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The Wolves stay afloat in limbo

Knicks forward Kurt Thomas fouling Timberwolves forward Derrick Williams
REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine
Knicks forward Kurt Thomas fouling Timberwolves forward Derrick Williams in the first quarter of their Dec. 23 game.

As the Minnesota Timberwolves cruise past the one-third mark of their 2012-13 season with road games in Utah and Denver on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the team remains a simultaneously beguiling and frustrating work in progress.

Pessimists can rightly claim that injuries have robbed the Wolves of any reliable wing depth and put a significant dent in the quality, as well as the quantity, of minutes logged by top players Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. They’ll note that despite having played an extremely easy schedule thus far, Minnesota would be out of the playoffs if the season were to end today, and that it is unlikely their horrible three-point shooting will dramatically improve in the near future.

Wait. That has been the operative word of the optimists since the start of the season. Wait until Love is healthy, until Rubio is healthy, until Budinger (or, less likely, Roy) returns. Wait until newcomers like Kirilenko and Shved get time with Love and Rubio, until Ridnour’s back and Pekovic’s ankle are fully healed. Wait until the full complement of talent on this roster finds a collective rhythm and synergy that will arrive with ongoing health and familiarity.

Meanwhile, the Wolves continue to tease. They have forged a winning record (albeit barely, at 14-13) with a necessarily jumbled rotation, posting impressive victories and desultory losses almost regardless of who is on the court. Their past two games, both at home, were lackluster affairs that included a wretched defeat gifted to a tired Houston team, followed by a narrow win that practically came by default over a threadbare and dysfunctional Phoenix squad that came in with a 2-12 record on the road.

Now Minnesota enters a treacherous patch in the schedule, with six of their next eight games on the road. Their next two opponents, Utah and Denver, are a combined 19-5 at home thus far this season. They don’t play a home game against a team with a losing record during the entire month of January.

Against this backdrop, allow me to make a couple of hit-and-run observations on my first column back from MinnPost’s holiday hiatus, followed by a thumbnail preview of the Utah and Denver games.

Why sign Lazar Hayward?

The Wolves’ backcourt remains a jumble. Thanks to a raft of significant injuries — Malcolm Lee and Josh Howard are out for the season (with Howard waived from the roster), Brandon Roy is wrestling with retirement, and Chase Budinger isn’t due back until sometime in March — the Wolves’ best (only?) option at shooting guard happens to be current assist leader Alexey Shved.

Shved has been particularly stellar on the pick-and-roll with center Nikola Pekovic, and in executing feeds to fellow Russian Andrei Kirilenko on back-door cuts. He also has thrived since being inserted into the starting lineup beside Luke Ridnour, mostly because he is allowed to become the de facto point guard.

Unlike J.J. Barea, who hogs the ball for assists and shots, and Ricky Rubio, who deserves to be the choreographer in the half-court sets, Ridnour is effective enough playing off the ball to complement Shved’s talents. In their eight games as the starting backcourt, Shved is averaging seven assists per game to Ridnour’s four. Together, they provide the versatile playmaking coach Rick Adelman prefers in his backcourt. And as this chart shows, they have been successful in tandem thus far this season.

But the truth is that both Ridnour and Shved are better point guards than they are shooting guards, at both ends of the court. While both are viable threats to thread the needle on a pretty assist to a big man, or create their own shot off the dribble, neither player provides either the rugged defense or the prolific and explosive scoring you want from the shooting guard slot. As this link to 82games.com indicates, the only position where the Wolves are consistently outperformed this season is at shooting guard.

The recent signing of Lazar Hayward is no remedy for this vulnerability. Although billed as a combo swing man (both small forward and shooting guard), the 6-6 Hayward has spent almost all his time at small forward during his brief stints in the NBA, with the Wolves two years ago and Oklahoma City last season. His defensive numbers are terrible, but it is a small sample size and probably involves a fair share of garbage time, especially in OKC. But his three-point shooting accuracy is a miserable 28.4 percent, which is even lower than Minnesota’s current NBA-worst team mark of 29.8 percent.

