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Reality Bites: the Minnesota Timberwolves 2014-15 season preview

The five things the Wolves must do for this to be considered a successful season. 

Ricky Rubio’s most fundamental obstacle is a lack of confidence in his ability to score.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

If nothing else, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ marketing department put on a fabulous performance this summer.

It helped, enormously, that the Wolves got lucky, something that has almost never happened to this franchise in its previous quarter-century of existence. It required a cavalcade of unlikely events that actually began in mid-May, when the Cleveland Cavaliers hit on their 1.7 percent chance of getting the number-one overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the second year in a row Cleveland possessed the ping-pong ball that popped to the surface at the perfect time. Less than a month later, the San Antonio Spurs exposed the Miami Heat as championship pretenders, prompting the NBA’s best player, Lebron James, to recalibrate his career options. He would scrub the most unsightly stain on his legacy by returning to the hometown he had spurned and once again become a Cavalier.

It goes without saying that Lebron got to dictate the terms for his reunion with Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert, who had insulted James on his way out the door four years earlier. And Lebron wanted to play with Kevin Love, who had spent the previous month or two informing the Timberwolves that he would exercise his option and leave the team at the end of the 2014-15 season.

At this point it behooves us to toss some credit in the direction of Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, who had resisted the braying consensus of the pundits and the general public that it was best to unload Love before the June NBA draft. Saunders, who had previously named himself to fill the head coaching vacancy because of the uncertainty over the Love situation — and because he really wanted the job — suddenly had the bauble Lebron, and thus the Cavs, coveted for their grand design. And Cleveland was willing to part with the top pick in the draft two years running — Anthony Bennett and, most significantly, Andrew Wiggins — in order to obtain Love.

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Saunders also deserves credit for including the Philadelphia 76ers in the Love trade package. Exploiting the desire of the Sixers to rid themselves of all serviceable veteran players in an effort to tank the current season for future high draft choices, he demanded that Cleveland send Philly a future top draft pick along with a pair of Wolves who were afterthoughts on the roster, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved. In return, he got athletic forward Thaddeus Young as Love’s replacement at power forward. A trade exception—enabling with the Wolves to add $6 million in player salaries without going over the cap—was the cherry on top.

Of course, Saunders had already made his own risky, frisky draft pick by plucking teenaged guard Zach LaVine when it was the Wolves’ turn to choose in the lottery. LaVine wasn’t even good enough to start for his college team in his only year at UCLA, but he can jump out of the gym.

Cue up the marketing blitz. After months of enduring all the blather about Love’s dissatisfaction, Wolves fans suddenly had a quartet of exciting new faces—Wiggins, Young, Bennett and LaVine—who all happen to young and exceedingly athletic. Especially to casual fans, it was a shocking contrast to that big, clunky white guy Love, who the team never won with anyway.

The personnel moves were likewise catnip to younger sports fans who were culturally weaned on social media and reality-show television. They are well-versed in the minutiae of the hype surrounding college recruitment of high school athletes and the subsequent drafting of those collegians into the pros, both of which have been especially well marketed by football and basketball media. These folks have heard Andrew Wiggins being dissected but mostly praised to high heaven since he was a junior in high school. In reality-show terms, he’s The Bachelor, the focus of attention whether you love him or not. 

For the casual fans, the Wolves introduced the new players at the state fair, a stroke of  marketing genius that hit home with everyone from the octogenarians who once only had the Gophers to root for and the toddlers with cotton candy all over their faces. And for the younger fans, the Wolves opened training camp with a midnight madness scrimmage and dunk contest, time-honored tropes for collegiate teams that attracted national media while furthering the notion of a go-go youth makeover. 

Well done, marketing crew. Enthusiasm about the Timberwolves hasn’t been this affectionate and effusive since the team was considered a championship contender eleven years ago.

Unfortunately, like that would-be contender, the 2014-15 Timberwolves are primed to disappoint.

Flip and spin

While we are handing out plaudits for shrewd marketing, it would be remiss to omit the architect of these exciting changes in the Timberwolves identity, Flip Saunders himself.

It is no secret that Wolves owner Glen Taylor did not originally endorse the idea of Saunders being the one to replace Rick Adelman as the team’s head coach. But, just as he used to regular informal conversations with Taylor to talk his way into becoming POBO in place of David Kahn 18 months ago, Saunders convinced the owner that the unique timing and circumstances around the Love situation necessitated him becoming one of only two or three NBA executives with control over both a team’s personnel and its playbook.

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Taylor sees Saunders’ tenure as head coach as temporary. Saunders naturally wants to retain the power that comes from his consolidated duties. The feel-good vibe currently surrounding the Wolves naturally works in Saunders’ favor. To keep that vibe humming as long as possible, he has done a masterful job of spinning with regard to the short-term prospects of this team. At least we have to hope he is spinning when he maintains that the Wolves are not in rebuilding mode; that making the playoffs is a priority for the team this season. 

