On enjoying Thunder-Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list could go on.

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

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

 

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Wolves Drafting 5th: What now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Takeaways from Thibs: Wolves Introduce New Coach

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

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

Here goes:

  • Glen wants a championship, badly.

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

  • Thibs has friends in the Chicago media.

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Wolves Sign Thibs & Things Have Never Looked Brighter

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

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

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

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

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

And the answer, of course, is no.

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Final Timberwolves Report Cards, 4th Quarter & Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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INBOX: Mitchell Out, Coaching Search Underway

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

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

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

“It depends.”

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

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

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

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

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

What did you think of the announcement?

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

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The Case for Keeping Sam Mitchell

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

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

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

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

Here goes nothing…

THE CASE FOR KEEPING SAM MITCHELL

Qualifications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Running Without Rebounding: Looking into Wolves Trends

This Timberwolves season has involved some clear trends, with clear reasons for those trends. In the early part of the season, they won a surprising number of games — 8 of their first 16 — largely because of the exceptional team defense played by lineups that included Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett. When that success started to seem unsustainable, the “youth movement” became a greater priority. With more Zach LaVine, and less Prince and KG, we saw better offense, but much, much worse defense. Overall, team performance suffered mightily in the middle months of the season. The consistency of their mid-season slumping is partly evidenced by the same net rating of -5.7 in December and January. To put that in perspective, only 4 teams in the league post worse net ratings than that: the Nets, Suns, Lakers and 76ers.

When LaVine and rookie phenom Karl-Anthony Towns thrived in the spotlight of All-Star Weekend, it seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered; it was not a fun point in time for the Timberwolves, and the youngsters finally had some positivity.

In March, things have seemed to get better; a bit more stabilized. The offense is performing well, and the defense is performing less bad. The Wolves net rating in March is -1.5, which matches November for the best of their season (not counting the +12.5 they posted in 2 October games). My “eye test” has told me that one significant reason for their improved play is that the most athletic players on the team — Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins — have begun to cash in on fast-break scoring opportunities generated by point guard wizard, Ricky Rubio. A common play in recent games has been either a long rebound or outlet pass to Rubio immediately turned into a shove-ahead assist to LaVine or Wiggins, streaking up the floor for a dunk.

Things are far from great, however. That season-best net rating is still negative, after all, and the improved offense has continued to be offset by crappy defense. Again going mostly by eye test, my take has been that the team’s recent lineup of choice — Rubio/LaVine/Wiggins/Dieng/Towns — is not big enough inside to rebound opponent’s missed shots. Sometimes, the ongoing struggle to get rebounds leads to these fast-break opportunities. Basically: opponents are willing to sacrifice some transition defense if it means crushing the Wolves on the glass all night. Add it together, and it ends with the Wolves struggling to keep up in high-scoring games.

So let’s look at the month-to-month numbers and try to spot some trends. Please note that Garnett’s month-to-month minutes played, beginning with November, go 202, 191, 127, 0, and 0. Prince’s go 307, 322, 377, 133, and 161. LaVine’s playing time was stable from November through February, but his position changed from combo (mostly point) guard, to almost exclusively shooting guard in mid-February, when Tyus Jones took over the backup point guard spot. The LaVine/Prince swap (Wiggins moves to the small forward and Prince goes to the bench when LaVine starts at the two) has a huge bearing on offense (better with LaVine), defense (much better with Prince), and pace (much higher with LaVine).

Here are some month-to-month stats to chew on:

Offensive Rating, and Percentage of Points Scored on the Fast Break

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Defining the Timberwolves Core & What That Means

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On Wednesday night, the Timberwolves faced a Memphis Grizzlies team that was absolutely depleted. The Grizz were without their best players: Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. They were also missing Vince Carter on Wednesday. Thankfully, the Wolves won. Zach LaVine had a big night, scoring 28 points. Tyus Jones played one of his best career games, racking up 10 points and 5 assists in 19 minutes of (+10) action off the bench.

Tonight, the Wolves face a Houston Rockets team that recently acquired Punch-Drunk Wolves favorite, Michael Beasley. Supercool Beas was recently named Foreign MVP of the Chinese Basketball Association after posting averages of 31.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He will be missed by the Shandong Golden Stars… at least until next year.

