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Flip Saunders lays down his marker on Timberwolves' first-rounder Zach LaVine

Timberwolves' first-rounder Zack LaVine
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Zach LaVine hugging NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number thirteen overall pick Thursday night.

When Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders came down to address the media after the first round of the 2013 NBA draft last year, he admitted he had been buffeted, if not overwhelmed, by circumstance.

The three scenarios Saunders had envisioned for drafting a player with the ninth overall pick had been exhausted, he explained, prompting him to trade that slot in exchange for the 14th and 21st overall choices. He seemed almost apologetic about Shabazz Muhammad, taken at 14, acknowledging that he didn’t address the team’s primary needs at the time, and correctly surmising that it wouldn’t be a popular choice with the Wolves’ die-hard fan base.

By sharp contrast, after the first round of the 2014 NBA draft Thursday night, the media was treated to an upbeat Saunders taking ownership for the direction and tenor of this woebegone franchise.

The player he had just chosen, Zach LaVine, was, like Muhammad, a raw, offensive-oriented gym rat who left UCLA after a checkered freshman season that produced more warning signs than signal achievements. But Saunders wasn’t apologizing for LaVine, and didn’t seem to care whether the choice was popular or not.

The superlatives rolled without hesitation throughout the course of the nine-minute press conference. Saunders referred to LaVine as “the best athlete in the draft,” and said he “has the ability to be an elite two-way player.”

Asked to contrast this draft progression with last season, he replied, “It was a good scenario. A couple of things had to go our way.”

By the time ten teams had chosen, LaVine was the top player on their wish list, having been ranked seventh overall by Saunders and his staff in terms of what the team needed.

But the most significant thing Saunders said about choosing LaVine spoke to matters of context and ambition. “Sometimes you have to try and hit a home run. Some players that are ready-made, they are only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player.”

Having appointed himself head coach to go with his duties as POBO — and even part-owner — Saunders is both the mechanic and the guy behind the steering wheel of a franchise that is about to lose its superstar, Kevin Love, at some point within the next year. After a decade out of the playoffs with an increasingly dwindling and skeptical fan base and a septuagenarian owner who has intensified his commitment to the franchise in the past couple of years, it is as good a time as any to take a calculated risk on a stud athlete with apparently enormous potential. 

The red flags in the gamble

To further Saunders’ baseball analogy, when you swing mightily for a home run instead of trying to make contact and smack a double, you are much more likely to strike out and head back to the dugout looking like a fool. Under Saunders’ predecessor, David Kahn, the Wolves struck out on draft night much more often than not — only one of his four lottery picks is even still with the team, a horrendous botch of the only cost-effective method to dramatically improve your ballclub.

The danger is that LaVine joins the long and infamous list of Timberwolves draft busts, which under Kahn included Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams, but extends back to Ndudi Ebi and William Avery under Kevin McHale. The red flags are there — otherwise it wouldn’t be a gamble.

(For the record, I don’t regard LaVine’s profane reaction to being drafted by the Wolves—he muttered “f--- me” and put his head down on the table in front of him—as a big deal. He’s 19 years old and the Timberwolves have earned their reputation as an NBA gulag due to cold winters, terrible luck in the draft lottery and notoriously bad personnel decisions. He has a sufficient supply of good sense and shrewd advisors to now wax ecstatic over his status. Besides, draft night reactions are overrated. A few years ago, Ricky Rubio was clearly flummoxed at being drafted by the Wolves. Recently, he called out Love for lack of leadership. That same draft night, Flynn gave the best accounting of himself in an initial media phone call that I have ever heard, and is now toiling in parts unknown outside the NBA.)

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This is as good a time as any to repeat my annual draft-recap caveat that I don’t follow the college game and won’t profess to offer any “expert” analysis beyond received wisdom and situational logic. But it doesn’t require a genius to notice that LaVine couldn’t crack the starting lineup of his college team, and scored just 8 total points in three NCAA “March Madness” tournament games, part of a season-long regression as the competition stiffened on UCLA’s schedule.

