Flip Saunders lays down his marker on Timberwolves’ first-rounder Zach LaVine

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Zach LaVine hugging NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number thirteen overall pick Thursday night.

When Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders came down to address the media after the first round of the 2013 NBA draft last year, he admitted he had been buffeted, if not overwhelmed, by circumstance.

The three scenarios Saunders had envisioned for drafting a player with the ninth overall pick had been exhausted, he explained, prompting him to trade that slot in exchange for the 14th and 21st overall choices. He seemed almost apologetic about Shabazz Muhammad, taken at 14, acknowledging that he didn’t address the team’s primary needs at the time, and correctly surmising that it wouldn’t be a popular choice with the Wolves’ die-hard fan base.

By sharp contrast, after the first round of the 2014 NBA draft Thursday night, the media was treated to an upbeat Saunders taking ownership for the direction and tenor of this woebegone franchise.

The player he had just chosen, Zach LaVine, was, like Muhammad, a raw, offensive-oriented gym rat who left UCLA after a checkered freshman season that produced more warning signs than signal achievements. But Saunders wasn’t apologizing for LaVine, and didn’t seem to care whether the choice was popular or not.

The superlatives rolled without hesitation throughout the course of the nine-minute press conference. Saunders referred to LaVine as “the best athlete in the draft,” and said he “has the ability to be an elite two-way player.”

Asked to contrast this draft progression with last season, he replied, “It was a good scenario. A couple of things had to go our way.”

By the time ten teams had chosen, LaVine was the top player on their wish list, having been ranked seventh overall by Saunders and his staff in terms of what the team needed.

But the most significant thing Saunders said about choosing LaVine spoke to matters of context and ambition. “Sometimes you have to try and hit a home run. Some players that are ready-made, they are only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player.”

Having appointed himself head coach to go with his duties as POBO — and even part-owner — Saunders is both the mechanic and the guy behind the steering wheel of a franchise that is about to lose its superstar, Kevin Love, at some point within the next year. After a decade out of the playoffs with an increasingly dwindling and skeptical fan base and a septuagenarian owner who has intensified his commitment to the franchise in the past couple of years, it is as good a time as any to take a calculated risk on a stud athlete with apparently enormous potential. 

The red flags in the gamble

To further Saunders’ baseball analogy, when you swing mightily for a home run instead of trying to make contact and smack a double, you are much more likely to strike out and head back to the dugout looking like a fool. Under Saunders’ predecessor, David Kahn, the Wolves struck out on draft night much more often than not — only one of his four lottery picks is even still with the team, a horrendous botch of the only cost-effective method to dramatically improve your ballclub.

The danger is that LaVine joins the long and infamous list of Timberwolves draft busts, which under Kahn included Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams, but extends back to Ndudi Ebi and William Avery under Kevin McHale. The red flags are there — otherwise it wouldn’t be a gamble.

(For the record, I don’t regard LaVine’s profane reaction to being drafted by the Wolves—he muttered “f— me” and put his head down on the table in front of him—as a big deal. He’s 19 years old and the Timberwolves have earned their reputation as an NBA gulag due to cold winters, terrible luck in the draft lottery and notoriously bad personnel decisions. He has a sufficient supply of good sense and shrewd advisors to now wax ecstatic over his status. Besides, draft night reactions are overrated. A few years ago, Ricky Rubio was clearly flummoxed at being drafted by the Wolves. Recently, he called out Love for lack of leadership. That same draft night, Flynn gave the best accounting of himself in an initial media phone call that I have ever heard, and is now toiling in parts unknown outside the NBA.)

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This is as good a time as any to repeat my annual draft-recap caveat that I don’t follow the college game and won’t profess to offer any “expert” analysis beyond received wisdom and situational logic. But it doesn’t require a genius to notice that LaVine couldn’t crack the starting lineup of his college team, and scored just 8 total points in three NCAA “March Madness” tournament games, part of a season-long regression as the competition stiffened on UCLA’s schedule.

Then there are the most basic of player statistics — height and weight. LaVine drapes just 181 pounds on a frame that stands between 6-5 and 6-6, one Saunders expects to grow out to 6-8, given that LaVine only turned 19 in March.

When I asked LaVine about his weight during his draft night phone call with the media, he likened himself to Allen Iverson and emphasized his quickness. This wasn’t reassuring on a number of levels. Iverson played at 165 pounds but was also only six feet tall and was rugged enough to absorb a phenomenal amount of punishment. Among the litany of praise Saunders offered in support of LaVine was his “physicality” and “aggression.” But if he grows to 6-8 without bulking up, he is the second coming of Corey Brewer, who is as physically aggressive as his body limitations allow, which translates into a lot of gambling on defense and early leak-outs in transition on offense.

