Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Second Season, Sort Of: Minnesota Timberwolves

Ordinarily, the Minnesota Timberwolves and their fellow NBA franchises would be 35 games into their season by now. One could reasonably describe November and December play as their First Season, and January as kicking off the Second. This year, of course, was different. Due to the owners' lockout, play only began on December 26 and the Wolves turned the page to the new year with an 0-3 record.

2012 started with a bang, however, as the Wolves knocked off the powerful Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs back-to-back 99-82 and 106-96 on January 1 and 2. Suddenly the playoffs seemed within reach for the 1st time in more than half a decade.

Since then, unfortunately, the Wolves have more resembled their 2011 selves than that group that showed up for work on January 1 and 2. Minnesota has now lost 4 of 5 games, including unexpected and dispiriting losses to also-rans like Cleveland and Toronto.

So, who and what are the real Minnesota Timberwolves? How do they grade out for the First Season, short as it has been? What are the prospects for the Second, not to mention the Third (the playoffs)? Is there a chance?

Well, long story short, no. It ain't gonna happen. The rest of January will see about 4 more wins and 7 more losses for a 7-14 record, a little better percentage-wise (.333) than today (.300). The Wolves currently are tied for last place (OK, 13th, 14th and 15th) in the West, and would need to stay ahead of Houston and New Orleans, with whom they're now tied) and also leap-frog 5 other teams to get up to 8th place and the playoffs. That would mean getting at least to .500 or maybe a bit above .500. And 7-14 isn't close. If they closed January on a 7-4 run, they'd be 10-11 and still in all likelihood a game or two out of the playoffs.

So 2012 will be all about continuing to test combinations and individuals in order to figure out who can and will help the Wolves get to the next level, which would be competing seriously for the playoffs (2013?) and then making the playoffs (2014?).

So far, injuries have not helped either in the W-L column or in terms of that testing. Guard J.J. Barea, who may yet prove to be the Wolves' best player, has missed several games in the early going, while enigmatic forward Michael Beasley is now out for several games. Both have had foot injuries.

But here's what we think we know at this stage--again, to be proven out over the next 56 games--with roster moves hopefully to follow based on what is learned and/or confirmed.

The Good

Kevin Love. Ricky Rubio. Rick Adelman. Hopefully J.J. Barea. Surely, Derrick Williams?

These may be the only pieces that will remain when the Wolves become truly competitive.

Kevin Love has been the same old (young) Kevin Love. His rebounds are hovering around 15 per game, good enough to lead the league both last year and so far this year. His scoring is up from 20 to 24 ppg. That's because he's taking more shots, 17 versus 14 last year, and his percentage is down from 47 to 42 percent. From 3-point range it's down from 42 to 40. And, the fact is he turns the ball over a bit (3 per game) and gets his shot blocked quite a bit and he is not an elite defender. So he's probably not as good as the average 24/15 player, except of course that there is no such thing as a 24/15 player not named Kevin Love. So obviously you play him as much as his body can stand, and you do everything you possibly can to sign him to a long-term deal. And, fortunately, he's got 2 reasons to sign up long-term that he didn't have last year at this time. Ricky Rubio and Rick Adelman.

When Ricky Rubio moved from the juniors to the senior level in Europe, his numbers plummeted. Some said his game was better suited to the NBA, which is a more open, full-court game whereas they mostly grind it out in the half court in Europe. I was skeptical. I was wrong. Obviously, he's got a gift for seeing the court and pushing and moving the ball and getting it to bigger fellows where they can score. And shooting out of more of a flow has done wonders for his accuracy, now 46 percent overall and 47 percent on the 3. So obviously you play him as much as is consistent with his continuing development as an NBA 1. I don't know if that means getting lots and lots of minutes, or if it means slotting him in where he can be successful, or if it means avoiding unnecessary wear and tear on his body. But whatever it is, that's what you do, even if that means sacrificing a few wins in the short term.

The 6-8 Williams is of course a rookie who is viewed as having an almost unlimited upside--sort of like Beasley 2 or 3 years ago. Like Beasley, right now he's scoring a point about every 2.5 minutes, and Beas gets a rebound ever 4.5 minutes, Williams every 5 minutes. But Williams is shooting 5 percentage points better and 15 from the line. He turns it over every 15 minutes, Beas every 10. He throws up too many 3s. And, again, he's a rookie. He'll get better, and he's already approximately as good as Beas. So obviously you play him as much as is consistent with his continuing development as an NBA 1. I don't know if that means getting lots and lots of minutes, or if it means slotting him in where he can be successful, or if it means avoiding unnecessary wear and tear on his body. But whatever it is, that's what you do, even if that means sacrificing a few wins in the short term. (You may note, this last comment is verbatim what I said about Rubio.)