Then there are the most basic of player statistics — height and weight. LaVine drapes just 181 pounds on a frame that stands between 6-5 and 6-6, one Saunders expects to grow out to 6-8, given that LaVine only turned 19 in March.

When I asked LaVine about his weight during his draft night phone call with the media, he likened himself to Allen Iverson and emphasized his quickness. This wasn’t reassuring on a number of levels. Iverson played at 165 pounds but was also only six feet tall and was rugged enough to absorb a phenomenal amount of punishment. Among the litany of praise Saunders offered in support of LaVine was his “physicality” and “aggression.” But if he grows to 6-8 without bulking up, he is the second coming of Corey Brewer, who is as physically aggressive as his body limitations allow, which translates into a lot of gambling on defense and early leak-outs in transition on offense.

The most concentrated nesting ground for Wolves fans who do their homework by knowing and applying advanced analytics to the collegians and overseas amateurs available on draft night is at the website Canis Hoopus. And, as is normally the case, the consensus there is that the Wolves fared poorly, to the point of near-idiocy, in the draft. (The biggest detractor may be the founder of Canis Hoopus, a longtime user of analytics who rarely writes at the site anymore but tweets under the name Wrath of Zod.) The main Canis Hoopus story on LaVine called him the third-best player on his college team and said he “showed little in the way of actual basketball skills” during his year at UCLA.

Pottery Barn rules

Without belaboring the issue with spilt-milk specifics, it is useful to point out that Canis Hoopus and other analytics-oriented pundits have consistently outperformed the Timberwolves front office in their assessment of potential performance, so no one should pull out the old “bloggers in mom’s basement” canard. For those who care about advanced numbers and follow the Timberwolves but not the college game (like me, for instance), they are a valuable resource.

That said, however, Saunders had a pretty good draft last year by most any standard. Muhammad, whose choice made the analytics folks apoplectic, did indeed lack court vision or defensive quickness, but was a tireless worker who proved he could score in the low post at the NBA level and was a voracious rebounder. And Gorgui Dieng, taken with the 21st overall pick (a choice met with approval over at Canis Hoopus), was chosen for NBA All-Rookie Second Team, signifying him as one of the top ten first-year players.

More to the point, draft choices are the place where NBA executives are most accountable for their decisions. The process is utterly transparent in that everyone knows who is available and where in the queue a team lines up to make the selection. The pottery barn rule — if you break it, you own it — applies to every botched choice.

This literally applies double to Saunders this draft season. Last year, he concentrated on building the team around the wishes and virtues of coach Rick Adelman, signing Adelman favorites Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger to large contracts while knowing that whoever he drafted was unlikely to get much playing time, given Adelman’s win-now philosophy.

This season, if Saunders the POBO blew it by drafting LaVine, Saunders the coach will share in the consequences one way (playing him) or the other (sitting him).

Momentous uncertainty

Meanwhile, the status of Kevin Love remains a spectre that darkens the horizon on the 2014-15 season. Saunders steadfastly ignored the chance to trade Love — who has unofficially declared he will utilize his option to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season — as a means of moving up the ladder for a better draft position before Thursday night. And while there is still a good chance that Love will be dealt over the summer, especially as the intrigue surrounding free agent superstars Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony is resolved, the possibility of an awkward continuation of Love’s tenure with the Wolves likewise wouldn’t be that surprising.

Saunders has said he won’t trade Love unless it improves the team, a noble sentiment that doesn’t square with current reality. There is no reason to believe Love is bluffing in his desire to test his value on the open market, a point at which the Wolves will receive nothing in return. It is fair for Saunders to think such an outcome will hasten the inevitable rebuilding process — a “lance the boil” approach. But don’t pretend any change involving Love’s status is going to be a net plus for this franchise, because it beggars common sense.