On the one hand, Saunders has consistently claimed that the Wolves lacked an identity last season and now will have one thanks to the infusion of this exciting new group of phenomenal, high-wire athletes. Yet in the next sentence, Saunders claims that there is no pressure on these youngsters because the Wolves are relying on their strong core of returning veterans.

The collision of philosophies is inevitable because the Wolves spent the past two summers very actively rearranging the team in two totally different ways. In the summer of 2013, it was consolidating a core around Love and Adelman, which included long-term contracts for Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger. In the summer of 2014, it was maximizing the return for losing Love and changing the culture along the way. 

To state the obvious, competing hard for a playoff spot will retard — or, worse, confuse — the cultural shift and delay the development of the promising talent that has everyone so enthusiastic about this team. Throughout the preseason, Saunders has deployed the line that the Wolves are poised to contend for the postseason because “six of the top seven players are returning from a team that won 40 games last season.” That’s akin to saying that Thanksgiving will feature six of the top seven foods that are normally part of the banquet — we just didn’t bother to have any turkey. Meanwhile, to supplement the mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, we are adding a zesty burrito with guacamole and all the mojitos you can drink.

Cloudy intentions and proper priorities

Trying to figure out how the Timberwolves will perform in 2014-15 was always going to be difficult, simply because they have traded the superstar whose unique style and skill set was the organizing principle for their identity, and at least partially replaced him with a batch of dazzling but highly inexperienced and thus inconsistent kids. But forecasting this season is even more confounding because Saunders seems to be simultaneously embracing and subverting the team’s new and popular “identity,” not only in his words, but in his preseason player rotations. 

I can make some educated guesses about how Saunders will deploy the roster now that the games actually count for something. But without knowing how serious he is about this playoff push, I am on firmer ground stating what I regard to be the team’s priorities if this is to be considered a successful season.

Priority No. 1: Fast track the development of Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins

They are the special talents on the roster, the potential cornerstones for championship contender. Or not. As much as possible, that needs to be determined.

We already know quite a bit about Rubio, but there are some important questions that still remain. Blessed with phenomenal court vision, he is probably the most gifted passer in the NBA. Despite some knuckleheads in the national media who say otherwise, he is also a quality defender, both on and off the ball. Yes, he is prone to gamble too often, but his sense of anticipation makes his risks less onerous than the steal attempts of, say, Corey Brewer. The bottom line is that only John Wall passed for more assists than Rubio last season and nobody came close to matching his NBA-best 191 steals (new teammate Thad Young was second with 167).

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The questions that need answers involve his shooting and self-identity. Rubio is working with new shooting coach Mike Penberthy, who plainly states that his shooting is likely to get worse before it gets better and that most of the problem lies between his ears.

That analysis indicates that Penberthy is the right person for the job. Rubio’s most fundamental obstacle is a lack of confidence in his ability to score. To compensate, he masks his doubts by diminishing the importance of his own shot and overstating the need to involve his teammates. His style is often referred to as being a “pure point guard,” but Rubio is actually a point guard purist, a subtle distinction that gets to his narrow-minded attitude about his position. By saying he will decline before he improves, Penberthy is giving him the permission to fail that Rubio, to his lasting detriment, denies himself.

Now it is up to Saunders to reinforce Rubio’s confidence. The worst of the many sins committed by Adelman last season was lifting Rubio in favor of J.J. Barea during the fourth quarter, and fighting with his point guard whenever Rubio exhibited a flair and creativity that wasn’t part of Adelman’s sets and system. This year Saunders has brought in a better backup point guard, Mo Williams, who is generally accurate and fearless with his shot in the clutch, and, also unlike Barea, has the poise to run an offense.

How Saunders uses Rubio in the fourth quarter, and how Rubio responds over the course of the season, is enormously important in the trajectory of the franchise. Maybe Williams, an aging veteran on a one-year contract, can win the Wolves a couple more games. But if Rubio gets thrown into the fire enough, and is successful enough, to regard himself as an all-around point guard able to call his own number when the situation warrants, he will be worth the big payday due him a year or two down the line.

Wiggins should compete with Rubio for the team lead in minutes. Yes, he is still a teenager (he turns 20 on February 23), but his athleticism is eye-opening, his mental maturity is promising and his appreciation for the nuances of the game are surprisingly advanced. Not incidentally, he is already the team’s best perimeter defender — slotting him in as the wing stopper is that rare move that benefits both the present and the future.

