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On the Timberwolves, tanking and tough love

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Head Coach Flip Saunders is exercising some questionable tough love with heralded rookie Andrew Wiggins, above.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are abysmal again, in a manner that leaves a sour taste.

Since the ballyhooed return of Kevin Garnett — a certified box office bonanza, and, initially at least, a public relations coup — they have lost ten of eleven games. Garnett has played in four of those games, Nikola Pekovic in six, Ricky Rubio in nine.

Since that trio happen to be the most capably experienced defenders on the team — and because rookie wing stopper Andrew Wiggins is wearing down — the Wolves have been a joke at that end of the floor, ceding a total of 245 points in back-to-back games against San Antonio and Brooklyn earlier this week.

On Sunday, San Antonio converted 58.3 percent of its field goals and 54.5 percent of its three-pointers while trying very hard not to embarrass the Wolves — seven Spurs logged at least ten minutes apiece coming off the bench and no starter played as much as 26 minutes. The following night, Brooklyn scored 78 points in the paint — a franchise record for the Nets and the second-most the Wolves have ever allowed in a history already rife with ineptitude.

Wednesday, with Sam Mitchell filling in for head coach Flip Saunders (absent for personal reasons) the team scrapped to a respectable loss in Toronto, outscoring the Raptors in the paint 54-to-38 in their third straight game with just eight healthy players on hand. 

The list of the injured is lengthy and suspiciously chronic. Robbie Hummel was initially estimated to miss about six weeks when he broke his hand on January 25. Anthony Bennett, who desperately needs to get on the court to salvage his plummeting career, has been waylaid for a month with no timetable for his return. Pekovic has played nine games then missed 31; played 18 then missed one; played four and has now missed four. Rubio has missed two-thirds of the season and says his ankle is still troublesome.

‘Bad luck’ — or tanking?

But it is the absence of Garnett that is prompting the most cynicism among the Wolves faithful. In many respects, he remained the abiding face of the franchise even during his eight-year sojourn to Boston and Brooklyn because he produced a reliably durable standard of excellence that wasn’t even remotely rivaled while he was gone.

Upon his return, he said and did all the right things, from his charismatic “welcome back” press conference to his on-court inspiration and leadership. On some level, everybody understood he was significantly more aged and fragile than his MVP heyday; that he would likely rest during one of the back-to-back games when they occurred on the schedule and log approximately 20-to-25 of the 48-minutes in games he did play. Fans hoped, and perhaps even trusted, that management would provide him more rest on road trips so he’d be better able to perform at home. In any case, the masterful marketing by both player and team upon his return prompted an immediate string of sellouts and has already bolstered ticket sales for the remaining home games of the 2014-15 season.

On Monday night, Garnett missed his first home game since arriving back in town. It felt dreadfully familiar to the dolorous home stretch in the springs of 2006 and 2007, when a dinged-up KG conveniently enabled a Minnesota team that was out of the playoff chase to improve its standing in the draft lottery.

As promised by coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, Garnett’s presence has been an elixir for the caliber of play of this exceedingly young ballclub. Since he first stepped on the court against Washington three weeks ago, he has played five games. The Wolves have won two of them and have actually outscored the opposition by a net four points. By contrast, the Wolves have lost all seven of the games KG has missed during those three weeks, and have been outscored by nearly 13 points per game — 90 points overall.

With the Toronto loss, the team’s record fell to 14-53, which ties them with the New York Knicks for the worst record in the NBA. These hapless foes square off tonight in Madison Square Garden. But even if the Wolves manage to win, their most recent slide has them firmly entrenched near the bottom of the barrel. Minnesota is currently one victory behind the Philadelphia 76ers, three behind the Los Angeles Lakers, and at least seven wins behind everyone else, with just 15 games left to play.

I have no idea how much control Wolves management has, and has had, over these circumstances. But enjoying a significant boost in home attendance while stumbling your way toward a significant chance to nab a potentially elite player in the draft lottery sounds like an ideal scenario for a rotten basketball team. 

LaVine’s stunted growth

Having your veteran core ravaged by injuries at least presents the opportunity to toss your unseasoned youngsters into the pool for some on-the-job training. But there is evidence that even this silver lining is fraying. Some of the lessons aren’t being learned. And some of the other lessons shouldn’t be taught in the first place.

Exhibit A for the slow learning curve is Zach LaVine. I know I’ve been notoriously hard on LaVine, who just turned 20 years old and has been trying to grasp the intricacies of point guard in the NBA after not even starting at the shooting guard position his lone year in college. But in game 66 of the season, with 1250 minutes of play already under his belt, LaVine tested the patience of his coaches Monday night.