Once again, the second choice made by Saunders on draft night — on Thursday it was Glenn Robinson III with the 40th overall pick in the second round — was less controversial and more consonant with the analytics crew. As the discussion swung from Robinson to the general status of the team during this second draft night press conference, Saunders let it be known that Ricky Rubio would spend time with a shooting coach in California this off-season, and that Alexey Shved would be given more of a chance to play point guard this coming season, with obvious ramifications for last year’s combo guard, J.J. Barea.

Just listening to the names of Shved and Barea, millstones that are the primary property of Kahn and Adelman, respectively, plus the reality of Love’s eventual departure, makes one hope that Zach LaVine is indeed a home run choice. Otherwise Wolves fans will be echoing the rookie’s unfortunate slip of the tongue throughout the 2014-15 campaign. 

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Comments (20)

The Wolves are pathetic. Who

The Wolves are pathetic. Who cares who they pick?

Self negating "apathy"

Comments like the one from Richard Bonde, above, have always perplexed me. If he truly didn't care who the Wolves picked, he wouldn't bother to chime in, right?
Does he somehow get a buzz out of associating his name with Wolves-related negativity? Does he want to punish the architects of the franchise for wasting his time or dashing his hopes?
Either way, I'm addicted to pro hoops. I care who they pick. And I love engaging like-minded readers even more than I do tweaking the faux-apathetic ones.

Use the D-league

LaVine clearly isn't NBA ready, which shouldn't be a surprise at 19 years old. Why even think about keeping him on the roster? Let him be a starter a year or two in D-League so he can be a help when he comes up. I couldn't believe it last year when Muhammad spent a couple weeks in D-league, played well, and then got sat on the Wolves bench the rest of the season. What was the point of that? I'd rather give those roster spots to 30-something journeymen while the young players get to actually be on the D-league court.

agree to an extent

I am definitely on board with a more direct and prolonged relationship with the D-League. I wish they had their own team, as some NBA franchises have experimented with. And I agree that more burn for Muhammad in the D-League was preferable to having him languish on the bench with Adelman. I suspect that if Flip were coach last season, Muhammad would have played more in both the pros and the D-League.
Still, if LaVine shows great potential and a willingness to develop, and the team does manage to trade Love before February, I wouldn't mind keeping him in Minnesota and giving him rotation minutes at both guard positions, to hasten his development. At his age, a semi-humiliating comeuppance every now and then may be as helpful as kind of thriving at a lesser level.

Another Dismal Season

The Wolves will trade Kevin Love and get nothing for him. I cannot recall a trade where any of the Minnesota teams received the better of the deal.

At least the organization tried to make the team a contender by bringing in some decent players to complement Garnett. They have not done that with Kevin Love yet he is blamed for all of their woes. If he were to stay in the Twin Cities I think he would prove to be as good if not better than Kevin Garnett. My guess is that no one wants that.

The Vikings did Percy Harvin a favor as did the Wolves for Garnett by trading them. They both earned championships the year they left here. I hope the same fortune falls upon Kevin Love.

Not every MN athlete is worthy of sympathy

Percy had some pretty good seasons and had the offense catered to his talents even moreso than Adrian Peterson, yet they went on a playoff run after Harvin went down for the season. By many accounts, he was a child.

Love's status with fans has nothing to do with KG. This organization has been bad to Love, and while I'm not mad at him for wanting to go, his approach this summer makes me compare his attitude more to another former Wolf: Christian Laettner. Fans have a justifiably stronger tie to KG because he was here for 12 seasons and is currently the lynchpin of the only winning teams in franchise history.

No teams win a trade when they're giving up the superstar. Denver came closest because James Dolan is the worst owner in the NBA when it comes to meddling in personnel decisions, and even they struggled without George Karl. It's going to be awful to see him on another team, but taking a step back is an inevitability for every NBA team trading a superstar.

I wasn't a fan of the pick

This team needs productive athletes, but there are ways to quantify that in stats, and LaVine didn't show that in games the same way that other options did.

