MinnPost is in its annual holiday break, giving me occasion to step back for more of a big-picture view of the 2014-15 season thus far. With about a third of the games already in the books, here are some of the more significant and intriguing developments when it comes to the current incarnation of the Wolves:
1. Shabazz Muhammad has earned a regular spot in the rotation. The second-year swingman was projected to be an afterthought after the Wolves added heralded rookie Andrew Wiggins (the top pick in the NBA draft and the main bounty in the Kevin Love trade) to an already crowded contingent of wings that included holdovers Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger. But Bazzy sculpted his body during intensive off-season workouts and emerged as a relentless force on offense when injuries to Martin and others provided him more playing time. He has proven he belongs as either a starter or a key bench component — even when the Wolves roster is at full strength.
2. The career of center Nikola Pekovic is in jeopardy. In the summer of 2013, Pekovic signed a four-year, $48 million contract that currently makes him the Wolves’ highest-paid employee. But after various injuries caused him to miss significant playing time for the third straight season, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders and his staff decided to give him ample rest during the six months comprising the off-season and preseason. It didn’t work. Pek was out of shape for the opening game and delivered only one or two games of his vintage low-post scoring before being hobbled and then sidelined in mid-November. Since then, the timetable for his return has been as vague as the diagnosis and potential remedies for his troublesome foot and ankle woes. It is possible that Pek simply can’t sustain the pounding and pivoting required of his 295-pound body out on the court. With the departure of Love and now the absence of Pekovic, the brawny tandem that so recently was a signature virtue of this franchise has disappeared.
3. Ricky Rubio is worth every penny of the fat contract he just signed. The point guard came into this season at a crossroads, his contract status, scoring prowess and overall value to the team all very much in question. The contract issue was resolved when Rubio signed a four-year, $55 million deal at the end of October, just hours before he could have become a restricted free agent. It was a lucrative pact that will enable Rubio to eclipse Pekovic as the team’s highest-paid player beginning next season. Even with the uptick in media revenue that will accrue to all NBA teams and inflate salaries in the coming years, it felt like a premium price. But then Rubio exhibited more confidence and accuracy in his notoriously wayward shot, the product of his work with newly installed shooting coach Mike Penberthy. With Love gone and a bevy of young players aboard, his leadership of the team was paramount. The most persuasive testimonial of his value occurred when he rolled his ankle in the fifth game of the season, however. With him, the Wolves were 2-2 and ahead on the scoreboard in game five. Without him they have tumbled into the Western Conference cellar and are 25 points worse per 100 possessions when he is off the court.
4. Coach Flip Saunders has not changed his disinclination to shoot three-pointers, despite its primacy in the modern NBA. When Saunders appointed himself head coach in his capacity as President of Basketball Operations, the concern was that his past history of neglecting the value of the long-range three-pointer would remain. The fear was justified. The Wolves rank last among all 30 NBA teams in both the number of the three-pointers taken and the percentage of their shots that are from three-point territory. Through the first 23 games, they attempted 36 percent fewer treys than at the same point last season under then-coach Rick Adelman. While it is true that Minnesota misses Martin, by far the team’s best three-point shooter, the fact remains that the Wolves are even worse, relative to the rest of the league, in converting shots closer to the hoop. They rank 29th in two-point accuracy versus 27th from three-point territory. Again using the benchmark of 23 games, Wolves opponents attempted 200 more three-pointers — nearly ten a game! — than Minnesota and made 92 more of them. That computes to the Wolves being outscored by an average of 12 points per game from long range.
5. Andrew Wiggins deserves fans’ benefit of the doubt. Wiggins is probably the most hyped young basketball player since Lebron James, the subject of intensive college recruiting battle as the top prospect coming out of high school and then chosen number one in the NBA draft last summer. The Wolves marketing department kept stoking the fire when he was acquired in the Love trade, with an introduction at the State Fair and an “Eyes on the Rise” media campaign. The irony is that, while extremely athletic, Wiggins has a low-key temperament and a very nuanced and mature approach to the game that doesn’t lend itself to a surfeit of highlights. The Wolves have compiled a dreadful record while he has led the team in minutes played, so the temptation is to label him a disappointment. For sizzle, maybe. For dedicating himself to defense and building his game slowly but surely, absolutely not. With a third of his first season under his belt, Wiggins is a teenager carrying an outsized burden on a roster that has lost its three most established veterans to injury and currently operates most efficiently when swingman Corey Brewer is their point guard. That he is already a stabilizing force for this franchise is one of the rare glimmers of hope into star-crossed campaign.