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

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

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

Big, huge, terrible, tragic news.

Flip Saunders died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, Flip.

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Sam Mitchell, the Wolves New Coach

smitchIt is time to get to know Head Coach Sam Mitchell, because that is exactly what we have now. Respecting not only the privacy wishes of the Saunders Family, but also our own lack of information, we’ll limit speculation about Flip’s medical future as much as possible. But the simple fact of yesterday’s press conference and announcement suggests Flip will be away from the team for a while. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote yesterday, “There’s hope that Saunders can return to the bench this season, but Mitchell is expected to be the interim coach no less than half the season.” (Emphasis mine.)

So we wish Flip Saunders a speedy and complete recovery, because that’s the important, real-life issue at hand. But like Mitchell said yesterday, “The most important thing is to keep going forward. That’s what Flip would want. He’d want us to keep going forward.”

And that is exactly what will happen, starting when training camp breaks on September 28. The Timberwolves will have a new head coach, and that coach will be treating this team as his own. More than once yesterday Mitchell emphasized that he’ll continue to implement Flip’s system but also that he will have the freedom to coach the team as he sees fit. Parsing Sam’s words in finer detail, he used the word “I” (as opposed to, say, “we”) when stating “I have a great staff,” and “I have great assistants.” He’s going to take ownership of this opportunity. As he should. The Wolves need a real coach with real ideas and real authority to act on them much more than they need a substitute teacher or babysitter for a few months. Some of these players are just beginning what figure to be long, successful careers. This NBA schedule isn’t moving anywhere to accommodate this unfortunate Timberwolves development, so they need to roll with it as best as possible.

Right now, Sam Mitchell is Andrew Wiggins’s coach. He’s Tyus Jones’s coach. He’s Karl-Anthony Towns’s coach, and he is Ricky Rubio’s coach. It is a reality that almost certainly has not sunk in for these guys, but it needs to soon, and it will soon. It is reality.

Mitchell has been a head coach. With the Toronto Raptors from 2004 to 2008, he amassed a win-loss record of 156-189. That .452 winning percentage is better than it seems, because those teams were not very talented, outside of superstar Chris Bosh. In 2007, Mitchell was named NBA Coach of the Year after leading the Raps to 47 wins and a playoff berth. After Bosh, that team’s minutes leaders were Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, and Andrea Bargnani. While I often point to this season as “Chris Bosh is underrated” evidence, it also suggests that Mitchell can coach. The Raptors fired him early in the 2008-09 season when they had an 8-9 record. Jay Triano took over and they went 25-40 the rest of the way.

The most interesting thing to watch will be how Mitchell balances the “win now versus develop young players” dynamics. Make no mistake about it: If he isn’t auditioning for the longer-term Timberwolves head coaching job (he probably is) then he is at least auditioning for the other 29 teams who might have vacancies for him to explore in the near future. If the Wolves come out of the gates winning — maybe .500ish at the All-Star break — Mitchell’s name will be a hot one like it was in 2007, and he’ll probably be a head coach again soon. He understands this. But if these wins come more on the achy bones of Kevin Martin, Garnett, and Andre Miller, and less on the ascents of LaVine and Towns, it might not be What Flip Would Want.

It’s early. Too early to engage in that much speculation. But Mitchell’s old school, tough-guy reputation precedes him here. It will not be altogether surprising if the freedom he assumes will bring substantive changes from the alternate universe where Saunders coaches this team, this season.

Best wishes to Flip.

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Summertime Wolves Talk: Causes for Hope and for Concern

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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

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Vegas, Baby, Vegas: The 2015 Timberwolves Summer League Edition

Towns and LaVine, postgame antics

Towns and LaVine, postgame antics

The last time we posted, it was June 29, and Andy G mused about the Wolves’ 2015 draft, in which they selected the much-haralded Karl-Anthony Towns #1 overall and pulled off a trade to get back into the first round to draft Apple Valley native and Duke Final Four hero Tyus Jones at number 24.