With that said, Flip certainly didn't do what was comfortable. I think the Wolves have made their share of "low risk" picks in recent years: Williams was considered the best or 2nd-best player in '11 when guys like Jonas Valanciunas and Kawhi Leonard were available (before Canis Hoopus puffs out its chest too much, it should be noted that they wanted Bismack Biyombo in that draft), Johnson was considered safer than DeMarcus Cousins, Randy Foye and Corey Brewer were considered more "sure" things than guys like Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay, and Joakim Noah, and Muhammad was considered a safer pick than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ndudi Ebi, Rashad McCants, and Jonny Flynn deservedly stick out negatively.

Britt, what do you think of Flip as a developer of talent? He took over and basically got to coach 2 lottery picks before the team got good enough to finish in the middle of the 1st round (then adding another lottery pick by trading one of the 2 aforementioned picks). He jerked around Rasho enough to make him want to leave, but Rasho wasn't significantly better after he left. Wally developed into a competent player that was partially hampered by his lack of athleticism. William Avery didn't do anything here or elsewhere. I don't know how much credit to give him for KG.

Flip as POBO and as coach

PSR--
I agree that it was nice to see Flip be bold on draft night--although he doesn't say it publicly, he knows he is going to take a step backward with the Love deal and that the natives are restless in terms of fan loyalty. A safe conventional pick might move the franchise forward a little, but they need a bigger bump for myriad reasons.
But beyond that, I don't really know what I'm talking about aside from reading the opinions of smart people who do.
Flip as a developer of talent is a fascinating question that I'm not sure I can answer, given that the game has changed so much even in the year or two he's been gone from Washington. The three-pointer is king, much more than ever, and as a coach Flip prioritized open shots that were too-often two-pointers. I find it interesting that both Wall and Beal made huge strides under Wittman and not Flip, but that may be more a function of timing in their careers--it took them a year and three years to figure it out. Also having both Nene and Gortat to board and space the floor by drawing defenders to the paint made a difference.
Flip and McHale didn't recognize what they had in Chauncey Billups, preferring Terrell Brandon at the time. (True confession: I applauded this wrong-headed choice at the time it was made.) That to me may have been the biggest lost opportunity, development-wise. I do think Flip did a wonderful job of slotting roles in that magical 2003-04 season, recognizing how and where Hassell and Ervin Johnson were glue guys and working some offensive magic that enabled KG, Spree and Cassell to thrive simultaneously.
But taking a draft pick and making him much better? Not a lot of evidence for that, beyond the obvious example of KG, which couldn't be duplicated. Rasho was a solid NBA center, perhaps the best in franchise history before Pek, but think of how many lost opportunities for development that that last statement encompasses--Stoyko Vrankovic, anyone?

Stojko was 33 when he joined the Wolves

And they were able to trade him for Stanley Roberts, who played in 74 games the following year. As for Billups, Brandon was a better player at the time (higher PER, better passer and defender, though less-efficient scorer) and was still on a long-term deal; the problem was that they didn't realize the severity of his injury and keep Billups, which he was open to. I think they realized he deserved to start somewhere in the NBA, and they made the mistake of thinking the job wasn't open here (they thought Brandon would play at some point in 02-03 and signed Rod Strickland 3 days before the season because they realized he might not be). Beal was drafted the year after Flip was fired, and Wall took more long 2s under Wittman than he did under Flip.

Here's the philosophical question I have about development: it's clear that some players get better while others don't; why is it that, usually, that success is given to the team/system if the player wasn't a top prospect, yet given to the player if they were a top prospect? I just don't want to underrate the possibility that Flip mattered in turning KG into the player he became. Even more than KG (who never made the playoffs here without him coaching a full season), he's associated with the only success this franchise has ever had.

