In which we look ahead at the Wolves options in the NBA Draft.
In which we look ahead at the Wolves options in the NBA Draft.
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:
What we don’t know:
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?
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.
Patrick J: On Wednesday night at Target Center, the Timberwolves faced the Oklahoma City Thunder in the final game of their 2014-15 season. That game was meaningful for OKC–the Thunder needed the win, as well as a Pelicans loss, in order to make in the playoffs. (Eds. Note: The Pelicans did not lose. New Orleans is the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Wussell Restbrook is left to stew at home, leap over tall buildings, or do whatever restless superstars who miss the playoffs do. He may want to consult his former UCLA roommate, Kevin Love, who had plenty of experience missing the playoffs until this season.)
For the Wolves, Wednesday’s finale didn’t feel significant at all. It was a continuation of most of ‘Sota’s season, really. The Wolves were out of the playoff race almost as soon as it began, and — through a series of roster management decisions — signaled many times over that they were much less interested in fielding a competitive night-to-night lineup than they were in securing a high 2015 draft pick under the guise of squeezing every ounce of potential out of rookie Andrew Wiggins.
We thought it made enough sense to kickstart the recap process and look at some things we learned about this Wolves team, this season.
Part I will focus on the guards. Part II, which will come over the weekend, will look at the wings.
In this entry, we don’t dwell on Mo Williams or Lorenzo Brown. You already know why.
Read below the fold for more on Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Zach LaVine.
In which we discuss Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, and Sean (Mc)Sweeney.
Check out the podcast below the fold and subscribe on iTunes!
Andy G: You and I are in complete agreement on the initial question of whether the Timberwolves are (and have been) tanking, this year.
We don’t need to beat that dead horse.
But let’s talk a bit more about what their tanking methods have done — both good and bad — and what they tell us about this team, its coach, and its future.
I’ll let you start: with respect to the tanking the Wolves have done this year, what parts have bothered you most, and are there aspects (aside from the boosted draft position) that you think have had positive effects (whether anticipated/calculated, or not)?
At the season’s quarter point, I handed out letter grades to each player. At the halfway point, I laid out team superlatives. We’ve just reached the third quarter point, and with the team fresh off a franchise-altering trade, and without hope of making the upcoming playoffs, I thought it a good time to lay out the big issues they face as the season hits its springtime homestretch.
The following are five issues that the team faces and will hang over the last 21 games of the season. I listed them in increasing order of importance, as I see things:
1. What is Zach LaVine’s position?
On one hand, I don’t view this as a particularly important question despite the emphasis many knowledgeable Wolves pundits place on it; specifically, many criticize Flip Saunders for playing LaVine at point guard when he has struggled there, and they feel his future is off the ball, at the two. I don’t get quite as hung up on that positional distinction in Zach’s case because I think his “upside” will be realized if and when he can get comfortable enough with his handles, against pressure defense, to explode to the rim from the top of the key. That’s a “combo guard” type of play that athletic dynamos like Russ Westbrook have proven to be effective.
Even if LaVine doesn’t have traditional point guard instincts, he’ll create plays for himself and teammates if and when he can master that skill; and he obviously has the athleticism to do it. So from that perspective, I think playing him at point guard right now makes sense. Flip has played him almost exclusively at point guard this season, to the chagrin of fans (and sometimes himself, it seems) and I can only believe he’s doing this with an eye toward the future and the type of player he wants LaVine to become.
But the question matters considerably more in the short term — next season, specifically — if the Wolves are planning to try to win games rather than tank for the draft and develop young players outside of their comfort zones, as they did this year. Because in that case, they need a backup point guard and this year’s version of LaVine is simply not good enough to play that role on a competitive team.
The on/off numbers for LaVine paint an ugly picture. In the 1148 minutes he’s been on the floor this year, the Wolves were outscored by 17.1 points per 100 possessions. In other words, over a large sample size, the Wolves were consistently blown out when LaVine was in the game, and he was almost always playing point guard. Some of that statistic is the fault of other players. Consider that he played by far his most minutes in December (15 games, 29.3 minutes per game) when the Wolves best players (Rubio, Martin, Pekovic) were all on the shelf with injuries. Those lineups were outmanned across the board. Combined with the “Force Feed Wiggins At All Costs” philosophy that Flip implemented, there was no getting around some awful plus-minus stats.
But LaVine’s ineptitude on defense, and in initiating the offense as the lead guard, were substantial contributing factors to the lopsided defeats, too. He dribbles the ball high, and when defenders pressure him, he struggles to do anything beyond a cautious entry pass to the wing. On defense he is pretty good against isolation drives, because of his supreme athleticism and solid effort level. But he does not yet have the court awareness, or the physical strength and developed tricks to navigate pick and rolls with any success. The Wolves allow 113.4 points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the floor, and just 105.5 when he’s off. That 7.9 point differential is enormous, considering the sample size on each side of it.
So in the season’s final quarter, it will be worth paying attention to every minute LaVine takes the floor and mans the point guard spot. They need to know if he’s improving rapidly enough to be penciled in as a point, or even combo guard in next year’s rotation, or whether they need to find somebody else on the open market or in the draft to back up Ricky Rubio.
2. Is there a starting frontcourt player on the roster?
All-Star Weekend is 66.6 percent complete. The Rising Stars (Rookies & Sophomores) Game was Friday night. The Wolves had 4 players participating; 2 on the International Team and 2 on Team USA (Wiggins, Gorgui, Shabazz, LaVine). Andrew Wiggins led the international squad to victory, and earned Game MVP honors.