Much of the reaction to the draft fell into a few different bins. One bin could be called “Yay, we took Karl-Anthony Towns #1!” This encompassed most of Wolves fandom, at least that segment of which is most active on Twitter and websites like Canis Hoopus. Towns was the consensus top player overall and Wolves brass finally made the obvious correct choice: they got the player that analysts and smart fans expect to be the best player from this draft. Towns fills a position of need for the Timberwolves. Nikola Pekovic, the brutish but oft-injured Montenegrin who is under contract with the Wolves through the 2017–18 season, has foot injuries that may end up threatening his career. He can’t be counted on as an integral anchor for the Wolves at center as the rest of the team blossoms under the leadership of rising stars like Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio, not to mention intriguing prospects like Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine. Kevin Garnett is also back in the fold, on a two-year, $16 million deal. But Garnett cannot be fully counted-on either, for he is too old and too often injured. His return appears more as foreshadowing his move into ownership and management with Flip Saunders and Glen Taylor than it does a productive output on the floor this season or next. The bottom-line is, the Wolves had a need at Center. As a marvelously skilled big man, Towns should eliminate that need altogether.

A second bin of Wolves draft-related conversation could be called “We took Tyus Jones! He’s from Minnesota!” I’ll talk a bit about Jones first, and then discuss my reactions to Karl Towns.

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Timberwolves This & That: Flip on the Radio, Draft Talk, Coaching Situation

OkaforTownsMinneapolisThe draft is less than four weeks away. Yesterday on KFAN Radio with Dan Barreiro, Flip Saunders admitted that he knows who he would select with the top choice if it were held now. Flip made clear that there is more work to be done between now and then, and that the current favorite — whoever he is — may not ultimately be the player that the team chooses with its first ever number one overall pick.

The feeling that I and most people have is that Flip currently prefers Jahlil Okafor over Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. (These three seem to be most people’s top three.) His radio interview did nothing to dispel that feeling.

When I last wrote it was about how the team should think about its big choice, along with some specific thoughts about why Okafor may in fact be the better choice for this team. Since writing that, I have had a chance to watch more tape of both Okafor and Towns, and my opinion is only reinforced by that. I guess that isn’t surprising since “watching them play” was the driving force behind my initial conclusions. Okafor is simply a more impressive player to watch. At Duke, he was his team’s primary offensive option and showed off world-class post skills. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the better player or will be the better NBA player. But it is the “eye test” that makes him seem that way. Towns has a more rigid offensive game than Okafor’s, which is not as fun to watch, or as easy to imagine succeeding in the pros, but he definitely adds value in other, important ways. He has a more impressive body and has more of a presence in the lane as both a defender and defensive rebounder. When combined with his ability to shoot the ball, you can imagine him being a “net plus” type of player who clearly helps on defense and does not hurt — and may even help — his team on offense.

I just can’t get over how damn good Okafor is on offense.

I try to keep hyperbole to a minimum, but it’s hard to do that when describing Okafor’s ability on offense. For a player that big to handle the ball that well, and have such advanced footwork is just unheard of. If post play as we once knew it is dead, that’s just fine for Okafor because he doesn’t play post like we’ve ever seen. Yes he can score with his back to the basket, but he doesn’t need to. He can square up his man and put the ball on the floor. He’ll use the backboard and whatever spin move makes the most sense to finish around the hoop. The man shot 66 percent from the field as a primary option on his college team. As a freshman. It’s very, very, hard to watch Okafor play, and not get excited about what he’s going to do in the NBA where he’ll only have more room to operate.

There is no such thing as a sure thing, and both of these players would be drafted with some risk. With Okafor, the risks are that he never improves to become a solid defensive center, and/or that he never improves a shooter (particularly on free throws). Those are legitimate concerns. Towns has less risk in terms of potential weaknesses. The risk with Towns is that if you draft him, that means you passed on Okafor, who might become an all-time great.

This leads to the other thing Flip talked about with Barreiro: his dual job title of President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach.

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INBOX: The Lows and Highs of the Timberwolves’ Stank-Tank and Rick Adelman vs. Flip Saunders

Rick and Flip

Rick and Flip

The Lows and Highs of the Wolves’ Stank-Tank

Andy G: You and I are in complete agreement on the initial question of whether the Timberwolves are (and have been) tanking, this year.

They are.

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)?

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Some Thoughts on What the Kevin Garnett Trade Might Mean to Kevin Garnett

Prelude: Garnett’s Homecoming

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.

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How Will the Wolves’ Improved Health Affect Shabazz Muhammad’s Role?

kevin-martin-23-kevin-love-42-shabazz-muhammad-15-and-nikola-pekovic-14

Kevin Martin Returns from Injury

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.