Tangential to these points: in various places, people have wondered why Flip, someone who supposedly doesn't want to start over after a Love trade and (somewhat) proving it by not taking Boston's offer of draft picks (which aren't that good besides #6 considering Brooklyn will spend as much as necessary to keep winning), which were the only good assets they had since their non-Rondo players are a combination of overpaid and low upside. This pick, to me, seems to indicate he doesn't want to ride the mediocrity treadmill, either. I don't know that he can keep the team competitive (at least 35 wins) for a few seasons and then increase their upside by turning LaVine (along with longshot Dieng and possibly future picks) into an All-Star, but it seems pretty clear that that's his intent (there are obviously plenty of reasons to question and doubt that plan). There is some merit to the idea that iron sharpens iron and competition brings out better results than giving young players free reign.

I don't comment on CH

But I do consider myself an "analytics" guy - which, when it comes to drafting from the college level, is much less cut-and-dry than comparing metrics at the NBA level. The obvious case of this was that of Derrick Williams, who was a very efficient scorer in college, but that efficiency metric rarely translates to the pros. I intentionally shielded myself from lots of draft data this year knowing that the Wolves organization would never act on in (I mostly watched the top-rate Draftexpress videos for insight).

Anyway, with LaVine, there's just not enough data there anyway. By the numbers, he's arguably the worst performer in the lottery, but both he and Robinson bring something to this team I've been complaining about: an outlet for Rubio's vision. Both guys can can alley-oops and play well in transition, and will hopefully get some easy looks assuming Flip can and nurture that kind of offensive flexibility/creativity. Of course, it's frustrating drafting such a young player because it signals we're going back into rebuilding mode. (Personally, I was hoping for Gary Harris.)

I'm more frustrated by our inability to move Love and move on with this team. Is POBO Saunders hellbent on giving Coach Saunders a year with a superstar? That's probably not the smartest thing in the world, but I'll roll with it - I'd rather watch a year of Love than 3 years of David Lee. But not moving on an offer (Boston's?) to get picks in last night's draft was a mistake: deep drafts don't happen often, so that would've been a good chance to maximize value. I'm not sold on the willingness of Taylor to invest in this team without Love, so I'm guessing the best trade outcome at this point is dumping Martin's contract in the deal.

hopefully Lob City and then some

Anton--

Yes, the notion of Rubio having some high flyers to lob in transition is atttractive--perhaps the lone reason to miss Derrick Williams thus far. Flip think LaVine can take some ball pressure away from Rubio as well. Hopefully LaVine has a good handle, because the other backcourt options--Shved, Barea, K-Mart, Brewer--are found wanting in various ways. Even Budinger isn't great off the bounce.
The problem is that Rubio needs a significant upgrade in his shot if he plays off the ball, and shouldn't play off the ball too often in any case.
As I read and listened to some of the analytics, the real concern is that Flip is conflating blinding speed and athleticism with an ability to get to the rim. Obviously that will happen in transition, but the numbers show that LaVine was horrible at getting to the rim in the half-court. Yes, small sample size, but at the very least it should have been a larger sample size given LaVine's athleticism. He didn't play enough as a freshman and when he did, attacking the rim was not a priority.
Finally, I am long on record as disliking Kevin Martin's game. After the first few weeks in November, I was willing to shelve my skepticism and embrace his offense--he was fitting in perfectly. Then he started shying away from drives, turning down open threes and continuing to loaf on defense. He mailed in the second half of the season. He and Barea both need a major dose of tough love this preseason, with an emphasis on tough. But my preference is neither are on the roster come October.

Perhaps

The Wolves will (or have) become what the Clippers were, perpetual bottom dwellers. Short of recruiting a coach like Greg Popovich who can make mediocre players better, I don't see much hope for them

Anyone who can read lips could tell that Zach Lavine was not happy to be drafted by a team who treats their best player (and one of the top 5 players in the league) poorly.

not exactly

Pavel--
In your desire to dislike the franchise, you overlook some obvious differences between the Wolves and the formerly terrible Clips. Minnesota has an owner who has frequently invested heavily in the franchise, something Donald Sterling was loathe to do for decades.
Yes, the Wolves treated Love poorly. Yes, the Wolves and any other franchise would benefit from a Popovich-like upgrade on the sidelines in terms of development. Yes, the situation is less hopeful today than it has been for about three years.
Do you have anything more profound than these things to tell us?