Soft-spoken but not shy, he seems mentally resilient enough to handle the succession of hard lessons that come with extensive rookie minutes. And he is the best hope for the Wolves to transcend their wretched history. 

Priority No. 2: Find an identity for Gorgui Dieng

The Wolves’ second draft pick in the first round a year ago, Dieng is not a special talent. But he is a young and valuable complementary piece at a position where his combination of size, speed and agility is hard to find. Having invested $60 million over a five-year period in Nikola Pekovic (with four years and $48 million to go), the Wolves already have a solid center. But Pek is injury-prone and has trouble protecting the rim on defense. Dieng can lighten his load and work well in certain opponent matchups and teammate combinations. He should also get some minutes beside Pekovic in a power forward timeshare with Young and Bennett. 

Priority No. 3: Appreciate the value of the three-point shot

Flip Saunders is the most successful coach in Timberwolves history, having led the franchise to every one of its eight playoff appearances. But the last one occurred in 2004, and the NBA has radically changed since then. Saunders obviously knows this, and was a head coach as recently as three years ago in Washington. But old preferences are difficult to dislodge, and Saunders built his reputation as an offensive tactician by emphasizing low turnovers and quality shots. By his comments during media day before the opening of training camp, he still regards a wide-open but long-range two-point shot as a good result. Statistics demonstrate that it is an inefficient way to score. 

Long-range shooting is a relative weakness of this Wolves team, especially now that Love has departed. The best marksmen from beyond the arc are veterans like Kevin Martin, Williams and Chase Budinger. Saunders not only needs to encourage their treys, but three-pointers from Rubio, Wiggins and occasionally even power forwards Young and Bennett. It will open up the floor for the passing of Rubio, the low post moves of Pek, and the penetration of Wiggins. 

Priority No. 4: Showcase the veterans (for trade purposes)

Kevin Martin is one of the most efficient scorers in NBA history. He is also a horrible defender who chews up $21 million in salary over the next three years while impeding the playing time of a crowded field of young wing players. Keeping him out of the starting lineup and crunchtime would be controversial and perhaps counterproductive.

But Saunders should encourage the higher percentage of shots on drives and three-pointers that used to be Martin’s normal menu (hence his efficiency). He is a good bet to lead the team in scoring and may become a valuable trade chip with a team needing his skill set to contend later in the season.

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Corey Brewer is a whirling dervish who thrived as a chaotic presence off the bench in Denver. Without the long outlet passes from Love to inflate his shooting percentage, he is best deployed in his old role as disrupter and pace-changer. Again, if he indeed thrives in the role best suited for his skills, he might be tradeable and loosen up the logjam on the wings.

I am less blithe about the showcase-and-trade strategy on Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger. The good-natured and ever-surprisingly skillful Pek is appropriately a fan favorite and a genuine asset. Budinger finally looks healthy and ready to pay off on the promise of his long-range shooting and movement without the ball. Nevertheless, if the Wolves can get a taker on Pek’s huge contract, and are offered good value for Bud, it would enhance the rebuilding process to make the trades. 

Priority No. 5: Send Zach LaVine to the D-League

LaVine is not nearly as far along in his development as Wiggins. To put it bluntly, he’s not ready for the pace and sophistication of the NBA game. But there is clear evidence for Saunders’ ardor in his play — his athleticism is off the charts, his jumper looks fundamentally sound, and his sheer love of hoops is apparent and infectious. He needs playing time, lots of playing time, and there simply isn’t room for that to happen on the Wolves this season. 

The forecast

Saunders has never been a “tough love” coach. If anything, he is too docile with his charges and needs a disciplinarian like assistant Sam Mitchell to keep the team in line. That weakness plus his ostensible need to “compete” will have him leaning on his veterans more than is helpful to the team’s long-range prospects. It may generate a few more wins, and boomlets of false hope, however.

The silver lining about Saunders’ refusal to choose between overt rebuilding and an unabashed playoff push is that the Wolves are deep and internally competitive in their quest for minutes this preseason. They are thus better prepared for the welter of injuries and mishaps that are currently unknown but are sure to occur through the course of the season. By keeping his options open, Saunders has made them more viable when he has to exercise them.

The downside of that strategy is the “neither nor” scenario: The Wolves are proven to be delusion in their chase for the playoffs, even as they squander ways to better analyze their young talent and position themselves for the future.

The window of possibility is wide, from about 20 to 38 wins. Victories should be secondary this season — 35 wins without meaningful development or discovery in the manner of the five points listed above would be a failed enterprise, while a 22-win campaign that executes a logical blueprint for the future is worth the carnage.

I’m going to be optimistic and say 31 wins with some encouraging signs to build hope and synergy for the future. Best of all, basketball is back. “Eyes on the rise” is this year’s slogan for the Wolves. I know I’ll be watching.