When Zach LaVine checked into the game for the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night, they were trailing the Los Angeles Clippers by 11, 29-18, with a little under two minutes to play in the first quarter.
LaVine almost immediately flashed some of the bone-headed defense that has made him so aggravating to watch for much of his rookie season. Sorting out assignments with teammate Ricky Rubio in transition, he signaled that he would guard perennial all-star Chris Paul, while Rubio took third-year bench player Austin Rivers — then lost Paul so thoroughly on a basic screen that Rubio moved over to take the charge, only to have Paul pass to Rivers for an open three-pointer. The next Clippers possession, Paul befuddled LaVine with a crossover dribble and buried the jumper. Suddenly it was 36-18 Clippers with 1:18 to play in the period.
Then LaVine began to flash the indomitable confidence and astounding athleticism that teases out glimpses of stardom. Right after being twice embarrassed by Paul, he came down and stuck a midrange jumper of his own.
And when Paul went to the bench to start the second quarter, it was LaVine’s turn to do the embarrassing. Taking a pass by Gary Neal out on the right wing, he blew by Rivers for a ferocious slam dunk. Feeding off his own electricity, he turned a broken play on the next Wolves possession into a long three-pointer. He ambushed the Clippers with another lightning drive up the right lane, drawing the foul in mid-air on another dunk attempt. When the Clippers started cheating on his dribble penetration, he fed Rubio, and rookie Adreian Payne, twice, for open buckets. And he leaked down the floor to take a long pass from Rubio for another slam dunk, dipping the ball behind his right shoulder before flushing it down with an efficient, blurred flick of his arms.
At the halftime break, he had played nearly fourteen straight minutes, scoring 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, three rebounds, three assists and zero turnovers. Most importantly, he was plus 13 during that time on the court and the Wolves led 60-58.
A patron in Saunders
When Flip Saunders selected LaVine with the 13th pick in the 2014 NBA draft last summer, he had difficulty disguising his ebullience. Although the 19-year old LaVine had started just one game in his lone year at UCLA, Saunders proclaimed that he that “he has the ability to be an elite two-way player.”
Saunders understood this was a rash statement, and he knew the pick of LaVine was a significant gamble on untested athleticism. “Sometimes you have to try and hit a home run,” he explained. “Some players are ready-made, they are only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player.”
As the man in charge of both the playbook and the personnel in his dual duties as head coach and President of Basketball Operations, Saunders is ideally suited to grease that opportunity for LaVine.
When Rubio went down with a severely sprained ankle during the fifth game of the season, Saunders chose to leapfrog LaVine over then-backup point guard Mo Williams into the starting lineup. It was an audacious, “toss the infant into the pool” gambit that lasted for four double-digit drubbings before LaVine was mercifully replaced by Williams.
But Saunders has been tenacious in his patronage. LaVine has gone on to start 23 games for the Wolves this season and Minnesota has won exactly twice in those contests. LaVine currently ranks fifth on the team in minutes played with 1135 (he logged 904 for his entire college career) and will pass Williams (who played 1149 minutes before being traded to Charlotte) within the next game or two for fourth place.
In the long, sordid history of the Timberwolves franchise, never has a player looked so bad so often over the course of a single season.
Even against the Clippers on Monday, for those paying attention to the intricacies of the game LaVine had as many cringe-worthy plays as he did highlights. In-between torching the Clippers defense with slams, dimes and jumpers, he fell asleep along the baseline while long-range marksman Jamaal Crawford drifted to the corner to catch a pass for an open three-pointer. He rushed over unnecessarily to help Payne defend Glen Davis at the hoop, leaving Rivers wide open for a three-pointer. Back down on offense, he passed too soon and too hard to Gorgui Dieng on a pick-and-roll play.
Oh, and after that sparkling second quarter, LaVine didn’t make another field goal the rest of the game, committing three turnovers versus one assist and going minus-10 in 8:32 of play during the second half.
To his credit, Saunders has laced his generosity toward LaVine’s playing time with ample tugs of tough love. When I interviewed him in January, Saunders conceded that teammates don’t hustle down the court as often playing beside LaVine because they aren’t confident he can get them the ball even when they are open. He acknowledged that LaVine has a long way to go to become a consistent defender, especially in recognizing how to communicate and shore up trust on team coverage (as opposed to on-ball isolation defense, where LaVine’s athleticism can compensate for his inexperience).
Put simply, Saunders rarely tries to gloss over the ugly warts on LaVine’s game. Even on Monday night, after LaVine’s play had on-balance been a feel-good story in the narrow loss to the Clippers, the coach appropriately, if still delicately, ridiculed a question about whether Rubio had benefited from playing beside LaVine.
But the loyalty between the powerful coach-POBO and the teenaged rookie is steadfast. By now it is obvious to one and all that LaVine lacks the court vision, anticipation and dribbling facility to thrive as a point guard, but boasts the height (6-5) and athleticism to perhaps blossom into a star off-guard. Yet since trading Williams, Saunders continues to give as many or more minutes to LaVine at the point as he does playing the rookie beside Rubio, ignoring the other backup point guard, Lorenzo Brown.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, LaVine has logged 91 percent of his minutes at the point thus far and just 9 percent as an off-guard. Asked about this before a recent game, Saunders says the experience will help LaVine in the future, as he and Rubio can both initiate plays when they are paired in the backcourt. This may be the most outlandish aspect of his fast-forwarded development of LaVine — trading almost certain short-term carnage for what seems like, at best, a minimal long-term upgrade in LaVine’s skill set.