Perhaps there weren’t significantly better options for the paltry amount of money the Wolves were willing to spend. I could throw out names both high-profile (Michael Redd) and obscure (D.J. Kennedy in the D-League), but I lack the intimate knowledge to second-guess Wolves’ management that specifically.

Maybe Hayward has been working on his perimeter game. But at first blush, particularly with Rubio missing the Rocky Mountain road trip due to ongoing back spasms, failing to sign a more natural shooting guard feels like a mistake. It also further tarnishes the wisdom of signing Roy, whose uncertain future muddies the team’s options moving forward.

Upsizing the small forward

The most logical argument for signing Hayward is that the Wolves don’t have anyone on the roster to back up Kirilenko at small forward. My rebuttal would be that upsizing the small forward slot by giving minutes to power forwards Dante Cunningham and Derrick Williams would be no more damaging or disruptive than Adelman’s common practice of downsizing at shooting guard by playing point guards like Barea and Ridnour.

Just as there are matchups where Adelman takes small-ball to an extreme and plays a three-guard lineup with Shved as the small forward, there are obviously occasions where the Wolves can go (and have gone) big, with either Cunningham or Williams joining Love and Pekovic on the front line. But the key to this strategy relies on Adelman demonstrating more faith in Williams than he has thus far.

Make no mistake, Williams has been a major disappointment for a player taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. But it has also become increasingly apparent that D-Will’s natural skill set makes him a different player from the one Adelman prefers to envision. Ultimately, it is going to be up to the coach to either relent and be more flexible, or cut bait.

Most obviously, try as he might, Williams lacks the organic fluidity and intuition to thrive as a scorer in the paint. For every nifty baseline drive like the one he executed last Saturday against Phoenix, there are two or three tragicomic forays to the rim resulting in stuffed shots and wild air-balls. 

By contrast, Williams has begun to settle into a nice little groove from three-point territory — his 37.5 percentage from distance is best on the team over the past 10 games. Since converting threes is the one vital element of the game the Wolves have most consistently failed to accomplish thus far this season, it might behoove Adelman to abandon his insistence on Williams building his offense from the inside-out and flip the equation to outside-in — nail some three-pointers, then drive to the hoop. And there are glimmers of hope that Adelman is in fact countenancing this change. At least the coach has stopped wincing every time Williams launches from deep.

It helps that Williams has been a beast on the boards this season — grabbing the tough caroms in traffic via better positioning and tenacity. Plus, more minutes at small forward would remove the impression that D-Will was victimized by a bait-and-switch during the off-season, when it was recommended that he lose weight in order better prepare to play at either forward slot.

As for Cunningham, his relentless energy and increasingly valuable savvy make him a worthy gamble even outside his normal comfort zone. His perpetually high motor can at least partially compensate for his relative lack of quickness when guarding small forwards.

Utah and Denver previews

The more winnable game in this formidable pair comes Wednesday night against Utah. The Jazz have lost six of their last eight and have been without point guard Mo Williams since just before Christmas because of a sprained thumb. Small forward Marvin Williams has a minor knee injury and is questionable for Wednesday.

The team relies on a deep and potent front court, anchored by veteran starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, with promising youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter coming off the bench. Wolves fan know about Jefferson, who hasn’t changed much since leaving Minnesota: Many points are scored at both baskets when he is on the court.

Big Al’s footwork, wealth of head and ball fakes, and sweet touch around the hoop make him one of the NBA’s premier low-post scorers. But he is a terrible pick-and-roll defender whose absence of peripheral vision or a quick first step dooms his team’s defense even when he is going all out. Paring him with the undersized Millsap — who frequently jumps passing lanes and tries to deny entry feeds in the post, selling out for steals — creates a frontcourt sieve that helps explain why Utah gives up the second-most points in the paint in the NBA.

If the Wolves are fundamentally sound, Pekovic and Love should have a field day on offense, but both will be challenged to stop Jefferson’s guile and Millsap’s quickness and energy (Cunningham might be a helpful counter here) on defense.

