The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 14

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In which we look ahead at the Wolves options in the NBA Draft.

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On enjoying Thunder-Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list could go on.

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

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

 

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Wolves Drafting 5th: What now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Takeaways from Thibs: Wolves Introduce New Coach

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

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

Here goes:

  • Glen wants a championship, badly.

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

  • Thibs has friends in the Chicago media.

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Wolves Sign Thibs & Things Have Never Looked Brighter

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

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

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

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

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

And the answer, of course, is no.

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Final Timberwolves Report Cards, 4th Quarter & Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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INBOX: Mitchell Out, Coaching Search Underway

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

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

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

“It depends.”

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

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

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

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

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

What did you think of the announcement?

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

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