Yesterday was the first day of NCAA Tournament games. March Madness is upon us.

When teams are ravaged by injuries, Michael Beasley is back from China on a Why not? flyer, and the Big Dance is underway, you know that the NBA season is winding to a close. With that being the case, and with the Timberwolves headed to their umpteenth draft lottery, discussions about the team tend to skew toward the bigger picture, and the future. There are numerous questions, ranging in specificity, that can drive this conversation about the Wolves at this stage in their building process.

What do they need? That’s probably the most general. My knee-jerk reaction to this one is “a reliable veteran big man.” I prefer that they find a full-sized big man who can slide Karl-Anthony Towns over to the four spot (just for a few seasons, until he gets bigger and stronger) and help the Wolves defend the paint and rebound opponents’ missed shots. I know that some other people prefer the Wolves address perimeter shooting, and others feel that a “small-ball four” would be a smarter acquisition than a traditional five.

Who should they draft? This is related to the question of need, and that relationship is an interesting conversation itself. (More on this below.) The NCAA Tournament increases draft chatter, as many of the best prospects are playing in the biggest games of their careers, and NBA fans are actually watching.

Finally, I think a lot of people ask whether Ricky Rubio is, or should be (potentially a crucial distinction) considered a part of this team’s core. The Wolves are undoubtedly planning ways to contend for championships when Towns and Andrew Wiggins hit their primes. That will be in 3 or 4 years. Will Ricky still be around?

All of these questions are intertwined.

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3rd Quarter Report Card

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The Timberwolves 2015-16 season is starting to wind down. They’ve played 64 of 82 games as I begin this writing at Target Center, during pregame shootaround of the Wolves-Spurs tilt on Tuesday night. I posted quarter report cards after the first 20, and then 41 games had been played. The first quarter was optimistic. Fans recall the hot start to the Wolves season when they racked up surprising wins against the Heat, Bulls and Hawks, setting unsustainably-high expectations that would lead to eventual criticism of interim coach Sam Mitchell. The first quarter report card was brighter than the second one.

This third quarter report card covers player performance in Games 42 through 62 of the season. It’s a 21-game sample that showed a few interesting trends. They went 7-14 in that stretch; worse than their first quarter, but better than the second. Kevin Garnett played a grand total of 3 games and 40 minutes. Kevin Martin played in only 8 games. So did Andre Miller. Both of them player for the Spurs now.

The third quarter commenced the full youth movement, with the following players leading the team in minutes played:

  1. Wiggins
  2. Towns
  3. Dieng
  4. Rubio
  5. LaVine
  6. Muhammad

Since Coach Mitchell has trimmed the rotation down to mostly those 6 players, I only graded them, along with rookies Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica.

Here are the grades:

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

Rubio grades high for a few different reasons. First, he stayed healthy, which is never taken for granted with this player. He played in every game, averaging about 31 minutes per. Second, he posted his usual, stellar assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.6 to 2.5. Third, he shot the ball better than usual, connecting on 40 percent of field goals. Fourth, the Wolves — as always — played much better with him on the floor (-0.5, close to even basketball) than when he was off the floor (-6.1).

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

LaVine had a terrible second quarter of the season, and has bounced back with decent play for a pretty clear reason: He has been moved from playing mostly point guard to playing about half of his minutes at shooting guard. In the second quarter, LaVine played next to Rubio for 316 of his total 635 minutes. Averaging 30 minutes a game, LaVine put up per-game averages of 15.1 points (on 48.8 percent shooting, including 41.0 percent from downtown), 2.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 turnovers. His 2.1 turnovers per 36 minutes revealed improvement in the ball-control department; he was averaging 3.1 per 36 through the first two quarters of the season. LaVine would grade out better if not for his on court/off court differential. When LaVine was on the floor the Wolves were outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions, and when he sat on the bench the Wolves outscored opponents by 2.8. He continues to correlate with worse team performance, albeit less than last season and hopefully to a decreasing extent.

