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Chaos at shooting guard will hurt the Wolves’ playoff chances

Brandon Roy's biggest liability to the team is on defense.
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Brandon Roy's biggest liability to the team is on defense.

The news that Brandon Roy underwent his seventh knee surgery Monday and will be lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves for about a month was grim but hardly surprising.

It laid bare the folly among those who had allowed themselves to think that Roy could step in and become a consistent boon for the Wolves this season. This wishful thinking was fueled by our deep affection for a comeback saga and our compassion for Roy’s competitive willpower against steep and painful odds. But it wasn’t rational.

This was never going to be a freakish feel-good story like Adrian Peterson of the football Vikings, who came back “better than ever” just 10 months after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his torn knee ligaments. Immediately after Peterson underwent the first knee operation of his career, the surgeon raved to Peterson’s father about the relatively pristine condition of the joint.

By contrast, 11 months ago, a doctor for the Portland Trail Blazers, a man Roy liked and trusted, took a look at the magnetic resonance imaging of Roy’s ravaged knees, each one subjected to three separate surgeries and devoid of remaining useful cartilage, and said if Roy were his son, he’d strongly urge him to retire. 

Roy did retire for a season after that consultation, of course, and then decided to stage his comeback even before undergoing a series of needle-induced withdrawals and re-injections of his own swirled plasma, which lessened the pain and swelling and fortified his resolve. He impressed teams in summer workouts, and the Wolves won a minor bidding war against a handful of other suitors, signing him to a two-year, $10.8 million deal, with only the first season guaranteed.

The optimism extended through training camp and the preseason. With stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio sidelined with injuries, the Wolves marketing department made Roy a centerpiece of the hoopla on opening night. Then meaningful play began and the limitations of the Brandon Roy reality show became manifest.

The 6-6 shooting guard has not lost his redoubtable ability to survey the court and set up plays for his teammates — his 4.6 assists per game is currently the highest average on the Wolves. But it is difficult to think of any other aspect of his game that hasn’t been compromised, often severely, by the condition of his knees. The lack of vertical and horizontal explosiveness has eroded the threat of his once-dreaded pull-up jumper, and his long-range accuracy has been nonexistent — he’s missed all nine of three-pointers thus far this season.

But, as has been discussed here before, Roy’s biggest liability to the team is on defense. He simply isn’t physically capable of deterring dribble-penetration from the wing while still being able to close out on corner three-point shots.  According to 82games.com, opposing shooting guards are shooting 52 percent and essentially doubling his point total when he is on the court. The Wolves have allowed 9.2 more points per 48 minutes when Roy plays compared to when he sits. (To be fair, they have also scored 8.6 more points per 48 minutes, at least partly because of Roy’s playmaking ingenuity.)

Moving forward, the Wolves would be wise to conform their expectations closer to reality, and consider Roy’s value in terms of locker room leadership and spot duty in roles that maximize his playmaking savvy. It’s not like this seventh knee operation is suddenly going to be the charm.

The high cost of Budinger’s injury

In evaluating the Wolves’ prospects coming into the season, I generally felt that anything Roy was able to provide would be a bonus. Yet I remained optimistic because I felt Chase Budinger would be a natural fit at the shooting guard slot, which is mostly interchangeable with the duties of small forward (Budinger’s most common position) in coach Rick Adelman’s system.

Budinger began rewarding that faith with the best start of his four-year career. Effective off the bench at both swing positions, he infused some much-needed athleticism into the Wolves’ half-court sets, not only moving well without the ball but getting to the rim off the dribble — less than half of his layups and dunks were assisted this season, compared with more than 70 percent previously in his career, according to hoopdata.com. His familiarity with Adelman’s system, under which he played his first two years in Houston, enabled him to find open looks both near and far from the hoop. And while his individual on-ball defense was up and down — Alan Anderson memorably torched him during the loss to Toronto — the Wolves were a whopping 11.9 points per 48 minutes better on defense (and 2.7 points per 48 better on offense) when Chase was on the court compared with when he wasn’t.