Pekovic Also Returns, Thaddeus Young Moves to Small Forward

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.

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How the Wolves Whiffed on Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside

How Things Went Down

Here’s a little chronology for y’all. (Eds. Note: Warning: The following contains Wolvesian content that may not be suitable for perma-optimists.)

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NBA Links I Liked

Here’s some stuff I liked, in no particular order (except #1).

  1. Smoking in the boys room: a history of NBA cigarette smoking.
  2. Pacers coach Frank Vogel on Mo Williams’ 52 point (!) game: “I was asked by someone who works here did I have nightmares about Mo Williams?” Vogel said after practice. “And my response was: ‘You’d have to be asleep to have nightmares.'”
  3. Along those lines, an interesting list of the least-likely 50-points-in-a-game scorers. Who isn’t there who should be? Who’s there but shouldn’t be?
  4. If you were going to build a boy band made up of NBA players, who’d be on it? Hardwood Paroxysm has thought about this.
  5. The Wolves are one of two NBA teams that currently forgoes the time-honored game day morning shootaround, instead doing an afternoon walk through. Why? Gaming until 3 AM, Flip Saunders says.
  6. Andrew Wiggins will be in this season’s Slam Dunk contest on All-Star Saturday Night. No other participants have been named yet. Somewhere, Zach LaVine is seething with jealousy.

Since the dunk contest is still a way off, here’s some Wiggins dunkz to pregame to.

 

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Flipped Off: 2014 in Review, and What’s to Come

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Andy G: First off, happy new year to all Punch-Drunk readers. 2014 was an eventful one for Wolves fans. Last January, we were watching the team hover disappointingly around .500 — clearly not good enough for Western Conference Playoffs eligibility — and bracing for what might be next to come; specifically, Rick Adelman’s retirement from coaching, Flip Saunders’ return to coaching, and Kevin Love being traded.

All of those things happened.

Thankfully, the return on the Love trade was surprisingly huge, given the circumstances. The Wolves had very little leverage, with Love making his plans known and having only one year left on his contract. Yet the the Cavs unexpectedly winning the lottery (for the second time in a row and third time in four years) followed by LeBron’s surprising Return — presumably coupled with a wink-wink agreement to trade for Love, was a rare stroke of luck for this franchise. Instead of the usual nickels or dimes on the dollar that a team could expect in this situation, the Wolves landed a player in Andrew Wiggins who some might prefer to Love; at least down the road a few seasons.

But all was not so swell this year.

Far from it.

For one thing, Flip Saunders’ coaching “search” was clumsy at best and disingenuous at worst. The Wolves ostensibly sought out candidates for the job, conducting interviews like a normal basketball operations staff would do with a vacancy to fill. Only, all along we assumed Flip would hire himself, which is of course what happened. Flip is no dummy, and he’s not a bad coach. But his bread-and-butter philosophies seem outdated. At this point, we’re hoping that his expertise and dedication will be mostly geared toward the individual development of young players — especially Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Over time, he’ll either hire a credible, progressive assistant coach whose input is welcomed to help with strategy (read: develop schemes to create open three-point shots and dunks, instead of spending real energy to free up 17-foot jumpers) or just retire from that job and hire a new coach from his GM perch.

But that’s far from a given and gives reason for concern.

Also, the basketball has been atrocious.

Currently the Wolves are 5-26, on pace to win just 13 games. They have lost 10 straight.

Ricky Rubio got hurt in just the season’s fifth game and the team is left with zero capable point guards. Nikola Pekovic got hurt too, leaving the team with zero capable centers. (Gorgui Dieng is good at some things and might have a bright future, but has been physically overwhelmed in the starting center role.) Oh, Kevin Martin got hurt too. And Thad Young, acquired at the expense of a first-round pick in the Love deal, has been a disappointment.

Believe it or not, it turns out that playing without a viable point guard, without a viable center, and without any wing players who can create offense for others off the dribble, is a very difficult thing to do. It’d be like an NFL team playing with a 200-pound wide receiver subbed in a left tackle to protect its quarterback’s blindside. Things that used to be available (pick-and-rolls for the Wolves, passes longer than 5 yards for the hypothetical football team) are removed from the playbook altogether. Winning is nearly impossible.

It’s also difficult to watch. The Wolves offense has relegated to multi-step plays just to feed the post for a difficult isolation play. Again, the hope is that the players posting up (Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad) are improving with these game reps. There is some evidence of that, which is good to see.

