friend Flip Saunders died from cancer.

Through each of the 9 wins and 13 losses have emerged themes for the season that have structured the discourse of Timberwolves pundits. Some are positive and celebratory: the awesomeness of KAT, and the team’s improved defense. Some are negative and cause knee-jerk reactions: Mitchell’s outdated offensive system, the continued deployment of Zach LaVine at point guard, and blowing big leads to lose in disappointing fashion.

Here’s a list of letter grades for each player through the season, to date. Grades take role and expectations into account, so an A doesn’t necessarily mean a better player or overall performance than a B or C. We’ll do this by position, starting with guards, then forwards, then centers.

Ricky Rubio: B+

Last year, Ricky Rubio’s season involved sitting out of games so that the team would lose enough to win the draft lottery, and working out with special shooting coach Mike Penberthy to see if he could build some confidence in his shot; a flawed part of his game that many believe to be fatal, at least insofar as Rubio could potentially be the point guard on a championship-contending team.

This year, Penberthy is gone, Ricky is shooting the worst percentages of his career (34.8% on all field goals, 20.7% on threes) and yet he continues to positively affect his team’s performance more than most point guards in the league. (And more than any of his teammates.) Rubio’s net rating of +4.9 is now second best to Tayshaun Prince, and his “off” rating (how the Wolves do when he sits) is -5.0. In other words, the Wolves are a good team when he’s on the floor, and a bad one when he is on the bench.

It’s the same story. He’s a bad shooter who happens to be a good player. Or a good player who happens to be a bad shooter. However you want to put it.

Ricky’s still good, he’s just not perfect. His per-36 assist assist-to-turnover ratio of 10.2 to 2.9 is the best of his career on both sides of it. Throughout his 4.25 NBA seasons, the Wolves have never come close to reaching the point anticipated by some where Rubio’s shooting woes limit their team’s potential. Some believe that may happen in the playoff setting, when opposing defenses have better scouting reports more specifically tailored to highlight weaknesses like Rubio’s shot.

I would love to find out if that’s the case.

Zach LaVine: B+

Depending on who you ask, Zach LaVine’s rookie season was either an abject disaster or a reason for excitement. Without repeating all of the details, LaVine the rookie made spectacular highlights and showed off all sorts of skills, but lacked awareness or discipline required to help a team win. His basic stats were sometimes good, but his advanced ones — especially those that take team performance into consideration — were awful.

He is playing much better this year. Mitchell is still playing LaVine out of position at backup point guard — and for almost 25 minutes per game — and LaVine is unable to initiate good half-court offense. But he has improved his defense, and is making fewer mistakes. In some short samples at shooting guard next to Rubio, LaVine has looked very good. Statistically, his most significant improvement is in scoring volume. Shooting roughly the same percentages as last year, he’s posting over 20 points per 36 minutes, compared to last year’s 14.7. He’s turning it over one half fewer times per 36 as well. These have his PER up from 11.3 (significantly below average) to 16.9, which is a great leap. If he ever plays shooting guard and takes advantage of his athleticism with stronger drives to the hole, he might become a pretty special player.

Based on my conversations and the commentary I observe online, I think LaVine is much less polarizing than he was a year ago. His performance has stabilized a lot in a short amount of time. The next step is trying to tap into his enormous potential as a playmaker off the dribble.

Andre Miller: A- Continue reading

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With Wolves on a Losing Streak, Expectations Evolve

“We had a lot of games last year where it was hard to see how much we learned because we were getting hammered. This year, we’re disappointed with our record at home, but we’ve been in every game…

I ask my young guys after every game, if one of em learns something tonight… about execution, about spacing, about timing, about waiting on screens, about making the extra pass, then the loss was worth it because they grew tonight. So I can take that.”

–Sam Mitchell, after tonight’s 110-106 loss to the LA Clippers

When the Timberwolves blew a 17-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night at Target Center, I wasn’t overly discouraged by it. Portland does not have a great team this year, after losing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency and trading Nicolas Batum to Charlotte for younger players. But the Blazers are solid, with a spectacular point guard in Damian Lillard, and the Wolves lost despite an outstanding performance turned in by their rookie big man, Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns was coming off of a four-game stretch of having his minutes mysteriously limited by Coach Mitchell. In those four games, his minute counts were 22, 21, 26, and 22. This was mysterious because, up to that point, Big KAT had been performing like the Wolves’ best all-around player. I think I speak for the Timberwolves-fan community at large when I say that we’d like to see Towns playing more like 30 to 35 minutes, unless he is in foul trouble or bothered by injury.

On Saturday against Portland, KAT’s playing time returned with his productivity. In 31 minutes and 50 seconds of action he dropped 27 points and 12 rebounds on the Blazers, scoring in a variety of ways while doing other things like protecting the rim on defense and dishing out a couple of assists. Towns was animated throughout the game, celebrating made shots and screaming in excitement.

Despite a whole bunch of things that went wrong in that game to cause the lead to disappear, my thought was that as long as both Wiggins and Towns get a full slate of minutes, the game is competitive, and at least one of them looks great, I’ll take that as a win this year. If of the Wolves 82 games, they get 70 or 75 of them that involve a competitive second half and a strong performance from one of their franchise cornerstones, there will have inevitably been a whole lot of progress toward the eventual goal of making the playoffs, and then contending for a championship.

I guess I was redefining for myself what constitutes a successful game for the 2015-16 Timberwolves.

