Yes folks, it has by almost any measure been a brutal season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, one inexorably dominated by a bizarre, unrelenting barrage of injuries. Goals have been whittled down from a playoff berth to a .500 record to just seeing what it is like to have the five best players on the court at the same time. Unless the Wolves manage to win nine of their remaining 25 games, they will once again fail to reach 30 victories or a .400 winning percentage without the presence of Kevin Garnett on their roster.
Since March is usually the worst time for a bottom-dwelling NBA ballclub slogging toward the finish line, it behooves us to, as Ricky Rubio put it to Alexey Shved, “change our face,” and find some areas of sustenance to soldier through the rest of the season. What follows, then, are five reasons to be optimistic about the Wolves stemming from the 2012-13 campaign.
5. The lottery pick in the 2013 draft
I can hear the groans, catcalls and wisecracks already. Granted, the Wolves have had reliably horrible luck in the lottery, never moving up (and often getting pushed back a few crucial slots) from the choice they would have had in a straight reverse-ordering of won-lost records. And almost regardless of where they have drafted, the players they have picked, especially in the tenure of current President of Basketball Operations David Kahn, have been dreadfully unproductive.
But a high-level NBA draft pick is specifically designed to be the wellspring of renewal a losing team, and unless a franchise is foolish enough to have traded it away (say, along with Sam Cassell in exchange for Marko Jaric) or underhanded enough to have had it stripped from their grasp (say, for signing Joe Smith to an illegal contract), it is a tangible asset that should improve their existing pool of talent.
Furthermore, given the existing status quo on the Wolves, this should be a “draft for dummies” exercise in personnel upgrading for the team’s front office: Take the most accurate outside shooter among the off-guards still on the board. It is important not to overthink this. Unless the dead-eye shooter is absolutely atrocious in other areas of the game, having someone who will benefit from the floor-spacing of Kevin Love and the feeds of Ricky Rubio will be a boon for Minnesota. As many other commentators have pointed out, their 29.7 percent accuracy on three-point shots this season is historically inept, especially given how many of them the team has launched.
4. The ongoing tease of Derrick Williams
The height of the performance ceiling for the Wolves second-year forward remains the subject of a legitimate and compelling debate, with plenty of ammunition available for both his defenders and detractors. But at the very least, D-Will’s play this season has demonstrated that he will not be an abject bust along the lines of past lottery picks Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson. Meanwhile, there are some promising signs of his ongoing growth and viability as a regular rotation player.
Williams at first just weathered and then belatedly began to leverage the tough-love lessons doled out by head coach Rick Adelman and his assistants. He dutifully showed up sleeker and in better physical condition so as to provide the Wolves with the option of using him at either forward slot. He initially followed Adelman’s dictum that he resist the constant urge to shoot from outside and instead attack the basket, an unnatural style that produced pathetic shooting percentages in the paint. (According to basketball-reference.com, he has converted just 48.9 percent of his layups and 82.4 percent of his dunks (!) this season.)
As the season progressed, Adelman allowed him to operate more in his customary outside-in approach to scoring, and the clanks have become slightly less frequent. D-Will is now more accurate this season from the field, the three-point arc and the free-throw line compared to his rookie year.
Yes, those rookie numbers are an admittedly low bar to exceed, which initiates the pro-versus-con yo-yo dominating any serious discussion about Derrick Williams. He has hewed to Adelman’s rim-oriented shot philosophy to the point where he leads the team (excepting the injured Kevin Love) in the free throw to field goal attempts ratio, yet only converts 70.6 percent of those trips to the charity stripe. He has reduced his turnovers but cut back even more on his already paltry assist total, relative to last season. He is a deadly midrange jump shooter — making 47.2 percent from 10-16 feet out, but below average everywhere else on the court. And his defense is improved but still maddeningly inconsistent.
Bottom line, Williams was a ballyhooed athlete falsely advertised as the most pro-ready collegian coming out of the 2011 draft. For nearly two years now, he has struggled but doggedly, incrementally progressed as the complementary player he needs to become on this team. The majority of the Wolves’ visual highlights have been generated by his athleticism — and too many of the hair-pulling frustrating come from his inattention and inexperience. But the ratio of good to bad is growing and the minutes he has logged this season have been invaluable to that process.
3. Team character
Fans and pundits can all agree that this has been a mind-numbing, soul-deadening experience this season, not only with the injuries, but with wayward events such as the seizures endured by the wife of Rick Adelman and the stupid interview conducted by Kevin Love with a scribe from Yahoo! Sports who has an axe to grind with the Wolves front office.
Yet in terms of on-court effort, this Wolves’ team has been remarkably resilient. Amid the chaos of ever-changing lineups, the daunting mental strain of being consistently sapped of talent and rhythm, and then the dawning reality that this is indeed a lost campaign, the players continue working hard, if not well, to execute at both ends of the court.
