Category Archives: Timberwolves

Andrew Wiggins & Shooting Off the Catch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beating Bulls & Hawks, Wolves Reshape Hopes…Expectations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not how it went.

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Heat 96, WOLVES 84: Wolves Rotations Not Competitive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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a quick debate with myself about Andrew Wiggins

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

Glass Half Full: How so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good: Everything about how the night started.

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

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

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

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

The Bad: Coach Mitchell’s Rotations

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Talking Towns, Rubio, Wiggins

“I’ve had thirty years of NBA experience. I’ve seen guys come and go. This guy, to me, looks like he’s special. He’s the real deal.”

–Jim Petersen, on Karl-Anthony Towns, during the 3rd Quarter of last night’s telecast.

In previewing this Wolves season, I posed questions about each player, and finished with perhaps the most important franchise question about the most important player on the team:

Is Karl-Anthony Towns the real deal?

He was the player they selected with the first overall draft pick, for the first time ever. With a semblance of a young Timberwolves nucleus forming, Towns figures to be in the middle of it, next to Andrew Wiggins. If the Wolves are going to succeed in their Thunder Model rebuild, Towns needs to be an all-around force; the kind of player that can put a team on his back and carry them to some wins.

For the first time in his two-games-long career, we saw evidence of this last night in Denver. The stats tell most of the story: KAT had 28 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 blocks in 33 minutes of +15 basketball. His team won easily (in a game that Vegas pegged them as underdogs) and he was by far the biggest reason why. Towns looked comfortable shooting or driving, as the situation required. When an interior defender was out of position, Towns initiated the precise amount of contact to both draw the foul and maintain balance to finish the play and make the shot. His awareness might have been highlighted best by a play that didn’t register a stat: in the post, he head-faked, drew extra defenders, pivoted out of the defense and kicked out a perfect pass to Ricky Rubio at the top of the key. Ricky’s shot rimmed out — so no assist for Towns — but it was a helluva play; one that demonstrated poise and awareness befitting a player way older than 19.

On defense, Towns was very good. He had those 4 blocks and 14 rebounds (11 of them defensive) and goes after defensive boards with the same type of urgency that Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love do. When Towns senses an opponent’s hand creeping in to poke the rebounded ball away, he promptly flares out his elbows and looks for Ricky Rubio to push the ball.

This was just one game, but it seemed almost unbelievable that a 19-year old rookie could look so good in his second professional game. Fans should be excited about this player.

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Wolves Hold Off Lakers, Win for Flip: (Wolves 112, LAKERS 111)

The Wolves win over the Lakers was an exciting and gratifying one for a few different reasons. It came by just one point, as Lou Williams’ shot narrowly missed at the buzzer. The Wolves trailed by double figures for much of the night, including by 15 points midway through the third quarter, and rallied for a big comeback in the fourth. Ricky Rubio had one of his best career games, scoring a career-high 28 points and dropping 14 assists next to just 1 turnover. He was clearly the game’s most valuable player and showed off a skillset that would elevate him to the bona fide stardom that many of us think is within his realistic potential.

But, of course, this win was most gratifying because of the circumstances under which it came. Flip Saunders was on everybody’s mind in the days leading up to this game, right up through the pregame routine when the Lakers wore shirts that said “FLIP” on the front, and held a long moment of silence for his memory. After the buzzer sounded, Rubio and Kevin Garnett were emotional, each pointing to the sky for an obvious reason.

Beating this Lakers team is not a big accomplishment in and of itself. Neither of the teams playing tonight will realistically contend for the playoffs in the West. But after arguably the toughest week in the history of the franchise, it felt appropriate to get this win, and that’s what the Wolves did.

Since it’s (very) late, these are a few quick reactions of mine to this game: Continue reading

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

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

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

Andrew Wiggins

  • How many threes will Wiggins shoot this year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BIGS

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

LaVine

Will Zach LaVine eliminate any of his weaknesses in his second season?

The Timberwolves regular, real season begins on Wednesday night at the Staples Center. They play against the Lakers at 9:30 CST on ESPN. On Friday, they play at Denver; a game that will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus. Then, on Monday, they play against the Portland Trail Blazers. This will be their home opener and will undoubtedly feature an emotional tribute to the team’s recently fallen leader, Flip Saunders.