I’m using the past tense describing Budinger’s impact because he got his legs tangled and twisted during a logjam in the lane at Chicago a week ago Sunday and is now out an estimated three to four months recuperating from his own knee operation. The season will thus be more than halfway completed before Wolves fans get the chance to see the 6-7 Budinger team up in the backcourt with the long-limbed, 6-4 Rubio, in tandem with the talented, imposing front line of Love, Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko. When healthy, that is a dynamic, playoff-caliber quintet, and Budinger is an ideal complement as the fifth man.

But that unit now won’t be healthy for quite some time. I think the potential damage of Budinger’s injury is deeming it just another mishap amid the prevailing physical carnage that has befallen this team thus far this season. In fact, if Love and Rubio return on schedule with most of their former playing prowess intact, I believe losing Budinger for that much time will present the greatest impediment to the Wolves’ playoff chances of any injury they’ve suffered thus far.

Alexey Shved a necessary gamble

Of course, the impact of Budinger’s injury is exacerbated by the phenomenal attrition of the Wolves’ backcourt personnel: Rubio, Roy, Budinger and J.J. Barea make up nearly half of what was, barring a trade, expected to be the Wolves’ nine-player rotation once everyone was healthy. Instead we see roster afterthought Malcolm Lee and emergency acquisition Josh Howard thrown into the breach. And, more hopefully, we see Russian import Alexey Shved getting more minutes, and playing with an effectiveness that makes the extra time seem like a merit raise rather than a default exigency.

Shved has become a favorite among a sizable contingent of both casual fans and hoop diehards from the media and the peanut gallery. I’ve been a skeptical curmudgeon of his game, for reasons that are silly and/or aesthetic, as well as some that are well-grounded. But given the paucity of quality options, including the defensively horrid prospect of resurrecting last season’s pint-sized combo of Barea and Luke Ridnour on the court together once Barea recovers from his sprained foot, I think Shved deserves the chance to handle a plurality of minutes at shooting guard until Budinger returns.

Shved, who will turn 24 next month, has a raw but intriguing skill set that is complicated by his basketball experience and his physical dimensions, both of which are fairly anomalous, compared with most of his NBA counterparts. He has played extensively as a point guard on the international stage, most notably teaming with Kirilenko to lead Russia to a bronze medal in last summer’s Olympics. And at 6-6 tall and 190 pounds, his lean, gangly frame can create matchup problems for both him and his opponents.

The general book on Shved coming into this season was that he was a poor defender but a deft passer and a solid outside shooter with unselfish, ball-sharing inclinations. During his first nine games with the Wolves, he has pretty much made a hash out of those assessments but overall has been a catalyst for more good things than bad that have happened on the court.

My biggest legitimate gripes with his game thus far are his shot selection and his maddening, chronic habit of unnecessarily leaving his feet while making a pass off the dribble. Among Minnesota’s top dozen players in minutes, only Derrick Williams shoots more frequently than Shved, and nobody on the team chucks it up from long distance more often. Given that Shved’s shooting percentage is 24.3 percent from three-point territory and 38.3 percent overall, that gunner’s mentality is problematic, and reflects his splashy, “hero ball” inclinations not only when shooting, but in his flashy proclivity to drive to the hoop and then go in the air to feed his teammates off the dribble.

But there are virtues within those vices. No doubt bolstered by his international success, Shved relishes the pressure of crunch time, and actually improves his play (albeit compared to the low bar set by his non crunch-time performance). According to his “clutch” statistics at nba.com, he doubles his shot frequency while raising his shooting accuracy from 38 percent to 55 percent in the clutch, mostly by going inside.

Now “clutch” situations produce a ridiculously small sample size — 14 minutes — so let’s expand it to Shved’s fourth quarter performance. Since Shved helped lead the way in a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback against Brooklyn in the third game of the season, Adelman has deployed him all but 81 seconds out of a possible 94 minutes in those final stanzas. He has responded with a higher shooting percentage (43.1), three-point percentage (33.3) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.71 to 1) than in the earlier quarters.