The most concentrated nesting ground for Wolves fans who do their homework by knowing and applying advanced analytics to the collegians and overseas amateurs available on draft night is at the website Canis Hoopus. And, as is normally the case, the consensus there is that the Wolves fared poorly, to the point of near-idiocy, in the draft. (The biggest detractor may be the founder of Canis Hoopus, a longtime user of analytics who rarely writes at the site anymore but tweets under the name Wrath of Zod.) The main Canis Hoopus story on LaVine called him the third-best player on his college team and said he “showed little in the way of actual basketball skills” during his year at UCLA.

Pottery Barn rules

Without belaboring the issue with spilt-milk specifics, it is useful to point out that Canis Hoopus and other analytics-oriented pundits have consistently outperformed the Timberwolves front office in their assessment of potential performance, so no one should pull out the old “bloggers in mom’s basement” canard. For those who care about advanced numbers and follow the Timberwolves but not the college game (like me, for instance), they are a valuable resource.

That said, however, Saunders had a pretty good draft last year by most any standard. Muhammad, whose choice made the analytics folks apoplectic, did indeed lack court vision or defensive quickness, but was a tireless worker who proved he could score in the low post at the NBA level and was a voracious rebounder. And Gorgui Dieng, taken with the 21st overall pick (a choice met with approval over at Canis Hoopus), was chosen for NBA All-Rookie Second Team, signifying him as one of the top ten first-year players.

More to the point, draft choices are the place where NBA executives are most accountable for their decisions. The process is utterly transparent in that everyone knows who is available and where in the queue a team lines up to make the selection. The pottery barn rule — if you break it, you own it — applies to every botched choice.

This literally applies double to Saunders this draft season. Last year, he concentrated on building the team around the wishes and virtues of coach Rick Adelman, signing Adelman favorites Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger to large contracts while knowing that whoever he drafted was unlikely to get much playing time, given Adelman’s win-now philosophy.

This season, if Saunders the POBO blew it by drafting LaVine, Saunders the coach will share in the consequences one way (playing him) or the other (sitting him).

Momentous uncertainty

Meanwhile, the status of Kevin Love remains a spectre that darkens the horizon on the 2014-15 season. Saunders steadfastly ignored the chance to trade Love — who has unofficially declared he will utilize his option to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season — as a means of moving up the ladder for a better draft position before Thursday night. And while there is still a good chance that Love will be dealt over the summer, especially as the intrigue surrounding free agent superstars Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony is resolved, the possibility of an awkward continuation of Love’s tenure with the Wolves likewise wouldn’t be that surprising.

Saunders has said he won’t trade Love unless it improves the team, a noble sentiment that doesn’t square with current reality. There is no reason to believe Love is bluffing in his desire to test his value on the open market, a point at which the Wolves will receive nothing in return. It is fair for Saunders to think such an outcome will hasten the inevitable rebuilding process — a “lance the boil” approach. But don’t pretend any change involving Love’s status is going to be a net plus for this franchise, because it beggars common sense.

Once again, the second choice made by Saunders on draft night — on Thursday it was Glenn Robinson III with the 40th overall pick in the second round — was less controversial and more consonant with the analytics crew. As the discussion swung from Robinson to the general status of the team during this second draft night press conference, Saunders let it be known that Ricky Rubio would spend time with a shooting coach in California this off-season, and that Alexey Shved would be given more of a chance to play point guard this coming season, with obvious ramifications for last year’s combo guard, J.J. Barea.

Just listening to the names of Shved and Barea, millstones that are the primary property of Kahn and Adelman, respectively, plus the reality of Love’s eventual departure, makes one hope that Zach LaVine is indeed a home run choice. Otherwise Wolves fans will be echoing the rookie’s unfortunate slip of the tongue throughout the 2014-15 campaign. 

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by richard bonde on 06/27/2014 - 12:51 pm.

    The Wolves are pathetic. Who cares who they pick?

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/27/2014 - 04:26 pm.

    Use the D-league

    LaVine clearly isn’t NBA ready, which shouldn’t be a surprise at 19 years old. Why even think about keeping him on the roster? Let him be a starter a year or two in D-League so he can be a help when he comes up. I couldn’t believe it last year when Muhammad spent a couple weeks in D-league, played well, and then got sat on the Wolves bench the rest of the season. What was the point of that? I’d rather give those roster spots to 30-something journeymen while the young players get to actually be on the D-league court.

  3. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 06/27/2014 - 04:49 pm.