Flip’s passing is going to weigh heavily on this team for a while, but the games will be played. The show will go on. I am qualified on neither a personal-relationship basis, or a simple “writing chops” basis to dig deep into the happy story of Flip’s life or the sad story of his death. The best I can offer on this tragedy are some words about what Flip accomplished in rebuilding this Timberwolves team, setting it in such a positive direction. I did that yesterday afternoon when the news broke and I could not focus on basketball. This is my awkward way of saying that I am going to move on, as far as this blog is concerned, and write about basketball again. As many have written in the past 24 hours, Flip understood better than most that “at the end of the day,” basketball is supposed to be fun. That is how I view it, and to me, it is fun that the Timberwolves are about to begin another season, and that is what I wanted to write about tonight.

For this piece, which I guess is ostensibly a “season preview,” I thought it would be fun to break down the Wolves roster by positions, and pose what I find to be important questions facing each player in the season ahead. Some of these will involve stats, some will involve style of play, and some will be a bit more big-picture or random. I’ll offer some quick guesses at my own questions, and open it up to commenters to weigh in on where they agree or disagree.

I’ll go through the positions in (what I believe to be) reverse order of importance to the Wolves future, for DRAMATIC EFFECT.

Without further ado…

[Eds note: This post is running longer than I anticipated, so this will be Part I, and I’ll publish a Part II either tomorrow or Wednesday that covers Wiggins and then the big men.]

THE POINT GUARDS

Andre Miller

  • How many minutes per game will appease “Professor Miller?”

When this season opens, and as long as Ricky Rubio is healthy (knocks on all of the wood) Andre Miller will be this team’s backup point guard. I think it seems reasonable to assume that a healthy Rubio will average about 35 minutes per contest. Given that neither he nor Miller are very good shooters, they will probably not share the floor much. This means that there might only be about 13 minutes per game for Miller – and that is if they play rookie Tyus Jones ZERO, and they play Zach LaVine exclusively off the ball. If the plans to prioritize development are sincere, Jones will probably see a few spot minutes here and there, and LaVine will probably play some point, too. (The part about Jones is especially likely, given the Wolves lack of a D-League affiliate where he might otherwise have spent most of the year.) Miller is going to turn 40 years old (!) in March, so his expectations for playing time might be realistically low. But consider that he finished last year in Sacramento, playing for his favorite coach George Karl, and was logging over 20 minutes per game.

My guess: Miller will be okay sitting some games out completely — with some communications and “heads up” from the coaches — but will expect some floor time, too. I think he will probably average 12 minutes per game and be happy enough with that.

Tyus Jones

  • Does Tyus have any interesting upside, and will we see any teases of it this year?

Tyus Jones was possibly the most acclaimed prep basketball star in Minnesota history. He was widely considered one of the very best prospects in his national class throughout his entire high school career, eventually made the McDonald’s All America Team, and chose to attend Duke, instead of, well, every other basketball powerhouse. In his lone season in Durham, he earned third team All ACC honors, led the Blue Devils to a national championship and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

If that was all that you knew about him, you would probably imagine someone who looks a lot different than Jones does. From McDonald’s games past, you might imagine somebody who looks like Jonathan Bender or Kobe Bryant or, locally, Kris Humphries. Somebody big, strong and super athletic.

But Jones is none of those things. He is only 6’1″ and very skinny. He plays with a nice pace, but is not particularly explosive. He has a lot of physical development ahead of him, if he is going to make an impact at the NBA level the way that he did in high school and college.

What I am curious to see is if there are early signs — this season — of upside that exceeds “quality backup point guard.” I notice people putting this type of ceiling on Jones’s potential, before he plays a single game. Given that Jones has been much, much better than his peers through this point in his life, and he has won championships at every level, through this point in his life, I suspect he imagines an NBA career that involves him making an impact on games; a career better than just backup duty. As a point guard, I suspect Jones envisions himself running a high-power offense — like he did at Duke — with not only smart decisions and crisp passes, but clever plays, too. Once the speed of the NBA game slows sufficiently down for him, and his body matures, can he do some of the things that Chris Paul does to clear so much space for himself around the elbows, shrugging off defenders with hand-check-deterring flops, and just generally make a positive impact on team performance?

