Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Get 'Em Next Year

It's that time of year again when the thoughts and hopes of Timberwolves fans begin turning toward next year. It's December. And optimism is running high.

I know. I shouldn't joke. The Wolves have already taken care of that.

Still, the season is barely a month old and the Timberwolves are in good shape. We mean, of course, in the only race that matters for the Wolves of 2009-2010, that is the NBA draft sweepstakes. As of today, at 3-17, they're in second place. With the return of Kevin Love from a broken wrist, of course, the Wolves are at risk of dropping in the standings, judging by their 1-1 record and Love's 29 points and 21 rebounds in two games back.

So let's split the difference between 3-17 (.150) and 1-1 (.500) and go out on a limb here, and say that the Wolves play .325 ball the rest of the way. That's another 20 wins for a final record of 23-59 (.280). That's one win less than last year, and one more than two years ago, and those records (24 and 22 wins) tied for the sixth and third worst in the NBA, respectively. Over the past 3 years, 23 wins would have been tied for fourth, tied for fifth and second in the NBA draft sweepstakes. Right now, a .280 winning percentage would only move them up (or, rather, down) a couple of spots from second to fourth place in the preliminary draft lineup.

So, for the moment, let's say that the Wolves have the fourth draft pick in the 2010 NBA draft. Of course, that's assuming something less than the worst, because more often than not, the Wolves have picked below their preliminary position. And, in 20 years of NBA drafts, most of which the Wolves have spent among the lottery participants, Minnesota has never improved its position. But since we're speculating anyway, let's stick with fourth place.

First, of course, would be better. The mock drafts are almost unanimous (17 out of 20 that I checked) in slotting Kentucky freshman 6-4 point guard John Wall as the #1 pick. Early indications are that he'll be better than most of the top point guard picks in recent drafts, such as, er, Jonny Flynn (#6, Minnesota, 2009), O.J. Mayo (#3, Minnesota, 2008), Mike Conley (#4, Memphis, 2007), Randy Foye (#7, Boston, 2006) and Raymond Felton (#5, Charlotte, 2005). Three of these five have ties to the Wolves, which speaks to their ineptitude over the years in finding the right point guard to run the show.

On the other hand, you can't expect Wall to be better than Chris Paul (#4, New Orleans, 2005), of course, or Deron Williams (#3, Utah, 2005), and it's too early to tell, but Wall may not quite be the equal of Derrick Rose (#1, Chicago, 2008) and Tyreke Evans (#4, Sacramento, 2009). Still, Wall is thought to be closer to these guys than to the Flynns, Mayos and Foyes.

Okay, now forget about Wall, because there's no reason to think the Wolves are going to get a crack at him. Nor are the Wolves going to get a crack at Georgia Tech 6-9 forward Derrick Favors with a #4 pick. Favors, who reminds observers of Josh Smith and Blake Griffin, is pretty widely regarded as the likely #2 pick.

By the time you get down to #3, much less #4, the consensus pretty much dissolves, and three players stand out, or not. And, here's where the Wolves' history as bad talent evaluators and of bad draft picks is worrisome. If there are three players regarded as next best, one is probably going to exceed expectations, one is going to meet expectations, and one is going to bomb out. Which is which, and which one are the Wolves going to pick? The options would appear to be:

• Ed Davis is a 6-10 power forward, now a freshman at North Carolina. He's described as "polished" and a player "who can do a lot of things in the paint.... Think Chris Webber/Rasheed Wallace."

• Greg Monroe is also a 6-10 power forward and a freshman (Georgetown). He's "smooth with a a variety of skills (though) jumping is not one of them."

• Donatas Motiejunas is a 7-foot Lithuanian power forward, a "silky smooth ball handler, good passer, (with) a nearly flawless release on his jumper.... More athletic than Nowitzki or Bargnani," according to one mock draft. He "may be one of the best players in the NBA."

In addition to identifying the right guy (or, even just the wrong guy), the other problem is that the "best available athlete" when the Wolves' pick comes up plays a position where the Wolves already have a pretty good ballplayer in Love. What the Wolves really need is a guy who can just flat-out fill it up from the perimeter, with the "j" or on the drive or, preferably, both. Who could that player be?

• Well, unfortunately, that guy has a broken back. That would be Evan Turner, 6-7 small forward and freshman at Ohio State, who reminds folks of Paul Pierce.

• Then there's Willie Warren, 6-4 off guard at Oklahoma. "He can shake and bake and create his own shot," but at 6-4 "he cannot attack the rim" in the NBA. "If he develops an ability to pass he could become one of the top prospects." That doesn't sound like the man.

• And the third option on the perimeter is thought to be Devin Ebanks, a 6-8 small forward at West Virginia, who is described as a "high flyer..... He can hammer from anywhere (but) he cannot do much else."

The good news is there's a long way to go and these draft prospects will do more to sort themselves out, as perhaps Turner has already done--i.e. sorted himself out. But right now, if the Wolves don't have the first or second choice in the 2010 NBA draft, it looks like it again will be a tricky affair. Of course, a free agent signing could also overshadow the Wolves' draft pick, which would be a first. Later on we'll speculate about that, and you can assume that we'll drop names like Joe Johnson, Luke Ridnour, David Lee and Travis Outlaw. LeBron James, Chris Bosh or Dewayne Wade, not so much.

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