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T-Wolves two-game takeaway: they will not be awful

That and other insights about this year’s editon of the Timberwolves — from a very small sample size. 

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins showing off his new jersey at Minnesota State Fair last August.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

A competitive road loss to the playoff-caliber Memphis Grizzlies followed by a home win against the mediocre Detroit Pistons was the result of the opening two games of the 2014-15 season for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

With 2.4 percent of the season now in the books, I’m in no great rush to make sweeping claims about what we’re going to see — and how it is going to feel — over the next 80 contests between now and mid-April. But now that the games count for something and the NBA veterans have flipped on the intensity switch, it is time to start culling through the small sample size to try and identify the salient clues and would-be trends that will characterize this edition of the Wolves.   

They will not be terrible

Timberwolves teams helmed by Jimmy Rodgers and Kurt Rambis eighteen years apart endured two-year periods where they did not win 20 games in a season. Because the current Wolves roster contains such a motley mixture of veterans designed to play with the departed Kevin Love and for the departed Rick Adelman along with very young athletes designed to create a new culture and identity, some national pundits had the team plummeting close to the depths previously spelunked by Rodgers and Rambis. Injuries and other assorted evil juju may still conspire to create such a fate, but after a fairly solid preseason and this two-game regular season snippet, it’s clear that the Wolves are not intrinsically inept.

The abiding talent on this team filters down deeper into the roster than it did a year ago. This is most apparent at the point guard position, where the feisty little fire hydrant J.J. Barea was force-fed into a ball-sharing role, for which he and the team were blatantly ill-suited. Barea has been replaced by the less excitable veteran Mo Williams, who — despite a mere one-year contract — doesn’t play as if he has something to prove. Williams is comfortable in his own skin, already a balm on this crabs-in-barrel roster scrum. And while he has always been a trifle too happy with his own shot for a point guard, he’s made 60 percent of them while ranking second on the team in assists.

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The upgrade doesn’t stop at Williams, however. No longer does it feel like Wolves fans have to cross their fingers and hold their breaths when the starters rest early in the second quarter and for another stint in the second half. Part of this is the product of trading one superstar for one above-average player and two promising prospects who can be inserted into the rotation (in the aggregate, the starters are diminished and the subs bolstered). But it also involves the improvement of a pair of second-year players, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, who along with newcomer Thad Young were the best players on the floor for Minnesota versus the Grizzlies in Memphis. 

Calling all the shots

Okay, so saying the Wolves will likely win more than 20 games and exhibit less of a talent-gap between the first and second quintets in the rotation isn’t exactly front-page news. But it does speak to an ongoing theme that will by turns be fascinating, frustrating, fun and infuriating over the course of the season—the dominance of the decision-making power in the hands of head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders.

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Saunders the POBO should be accorded his due for emerging with both depth and hope out of the three-player package he got in the Love trade; especially for wisely waiting out the time before Lebron James jumped to Cleveland, when Love had all the leverage. (For more context, check the beginning of my previous column.) Saunders signing Williams was one of those roster grace notes that signify a competent personnel guy is on the premises, and Saunders’ drafting of Muhammad and Dieng looks shrewder with each passing day. He deserves respect thus far for making edible hash out of the execrable mess amassed from the many droppings of his front office predecessor, David Kahn.

But it is a hash all the same, a roster that is relatively deep but starved of stardom. Because the personnel decisions in the summer of 2013 were guided by a much different philosophy than those made in the summer of 2014 (prompted by efforts to first accommodate Love and then to salvage compensation from his departure) there are holdover veterans and hungry prospects vying for minutes at every position, each with his own set of virtues and vices. It is anybody’s guess which players comprise the most compatible and productive combinations at this point, but only Flip ultimately gets to make those decisions and determinations.

Consequently, folks who follow the Wolves will be hard-pressed not to second-guess the roster juggle and what it says about style of play and the season-long tension between winning now and building for the future.

It began with the opener in Memphis. Center Nikola Pekovic, purposefully rested for much of the preseason because of lingering bursitis and frequent stress-related injuries on his 295-pound body during the course of his career, was simply not ready to compete with Grizzlies All-Star center Marc Gasol. This compounded the damaging mismatch taking place between the low-post load named Zach Randolph for Memphis and the Wolves’ undersized power forward Thad Young.

When Saunders subbed in Dieng for Pek, the defensive deterrence and jousting under the boards improved significantly. In the first half alone, Minnesota was outscored by 16 in the 17 minutes Pek played and outscored Memphis by 10 during the 7 minutes Dieng was on the court.

Dieng injured his thumb slightly, delaying his return in the third quarter, but came in for an 11-minute stint spanning the change from the third to fourth quarter that help catapult the Wolves briefly into the lead. But with 5:38 to play and the Wolves down by two—crunch time—Saunders returned to Pekovic, who again was unable to contain Gasol.

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For those looking for a signal on whether Flip would rely on the vets or ride with the kids if they happened to be playing well late in the game, it was a questionable, if hardly egregious, vote for the vets. 