Shved does have a proclivity for being a ball-stopper; for taking his time to survey the half-court situation before reacting with a pass or shot. That’s one reason why Adelman prefers to pair him with another ball-handler who can do some of the initiation and get Shved accustomed to going with, as opposed to always initiating, the flow. Adelman has been steadfast in his belief that Shved is by nature a solid long-range shooter who will inevitably start converting those three-pointers. If so, his value will soar in the Wolves offense.

In disagreements with the coach, I defer to his greater wisdom. That said, I need to see it to believe that Shved can be reliable from three-point territory and don’t mind him running the point when Rubio is on the shelf. His size makes him look relatively slow and clumsy on the dribble, but longer strides create quickness and smaller opponents are going to have trouble getting into his path for the poke-steals that his handle seems to invite.

It remains to be seen whether Shved can sustain even this promising level of success once scouts suss his habits (especially those airborne passes) and begin to press his weaknesses. Defensively, he’s been a mixed bag, with his size again mitigating some of his flaws in positioning and help rotations.

But among the options over the next month, the Barea-Ridnour pairing is a diminutive disaster defensively, Lee lacks NBA ability (though has some value via hard work on the defensive end), and Howard shoots way too frequently. Relying on a cocky rookie with some notable flaws for major minutes is not a recipe for playoff contention. But with Roy out for a month (and diminished when he returns) and Budinger gone for three or four months, Shved is the necessary gamble at shooting guard.

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Comments (7)

Disagree that Shved is a gunner.

Britt,

I disagree that Shved has a "gunner's mentality." I've been more concerned with the opposite--that he seems like he often dribbles into the lane looking only to pass. Thankfully, he quickly adjusts to shifting defensive strategies and has had some easy layups arise from defenders shading away from him as he approaches the hoop, anticipating a forced pass instead of easy shot.

He's shooting 14.0 times per 36 minutes. As you say, that's second only to Derrick Williams on this year's team (unless you count barely-played Howard and Conroy.) But on last year's team that rate would fall well-behind Kevin Love's 17.8 per 36, and also behind Mike Beasley's 16.5 and J.J. Barea's 14.6. Put simply, Shved isn't shooting at a very high rate for a player who has the ball as much as he does in this early season with unique roster circumstances. Also, while we're on this, I'll point out that he shares a winning trait with old favorite, Corey Brewer: That is, he heaves the ball toward the hoop as the clock approaches 0, rather than saving his field goal percentage from probable damage. There was some karma at work when Corey eventually forced overtime in a game with a 70-foot heave. I wish the NBA would just not count half-court and beyond attempts at field goal attempts since there is such an obvious preference for stats over incremental chances at winning games. Shved has launched multiple shots that had no chance of going in, which ups his frequence and hurts his accuracy.

And about his shooting accuracy--it will probably increase. If you look at his Russian and Euro shooting stats (http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Alexey-Shved-1097/stats/) you'll notice that for the past couple seasons he's been a 30's and 40's percentage type of 3-point shooter. As high as 49.3% from 3 in last year's Euros with a high frequency. His shot mechanics and Olympic performance also suggest his current percentage is skewed low. I think his percentage changes will be more volatile than traditional shooters (like Budinger) mostly because many of them come off the dribble with a dwindling shot clock. Other than for Steve Nash, that's difficult to be consistent at.

Once he got past the jitters that were on full display in his first two games, and broke out in that comeback win at New Jersey, Shved has been really, really good. His big hiccup game was versus Charlotte who aggressively double teamed him on some ball screens. That's the scouting adjustment I look forward to seeing--I hope that he can adjust as quickly to that as he has seemed to, to other defensive tactics.

On the jump passing, I wouldn't coach any players to do it, but when it leads to about 5 or 6 ope shots--sometimes dunks--for every turnover, I can't gripe about it as much as chuckle and admire.

Agree on Budinger's excellent play, and hope you're wrong about its importance. Josh Howard will probably have some bearing on that.