On the perimeter, the wild card is another Wolves alumnus Randy Foye, who has transformed himself into a hot-and-cold three-point specialist, with checkered results akin to what the Wolves get out of Barea — when Foye is hot, Utah is very difficult to beat. That’s particularly true at home in Salt Lake City, where they are the only major team sport in town, with a storied history and a loyal and passionate fan base.

Winning in Denver on Thursday will be a tall order. After playing more than two-thirds of their games on the road in 2012 (including a split of two encounters with the Wolves at Target Center), the Nuggets get to acclimate themselves to the thin air of the Mile High City, where they have won 10 of 11 games thus far this season.

Meanwhile, the Wolves will be playing the second night of a back-to-back up in the unfamiliar altitude after jousting with a big, physical Jazz team the previous evening. They will be without Rubio for the entire trip, although Denver also is hurting some at point guard with Ty Lawson dinged and unlikely to play.

Key matchups will include the third contest of contrasting styles between power forward Love and Kenneth Faried, who have each outplayed the other yet lost the game over the course of their first two encounters. Aside from fatigue, the worry for the Wolves is veteran Andre Iguodala matched up with Shved — it’s possible the rookie could be embarrassed by a quicker and stronger foe the way Dwyane Wade schooled him in Miami. And if not, Nuggets coach George Karl has plenty of other options on a very deep and flexible bench.

We’ll kick around what happens in these two games on Friday.

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Comments (9)

Playing at Denver

Denver has the league's best home winning percentage with a 10-1 record. The Nuggets are 8-14 on the road.

Last season, which was crunched a bit due to the lockout, the Nuggets were similarly successful at home versus on the road. (20-13 vs 18-15.) The year before that, they were dramatically better at home than away. (33-8 vs 17-24.)

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, other than that it seems odd that of three good Nuggets teams, two were disproportionately better at home than away, and one was almost the same no matter where they played.

When comparing road vs home records, the Thursday game seems like a foregone conclusion of Denver winning. Maybe they'll drop back to 10-2 and regress to some sort of mean.

They can't worry about the 3s

The KFAN callers and Strib commenters often overemphasize 2 things with the Wolves: 3 point shooters and the need for a shooting guard. Since both are brought up here...

It's probably a surprise to no one that the Wolves' main perimeter threats (besides the guys with less experience like Shved and Williams) are below their career 3 point averages: Love by 12 percentage points, Budinger by 6, Ridnour by 3 (but in line with his % last year), and Barea by 4. Unfortunately, none of those guys are sharpshooters to begin with, but some will probably get better; none of them will scare a defense any time soon. Patrick Minton (@nbageek) pointed out how absurd it is that Love is attempting more 3s now than ever (and, tangentially, how Love gets away with things that Williams can't); it's almost like he's trying to stretch out that hand during games.

Philosophically, though, I'd much rather have a team that doesn't rely on 3s than one that does. All things being equal, of course better 3 point shooters would be nice. However, they can't come at the expense of having guys who can do other things. I'm not necessarily talking about Hayward, since there's a chance he's only here until they can start signing guys to 10-day contracts on Saturday, but I'd rather take my chances with Barea/Shved/Ridnour at the 2 than Redd, who offers little besides the ability to make a jump shot. This team needs to win through getting to the foul line, dominating the offensive glass, and playing focused on both ends. Those are much bigger factors on their ability to win than outside shooting.

As for needing a shooting guard; more than anything, they need a perimeter defender who can defend both wings and doesn't dominate the ball offensively but is net-plus. Since those guys don't grow on trees (everyone says Jared Dudley but he's not an above-average defender), their better option is posing matchup problems for the opponent. They're fortunate that the dearth of good true 2 guards makes it easier for them to get by without one, but it doesn't change the fact that they don't get hurt most nights by not having one. I can't pretend this is NBA 2K13 and pick up someone, and it seems foolish for any fan to have that mentality. This ties into the whole "wait" mindset, but the guys they have on any given night are the only ones that the coaching staff and the fans can logically be concerned about.

