In which we look ahead at the Wolves options in the NBA Draft.
In which we look ahead at the Wolves options in the NBA Draft.
The Wolves got a much-needed win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night, holding a lead for nearly every second of the game and ultimately winning 94-80. It was much-needed because the Wolves were on a 4-game losing streak and play at Detroit tomorrow night, and because the Jazz were severely undermanned, missing their two big men, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, as well as the up-and-coming wing Alec Burks. It would have been ugly, had the Wolves lost, so a 14-point win felt good for the team, its fans, and its coach. After the game, Mitchell was in a much better mood than he was during it. He could be seen yelling at his young players throughout the entire game after each mistake they made, sometimes using timeouts to emphasize a point, and other times — such as twice with Karl-Anthony Towns — simply yanking the player after the game. (In his presser, Mitchell laughed about pulling Towns, and went out of his way to talk about what a great attitude KAT has. During the game, KAT seemed upset to come out of the game.)
A few miscellaneous jottings about the game, the Wolves recent play, and team issues:
Ricky Rubio has been playing arguably the best ball of his career, of late. His PER before tonight’s game was 18.3, while his career-best before this season was 16.2. After 17 assists against the Jazz, that PER will rise up closer to 19. He’s averaging 9.2 assists to just 2.4 turnovers per game, his 2.3 steals per game are second in the NBA to Russell Westbrook. (Per-36 minutes, Rubio edges out Westbrook in steals, 2.7 to 2.6. Per minute, Rubio is second to Rajon Rondo in assists.) His oft mentioned on/off splits remain an ocean apart, as the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.8 per 100 possessions with Rubio and lose by 8.0 points per 100 without him. While his shooting remains very poor (though he did hit some shots tonight against the Jazz!) the rest of his game is simply so good that it all adds up to a good basketball player. The specific chemistry that he developed — seemingly instantly — with Kevin Garnett has been a joy to watch, and it’s hard not to think that, over time, Rubio and Towns could team up for similar action, connecting on those pick-and-pop assists, and leading the defense top to bottom to get stop after stop in first and fourth quarters. Continue reading
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.
Andy G: Any theories on why Shabazz Muhammad is struggling so far? After his 2014-15 breakout season was interrupted by injury, Shabazz came to training camp in the best shape of his life. Big(-ish) things were expected. Certainly bigger than what he has shown in the Wolves’ first seven games.
Patrick J: I have several theories, some of which are better than others. In no particular order:
(1) His playing time fluctuates and he doesn’t know his role.
(2) He isn’t playing to his strengths like he used to because he “expanded his game” over the summer and is still trying to figure out when/where to use his new skillz within the framework of his role.
(3) He isn’t used to playing with ball movers like Rubio and Towns. Those guys are obviously a net + for the offense, but Bazz came up playing without any good passers, so he focused all of his attention on being a junkyard dog who made his own offense from offensive rebounding and general relentlessness rather than exploiting good spacing and passing from talented teammates.
(4) Some combination of 1, 2, and 3.
(5) He’s afraid that if he makes a mistake, Smitch will pull him. (Bazz needs to play off of instinct. If he thinks too much, he’s a step behind everyone else and consequently struggles.)
(6) Personal issues we’re unaware of.
What say you?
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.
“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.
In which we discuss Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett’s Team Canada exploits, Carmelo Anthony’s early free-agency recruitment of Kevin Durant, and offer (tongue-in-cheek) “sneaky 2015-16 predictions” for each player on the Wolves’ roster.
(Eds. Note: We had some technical difficulties during this one. ymmv.)
The Timberwolves played their last summer league game on July 17, over two weeks ago. They drafted Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones on June 25, almost six weeks ago. They played their last real, regular season game on April 15, about three and a half months ago. They won’t open training camp for almost two months, or the regular season for about three.
Not much is happening right now.
But, as anyone familiar with Twitter or message-board blogs knows, that lack of substance does very little to slow the chatter of year-round, need-my-Timberwolves-fix fans.
Over the past week, Timberwolves coach(/owner/president of basketball) Flip Saunders has gone out of his way to incite discussion about his team. He gave an interview to Zach Lowe of Grantland that covered a wide range of topics that pretty much spanned the spectrum of seriousness: last year’s season and tanking, the Kevin Love-Andrew Wiggins trade, KG, Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Bennett and the team’s decision of whether to pick up his next team option, his Mountain Dew habit, drunken trade negotiations back in the 1980s CBA, three-point shooting and spacing, expectations for next season, and Sam Cassell’s injury in the 2004 Playoffs which Flip attributes to a testicles-dance gone bad. (!) The whole interview is absolutely worth reading, in case you missed it. Link here.
