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Timberwolves’ off-season makeover: Some healthy skepticism

As it stands now, and likely will in the near future, the Wolves have been assembled to be crowd-pleasers. But championship contenders, not so much.

Since the day he was hired in early May, Flip Saunders has been forthright and consistent about how he wanted to revamp the Wolves.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Once the all-but-certain re-signing of restricted free-agent center Nikola Pekovic is on the books (most likely contract terms: four years for $50 million), the active off-season makeover of the Minnesota Timberwolves by new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders will be essentially complete.

The good news is that the Wolves are poised to make the 2013-14 campaign their most successful season in a decade, one likely culminated by a playoff appearance. The bad news, at least in my view, is that the Wolves could well have been better off with a lighter tweak of a 2012-13 roster that was ravaged by an incredible slew of injuries.

Since the day he was hired in early May, Saunders has been forthright and consistent about how he wanted to revamp the Wolves. His priorities were bolstering the team’s outside shooting and balancing the roster with taller wingmen in place of undersized combo guards. Among players whose contractual status was in flux, he made no secret of his determination to re-sign both Pekovic and unrestricted free agent Chase Budinger, and seemed far less enthusiastic about the possibility that Andrei Kirilenko might pick up his $10.2 million player option for 2013-14, or renegotiate a longer term deal involving less annual money.

Aside from an unfortunate draft night, when an unpredictable array of early picks deprived the Wolves of all the players they coveted, Saunders seems to have been able to execute his off-season blueprint in near-perfect fashion. In recent media appearances he has giddily acknowledged that he can’t contain his enthusiasm about the prospects of what he has assembled. Reaction in the dailies and on fan websites has likewise been mostly positive.

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Optimism is easy right now. It is a safe bet that the franchise won’t suffer the relentless havoc of physical woe that sabotaged last season pretty much from start to finish. As it was, the Wolves still won 31 games — 20 fewer than they lost, sure, but more victories than any Timberwolves outfit that didn’t possess Kevin Garnett. A lack of improvement this season would be regarded as a catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Saunders — presumably with extensive advice from coach Rick Adelman — performed as promised, beginning with the retention of Budinger and (probably) Pek, via long-term contracts. He waded into free agency to secure potent scorer Kevin Martin and antic defender Corey Brewer, who, at 6-7 and 6-9, respectively, provide more size on the wing, even as 6-2 Luke Ridnour — the poster boy for Minnesota’s diminutive backcourt as an overmatched shooting guard last season — was traded away to free up salary space for the new arrivals.

He has added depth in the frontcourt with free agent center Ronny Turiaf and the second of Minnesota’s first-round draft picks, Gorgui Dieng of Louisville. The other first-rounder, Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA, is another tall (6-6), offensive-oriented wing player. Consequently, forward Derrick Williams and guard Alexey Shved, who both finished among the top six in minutes-played for the Wolves last season, will have to work hard just to earn time from the end of the bench.

What’s not to like, eh? Actually, quite a bit.

The Saunders overreaction  

The more I look at Saunders’ off-season wheeling and dealing, the more convinced I am that he overreacted to the need for more offense and, with the help of some unfortunate circumstances, locked the Wolves into being the sort of chronically deficient defensive team that can’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. Last year’s roster was imbalanced because of a preponderance of small backcourt personnel. This year, the imbalance will come from the difficulty of coming up with a five-man unit that can both score and defend at a competitive level.

At first glance, it is hard to rebut Saunders’ contention that the team’s greatest need was outside shooters. Minnesota finished dead-last in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, the primary reason the Wolves were 25th out of 30 teams in offensive efficiency — points scored per possession. And led by the success of the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the playoffs last season, the league-wide trend is for more emphasis on long-range marksmanship.

But the Wolves’ feeble results from the three-point arc a year ago were caused by a dearth of health more than talent. Budinger came over from Houston last season with a career 36.3 percent average from three-point range, and figured to improve that accuracy given his compatibility and familiarity with Adelman’s system. But a knee injury felled him after just six games, and when he returned more than four months later to play the final 17 games, he acknowledges now that he was physically limited.