As always, enjoyed the column even if I had to voice some disagreement this time!

rebuttal

Andy,

Reading your tweets and your posts over at Punch Drunk Wolves [http://punchdrunkwolves.com/2012/11/19/reflecting-on-the-alexey-shved-signing/#more-2343], I knew you'd be a Shved defender. In fact, when I just went over there to get the link, I noticed you have a stand-alone Shved story up, although I haven't read it yet. It's typical of your modesty not to mention it--next time link away, as I know your primary purpose for coming to this site is to engage, not self-promote.
But as to our disagreement. I think 14 FGA per 36 is pretty high. And one of the reasons he "has the ball so much" is because he doesn't move it rapidly. Saying it is behind only Love, Beasley and Barea from last season damns him by comparison, as Love is a superstar who should have an enormous usage rate, and Beasley and Barea are ball hogs (although Barea much less so in his notable and abbreviated start to the season compared to last year). Yes, there may be times when he launches to beat the shot clock, but again, some of that is because he holds on to it. According to 82games.com, one of every five shots he takes is in the last four seconds of the clock (although I believe they haven't updated since the Charlotte and GS games) and he is making only 22.7%--still better than the 18.8% he is shooting during the 11-15 second clock span.
As I said in the piece, what bothers me is more the shot selection. Again from 82games, he is shooting less than 30% on jumpers away from the basket and yet that comprises 78% of his shots. By contrast, two-thirds of his shots in the paint are going in--more of those attempts, please, which also gives him a chance to dish off the dribble.
I trust your Euro stats and Adelman's gut that he will improve from outside. I just hope it doesn't tempt him to keep jacking. Yes, I understand how well he facilitates, and I know that when he drives he is looking to dish. But less so on the perimeter, and if those jumpers are falling a little more regularly, it is possible we'll see even less ball movement to initiate the sets.
Last but not least, the league may well catch up with that jump passing. Then the turnovers will rise and you'll be doing less chuckling and admiring.

That is a solid rebuttal, but

That is a solid rebuttal, but I'll try to better explain why I like how Shved is playing right now. Whether he shoots too much or too little, he's the best chance that a Rubio-less Wolves team has to create high-percentage shot attempts. So far, the jump passes are not only avoiding turnovers but they're setting up open looks in the corners (the best non-dunk shot in basketball) and setting up baseline-diving Kirilenko for easy layups. He also finds Cunningham behind the elbow, where he seems to convert about 75 percent of attempts (he's shockingly-good at this--much like late-career Garnett, it seems.) I guess I'm not a huge fan of the way Shved holds the ball, but some of that is his struggles with the language barrier. (I think. I'm just going off of Adelman's preseason remarks about why he couldn't play point guard.) Shved's only comfortable play as a playmaker right now is to call for a ball screen and do his thing. It isn't unlike Rubio a season ago, who also did his damage mostly from that common NBA set. When he's not waiting for the ball screen, Shved seems to make a lot of easy passes. He passes up the court when appropriate. I really don't think we have a Troy Hudson or Jonny Flynn on our hands here, in terms of unnecessary stalling of the offense.

The time, in my opinion, to scrutinize Shved is when (hopefully this isn't an "if") the lineup is back to full health. It sure seems right now that a Rubio-Budinger-Kirilenko-Love-Pekovic unit would be formidable, maybe even one of the best in the NBA if things clicked just right. If Shved hijacks the offense at the expense of what we *know* will work, then I'll reconsider. So far, I've liked what I've seen and expect those shooting percentages to increase a bit. Like I commented here a few posts ago, I think Shved will always be a somewhat low percentage shooter, but only because he assumes that role--to his efficiency's expense but the team's good. Without a prototypical star wing player or post scorer to draw double teams, it's the elite passing and cutting, along with Love's shooting and Pekovic's dual threat of sealing under the hoop and pounding the offensive boards, that can add up to a great offense. I see a role for Shved in that--even if it remains off the bench when Ricky comes back and takes the first-unit driver's seat.

Thanks for linking that post -- if another time comes when we've written on the same topic, I'll go ahead and feel free to share it.

A necessary gamble...

But it's not like we have many options at this point (I tried talking myself into Agent Zero and/or Mo Evans last week - not a good sign). I would actually prefer we bring him in off the bench rather than start him, much like Manu does in San Antonio. We're going to have to live with the JJ/Ridnour combo for some key stretches over the next month (assuming JJ can get healthy, which has been a dicey proposition), and that's actually something I can live with. But I think Shved should be given every opportunity to close out games in the 4th, as he's currently our most dynamic wing by far. Those jump-passes drive me crazy too, but heady teammates making cuts when Shved drives can help convert them into more points and fewer turnovers.

