The Timberwolves emerge from the wreckage

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Coach Flip Saunders was asked if he thought the team experienced a lull when Ricky Rubio was on the sidelines. “Yeah, it lasted for 46 games,” Saunders cracked.

Prior to Wednesday night’s stirring home victory over the Miami Heat, the Minnesota Timberwolves had five defeats for every win so far this season, an 8-40 record that was the worst 48-game start in the sorry history of the franchise. Even at 9-40, the current edition of the team is tied with the slapstick squad of 1991-92, who under the hapless reins of Jimmy Rodgers, eventually set the floor (since matched by Kurt Rambis and company in the 2009-10 season) for season-long ineptitude with a 15-67 mark. 

There are special circumstances and strategic reasons for this season’s horrendous performance, of course. As most everyone knows, the Wolves have been wracked by injuries, simultaneously losing three veteran cornerstones who possessed a wide breadth of complementary skills. With what was already a specious chance at a competitive season thoroughly vanquished by these physical woes, team management decided to punt success on the scoreboard in order to better develop young talent on the court. 

But “development” should not be allowed to become a refuge from accountability. So yes, let’s welcome the return of those cornerstone vets — center Nikola Pekovic, shooting guard Kevin Martin and point guard Ricky Rubio — and say goodbye to one of the most god-awful chapters in the book of horrors that has been Timberwolves basketball for many of its 26 seasons of existence. 

But at the risk of sounding churlish, let’s not forget that every franchise owes its fans a semblance of competence on the court, a low bar that can be reached through professional pride, dogged effort, and an unwavering focus on the fundamental components of successful teamwork. From early November to late January, the Timberwolves organization frequently failed to reach that standard.

A new phase of professional performance

The veterans have trickled back into the mix. Center Nikola Pekovic emerged to seemingly full-blown health after being beset by a bevy of mysterious foot ailments that had many people connected with the team legitimately wondering if he’d ever be a reliably functioning cog again.

Upon his return, it has been satisfying to see Pek, an amiable, live-and-let-live personality if there ever was one, openly chagrined at the indifference to defense displayed by his teammates. It is one reason why the Wolves have permitted only one of their past six opponents to shoot 50 percent (and it was exactly 50 percent) — an admittedly low hurdle, but one the team struggled to surmount with the veterans gone.

After Pek’s re-baptism into the NBA scrum on January 25, Kevin Martin rejoined the team two games and three days later, and has promptly drained crunch-time shots to fuel a pair of wins over Eastern Conference opponents, the Celtics and the Heat. Even Martin, an infamously poor defender, has managed to slightly upgrade the perimeter coverage while providing the most reliable scoring threat on the roster.

Last, and most crucially, Ricky Rubio resumed his position as floor general of the Timberwolves last Monday night versus the Mavericks in Dallas. In game 48, the Timberwolves duplicated their season-opening starting lineup for the first time since game 5. And promptly fell behind 10-0.

But this lousy start was the product of surface rust, not root malignance. Rubio and Pekovic were out of sync on a pick-and-roll play, causing an offensive foul on Pek. Rubio’s ability to back-pedal at a sharp angle on that healed ankle was initially found wanting on dribble-penetration by J.J. Barea and Monta Ellis. Pek’s low-post moves weren’t yet refined enough to prevent premiere defender Tyson Chandler from thwarting open looks at the hoop. And Martin and Wiggins barely touched the ball.

Minnesota outscored Dallas the rest of the way, falling 100-94, a six-point defeat that was in sharp contrast to the prior two blow-outs where the Mavs triumphed by double-digit margins. The Wolves were surging in the fourth-quarter, outscoring Dallas 12-3 in the 4:18 Rubio was allowed to play before he exceeded his minutes limit and was forced to the sidelines. During that stint, he had two rebounds, two assists, two turnovers and two fouls — a neat packet of positive and negative signs of aggression.

Saunders chose to apportion Rubio’s minutes by playing him some in every quarter. The plus/minus results of those four periods were minus 9, minus 2, plus 1 and plus 9.

