Early March is rarely a great time to be a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The NBA trade deadline has passed, the three-quarters pole of the season is approaching and hopes for the playoffs have almost always progressed from a receding pipedream into a sardonic punch line for the faithful. Meanwhile, baseball’s spring training is upon us, and the prep and college winter sports tournaments are looming. Evenings are becoming more dusk than dark and pretty soon it will be time to push the clocks ahead. Wolves fans often wish the tail end of the season could be similarly fast-forwarded with the turn of a timepiece.
For the 2014-15 campaign, however, the Wolves front-loaded the dreadful episodes. The 48-point loss to New Orleans, part of a two-game stretch where Minnesota ceded 270 points, occurred in November. The chronic ineptitude of 21 losses in 22 games dominated December but was over by mid-January. The Wolves were 5-6 in the month of February and never lost by more than a dozen points. With their veterans back from injury (at least for awhile) and enthusiasm boosted by the acquisition of franchise icon Kevin Garnett, they are battling even Western Conference playoff teams on roughly equal terms, especially at home.
After the Wolves fell by five points to the Los Angeles Clippers in a ruggedly intense game Monday night, Flip Saunders correctly noted that earlier in the season when an opponent like the Clippers built up a 15-point lead, the Wolves would fold and lose by 30.
Pundits like to speculate which hat Saunders is wearing when he implements certain strategies — is the prevailing priority coming from Flip as coach or Flip as President of Basketball Operations? Lately it has seemed like Flip as minority team owner is holding sway. The trade that brought Garnett back came just as the team was beginning its push for season ticket renewals, and Saunders has gone out of his way after most every game to praise the enthusiasm and loyalty of the Target Center crowds.
Meanwhile, the cast of characters keeps growing and the player rotations are in near-constant flux. The Wolves have deployed five different starting lineups in their past seven games. What follows are some first impressions on the two players who have just joined the team; one for what is most likely a brief time, the other as a gamble that he’ll be a key piece in the team’s future.
When the Wolves acquired Neal along with a 2019 second round draft pick from Charlotte in exchange for Mo Williams and Troy Daniels at the trading deadline, most everyone assumed Minnesota would buy out his contract and cut him loose. In retrospect, that’s apparently because his agent was pushing for it to happen behind the scenes.
It appears that Saunders got the memo, then wadded it up and threw it in the trash. At the time he announced the trade, he maintained that the Wolves were interested in keeping Neal on board. Confronted by “skepticism” (here used as a polite word for disbelief) from the media, he has steadily ratcheted up Neal’s playing time — the shooting guard logged more than 40 minutes subbing for the flu-ridden Kevin Martin on Monday — while steadily escalating his reminders to reporters that they were wrong to doubt him.
At first it seems counter-intuitive that Saunders would embrace Neal after letting Daniels, another three-point specialist, languish on the bench even during the weeks when Martin was recovering from a broken wrist. But Neal is a more experienced and refined player than Daniels. Saunders was right to cherish his Spurs pedigree — like almost everyone who has spent seasons in San Antonio, he reflexively turns down good shots to enable better shots for his teammates, and moves without the ball to places where teammates can enable better shots for him. Intelligent offense — what a concept!
Unfortunately, Neal lacks the strength, size and speed to be anything more than a role player off the bench. This was obvious on Monday against the Clippers starters, who made it difficult for Neal to garner the time and space required to fire accurately even with his quick release. He finished 6-for-17, including 2-for-7 from three-point territory. Through five games he is shooting 37.7 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from beyond the three-point arc.
The style of offense choreographed by Saunders doesn’t help a long-range shooter like Neal, either: Flip runs a lot of screens around the elbows near the foul line, allowing defenders room to go over the screen if a player is stepping back into three-point territory. By contrast, those screens can rub a defender off the shooter if he jacks it up from 16-20 feet.
Defensively, Neal works hard but again is too slight (6-4, 210 pounds) and too slow to stick with starting two-guards. His contract expires at the end of the season and given the logjam in the Wolves backcourt, it is hard to imagine Minnesota re-signing him. No matter: Along with Rubio, Pekovic, Garnett, and even Martin lately, Neal is modeling experienced fundamentals and consistent effort at both ends of the court. He’s that relatively rare commodity: a worthy two-month rental for a bottom-feeding team with a 13-46 record.