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

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Wolves Big-Picture Issues: Sam’s Future as Coach & Bizarre Situation with LaVine

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The Wolves have now played 60 games, and will cross the season’s three-quarter mark after their home game tomorrow night against the Washington Wizards and their Friday night tilt at Milwaukee, against the Bucks. I’ll be out of town over the weekend but will prepare another quarterly report card early next week, assessing each player’s performance in Games 42 through 62.

For now, a couple different Wolves-related discussion topics:

Sam Mitchell’s Future as Coach

Jon Krawczynski dropped a bomb on Wolves Twitter this past week:

The report is pretty simple and understandable. If the Wolves demonstrate some improvement in the win/loss column from last year (when they won only 16 games) then Mitchell might keep the head coaching job. Once “interim” is removed from his job title, Sam is the team’s coach going forward into the future. He’ll be the guy leading Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns into the prime of their careers.

My first reaction is to repeat everything I wrote last week about improvement. Specifically, it isn’t clear that this year’s team is improved from last year, after you take Ricky Rubio’s health and Karl-Anthony Towns’s presence (and immediate greatness) into consideration.  Everyone paying attention knows how much Rubio matters to this team’s performance.  Regarding Towns, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle emphasized that KAT is “already a great player” in his pregame remarks the other night. I am not convinced that 27 to 29 wins would mark improvement over last year, once you consider these two major roster additions.

My second reaction is to think about Randy Wittman. In case you forgot, back in 2012 Wittman replaced Flip Saunders in Washington in an interim capacity just like Mitchell has, here in Minnesota. (Tragic difference of circumstances this time around goes without saying.) Wittman coached young phenom John Wall, much like Mitchell is doing with Karl-Anthony Towns, and they showed what was interpreted as “improvement” by finishing that season 18-31 after starting out 2-15 under Flip. The Wizards decided that was good enough, Wittman kept the job full time, and they’ve probably underachieved to a significant extent because of that decision. It is not unreasonable to fear that keeping Mitchell here, in lieu of some bigtime available alternatives, would lead to a very similar conclusion: progress into a middle-seed playoff team due to the immense talent of Towns (like Wall) but nothing approaching real title contention. If the Wolves can hire Tom Thibodeau this summer but instead stick with Mitchell because of perceived progress, it will be a huge mistake.

My third reaction is to think about why retaining Mitchell would be less surprising than it might at first seem.  (If it must be said, I have expected a summer coaching change because of the constant criticism leveled at the Wolves in-game strategies, Mitchell’s intentionally-salty relationship with the local media, and the team’s decision to announce him ALWAYS as “Interim Head Coach Sam Mitchell.”) Interim coaches have the benefit of an audition, and the benefit of selling the job they’ve done to the public.  Maybe more than anything, they have the benefit of establishing relationships with the players.  Mitchell was criticized anonymously by some players in a different Krawczynski report from a while back, but it does not seem as if he is at risk of “losing the locker room” right now. Kevin Garnett has spoken out in full support of Mitchell. He’s going to be an owner of this team soon. Karl-Anthony Towns only says great things about Mitchell, and he is the most important employee that Glen Taylor has right now and for the foreseeable future. Andrew Wiggins is already on his second coach in his second NBA season, and might not want a third one in Year 3. There are some reasons to believe the team might prefer continuity to change.

My final reaction to this news is to think about what it means for the remainder of the season. Is Glen Taylor really monitoring the win-loss column and planning to keep or change coaches depending on the final tally? Given some of the team’s managerial decisions (mostly sitting Andre Miller in favor of Zach LaVine and now Tyus Jones, not finding a reliable backup big man) it has not seemed as though they are seriously trying to rack up wins. But if Taylor is actually going to base this monumental decision on the final win tally, should Wolves fans be cheering for losses? Normally, we do that to boost draft position. This would be to force a regime change. I really don’t know. It’s something to think about though. When the Wolves beat the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans in a close one, only to get blown off the floor by Dallas the next night, should we feel good that they split a road back-to-back or wonder if the added win — which was not at all impressive on its own — might lead to a bigger-picture problem down the road?