Rubio hunted for points early, showcasing the improved stroke with the higher arc and softer touch that he has honed under the tutelage of coach Mike Penberthy, making three of his first five shots. Significantly, the midrange jumper he canned moving to his left opened up the ability for him to successfully drive the lane later. While it is true that he has had trouble finishing at the rim in the past, some of that is due to opponent begging him to launch jumpers and thus already primed to contest his drives.

Validating energy

The loss to Dallas felt like a missed opportunity; the Mavericks didn’t play very well and a win was there for the taking. By contrast, Wednesday night’s victory over Miami was borne of resilience and became a testimonial to the infectious enthusiasm Rubio brings to the court every night.

The Wolves jumped to a 12-6 lead in the first five minutes because Rubio doled out five assists to three different players and buried the only shot, a pull-up jumper, that he took. But shortly after a pair of fouls sent him to the sidelines, Miami went on a 9-0 run that kept the game tight for the rest of the first half.

The Heat took control in the third quarter on the strength and quickness of center Hassan Whiteside, who continued his phenomenal stretch of play since being signed by Miami out of obscurity last month by scoring ten points and grabbing nine rebounds in ten minutes. Much of that came at the expense of Pekovic, who went to the bench less than five minutes into that third period and never returned.

After the game, Saunders spoke of some tenderness in Pek’s troublesome feet. He’s been back for nine games, the length of time he lasted before sitting for more than two months. Right now it’s unclear whether it is a bump or a roadblock to surmounting this chronically troublesome part of his body.

In any case, the Wolves were down by ten points with 9:45 to play when Saunders mercifully lifted lodestones Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine out of the mix and brought in Martin and misplaced cornerstone Andrew Wiggins. The Wolves promptly went on a 9-0 run fueled by Gorgui Dieng (taking advantage of Whiteside’s absence) and Mo Williams.

With seven minutes to play in a one-point game, Saunders inserted Rubio to close it out (take that, Rick Adelman) and the Wolves scrapped their way straight through to the nail-biting finish. Thad Young had a vital steal and slam dunk. Wiggins put back a key offensive rebound and nailed a jumper off a Dieng dime. Martin spaced the floor with missed and converted jumpers that all made sense to launch. And Rubio was the hustle serum, galvanizing energy by his own pesky example and then rewarding the industry he had spurred in his teammates by getting them the ball in the right place at the right time in the right rhythm, or simply upholding his role in the team defense—a missing commodity when Williams and especially LaVine are on the court.

After the game, Saunders was asked if he thought the team experienced a lull when Rubio was on the sidelines. “Yeah, it lasted for 46 games,” Saunders cracked. 

Young blooms, Wiggins wanes

Just how much that “lull” or level of dysfunction was allowed to pervade the team during the absence of the veterans is apparent when you consider the sharp reversal in fortunes among the two holdover starters from that fallow period.

The change in attitude, energy and thus ability in Thad Young in recent games has been remarkable, and a little bit damning. Sure, it is discouraging to be victimized by the inexperience and inattention of your teammates, to run the floor and not receive the pass when you are open; or to switch coverage on defense and then watch the man you were guarding left free to score.

But when you are the sole remaining veteran among the starters, your response to these corrosive challenges goes a long way toward setting the tone for the team. Young chose to succumb to the malaise. He loafed instead of hustled, gambled instead of girding the system, lost direction at precisely the time his team required a compass.

These flaws were evident at the time (something I wrote about). And they’ve been confirmed now that we see Young basking in the glow of his team’s return to competence.

In Dallas, he played a vigorous and mostly marvelous second half at both ends of the court, especially the diligence with which he defended future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. Against Miami, he did yeoman work helping Dieng frustrate Whiteside in the paint. These examples of unsung grittiness are a sight for the sore eyes of Wolves fans who watched him rebound and defend with the faux fiber of limp celery, his passion for the game as fractured as Kevin Martin’s right wrist.

Since the veterans started returning on January 25, Young has suddenly found his shooting stroke, making nearly half his shots from the field (46-for-93) and a remarkable 26-for-29 at the line, boosting what was a sub-.500  free throw percentage up to 67.2. He is alert, engaged and willing to do the sort of glue-guy “little things” for which he was renowned during his stint in Philadelphia.

