The 2014-15 edition of the Timberwolves: less of a team than flash mobs of ineptitude

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders left little doubt that the Wolves had achieved their top priority by amassing the worst record in the NBA.

For the final recap of the Minnesota Timberwolves 2014-15 season, I was going to apportion grades to each player, something that always feels arrogant but functions as a good organizing principle.

But then I realized it is impossible to judge players accurately in a context where the organization is assiduously trying to lose every game it plays. That is essentially what happened with the Wolves for significant chunks of the season, and especially in the final five weeks, which rank among the most unwatchable games I have seen in nearly a quarter-century of covering the franchise.

The Philadelphia 76ers have made no secret that their strategy has been to essentially hold tryouts for scrubs and journeymen the past two seasons while stockpiling injured young talent and future draft picks for a surge toward credible basketball somewhere down the road. They finished the season with 18 wins and 64 losses.

The New York Knicks shut down their star, Carmelo Anthony, before the All Star break and unloaded the rest of their decent players via trades or “injuries,” deploying 36 different starting lineups over the 82-game season. They finished 17-65.

The Wolves had the presumptive Rookie of the Year, Andrew Wiggins (who ranked second in the NBA in total minutes played) and still managed to out-tank the other determined losers, finishing 16-66.

Chaos theory

After the Wolves had surrendered 47 points in the first quarter (incredibly, it was not the first time that had happened this season) en route to a 138-113 drubbing by the Oklahoma City Thunder to close out the season Wednesday night, coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders left little doubt that the Wolves had achieved their top priority by amassing the worst record in the NBA.

“When those guys got hurt at the beginning of the year [veterans Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin], our vision for this organization changed. It was a difficult change at times from a fan’s standpoint and from a loss standpoint, but from a standpoint of what we ultimately want to try and do, the team we want to put together, it was something that we had to do.”

Later, in a telling slip, Saunders added, “There is no question that these last 80 games after we went in a different direction we found out a lot more about our players.” No, Minnesota didn’t start tanking after the second game of the season — it only felt that way. But they probably started tanking before Thanksgiving, around about Game 11, the first contest when Rubio, Pekovic and Martin were all sidelined with significant injuries at the same time.

What that produced was the worst team defense many of us have ever seen sustained over the course of a season. Opponents had an effective field goal percentage (a measure counting the added weight of three-pointers) of 53.7 against the Wolves, the highest since the 1996-97 Boston Celtics and the third-highest in NBA history, behind only the Celtics and the 1984-85 Golden State Warriors.

Unless you have a tri-star lineup fronted by Lebron James, the way to win in the NBA is by slowly but surely developing continuity. The Wolves took that truism, stood it on its head, and mockingly banged it into a concussive pulp. Their 2014-15 campaign sowed chaos by any means necessary. Their roster didn’t comprise a team so much as flash mobs of ineptitude. The Wolves performed on the court for a total of 3961 minutes this season. Their most frequently utilized five-man lineup was out there for 151 minutes and 17 seconds, the lowest total in the NBA.

The future doesn’t arrive

Ah, but they garnered the most lottery balls for next month’s ceremonial ordering of the NBA draft.

Asked what it meant that, even if the franchise endured their typically rotten luck in the lottery, they could fall no further than having the fourth overall pick in the draft, Saunders replied, “It’s very significant. People always talk about the lottery; it is not from the perspective of getting the number one pick, but it shows where your basement is, who your basement is. And it is important to know that there is only a certain point to where you can go down. We are going to have, we feel at our spot, we’ll bring in an impact player into the fold and add to our good young players.”

Thus begins the marketing campaign for 2015-16. If there is an aspect of the NBA where the Wolves have slowly but surely developed continuity, it is in the area of peddling hope.

There is at least a superficially credible case for yet again embracing the hope that the Wolves are on an upward trajectory after 11 years out of the playoffs. Wiggins is the real deal, a kid who embraces the physical, mental and psychological verities required for greatness. As he adds muscle and maturity, the only thing potentially standing in the way of his superstardom is the capricious voodoo doll of visited injury.