Last night was the three-point shootout and dunk contest. Steph Curry, unsurprisingly won the shootout. He hit 13 straight at one point. It seems appropriate he wins a contest that celebrates his signature skill in the same season that he will probably win league MVP and has a great chance of also winning a title (and, presumably with that, a Finals MVP honor). Curry’s awesome.
But the big story of last night and the entire weekend is Zach LaVine. We had high expectations for what he might do in the dunk contest — because videos like this one exist — and he came through on the big stage. LaVine caught the ball off the bounce, pulled it between his legs and did a one-handed reverse jam on the baseline. In his next dunk, he caught the ball off the bounce again, but this time swung it behind his back and flushed it home with his right hand. Those were possibly the two greatest dunks in contest history. He made each on his first attempt.
LaVine’s third and fourth dunks were comparatively disappointing but that had more to do with the expectations he set by his first pair than anything wrong with the dunks themselves. (Also, he didn’t connect on the first try in the final round, which takes a little bit of the shine off.) He caught the ball off the stanchion and went under his leg for the final slam of the night. He made that look easy. Victor Oladipo made one really cool dunk, but was no competition for LaVine, who won the contest easily.
This was LaVine’s biggest career moment BY FAR. So we broke down our thoughts on Zach LaVine’s big phat All-Star Weekend below the fold.
Andy G wrote a nice mid-term report yesterday that assessed the team via “superlatives” rather than letter grades. It’s an excellent post. Read it now if you haven’t yet.
I’d have given LVP to Chase Budinger, not LaVine, but a case can be made either way. LaVine has certainly hurt the Wolves more, on average, than any other player–at least among the ones who’ve been playing. But if you think about “Least-Valuable” in relative terms, based on some expectation of (solid-to-good) performance–like voters for the NBA’s MVP seem to–then I think I’m on firmer ground to argue that Budinger has been a huge letdown, while LaVine has been a sometimes-pleasant surprise, despite the spasms of mistakes he’s prone to making in rapid succession, especially when not playing in transition.
Simply put, Budinger is touted to have one “plus” NBA skill–his three-point stroke–and he has shot poorly all season while generally playing tentatively and lethargically. He’s only shooting 33.3% from distance so far. Really, Wiggins and Muhammad have been the only bright spots from distance in an offense that generates few three-point shots. Muhammad was just beginning to get comfortable looking for shots from behind the arc when he went down with his current injury.
Andy kind of got at this concept of “relative to expectations” with his “Most Disappointing” superlative, which went collectively to the Power Forwards.
I thought it would be interesting to look at Zach LaVine’s strengths and weaknesses on offense so far. LaVine clearly has shortcomings in numerous areas, but he possesses some unusual talents that continue to make him an intriguing if frustrating prospect.
Below I simply look at some trends in what he’s doing offensively, how well he’s doing at those things, and what that might mean about his current status as an inconsistent rookie and what he needs to work on moving forward.
Perhaps the most interesting stat line in Saturday night’s loss to the Spurs came from Wolves rookie Zach Lavine. Lavine scored 22 points and had 10 assists. It was his second-best game of the season. (Eds. Note: Lavine’s best game was his career-high 28 point night in the Wolves last win, against the Lakers in Los Angeles, on November 28.)
Take Lavine’s numb#rs with a grain of salt: Lavine, starting again at the point in place of the injured Ricky Rubio and Mo Williams, was going against the Spurs’ second unit. Tony Parker, the Spurs’ superstar point guard, had tweaked a hamstring injury the night before in the Spurs win at Memphis, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat Parker on Saturday against the Wolves.
(Eds. Note: Pop also sat star guard Manu Ginobili in the game but played Tim Duncan, who fucked around and got a triple-double the night before in the Spurs win over the Grizzlies.) So Lavine had more breathing room to get his bearings at the point.
So, why should we care about Lavine’s numb#rs? Because Lavine’s night puts him into incredibly interesting company: LeBron James, Stephon Marbury, and Dajuan Wagner. Who, exactly, is that company?
The most important point to note is that the trio of teen NBAers who’d put up 20/10 double-doubles in points and assists is INCREDIBLY (!) cool. Just read the names again: Lebron James, Stephon Marbury, and DaJuan Wagner. They had special paths to the NBA. Now Zach Lavine is on that list. He didn’t. But he brings at least some of the “something-something” those guys brought, at least some of us think, and the Wolves front office seems to believe, since they were the ones who drafted him this past summer.
Lebron, Steph, and Juanny are and were cool in very different ways. What they all had in common was that as high school players, they were viewed as “the next coming.”
But the next coming of what? The answer is that it was different for each. But for each, it was some type of basketball greatness.
Let’s briefly walk them through, one-by-one.
The Wolves defeated the Lakers last night in a 120-119 barnburner at Staples Center. Kobe Bryant missed a wide-open three point shot that would’ve won the game at the buzzer.
A lot of times before last night, it looked like Lavine simply shoots to try to get his self going, but doesn’t really expect the ball to go in. Last night was a different story. As athletic as Lavine is, it goes to show how important timing and rhythm are for his offensive game. He was well within the flow of what was a very fast-paced game last night. Hopefully he can take away some lessons about why he was so successful last night and has looked so poorly on other nights.
But it bears emphasis: Lavine put together one of the best games that any rookie plays this season.
More below the fold…
In which we discuss Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Thad Young, Flip Saunders, and, yes, Zach Lavine.
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:
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.
Eyes on the Rise and other cool stuff.
I blame Kevin Love.
Anyway, we’ll dig into what we feel are the big questions facing the Wolves, and Wolves fans as we head into another NBA Draft – a draft that doesn’t promise to be memorable for the franchise, but certainly could be.