It’s entirely possible the Timberwolves won’t be terrible this season

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
Mo Williams' skill set meshes well with the other players expected to log minutes in the Wolves backcourt.

On Monday afternoon, Mo Williams and his agents announced that the 11-year veteran combo guard had signed a one-year, $3.75 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

This is a small-potatoes transaction compared to the nonstop speculation over where and when the Wolves will eventually unload their itchy resident superstar, Kevin Love. (Right now the consensus is that Love will join Lebron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for the top pick in the last two college drafts, though 2014 pick Andrew Wiggins is the obvious prize, among other assets.)

Though a relatively minor acquisition, the Williams signing represents good news for any Timberwolves fans who wish to see a competitive brand of basketball during the 2014-15 season. Let’s look at the various ways having Williams around creates a net upgrade on the roster.

His skill set meshes well with the other players expected to log minutes in the Wolves backcourt. Specifically, his shooting accuracy and playmaking acumen will enable him to take pressure off Ricky Rubio on offense, while Rubio’s 6’4’’ size enables him to defend shooting guard as the 6’1” Williams matches up with the opposing point guard.

Williams is an even better fit alongside top draft pick Zach LaVine, a dazzling athlete who President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders wants to groom at both guard positions. A LaVine-Williams combo creates fluid roles between the pair in terms of passer-initiator and scoring-finisher on offense. And once again, the 6’5” LaVine would allow Williams to take the less physically daunting backcourt matchup on defense.

Addition by subtraction

Last year, the Wolves tried to supplement Rubio’s playmaking in the backcourt with J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved (plus a mere 99 minutes of backup point guard A.J. Price), which became one of the most significant reasons for the team’s season-long underachievement.

Rubio’s poor shooting and flashy ball-handling grated on coach Rick Adelman, who overreacted by increasingly using Barea as his point guard in clutch situations.

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Miscast at point guard (he lacks the generous temperament for the position) and robbed of his cherished strategic contact by the new NBA rules on flopping, Barea had his worst season since his rookie year in 2006-07.  Yet Adelman—who engineered the signing of Barea as the first personnel move of his coaching tenure in Minnesota—still played him in game-deciding situations. By the end of the season, Barea had 564 fourth quarter minutes during which the Wolves were minus 144. Rubio had 434 minutes in the final stanza, during which the Wolves were minus 30.

I’ve written enough about Adelman’s folly with Barea (including sections here and here). On draft night in June, Saunders, who has replaced Adelman as coach, looked to be compounding the error with a different player, stating that Shved would be getting more point guard minutes.

Shved is a tweener: He takes too long to initiate the offense to be a credible point guard and lacks the mental and physical toughness to be an effective NBA shooting guard.

The acquisition of Williams removes the need for either Shved or Barea receiving significant playing time. Williams is a career 38.5 percent shooter from three-point territory over his long career (an accuracy Barea topped once, seven years ago) and made 40 percent in the fourth quarter last year in Portland. He has big-game experience, serving as the second-leading scorer to Lebron as Cleveland made it to the conference finals in 2008-09. Yet he also logged time in a subsidiary role at both guard positions in Portland.

There are downsides. Williams can be churlish about assuming a lesser role on a team, and can be a bit of a ballhog out of spite (like J.J. Barea, in fact). He doesn’t possess above-average court vision or ball-handling skills for an NBA playmaker. And he’s coming to a team that is likely about to get much younger and less competitive than last year’s 54-win Blazers ballclub. 

But the terms and size of the contract make this an attractive signing despite the negatives. Williams signed a bargain deal with an out-clause in Portland, then played well enough to bump his pay up more than a million from the $2.7 million guarantee in the second year. His one-year pact in Minnesota affords him similar incentive to demonstrate his worth.

For the Wolves, the Williams signing is an anodyne, relatively risk-free placeholder for an organization on the brink of significant changes.

Hope and realism in a bittersweet future

Indeed, one of the better dividends of the Williams announcement is the attendant notion that the Wolves wouldn’t be making this sort of move unless they had a pretty clear idea of how they will ransack the roster between now and the onset of the 2014-15 season.

It would be difficult to sign Williams if the salaries of both Barea ($4.5 million) and Shved ($3.2 million) remained on the payroll. And you don’t leave salary cap issues to chance or caprice when dealing a player of Love’s caliber. Whether the trading partner is Cleveland, Chicago, Golden State or some unknown suitor, you get the blockbuster swap straight before tinkering with the backups. At least we hope Saunders and company retain that kind of common sense.

The soonest Love can be dealt to Cleveland is August 23, when Wiggins, the plum the Wolves covet, will have been signed to his rookie contract for the requisite 30 days.