As Saunders correctly intimates, the Wolves will also draft a player of elite potential this summer. They already possess one of the league’s best passing and defending point guards in Rubio, an offensive stud in the low post in Pekovic, and some exciting young talent in Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Efficient scorer Kevin Martin is expected to return, and it is probable that franchise icon and ace defensive tutor Kevin Garnett will sign on for at least part-time duty.

But the reality is that the future is more uncertain than it is bright. Yes, Wiggins is a legitimate cornerstone, and those are precious. But after that…

Rubio is a marvelous talent who is better appreciated the longer you watch him. But he has missed at least 25 games due to injury in three of his four NBA seasons. He is a historically inaccurate shooter in a modern NBA game where the player with the ball must be able to score in crunch time. A hard accounting would compel him being placed in the middle of the pack among NBA point guards. He will begin his four-year, $55 million contract next season.

Pekovic has earned the mantle of being injury-prone by never once playing more than 2000 minutes in his five separate NBA seasons. This year he had a career low in playing time and field goal percentage and recently underwent surgery in a last-ditch effort to salvage his status as a regular rotation player in the NBA. He is owed $12 million per year for the next three seasons.

Who is the power forward for this team in 2015-16 and beyond? The Wolves punted a first-round draft pick in exchange for Thad Young, traded Young to Brooklyn for Kevin Garnett, traded a future (lottery protected) first round pick for Adreian Payne, and also acquired former first round pick (and top pick overall) Anthony Bennett in the same Kevin Love trade that brought them Young.

Tote it up and you have two first-rounders and Young out the window, and a pair of woeful underachievers (Payne and Bennett) in the fold alongside the aged Garnett. Dieng can slide over from center in certain matchups and one of the two ballyhooed collegians expected to go early in the draft, Duke’s Jahil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, are likewise players who project as centers but might get minutes at power forward.

How will the wing positions be filled? My preference is deploying Muhammad at small forward so that Wiggins can use his superior size at shooting guard, where he is still quick enough and will be better able to avoid the physical pounding meted out on him this season.

But shooting guard is also the best position for Martin and LaVine. Unfortunately, both are horrible defenders and after a season where he was the poster boy for chaos and tanking, it is almost impossible to forecast LaVine’s future. He already seems like a worthy gamble with the 13th overall pick in last summer’s draft as a potentially prolific scorer in the mold of Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith. But he lacks court sense — an absence of instinct, not maturity — on both offense and defense that limits his astounding athleticism. When Saunders stubbornly played him out of position at point guard all season, I thought it was part of the tanking strategy (and brilliantly successful if that’s indeed what it was), but when asked last Wednesday what would happen if Rubio doesn’t respond well to his recent ankle surgery, Saunders again raised the prospect of LaVine at the point.

So let’s add that to the list: Who besides Rubio can be a credible point guard on next year’s team?

Then there is the perennial question of when and how much Saunders will concede to the fundamentals of the modern NBA game and incorporate the three-point shot into his overall offensive scheme. 

Good hoops take time to prepare

The bottom line here is that, even if the Wolves snag another budding superstar in the upcoming draft, they are a minimum of two years away from ending their playoff drought in the rugged Western Conference. The hope here is that they start engaging in the painstaking process of a slow rebuild, developing roles and relationships that can blossom in concert for the highest maximum impact.

Continuity is crucial, a daunting fact considering that loyalty to this franchise is near exhaustion for most sane basketball fans suckered by the bait-and-switch circumstances of Garnett’s return. But hey, the “Eyes on the Rise” hype delivered a slam-dunk champion and a Rookie of the Year along with 16 wins and obscene defense, so buyer beware. 

Personally, I’d settle for a half-dozen other slogans for 2015-16. Loss of Chaos. Learning D With KG.  Free the 3. No More Flip Flops. Shotworthy with Penberthy. And Patience is a Virtue.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 04/17/2015 - 11:52 am.

