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The 5 most important things we found out about the T-wolves in 2014

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
With Kevin Love gone and a bevy of young players aboard, Ricky Rubio's leadership of the team was paramount.

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. 

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 12/25/2014 - 05:59 am.

    6.

    They won’t make the playoffs.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/25/2014 - 07:43 pm.

    Good eye, Pavel

    Britt, I think that is the most positive you have ever been about Rubio. Funny that it is his absence that makes him appear so valuable. Question: do you have to play to win an MVP award? 🙂 They said he’d be back after Christmas sometime. Christmas is over in five hours. Hope he’s back soon. They’d be a lot more fun to watch.

    I think that is also the most positive you’ve been about Shabazz as well. I wonder about your take on AB. Looks like he is starting to disappoint. I wonder what you think about him. Also I’m thinking we’ll never see a full time Pek again. Six months off and two games before he’s about done for the year. It’s not like he got worn out on the court.

  3. Submitted by Alex Berg on 12/26/2014 - 02:07 pm.

    Good points all around

    Just an observation, but sometimes I wonder if Garnett spoiled an entire generation of Wolves fans on what their expectations should be for their franchise center piece. Al Jefferson was never good enough because quite simply, he wasn’t good enough. He was a nice enough guy, but he just couldn’t do what KG did on the court. Kevin Love didn’t have the loyalty to the city/state/organization or the commitment to defense that KG did. Already, we’ve heard the rumblings that Wiggins doesn’t have the fire or intensity that KG did. And then there’s Rubio. He’s got the fire. He showed his loyalty with the contract extension. Now he has to demonstrate that he can stay as healthy as KG did and consistently improve his game the way KG seemed to do every year.

    Hard to believe that it’s a decade later and we’re still trying to regain what we had way back then, which was mostly a series of 1st round playoff exits. I’d love a 1st round playoff exit right about now.

    • Submitted by Jeff Germann on 12/30/2014 - 12:57 pm.

      KG was great but Wiggins can be as good…

      KG was fiercely loyal which was a great attribute. We loved him when he was here. But lets not forget that KG also was missing that offensive killer mentality that is required by 1A player. I’ve always said KG was a great 1B player. He needed someone with the “killer instinct” mentality offensive game to go with him. He never got it with the Wolves. The closest was when we had Sam Cassell who didn’t mind taking the big shot. And I still put that 2nd year failure (after the Western conference finals appearance) on KG as much as I do Cassell and Spreewell. KG should have saw what those 2 knuckleheads were doing to the locker room and to the team that year and should have knocked some sense into them. But…he didn’t and the season that was supposed to be our championship season was a disaster.

      I think Wiggins can be that player who will bring both a killer offensive mentality with great defense. A true 1A player . However, its really too early to tell. He will be a very very good defensive player. Offensively he strikes me as the kind of player who is going to continue to progress but not at the rate that we or maybe the national media want/expect him too. He is not assertive enough yet. Hopefully it will come as he gets more comfortable and sure of his game in the NBA. KG did improve his game every year and work on something. Its yet to be seen if Wiggs has that kind of drive. That really is the question with him: does he have the desire to be great?

      As for his mental makeup and how he will take to ‘Sota, If you read more about him and his personality he strikes me as the kind of guy who will be as loyal to his organization as KG was.

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/26/2014 - 03:10 pm.

    The lost Love year

    This season feels more and more like the year we lost Kevin Love. Obviously the expectations were higher then, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’re being “cheated” out of quality basketball by the injury gods. Is this what it’s like to be a Blazers fan? But let’s not pretend like our poor play is solely due to Ricky’s absence – Pek and Kevin Martin have played just 9 games each as well, with many of those early-season losses coming while giving heavy (but necessary) minutes to Zach LaVine.

    I’m also happy about the emergence of Shabazz, which may not have happened if not for the Martin injury. He still has issues with court awareness and mental lapses on both ends (tough problems to solve without shortening his leash), but he’s a high-motor guy who can at least manufacture his own points. If he spends as much time developing another offensive move or two as he did working out this summer, he easy can have a role in this league for years to come. Guards who can post-up and score are a bit of a throwback in this league, but it’s a worthwhile niche provided Bazzy learns to find the open man when help comes.

    Last, I’d like your opinion on whether Pek or Martin will be on the move this trade deadline. Martin should be back in January and was arguably playing the best ball of his career before he got hurt. We all know what Pek can do when healthy, but his contract and injury history might not allow for recouping much value on our end.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/26/2014 - 07:19 pm.

    Flip’s strategy

    They have bigger concerns with his strategy, to the extent that I wonder if they have a top-notch strategist in the same way they did with Adelman on offense and Bill Bayno on defense. Defensively, they have enough athletes to cut off drives and not just accompany the driver to the basket.

    With the 3s, the issue is personnel. The ways to generate open 3s are off screens, isolation pull-ups, or on kick outs from dribble penetration or post ups. No one, not even Martin, can consistently hit 3s off a screen. (We should all scratch our heads that the Wolves are paying Martin more than the Hawks pay Kyle Korver.) None of them are pull-up threats in iso situations at this point, though I could see Wiggins (and possibly Troy Daniels) becoming that. No one on their team either a) beats single coverage consistently enough to draw a double team or b) is a good enough passer to find an open shooter. They need to be better about swinging the ball, though, and they have to take those threes in transition to boost the numbers. Wiggins might as well take that shot every time he’s open, though, and they should hope that Daniels can pick up the systems quickly enough to earn backup minutes until Martin returns.

    I do question the psychological message of making players run because they miss 3s in a game. For example, there’s one area where that conditioning punishment would serve a far better purpose: allowing too many transition points. That stat pointed out by Jim Petersen about the number of consecutive games allowing 10+ transition points is appalling for a young team. Paint points and transition points are making this team unwatchable at times.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/27/2014 - 09:43 am.