Even more significant was the loss and physical compromise of superstar Kevin Love, who broke bones in his shooting hand on two separate occasions last season. Not only did the injuries sideline Love for 64 games, but severely hampered his shooting stroke in the 18 games he did play. While there was significant regression in his layups, midrange jumpers and free throws, the bum hand was most debilitating to Love’s three-point shooting. Consider that in his two prior seasons, he converted 41.7 and 37.2 percent of his shots from distance. Last year, his accuracy plummeted to 21.7 percent.

It is reasonable to assume that Love and Budinger create outside-shooting synergy when paired together, not only because of their accuracy but also Budinger’s ability to move without the ball and Love’s ability to create mismatches luring big men outside the paint — both stimulate better spacing and fluidity. Well, Bud and Love never played a single minute together in 2012-13.

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A healthy Kevin Love and Chase Budinger in rotation together for an entire season — with slick-passing point guard Ricky Rubio distributing the ball — will by itself be an enormous boon to the Wolves’ prowess from beyond the arc in 2013-14, without Saunders needing to add a single piece from a year ago. (The offense will also improve because Rubio will have had an entire off-season to work on his jumper, something that couldn’t happen a year ago as he recuperated from knee surgery.)

But Saunders decided the Wolves also needed the outside shooting and overall scoring punch of Martin. My extended take on the Martin acquisition can be gleaned here. Suffice to say that he is a marvelous and versatile point producer. But he is also a sub-mediocre on-ball defender and an absolutely wretched help defender. And the person he will essentially replace in the starting lineup, Kirilenko, is every bit as marvelous and versatile on defense as K-Mart is on offense.

Why the defense will decline

Perhaps the lone silver lining in the MASH-Unit campaign of a year ago was the surprisingly effective performance of the Wolves’ defense. The team ranked 13th — in the top half of the NBA — in defensive efficiency, determined by fewest points allowed per possession defended. In my estimation, the three people in the organization who were most responsible for that feat are Kirilenko, Pekovic and the assistant coach in charge of defense, Bill Bayno. Now two of them are gone.

Bayno, who left the team to take a promotion as lead assistant to head coach Dwane Casey in Toronto, was able to mold a team with just one premier defender (Kirilenko) into a cohesive unit that moved its feet, mostly hewed to their disciplined assignments and didn’t give opponents chances to extend their possessions with offensive rebounds or free throws. The Wolves weren’t that great at making opponents miss — they ranked 24th in opponents’ field goal percentage and 23rd in opponents’ three-point percentage — but they were a top 12 team in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and, most significantly, allowed the fifth-fewest free throw attempts in the NBA, while attempting the fifth-most themselves. Bayno preached either standing tall or jumping up straight with arms outstretched so as not to initiate contact, and for the most part the players listened.

Bayno will be replaced by Rick Adelman’s son, David. While the feedback on him from within the organization is very positive, beneficiaries of nepotism need to prove they merit the job. Even if David Adelman performs well, it is unreasonable to expect him or any of the other assistant coaches on the Wolves staff to match Bayno’s performance last season. He didn’t get promoted for nothing.

Bayno frequently cited Pekovic as the team’s best pick-and-roll defender, and the burly center, a fouling machine his first season in the league, also became a master of simply holding his ground with his granite-like physique and deterring penetration without drawing a whistle.

But the single most important figure on the Wolves’ defense last season was Kirilenko. He was the wing stopper, the one invariably pitted against the opponents’ top gun, regardless of whether it was a lithe, silky shooter like Kevin Durant, a crafty veteran like Kobe Bryant, or a larger, more rugged point-producer such as Lebron James or Carmelo Anthony.

What all these elite scorers have in common is the ability to draw fouls, and yet AK set the example for the rest of the team in limiting opponents’ trips to the free throw line. According to figures from the website, the Wolves’ committed four fewer fouls per 100 possessions with AK on the court, compared with when he was on the bench. At the other end of the court, they drew two more fouls per 100 possessions when Kirilenko played, compared with when he sat. That’s a whopping plus-6 on Minnesota’s foul differential per 100 possessions with AK in the lineup. And they were a significantly better rebounding team, especially on the offensive glass.

Considering that he primarily took a breather when the opponents’ best scorer was also out of the game, it is somewhat remarkable that Minnesota yielded 0.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Kirilenko was playing, compared with when he wasn’t. They also scored 3.6 more points per 100 possessions when he was in the game.