It’s a complicated and “fluid” (David Kahn voice) situation. Stay tuned.

The Bizarre Relationship Between the Front Office & Zach LaVine

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How Much Are the Timberwolves Improving? The Question that Will Decide Mitchell’s Fate

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“When you look at that core [of the Timberwolves best young players], are they getting better? The numbers say they are. Are we playing better defensively? Yes. Offensively? Yes. Would we like to win more games? Absolutely. Our young core is learning how to compete and win each and every night.”

Those were the words of Timberwolves Interim Head Coach Sam Mitchell in his recent interview with Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN. The concept of improvement is the single most important one for this team, this season. Consider recent events, and what is going on with this team at this moment.

When Flip Saunders tragically died from complications with his cancer treatment, he was smack in the middle of one of the league’s most successful roster-rebuilding jobs in recent NBA history. Flip was in charge of acquiring players like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns, and he was equally in charge of teaching them how to play NBA basketball; teaching them individually to become star players, and teaching them to play together as a successful team. We’ll never know how much and in what exact ways Flip’s death altered the trajectory of this franchise, but given how much power he had as both front office boss and head coach the alternate reality where he leads this group for the next decade is inevitably much different than whatever will actually happen.

After Flip passed away, Glen Taylor put a freeze on big-picture decision-making while he got to work on selling the team to new ownership. Milt Newton would run the front office, and he’s obviously running it very conservatively. He answers phone calls more than he initiates them. The Wolves were not active at the trade deadline. Newton and the front office have an obvious default position of, “Do nothing with the main roster pieces, and prepare for the next draft pick.”

Sam Mitchell’s job is more interesting because there is no “passive” option for the coach. The show must go on, and the Timberwolves will play 82 games this season just like every other team. The Timberwolves have a team of ridiculously talented young players, and those players need to be coached up so that they improve as individuals and as a team. The NBA season is precious time for these guys like Wiggins, LaVine and Towns to gel as a synergistic group and to learn more about what it takes to succeed at this level. And they will rely on their coach more than any other person in the world for help in those endeavors.

In short, the one big thing that the Timberwolves needed to do this season, after Flip’s untimely passing, was improve as players, and improve as a team.

Mitchell understands this, and understands that since he desperately wants to be this team’s coach for the long term, he needs to be able to demonstrate that improvement has happened. It’s why he emphasizes that point at the outset of the Wolfson interview.

But is he right?

Let’s take a look, and try to fit this year’s performance versus last year’s into appropriate context.

Individuals

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Remembering Rambis: Some High (But Mostly Low) Lights of the Kurt and Kahn Era

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Andy G: So Kurt Rambis is somehow coaching an NBA team again, and that team plays at Target Center tonight. Knicks vs. Wolves. It’s natural to use this chance to look back on his time in ‘Sota. Kurt’s first Wolves team won 15 games. His second Wolves team won 17 games. I’d imagine no franchise in league history has gone consecutive seasons without winning even 18 games, but I don’t know that for sure.

Let’s cut to the chase: What was your favorite “lowlight” of the Rambis Era? (Eds note: Should we really be calling this the “Kahnbis” Era?Was it starting Darko and Ryan Hollins over Kevin Love for much of the 2009-10 season? Because that one is pretty hilarious especially if — like us — you’re not a K-Love fan.

Patrick J: My favorite lowlight of the Kahnbis era was what it did for the self-loathing crowd, writ large, which makes up much of the (hardcore) Timberwolves fan base. (Eds. Note: You know who you are, guys, it’s okay.) So let’s drill down: There were two big moments for me. First, the Kahn molecule fused with the Rambis one to create Kahnbis. That is, David Kahn got to have a large say in a big decision that shaped subsequent years of the franchise’s prospects. We know how it turned out. Still, if you’re Vegas, you love David Kahn The Gambler. Second, Kahnbis criminally shat on Kevin Love when the majority of the fan base could see that we had something in Love. It did nothing to humble Love – and it probably emboldened him – but it was entertaining in that je ne sais quois shadenfreude way. (Eds. Note: Insert other passive aggressive foreign words here.) The memory that stands out is Rambis taking perhaps the worst possible paternalistic to Love, which was one part dismissive and another part passive-aggressive. As much as I dislike Kevin Love – not because I don’t respect his skills, but because of most everything else – would it have been possible to treat him worse? And what should we think more of Love for becoming what he is – as imperfect as that is – in spite of the “coaching” Kurt gave him?

