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Some assembly required for the new-look Timberwolves

The newest Minnesota Timberwolves displaying their new jerseys
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
The newest Minnesota Timberwolves displaying their new jerseys, left to right: guard Andrew Wiggins, forward Anthony Bennett, forward Thaddeus Young, and guard Zach LaVine at Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday.

To root for a franchise as chronically unsuccessful as the Minnesota Timberwolves have been over their 26-year history requires a short memory, one that can be made oblivious to the grand plans that were being hatched as recently as the previous season.

As the Wolves front office and fan base pump themselves up on the team’s new blueprint for relevancy, it behooves us to get a grip on the context of their latest endeavor. For that we need only compare and contrast the actions of the past two summers, and notice how they will unceremoniously collide throughout the upcoming 2014-15 NBA season.

In the summer of 2013, then-new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders spent tens of millions of dollars of owner Glen Taylor’s money. The interlocking priorities driving these investments were plain: Beef up the roster with players tailor-made for then-coach Rick Adelman’s patented “motion corner” offense. Lock up talented veterans to complement star forward Kevin Love for the foreseeable future. And balance the roster with fewer undersized guards and more three-point shooting.

Over a two-day period in mid-July, the Wolves inked deals with a trio of swingmen ranging in height from 6-7 to 6-9. Adelman favorite Kevin Martin was the most expensive, at $28 million over the next four years, while the Adelman-friendly Chase Budinger netted $15 million for three years and high-motor gadfly Corey Brewer received $14 million for three years.

A month later, the Wolves rewarded their behemoth center Nikola Pekovic, Love’s sidekick in the paint, with a whopping $60 million, five-year deal.

Saunders, Taylor and Adelman all knew back then that “the future is now.” 

Adelman was in his late sixties and looking to cap his distinguished coaching career with a championship. Love was coming up on the option year of his contract without ever having made the postseason. So Taylor put serious bank into a potent offense that could have Love creating mismatches on the perimeter while Pek dominated down low. Martin and Budinger would further space the floor with deadly outside shooting while point guard Ricky Rubio acted as maestro choreographer. The unstated battle cry for the 2013-14 campaign was “playoffs or bust.” 

The Wolves went bust, missing the postseason for the tenth year in a row with a won-loss record that was nine games behind the lowest playoff seed in the Western Conference. Adelman retired and Saunders appointed himself the replacement. And last weekend, Love’s looming free agency prompted a blockbuster trade that tries to ball up the bad juju and rewrite the script for 2014-15.

Minutes after the Love deal was official, the Wolves unveiled a marketing campaign emphasizing the high-flying athleticism of four new players—heralded swingman Andrew Wiggins and power forward Anthony Bennett, both arriving from Cleveland, power forward Thaddeus Young by way of Philadelphia, and the Wolves own draft choice this summer, Zach LaVine.

At Saturday’s press conference, Saunders was effusive in his praise of the new crew, inferring that Wiggins and LaVine could become “destination players” good enough to attract other stars to frigid Minnesota somewhere down the line. He called Young a “borderline All Star statistically” and said that all four, including Bennett, “have the potential to be very good two-way players.” 

Saunders did his best to defray the frisson inherent in the contradictory impulses of the past two summers. A year ago, the gambit was enlisting battle-tested veterans who conformed to a system and outscored the opposition. This year, the focus is on raw athletes who can fly up and down the court and create suffocating defense.

“[O]ver the last year, I didn’t know if the team had an identity,” Saunders said on Saturday.

Of course they did: It just wasn’t a very likable identity. But many of the players who helped mold that identity are still on the roster with years left on their contracts. That reality compelled Saunders to improbably claim that the players he was counting on to create a new identity only needed to complement the holdovers. Last season, he noted, “this team won 40 games and we have six of our top seven guys back…we just want these [new] guys to come in and be able to add to the veteran players we have on this team.” 

No, he doesn’t. The Wolves are marketing transformation, not some caulking to the existing core. Nobody is more aware of this than the holdovers.