Holding court

In his previous stint coaching the Wolves, Saunders was usually a fount of information about his perceptions and motivations during the postgame press conferences. He lived up to that history Thursday night during his opening recap and answers to the media following the win over the Pistons. Here are the best of his many nuggets.

For the final 5:37 of what had become a close-fought game, Saunders deployed a double-point backcourt of Ricky Rubio and Mo Williams. He justified the move by noting that Williams can make shots and that Williams has a “calming effect” on the game, which is especially helpful for Rubio, who, Saunders said, “was trying to do too much.” This was an accurate perception and a savvy response. It has been a little unnerving to see Rubio’s customarily sound decision-making get shaky in the fourth quarter—against Memphis he committed a crucial turnover and then stupidly tried to flop while half-guarding Vince Carter, instead drawing a foul on himself that sealed the loss. Some of this is probably left over from all the occasions Rubio was yanked in the fourth quarter last season. Thus far this season, Flip has stuck with him—but, as against the Pistons, also hedged his bet by using Williams as a safety valve.

The Pistons got back in the game via a three-point shooting barrage by swingman Caron Butler in the second half. Saunders tried guarding Butler first with Muhammad and then with Corey Brewer. His best option, the heralded rookie, Andrew Wiggins, was forsaken. Wiggins had endured an underwhelming performance in Memphis and looked tentative during the first half versus Detroit, only to erupt with a crowd-pleasing and tension-lessening spurt in the third quarter that finally showcased his copious ability.

Saunders explained that he resisted putting Wiggins on Butler because he wanted the rookie to come away from the game feeling good about his performance. He added that “I probably would have been kicking myself for not putting him back in” if the Wolves had lost.

It sounds refreshingly honest: Of course it easier to reveal if the team has won the game. More interesting to me is the way Flip adroitly spun the decision: He didn’t rely on his cornerstone rookie to address a vexing problem even when that rookie’s signature skill was the best antidote…because he wanted to ensure that the rookie had sufficient confidence in his game moving forward.

For that matter, for the second game in a row, Saunders rode his veterans down the stretch. He acknowledged it on Thursday and said the goal was the “positive reinforcement of getting some wins.” But he pointedly noted that competition was still open, that he required a “gang approach” and a “culture established where we play hard every night.” He specifically referred to a play where veteran Kevin Martin dove for a ball on defense and correctly noted that “you didn’t see that last year.” He implied that Martin needs to demonstrate that commitment to remain on the court, and added that “for the younger guys, the leash isn’t quite as short.”

Of course the younger guys haven’t been able to go out for jaunts on the court as often either—their longer leashes are on the shelf.

Beyond my perceived pros and cons of these postgame remarks, a dominant impression remained—Flip Saunders is running this show this season. Whether anyone else likes it or not, he’s taking care of Rubio’s fourth-quarter jitters, of Wiggins’ rookie mindset, of Martin’s proclivity to laze about on defense. He’s got a passel of players, only so many minutes, and nobody in the front office to counter his dictates. He is the front office.

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The curse of the long two-pointer

A lingering concern about Saunders as coach of this team in 2014-2015 is his innate preference in drawing up open jump shots that often happen to be long two-pointers—the type of shot that analytics have shown to be the least efficient way to score in the modern game.

Two games is hardly a large-enough sample size to draw any conclusions, but the fear of Flip discounting the need for three-pointers—buttressed by some of his comments on Media Day—gains a little more credence by the sets his team has run thus far.

According to the StatsCube device on the nba.com website, in the three previous years under coach Rick Adelman, the Wolves attempted at least 22 percent of their shots from three-point territory—one year it was 26.2 percent. In the first two games of this season, the Wolves have attempted just 13.6 percent of their shots from long range. To a lesser extent, they are also attempting a smaller percentage of their total shots in the painted area, another region of better scoring efficiency.

Flip would probably counter that Minnesota’s true shooting percentage—a measure that groups together two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws—is 53.7 percent, which is higher than any of the three years under Adelman. Fair enough. But it places a high burden on the ballclub to make a high percentage of open midrange jumpers—no mean feat.

For example, it is obvious that the work of Mike Penberthy, the “shot doctor” hired by the Wolves this season to work with all the players, but especially Rubio, is paying off. Rubio has converted a career-best 40.9 percent of his shots thus far this season, and seems especially confident in a shot routine that has him launching jumpers after moving two steps to his right.

But Rubio’s true shooting percentage is the lowest of his career and his effective field goal percentage (which measure two-pointers and three-pointers, without free throws) is lower than it was last season. That’s because none of the 22 shots Rubio has taken this season have been three-pointers, versus 133 treys, 19.9 percent of his total shots, last year, according to Basketball Reference. In fact, 41.7 percent of Rubio’s shots this year have been from between 16 feet out and the three-point line—the least efficient shot in the game.

It’s only two games, hardly enough to label a trend. But Flip’s tendency to de-emphasize three-pointers in an ongoing subplot in what promises to be a season full of change and uncertainty. We’re not sure how good the Wolves are going to be. But the good news is, thanks to Flip and his compellingly jumbled roster, they won’t be boring.