Yesterday, Flip offered a bit more to chew on. This time the medium was his very own Twitter account which had been inactive for a long time. Flip hopped on yesterday in the early Sunday evening to “set this straight,” and very briefly explain that he and his staff “love” three-point shots, they have to shoot them, they will shoot them and whoever said otherwise is wrong. There was a vague introductory reference to “blogs” and “experts” as the culprits erroneously suggesting that Flip might not prioritize the three-point shot as highly as his modern coaching peers, or as much as he should.
For Timberwolves fans paying somewhat close attention to the team and to the league, the threes issue is a sensitive one. Threes are an essential tool for building a good offense in the modern NBA. That’s pretty much undisputed at this point. In spite of this, Flip Saunders — no matter what he says on Twitter — does not run offenses that generate very many three-point shots. As Seth Partnow pointed out in his latest piece for the Washington Post, Flip’s teams have shot threes at a lower-than-league-average rate in every season but one, since the league moved the line back to its current distance in 1997. That covers time spent with the Timberwolves, Pistons, Wizards, and Timberwolves again. That covers almost 20 years. For Flip to say that he “loves” three-point shots and call out “blogs” for questioning this is either disingenuous or just redefining what words like “love” even mean.
He clearly does not coach in a way that leads to effective, prolific three-point shooting. And fans, armed with more and better information than ever, know this. So when Flip goes on the Twitter attack, it leads to backlash and argument and discussion and all of a sudden we can’t tell if we’re happy or mad about the Timberwolves.
Which leads me to this early-August post, and the things I feel that Timberwolves fans should be mostly hopeful about, and mostly concerned about. I think there is ample substance on both sides of the ledger, and it’s unreasonable for any fan to feel completely one sided about the State of the Timberwolves.
Here’s my quick list, basically off the top of my head. Since, you know, it’s August:
Cause for Hope #1 – Andrew Wiggins
Andy G and Patrick J: As the NBA Playoffs begin, we’re going to continue recapping the season that was for the Timberwolves. We’re breaking this down into general positions, with a focus on who is still on the roster — as opposed to the slew of players who were traded mid-season, like Corey Brewer and Thaddeus Young. In case you missed Part I on the guards, be sure to check that out.
Today, we’re talking forwards. Basically, there’s a lot of hope at the three and a lot of uncertainty at the four. Read on below the fold for our takes.
In which we discuss Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, and Sean (Mc)Sweeney.
Check out the podcast below the fold and subscribe on iTunes!
Andy G: You and I are in complete agreement on the initial question of whether the Timberwolves are (and have been) tanking, this year.
We don’t need to beat that dead horse.
But let’s talk a bit more about what their tanking methods have done — both good and bad — and what they tell us about this team, its coach, and its future.
I’ll let you start: with respect to the tanking the Wolves have done this year, what parts have bothered you most, and are there aspects (aside from the boosted draft position) that you think have had positive effects (whether anticipated/calculated, or not)?
At the season’s quarter point, I handed out letter grades to each player. At the halfway point, I laid out team superlatives. We’ve just reached the third quarter point, and with the team fresh off a franchise-altering trade, and without hope of making the upcoming playoffs, I thought it a good time to lay out the big issues they face as the season hits its springtime homestretch.
The following are five issues that the team faces and will hang over the last 21 games of the season. I listed them in increasing order of importance, as I see things:
1. What is Zach LaVine’s position?
On one hand, I don’t view this as a particularly important question despite the emphasis many knowledgeable Wolves pundits place on it; specifically, many criticize Flip Saunders for playing LaVine at point guard when he has struggled there, and they feel his future is off the ball, at the two. I don’t get quite as hung up on that positional distinction in Zach’s case because I think his “upside” will be realized if and when he can get comfortable enough with his handles, against pressure defense, to explode to the rim from the top of the key. That’s a “combo guard” type of play that athletic dynamos like Russ Westbrook have proven to be effective.
Even if LaVine doesn’t have traditional point guard instincts, he’ll create plays for himself and teammates if and when he can master that skill; and he obviously has the athleticism to do it. So from that perspective, I think playing him at point guard right now makes sense. Flip has played him almost exclusively at point guard this season, to the chagrin of fans (and sometimes himself, it seems) and I can only believe he’s doing this with an eye toward the future and the type of player he wants LaVine to become.
But the question matters considerably more in the short term — next season, specifically — if the Wolves are planning to try to win games rather than tank for the draft and develop young players outside of their comfort zones, as they did this year. Because in that case, they need a backup point guard and this year’s version of LaVine is simply not good enough to play that role on a competitive team.