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It currently remains a mystery, worthy of suspicion, why Kirilenko would turn down the $10.2 million remaining on his deal with the Wolves this coming season in order to play the next two years in Brooklyn for about a third of that annual amount — a combined salary of just $6.4 million.  Perhaps it is because Kirilenko and Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov are both Russian, or that he feels the Nets offer the best chance for him to play for an NBA champion for the first time in his career.

Whatever the reason, something went a little bit sour between Kirilenko and the Wolves. I don’t know if Saunders expressed little interest in AK’s return because he knew there was no chance of retaining him, or if Kirilenko bolted because he sensed he wasn’t in the Wolves’ plans moving forward. Either way, it’s shocking how little negative blowback the Wolves have received for agreeing to pay Martin $28 million over the next four years and Brewer $15 million for the next three years, while a three-time All Defensive Team selection who was on the roster last season is playing for a bargain-basement rate in Brooklyn.

Yes, Kirilenko will be 32 in February, regularly misses 10 to 15 games a season with a chronic back problem, and likely doesn’t have more than two or three good seasons left in him. But the bottom line is that the Wolves no longer have a wing stopper on the team, which is a gaping hole for any franchise that hopes to be anything more than first-round fodder in the postseason. And with all the salaries Saunders has inked this off-season, it will be very difficult for Minnesota to acquire one over the next few seasons.

The signing of Brewer was meant to address this defensive deficiency, but expecting him to replace Kirilenko would be a doomed strategy. Brewer’s constant hustle and kamikaze penchant for inducing chaos on the court, for better and for worse, makes him one of the NBA’s more likable and entertaining performers. He has improved as a player since former Wolves POBO David Kahn traded him in February 2011 after he spent most of his first four seasons in Minnesota.

But Brewer is more of a boutique defender — a disrupter — than a stopper, for reasons mostly beyond his control. His natural physique includes arguably the skinniest calves in the NBA, stilt-like appendages that allow him to put just 185 pounds on his 6-9 frame. That’s just 10 pounds more than Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea; the same weight as Golden State’s guard Stephen Curry. By comparison, Durant weighs 220 pounds, Lebron 240, Melo 230, Kobe 200, Dwyane Wade 212. Kirilenko weighs 220 and would come out of matchups with those elite scorers bruised and sore. You can expect Dante Cunningham, more than Brewer, to be the primary defender off the bench against these larger wing scorers.

The last two seasons Brewer spent in Denver showed off his talents in the best light. Nuggets coach George Karl loves the up-and-down, willy-nilly style that is Brewer’s métier, and he could throw Brewer in the pond with similar uptempo athletes such as Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson and watch them run opponents ragged at both ends of the court. But crucially, Karl also understood that a disrupter like Brewer worked best alongside a legitimate wing stopper who could help cover for his enthusiasms, which is why Brewer was paired with Andre Iguodala — Denver’s Kirilenko — more than any other Nugget last season.

Even in Denver, however, Brewer occasionally hurt the team by playing out of control. His breakneck, heedless approach is both his vice and his virtue and can easily lead to poor shot selection. Brewer launched more shots per minute-played last season than anyone in the Nuggets 10-man rotation — including Danilo Gallinari, one of the most feared outside marksmen in the game — yet had the lowest effective field goal percentage (which counts both field goals and three-pointers) of those 10 players. In other words, he shot the most and made the least.

All that said, Brewer was not a terrible acquisition. He’s always been the type of player who exerts a greater impact on the court, as a catalyst, than on the stat sheet. For all his shooting woes, he did convert more than 40 percent of his three-pointers from the left corner area last season, and if he can come close to approximating that accuracy and otherwise foster ball movement on offense, he’ll be a valuable cog. On defense, he’ll frequently give a perimeter opponent fits with his wiry diligence and form a dynamic gambling backcourt duo with Rubio when they are paired together.

More fun than prizes

Let me close this novella-length column the way I started it, by stating that the Wolves are likely on the verge of their most successful season in a decade. If Love and Rubio are healthy, Pek is indeed back, and Budinger and Martin exploit Adelman’s offense to deliver offensive firepower, Minnesota will probably win between 45 and 50 games and reward their long-suffering fans with a playoff appearance and an entertaining style of play.

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But if the optimism is legitimate, so are the concerns, and they have understandably been less prevalent in discussions about the team and its prospects for the 2013-14 season. As it stands now, and likely will in the near future, the Wolves have been assembled to be crowd-pleasers. But championship contenders, not so much.