Regardless of how Minnesota eventually unloads Love, the Williams signing retains flexibility for Saunders and Wolves owner Glen Taylor to either try and stay competitive or strip the roster down to the studs looking for draft picks and expiring contracts.

Both men steadfastly claim they will strive to create a playoff team in 2014-15. It is a tough situation: Having unsuccessfully gambled on achieving playoff success last season, they are now left with an unhappy superstar with a get-out-the-gulag free pass at the end of next season, plus a host of expensive multiyear contracts for Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer. Trading Love will inevitably be a huge setback, even whle the brutally competitive Western Conference has become more rugged over this off-season.

I understand the “ring or bust” mentality of many fans, but I am less of a team partisan and more of a fan of the game to endorse it here. It is now a full decade since Minnesota made the playoffs. Deciding in favor of a total teardown of the roster would likely increase the odds of creating a legitimate championship contender. But the odds of mishaps and poor judgments in the course of rebuilding are even more likely.

For a franchise with the worst lottery draft luck in NBA history and long chronicle of bone-headed decisions and wasted opportunities, the Wolves caught a break this summer when Lebron decided to return to Cleveland and let their front office know that Love would be an ideal complement for his championship aspirations. It apparently made the likes of Wiggins and other young talent and draft picks available, and compelled Cleveland’s rivals for Love’s services to upgrade their proposals. 

Even so, the Wolves will only become, at best, on the fringe of playoff competition next season. But I’ll take the little dividends like the addition of Mo Williams and the insufficient but still better-than-expected consolation prize of a ballyhooed prospect like Wiggins alongside Pek and Rubio and see what happens.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 07/30/2014 - 12:57 pm.

    Thanks, Britt

    I would rather watch a team of hungry, hard-working rookies and other young guys, all eager to take the big shot with the game on the line as opposed to a “super star” who piles on stats for 3 and 1/2 quarters but can’t carry his team when they need it. And thank God they got someone to get in front of Barea in the rotation.

    • Submitted by Mark Ohm on 07/30/2014 - 02:49 pm.

      Interesting perspective. I disagree.

      I would substitute “confused” with “hungry”, and “unfocused” with “hard-working” regarding rookies and other young guys. Our fourth quarter problems realistically stemmed largely from a backcourt of Kevin Martin — who according to this article (http://www.awolfamongwolves.com/2014/05/roster-review-kevin-martin/#more-2614), starts off games like Lebron James and ends them like Mike James — and JJ Barea, who was simply one of the worst point guards in the league last year. To put these two players together on the floor in crunch time is simply a poor coaching decision. It’s harder for a front court player to carry his team if he doesn’t have access to the ball.

      The “supporting cast” around Kevin Love is almost as bad (or perhaps worse) than the “supporting cast” around Garnett back in the day. Plus the Western Conference is a whole lot better too.

      AND, according to Basketball Reference, here are the players who had a full season like Kevin’s last year: at least 25 pts/game, 10 rebounds/game, 4 assists/game and a true shooting percentage of .550:

      Kareem (7 times)
      Charles Barkley (3)
      Larry Bird (1)
      Oscar Robertson (3)
      David Robinson (1)

      Only Barkley, Bird and Kevin shot 3s:
      Barkley (67/220/30.5%) in his best year
      Bird (56/131/42.7%) Nice!
      Love (190/505/37.5%) 500 attempts! Great percentage!

      Only Love has accomplished this since 1994.
      That’s nearly 20 years.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/30/2014 - 01:05 pm.

    Get real!

    With Wiggins and Rubio – and no Love – this team cannot shoot! LaVine is not a shooter as well. Who will score on this team especially now that the opponents do not have to guard Rubio at all? Who can create a shot?

    Mo will be getting a lot of minutes because of the lack of offense from Rubio.

    Playoffs???? No way

  3. Submitted by Alex Berg on 07/30/2014 - 03:14 pm.

    40 Wins is the mark

    Technically, 41 wins if the Wolves want to be better than they were last year. Realistically, can it happen?

    Losing Love will be a monumental, no doubt. But let’s say the rumored acquisitions of Andrew Wiggins and Thad Young happen, in addition to Mo Williams and the consequent subtraction of Barea. Maybe another roster balancing trade mixed in. Factor wildcard factors like playing a system more tailored to Rubio’s strengths and being coached by someone who is actually invested. Dieng and Bazz progress and produce under the guy who drafted them.

    Making the playoffs in the West seems daunting, but I think 41 wins is doable if things play out the way they appear to be headed.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 07/30/2014 - 05:53 pm.