By contrast, Wiggins has too frequently been ignored in the flow. For weeks on end, he was called upon to fill the vacuum in veteran leadership created by all the injuries, thrust simultaneously into being his “go-to guy” on offense and defensive stopper on defense. It was an enormous burden to toss on 19-year old shoulders, but Wiggins admirably grew accustomed to it.

Now, with the insertion of Martin back in the lineup, Wiggins is forced to endure more rugged matchups by playing small forward. With the insertion of Pek, the offensive focus is more frequently going to be post-entry plays. The result of these things is fewer and more difficult touches.

After the Miami win, Saunders said that he does not want to have to keep calling plays for Wiggins and that his burgeoning star needs to develop more chances for himself within the context of the offense. That’s all well and good. But here’s an idea: Why not give your heralded rookie — the sole reason this season can’t be regarded as an abject failure thus far — a cookie now and then? Three games ago he went off for 33 points while often being guarded by Lebron James. In the two games since then, he has attempted fewer shots per minute than any member of the eight-man rotation.


Player rotations in flux

Coming close to full strength on the roster is obviously an encouraging change that has already produced less incompetent hoops action. But it may be awhile, if ever this season, before the Wolves get the opportunity to really settle into some productive player pairings and relationships on the court. Along with the returning veterans getting physically and mentally re-acclimated to the NBA grind, other catalysts on the horizon include the return of potent scorer Shabazz Muhammad from an oblique injury and the potential disruption of a trade before the February 19 deadline.

That trade deadline occurs near the end of the NBA’s week-long break around the All Star Game. Although the Wolves have a jam-packed schedule, with five games before the break, the hiatus begins in less than a week. Among the players most likely to be dealt are Mo Williams and Thad Young — I would have included Kevin Martin, but Saunders says he is not moving Martin.

If Young is traded, the power forward situation becomes a matchup-responsive jumble, with Gorgui Dieng holding down the spot against large frontcourts, Shabazz Muhammad getting time as an undersized forward against smaller teams, and Bennett as the fill-in until Robbie Hummel is able to return. That would be my recommendation, anyway, assuming that Young doesn’t fetch a power forward in return.

A three-wing platter of Muhammad, Wiggins and Martin rolls the dice in favor of quickness and floor-spacing and feels like a compelling experiment. Saunders has already tried a hulking front line of Pekovic and Dieng, with mixed results that produced sub-standard offense. But that was with Young as the small forward—slotting in Muhammad and Wiggins beside Dieng, Pek and Rubio sounds like a unit that could really get after it at both ends of the court, with spectacular results, pro and con. It would also enable Martin to come off the bench and provide scoring. Unfortunately, a unit that involves Martin, Bennett and Chase Budinger — let alone LaVine — might be the worst possible defensive alignment on a historically bad defensive team.

Trading Williams, assuming another point guard doesn’t come back in the deal, means more steady minutes for LaVine running the offense. That’s a terrible idea. LaVine needs to either spend time in the D-league or logging minutes at his natural position of shooting guard — preferably beside Rubio.

Then again, every player on the team needs to play “preferably beside Rubio.”

Right now, there is too much uncertainty coupled with too little information about specific player pairings to confidently predict the best lineup rotations for the Wolves. But even entertaining the possibilities involved is a tonic for fans — and yours truly — as we contemplate the final 33 games of what thus far has been a mostly dreadful season.

Who knows, like birdwatchers out in the bush looking for that rare sighting, we may even get to see a few more three-point buckets on offense and 24-second violations emanating from the defense. Let’s christen the search “Eyes on the Surprise.”

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Mark Snyder on 02/05/2015 - 11:56 am.

    Brown’s role?

    Do you think trading Mo Williams might open up more of an opportunity for Lorenzo Brown to find a long-term role with the team? I’d have to think his recent performance with Rubio, Williams and LaVine all out opened some eyes among the coaching staff.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 02/05/2015 - 12:49 pm.

