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Timberwolves’ starting lineup is one of the best in NBA

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Corey Brewer has thus far made good on his vow of mature decision-making out on the court.

The Timberwolves’ first West Coast road trip of the 2013-14 season was a night owl’s delight for the fans back home. It was inaugurated by a meteor shower of made baskets en route to a 47-point first-quarter explosion (a franchise scoring record) on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Lakers, and culminated by a gritty comeback from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit Monday night versus the Los Angeles Clippers that fell two points and two agonizingly close putbacks short of victory.

This pair of highly entertaining games confirmed the mostly positive but also distinctively negative trends that have marked the Wolves season thus far.

The team currently boasts one of the best starting lineups in the NBA, a sublimely complementary quintet that is blending outlandish talent and admirable sweat equity, shiny charisma and disciplined ensemble modesty, to create a spectacle of character and personality that makes it easy — and almost involuntary — to root for their success.

The right mix of starters

You have to begin with the superstar, Kevin Love, who simply has been the best player in the NBA thus far this season. Love is second in scoring (26.4 points per game), first in rebounding (15 boards per game), tied for 24th in assists at five per game, and playing the most effective team and individual defense of his career.

To give you an idea of Love’s distinctive skill set, the next best rebounder among the NBA’s current top-25 in assists is Nicholas Batum with 7.1, less than half Love’s rebounding total per game. Love currently ranks sixth in both made free throws and made three-pointers, a testimonial to his savvy shot selection. His outlet passes have become a magnificent, crowd-pleasing weapon in the Wolves’ offense.

He is the unquestioned leader of this team — the Wolves’ longest-tenured player at the tender age of 25 — and has assumed the mantle with understated aplomb.

The rest of the starters slide into their roles with assembly-line precision. Point guard Ricky Rubio is the aggressive prong of the perimeter defense and somewhat of an unsung hero in the way he has accommodated Love as a co-facilitator in the half-court offense. Nikola Pekovic is the throwback brute, the twirling block of granite who both engenders and benefits from the floor-spacing provided by his low-post scoring prowess and the team’s upgraded three-point shooting.

Love, Rubio, and Pekovic are the core trio of stars that Wolves new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders talked about as the anchors of this franchise before the season started. But it is the way Saunders has supplemented that threesome with a pair of new wing players, who have caulked up the seams of this starting unit, that has transformed the Wolves into a legitimate playoff contender.

I was highly skeptical of Saunders’ free-agent signings of both Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. Put simply, I believed Martin’s shoddy defense would take away more points than his scoring would add, and that Brewer lacked the bulk and discipline to be the wing stopper on defense that was so obviously required after the departure of Andrei Kirilenko. Eight games into the season, the play of K-Mart and Brewer have vindicated Saunders and trumped those reservations.

The mutual trust and camaraderie that exists between Love and Martin is one of the more encouraging aspects of this young season. Love has never had a perimeter scorer as prolific as Martin for a Wolves teammate, and he must certainly recognize a kindred spirit in the way Martin seeks to maximize his offensive efficiency by generating three-pointers and free throws whenever possible.

Meanwhile, Martin knew exactly what he was doing when he lobbied hard for the Wolves to sign him. With Love as a matchup nightmare capable of going inside or outside, Pekovic as a force in the paint, Rubio the passing maestro with the mutant court vision, and his old teacher and coach Rick Adelman choreographing the offense, this team is a custom fit for his scoring talents, which are ideally suited to be a second option but with the freedom to shoot when he sees the opportunity.

Thus far, Martin is enjoying the best season of his 10-year career. He is shooting more frequently than ever before (17.6 shots per 36 minutes) while matching his best true-shooting percentage (which groups field goal, three point and free throw accuracy) from 2007-08 in Sacramento. He has seized on the open spacing and Adelman’s sets to nail a remarkable 55.8 percent of his three-pointers and has scored at least two treys in all but one of the Wolves’ first eight games.

For a team that finished dead last in long-distance accuracy a year ago, is missing injured three-point shooter Chase Budinger, and, even with Martin’s deadeye shooting, currently ranks 18th in three-point percentage, Martin has been enormously valuable.

Then there is Brewer, the spindly sparkplug who has a sado-masochistic relationship with chaos on the court, mucking the game into a ballet of near-pratfalls with his nonstop intensity. Even with Budinger out, Adelman wasn’t positive Brewer should start at small forward, waiting until the day of the season opener to make his decision.