It came after a first quarter in which LaVine racked up nine points, two assists and a steal. But after getting five more points in the first minute of the second period, he got careless on defense and drew a pair of quick fouls belatedly trying to guard backup Nets point guard Jarrett Jack. When he returned to the court later in the quarter, he quickly made two ill-advised passes — a nonchalant drop pass to unsuspecting big man Justin Hamilton on the move, and then a silly bounce pass to two defenders who were both guarding Hamilton on a pick and roll play — that became live-ball turnovers. Even with Rubio still unavailable and LaVine on a scoring roll, Saunders quickly deposited him back on the bench.

Coming out for a halftime conversation with sideline reporter Marney Gellner, assistant coach Mitchell couldn’t contain his frustration with the team in general and LaVine in particular. “We’re not competing,” Mitchell seethed, after the Wolves had allowed 67 points in the half. “Our guys have to come out and play with some energy and some toughness…this is the NBA.”

After Gellner noted that LaVine had sunk four out of five three-point attempts, Mitchell replied, “We’re not worried about the scoring right now. You’ve got to run the offense and do all the things that are necessary. Zach has made some shots but we are disappointed. He has got to run the team, he has got to play better defense and he has to stop turning the basketball over.”

When it was over, the Wolves were minus-23 during the 30:30 LaVine was on the court and plus-7 during the 17:30 that he sat in favor of his backup, Lorenzo Brown.

“If they make the same mistakes then you have to take them out and sit them down,” Saunders said after the game. “They have to know that there is a consequence to making the same mistake over and over again.”  

It is an ironic statement in some ways, as one could accuse Saunders of “making the same mistake over and over again” playing LaVine at point guard instead of shooting guard. Filling in for Saunders as coach on Wednesday, Mitchell had either Rubio or backup point guard Lorenzo Brown out on the court for the vast majority of LaVine’s 19:55 of playing time.

I understand that Saunders is aiming for the shock therapy of full NBA immersion as a way to speed LaVine’s development. And, for better or worse, LaVine seems impermeable to self-doubt. But continually thrusting your least NBA-ready player into the most strategically important position on the floor saps the spirit and synergy of teammates — and doesn’t seem to be hastening LaVine’s grasp of the game.

On the contrary, LaVine is at his best when he plays with swagger. The best chance of stoking that positive arrogance is to turn him loose to attack the basket and then to parlay those successful drives into open jumpers. This is best accomplished by relieving him of the point-guard duties of bringing up and then distributing the ball. Let him learn how to move without the ball and then receive it in ways where he can maximize his athleticism. Then, once he’s feeling good about himself, challenge him to learn some point and also buckle down on defense. 

Questionable tough love with Wiggins

Saunders is also exercising some questionable tough love with an even more heralded rookie, Andrew Wiggins.  “In college they said [Wiggins] had tendencies a lot to just disappear. We are trying to get him to play. A lot of times we have to call plays to get him going. I said I’m not going to do that,” Saunders remarked on Monday after the Brooklyn loss.

“These last 20 games he has to learn how to play. You have to generate your own offense and your own opportunities. That’s his next step. We took a step where we can give him the ball and he can score on people, we got the ball in his areas. Now he has got to find a way to get to his areas on his own. That is mental, something he has got to work on, and also physical.”

First of all, rest assured that Wiggins has done the opposite of “disappear” for the Wolves this season. On the contrary, while the grizzled vets have been mowed down by one injury after another, Wiggins, along with Gorgui Dieng and LaVine, has suited up for each one of the 67 games thus far.

Wiggins, who was just a teenager until less than a month ago, currently ranks eighth in the NBA in minutes-played with 2343, just 82 minutes behind co-leaders James Harden and John Wall and 359 minutes more than any of his teammates. Furthermore, they are rugged minutes — without respite.

Wiggins is regularly assigned the opponent’s top perimeter scorer on defense, a job that requires continual reaction to deny a team its bread-and-butter source of offense, often bruited by a player with a superb-to-elite skill set. Meanwhile, at the other end of the court, because Wiggins is so frequently paired with a smaller or more perimeter-oriented wing player, he frequently draws the opponent’s larger and more physical defender.

Got that? Wiggins ranks in the top eight in minutes while serving as the Wolves defensive wing stopper and, despite being only 200 pounds, Minnesota’s larger wing scorer. He has long since passed the point when most observers would attribute a deep slump to him hitting the infamous “rookie wall,” when the sheer minutes (let alone the constant travel and supreme competition) are far greater than anything the player has experienced at the prep or college level.

Saunders has chosen this time to stop coddling his franchise cornerstone. The coach and personnel boss is not going to make it easy and run plays for Wiggins that get him to the areas where he can flourish. No, he’s going to make Wiggins further exert himself on offense by moving without the ball and by bulldozing his way to his own play-call.