    Another Dismal Season

    The Wolves will trade Kevin Love and get nothing for him. I cannot recall a trade where any of the Minnesota teams received the better of the deal.

    At least the organization tried to make the team a contender by bringing in some decent players to complement Garnett. They have not done that with Kevin Love yet he is blamed for all of their woes. If he were to stay in the Twin Cities I think he would prove to be as good if not better than Kevin Garnett. My guess is that no one wants that.

    The Vikings did Percy Harvin a favor as did the Wolves for Garnett by trading them. They both earned championships the year they left here. I hope the same fortune falls upon Kevin Love.

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 06/27/2014 - 06:39 pm.

      Not every MN athlete is worthy of sympathy

      Percy had some pretty good seasons and had the offense catered to his talents even moreso than Adrian Peterson, yet they went on a playoff run after Harvin went down for the season. By many accounts, he was a child.

      Love’s status with fans has nothing to do with KG. This organization has been bad to Love, and while I’m not mad at him for wanting to go, his approach this summer makes me compare his attitude more to another former Wolf: Christian Laettner. Fans have a justifiably stronger tie to KG because he was here for 12 seasons and is currently the lynchpin of the only winning teams in franchise history.

      No teams win a trade when they’re giving up the superstar. Denver came closest because James Dolan is the worst owner in the NBA when it comes to meddling in personnel decisions, and even they struggled without George Karl. It’s going to be awful to see him on another team, but taking a step back is an inevitability for every NBA team trading a superstar.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 06/27/2014 - 06:27 pm.

    I wasn’t a fan of the pick

    This team needs productive athletes, but there are ways to quantify that in stats, and LaVine didn’t show that in games the same way that other options did.

    With that said, Flip certainly didn’t do what was comfortable. I think the Wolves have made their share of “low risk” picks in recent years: Williams was considered the best or 2nd-best player in ’11 when guys like Jonas Valanciunas and Kawhi Leonard were available (before Canis Hoopus puffs out its chest too much, it should be noted that they wanted Bismack Biyombo in that draft), Johnson was considered safer than DeMarcus Cousins, Randy Foye and Corey Brewer were considered more “sure” things than guys like Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay, and Joakim Noah, and Muhammad was considered a safer pick than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ndudi Ebi, Rashad McCants, and Jonny Flynn deservedly stick out negatively.

    Britt, what do you think of Flip as a developer of talent? He took over and basically got to coach 2 lottery picks before the team got good enough to finish in the middle of the 1st round (then adding another lottery pick by trading one of the 2 aforementioned picks). He jerked around Rasho enough to make him want to leave, but Rasho wasn’t significantly better after he left. Wally developed into a competent player that was partially hampered by his lack of athleticism. William Avery didn’t do anything here or elsewhere. I don’t know how much credit to give him for KG.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/27/2014 - 06:42 pm.

    I don’t comment on CH

    But I do consider myself an “analytics” guy – which, when it comes to drafting from the college level, is much less cut-and-dry than comparing metrics at the NBA level. The obvious case of this was that of Derrick Williams, who was a very efficient scorer in college, but that efficiency metric rarely translates to the pros. I intentionally shielded myself from lots of draft data this year knowing that the Wolves organization would never act on in (I mostly watched the top-rate Draftexpress videos for insight).

    Anyway, with LaVine, there’s just not enough data there anyway. By the numbers, he’s arguably the worst performer in the lottery, but both he and Robinson bring something to this team I’ve been complaining about: an outlet for Rubio’s vision. Both guys can can alley-oops and play well in transition, and will hopefully get some easy looks assuming Flip can and nurture that kind of offensive flexibility/creativity. Of course, it’s frustrating drafting such a young player because it signals we’re going back into rebuilding mode. (Personally, I was hoping for Gary Harris.)

    I’m more frustrated by our inability to move Love and move on with this team. Is POBO Saunders hellbent on giving Coach Saunders a year with a superstar? That’s probably not the smartest thing in the world, but I’ll roll with it – I’d rather watch a year of Love than 3 years of David Lee. But not moving on an offer (Boston’s?) to get picks in last night’s draft was a mistake: deep drafts don’t happen often, so that would’ve been a good chance to maximize value. I’m not sold on the willingness of Taylor to invest in this team without Love, so I’m guessing the best trade outcome at this point is dumping Martin’s contract in the deal.

  6. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 06/28/2014 - 08:25 am.

    Perhaps

    The Wolves will (or have) become what the Clippers were, perpetual bottom dwellers. Short of recruiting a coach like Greg Popovich who can make mediocre players better, I don’t see much hope for them

    Anyone who can read lips could tell that Zach Lavine was not happy to be drafted by a team who treats their best player (and one of the top 5 players in the league) poorly.