But Brewer has thus far made good on his vow of mature decision-making out on the court. After shooting more frequently and less accurately than any of his nine other teammates on the Denver Nuggets last season, he is jacking up the fewest shots of anyone in the Wolves starting five and converting a career-best 48.2 percent of them. That’s because 49 of Brewer’s 85 shots have come right at the rim, and the bulk of those have either been on long outlet passes from Love or backdoor cuts that are integral to Adelman’s system.

Ball hawks on the perimeter

But even more than his improved shot selection, Brewer’s commitment to defense has made him another off-season coup for Saunders. He has stepped into Kirilenko’s wing-stopper role well enough for the Wolves to continue the defensive strategy that functioned so effectively last season — limit the damage of opponents’ possessions by not fouling, grabbing rebounds and forcing turnovers.  

It was a strategy Minnesota executed well enough a year ago to rank 13th in defensive efficiency (fewest points allowed per possession). This year, incredibly enough, they have climbed to fifth, according to Basketball Reference, despite allowing many more offensive rebounds than a season ago (an area where Kirilenko is sorely missed).

But the Wolves’ perimeter defense more than compensates for the team’s lower defensive rebounding percentage. It is a tenacious, ball-hawking element of their style, spearheaded by Rubio and Brewer, although Martin, like Love, has been a pleasant surprise on defense — his 6-7 frame is 5 inches taller than last year’s primary shooting guard, Luke Ridnour.

MinnPost photo by Craig LassigThus far, Kevin Martin is enjoying the best season of his 10-year career.

First of all, Minnesota’s 81 steals are the most in the NBA, a major way they have generated a league-leading 150 turnovers by their opponents — obviously the most clearcut way to ensure an empty possession. Second, the Wolves currently rank 9th in lowest opponents’ three-point percentage, permitting just 33.2 percent compared to the league average of 35.8. Anyone who watches the games knows that these stats are mostly a tribute to Rubio — there aren’t a half-dozen point guards better than he is on defense.

But the backbone of Minnesota’s stealth effectiveness on defense is the team-wide absence of shooting fouls (well, except for rookie center Gorgui Dieng). Opponents make fewer free throws per game against the Wolves than any other team, even as Minnesota converts the third-most free throws per game on offense.

The current disparity is plus-81 in made free throws, or an extr 10 points per game. Without that edge, the Wolves would be outscored by four points per game thus far, as they currently rack up 106.3 points per game while permitting 100.3.

Bench goes from bad to worse

That six-point differential also highlights how much the Wolves rely on their starters for success. According to the lineup stats at nba.com, the aforementioned quintet have played together as a unit more than any other starting five—23.9 minutes or almost exactly half the game. During that period, the Wolves outscore their opponents by 8.1 points, which is roughly 12 points per 36 minutes or 16 points per full game.

Beginning with Wednesday night’s game against Dallas, Adelman began sifting in his inferior reserves with the starters, in the hopes of mitigating the dramatic declines that were inevitably occurring when the subs entered the game en masse. I devoted my last column to Minnesota’s woeful bench production so I won’t belabor the issue as much here.

Nevertheless, the abysmal lack of depth is a lodestone on the team’s fortunes moving forward, and the situation isn’t improving. On the tail end of a back-to-back Monday night, Minnesota needed their reserves to step up. Instead, the situation deteriorated the more subs Adelman put on the floor late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter. And when Adelman left his bench crew in an extra minute of two midway through the fourth quarter, the Clippers surged again.

In the end, the plus/minus numbers told the sorry story in stark fashion. In a two-point loss, every one of the Wolves starters was in plus territory and every one of the reserves was a minus (plus/minus measure how the team fares on the scoreboard when that player is in the game). The backcourt of J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved was a combined 1-for-11 shooting.

Shved needs to be benched. Never mentally tough, his confidence and body language advertise his vulnerability in neon, and with Budinger out, opponents know they can exploit the backup shooting guard matchup whenever Shved enters the game. It wasn’t hard to predict that he would be dominated by the Clippers’ Jamal Crawford on Monday, for example.

Whether Shved’s minutes get taken by third-string point guard A.J. Price, rookie swingman Shabazz Muhammad, or someone off the street in free agency, Shved is no longer a viable option. The core of this Wolves team is too solid, too complementary and too promising to endanger its momentum by regularly including Shved as part of the game plan.