Consequently, Wiggins has been a less impactful player on the court for Minnesota. His shooting percentage — on field goals, free throws and especially three-pointers — has declined for two straight months since its January peak. Prior to the all-star break, the Wolves were -8.4 points per game when Wiggins was on the court and -8.6 points per game overall. Since the all -break, Minnesota is -10.2 per game when Wiggins plays and -6.8 points per game overall.

Yes, some of this disparity is because Wiggins is always around to play with whomever is healthy, whereas the vets like Pekovic, Rubio and Martin — and now Garnett — seem to get healthy and injured in sync. But that’s the point: Such reliability should earn a show of respect by the franchise in trying to find ways to accommodate, instead of exacerbate, his inevitable fatigue.

Wiggins came home to his native Toronto for the first time in his pro career on Wednesday. The outpouring of support, including a game-long appearance by the prime minister, was enormous.

After the game, facing a swarm of microphones from a gaggle of media, Wiggins was more open and easygoing than I’ve ever seen him in response to questions. Asked point-blank if he was tired, he flashed his klieg-light smile, nodded his head and replied, “Yeah. I’ve been working hard to improve my game. I think this is the time of year — it is a bit different from college.”

But later he acknowledged that playing in all 82 games is “a goal” and “something I aim to do.”

Time will tell whether or not Saunders is ultimately wise in his crash-course strategy to plant obstacles for LaVine and Wiggins to overcome, rather than putting them in optimal situations to succeed immediately. And, it should be noted, it is a strategy that should add a lottery ball or two to the draft lottery this summer.

But next season, regardless of which player the Wolves draft and how much Wiggins bulks up in the offseason, the hope here is that he gets to play more shooting guard and less small forward on offense. It would relieve some of the wear and tear of being guarded by larger opponents and give him more energy on defense. 

Besides, imagining Rubio teaming with Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad in an athletic, drive-and-kick offense that spreads the floor and moves the ball is sweet contemplation to pass the time as the Wolves finish out this season’s wallow in the abyss.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/19/2015 - 11:36 am.

    Continually puzzled

    I hate to sound like a broken record here, but I just don’t get what Flip is doing with this team. The fact that the 76ers have a better record than the Wolves (even considering the injuries the Wolves have had) is emblematic of the fact that Sixers — despite their lack of talent — have a somewhat coherent defensive system. Somehow they manage to accomplish that without requiring a gimpy 38-year-old future Hall of Famer to put people in the right spots on the defensive end.

    Even offensively, the Sixers have a modern approach (but not the talent to carry it out). Lots of shots at the rim and from 3.

    That, and it’s a reflection that many of Philly’s castoffs are just as good as players that Saunders has spent assets on to acquire (hello, Adreian Payne).

    I don’t know how the Wolves can reasonably invest in one or two more seasons of KG if he’s really in this rough of shape. If you could get 60 games at 20 minutes per, OK. But it’s looking like that it really optimistic at this point, and this team can’t afford to tie up $18M or so in Pek and KG with no idea of how much either of them will be able to play. Not to mention another ~$8M tied up in the Bennett/Payne mess and the rapidly shrinking Gorgui Dieng.

  2. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 03/19/2015 - 12:15 pm.

    Bench depletion

    Maybe I’m failing to see the alternative re: minutes for LaVine and Wiggins. No one except for me is walking into Target Center to see players like Lorenzo Brown and Chase Budinger. We’re already without most of our starters again, except for the one who is shouldering the scoring burden at SG (of course). I don’t think it’s realistic to cut into Martin’s minutes, as he’s clearly our #1 option on offense at the moment, just to give LaVine or Wiggins burn at that position.

    I do agree that Wiggins has played too many minutes this season, though I’m uncertain as to the long-term detriments of this. If anything, I disagree with Flip’s strategy of not running more plays for Wiggins, as I’d like to see him develop more confidence off the dribble (as opposed to on cuts or around screens). Players do the most growth during their first offseason, and I’d rather Wiggins gain experience now against pros who are gearing up for the playoffs (or their next paycheck) than let him out of class early.

    It’s unfortunate that injuries have once again deprived this team from its potential. And it’s also not helping that we’re essentially hosting an open tryout for the PF position (though I’ve enjoyed watching Hamilton and Payne play). I do think the trio of LaVine, Muhammad, and Wiggins can be a solid wing rotation in the future, but yes, the Wolves need to address the backup PG situation this offseason with a veteran player not named LaVine.

  3. Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 03/19/2015 - 12:35 pm.

    Addressing Saunders/Injuries

    Thanks Britt for yet another honest, but calculated assessment of the team.

    On that note, you are far more level-headed than I am at this familiar juncture of the season, where in-depth discussion strongly minimizes, cynicism and negative energy rises, the game stories become repetitive and, like always, the Wolves can never seem to get more than half of a team to suit up for a game.