    The 3 spark plugs

    Pek seemed to add a calming strength on both ends, Martin’s style of play has pushed his teammates to think quicker and stay alert, and Rubio adds more cohesion and intelligence on both ends.

    I’m hoping last night’s rotation isn’t how they plan to do things for long. The obvious change will be Shabazz for LaVine, but I didn’t think LaVine deserved to play last night. They could’ve either played Brown with Mo to help contain the Heat’s pick and roll (I swear they ran the same play on offense from the time Rubio left to the time he returned) or gone big more often and posted up Wiggins against whichever point guard the Heat put on him. Bennett would also theoretically be on that fringe, though he’s had a bit more success recently. The most important thing will be staggering the minutes for the starters and reserves so that it’s not 2 separate units while also emphasizing combos that work (Wiggins at the 2, Rubio and Pek, Pek and Budinger when Budinger plays) and avoiding ones that don’t (Mo and Thad).

    Maybe this is reading into something that isn’t stated, but could it be that the other guys are getting their points in the flow of the offense and Flip would like for Wiggins to do more of that? He’s proven now that he can score, so maybe there’s some room for him to step back and fit into the team concepts. He can get much easier looks scoring off cuts than by posting up at the elbow. He definitely deserves as many isos as Martin has and more than Thad does, but he has to figure out how to best play off of Pek, who may be similar in his post efficiency but provides a much stronger offensive rebounding threat. And he just needs to shoot the 3 when it’s open, though I didn’t see many chances last night. They do him a disservice by playing him so much with Martin and Pek. They can get away with one or the other, but having both leads to a huge adjustment that they could handle more gradually.

  3. Submitted by charles thompson on 02/05/2015 - 02:41 pm.

    two way player

    Wiggins is the real deal and maybe the woofs have hit on a draft strategy. Since their first rounders have been have been 20 years of pin the tail on the donkey, maybe they should keep trading for someone else’s.

  4. Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 02/05/2015 - 02:42 pm.

    Again….so much to respond to.

    It’s funny how quickly a return to health can change the narrative and mood of the fanbase.

    Strongly agree with what you insinuated in here regarding Wiggins being a bit of an afterthought since the Cleveland game. Martin has averaged 19 shot attempts since his return from injury. And while I have always been a bit of a Martin apologist (volume 3 point shooters tend to be my favorite), you have to wonder what the point of it all is. At a certain point you are either rebuilding or you aren’t.

    On one hand, this team clearly needs a few wins to keep the heads up and (cliche’ incoming) build some momentum into next season, which will probably see a lot of familiar faces return. In addition (another cliche’ incoming), maybe it boosts his trade value? Flip also said he wouldn’t dare trade Brewer and then he did it. Big picture, the problem with Martin is he is 32 years old. If he were 28 or 29, you could really see a role for him for the next 3-5 years as a bench scorer, but now you have to wonder what they are doing with a guy entering his later years eating up all of these shot attempts. It’s tough to see him being a Wolf much longer, ditto Mo and Young, so you have to wonder why those guys are taking about half of the available shots. Sure, wins, but it doesn’t make much of any long-term sense.

    On the other hand: I mean, call me a defeatist, but the thought of this team closing out the year something like 14-19 and drafting 6th or 7th overall seems like it could be a pretty big flop and missed opportunity. We will see what happens. The upcoming schedule is so difficult you almost can’t make it up, so we’ll see.

    On Rubio, when lotto balls aren’t top priority, this team MUST be built to sustain a Rubio injury. This is now the second time in his career an injury has pretty much resulted in a total trainwreck of a season. It will not be the last time Ricky has to miss a considerable stretch. I hate middling contracts, but for once I would support signing a capable backup to a pricey multi-year deal, SA’s Corey Joseph comes to mind, that could grow with the group, play a major role each night, and play starter’s minutes when Rubio gets dinged again.

    And finally, get the medical stuff fixed. Something still seems really off there. Every time.

    Thanks Britt for another good read.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/05/2015 - 07:08 pm.


      Martin can last forever playing half court.

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 02/06/2015 - 10:32 am.