The on/off numbers for LaVine paint an ugly picture. In the 1148 minutes he’s been on the floor this year, the Wolves were outscored by 17.1 points per 100 possessions. In other words, over a large sample size, the Wolves were consistently blown out when LaVine was in the game, and he was almost always playing point guard. Some of that statistic is the fault of other players. Consider that he played by far his most minutes in December (15 games, 29.3 minutes per game) when the Wolves best players (Rubio, Martin, Pekovic) were all on the shelf with injuries. Those lineups were outmanned across the board. Combined with the “Force Feed Wiggins At All Costs” philosophy that Flip implemented, there was no getting around some awful plus-minus stats.
But LaVine’s ineptitude on defense, and in initiating the offense as the lead guard, were substantial contributing factors to the lopsided defeats, too. He dribbles the ball high, and when defenders pressure him, he struggles to do anything beyond a cautious entry pass to the wing. On defense he is pretty good against isolation drives, because of his supreme athleticism and solid effort level. But he does not yet have the court awareness, or the physical strength and developed tricks to navigate pick and rolls with any success. The Wolves allow 113.4 points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the floor, and just 105.5 when he’s off. That 7.9 point differential is enormous, considering the sample size on each side of it.
So in the season’s final quarter, it will be worth paying attention to every minute LaVine takes the floor and mans the point guard spot. They need to know if he’s improving rapidly enough to be penciled in as a point, or even combo guard in next year’s rotation, or whether they need to find somebody else on the open market or in the draft to back up Ricky Rubio.
2. Is there a starting frontcourt player on the roster?
What will Kevin Garnett’s return to Minnesota bring to the Wolves and the state of basketball in Minnesota? The trade still has everyone excited. Some of it is sentimentality about “The Kid” who grew up in front of our eyes. He became the franchise’s best player ever, brought the Wolves to the playoffs eight straight times and to the brink of the Finals once. He was our team’s only league MVP. A lot of the best (and a few of the worst) moments in team history are tied up in Kevin Garnett, and his time spent in a Timberwolves uniform. There’s going to be a buzz when The Kid returns to the place it all began.
There’s been some discussion of Garnett’s likely impact on the team, but little about what Garnett might be thinking about coming back to Minnesota. How does he see this affecting his legacy? What does he want to accomplish. It sounds like he wants to become an owner of this team, but why ownership? And why own the Wolves? You know he’s a student of NBA history and that he thinks about this stuff—and takes it seriously.
Garnett himself has been mum about what his end game is in Minnesota. I delve into some possible angles below the fold.
All-Star Weekend is 66.6 percent complete. The Rising Stars (Rookies & Sophomores) Game was Friday night. The Wolves had 4 players participating; 2 on the International Team and 2 on Team USA (Wiggins, Gorgui, Shabazz, LaVine). Andrew Wiggins led the international squad to victory, and earned Game MVP honors.
Last night was the three-point shootout and dunk contest. Steph Curry, unsurprisingly won the shootout. He hit 13 straight at one point. It seems appropriate he wins a contest that celebrates his signature skill in the same season that he will probably win league MVP and has a great chance of also winning a title (and, presumably with that, a Finals MVP honor). Curry’s awesome.
But the big story of last night and the entire weekend is Zach LaVine. We had high expectations for what he might do in the dunk contest — because videos like this one exist — and he came through on the big stage. LaVine caught the ball off the bounce, pulled it between his legs and did a one-handed reverse jam on the baseline. In his next dunk, he caught the ball off the bounce again, but this time swung it behind his back and flushed it home with his right hand. Those were possibly the two greatest dunks in contest history. He made each on his first attempt.
LaVine’s third and fourth dunks were comparatively disappointing but that had more to do with the expectations he set by his first pair than anything wrong with the dunks themselves. (Also, he didn’t connect on the first try in the final round, which takes a little bit of the shine off.) He caught the ball off the stanchion and went under his leg for the final slam of the night. He made that look easy. Victor Oladipo made one really cool dunk, but was no competition for LaVine, who won the contest easily.
This was LaVine’s biggest career moment BY FAR. So we broke down our thoughts on Zach LaVine’s big phat All-Star Weekend below the fold.
Kevin Martin came back to the lineup last night in the Wolves’ victory over the Boston Celtics at Target Center. Martin had 21 points in the win and felt like a spark plug for the team, even though his +/- rating was -3 for the night. (Eds. Note: A fairly meaningless statistic in a single game, especially when close to zero.) I dislike Martin’s style and defense, and his fugly-j, nerdy, weak, aesthetic. But Martin did what he does–score–and the Wolves won. That’s what matters.