  7. Submitted by richard bonde on 06/28/2014 - 09:02 am.

    Hey Brit,You think they’ll

    Hey Brit,
    You think they’ll make the playoffs next year?

  8. Submitted by richard bonde on 06/28/2014 - 10:49 am.

    Hi Britt,My apathy is

    Hi Britt,
    My apathy is genuine. It’s hard to take seriously an outfit that has been spinning its wheels since they traded Kevin Garnett.

  9. Submitted by D Stern on 06/28/2014 - 12:26 pm.

    Development

    One thing that is often lost when we are talking about player development is continuity. Granted we seem to get knuckle heads all of the time, but the idea that you take a player and work with him with all of the resources (D-league, summer league, ect…) for two or three seasons and allow him to develop, instead of shipping him out.

    I feel like this years draft will be a great chance to see how Flip and his staff can develop players. Both picks have talent but they need to be developed properly. I am dubious on their ability to do so. I believe the team needs to find a way to keep Robinson on the roster, even if it is at the expense of Hummel (I’ve seen a lot of people speak positively about Hummel, but I can’t think of what he actually brings).

    Also, in regards to the second round picks, what is the harm of drafting a guy and seeing what he can do. You are getting a free flyer on a player.

  10. Submitted by Jeff Mitchell on 06/29/2014 - 10:22 pm.

    Some unsolicited thoughts

    I’m not a fan of the Lavine pick and feel the Wolves passed on better bets. That said, it sounds like Michigan State’s Adrien Payne was perhaps in play for them as well. Payne May be an awesome guy, the preference of a few local writers, and a stretch 4 “replacement” for Love. But he’s also 23 already, wasn’t particularly good until late in his college career, and he has a medical issue where he can’t breathe as well as most people. So it could have been worse.

    The sixers are almost drafting like a baseball team. I think they picked up a couple interesting prospects and admire their approach under Sam Hinke. But I do wonder if sixers fans might be a little put off not having anybody to watch this year from this draft despite having two top-10 picks. Guess they have Nerlens Noel to look forward to, which would be fun.

    Speaking of Noel, knowing what we know now, might the best offer the wolves ever receive for Love have been from Cleveland pre-2013 draft (#1 pick, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waitors)? We’ll find out, I guess.

    Doug McDermott playing for Tom Thibedeau might be a sign of the apocalypse. I know Chicago wanted scoring and they’re doing some roster/salary cap yoga (trading two picks for one) but I don’t like that decision.

    I love Kyle Anderson to the Spurs. A versatile 6’8″ playmaker, rich get richer. I heard the spurs simply have a list of 15 guys or so whom they like, and then just wait to see which name falls.

    One guy the analytics loved was Clint Capela, an uber athletic big man picked up by the Rockets. I don’t think Houston is ever out of the mix on things, and if the Wolves hit an impasse with Love trades, I certainly wouldn’t mind if a guy like Capela came here.

  11. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 06/27/2014 - 06:42 pm.

    I don’t comment on CH

    But I do consider myself an “analytics” guy – which, when it comes to drafting from the college level, is much less cut-and-dry than comparing metrics at the NBA level. The obvious case of this was that of Derrick Williams, who was a very efficient scorer in college, but that efficiency metric rarely translates to the pros. I intentionally shielded myself from lots of draft data this year knowing that the Wolves organization would never act on in (I mostly watched the top-rate Draftexpress videos for insight).

    Anyway, with LaVine, there’s just not enough data there anyway. By the numbers, he’s arguably the worst performer in the lottery, but both he and Robinson bring something to this team I’ve been complaining about: an outlet for Rubio’s vision. Both guys can can alley-oops and play well in transition, and will hopefully get some easy looks assuming Flip can and nurture that kind of offensive flexibility/creativity. Of course, it’s frustrating drafting such a young player because it signals we’re going back into rebuilding mode. (Personally, I was hoping for Gary Harris.)

    I’m more frustrated by our inability to move Love and move on with this team. Is POBO Saunders hellbent on giving Coach Saunders a year with a superstar? That’s probably not the smartest thing in the world, but I’ll roll with it – I’d rather watch a year of Love than 3 years of David Lee. But not moving on an offer (Boston’s?) to get picks in last night’s draft was a mistake: deep drafts don’t happen often, so that would’ve been a good chance to maximize value. I’m not sold on the willingness of Taylor to invest in this team without Love, so I’m guessing the best trade outcome at this point is dumping Martin’s contract in the deal.

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