    It mostly comes down to style

    One thing this offseason could do is return Rubio to the role of offensive hub in the sense that he sets up most of the open looks instead of playing off of Love. A more-athletic team would definitely improve their weak transition defense, solidify their ability to challenge shots in the halfcourt, and possibly lead to only a modest foul-drawing dropoff with Love gone. If they try to turn Rubio into Terrell Brandon, this team will definitely be bad, but if they construct something that maximizes strengths and minimizes weaknesses, they could at least win more games than they did in ’12-’13.

    I’ve heard some talk about a “proper rebuild,” which basically means doing what Philly or OKC/Seattle did. Not starting over reduces the talent a team can choose from, sure, but many teams have retooled or taken shortcuts instead of starting over (Memphis, Houston, Portland, Golden State, Indiana) and been able to find core pieces outside of the top 5 or with assets other than top-5 picks (James Harden, Zach Randolph). I think Paul George, for example, was helped by being surrounded by talent and experience. This team already has youth, so the question becomes whether the coaches and vets surrounding them help or hinder their development. The Williams signing may indicate they think LaVine will earn minutes next season, when I assumed he’d need most of the year in the D-League.

    I’m not worried about the contracts. They have $14 million expiring next summer without factoring in a Love trade and Rubio extension, and the Brewer and Budinger deals expire the year after that (Brewer could also opt out in ’15). The new TV contract will make the pie bigger and increase the cap, and the Wolves will have no max deals to hand out for a while, so those Pek and Martin deals, while overpays, aren’t likely to seriously hinder their finances. For now, those guys are needed to keep this thing from becoming a mess.

  5. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/31/2014 - 05:21 am.

    The proposed trade…

    of Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins will go down as one of the worst trades in the history of the NBA. Wiggins has yet to play a single NBA game and Love has been putting up big numbers on a crappy team. The only good trade the Wolves have made was the OJ Mayo for Kevin Love. Flip should press for LeBron James to be thrown in as well.

  6. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/31/2014 - 08:59 am.

    I worry…

    … about how Flip is going to handle Rubio. Flip’s traditional mid-range jumper offense magnifies Rubio’s offensive weakness.

    I, too, think the playoffs are a slim hope, even if the potential Thaddeus Young deal comes off as a part of the Love transaction. But I think the Wolves owe it to their fans to at least try before ripping it back to the studs again.

  7. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 07/31/2014 - 09:03 am.

    A lot of negativity here…

    Love went from being the Lone Ranger who couldn’t lock up the bad guys to being Tonto for a guy who could, at least some of the time. I don’t think he has the skill set to carry a team at crunch time like Harden or Durant or James or others. All the naysayers like to knock Rubio and his shooting but his shooting improved last year as the year went on. It was Barea who was on the floor during all those early fourth quarters when our games fell apart. It was pretty predictable last year: lots ‘o stats for Love and good team play for most of the game, then a Barea-led slide to failure in the fourth quarter. Call ’em confused instead of hungry or whatever you choose, but if they are going to be losing I’d rather watch young guys improving than established guys plateauing.

    As far as the trade goes, they are stuck so dealing for the last two top draft choices seems like a good rebuilding move to me. We’ll have more good athletes next year anyway. Pavel, if this is one of the worst trades in history, name a better alternative that is realistic.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/31/2014 - 11:37 am.

      Rubio’s shooting did improve as the year went on, but even at those improved rates, it’s still well below league average. It’s also concerning that his free-thrown attempts were at a career-low rate last season.

      The key is that the young guys actually improve. I question whether this coaching staff is right to develop an offense around Rubio and get the most out of Wiggins and the other young guys.

  8. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/31/2014 - 08:39 pm.

    The Wolves

    The Timberwolves have yet to realize that without a superstar they will go nowhere. They never make an effort to attain one of the high profile free agents. Contenders (with the exception of the Spurs) are made via both drafts and trades. Look at the LA Clippers. They drafted Blake Griffin and traded for Chris Paul and became the best team in LA and an instant contender.

  9. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 08/01/2014 - 05:57 pm.

    One thing a bit disappointing to this point

    Is the lack of roster turnover. I understand that Flip probably has some things on the back burner that might happen after a Love trade, and I’m glad to this point that he waited out the draft and free agency, but it’s unclear where things go from here. Most proposed Love trades (at least the ones with Cleveland) have mostly focused on Barea and/or Shved possibly being moved to a 3rd team, but does it make sense to have Martin, Budinger, Brewer, Mbah a Moute, Muhammad, Hummel, LaVine, and “Rumored Young Wing from Love Trade” on the same roster? Hummel (whose possible skillset is worth another look at that price) and Mbah a Moute can play the 4 in small lineups, but it still seems a bit much. That’s not even mentioning Robinson, who they must like or they would’ve sold that pick.

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