But anyway, that’s some of the year’s big events in a nutshell, as I see them.

What did I leave out?

Patrick J: The biggest event to date is the emergence of Shabazz Muhammad. The reason Shabazz is the biggest story is because (1) hardly anyone one saw it coming, and (2) Shabazz has been by far the Wolves’ best player this season. It’s only Bazz’s second season in the League. Youth is still on his side. This makes his emergence even better–the Wolves are building around youth. Flip Saunders acquired a bunch of young assets in Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett, and Gorgui Dieng [Eds. Note: Sort of–Gorgui is 25.]

Trading the #9 draft pick for the right to pick Muhammad at #13 plus the pick that turned in Gorgui was almost universally reviled by Wolves fans–especially analytics-informed ones. Shabazz was supposed to have no NBA talent based on his performance at UCLA. To make matters worse, he was supposed to arrive with hefty amounts of baggage and a poor attitude.

What we’ve seen is the exact opposite of these pessimistic predictions. Last season, Rick Adelman did not give Shabazz much playing time. But in the minutes he played, we got a small taste of what he could do. (Eds. Note: It included playing with more energy than his opponents and a knack for scoring.)

Nonetheless, there were lingering concerns that Shabazz was a tweener and didn’t have the athleticism and explosiveness to hold his own at an NBA position.

So, over the summer, Bazz worked out with private trainer Frank Matrisciano, whose difficult workouts have been used in the training of America’s most elite Special Operations Forces, the Navy SEALs. Shabazz emerged leaner, stronger, and even better at playing with energy and scoring than before.

This season, Shabazz leads the NBA in points-per-touch, has a PER of over 20, and appears able to competently play the underappreciated role of go-to scorer. He’s the only Timberwolf who, on any given possession, I’m confident can create or execute an offensive move or play that will result in a basket. That’s a nice skill to have, in addition to his intangible hustle and eagerness to expand his game and learn new techniques to improve his weaknesses.

Shabazz wants to be a star AND a complete player. Before this season, most doubted he could be either. Now, most are at least willing to entertain the notion that he could be both.

That’s the Timberwolves story of the year for Patrick J. (And it isn’t even close.)

Andy G: Let’s talk about fresh issues. Ricky Rubio is (finally) going to return soon; hopefully within two weeks. His ankle sprain has left him out of the lineup for a pretty ridiculous length of time (It’ll end up being a 2 months-plus recovery) and the team has obviously not fared well without him. Continue reading

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Confirmed: Anthony Bennett Should Be Shooting Three Pointers

Anthony Bennett going up for a long two.

Anthony Bennett going up for a long two.

 

A lot has been written about Anthony Bennett’s lack of three-point shooting this season. Flip Saunders told him not to shoot threes, and he hasn’t.

This post takes a look at what Bennett’s and the Wolves offensive numbers might look like if Bennett were taking a step back and able to shoot at the same clip he’s been shooting at.

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Saturday Jottings: Recapping the Knicks and Spurs, Previewing the Kings, and Anthony Bennett

Andy G: Let’s quickly get caught up since we last posted.

Wolves Trounce Knicks

On Wednesday, the Wolves blew out the Knicks. Kevin Martin — who we later found out suffered a broken wrist — had it going. He poured in 37 points and couldn’t miss. Mo Williams got his groove back. Shabazz Muhammad started at power forward (!) and had one of his best games ever (17 points & 8 rebounds).

The Knicks looked tired and clueless, allowing Corey Brewer to rip the ball out of their hands and forfeiting three attempts to the red hot Martin. Amar’e Stoudemire looked great on the block against Gorgui — not a great sign for the young center’s development as a post defender — but Gorgui did enough other stuff (5 steals) to contribute to a great plus-minus of +22.

Andrew Wiggins got to guard Carmelo Anthony for a bit — his education continues — and he also heated up for a fun stretch in the 2nd Quarter, scoring his only 12 points of the game.

Spurs Trounce Wolves

Friday’s game — last night — was not so successful.

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Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 8: Early Impressions on the Newcomers

Will this man be playing a lot in a backcourt near you?

Will this man be playing a lot in a backcourt near you?

In which we discuss Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Thad Young, Flip Saunders, and, yes, Zach Lavine.

Enjoy.

