Tag Archives: karl-anthony towns

KAT the 5, or KAT the Eventual 5?

kat

Free agency begins tomorrow, and the Timberwolves will be looking to add a big man. While NBA positions are less rigid than they used to be, I think there’s a reasonable chance that the Wolves will try to acquire a “true center.” I have two basic reasons for expecting this:

  1. I believe Tom Thibodeau wants to start winning right away; not in a year or three.
  2. Last season, the Wolves were absolutely destroyed on the interior whenever the 7’1″ Kevin Garnett was unable to play. Which was most of the time.

Karl-Anthony Towns has a big future ahead of him (Captain Obvious) and most of that future will probably involve him playing the center position. The sorts of matchup nightmares that he will present at that position are probably the biggest reason Thibodeau took this job in the first place.

But last year, he was not able to defend very well as a five, and — again, if they are trying to win right away — the Wolves will probably sign a full-sized big man to at least insure themselves against certain types of matchups when KAT would be better off at the four spot.

In case you forgot one of the primary negative themes of last season, I’ll run a few quick numbers by you:

  • 107.1. This was the Wolves defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). It ranked fourth worst in the league.
  • 108.8. This was their D-rating without Garnett. This was just a hair better than the Lakers, who were the league’s worst defensive club.
  • 96.4. Their D-rating WITH Garnett playing. Instead of playing league-worst level defense, with a talented seven footer out there, the Wolves defended slightly better than the historically-great San Antonio Spurs.

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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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Looking Ahead: Wolves Need Another Big Man

 

warriorsweb21s-3-web

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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KAT = Great. Wolves = Bad. What to think?

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On Sunday afternoon, I posted a quarter report for this 2015-16 Timberwolves season, grading each player’s performance (relative to role and expectations) one fourth of the way through.

Since posting that, the Timberwolves have lost three times and some of those grades seem a little bit generous.

On Sunday at Phoenix, the Wolves played the (currently) 11-16 Suns. They lost 108-101. The game was not as close as the score suggested. Shortly before the end of the third quarter, after a barrage of Timberwolves turnovers led to Suns layups, Minnesota trailed by over 20 points. In the fourth, they had a crew of bench players led by Andre Miller chip away at that margin, but not seriously threaten the inevitable Suns victory. For the Wolves, it was a horrible performance without much by way of silver linings. It marked their sixth loss in seven games.

On Tuesday, back at home, the Wolves played the (currently) 11-14 Denver Nuggets. They lost 112-100 on their home floor. If turnovers were the problem on Sunday, it was defense on Tuesday; particularly defense against three-point shots. At one point in the the game the Nuggets were 7-9 from downtown as they built up a sizable halftime lead behind the hot, wide-open shooting of former Wolves guard and journeyman role player, Randy Foye. After the game, Sam Mitchell spoke in greater detail than usual about how his young players have so much to learn about playing NBA basketball, and how that was probably their most disappointing loss of the season.

Last night, on Wednesday, the Wolves faced off against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Derek Fisher’s squad came into the game with an 11-14 record. Once again, the Wolves struggled to keep up. They trailed by a lopsided 60 to 40 margin at halftime. Arron Afflalo, a solid, but decidedly unspectacular veteran guard, had a dozen second-quarter points; many times scoring with ease over Shabazz Muhammad’s suspect defense. Afflalo had 29 points in the game on 9-14 shooting. The Wolves made a better effort in the second half, cutting the Knicks lead down to 6 a couple of times with a little over 2 minutes to play, and even closer than that during more desperate situations in the game’s final seconds. But that general game trajectory — a struggling team surrendering a huge halftime lead, then making it sort of close, only to eventually lose — is a pretty common one for bad teams. The game was defined by the pace set by Afflalo and the Knicks in the first half.

Just like against the Suns on Sunday and the Nuggets on Tuesday, the Wolves were not ready to play on Wednesday at New York, and they lost to another sub-.500 opponent. Their schedule included this seven-winnable-games stretch that began with the home Lakers tilt and ends on Sunday at Brooklyn. With two games left in it, they have a single win — the overtime squeaker that saw them survive a last-second Laker miss in overtime — and four losses. Their season record has gone from 8-8 to 9-16. They have lost 8 of 9 games. Of the 8 losses, only two — both against the Clippers — came against a clear-cut playoff-caliber opponent.

If, before the season, you told me or any other interested Wolves fan that the team would be 9-16 after 25 games, that would have sounded fine. It’s a pace of about 29 or 30 wins, which would beat their preseason “over/under” in Las Vegas. It would show progress from last year, when they had the league’s worst record (tanking/injuries noted).