Collectively, the Wolves are 7th in the NBA in offensive rebounds--though that's in part because we miss more shots--and 12th in overall rebounding. We're above the middle of the pack on 3-point defense.

The Bad

The enigmatic Michael Beasley. Adelman noted after one recent loss that the Wolves' ball movement had been much better than in previous games. Asked why, Love intimated that it was because Beasley is out. Well, doh! And, get this. Taking 14 shots per game, the same that Love was taking a year ago, Beasley is scoring 12 ppg versus Love's 20 last year. And he's turning it over with the same frequency as Love, 3 times per game, in 7 fewer minutes and with about half as many assists. He makes an average of 1 FT out of 3 attempts per game. Anthony Randolph shoots as many FT per game in well under half as many minutes. This is not a productive offensive player, neither in terms of his own scoring or anybody else's.

So what to do? You package him up with whatever guard--Wes Johnson, or Luke Ridnour, or Wayne Ellington--or whatever player--Milicic, Randolph, Tolliver, whatever--the market will accept (and who is not named Love, Rubio, Williams or Berea), and you acquire a competent professional who can play within a team concept and probably score 12 points on half the shots it takes Beasley (or Johnson and Ellington combined) to get there.

Because, hey, the Wolves' options among their 2s go from worse (than Beas) to worser. Johnson and Ellington play 38 minutes a game and score 9 points on 34 percent shooting. And this is a prime go-to scoring position in the NBA. Not good. Black hole.

Collectively, the Wolves are not a good shooting team--10th in the NBA 3s, but 21st overall, and 24th from the line. They assist on about half of all FG. Only Memphis, Sacramento and Washington do less. Only Miami has more turnovers, and the assist-to-turnover ratio is about 1-to-1. Only Sacramento is worse. We're 3rd from the bottom on turnover differential (-3.2). Only 11 teams have fewer steals and 3 have fewer blocked shots. We're dead last in blocked shot differential. We're not quick or athletic or explosive. We're below the middle of the pack on defensive FG percentage.

So, those wins over Dallas and San Antone not withstanding, there's a ways to go.

The OK for Now

The Wolves' bench could be considered to be pretty good if you mean the guys who start the game there--Rubio and Derrick Williams, for example--as opposed to the guys who finish there. Adelman has been starting Milicic, Love, Beasley, Ridnour and Wes Johnson, but he's generally been finishing with Love, Williams and Rubio. Barea and Ridnour have both played with that 4th quarter platoon, while the small forward in this package could be just about anybody.

But just for the sake of example, the 2nd team on the depth chart is Randolph, Tolliver, Williams, Berea
and Rubio. Rubio we've discussed.

• The 6-11 Randolph is scoring 8 points in 14 minutes on 54 percent shooting, but gets only 2 boards. Still, he's played some solid minutes and been a valuable player.

• The 6-8 Tolliver contributes 5 points and 4 boards in 24 minutes, but shoots 37 percent. Still, he's played some solid minutes and been a valuable player.

• We might rate Barea higher than this--i.e. among The Good--but for his injuries. Omigod, is he injury-prone? He's scoring 11 ppg on 40 percent shooting, 31 percent from 3, which is not great. He's not a great defender, but he protects the ball. He's played some solid minutes and been a valuable player.

• Ridnour. Luke is suddenly a more valuable player when you put him on the floor with Rubio. (Oh,wait, everybody is better with Rubio out there. But Ridnour perhaps most of all.) You could almost describe him as a 2. He's shooting 54 percent and still getting 3 assists per game. He's out-sized at the 2 but has proven to be better than the other alternatives. He's played some solid minutes and been a valuable player.

A Year from Now

So where does that leave us? I'm bullish. I am even bullish on David Kahn's ability to make the right roster moves now that we're talking short--or at least medium-sized--strokes, as opposed to turning over an entire roster. A year from  now the Wolves' depth chart will look like this:

C- Milicic, Love
PF- Love, D. Williams
SF- A competent professional such as a Richard Jefferson or Vladimir Radmanovic
PG- Rubio, Barea
SG- A competent professional such as a Jamal Crawford or Daniel Gibson

And while right now we're 3-7 and headed for 7-14 at month's end and realistically 25-41 overall, a good 10 games out of the playoffs. Next year at this time I'd be looking for a 20-20 record en route to something in the vicinity of 26-24 at month's and 44-38 overall, somewhere within 1 or 2 games either way of the playoffs.

So there's nothing to do this year except sit back and watch Ricky Rubio pass the ball, and David Kahn try to shore up those glaring weaknesses that are holding back those building blocks of Love and Rubio and Adelman and Williams and maybe Berea from getting where they are destined to go.

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