The rookie power forward from Michigan State, acquired from Atlanta for the steep price of first-round draft pick (albeit lottery-protected) at the trading deadline, is the beneficiary of some marvelous serendipity. First Anthony Bennett goes down with a sprained ankle, and then the Wolves trade Thad Young for part-time player and full-time mentor Kevin Garnett, ensuring that Payne gets ample playing time under the tutelage of one of greatest power forwards ever to play the game.
Early evidence indicates that Payne will need all the help he can muster. On the plus side, it is apparent that he spent four years in a quality college program, because he plays with assertive confidence and aggressive energy. He doesn’t mind engaging in the scrum for rebounds on both the offensive and defensive glass.
But Payne seems more mentally coachable than physically playable — his hand-eye coordination is a hindrance at this elite level, and he needs to gather himself to go back up for a rebound or launch a long jumper. Sometimes he can turn his herky-jerky rhythms into a virtue, as on drives to the bucket, where he fools opponents much as the elaborate windup of a pitcher throws off a hitter’s timing in baseball. Even so, he’s made just 31.3 percent of his shots (13-for-48), including a mere 1-for-6 from three-point range.
These are obviously snap judgments on a player who has been on the court just 136 minutes for the Wolves thus far. But Payne is an old rookie — he’s already 24. He’s an undeniably hard worker who has been like a sponge around Garnett — he won’t cheat this opportunity away. Yet it is difficult to envision a significant upside beyond a bench player who will reliably compete and flex some versatility ranging from a stretch power forward to a backup center (he’s 6-10, 245 pounds). At this admittedly nascent stage, that doesn’t seem worth what the Wolves gave up to acquire him.
That said, the Wolves seem committed to make good on this investment. Saunders has praised him and played him on a regular basis and his nose for the ball, work habits and grasp of fundamentals are superior to what Bennett has shown. Yes, Bennett is two years younger and probably has a higher ceiling — but a lower probability of reaching it. Most significantly, as the first overall player taken in the draft, Bennett has a relatively exorbitant salary—the Wolves have agreed to extend their option next season at $5.8 million. That would rise to $7.3 million for the 2016-17 season if the Wolves stay committed, compared to the $2 million Payne will pull down playing the same position.
— Worries about the Wolves winning too often and thus jeopardizing their chance to draft an elite player this summer seem overblown. First, Minnesota’s past lottery luck and the overall caprice generated by the lottery process demonstrate how problematical it is to rig things in your favor. Second, there is a six-game gap between the Wolves and the fifth-worst team, Orlando, in the standings, with just 23 games left to play. Thus, even inspired play down the stretch won’t cost them that many lottery balls.
— Looking just at the final two months of play in the 2014-15 season, the Wolves are a better team with Garnett on the roster than they would be with Thad Young. Garnett’s defense is still vastly superior to Young’s, especially in the low post against power forwards. With Nikola Pekovic again experiencing ankle woes, the prospect of reprising the defensive nightmare of a Dieng-Young front court would have become reality. Garnett has energized the locker room and the fan base. And Young’s skill set as a ‘tweener forward would increase the logjam at the wing positions both this season and moving forward.
— This latest physical setback for Pekovic casts an unfavorable light on both the player and the coach. It adds another mark to the already voluminous evidence that Pek can’t stay on the court long enough to justify his $12 million salary (owed for three more years after this one) because of the limitations of his body and his tolerance for pain. But Saunders shares some culpability by playing Pek an average of 35 minutes per game over a span of three games in five days. (For the record, he is day-to-day and didn’t play Monday.)
— I’ve praised Gorgui Dieng plenty this season, but with the return of smart, experienced teammates who play with more discipline, Dieng’s gambling and lack of teamwork on the defensive end has become much more blatant. He still has a long way to go in terms of decision-making, including when to attempt putbacks and when to pass it back out after an offensive rebound; how to defend larger opponents without fouling (such as fronting, drawing the charge or simply holding hard to a position with arms up); and when to leave his man to contest entry passes or dribble penetration.
— Don’t look now, but Ricky Rubio is shooting just 34.5 percent from the field since his return from injury. Yes, that is an ominous and ugly number, but it is good to note that Rubio is attempting and making more threes — 10-for-33 in 11 games since his return versus 1-for-4 in five games before the injury — and getting to the free throw line more often (47-for-56 in his last 11 compared to 6-for-10 in his first five).
— How haphazard have the Wolves player rotations been this year? Well, the turmoil is such that Zach LaVine seems destined to finish fourth in minutes played on the roster by the end of the season. There is a lot to say about LaVine’s play and I hope to get to it soon in an upcoming column.