I also trust that Shved's shooting touch will improve, but keep in mind that plenty of other relatively good guards have been shooting similar percentages this season (Lou Williams, Marcus Thornton). The NBA is still quicker than any league he's played in, and even great shooters sometimes rush shots until they adjust to the pace (compare Jimmer's percentages this year and last - Mike Dunleavy also had the same problem if I remember correctly).

I have to admit I'm a little surprised that we've managed to hang onto Williams through this injury mess - I had half-expected that we have had a trade or offers lined up for him (preferably for a SG/SF) and the injuries would make us pull the trigger. Signing Josh Howard didn't seem like a very Wolves-esque move but I guess we need the stopgap.

I'd still like us to shore up the SG slot and not be dependent upon Roy's knee, Shved's development, or Luke/JJ playing the spot. And my impatient side won't want to wait 3-4 months for a potentially gunshy Chase to return before the team can jell. I think if there's a player who fits into Adelman's system and is available right now, it's time to trade D-Will for him at 50 cents on the dollar - even if it means more minutes for Amundson until Love returns.

Luke/JJ and trading D-Will

Anton--

Good, provocative stuff, thanks. I hope I'm wrong about my doom-saying on the Ridnour/Barea combo. Perhaps having Kirilenko instead of Wes Johnson as their wingman will make a huge difference. But I remember watching that pair with great frustration last season, and put much of the absolutely wretched perimeter defense that occurred after Rubio went down at their feet. Plus, on offense, both like to run to the open spot on the floor as much or more than they like to dish. On a team with Pek and Love in the front line, I want as many pure facilitators as possible, thank you.
That said, I suspect Adelman agrees with you in wanting Shved to become his poor man's Ginobili. He likes having both Shved and Cunningham as energy off the bench. And he's a pretty smart guy.

I don't think the Wolves will trade Derrick Williams this year. D-Will and Brandon Roy are the two remaining roster guys who are more Kahn than Adelman in terms of their acquisition, and with Roy becoming a dicier proposition with his latest injury, and Kahn hoping for a new contract, it is difficult for me to see him pulling the trigger. That would complete an inglorious run that includes Flynn, Rambis, Beasley, Wes, Darko, Anthony Randolph...you get the idea. That said, Kahn deserves credit for being able to cut bait on all of the above, so if he sees something of genuine value for Williams, maybe he'll do it. But the Wolves have a lot of major salary decisions coming up in the next year or two, and getting a "name" player more ready to contribute at the 2 this season would further complicate those decisions. We'll see.

The underrated aspect of Shved

His offense will be better than I'd originally thought. I didn't watch Olympic hoops because NBC buried it on a cable channel I don't get, but the reports seemed to indicate he had some PnR, drive-and-kick to his game, with the ability to make an outside shot. Those reports undersold how effective he is at getting to the rim cerebrally and converting in traffic (he's shooting 76.2% at the rim). He's having some problems initiating his moves, but those might be reduced if they're able to diversify their sets. He was the only one who could consistently get a shot off inside vs. Charlotte's bigs on Wednesday, and it's something that's shown up in other games.

As for their sets, I think Adelman is going with the no-margin-for-error, default offensive setting. They could try some things with more skilled guys on the floor, and I think Love's return will bring some of that back, as will Rubio's.

As Jim Petersen said during the preseason, Roy is found money. This team's fortunes were always going to hinge on the improvement from the spots formerly occupied by below-replacement-level players and the health of Love and Rubio. Their small backcourts last year weren't ideal, but they were low on the list of issues that plagued this team. As someone said on CH yesterday, I'd rather worry about guys shooting over Ridnour than about guys blowing by him. There aren't enough teams in this league that can make the Wolves pay for playing small.

Hope you're right

...about the small backcourt not being too much of a hindrance. And your letter makes the third smart reader to endorse Shved. I know I have (or did) too, but grudgingly. Maybe it's grumpy old man syndrome and things will be fine until Bud gets back.