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

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

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 Barea has been replaced by the less excitable veteran Mo Williams, who — despite a mere one-year contract — doesn’t play as if he has something to prove.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.

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.

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.

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.  

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/31/2014 - 11:15 am.

    Questions and answers

    1. Will the Wolves win more this year than last year?
    ….probably not.
    .
    2. Will the Wolves win more two years from now than if they had not made major changes?
    ….probably yes.
    .
    Call it rebuilding or whatever you want, but the Wolves success rests on a lot of first and second year players.

  2. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 10/31/2014 - 11:58 am.

    Rotation

    Britt – Any thoughts on the rotation going forward, specifically the starters? I don’t think I’ve seen a Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, Thad, Pek lineup but my viewing schedule has been spotty. That lineup in reference to your aforementioned three point attempt issue seems interesting to me. Pek and roll with Rubio then having the other three, pun intended, parked outside would seem to be a nice half court set that should produce layups or mildly contested ball rotation threes. Interior defense would still struggle but that’s true of any Thad, Pek combo.

  3. Submitted by Erick Sorenson on 10/31/2014 - 12:04 pm.

    Dev’t and vet closers not mutually exclusive

    I agree 100% with your previous comments on the need to play Ricky down the stretch to build/test his confidence/abilities.

    And contrary to Mr. Reusse’s column, I see nothing wrong with teaching the youngsters (Gorgui, Bennett and Wiggins, specifically), that late-game minutes are earned through trust and steady play, rather than simply throw them into the fire and call it development. I’m eager to see them earn that trust, as each have shown flashes of brilliance that have me hopeful for this team’s future.

    As for the POBO side of Flip, I’m curious to see if by February (or perhaps July) he will turn one or more of the veteran assets on the roster into picks/expirings to not just lessen the minutes/rotation quandary, but further the (re)build effort.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 10/31/2014 - 01:56 pm.

    Not much has seemingly changed with Flip

    In some ways, that’s good; if his team is that competitive at Memphis, who has been their worst matchup since Randolph and Gasol became a force, then more of the same could happen against other good teams. In other ways? Well…that offense has looked a lot like it did the first time around, only with Pek taking KG’s postups and Rubio being king of the pull-up mid-range J. It’s going to be annoying if they can’t get the pick-and-roll going with those 2; it’s by far their best offensive option. With Rubio, his % would be over 50 if he stopped taking those 1-2 layups per game that are at a bad angle and that he doesn’t really seem prepared to take. Just dribble it out of the paint if there’s not a good shot.

    The main issue with the 3s: who can consistently knock down a 3 off the dribble or off a screen? It seems like no one, which limits their options for generating a lot of good attempts. That leaves spot-up attempts off of passes, which requires more threats in the paint and/or a stronger transition threat that leads to open looks like the one Martin had last night. Those jumpers two steps within the line still bother me; get to the elbow or behind the arc.

    I’ll be concerned if Wiggins isn’t finishing games by the new year, and there’s got to be a way to have the productive bench guys in during crunch time through giving some quick, staggered rests if needed. Dieng and Muhammad deserved crunchtime minutes in Memphis; Flip mainly got it right last night (though Brewer was questionable) but was helped that his vets played the best and made for an easy decision.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/31/2014 - 04:09 pm.

    Britt,glad you didn’t wait long to offer an update

    I was disappointed to see all old guys on the court at the end, but I like that Williams isn’t afraid of the big shot with the game on the line. Barea was that way but his shot selection was terrible too often. I really wanted to see Dieng and Muhammad there in the fourth period; I think they have taken big strides since last year.

    For being worried about Pek’s minutes Flip is sure playing him a lot, about 35 per. Looking at the minutes in the box score today all the old guys were too close to 30 and the young guys were too close to 10.

    My biggest concern today is the Rubio signing. I think he is the perfect PG to make all the other talent on the team shine. It isn’t just minutes on the floor that causes improvement but getting the ball with a chance to succeed and Ricky gives them that. Also he is humble, has worked hard to improve and in his way puts the team first but can lead with the ball in his hands. Everything I’ve read online says they won’t go above 48M for four years. But there is a huge new TV contract coming. Why not anticipate his market value for next year (and trust in his improvement this year) and go 15 per instead of 12. They let Love go playing hardball. That didn’t go so well. And signing Rubio would be a HUGE sign of commitment to the team for the fans.

  6. Submitted by Tom Om on 10/31/2014 - 06:29 pm.

    Rubio and the long 2s

    I don’t think you should praise the Shot Dr. for Rubio’s 41FG% because last season (post All-stars) Rubio FG% for 2s was 44%.
    Where we might want to praise the Dr and Rubio is in the area of the long 2s. 40% of Rubio’s FGA were long 2s, but surprisingly Rubio made an amazing 67% of them (I know it’s unsustainable).
    But probably Rubio’s many long 2s are just a part of a plan to increase his range before the Dr. will take him to the 3pts arc, and not a part of Flip’s affinity to these shots

  7. Submitted by Tom Om on 10/31/2014 - 09:05 pm.

    Bill, I agree.K walker 4

    Bill, I agree.
    K walker 4 years/48 million for: 33% for 3s, 39%FG (35% post all-stars), 6 ast per 36min.
    Rubio 33% for 3s, 38%FG (41% post all-stars), 9.6 ast per 36min (second in the league).
    Rubio is a better play-maker, a better defender, and a better all-around player.
    Even if Rubio will just repeat his numbers from the last season he should and would get more than what Walker got. The Hornets set the market for Rubio by paying Walker 4/48. Next year we will be just a year away from the new TV deal, and teams and players will realize that today’s 13 million is 2017 (new CBA) 18 millions. The only way that Rubio will not get more is if the economy will tank, or re-enter a recession.
    I think that by not giving Rubio an extension the Wolves would alienate Rubio, and find themself by the end of the year in a new “K. Love situation”.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/01/2014 - 08:28 am.

      Yay,he signed…

      I realized after I saw Rubio signed that it would be very difficult for Flip the GM to leave Flip the coach with the players thinking that he didn’t value them. I don’t see how he could play hardball in negotiations and then try to keep the locker room happy and keep a good coach/player relationship.

      Now that the team is in place the big thing will be for Flip to balance playing time. The second game didn’t seem balanced at all and he is already plying Pek about 35 minutes a game. That should get Dieng a lot of time later in the year when Pek is out with sore ankles.

      Final observation: Shabazz must have worked on his shot this summer. Last year seem like he could only score right at the basket and his jumpers never went in. That first game he was awesome shooting and rebounding. Hope to see him more.

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