PSR--It's been frustrating

PSR--

It's been frustrating to watch Love miss so many 3's, but as long as he thinks he can make them (presumably because he's making them at usual rates in practice/shootarounds) I have a hard time criticizing the decision to shoot them. His last two seasons included 42 and 37 percent three-point shooting and it's a skill that potentially sets him apart from his All-Star power forward peers. Without three-point shooting, Love becomes substantially less special of a player. Not only does it make his own scoring more voluminous and efficient but it also spreads the floor for everyone else like we saw against the Thunder.

If his hand is messed up and he can't shoot, then fine -- stop shooting. But if he's out there casting away, I have to believe he is making them away from the game lights and it's just a matter of time before he gets back to form when it counts.

Hats off to you

You're a better man than I if you deal with KFAN callers and Strib commenters.

But apparently I find myself in agreement with them.

Who is your backup shooting guard? Barea? How's that going to go against 6-8 Gordon Hayward tonight? Or are we going to put Hayward on him? According to 82games.com, opponents scored 118 pts per 100 possessions when Hayward was on the court with the Wolves and 111 pp100p when he was playing in OKC.

I am very curious, and am hoping to devote a future column after I find out, how and why the Wolves have been able to rank 6th in defensive efficiency with that motley crew of backcourt defenders. We need someone with a little size and pith back there aside from the skinny 6-6 Shved, who at least has height.

As I wrote, I believe Cunningham and Williams can collectively handle duties at the 3 behind AK better than anyone on the roster handling the 2 behind Shved. But I'd love to be wrong.

As for Love and three point shooting, I agree that he needs to take it inside more. The reason he isn't is because his shot has dropped off in the restricted area nearly as drastically as his 3-point percentage. According to nba.com, Love shot 58 and 59 percent in the restricted area in 10-11 and 11-12, respectively. This year that percentage is 45%. From three point land, the numbers were 42 in 10-11 and 38 in 11-12 from the outside arc (they define corner three as being out to the crook of the arc at the foul line) and just 22 percent in 12-13 thus far. From corner 3, (see definition in last sentence), he's actually at 50 percent in a very small sample size, up from 31 percent last year and down a little from 53 percent in 10-11.

Philosophically, I want Love shooting threes (yes, as well as taking it inside more), because the threat opens the lanes for a rolling Pek and clears the baselines for AK to dive. This is where the bulk of Shved's assists are coming from--along with treys for Love, when he makes them.

Also, the top five 3-point shooting teams right now in terms of percentage are, in order, OKC, Miami, San Antonio, the Knicks and Golden State. You'll find them all at the top of the standings. The crazies and trolls at KFAN and the Strib have a point.

addendum after rereading your comment

PSR--
I got hung up on the 3 point thing and forgot you were agreeing with me about perimeter defense.

Is it really the lack of quality depth at the position that is enabling the Wolves to avoid being burned? As I say, once the team gets back into town I'm going down to practice and see what the coaches say. It seems like a mystery to me, but I'd be happy to give someone the credit. Of course you may be right; maybe you only need one wing stopper nowadays and with AK, the Wolves are set.

I'll clarify about both

I'm not saying Love, or anyone else on the team, should stop shooting 3s. I'm just saying that it can't be a primary offensive option because of their personnel, and no street free agent or trade should change that approach. If they had added Kevin Martin and O.J. Mayo instead of Roy and AK, it'd be a different story, but then we'd also be talking about more defensive problems, and anyone else they add isn't going to be even a 3rd option in most sets. More specifically about Love, Minton brought up a prime example last week vs. Houston: less than a minute left, Wolves up 1, 14 seconds left on the shot clock. Love hadn't made a shot since the 1st quarter, and he shoots a 3. At least his inside shots have a better chance of drawing a shooting foul and getting the opponent closer to the penalty. FT/FGA is where they're upper echelon in the league, and they'd be dominant if they finished better at the rim. They're better off minimizing any negative effects and treating the made 3s as a bonus.

As for the perimeter defense, their rotations are first and foremost why they defend all positions so well. Every late game situation they struggle with has a common theme: 1-4 low set, iso or pick and roll. Everyone's spread so far apart on the perimeter that help is less effective, and Kirilenko isn't an elite 1v1 defender. Harrison Barnes burned him multiple times when they played Warriors at TC, and Harden's scoring output at the end of the Rockets game was a combination of bad execution, ineffective assignments (Shved instead of AK on Harden), and spacing that moved 3 defenders further away from the play than they are in other sets.