In other words, Saunders may need to reach into that magic bag and pull out another wing.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Andy Grimsrud on 11/12/2013 - 11:38 am.

    I worried about the JJ & Shved pairing before this season, and it’s been even worse than expected. Barea has continued to dominate the ball beyond what’s reasonable of any point guard — especially one of his ability level — and Shved continues to struggle in the wing role. I can’t speak to his mental toughness, because he’s never shown a shooting-guard skill set (in the NBA, anyway) to make me wonder if he’s underachieving in his current position. But it did seem that in his successful stretch last season (which is becoming increasingly hard to comprehend) he would get more comfortable throughout the game with more touches — in particular, more dribbling responsibility.

    Britt, you shared a great Kirilenko quote last season about how Ricky Rubio gets everybody touching the ball, early and often, and how that helps the team later in the game. JJ would be the exact opposite when handed lead guard duty. The NBA’s new player tracking data can actually put a number on this. J.J. ranks 57th in the league in time of possession per game (slightly ahead of Kevin Durant, slightly behind Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony). He possesses the ball 3.0 minutes per game. The problem is he only plays 18.2 minutes per game. That’s about 16.5 percent of the time he’s on the floor. Assuming defense is half of his playing time it’s about 33 percent of the offense that has him dribbling around. It’s less than the league’s top point guards (who seem to be roughly 20 percent, by my calculations) but then two things need to be considered: 1) He’s not nearly as good as the Chris Pauls or Damian Lillards that league the league in possession time; and 2) He shares the floor with Ricky Rubio for 6.4 minutes of his 18.2 total, which would dilute his possession time for 1/3 of his nightly minutes and jack it up when he shares the floor with Shved and the second team. He’s playing like Chris Paul, but without the ability.

  2. Submitted by William Delaney on 11/12/2013 - 11:49 am.

    Bench

    Love the analysis and prose, Britt. Thanks for your writing.

    On the starters – I, too, am pleasantly stunned at how well the starting 5 has meshed thus far. I don’t think I was as worried as you or other commenters about the Kirilenko/Brewer switch, but I certainly was concerned about how Martin might fit in. The offensive side for him is obvious, but in thinking about his role on defense, I’ve thought a lot about what you noted – namely, that in comparison with Ridnour, it can’t be much of a drop-off from last year’s squad given his superior height and reach (even though Luke arguably tried a bit more valiantly). And at least to date, the defensive numbers for the starters look really good.

    On the bench, though, one major quibble with you there. I agree that Shved has looked nothing like an NBA player thus far, but I do feel that you have generally been extremely hard on him the past season plus. I have no idea what’s going on with him confidence-wise/mentally, but it seems from all available evidence that whatever his issue is, it is between the ears, and to me, that is potentially fixable. I’m not quite ready to give up on him yet.

    And I also think it’s a little unfair to spend so much time focus on Shved’s flaws given that the real drop-off thus far this year has been in the play of Barea and Cunningham, not to mention the continued “lost”-ness of Williams. Granted, all these things are inter-related, but the optimist in me sees this bench as fixable, and not just a lost cause (like for instance the Pacers’ bench last year).

    Thanks, again. And Go Wolves.

  3. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 11/12/2013 - 01:00 pm.

    Even when they lose

    this is the most entertaining Wolves team ever. My new schedule has me getting up at 4 am and I just assumed I’d fall asleep during last night’s game. Not hardly.

    Bud and Turiaf will help the bench but this team is just one trade away from greatness. I could not believe we played that tough on the second night of a back to back against a rested team. I won’t say the refs robbed us, but I think it’s clear the Clippers couldn’t have won without them.

    Great analysis. Between you and the more fannish Canis Hoopsters I’m enjoying the hell out of this young season.

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/12/2013 - 01:43 pm.

    Jekyll Hyde

    It’s been a real joy to watch this team (okay, the starters) play this year. The Wolves starters are doing all the little things right, and the season thus far shows how those things can add up to create gaudy leads in several games so far. But it’s frustrating to know that we have very little chance of maintaining or stretching a lead when the starters aren’t on the court. While I like Adelman’s latest tactic of playing mix-and-match with the starters and reserves, this team is going to run out of gas early if we expect Love-and-co to play from behind and recapture the lead every time they get some rest. In a long 82-game season, it’s important to remember that we’re in November right now, and many long winter nights are still ahead of us. And if you’re the type who worries about Love’s future in MN, I’d be just as concerned with mental fatigue as I would be with winning.