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A Brooklyn State of Mind? Wolves defeat Nets, 98-91

Ricky Rubio played well in the Wolves victory over the Nets on Wednesday.

Ricky Rubio played well in the Wolves victory over the Nets on Wednesday.

Bouncing Back and Developing Winning Habits

The Wolves won a road game tonight over an Eastern Conference playoff team that has legitimate star talent on its roster. That includes former Timberwolf legend Kevin Garnett, whose star has greatly dimmed in the twilight of his career. This felt like a big win after the Wolves’ demoralizing loss against Chicago on Saturday night. That game was decided on a last-second foul by Andrew Wiggins with the Wolves up by one. Jimmy Butler went to the free throw line and won the game for the Bulls from the charity stripe.

Bouncing back from a hard loss like the one against the Bulls, against a talented veteran team like the Nets on their home court in New York City is big for the Wolves. Yes, it’s good for restoring short-term morale, and that is important. You don’t want the team to go into an early season funk in which it develops bad habits that become ingrained in the culture that’s currently being cultivated by the Wolves organization under Flip Saunders’ direction.

As both POBO and coach, to be successful Saunders needs to ensure good habits are developed. The rookies have upside, but what kind of professionals they’ll develop into over their career will largely determine whether they reach it. This is why it’s encouraging to see the Wolves playing very hard in each game so far this season.  This year’s Wolves play more aggressively on both ends, and, frankly, they play hungrier than last season’s Wolves ever did under Adelman. If these trends continue, they’re going to be better than the Vegas bookmakers prediction of 26 wins. They’re 2-2 now, and are one whistle in the Chicago game from being 3-1.

No Sleep in Brooklyn

Tonight’s win over Brooklyn was far from a sure thing. The Nets came in at 2-1 and remain perhaps the most intriguing talent in the Eastern Conference. Even having lost Paul Pierce in free agency, the Nets’ core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez, who’s back from a serious injury, is a slew of experienced pros with many All-Star appearances among them. They relocated to the most interesting part of the United States, are owned by perhaps the most intriguing owner in the NBA, and have a new high-profile coach in Lionel Hollins, who replaced Jason Kidd after Kidd was ousted in a ill-fated power play apropos of a classic Russian tragedy.

But the Wolves outplayed the Nets on their home floor and managed to seal a victory in a close game that they deserved to win.

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Thinning the Herd (The Field of Dreams Edition)

A lot has changed in Timberwolves Land since mid-May. It was then that the organization was informed that Kevin Love planned to opt out and leave the franchise — per his contractual rights — in the summer of 2015. From that point through August 23, Flip Saunders was scrambling. Not only did he have multiple picks in the June draft, but he was also charged with the task of trading a superstar player.

Rather than re-hash the process and results for the umpteenth time, it’s sufficient to say that Flip got ‘er done. For Love, he got back Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young. If either Wiggins or Bennett reaches his potential (or, gasp, if both do) it could go down as the greatest ever return in this “departing/disgruntled star wants out” trade scenario. Plus, Thad Young is already a good player who might fit nicely in a front court that already includes Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic at the center position.

But there is one little problem with this Timberwolves roster, as currently constructed:

There are too many guys. (Eds. Note: For more on this, see, inter alia, excellent posts here and here.)

More specifically, there are too many guys that will expect — and *should* expect — some playing time. And that brings us to positional battles, and the possibility that some Timberwolves players will need to spend time in the D-League — playing for the Iowa Energy (technically this is the Memphis Grizzlies affiliate, but that’s where they sent Shabazz last year because the Wolves don’t have their own team). Saunders has extensive experience in minor league basketball, coaching in the old CBA, and is a firm believer in it as a developing environment for certain players. It seems inevitable that, at some point this season, a Wolf or two will be sent down for some game reps.

For a young basketball player, the NBA — even on the Minnesota Timberwolves — must feel a bit like heaven on Earth. There are the big crowds, the SportsCenter highlights, the glitz and glamor, and the competition against players that were considered celebrity heroes just a short time ago. The whole thing must be a real trip for a new player entering the league.

The D-League… well, the D-League probably feels a bit more like Iowa.

So we thought it worthwhile to run through the candidates for D-League Duty, and predict which guys might end up playing some minor league ball in 2014-15.

