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On the Timberwolves, tanking and tough love

Head coach Flip Saunders is exercising some questionable moves with Zach LaVine, and — more importantly — heralded rookie Andrew Wiggins.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.