    While Shved has looked the worst of the bench so far, it’s more than just him. We all know JJ can shoot us into or out of games, and last night was an example of that. Similarly, you know what you’re going to get from Dante, and I think he deserves some slack for his heady play last year as well as his willingness to keep shooting (and to dunk every putback chance he gets).

    That said, our options to bolster the bench are quite limited. No first-rounder this year means we can’t even trade next year’s pick either. Derrick Williams has done nothing to improve his value, and I’m unsure on whether teams find him more or less appealing with the option year tacked onto his deal. It’s strange to think that Shabazz Muhammad is perhaps our most valuable non-starting trade chip, yet he can’t crack the rotation ahead of a struggling Shved – though of course that may have more to do with Adelman’s desire for continuity than anything. If we’re hellbent on increasing Derrick’s trade value (and I think that ship has sailed), he should be playing all his minutes with Rubio on the floor.

    As much as I dislike small backcourts, I think our best option at the moment might be to play AJ and JJ together. AJ is not a terrible 3-point shooter and has at least been in the league long enough to handle himself. And if we’re going to consider playing Shabazz, his game would benefit from Love’s outlet passes. I’d much rather improve our bench strength by trading for a veteran or two than try to tinker with the roster we have at the moment.

  5. Submitted by Mark Snyder on 11/12/2013 - 01:44 pm.

    Price

    Barring a trade, I think the only option Adelman has in place of playing Shved is giving Price a try in the rotation. Pairing him with Shved would be a ridiculously short back court, but he did manage to play pretty decent minutes for the Wizards last season. Otherwise, realizing that with Shved completely overmatched, perhaps Price is a luxury they can’t afford and they should waive him to bring Jeffers back if Budinger is going to be out much longer. He’s coming up on six weeks now, right? I know the team has never announced a timetable, but it sounded like his recovery was projected in the 6-8 week range?

  6. Submitted by Mark Snyder on 11/13/2013 - 11:00 am.

    Budinger

    According to Jerry Z’s latest article, Flip is hoping to get Bud back by Christmas, which is still six weeks/20 games away, including five more back-to-backs. Yikes.

    I really think they either need to give Price a shot with Shved’s minutes or waive him to bring in Jeffers or some other option on the wing. I think Shved could probably fill the role of PG who only plays in garbage time/emergency.

  7. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 11/12/2013 - 01:43 pm.

    Jekyll Hyde

    It’s been a real joy to watch this team (okay, the starters) play this year. The Wolves starters are doing all the little things right, and the season thus far shows how those things can add up to create gaudy leads in several games so far. But it’s frustrating to know that we have very little chance of maintaining or stretching a lead when the starters aren’t on the court. While I like Adelman’s latest tactic of playing mix-and-match with the starters and reserves, this team is going to run out of gas early if we expect Love-and-co to play from behind and recapture the lead every time they get some rest. In a long 82-game season, it’s important to remember that we’re in November right now, and many long winter nights are still ahead of us. And if you’re the type who worries about Love’s future in MN, I’d be just as concerned with mental fatigue as I would be with winning.

    While Shved has looked the worst of the bench so far, it’s more than just him. We all know JJ can shoot us into or out of games, and last night was an example of that. Similarly, you know what you’re going to get from Dante, and I think he deserves some slack for his heady play last year as well as his willingness to keep shooting (and to dunk every putback chance he gets).

    That said, our options to bolster the bench are quite limited. No first-rounder this year means we can’t even trade next year’s pick either. Derrick Williams has done nothing to improve his value, and I’m unsure on whether teams find him more or less appealing with the option year tacked onto his deal. It’s strange to think that Shabazz Muhammad is perhaps our most valuable non-starting trade chip, yet he can’t crack the rotation ahead of a struggling Shved – though of course that may have more to do with Adelman’s desire for continuity than anything. If we’re hellbent on increasing Derrick’s trade value (and I think that ship has sailed), he should be playing all his minutes with Rubio on the floor.

    As much as I dislike small backcourts, I think our best option at the moment might be to play AJ and JJ together. AJ is not a terrible 3-point shooter and has at least been in the league long enough to handle himself. And if we’re going to consider playing Shabazz, his game would benefit from Love’s outlet passes. I’d much rather improve our bench strength by trading for a veteran or two than try to tinker with the roster we have at the moment.

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