Dissecting the roster

Let’s get specific. Last year’s holdover trio of swingmen — Martin, Budinger and Brewer — will inevitably be competing for minutes with the brightest baubles in Saunders’ “destination player” strategy, Wiggins and LaVine. For all the talk about “two way” performance, each member of this five-man competition is sorely lacking in at least one crucial element of the NBA game. Throughout the season, Wolves will pick their poison in various increments and combinations.

Martin had the kind of season last year that makes one root for his demise. Awarded with a long-term contract playing for his favorite coach in a system ideally suited to his talents, his shot selection was putrid. He attempted a higher percentage of long two-pointers than at any time since his rookie season, at the expense of high-efficiency three-pointers and drives to the hoop, where he is a master at drawing fouls. Meanwhile, his always-lackluster defense plunged further due to his indifference.

Hampered by another knee injury requiring surgery, Budinger also disappointed, losing mobility required for quality defense and getting open for weakside three-pointers and cuts to the basket. Brewer, on the other hand, was a sporadic catalyst as a defensive irritant, but was a horrible shooter whose field goal percentage was inflated by all the outlet passes he received from the now-departed Love. 

The problem with Wiggins and LaVine is more fundamental: They are teenagers with precious little college experience, let alone NBA seasoning. Neither has proven to be an accurate shooter and there is zero evidence of folks who clanged jumpers in college suddenly finding their stroke in the pros.

Whenever any of these five players is on the court, their flaws will be glaring, and stand in sharp contrast to the folks on the bench. Among the many ways Love will be missed is his three-point marksmanship. Without him, the Wolves shot a collective 32.7 percent from beyond the arc last season, well below the NBA average of 36 percent. Martin, Budinger, and incoming combo guard Mo Williams are the best bets to shore up that weakness, while minutes for Wiggins and LaVine will exacerbate it. But unless Martin undergoes an attitude transplant and Budinger finally has functioning knees, the perimeter defense will inevitably suffer. 

None of this will be occurring in a vacuum. Fans on hand to chronicle the pending superstardom on Wiggins or LaVine are going to be irate if the bulk of the game features the same ol’ same ol’ from Martin and Budinger, plus the tragicomic slapstick that Brewer usually provides. But if the hyper-athletic pups are allowed an extensive crash-course in NBA, it won’t be pretty on the scoreboard or in the locker room.

Martin was prone to pout last season, when everything seemingly was in his favor, and he’s got another two years on his contract after this season. Brewer, who has logged more time as a Timberwolf than anyone on the roster, appointed himself team spokesman and chief critic as it became more apparent Love was on his way out last spring. He isn’t likely to take a demotion gracefully.

You notice Shabazz Muhammad is missing from this discussion. Last year he kept his counsel, worked tirelessly and offered intriguing low-post scoring prowess when finally given the opportunity late in the season. Will he remain a good soldier as players even younger move ahead of him in the rotation?

Nor have we discussed J.J. Barea, a feisty Adelman favorite coming off his worst season, deprived of his defensive tactics by the new rules against flopping, long on confidence and opinions but with a very short fuse.

Williams and perhaps also LaVine will suck up many of the minutes fatally accorded to Barea as backup point guard last year, and, as we have seen, the shooting guard spot is already crowded.

In the front court, the absence of Love robs the team of a truly unique skill set and an automatic matchup nightmare for opponents. Nobody should expect any of the replacements at power forward—Young, Bennett or second-year man Gorgui Dieng sliding over from center—to come close to replicating Love’s inside-outside scoring and tenacious rebounding.

Ah, but won’t there be an upgrade on Love’s much-maligned defense? Perhaps. But the biggest criticism of Love was his lack of rim protection—he blocked only 35 shots all season and allowed his man to score 57.4 percent of the time on shots at the rim, according to the stats page at NBA.com

Unfortunately, that same page shows that Young blocked only 36 shots and allowed his man to score 60.2 percent of the time on shots at the rim.

Bennett allowed only 47.4 percent accuracy from his opponent on shots at the rim, but the sample size is very small, owing to a rookie season where he was plagued by injuries and a sleep disorder and played out of shape. And it remains to be seen if the 6-11 Dieng can chase power forwards out on the open floor without being prone to the fouling that dogged him early last season.