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Welcome to Minnesota, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins

Anthony Bennett

New Timberwolves forward, Anthony Bennett, as a freshman at UNLV. He gained a lot of weight after shoulder surgery before his rookie NBA season, but appeared better conditioned this summer in the Vegas League.

Patrick J: So Flip Saunders went and did the impossible, turning a depressing Kevin Love trade situation into an extremely exciting one that netted the Wolves the last two number one overall picks in the NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett.

It was inevitable that the Wolves would have to trade Love. He wasn’t re-signing in Minnesota and the Wolves couldn’t let him walk away and get nothing in return. It was not inevitable that the Wolves’ take from a Love trade would be a good one. The Warriors offered David Lee and Harrison Barnes, but refused to include Klay Thompson in any trade for Love. The Bulls reportedly offered Nikola Mirotic and reserve defensive stopper Taj Gibson for Love. Those would’ve been pretty terrible deals for Minnesota.

Getting a prospect with as much realizable potential as Andrew Wiggins at least gives the Wolves a chance at recouping the value they were going to lose anyway when Love departed Minnesota.

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Will Wiggins be a Wolf? Wolves-Cavs Trade Possibilities

 

Dion Waiters: Eerily reminiscent of J.R. Rider

Dion Waiters: Eerily reminiscent of J.R. Rider. Future Timberwolf?

Andy G: So, LeBron made another Decision. He’s going home to Cleveland; a decision that many in the media began to expect a few days ago. He wrote a great letter explaining everything, published by Sports Illustrated yesterday.

It did not take long after the announcement for the conversation to turn toward the Timberwolves. Specifically, it was previously reported (by Adrian Woj, no less) that the Cavaliers had been pursuing a trade for Kevin Love that would be contingent on them signing James. So, now that they signed James, everyone is wondering about that Love deal…

The obvious player that the Wolves covet is Andrew Wiggins, the number one pick in the most recent draft. So far, the Cavs are reportedly not willing to part with Wiggins. Instead, they’re only willing to go as far as (something along the lines of) Anthony Bennett (LAST year’s top pick) and maybe Dion Waiters and one more guy to make the salaries match up. Maybe they’d throw in a future draft pick or two.

The Wolves, by all reports to date, will not trade Love for the Bennett-Waiters package. They need Wiggins.

So here we are, waiting for Dan Gilbert (or Flip Saunders) to blink.

Let’s start with the big question:

Do the Wolves end up with Wiggins?

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The Kevin Love Trade: How Bad Does Flip Wanna Be?

badasflipwannabe

Patrick J: There has been a lot happening around the Wolves over the past week. First, we got word that Kevin Love was likely going to use his early-termination option to explore free agency after the 2014-15 season.

At the same time, there were murmurs that the Wolves were looking closely at former Timberwolves player and Raptors coach Sam Mitchell as Rick Adelman’s replacement as Twolves head coach.

When we last wrote, both of these stories had an air of uncertainty around it. Woj had broken the Love story in one of his “should-I-really-believe-this” megaexclusives. And the Mitchell news crept upon us out of nowhere and felt like a shock to the system.

Since then, the Kevin Love news has only gotten more play, while the Sam Mitchell rumor quickly went away (Eds. Note: There has been some speculation that Mitchell could end up as an assistant on Joeger’s staff) –replaced by the rumor that current Grizzlies coach and Minnesota native Dave Joerger will be the one who succeeds Adelman on the Wolves sideline.

The Inbox below is a list of scenarios that do not seem implausible ways in which the Wolves could decide to go with whatever type of “rebuilding” strategy they will have to do, assuming that Love is traded and Joerger is hired.

Continue reading below the fold to see how we rate them… Continue reading

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Wheelman Presents: The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Vol. 5, Part 2 (The Timberwolves Coaching Search Edition)

Andy G's mom likes Mike D'Antoni.

Andy G’s mom likes Mike D’Antoni. (Original photo from Twitter.)

The Punch-Drunk Podcast has been on hiatus for a while. But now it’s back. With more discussion of the Wolves’ vacant coaching position. (Eds. Note: Andy G’s stanky-leg Comcast internet connection cut out at the very end, so when the Comcast Gods restored connectivity, the pod was split into two parts. This is part two. Part one is here)

In this edition, we recover from Comcast-induced technical difficulties, discuss the pros and cons of some potential candidates for the Wolves’ head coaching position, and speculate that Andy G’s mom has a crush on Mike D’Antoni.

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