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.