In any case, an underrated component of team defense is grabbing the contested rebound that prevents the opponent from extending the possession. Nobody on this team does that better than Love.

At center, Pek is obviously a centerpiece of the team, with four years and $48 million left on his deal. But he won’t have the freedom of movement down near the hoop on offense, a bonus of playing alongside Love, who draws opposing bigs out with him to the three-point line. The Wolves didn’t acquire a mobile, shot-blocking power forward that would best complement Pek on defense. And it will be suspenseful to watch Pek move his 285-pound body up and down in the court in the new high-octane style the Wolves figure to unleash, given that he has never played more than 62 games or 2000 minutes in any of his four seasons due to various injuries. 

The bright side

I’m not trying to be a killjoy. But when a franchise embarks upon dramatic philosophical and personnel changes to its roster two years running that contradict one another, the shakeout is inevitably going to be ugly. That fact can be obscured by swooning dreams of Andrew Wiggins becoming a legit superstar in 2016, or even by the notion of Wiggins, LaVine, and Young delivering showtime to the Target Center faithful as if their sneakers were equipped with trampolines. 

There will be growing pains on the court and strife on the bench. The disheartening beat-downs due to immaturity and exasperation will be as plentiful as the thrilling victories and encouraging defeats. 

But there is one clearcut winner in this new Wolves order—Ricky Rubio. One of the more surprising subtexts to last season’s underachievement was the passive-aggressive feud over style of play that was waged between Rubio and Adelman. The coach unsuccessfully tried to excise the flash and panache that seems an inherent component of Rubio’s incomparable court vision and ball distribution. More than any other factor, Adelman’s tendency to turn toward Barea at crunchtime sabotaged the team’s playoff hopes and tarnished his legacy. 

Saunders will be more forgiving. And Rubio’s high-flying teammates will re-energize spirits that seemed to leak away from him last year. Coming into his final season before restricted free agency, Rubio is the bridge between the past two Timberwolves rosters, a facilitator and agile defender who needs to improve his shooting, but otherwise seems primed to mint the identity Saunders wants to implement while enabling the holdovers enough to potentially stave off mutiny, if not discord. 

In two or three years, this ball club may belong to Wiggins, or perhaps LaVine or Bennett will eventually ascend enough to justify their hype. But for the 2014-15 season, the keys to this jerry-built contraption are in Rubio’s hands. Vroom, vroom. Bring your checkered flag, and call an ambulance.  

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Comments (15)

At least

with this group there's hope for improvement.

Sometimes

I wish you were more of a homer, altho for you I guess this was pretty homerish.

Great assessment as always, just wish there was more to be optimistic about.

We dont need more homers..

We need people like Britt who know basketball and are willing to point out the fact that sometimes the emperor has no clothes. You want homerism read Sid on the Star Tribune. I want someone who is telling it like it is.

I will say that as a season ticket holder I'm disappointed that we couldn't keep Love and find a way to continue to build around him. The other side of that coin though is that I'm not sure what more we could have done to bring in more talent to make it work given where we were and what we had to work with. The shuffling of the deck IMHO has given us a team that MAY have a higher ceiling than one with Love as the cornerstone. The knock is, I wish I could trust that Flip and company will make the right decisions this time around to figure it out ...but unfortunately we saw with Glens comments this week that he still doesn't get it. (Kevin Love the third best player on a championship team). So as long as Glen is pulling the purse strings and steering the ship I feel that we're going to continue to flounder.

For all the talk about the

For all the talk about the new guys, in my mind, the success or failure of this season really lies in Rubio's hands. This has got to be the year -- especially with the contract extension discussion looming large -- that he takes that step forward offensively.

Some of that is on Rubio himself to put in the time and effort to improve his shooting and part of that is on the coaching staff to give him the necessary support and to tailor their schemes to use his talents to their greatest impact. I worry that the Saunders system we've seen in his other coaching stops is not well-suited to Rubio's game.