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Evaluating Sam Mitchell’s Coaching Performance

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Evaluating NBA coaching performance is a difficult and imperfect exercise. This is because the overwhelming majority of the work done by coaches happens during the part of the season that outsiders are not privy to; basically, everything outside of the in-game experience. Coaches prepare and conduct practices, scout opponents and present reports to the players with game-to-game strategies. These include their own plans of attack on offense and how to counter the opposition with defensive matchups and principles. While trying to carry out these fundamental tasks, NBA coaches are often faced with the less scientific duty of managing egos and expectations; egos and expectations of twenty-somethings earning million-dollar salaries. With a decision to insert Player X into the starting lineup comes the task of telling Player Y that he’s now coming off the bench. Unlike fans managing their fantasy or 2K rosters, this cannot be done coldly and without regard for the human elements.

Coaches do other things too, like coordinate organizational priorities with the front office. This can mean emphasizing the development of young talent over “winning now.” Who needs to play, and who might need to be traded? In places like Houston, it seems like the coaches are required to implement specific x’s and o’s tactics, such as the three-point shot. Coaches need to speak to media on essentially a daily basis, which can be difficult when trying to both maintain positive vibes with the fan community while not disclosing sensitive or secret material.

Despite this mountain of data that we do not and never will possess, we still sound off on coaching performance and talk ourselves into some pretty high levels of certainty about who are the best and worst in the profession. People generally agree that Gregg Popovich is a great coach, and Byron Scott is a bad one. In recent years in Minnesota, it has seemed like a coaching-competence roller coaster going from Dwane Casey (good) to Randy Wittman (bad) to Kevin McHale (good) to Kurt Rambis (bad) to Rick Adelman (good) and then to Flip Saunders and his unexpectedly-quick replacement, Sam Mitchell, whose job is just beginning.

How good of a job is Sam Mitchell doing? How would we measure it?

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LaVine at Point Guard: An Ongoing and Complex Question

2015 NBA Slam-Dunk champion Zach LaVine

We have a Zach LaVine issue.

He’s been playing a lot of minutes at point guard and many feel that this is a bad idea. The Wolves are winning more than most expected before the season (4-5 record, as of last night’s loss at Indiana) but possibly less than they could’ve, if LaVine played fewer minutes at the point. It’s a difficult question — whether playing him there makes any sense — and probably not answerable within a great deal of certainty.

What we know:

  • LaVine is not good at point guard; not yet anyway. He is not a strong enough ball-handler to initiate good team offense, and he is a very, very poor defensive player, when tasked with defending point guards. Eric in Madison of Canis Hoopus wrote an outstanding piece this morning that details why playing LaVine at point guard has been a losing proposition for the Wolves this season. I strongly encourage readers to click through and read his piece, if you have not already.
  • He is an unbelievably explosive athlete; possibly the greatest leaper in the history of the game. LaVine’s performance in last year’s dunk contest rivaled the best ever, including Vince Carter’s 2000 exhibition that many thought could never be topped. If in this year’s contest he tries to dunk from the high school three-point line, I won’t be completely surprised. LaVine, though very skinny and in need of more upper body strength, sometimes blows past a defender with a first step that leaves people wondering what might be in store for him if he ever learns the nuances of the game. His physical upside as a guard who destroys defenses off the bounce seems unparalleled.
  • LaVine has had some success playing off the ball, in his short NBA career. Last night at Indiana, he played much better next to Andre Miller, and eventually ended the game with a not-at-all-shabby line of 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. His plus-minus was a net-zero, and without digging into the details I’m sure that it was decidedly positive when he was playing at the two instead of the point. After the All-Star Break last season, LaVine shot a clean 38 percent (38 out of 100) from three-point range, and of those, 34 were assisted. (Also, for what it’s worth 32 of them were “above the break” threes, farther out and more difficult than threes shot from the corners.) Making assisted threes is a valuable shooting guard skill, even if it isn’t necessarily the play that best signifies Zach’s upside.

What we don’t know:

  • Are all of these point-guard minutes in NBA games the ideal way to develop his game for the future?
  • Would it make more sense to play him more at shooting guard in NBA games?
  • Would it make more sense to give him point-guard minutes in a D-League setting?
  • How much do in-game minutes matter for development, as opposed to developing in practice?
  • Is LaVine at point guard stunting the potential development of the players who share the floor with him? Players like Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gorgui Dieng?
  • Could this Timberwolves team fight for a playoff spot, if Ricky Rubio quickly returns to full health and they move forward with a better use of the backup point guard minutes – either via a minor trade or simply playing Andre Miller over LaVine?

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INBOX: Why is Shabazz Muhammad Struggling So Far?

CREDIT: Todd Bigelow (Photo by Todd Bigelow /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

CREDIT: Todd Bigelow (Photo by Todd Bigelow /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

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?