    Please correct me if I am misinterpreting some of your recent pieces and tweets, but I keep getting a vibe, driven by veiled yet not quite direct shots, that you are not happy with Saunders this season. From my perspective, and throwing level-headedness and passive aggression out the window, I think his return to the sidelines has been nothing short of a disaster. Any trust or belief I had in the guy has been completely thrown out the window, whether it be misusing nearly every player up and down the roster, the long 2 hysterics, the putrid defense that is worse than any offensive mishap, forcing players into a terrible system to Rambis-proportions, running Pek and Rubio into the ground despite injury concerns, completely mismanaging the roster throughout the season, everything you described above, inexplicably trading a 1st round pick for Adriean Payne, gutting pick and rolls out of the offense, the hilariously dysfunctional lack of accountability, the fact that you could probably bet your life savings on Wittman returning to the Wolves as an assistant and retire a very rich man….. The list goes on, and on, and on….

    Flip hasn’t coached a winning basketball team in 7 years. Pardon my venting and bitching.

    Lastly, I want to touch specifically on the health of the players. You and I touched base briefly on Twitter the other day as to the depth of relationship between the Wolves and Mayo. You pointed out that the Wolves/Mayo relationship goes beyond financial co-branding (as I had thought/assumed based on the ads) and indeed they use Mayo facilities for diagnostics. However, as far as I know the day to day injury management and rehab is still in the hands of Gregg Farnham and the training staff. Now, I don’t want to place blame without a lack of knowledge, but this is now the 4th or 5th year in a row in which the Wolves have barely been able to scrap a team together to play. Sure, many injuries were freak and bad luck, but I continue to remain strongly puzzled as to why the Wolves’ players seem to take weeks longer to recover from injury vs. other teams. Is it tanking/precautionary? Is it the training staff and rehab programs? Why should we think next season will be a cure all and we won’t face the same thing for yet another season? It is becoming too odd to dismiss as bad luck in my view.

    • Submitted by Chris MICKOLICHEK on 03/19/2015 - 03:52 pm.

      Nailed it

      Mike you doing a great job of explaining my feelings about this season.

      I chuckle out loud every time I see the Mayo Clinic bit while watching the games at home. With the amount of injuries that the Wolves have gone through this season(and the last few), the Mayo clinic is pretty much the last place I am going to get my injuries addressed. To be fair, I do think that Flip is more to blame for most of the injury minutes that Pek and Rubio have missed. Flip was religious about Ricky playing only 20 minutes before the all star game and then after the break he ran him out there for about 43 minutes a game. Before the season, Flip said that he was only going to play Pek 24-30 minutes a game but he was running him out there at least 30 minutes a game when ever he was healthy.

      My biggest grip is also the management of the team in general. If Zack is going to play 2 guard going forward, why are they constantly running him out at point. Play Lo Brown at PG and let the young guys learn the position that you see them playing 2 or 3 seasons down the road as opposed to trying to steal a few games this season. Stealing games this year at the expense of teaching good habits this season is the primary reason that I hope Flip actually spends some time looking for a coach this off season and not hire himself back for next year. I was never high on Flip coming back as coach and after watching the season–I would not be very excited to see him back next year. I heard Mike Malone is looking for something to do, he seems like a fine coach.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/19/2015 - 12:49 pm.

    A modest proposal

    Make Sam Mitchell the permanent coach, and let Saunders concentrate on doing one job right.
    Telling Wiggins that he should play schoolyard one-on-one rather than a team offense is incompetent coaching.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 03/19/2015 - 02:21 pm.

    It’s baffling at times

    I’m not going to speculate on how it affects either youngster’s future. We just don’t know enough about what historically works best or what makes either tick. Wiggins’ agent is one of Flip’s cronies, so we could assume he’d have his ear about his client’s best interests.

    The approach they took on Monday seems most appropriate for LaVine: his minutes should be affected by whether he adds more than he takes away. If they use Brown effectively, it’s for shaping LaVine up.

    Watching Budinger and Hamilton in the offense makes it clear what’s lacking from the other youngsters on that end. I think they just want Wiggins to trust the offense because he could get easier and better shots. Why can’t he be the cutter that Chase is and not need those flow-clogging post ups? Rubio’s awesome 4th quarter pass for a Budinger layup would work with anyone and generate open dunks.

    As for the future, any team starting Wiggins and Muhammad is just going to be more post-oriented until they both learn how to dribble effectively get shots through ways other than having 5+ seconds to work in the post. It’s reactionary to pine for heavy doses of pick-and-roll; more would help, but the top offenses generate open 3s through screens, cuts, and passes. Heavy emphasis on pick and rolls requires multiple guys to be the main ballhandler, which wouldn’t work well with Muhammad and Wiggins being below-average in that area for wings.

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