By grinding out a 107-98 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night after a sloppy besting of a decimated Boston Celtics team on Monday, the Minnesota Timberwolves doubled their win total of the two previous Aprils just three days into the month. (They were a combined 1-19 in April 2011 and 2012.)
It was also the first time the Wolves have registered consecutive triumphs since they beat Dallas for their fourth win a row way back on Dec. 15 — Ricky Rubio’s first game back from knee surgery.
That’s right. It has been nearly 13 months since Rubio was on the court for even this most-modest of winning streaks. If you’ve noticed how much he hates to lose, you can imagine how difficult that fallow period has been for him.
But not so much recently, eh?
Because for those few folks still paying attention, the Wolves have actually been playing some enjoyable hoops lately. They are 3-1 in their last four games, and 4-2 in their last six.
Consider their only losses in the last 10 days.
One was to a star-studded Lakers team desperate to make the playoffs, in which the Wolves were robbed by the officials of a chance to tie the game on what should have been three free throws for Rubio because of the last-second play that the NBA later conceded was a shooting foul by Kobe Bryant.
The other was the second night of a back-to-back, in which the Wolves were facing a rugged Grizzlies team and their talented frontcourt beef of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol without the benefit of starting center Nikola Pekovic, sidelined with an ankle sprain. Even sans Pek, the Wolves kept it close — the score was tied with 10:29 left to play — before finally wearing out in the fourth quarter.
I regret being MIA myself these past two weeks, attending to the health needs of my father, who lives alone in Florida, without Internet, of course. But the absence has provided perspective, and strengthened my season-long contention that the Wolves front office needs to spend the money to retain Pekovic and Chase Budinger and persuade coach Rick Adelman to return for at least one season.
Even in the face of an incredible string of injuries, including the loss of superstar Kevin Love these past three months, the Wolves are poised to win 30 games in a season without Kevin Garnett for the first time in franchise history, and in the process make Adelman only the eighth coach in NBA history to capture 1,000 career victories.
With that relatively optimistic backdrop, let me begin my brief for keeping the current core of the Wolves roster intact. The rest of today’s column will be devoted to the advantages provided by fourth-year swingman and unrestricted free-agent-to-be Chase Budinger.
The beauty of Budinger
Most of the individual numbers are not kind to Budinger. He is shooting just 42.2 percent from the field, 30.6 percent from three-point range, and 78.8 percent from the free throw line — all well below his career norms. He is averaging fewer assists and more turnovers per minute than in any of his three previous seasons, and his rebounds per minute are the fewest since his rookie year.
That Budinger remains an invaluable on-court presence for the Wolves despite these sordid statistics is a tribute to how well his skill-set and style of play fit Adelman’s offensive schemes — and a reminder that a shooting guard who is 6-7 is likely to be a better defender than those who are 6-2 like Luke Ridnour or 5-10 like J.J. Barea.
The conventional wisdom, voiced frequently after Bud emerged as a key figure in recent wins over Detroit and Oklahoma City, is that much of his value comes from the spacing he provides because of his reputation as a solid three-point shooter. That’s certainly true, but tells only part of the story.
Budinger is much more than just a catch-and-shoot scorer. His game involves fairly constant movement without the ball and, because of his size and athleticism, a reliable ability to finish at the rim. Consequently, not only does he cause opposing defenses to spread out when he is on the perimeter, but to react to his back cuts and curls around ball-screens. The spacing he provides is vast but also fluid, forcing adjustments, and thus sowing chaos for his opponents.
How effective is Budinger? The Wolves outscore their opponents by a whopping 10.2 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season. That hefty advantage has been remarkably similar for the first six games of the season (when the Wolves went 4-2 before Bud tore ligaments in his knee) and for the past nine games (when the Wolves have gone 5-4 since his return).
Here’s the kicker: Budinger could be even more effective if Adelman played him with the starters more frequently. Because he isn’t that great as a dribbler, and because the coach stubbornly wants at least two capable ball-handlers on the court, he often subs in for Kirilenko at the small forward slot on the second unit. According to basketball-reference.com, the four players with whom he has logged the most minutes are, in order, Dante Cunningham, Barea, Alexey Shved, and Greg Stiemsma. But as anyone who watches the Wolves knows, the magic really happens when Bud meshes with the top talent on the roster as a shooting guard.
The sample size is small but still very compelling on this subject. Let’s take Bud and Pekovic together, for example, using numbers from nba.com. Yes, with Budinger available on the perimeter, Pek can better wheel and deal inside — he is shooting 70.3 percent in the restricted area nearest to the hoop when Bud is in the game, compared with 62.1 percent when Bud is on the sidelines.
But even more dramatically, Pek’s ability to command a double-team, or demand that his man not leave him even during dribble-penetration and back-cutting by his teammates, is an elixir for Budinger’s inside game. Swap in Greg Stiemsma for Pek and Budinger shoots a wretched 36.8 percent (7 for 19) on shots in the restricted area. With Pek in the game, he is 7 for 9, or 77.8 percent. Add in his 5 for 5 when neither Pek nor Stiemsma are playing, and he is 36.8 percent with Stiemsma and 85.7 without him.
Or go to Bud’s pairing with Andrei Kirilenko. Because of his long tenure with coach Jerry Sloan in Utah, A.K. is well-versed in operating in a movement-oriented offense. So no one should be shocked that Budinger is shooting a gaudy 56.7 percent during his relatively scant 75 total minutes with AK on the court — or that Kirilenko has doled out 7 assists to Bud during that time, second on the team behind only Barea’s 8 assists to Budinger. (Of course J.J. had an extra 120 minutes with Bud, or 195 total thus far, to register that extra assist.)
Next up, Budinger with Ricky Rubio. First off, note that when Budinger shares the backcourt with Rubio, Ricky is not forced to guard the opposing shooting guard (Ridnour and Barea are frequently too small) and can use his defensive prowess on thwarting the architect of the opposing offense at the point. Rubio will also almost always draw the smaller backcourt defender when Budinger is at the other guard slot. It’s only a 60-minute sample — just five quarters’ worth of play together — but it is still hard not to notice that the Wolves register 11.2 more assists, 7.3 more steals and 8.1 fewer turnovers than their opponents per 100 possessions when Rubio and Budinger share the court.
The bottom line is that the Wolves are plus 14.4 points per 100 possessions in the 131:38 Pekovic and Budinger play together. They are plus 17.2 points per 100 possessions in the 74:31 Kirilenko and Budinger play together. And they are plus 19.2 points per 100 possessions in the 59:27 Rubio and Budinger play together.
Imagine the impact if Budinger had been healthy all season, and was knocking down shots at his normal career percentage. Imagine if he had spent even one minute this season sharing the hardwood with a pretty good player and fellow floor-spacer named Kevin Love.
Next column: Exhibit B — Nikola Pekovic