      Finishing 14-19 won’t happen

      Their only game against a sub-.500 team in the next 10 is at Detroit. After that, things ease up, but in those last 23 games, they’ll still have to play 13 road games and face the Blazers, Thunder, Raptors, and Pelicans twice (4 home, 4 away), along with road games against the Suns, Spurs, Clippers, and Warriors. 22 of their 33 remaining games are against above-.500 teams, and a majority of the other 11 are on the road. At least one shooting threat (Mo) and, if Zgoda is to be believed, possibly two (Martin) could be gone within 2 weeks.

      Either way, the lottery guarantees that bad teams won’t always get the hoped-for reward of a bad season, but a lower pick won’t necessarily mean a worse player. A lot of Wolves fans were bummed that they slipped out of the top 2 in the 2010 draft because it meant they couldn’t draft Evan Turner; even with Cousins as an option, I assume most would’ve preferred Turner had they been at 2, and some liked him more than Wall. In ’08, the Thunder dropped from 2 (Beasley) to 4 (Westbrook, considered a reach at 4). There are a lot of success stories this season proving that a team doesn’t have to be doomed to mediocrity or worse if they’re not in the top 2, 3, or 5. They can build a great team without luck; the reason they haven’t been able to climb out of this pit is because “you can’t fix stupid.” A lot of Wolves fans assume the worst instead of just preparing for the worst; instead of fixating on Okafor or Russell, maybe it’s better to look into Porzingis or Hezonja or figure out if the SF and C prospects in the 6-10 range are worth taking.

  5. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 02/06/2015 - 01:07 pm.

    Rubio and Wiggins

    I’m willing to give Wiggins a bit of a pass on his production the last couple of games. Let’s remember that he’s still adjusting to having all three starters back on the court (not just Rubio) and is also without Shabazz, whose play style seems to mesh well with his own. It’s obviously a different team out there with Rubio now, but Muhammad’s relentless energy buoyed this team for awhile, and I’m excited to have him back. I also hate the “he’s only 19” cliche, but it’s true in this case; consistency comes with time and experience. But on the other hand, he does need to be reminded that he needs to stay aggressive all the time, much like Kawhi Leonard’s first couple of seasons with the Spurs.

    Regarding Bennett and LaVine: this is the exact reason the Wolves need their own D-League team. If we can control the system and coaches, we can be more proactive in terms of development. A D-League team is a competitive advantage that smart teams are taking advantage of; imagine if we could send down a player like LaVine and sign a guy who has been working in our system already?

    Either way, these last two games have been far more entertaining than anything on the court in the last couple of months.

  6. Submitted by Tom Om on 02/06/2015 - 01:23 pm.

    I liked the joyful tone of this post “(take that, Rick Adelman)”.

    And a “bit” off topic. I read Ezra Klein’s piece on Andrew Sullivan and blogging, and I saw this quote: “…the fact that great work often needs to be rooted in a particular place and context — a place and context that the reader and the author already share.” I thought it was also true for Britt’s great work and his column/blog.

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/06/2015 - 02:31 pm.

    Who to draft?

    I believe the wolves need to go big in the draft. However, if they get the 3rd pick – and the best bigs are gone – why not go with point guard Mudiay?

    I think Rubio has missed more games the Pek the last 3 years. Also – I think Flip is not sold on Rubio.

  8. Submitted by Tom Om on 02/07/2015 - 12:11 pm.

    Ron, sorry to disappoint you, but Rubio missed less games than Pekovic. In the previous 3 seasons Rubio missed 50 games and Pekovic 67.

    And Pekovic was not the only one that missed more games than Rubio.
    Bledsoe 71 games.
    Rondo 109 games. Never completed a full season.
    Bradley 76 games.
    Rose 181 games. Never completed a full season.
    Wade 58 games. Never completed a full season.
    E. Gordon 115 games.
    Irving 49 games. One less than Rubio.
    Leonard 42 games.
    Lowry Missed 126 games in his first 3 years in the league.

    So it looks like the need for a contingency plan for a PG is not unique to Rubio and the Wolves.

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