LaVine isn’t the only one suffering through an uncomfortable learning experience during this checkered Timberwolves season. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my antagonism toward LaVine is at least partially age-related.
A variety of factors have contributed to this dynamic. First of all, LaVine can’t help but be inevitably and unfairly compared Andrew Wiggins, the Rookie of the Year favorite who was the other teenager on the Wolves roster when the season began. (Wiggins has since turned 20. LaVine’s 20th birthday is Tuesday, March 10.)
Wiggins is one of the rare players who is LaVine’s equal in terms of raw physical prowess, but is preternaturally mature enough to hone his skill set around student achievement rather than stud athleticism. He is light years ahead of LaVine on the fundamentals of defense, let alone on the context of the game in his life and his career. His omnipresent example makes LaVine’s typical teenage behavior seem all the more callow.
Then there is Twitter. At the urging of friends and readers, I began live-tweeting games in earnest this season, using the format to lay out opinions that used to go into my notebook for more judicious consideration later. Consequently, a hefty proportion of the dozens of times I’ve been aghast and frustrated by LaVine’s ineptitude this season has been disseminated to the public. And as any pundit knows, for better or worse, you own the public pronouncements more than the private deliberations.
I started covering the Timberwolves franchise as a beat and part of my livelihood five years before LaVine was born. Over that time, it has been incredibly gratifying to pick up many of the nuances, philosophies and sciences of this glorious game and to cherish those who both ratify these refinements and continue to educate me with their “high basketball I.Q.”
Suffice is to say that Zach LaVine has not been one of those teachers this season.
Statistics and priorities
By the numbers, LaVine has been the poster boy for this wretched Wolves season. Minnesota scores 5.7 fewer points and gives up 7.1 more points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the court compared to when he sits. Roughly speaking, then, his presence holds his team back nearly 13 points a game.
Drill down a little bit and you can see how toxic LaVine is for the performance of some of his teammates. To choose the most extreme example, when the three-player combination of LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad shared the court for 255 minutes this season, the Wolves have been outscored by 20.6 points per 100 possessions. By contrast, the three-player combination of Dieng, Muhammad and Williams played together for 258 minutes and outscored the opposition by 9.7 points per 100 possessions.
Sure, the two other players in the quintet are variables not factored in here. But subbing in Williams for LaVine swung the three-player combo involving Muhammad and Dieng by more than 30 points per 100 possessions with nearly the same sample size.
Those numbers were taken from the lineup data at Basketball-Reference.com. According to the stats page at nba.com, LaVine has the fourth-worst plus-minus ratio among players who have logged at least 800 minutes this season. A lot of this has to do with his horrendous defense.
Players defended by LaVine are shooting 41.3 percent on three-pointers this season and 56.7 percent on two-pointers. There isn’t an area of the floor where he allows a lower shooting percentage than the league norm, but it is particularly glaring on shots from less than six feet, where players he guards are have a 16.8 greater shooting percentage than the average. From less than ten feet it is percentage of 13.8 more.
Defense requires three essential ingredients — effort (physical exertion), focus (mental exertion) and experience. LaVine woeful lack of experience obviously hurts him at the defensive end of the court. But his absence of focus and, for someone so athletic, his merely sporadic effort, are damning.
LaVine’s relative absence of defensive intensity becomes especially galling when you consider his stupendous winning performance in the slam-dunk contest over all star weekend. Yes, his innate, nearly off-the-charts athleticism was a primary factor in that memorable series of slams. But the amount of planning, repetition, energy, and focus required to choreograph and execute those performances was clearly considerable.
LaVine didn’t regard that enormous investment in his panoply of dunks to be onerous—it was fun for him and by his enthusiasm for the event, you know participating and winning the contest was the fulfillment of a long-held dream.
And that’s where the grumpy old man in me chafes and bellows. I have little doubt that LaVine has applied himself to the intricacies of dunking this season more intensely and thus more successfully than he has to the intricacies of team defense.
That’s not to say LaVine is wrong in his priorities. The NBA is entertainment, and he has put himself on the national map. The Wolves marketing department will likely sell more season tickets based on LaVine’s all star showing than they would if he dedicated himself to reducing his defensive lapses by 4-5 points per game.
But there is a toll taken by emphasizing entertainment over fundamentals. For team it is wins and losses. For a player it is ultimately a less successful career.
David Thorpe is a respected writer for ESPN as well as being a mentor to rookies and other young players. At the beginning of the season he was generally high on LaVine, for obvious reasons regarding his physical potential.
But his most recent assessment is revealing: “It was fun to see LaVine win the slam dunk contest but it was also a reminder of how much his game resembles a young Gerald Green as a player,” Thorpe wrote. “The game is about reading, thinking, reacting and discipline—all areas that LaVine is far from understanding at this point.”
Aside from Green and LaVine, the other player to both wear a Wolves uniform and win a slam dunk championship is J.R. Rider. Of the trio, I would say that LaVine has the best psychological makeup. Green’s on-court dialogs with himself and the world and the careening of his emotion lay bare his ongoing immaturity. Rider, of course, couldn’t keep his behavior in check enough to stay in the NBA. But they are both cautionary tales.
There is reason to be sanguine about LaVine’s future. As dreadful as he has performed this season, his statistics, as well as the eye test watching him play on the court, show improvement, especially with the return of the veterans to anchor his good habits and unburden his responsibilities. His sin is being a typical teenager. The most powerful person within the franchise he plays for is firmly invested in his success and giving him plenty of room to grow.
But the jury is out. Especially for this grumpy old man.