As for the lack of good shooting guards, 10 years ago 4 (T-Mac, Kobe, Iverson, Ray Allen) of the top 10 scorers were 2s. Last year, there was 1 (Kobe). Most of the top wing players are small forwards now. Is any shooting guard now better than those 4 were 10 years ago? The Wolves can get away with playing PGs at the 2 because they don't get burned by it. Some teams have a 3 masquerading as a 2, but with the rare exception, those guys don't have good postup games and only really hurt a team by making jump shots in isos over a smaller guard. With how much the Wolves switch and help defensively, there are few instances where a smaller guard is exposed, and they can make up that value by a) beating their defender off the dribble on the other end; b) committing fewer turnovers than a converted 3 would; c) forcing the taller player into turnovers by making them put the ball on the floor. Obviously, this doesn't work against Kobe or Wade. But against Gordon Hayward, Wesley Matthews, or Thabo Sefolosha? It doesn't really force them to change the way they want to play. I just think that more can be done with scheme than with replacing a guy currently good enough to be in the NBA with one who isn't in the league for some reason.

Additionally, with the best players in the league being 3s, going big can, at times, be a more glaring problem. Defensively can be an obvious issue; I think both Williams and Cunningham can handle that somewhat to varying degrees, but the drive is obviously more of a problem than postups are. Offensively isn't as focused on, but it's also problematic. While neither Williams nor Cunningham is a ball stopper like Beasley, their inability to handle the ball like a wing player makes the offense less effective. When bigs are the fulcrum of an offense, executing dribble handoffs, pick and rolls, and post entries are important, and a good perimeter defender can disrupt a big out of position.

Just great stuff here

PSR--

This is an example of why I'm honored to have you in these conversations. (I don't call out the great posts by you and Andy and Anton and other regulars enough, but you are all thoroughly appreciated.)

I've been toying with a segment, if not a whole column, on AK being better off the ball instead of 1-on-1 and the Warriors game was one of two I was going to cite. You're absolutely right about spread sets giving them trouble, which would lend credence to your rotation argument for why they don't get burned. So the next question is, if the rotations are so reliable, do they get burned on floor spacing in transition so often because they rotate so hard and so well? That they concentrate on preventing penetration and open looks to the detriment of ignoring the leakers? Because that has been a season-long issue.

By the way, we did see the ramifications of the wing shortage last night, with AK even playing some shooting guard for a stretch on Hayward after Barea had been overwhelmed in his first rotation. And the three point shooting was terrible.

Yes on the 3-point shooters

I agree that worrying about our 3-point accuracy is misguided - if we're supposed to start shooting better from range, I guess that means parking AK on the bench! But I will admit that the spacing created by multiple 3-point shooters on the court really helps certain guys get going. AK's back cuts, Williams's first step, and Pek/Love's offensive rebounding can all benefit from giving those pesky help defenders a moment of pause on the perimeter. But yeah, not enough to justify a one-dimensional player like Redd (though maybe Dudley, but he's far better at SF than as SG, especially on D).

I guess we have to be happy getting a warm body like Hayward on this team, as a servicable guy who is nearing his prime on a team with few options. I'd like to see a D-League call-up, but I don't know enough about available SG fits. As long as I'm fanning the roster-move flames, does anyone who comments here know what the deal is with Utah's SG Alec Burks? I liked him coming out of college, but seems like he's been buried on the bench up until the last few games...

Alec Burks

Anton-

Burks got just a little burn last night and looked physically fine in garbage time. He did make one silly unforced turnover on a pass. They were high on him last season, and obviously that's changed, as they were without Mo Williams again and he's still getting precious few minutes.

Seems like the deal for Marvin Williams (a bad trade, I think) pushed Hayward to the backcourt; that and the greater trust Corbin has in Tinsley is squeezing backcourt minutes.

Sample size on Burks' pro career is too small, and I don't follow the college game enough to have a solid opinion one way or another on his worth.