Martin was excellent off the bench. A sixth man role might be the one he’s best suited for in the future–if he’s ever going to play an key role on a high-end contender, that is.
The recent lineup changes are not limited to Martin’s return. Nikola Pekovic, another of the team’s season-opener starters, is back. This is more unexpected and, frankly, better news.
It is often said that the Timberwolves playoff run to the Western Conference Finals in 2004 was the franchise’s apex, and the moment listed by most fans as their favorite in team history. While technically true that it was the most successful season in history and the closest – in a direct sense – the team came to a championship, I personally disagree with the notion that this was the best time to be a Timberwolves fan.
To me, the best times were in the two seasons when Kevin Garnett was paired with Stephon Marbury to form the most exciting young core in basketball. In the 1996-97 season (Marbury’s first and Garnett’s second) the Wolves won 40 games and made the playoffs for the first time ever.
KG was just two years removed from high school. So was Steph. Along with Tom Gugliotta, they were the best players on the team.
In the franchise’s first seven years of existence leading up to this, the Timberwolves hadn’t ever won even 30 games. This marked a 14-win improvement from the season prior — KG’s rookie year — and it was immediately obvious that the explosive playmaker guard was a perfect match for the do-it-all seven footer. The following year the Wolves won 45 games, Garnett became a perennial All-Star, and the Wolves took the Payton-and-Kemp Supersonics to a fifth game in their best-of-five opening playoff series.
Watching Marbury and Garnett for those couple of years was not unlike what Thunder fans probably experienced when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant blossomed and quickly became a playoff powerhouse. When you consider just how rapidly the Wolves young core was developing — these guys were barely removed from high school — it was fair to wonder if they might win multiple championships as they led the Timberwolves for the next dozen years.
If you need a reminder of how crazy-exciting they were, just check out the highlights on this weird music video I found on Youtube:
In which we discuss Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Thaddeus Young, Mo Williams, Zach LaVine, Gerald Green’s performance, injuries and tanking, and some NBA Draft prospects who intrigue us.
Check out the podcast below the fold.
Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad share the distinction of being the only Timberwolves who have played in all 25 games of the 2014-15 season. They also constitute the closest thing this Wolves team has to a young core to build around; at least if you also include Ricky Rubio, who has been out this year with an ankle injury.
Wiggins is the number one pick with the physical tools, the tantalizing athleticism. For now and the foreseeable future, he’s unequivocally considered the franchise cornerstone. Wiggins is a 19-year old rookie. If he develops like the team hopes, he will almost certainly be a Timberwolf for 7 or 8 more seasons after this one.
Gorgui is the interior defender, the rim protector. He’s an efficient scorer who fills out the stat sheet with points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Gorgui works hard and does the dirty work. While his lack of “true center” size is a real issue, Flip Saunders believes that Gorgui is an NBA starter. Turning 25 next month, Dieng is significantly older than Wiggins and Muhammad. However, he is only in his second year of a bargain-level contract. (He earns about $1.4 Million this year, while out-producing some veterans around the league who earn 5 or 10 times more.) Provided his individual defense improves, there’s every reason to believe he will play the prime half-dozen seasons of his career in Minneapolis.
Shabazz has been a revelation. He’s quickly becoming a consistent, dominant scorer, as well as a tenacious rebounder from the wing position. On Friday against the Celtics, Shabazz posted his best all-around stat line, with 26 points (11-15 shooting), 5 rebounds and 5 assists. Barely 22 years old, Shabazz is improving at shocking rate, and is becoming one of the best young offensive wing players in the league. Shabazz recently turned 22, and is also in his second year of a cheap deal. If the hot start proves to be sustainable, the Wolves will extend him for 4 more seasons beginning with 2017-18. In other words, he’ll be here for a long, long time.
Considering that the Wolves are in clear-cut rebuilding mode, one would assume that this young trio would be logging tons of minutes together, gaining experience and developing chemistry. But, so far anyway, that has not been the case.
The Wolves defeated the Lakers last night in a 120-119 barnburner at Staples Center. Kobe Bryant missed a wide-open three point shot that would’ve won the game at the buzzer.
A lot of times before last night, it looked like Lavine simply shoots to try to get his self going, but doesn’t really expect the ball to go in. Last night was a different story. As athletic as Lavine is, it goes to show how important timing and rhythm are for his offensive game. He was well within the flow of what was a very fast-paced game last night. Hopefully he can take away some lessons about why he was so successful last night and has looked so poorly on other nights.
But it bears emphasis: Lavine put together one of the best games that any rookie plays this season.
More below the fold…