My guess: He is one year away from showing us much to be excited about, but he may have a bright future and long career ahead of him.

Ricky Rubio

  • Will Ricky Rubio run the Wolves offense, or will it be run from the bench?

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Flip Saunders Passes, Leaving Timberwolves in Better Shape than he Found Them.

FlipI was on my way out the door today when I heard the iTunes on my computer still playing. The plan was to head out to get coffee and bang out a post that previewed the Timberwolves season. I didn’t have a perfectly clear idea of what I was going to write. I was sure it would have to do with the team’s exciting young players, the patience that will be required as the franchise prioritizes development over winning in the short term, and probably some thoughts about the tactics we saw on display in the preseason, under the leadership of interim coach, Sam Mitchell.

When I leaned over to stop the music, I had my TweetDeck app open, and there was news on Twitter.

Big, huge, terrible, tragic news.

Flip Saunders died.

On one hand, this did not come out of left field. It was not necessarily a surprise, given that Flip’s cancer diagnosis was announced many months ago, and his attempt to continue working failed when he was hospitalized with complications. Nothing that has been reported in the past few weeks has sounded good, and I think most people trying to follow the situation have understood that this outcome was possible, if not likely.

Still, the news itself is enormously sad and significant on many levels.  The aspect about a person being taken too soon by cancer is self evident. But Flip is one of the most influential people in Timberwolves history, too. In his first go-around here, he was (with Kevin McHale) responsible for drafting Kevin Garnett, and coaching him through his entire professional development, and the prime of his Hall of Fame career. The Wolves went to the playoffs eight straight times with Saunders coaching. They had never been to the playoffs before he was hired, nor have they been back to the playoffs since they fired him in 2005.

Up through his recent cancer diagnosis and leave of absence, Flip was in a position of power that is possibly unmatched in modern professional basketball, or even sports. Flip was a minority owner of the team, he was the president of basketball operations in charge of managing the roster and drafting players, and he was the head coach. He had his hands everywhere, on this team.

Flip the President traded away the team’s disgruntled best player, Kevin Love, and somehow acquired a legitimate cornerstone talent, Andrew Wiggins. This came after Flip’s first draft, when his controversial decision to select Shabazz Muhammad would later prove to be wise one.

Flip the Coach made the development of Wiggins such a priority that it would better be characterized as an obsession. Nothing mattered more to Flip, last year, than making damn sure that his prized rookie cashed in on his enormous potential. By the end of the season, after continuous direction from Saunders, Wiggins was asserting himself the way that he needed to. He easily won Rookie of the Year honors, and many expect him to break out into All-Star form very soon.

Flip the President was working in close coordination with Flip the Coach. Together, they beautifully orchestrated the tanking development strategy that positioned the Wolves to select Karl-Anthony Towns in the 2015 Draft. Flip held Ricky Rubio out of 60 games for an ankle sprain (!), knowing full well that he would face questions almost everyday about what exactly was wrong that he couldn’t play his veterans. He faced that music with a shockingly upbeat spirit, and enjoyed the last laugh on lottery night, and again on draft night, when it all paid off.

Flip the Owner and businessman was also making his presence felt. He was obviously a key factor in bringing Kevin Garnett back to Minnesota; in the short term as a player, and in the longer term, as a future owner of this team. KG is perhaps the only person whose impact on Timberwolves history exceeds Flip’s, and the two of them were going to do everything they could to ensure its future was brighter than its recent past. The first concrete evidence of Flip’s business influence was the construction of a state-of-the-art practice facility in Downtown Minneapolis, across the street from Target Center. While I cannot say for sure, I doubt that this Mayo Clinic partnership happens, to this extent, without Flip’s participation.  This practice facility is the best in the NBA and Flip was a leader in getting it built.

Those are just the things that Flip has done since returning to the Timberwolves in 2012. In a very short time, he took an anxious franchise moment — Kevin Love’s contract timer ticking, Rick Adelman no longer fully invested in coaching responsibilities, the roster at large in great need of a young-talent infusion — and spun it into genuine excitement and optimism that the Timberwolves will become a championship contender again.