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A Winning Streak? Wolves win again, and random stats and jottings.

Combining a little bit of opponent-injury luck, a shorter playing rotation, and a rejuvenated Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves have won two games in a row against playoff-bound competition. On Wednesday night, playing in ESPN’s late-game slot, the Wolves beat the LA Clippers at Staples Center. This came fresh on the heels of a very disappointing loss in the same arena to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers. The 108-102 victory over the Clips is less impressive than it first seems, because Blake Griffin is sitting out with a busted hand. However, the Clips had won their 4 games heading into that matchup, and are surprisingly able to withstand an injury to Griffin due to their roster makeup, and the way Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan function as a combo, with JJ Redick spacing the floor with white-hot shooting. The Wolves won that game with late-game execution, Wiggins scoring 31 points, and Tayshaun Prince holding Redick to just 1 of 9 shooting from the field.

Last night, the Wolves were not on TV due to Minnesota’s hockey-day theme on FSN.  However, it didn’t seem to matter to the Wolves’ collective effort level, as they beat the Chicago Bulls 112-105, which means a season sweep against Fred Hoiberg’s squad. As with the Clippers matchup, the Wolves opponent was battling significant injuries. Chicago has been and will remain without Joakim Noah for a long time. But last night against the Wolves they were also missing All-Star wing, Jimmy Butler. Like the Clippers, though, the Bulls are able to field a pretty strong lineup even without their best guy – they had Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavey, and Derrick Rose — whatever shell of his old self he is now — all in the lineup last night. A Wolves win was far from a foregone conclusion and didn’t necessarily seem likely, given their struggles against decent competition for much of this season.

Against the Bulls, Karl-Anthony Towns (26 points, 17 rebounds, 3 blocks) and Gorgui Dieng (24 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists (!)) did the heavy lifting. Coach Sam Mitchell played each of Dieng and Towns 41 minutes, and after the game explained that when they are both playing so well, it’s hard for other players (cough, Nemanja Bjelica, cough) to crack the rotation. Mitchell always goes out of his way to praise Dieng, and last night he said that Gorgui is ahead of KAT as a defender, because of his experience level and understanding of concepts. He also mentioned that the two State-of-Kentucky college stars have become buddies off the floor and enjoy playing with each other. Interestingly, Mitchell used three-point shooter Damjan Rudez as his backup power forward, instead of Bjelica or Adreian Payne. Bjelica logged a DNP-CD.

Wiggins started off cold, going scoreless until a jumper finally fell with 2:28 to go in the first half. He ended strong, however, sliding back into that “Go-To Guy” role that he so awesomely filled in the early part of this NBA season when the Wolves were the surprise breakout team of the league at about the 1/5-mark of the season. Wiggins scored 17 second-half points to end with 21, and hit three straight shots with under two minutes to go; the first putting the Wolves up 1, then 3, then 5, which was a dagger jumper over two Bulls defenders. As the last jumper went up, Garnett could be heard yelling “ALL DAY! ALL DAY!” from behind the Wolves bench, before the shot fell.

We’re five days from All-Star Weekend. Before that, the Wolves play against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans (Monday) and the Toronto Raptors (Wednesday). Both games are at Target Center. The Pellies game is one that the Wolves can definitely win. They’re just 18-32 and have lost their past 4 games. The Raptors game will be much more difficult, and if the Wolves could somehow win it, it would rank among their best wins of the season.

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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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Fun with the Eye Test

LSU's Ben Simmons

LSU’s Ben Simmons

Eds. Note: We decided to watch two of the highest touted players in this year’s upcoming NBA Draft, LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram. We basically flipped back and forth between the games and did ad-hoc eye tests of the two players. Be warned: This is not an analytics piece, it’s a fun comparison piece. Your mileage may vary. Have fun.

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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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