Hey Brit,You think they'll

Hey Brit,
You think they'll make the playoffs next year?

You missed a t on my name

Mr. Bonde--
Yesterday you said you didn't care about what the team does. Today you want to know my opinion of their chances in the coming year.
I will tell you when you let me know on which day you were being a hypocrite--Friday or Saturday?

Hi Britt,My apathy is

Hi Britt,
My apathy is genuine. It's hard to take seriously an outfit that has been spinning its wheels since they traded Kevin Garnett.

No playoffs

I don't think the Wolves will make the playoffs next season--with or without Love on the roster. The West is only getting better and Love isn't going to magically transform into a motivated player after this offseason.
If I see your name in the comments section again, I sincerely hope you have something of value to contribute for a change.

Development

One thing that is often lost when we are talking about player development is continuity. Granted we seem to get knuckle heads all of the time, but the idea that you take a player and work with him with all of the resources (D-league, summer league, ect...) for two or three seasons and allow him to develop, instead of shipping him out.

I feel like this years draft will be a great chance to see how Flip and his staff can develop players. Both picks have talent but they need to be developed properly. I am dubious on their ability to do so. I believe the team needs to find a way to keep Robinson on the roster, even if it is at the expense of Hummel (I've seen a lot of people speak positively about Hummel, but I can't think of what he actually brings).

Also, in regards to the second round picks, what is the harm of drafting a guy and seeing what he can do. You are getting a free flyer on a player.

Resources

Development takes both cash and know-how. I'd feel better about the punting of second round picks, which do net a fair bit of cash, if we were ensured it was plowed back into development instead of leveraging more arena improvements or marketing.
It may be, too, I don't know. I know that things got a little heated between Flip and Strib beat writer Jerry Zgoda over the selling of second rounders, with Flip thinking questions about it were ridiculous.
In any case, Flip contends that if there were players worthy of being "stashed" in Europe or the D-League, they would have done so--ditto if they could have gotten a second rounder in a future year.
Agree about development being crucial for both LaVine and Robinson. Right now, cautiously agree that a lack of confidence in team's ability to develop--notwithstanding Dieng's growth last season--is probably justified.

Some unsolicited thoughts

I'm not a fan of the Lavine pick and feel the Wolves passed on better bets. That said, it sounds like Michigan State's Adrien Payne was perhaps in play for them as well. Payne May be an awesome guy, the preference of a few local writers, and a stretch 4 "replacement" for Love. But he's also 23 already, wasn't particularly good until late in his college career, and he has a medical issue where he can't breathe as well as most people. So it could have been worse.

The sixers are almost drafting like a baseball team. I think they picked up a couple interesting prospects and admire their approach under Sam Hinke. But I do wonder if sixers fans might be a little put off not having anybody to watch this year from this draft despite having two top-10 picks. Guess they have Nerlens Noel to look forward to, which would be fun.

Speaking of Noel, knowing what we know now, might the best offer the wolves ever receive for Love have been from Cleveland pre-2013 draft (#1 pick, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waitors)? We'll find out, I guess.

Doug McDermott playing for Tom Thibedeau might be a sign of the apocalypse. I know Chicago wanted scoring and they're doing some roster/salary cap yoga (trading two picks for one) but I don't like that decision.

I love Kyle Anderson to the Spurs. A versatile 6'8" playmaker, rich get richer. I heard the spurs simply have a list of 15 guys or so whom they like, and then just wait to see which name falls.

One guy the analytics loved was Clint Capela, an uber athletic big man picked up by the Rockets. I don't think Houston is ever out of the mix on things, and if the Wolves hit an impasse with Love trades, I certainly wouldn't mind if a guy like Capela came here.