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Beating Bulls & Hawks, Wolves Reshape Hopes…Expectations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not how it went.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Ep. 12: A New Day

In which we discuss Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, and early impressions on the 2015-16 Wolves season.

(Eds. Note: We taped this yesterday. As usual, we had some technical difficulties during this one. ymmv.)

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Talking Towns, Rubio, Wiggins

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

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

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

Is Karl-Anthony Towns the real deal?

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

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

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

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

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Shifting Expectations, Wolves Lose Big to Thunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Towns, Tyus, and Building a Nucleus

tyus

As you already know, the draft was last Thursday, and it was a big one for our favorite team. I decided to take it in over at the new Mayo Clinic facilities, and swing through the arena for the announcement of the first pick. What follows is some parts recap of that night, with some thoughts about the Wolves two draft picks and where the team finds itself right now, heading into Summer 2015.

Karl-Anthony Towns

The Wolves first draft selection was equal parts boring and exciting. For at least a few days, the media had been reporting that Flip was going to draft Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky. Brian Windhorst went on ESPN — live, from Minneapolis — shortly before the pick was officially announced by Adam Silver, to confirm that this was still the case. So there was not the unpredictability that has come to define Timberwolves drafts of the past decade. As expected, the Wolves chose Towns.

Perhaps that was a good thing this time around, because in taking Towns the Wolves set the Target Center crowd on fire with cheers. Its team had just taken the consensus “best player in the draft,” for the first time in franchise history. In his conference call with Minnesota media on Thursday night, and especially at his introductory press conference the next day in Minneapolis, Towns said all the right things. He compared joining the emerging nucleus of young Timberwolves talent to playing for Kentucky. He looks forward to being mentored by Kevin Garnett, because he wants to learn what it takes to become a champion. He looks forward to taking care of his parents, who sacrificed so much for him to reach this point. He is emphasizing “playoffs” as a goal for this team. Like, right away. Whether unrealistic or not, that’s a refreshing thing to hear said, after a season spent losing on purpose.

The psychoanalysis that we all perform on these 20-year olds is unfair for a number of reasons; perhaps most of all because of the unusual venue in which we observe them. But we do it nonetheless. Andrew Wiggins is a man of few words. He’d rather let his actions on the court speak for themselves. Zach LaVine has a well-intentioned cockiness about him. When most of the new, young Wolves looked nervous on Media Day last year — usually sharing the press conference table with a teammate — the 19-year old, looked-more-like-15-year-old, LaVine sat by himself and began his own presser with a, “Sup wit y’all?” to the media before him.

Towns is thoughtful and gregarious. He enjoys speaking to an audience, but carefully considers a question before answering it. In the past year, he has listed Len Bias as his favorite player, and shouted out Felipe Lopez as a fellow Dominican baller. For a 19-year old, he’s showing off impressive knowledge of basketball esoterica. Whether any of this matters once he steps on the court is a fair question, but for now the personality is all we’ve had a chance to see, and Karl-Anthony Towns “won” his press conference. Assuming he can play like most expect, Towns is going to be a fan favorite.

Tyus Jones

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Because everyone else is doing it

The Wolves got lucky

 

After last season’s stank tank, the Wolves got lucky in the lottery for the first time in their history. With the first pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Karl Towns of the University of Kentucky (Adam Silver voice).

The Wolves got their man. They gave the people what they want. The celebration is on. Enjoy the moment.

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INBOX: NBA Draft Week is Upon Us

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The 1st Round: Towns as the now-inevitable #1 pick.

Andy G: First off, Happy Draft Week. Whatever this says about us, and the team that we cheer for, this is usually the highlight of our NBA season and a time clearly marked off on our calendars. This is an especially big one, what with the Wolves picking first overall for the first time ever. (Eds note: But this year’s will join the last two top picks on the Wolves roster, who came over in the K-Love trade. Thanks, LeBron!) Also, the Wolves are picking high in the 2nd Round. There’s some question as to whether they’ll keep both picks, or use them on players that will immediately join the NBA, but the fact is they have them and that means more to discuss.

I’ve written some things about the Wolves top pick; specifically, whether they should use it on Karl Anthony-Towns from Kentucky, or Jahlil Okafor from Duke. For a while, it seemed like Flip was going to take Okafor, a player he was (reportedly) enamored with all season — possibly to the extent that the possibility of drafting Okafor helped motivate the season’s big tanking decisions, like holding Ricky Rubio out of games for much longer than he had to.

But late in the college season, the general scouting consensus (Draft Express and the NBA scouts who talk to Chad Ford) shifted from Okafor to Towns as the draft’s best prospect. The best stats projection models also prefer Towns to Okafor. Now it is widely believed that Flip’s mind has changed as well. There was a period of time when it was rumored that the Wolves personnel staff preferred Towns, but Flip still preferred Okafor. This was disconcerting to read, not because of the conclusion itself (I’m on record as loving Okafor’s potential, and even slightly preferring him to Towns based on what I watched) but because of what it suggested about the team’s structure and process.