Fundamentally agree

Rubio will be on display this year, on center stage, as a leader of this team.
I think you undersell flip though... he's had success with rookies, and nobody would call his coaching style dogmatic.

No more long 2s

I'm specifically referring to the tendency of Flip-coached teams to take higher proportions of long 2-pointers than most -- putting Rubio in such a system and asking him to hit Terrell Brandon "stop and pop" mid-range jumpers is exactly what shouldn't be done.

Yes on long twos

The love of the mid-range jumper is one thing I'm very concerned with. Obviously that's not Rubio's game, but it's right up the alley of both Wiggins and LaVine, and I'd be foolish to think that Flip might nip those tendencies in the bud. Wiggins especially loves his own 20-foot step back jumper, but fortunately seems to use it sparingly, judging by his ability to get to the line.

Young (players in general, not Thaddeus) don't win in the NBA

Any expectations should be tempered by that. LeBron missed the playoffs in his rookie season, Durant and CP3 in their 1st 2. Wiggins will have to exceed expectations (to what degree depends on the expectations) to be in those guys' category. Vets will help with development, but it's basically the 2012-13 version of this team with more raw talent and fewer guys who don't deserve to be in the league (Johnson, Gelabale, Lee, Shved, Stiemsma, Hayward, Amundson).

As for shooting, there's more than zero evidence of guys being able to improve their jump shot after entering the NBA. That's a low standard to beat, so I'm not going to unreasonably stretch, but looking up the increase in FG% on outside shots for guys considered superb athletes easily hurdles that zero bar. Channing Frye, getting paid $8 million per for his 3s, attempted 23 3s in his college career, hitting on 26%. Also, LaVine shot 37.5% from 3 in his short college career, which was the same as Danny Green (a 4-year player at UNC).

Defensively, most who argue for improved defense from this trade are claiming so in spite of Young's rim protection. If Wiggins and Young are able to help moderately reduce the number of attempts at the rim, that may not help the % from that spot, but it reduces a team's efficiency. Even if Wiggins isn't an immediate stopper, if he can match Mbah a Moute's impact with a stronger overall impact in more minutes, that matters. Also, Love allowed 4 more attempts per game at the rim than Young. The more worrisome element of the trade is a likely increase in opponent offensive rebounds.

well said sir...

Very interesting points about the defense of this team relative to last years lineup. I would be curious to see a detailed qualitative and statistical breakdown of the wolves D compared to last year after a about 20 games. Furthermore, would you gamble that these wolves will be higher or lower ranked within the league in terms of Defense? Last season's wolves allowed 1.21 Points Per Shot... 11th best in the league. I bet the new edition doesn't stray far from that mark...

Also I appreciate your point that FG shooting is one thing that players can improve upon if they can stay on the court for other reasons.

Ah, you overlooked the word "suddenly"

PSR--

I'm on vacation at the Detroit Jazz Festival or would have replied to this sooner.
You usually read me more carefully or in any event don't take my words out of context this badly in your many astute prior comments.
I never said players coming out of college don't improve their shot in the NBA because that would be pretty silly, wouldn't it?
I said they don't "suddenly" go from being poor shooters in college to shooting well in the NBA.
To use the two examples you cite: Danny Green shot 27.3% from three point territory his rookie year and his first two years in the NBA overall amounted to just 207 total minutes. So there is nothing "sudden" about his emergence as an NBA shooter. And that's after he finished his final year at UNC shooting 41.8% from three, significantly better than LaVine's final year in college. As it is, Flip praised LaVine's ability to get to the rim, and LaVine shot 44.1% on FG overall, indicating either an inability ot finish well or an inability to get to the rim as much as Flip imagines. To reiterate, this is not saying that LaVine won't ever be a good NBA shooter, just that it will take time, at best.
Channing Frye never shot better than 33.3% from three point territory his first four years in the NBA and was considered a very mediocre offensive player up through that point. So, nothing "sudden" there either.
Please, in the future, think twice before turning my words into a straw man for your replies.