    Trade bait

    If Pek is not trade bait he should be.
    His greatest value would be as a backup center on a playoff team, playing short but vital minutes.
    If he has to schlep 300 lbs up and down the court for 30 minutes a game he won’t last a season.

  7. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/29/2014 - 11:05 am.

    No market for Pek

    I have no interest in giving up future draft picks to send him to another team. No NBA team needs a $12 million backup C. Hoping that he’ll be traded is wasted energy.

  8. Submitted by Jeff Germann on 12/31/2014 - 10:22 am.

    I still think there is alot of hope for this team…

    The reality of the situation is that this is a painful process right now to go though…but it could pay big dividends next year or even later this year. As a season ticket holder I am bummed by their current play but I am seeing the foundation being laid for what I expect can be a very good team in the next 2 years as existing players improve and hopefully quality players are added. The big thing about these unfortunate injuries is that our young players are getting force fed quality NBA minutes…and unlike past years…they seem to be showing us that there is some hope that most of them may actually turn out to be good to very good NBA players. I think its reasonable from what we’ve seen to expect that, at a minimum, Wiggins, Deng and Shabazz will be good to very good NBA players. I think the jury is still out on Levine but he is just so raw that you have to give him some rope. He has a very high ceiling though if he can get the basketball IQ up there a bit. Talent is there and drive appears to be there. In the past all our young guys after getting time looked like Anthony Bennett: lots of talent but unable to apparently put it together at this level. He seems to be the exception right now rather than the rule with our young guys.

    The big question, which was eluded to earlier, is whether or not Flip is the guy who should be the one to get this team to the next level from a coaching standpoint. Flips system loves to “move the ball to the open guy for a long uncontested 2”. As Britt comments that’s a bit of an outdated model…and Flip doesn’t appear to be too ready to change that. That’s a concern. Will we be stuck with Flip as this team gets better or is he really going to be willing to turn the keys over to someone else? I dread that he is waiting for Tom Izzo. Flip probably is waiting to sell him on the idea that NOW there are some pieces in place for him to work with (as last year there wasn’t). I worry that Izzo is the guy he wants. I’m much prefer Hoiberg if we’re going to get a college coach. But my guess is that Flip fancies himself as the long term coach and GM of this team. I will give credit where credits due in that his GM duties seem to be working out. Jury still out on coaching.

  9. Submitted by Tim Brausen on 01/02/2015 - 12:05 pm.

    Flip’s coaching lately is for wins, not development

    The last two games have shown Flip eager to get the W rather than develop Zach Lavine. Both the Denver and the Sacramento games Flip pulled Zach late in favor of Mo Williams. This would make sense if in the clutch Mo showed any ability to set up good shots for the others, but instead Mo calls his own number the first time he gets the ball and launches a 3 and misses. This hubris on his part (“I’ll win the game for us”) is the wrong message for the young team and hasn’t resulted in any wins. And Mo’s defense can be lazy down the stretch too.

    I think it’s time for Flip to let Lavine try to close out a game, even if he too takes a rushed shot (the current reason for his quick hook in the 4th when I’ve been watching.) At least you can use those games to instruct him.

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 01/04/2015 - 11:31 am.

      Generally speaking, this approach is always wrong

      On-court experience leading to improvement is one of those things people assume is true but isn’t. Players improve through practice: developing skills, watching film, and understanding their responsibilities on the floor. Games are performances reflecting the work the players did between games.

      More specifically to this situation, LaVine has played in crunchtime when Williams was out. Flip has given him a chance when he has earned that chance or there hasn’t been another option. In this situation, where every young player is getting their chance because there aren’t any better options, it’s just as important that they get pulled if they’re not playing well. Of the recent close games, the only one where Mo didn’t dramatically outplay LaVine was against Denver, and in that game, Mo was the one on the floor when they came back to take the lead. Player performance can’t be judged by single plays that bug you. He still runs the offense better than LaVine (he has 50 more assists in 80 fewer minutes despite playing most of his minutes with the bench) and is a bigger scoring threat.

      Also, this is exactly the time when Flip should be coaching to win. It’s not good for the players to have an environment where they don’t go hard after opportunities to win, and after several weeks of playing the NBA elite where the game was over before tipoff, they now have some opponents who are near their level. If they focus on development in games against the great teams, that’s fine, but actually winning games will help these guys through the season a lot more than getting undeserved minutes in a close loss.

  10. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 12/26/2014 - 03:10 pm.

    The lost Love year

    This season feels more and more like the year we lost Kevin Love. Obviously the expectations were higher then, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’re being “cheated” out of quality basketball by the injury gods. Is this what it’s like to be a Blazers fan? But let’s not pretend like our poor play is solely due to Ricky’s absence – Pek and Kevin Martin have played just 9 games each as well, with many of those early-season losses coming while giving heavy (but necessary) minutes to Zach LaVine.

    I’m also happy about the emergence of Shabazz, which may not have happened if not for the Martin injury. He still has issues with court awareness and mental lapses on both ends (tough problems to solve without shortening his leash), but he’s a high-motor guy who can at least manufacture his own points. If he spends as much time developing another offensive move or two as he did working out this summer, he easy can have a role in this league for years to come. Guards who can post-up and score are a bit of a throwback in this league, but it’s a worthwhile niche provided Bazzy learns to find the open man when help comes.

    Last, I’d like your opinion on whether Pek or Martin will be on the move this trade deadline. Martin should be back in January and was arguably playing the best ball of his career before he got hurt. We all know what Pek can do when healthy, but his contract and injury history might not allow for recouping much value on our end.

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