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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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Winning the Lottery: Early Questions

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As you’re certainly aware by now, the Timberwolves won the draft lottery on Tuesday night. While they can still complain that they’ve never “moved up” above their odds slotting — that was not technically possible this year, given their league-worst standing — this was the first time they’ve ever been so lucky to win the lotto: They had just a 25 percent chance of landing the top pick and that’s exactly what happened.

On Tuesday afternoon we discussed the two basic scenarios that they would face after the ping-pong balls did their thing: they’d either land a Top-2 Pick and select a big man, or they wouldn’t, and their choice would be more complicated and involve a much longer list of names and positions.

Barring something very surprising, the Wolves will draft either Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky or Jahlil Okafor of Duke. Both will be centers in the NBA, which is a position of need for this team, but not the reason for the choice; along with filling a roster void, Towns and Okafor also project as the best all-around impact players in this draft.

It took all of a few minutes for the social-media celebration to shift gears to a “Towns versus Okafor” discussion. It’s clear to me that most fans of the team want the Wolves to draft Towns, but much less clear that Flip Saunders — the team’s president of basketball operations, coach, and minority owner — will heed that collective, outsider input. For a long time it has been rumored that Flip is enamored with Okafor, and his comments on KFAN radio this afternoon did little to dispel that notion.

Whatever Flip and the Wolves ultimately decide on June 25, “Towns or Okafor” is sure to dominate Timberwolves discourse from now until then. I read somewhere recently that “to know something entails two things: for there to be no doubt, and for it to be true.” This definition of knowledge is problematic for discussing the draft because certainty levels (for the self-aware, anyway) are so low, and the truth will not be adequately tested for years to come. With full recognition that most people already understand this reality, it sometimes feels like it bears repeating.

For the Timberwolves decision maker(s), the obvious question is whether Towns or Okafor will become the better all-around player. Duh. If they could know the answer to that broad question, that would be the end of it. But they can’t know the answer right now, and given how good each player projects to be in the NBA, the decision draws a host of other sub-issues into the analysis. Some are data driven, some are conceptual, some are philosophical, and some are based on imagination.

From what I have seen of, and read about these two players, I lean slightly toward drafting Okafor. At this point anyway. I’ll spend plenty more time watching the available videos of each, and reading as much as I can. ESPN and Draft Express always do a great job covering the upcoming drafts, and Canis Hoopus (led by increasingly-well-known Layne Vashro) have had cutting-edge stats projections for years. If somehow you’re reading here and not there, I highly recommend checking it out.

My basic reasoning for preferring Okafor is that almost every time I watched Duke play, he stood out as an imposing, primary offensive option who had an unusual command of the halfcourt offense from the post. He has a great feel for positioning himself where he can make a play for either himself or teammates, and once he gets the ball in reasonable position, it seems like close to a foregone conclusion that something good will happen. For a player so big, he has incredible ball-handling ability and footwork. Duncan is the most frequent style comparison, and that’s fair, but Okafor is more advanced at this stage than Duncan was. In my opinion, his offensive skills from the low and extended post positions are at such a high level that any comparison will be faulty. I tweeted last night that comparing Okafor’s post play to others is akin to comparing Steph Curry’s shooting to others, and I stand by that. There are things that Okafor can do that nobody else would be allowed to try, and it makes comparison mostly worthless. He’s going to do things on offense in the NBA that nobody else does, with the possible exception of DeMarcus Cousins who is a superstar offensive player.

Towns is a very, very good prospect, too. He is a better defender than Okafor, even if his athleticism might be overrated by some accounts. His upside and appeal has less to do with mobility than it does with his combination of size (he has pure center size, and a frame that looks like it might broaden out into Derrick Favors-territory) and shooting ability. Towns has no obvious weakness and he figures to be a “net positive” no matter his role or situation. Such a high level of certainty that he’ll succeed in some fashion is rare, and he is a safer pick than Okafor for this reason. (Okafor struggled more on defense than Towns, and does not rebound as well.) I lean slightly in Okafor’s favor because I think he has a better chance of being a special, high-impact player who plays offense so well that he can be relied on to create plays not only for himself but others. Basically, I think Okafor has a higher chance of being a superstar in the traditional sense of the term which might’ve been overrated at one time, but is still the most important factor in building a championship-caliber roster.

But like I said, my certainty about Towns vs Okafor is low, and yours should be too.

Having digested the lottery news for 24 hours, here are some questions that I have thought of and/or encountered on Twitter, with my own short responses.  Feel free to chime in with your own in the comments:

1) Should the Wolves decision be affected by the makeup of their current roster?

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