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The Rubio Referendum

This was me, a week ago, after reading some mocks and predictions that had the Wolves selecting either a point guard (Kris Dunn) or a shooting guard (Jamal Murray) with the fifth pick in the draft:

Right around the time that the Wolves selection of Dunn was announced on Thursday night, Woj crystallized my earlier sentiment with this:

These intertwined pieces of important Timberwolves information hit us like a 1-2 punch; leaving Timberwolves Nation collectively… well, perhaps a little bit “punch drunk,” in the 48 hours that followed. On Twitter, I think I pretty much observed the gamut of “takes.”

“This doesn’t necessarily mean Rubio is gone. Maybe they can play together.”

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 14


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

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Wolves Beat Jazz & Other Jottings

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

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Evaluating Sam Mitchell’s Coaching Performance


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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What is going on with Ricky Rubio?

“He is our starting point guard, so if you take the starting point guard off any team, you’re going to see a difference.”

–Sam Mitchell, commenting on Ricky Rubio’s injury absence, after yesterday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

One of the most striking features of the Minnesota Timberwolves of recent years past is the gap between their performance with Ricky Rubio on the floor, and without him. Before the season I wrote a short piece about this, running through Ricky’s history in Minnesota and pointing out how his “on/off” statistics consistently show what positive effect he has on team success. The decision to write that piece wasn’t random, out of thin air, but in response to reading something that David Aldridge wrote in a column:

That the Timberwolves do not think of Rubio as one of the franchise’s top three talents.

Taking that number literally causes you to start listing possibilities for who might be ahead of him on the franchise-importance pecking order. Andrew Wiggins would come to mind first. He was the top pick in the 2014 Draft and cruised to Rookie of the Year honors. Karl-Anthony Towns, even if he hadn’t played a game yet, would probably be second. He was also a number one pick, and many feel he has potential even higher than Wiggins. Neither of those would be unreasonable assessments, given their enormous talent and potential.

The likely third choice is more controversial. Contrary to the hard basketball-performance evidence to date, I think there’s a strong chance that the other player the Timbewolves higher ups prioritize ahead of Ricky Rubio is second-year guard Zach LaVine. The handling of LaVine has been a source of ongoing debate among Wolves fans and pundits, and it has evolved in a number of different ways since he was drafted out of UCLA where he played just one year, coming off the bench.

I don’t need to detail the history again, but the short version is that the Wolves entered last season with expectations of playing competitive basketball, but then used Ricky Rubio’s early-season ankle sprain as cover to tank for the next draft, and by far and away the most effective tanking weapon at their disposal was playing LaVine at point guard. Had the Wolves played Rubio 40 or 50 games last year instead of 22 — and if you ever watched Rubio working with special shooting coach Mike Penberthy on gamedays, drenched in sweat after cutting-and-shooting drills, you probably agree with me that he was capable of playing — they would not have Karl-Anthony Towns today, which would make their future much dimmer than it is now.

But along with sitting Rubio to lose games, it also allowed them to play LaVine a ton of minutes; 1902 to be exact. That was third most on the 2014-15 Timberwolves. In some broad, basic ways, it was a successful season for LaVine. He logged all those minutes, scored 778 points (on a not-terrible 42 percent shooting) and earned second-team All-Rookie Team honors. Add to that the celebrity status he attained by blowing away the field in the Slam Dunk Competition, and there was a lot for the Wolves and LaVine to feel good about, after his first season was complete.

A more detailed assessment of LaVine, however, is not favorable. He has played most of his minutes at point guard where he does not effectively run an offense. He is also, at this point, an inept defensive player whose mere presence on the floor — contrasted with Rubio — causes the Wolves to lose games instead of potentially win them. Very few would argue with those critiques, at this juncture. More debatable is how high his potential is, and what might be the best way to develop it. Before Flip Saunders was tragically and unexpectedly stricken by cancer, the subject of Zach LaVine’s future was presumably a frequent and high-importance subject of front office discussion.

This history brings us to the present, where Ricky Rubio has now missed the last 4 games — 40 percent of this short season — due to what is now described as a hamstring injury. (When he missed his first game against the Charlotte Hornets, it was called a knee injury.) Right before the home game against Charlotte the Wolves had unexpectedly won at Chicago and Atlanta, beating two of the very best teams in the Eastern Conference on their home floors. They were two games over .500, and reshaping the expectations for what all of a sudden figured to be a more competitive season than fans anticipated.

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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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