In terms of character issues, about the worst you can say is Love’s interview was a selfish distraction, for which he has acknowledged mistakes and increased his determination not to repeat such folly. Otherwise, I guess it would be Shved’s unfortunate shrinking and sulking due to (and exacerbating) his regression as opponents play him more physically.
Balance that against the stoic professionalism of Dante Cunningham and Luke Ridnour and the overall demeanor of a team that rarely complains about minutes or rotations and hasn’t once found itself in the headlines from some off-court transgression. Nor are there any players blatantly out of shape, as was the case with Darko Milicic last season, or willfully seeming to undermine what Adelman wants out on the court, as Michael Beasley seemed to operate with his shot selection a year ago. This can only help the momentum of the ballclub not only when Love and Chase Budinger (hopefully) return later this month, but heading into next season.
2. Smart, disciplined defense
At the beginning of this season, the consensus opinion was that the Wolves could score but that with all but one of their top eight healthy players being much better on offense than on defense (the exception being Andrei Kirilenko), the team would have difficulty getting stops.
Instead, while the offense has sputtered to 26th among the 30 NBA teams in terms of offensive efficiency (points scored per possession), Minnesota’s defensive efficiency (points allowed per possessions) has remained in the top half of the league and currently ranks 13th — again according to basketball-reference.com .
It is not as if Minnesota added many defensive stoppers during the season, or even that individual players made marked improvements in their solitary defensive skills. Instead, under the guidance of Adelman and assistant coach Bill Bayno, the Wolves have implemented a shrewd philosophy and an effective system that the players have faithfully and consistently executed. Specifically, Minnesota works hard to compel their opponents to take low-percentage shots and scrap for deflections and loose balls while taking care of their defensive glass on rebounds and avoiding fouls that generate free throw attempts.
According to hoopdata.com, the Wolves currently rank fourth in the lowest effective field goal percentage expected from their opponents, judging from where they take shots on the court. (A more thorough explanation of this process and statistic can be found in my January column on the subject here.) That opponents shoot a much higher percentage than those shots would indicate is a casualty of playing undersized Luke Ridnour or J.J. Barea at the off-guard slot.
According to the statistics at nba.com, the Wolves also rank 6th in the highest percentage of turnovers they help create among their opponents. They are tied for 10th in the lowest percentage of offensive rebounds allowed to their opponents. And they are tied for 5th in the fewest free throws per field goal attempt generated by their opponents.
All of these factors add up to a distinctive, well-implemented philosophy of reducing chances for opponents to score. That it has been accomplished with only one notorious defender, Kirilenko, on the roster, is a tribute to the ingenuity of the coaches and the selfless effort of the players. And it should generate great optimism among Wolves fans for how to win games once the talent returns to the lineup.
1. The competitive passion of Ricky Rubio
On the basis of his truncated rookie season, we all knew Rubio was a wizard at surveying the court and distributing the basketball. And we knew that he was a savvy, lengthy and tenacious on-ball defender.
The revelation this season has Rubio’s extraordinary leadership abilities, primarily fueled by his brilliant competitive fire and sheer will to win.
It is easy to forget that, unlike almost everyone else associated with the Wolves, Rubio wasn’t accustomed to losing. When his rookie year was cut short by a debilitating knee injury, the Wolves sported a relatively gaudy 21-20 record and were firmly in the playoff hunt. And when he returned to action this season, the team’s record stood at 13-12.
Watching Rubio chafe at his minutes limit during the slow, on-court rehab process was a fascinating glimpse into his personality. He was fiery but unsure, desperate to have an impact on the game but obviously mindful of the pain and limitations imposed by his body. His intelligence was at war with his instincts.
Once he was satisfied that his body would not betray him, however, Rubio has been delightful but cold-blooded dervish out on the court. Often deprived not only of his superstar sidekick Love, but often his low-post behemoth Nikola Pekovic, his most reliable cutter to the basket in Kirilenko, and most anyone who could drain an outside shot, he has maniacally taken on more and more responsibility at both ends of the court. While this has resulted in an uptick in his turnovers and missed shot attempts, and a decline in his defensive efficiency, it has served as a catalyst for the team.
Put bluntly, Rubio is a natural leader, a self-supposed winner willing to do what it takes to secure a victory, regardless of how it affects his own numbers or reputation. Temperamentally, he is an ideal fit at the top of the pecking order with Love, a blue-collar workhorse on the boards but mostly a genial presence in the locker room. On more than one occasion this season, it has been obvious that the Wolves players have had no choice but to up their intensity or be shown up as comparative laggards next to the diligence of Rubio. That he is also a pass-first point guard who excels at enabling the offense of his teammates only adds to his leadership capabilities.
As the Wolves await the return of Love and Budinger — and Pekovic and Kirilenko — the all-around sweat equity invested in the sport by Rubio remains a riveting reason to still watch these Timberwolves. And to be optimistic about their short-term future.