Flip’s passing is a pretty incredible thing for the Wolves organization to go through, and we will all be trying to sort out What Comes Next over the next few weeks, months, and even years. But for today, it’s best to just remember Flip Saunders and send well wishes to his family and (many) other loved ones.

Rest in peace, Flip.

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INBOX Game Wrap: Wolves Lose Big to Bucks, Shabazz a Bright Spot

Andy G: The Wolves just played the Bucks in their penultimate preseason game of the 2015-16 season. The good news is that Nemanja Bjelica stuck a three-pointer with just seven seconds left in the game. The bad news is that his shot cut the Bucks lead down from 21 to 18.

The Wolves got smoked again. The Bucks won 106-88. The Wolves shot just 33 percent from the field, compared to Milwaukee’s 51. They were outrebounded, they missed shots, turned the ball over and — in the second half — played poor defense.

They are now 1-5 in the preseason, with 4 of the 5 losses being pretty lopsided games.

The bad stuff is pretty easily observed: tactically, their offense is outdated and their spacing is not where it needs to be. As a group of players, they are obviously very young and inexperienced, not to mention physically weak compared to the grown men that cause NBA teams to win consistently. They don’t have enough playmaking on offense, or enough general know-how on D.

Any bright spots out there in this game? I don’t mean to pile on, but that was another rough one.

Patrick J: There weren’t a lot of bright spots. But Shabazz Muhammad was by far the brightest. Bazz did not play a perfect game, but he was by far the most active and aggressive Wolves player. His stats are fairly representative of his game tonight: in 25 minutes, he scored 18 points on only seven field goal attempts. Far from the “Derricking” free-throw tendencies he’s known for, tonight Bazz shot a perfect for 11-11 and looked composed for a change while doing it. Muhammad “did stuff” in the other categories as well, pulling in five boards, dishing out four assists, and thieving one steal. Yet even though Shabazz was the bright spot, he didn’t look that great, either. He was out of sync with his teammates on both offense and defense. The difference between Shabazz and most of his teammates is that he can thrive in these kinds of scrums. That has its value, but you don’t want to have to rely on it all the time, as it’s a sign that you’re getting worked over by the opposing team.

I guess the question is, does this game even tell us anything about Shabazz and his value to the team?

Andy G: I wish they’d start Shabazz. I thought he made a lot of plays tonight — like you said, he was the bright spot — and he deserves a bigger role than it seems like he’ll begin the season with. Shabazz was arguably the best player on the Wolves team last year. He was certainly their best scorer. So far, in this preseason sample size, I think his on-ball defense looks improved. (He’s at least closing all the way out to his man, and seems to be a little bit more effective at cutting off dribble penetration.) Continue reading

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INBOX: Can Bjelica and Rubio Save the Wolves Offense?

bjelicaAndy G: The Wolves have played 4 preseason games. They have won 1 game (Wednesday night versus the Raptors in a game where both Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola sat out) and lost three; the first two in blowout fashion to the Thunder and Bulls and then a closer loss to the Raptors in their first leg of the Canadian double-header the two teams put on, in Winnipeg and Ottawa, respectively.

We could over-analyze these try-things-out, audition-type games to death, but I’d like to instead focus on something that I think might actually have relevance to the regular season to come:

Nemanja Bjelica, and how his style of play might positively influence the (outdated) style of offense that both Flip Saunders and now Sam Mitchell seem to prefer when putting together their default sets.

Allow me to briefly explain what I mean.

In these preseason games (and in the intrasquad scrimmage that was played at Target Center a short while back) the Wolves have been running an offense that has looked largely similar to what Flip ran last year. It involves down screens (“pin-down screens” in modern NBA lingo) set by bigs for wings, who either look for their own moving mid-range jumper, or catch the wing entry pass and then look to feed the post.

That’s the default setting. A lot of specific set plays are blended in — often times when Kevin Martin checks into the game, or if Andrew Wiggins has not been sufficiently involved in the offense — that are completely engineered to free up a wing player for either a quick jumper, or an isolation set of his own. These plays usually involve a few seconds of dribbling the air out of the ball on the wing while an assortment of big Timberwolves clump together near the paint to set a double or triple screen for the chosen teammate to be freed up for an isolation set.