Probably was too concise

It's not that I overlooked "suddenly" but more that I took it to mean "in the future" instead of "in the next few seasons." I don't expect either to shine from beyond the arc next season, but that would be a problem for a Wolves team with playoff aspirations (which I don't buy no matter what Flip says) than a team looking to win 35 games and properly develop their young talent.

With that said, I get that you can't respond to everything, but it is somewhat disheartening to see valid aspects ignored (I'll heartily dispute any thought that their ability to get stops on D hasn't notably improved).

Reread the piece

PSR--

You're disheartened because you want me to respond to things you only imagined I wrote.

The story I wrote was about the difficulty the Wolves would have in reconciling two straight summers of personnel activity that were contradictory in terms. It was not a piece that blasted the recent trades; on the contrary, i praised those personnel moves in the column previous to this one.

Please show me where I rip their defensive potential now relative to last season. I specifically mention that the focus this season is on athletes who play suffocating defense. And when it came to asked whether Young would be an upgrade on Love defensively, I said "perhaps."

I thought it relevant that Young's at the rim defense was worse than Love's, given how much grief Love gets for not protecting the rim. I believe the notion is because Young is the quicker, springier athlete, he would naturally be better at rim protection. Yes, I noticed the increased attempts at the rim under Love; some of that is because he logs minutes at center, something Young never does; some of that is because Spencer Hawes was an even more inviting player to go at down low before Hawes was traded to Cleveland; and some of that was because Young is quicker and springier, which makes a bit of a difference. Hence the word "perhaps."

No where in the story do I "dispute" that "their ability to get stops on D has notably improved." What I wonder is how much they will utilize that ability, at the expense of the long range offense Martin and and Budinger provide and the locker room leadership a veteran like Brewer brings.. It will be a "pick your poison" situation. Like you, I'd prefer they ride on the development side with copious minutes for the kids. But that too has its negative consequences. A decline in defensive prowess *isn't* one of them.

All this is laid out in the piece. I've just spent a lot of time explaining it again in greater detail, but a smart guy like you usually gets it on the first try. Please read me more carefully next time.

Jumping off the merry-go-round

Look, I'm not expecting this team to be playoff caliber, as is clearly indicated in the initial comment. I understand that the conceit of the post is to debunk any PR from the team that it's possible and temper expectations. It's also about realizing what the team will miss without Love, which is something I've brought up in multiple comments. We disagree on how thoroughly the evidence was displayed and explained and agree that I didn't give you the benefit of my doubt.

Harsh...

As "the dude" once said: You're not wrong...

Here is some realistic silver lining:
Right now, the wolves can play a line up of:
rubio, marting, brewer, young, and pekovic,
5 solid NBA veterans who would see playing time on any NBA team. This 5 can win and play eminently watchable basketball.

The Twolves can also run out a line up that includes:
Lavine, Wiggins, Bennett, and Dieng,
4 relatively unproven young players with cheap contracts and promise.

The challenge for the wolves this year is finding the right mix of decent vets and genuinely promising newbies. Fundamentally, that is a good problem to have for a team that just embraced rebuilding. Having suffered through the "tearing it down to the studs" and the subsequent sorrowful seasons, losing love is not only an easy pill to swallow right now, it's a downright comforting result.

Well, now I am depressed . . .

but I needed to read this very realistic assessment. I guess my biggest concern besides the likely losing record is how negative the veterans are probably going to be per this article. I guess I can't blame them, if in fact they go down that path, as losing sucks the joy out of the game/job, but I hope they can take the high road and be professionals. About the team, I was holding out hope the Rubio and Pek could still combine to do some nice things for this team, but, of course, as was noted in the article, Pek needed Love to draw attention away from him, so Pek may not be as useful as last year. Lately I have been thinking about all the reasons we didn't succeed more last year, and I think Pek missing 28 games was a big factor that maybe doesn't get mentioned enough. How many more games would the Wolves have won if Pek hadn't been missing from the lineup so often?? Anyway, I still can't wait for the NBA season and the enjoyment I get from watch the Wolves, win or lose.