Tonight, Sam Mitchell shared his views on the subject after the game in what was his most enlightening post-game presser of the season. He joked about what many of us (meaning, the media seated before him) would be doing if we were 20 years old with millions of dollars to spend. He was praising his young players for their professionalism at such young ages, continuing to work hard and avoid off-court trouble. Without mentioning the Philadelphia 76ers by name, he said that there are teams in the league that have a lot of youth, without great veterans mentors like Kevin Garnett in the locker room, and we are seeing the kinds of problems that can lead to. But Mitchell’s big quote was the one that I led with; the one about what constitutes a successful game. If a young player learned something, then that’s a win.

Now, we can’t take these things too literally. If the Wolves got spanked by 20 points against a bad team while showing lackluster effort, they could arguably have “learned something,” about preparation, and I doubt Mitchell would feel victorious no matter how far he bends the definition of the word. But he also distinguished this season from last, in that these games — partly structured by the veteran leadership of Ricky Rubio, Tayshaun Prince, and Kevin Garnett — have been competitive.

That is such a nice thing to see this year, having Wiggins, Towns and Zach LaVine get tested in big moments almost every single night. Tonight against the Clippers, LaVine had 14 of his team-high 21 points in the 4th Quarter of a close game against one of the very best teams in the NBA. Towns ended the game with 18 points on just 9 shot attempts, and had by far the best plus-minus among Wolves starters. Wiggins struggled, sometimes bothered by the great defense of former Timberwolves wing stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Maybe he learned something, while Towns and LaVine had more success.

The most fun play of tonight’s game was when Kevin Garnett caught a fast-break bounce pass from Ricky Rubio with just the right momentum in his footwork to cock it back and flush over Blake Griffin. The crowd went crazy and so did KG. He was immediately T’d up for taunting, and even Mitchell had to admit that he didn’t care. The moment was worth it.

The most disappointing play of tonight’s game came out of a timeout with 25 seconds left, when LaVine threw a questionable inbounds pass to Wiggins, who did not handle it well against Mbah a Moute’s defense, leading to a terrible, ill-timed turnover. It’s the sort of play that would drive you nuts if it were a playoff game. Maybe they’ll learn from it. When discussing that screw-up, and others his young players make, Mitchell contrasted their impatience when waiting for a screen or play to develop with Chris Paul of the Clippers, who times his decisions perfectly, always testing the defenses and inviting them to make a mistake. I’m sure they’ll go over that play tomorrow and try to do it better next time.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I think, or at least wonder if, the Timberwolves might have a playoff-caliber roster right now. The immediate impact play from Towns was not foreseeable — even the best rookies typically struggle to help win games right away — and it sort of threw season expectations into a blender. We’re still seeing what will eventually come out. Ricky Rubio missed games due to ankle pain, which led to a slew of losses, but now he’s back and playing almost a full load of minutes every night, so we’re going to see what this team is made of.

Maybe they’ll go on a big winning streak as their schedule eases up in the next couple weeks. In their next seven games they play the Lakers, the Nuggets twice, the Suns, the Knicks, the Kings and the Nets. If they remain healthy throughout that stretch, it’s possible that they could come out of it right back around the .500 mark, and in the playoff discussion. It would be fun to keep that conversation going as long as possible; both for fan interest in the season and for the upbeat spirits of the young players.

But even if the playoff dream dies early, as it very well might, I’ll find most games to be beneficial and reason for increasing hope if Mitchell will simply run out his best two young guys for a full load of playing time — nothing excessive, just full starters minutes for Wig and KAT — and at least one of them shines like a star. If that happens most nights this year, it’ll feel like a success.

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Andrew Wiggins & Shooting Off the Catch

wiggy

Andrew Wiggins has been playing good basketball. He started off slow, bothered by back problems for the season’s first few games, but has generally been the Timberwolves most consistent player. His 22.1 points per game ranks 10th in the NBA. He doesn’t turn 21 years old until February.

The exciting thing about Wiggins is that he is already so good — at such a young age — but also has so much room left to grow. There are many aspects of his game which will improve over the next few seasons as he blossoms into one of the game’s best all-around players.

One of Wiggins’ bad habits is passing up an open shot for a drive to the hoop. He will catch a kick-out pass with plenty of room to fire, and instead choose to dribble into traffic. This is most glaring on three-point shots, where taking the shot is extra wise, and passing it up for a long drive into traffic is comparatively more difficult. On certain teams, like the Spurs and Warriors, this can be a good decision. They have so much skill at every position, and spread the floor so wide, that they have the luxury of passing up good shots in order to generate great ones.

The Wolves are not the Spurs or the Warriors, and when Wiggins passes up a good shot to drive into traffic, there’s a good chance that there will be teammates clogging up the lane and drawing help defenders into the space that he’s trying to score from. It might be beneficial for Wiggins and the Wolves if he would fire more shots off the catch.

Just to confirm what I think my eyes are seeing, I checked out the nba.com tracking stats of Wiggins, and compared them to some other star wing players, to see how often they shoot without dribbling.

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

Ricky's back. This is gonna be fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back to .500: Wolves 101, KINGS 91

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Evaluating Sam Mitchell’s Coaching Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point Guards

Ricky Rubio

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

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

BAD: Field Goal Percentage of 36.3.

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

Zach LaVine

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What is going on with Ricky Rubio?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LaVine at Point Guard: An Ongoing and Complex Question

2015 NBA Slam-Dunk champion Zach LaVine

We have a Zach LaVine issue.

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

What we know:

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

What we don’t know:

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

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