Almost none of this action is good. (I think a limited exception involves Shabazz Muhammad posting up certain opponents.) It wastes precious shot-clock time and is purposefully engineered to create inefficient shots. The goal — a chance to shoot a defended two-point shot — does not make sense, in today’s NBA. There was a time when these were the premier play designs for legends like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing. That type has passed.

This is where Bjelica comes in. I don’t know if it is because he struggles to understand the plays at this stage, or if the Wolves are intentionally running different sets to utilize his skillset or because he is just purposefully hijacking the offense, BUT:

When Bjelica checks into the game he tends to get the team playing smarter offense.

As a 6’10” forward who can shoot from 27 feet out with ease, he stretches the opposing defenses out, and thus creates more room for his teammates to operate in space. Along with the simple “he’s a threat to shoot from way outside” factor, Bjelica is also a facilitator of screen-and-roll sets both as a screen setter, and also as a dribbler who will call for ball screens to come his way, too.

Two questions:

  1. Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Does the offense look better with Bjelica out there, and does it seem to be in large part because of how he plays and influences their approach?
  2. Should we expect a better look from the starting squad when Ricky Rubio returns? He hasn’t played yet, and — thus far — the Wolves starters are the worst-looking group they have.

Patrick J: To answer your questions: Continue reading

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Shifting Expectations, Wolves Lose Big to Thunder

tyus

Tyus Jones, barely removed from Apple Valley High, started at point guard tonight versus Russ Westbrook.

How a person feels about tonight’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder depends largely on what that person expected, going into the game, and why they held those expectations. Ricky Rubio has been held out of action for the past few days and we knew that he would not play tonight. (His ailments are not expected to be serious or threaten his regular-season availability.) Add to that the announcement that 19-year old, was-attending-Apple Valley-High-School-17-months-ago Tyus Jones would replace Rubio in the starting lineup against Russell Westbrook, and nobody could reasonably expect a successful outcome. Along with the Jones/Rubio lineup swap, Sam Mitchell made a surprising proclamation yesterday: Zach LaVine will be this team’s starting shooting guard; not Kevin Martin, who was named the starter by… well, himself, at Media Day. This announcement was Mitchell putting bold, italized, capitalized type on that DEVELOPMENT word that he has been throwing around ever since taking over coaching duties. LaVine as a Day 1 starter sends a clear message that potential, and future take priority over actualized ability and the present.

So with all of that built into people’s respective Game Previews, a 23-point loss to the full-strength (well, aside from Steven Adams) Thunder was not surprising. The Wolves starting lineup featured two one-and-done rookies, and two one-and-done sophomores. None of these four are old enough to legally enter a bar in Downtown Minneapolis and yet there they were, all four of em trying to guard Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka.

Defense was the big, obvious problem tonight. Aside from when Kevin Garnett was on the floor (all of 7 minutes 52 seconds) and when Westbrook and Durant were on the bench (they were both game-high +22’s) the Wolves simply could not get stops. Westbrook was coming off of high ball screens and flooring the accelerator straight down the middle of the lane. Help usually came, but the defense was so out of sorts that Russ was able to do something good with the ball almost every time. He had 14 points and 13 assists on the night, and was every bit as insane out there as he would be in a Finals game.

When the Thunder were not rolling behind Westbrook penetration (or transition sequences) they were running Durant off of Enes Kanter down screens, setting up equally unstoppable action on the wing. Durant, against this defense anyway, makes this a pick-your-poison proposition if there ever was one. Too much help led to nifty passes slipped to Kanter for an easy two points. Not enough help meant, well, Durant would score it himself.

In my opinion, the Westbrook stuff was more preventable (by a hypothetical, good defensive team) than what Durant was doing on the wing. I think Ricky Rubio would do a much better job than Jones and Lorenzo Brown did of jumping out, forcing Russ different directions from where he wanted to go, and at least making him do something besides those halfback dives to the rim.

In any case, the defense struggled. They gave up 122 points on 56 percent field goal shooting. It’s hard to say anything but bad stuff about that. It looked like last year, with the caveat that they (for 22 of the 48 minutes, when Russ & KD played) were facing elite competition.

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