    First pick

    I doubt they will actually end up with the first pick even with the most ping pong balls with the stupid lottery the NBA thinks is a good deal. The lottery is the dumbest thing ever and punishes teams (wolves several times) that are already bad. I haven’t seen a mock draft yet but I also doubt the number 1 or 2 player in the draft is what the wolves need anyway.

    • Submitted by Jeff Germann on 04/17/2015 - 12:40 pm.

      The first pick scares me…

      after hearing that Flip may favor Okafor over Townes. I think the pendulum has swung nationally for Townes over Okafor. Given that…it wouldnt surprise me that if we had the #1 pick we’d make the wrong call.

      That being said…I was pretty ticked when Flip picked Shabazz 2 years ago. I’ve been proven wrong on that.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 04/17/2015 - 12:40 pm.

    It was a gross season to watch

    That needs to be established before I go into quibbling about some of the other points. I hated the PR going into the season that featured none of the team’s 3 best players at the time and included 2 guys who proved they wouldn’t have deserved to play on any playoff team (LaVine and Bennett). I suspected early in the season that they’d tank if a big injury happened, but this wasn’t expected.

    They have 10 guys under contract for next season. Of the free agents, I want the chance to see if KG can play 65 games and shape up the defense, it’d be nice to see Hummel back, but the rest don’t matter, and Neal wouldn’t come back anyway. Bennett and Budinger are under-contract guys who are disposable if they don’t have to pay a team to take them.

    The main 2 things making me nervous this summer: they end up at 4 and Towns, Okafor, and Russell are gone; or they give away 1 or both of their 2nds. They don’t need to get a big, but Russell fits their needs a lot more than Mudiay. Most teams prefer Mudiay over Russell at this stage and could pick him over Okafor, so it’s not like picking 4th is a guaranteed bad outcome, but there’s a slight possibility he’s the best player available when they pick. High 2nd rounders regularly produce NBA starters. The last time they had 2 high second rounders, they got Pek and basically sold Chalmers when they could’ve had him, Jordan, Asik, or Dragic. I understand the “How many young guys can you have?” defense, but they haven’t been taking this round seriously enough.

    The rest of this is more about playing devil’s advocate. John Wall played with 22 teammates in his rookie season, and only fellow rookie Trevor Booker was still on the roster for his first playoff series. Blake Griffin played with 16, and only DeAndre Jordan really remains from that pre-Chris-Paul era. Durant and LeBron each had 20 teammates as rookies. Continued injury problems to cornerstones will hurt the cohesion, but teams have overcome similar seasons where seemingly little was figured out.

    Flip would’ve been better off keeping the Miami pick. The damage may not end up being bad, though, if the Heat keep their pick after the lottery and then make a big jump next season. Part of giving up that pick that gets forgotten, though: That deal doesn’t get done if Young and the pick are out of the equation. The pick also helped persuade Philly to take Mbah a Moute and Shved. And their replacement PF options in late August were limited. Either way, I was more a fan of trading Bennett to Philly and keeping Miami’s pick.

    As for LaVine, this team needs credible rotation players wherever they can find them. LaVine doesn’t have to be a 30+ minute starter to be worth that pick. The 10 guys picked at #13 previously were Telfair, Sean May, Thabo Sefolosha, Julian Wright, Brandon Rush, Tyler Hansbrough, Ed Davis, Markieff Morris, Kendall Marshall, and Kelly Olynyk. They’ll be fortunate if LaVine becomes a cross between Jamal Crawford and Gerald Green while he’s on his rookie contract. Beyond this top 4 pick and Wiggins, they mostly have to find competent rotation players for cheap so they don’t have to overpay limited veterans.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/17/2015 - 12:53 pm.

    Please…

    The love affair with Rubio continues….Why?

  4. Submitted by Adam Gerber on 04/17/2015 - 02:06 pm.

    Patience, Drafting Well, and looking to the future.

    I applaud your restraint regarding grading.

    Furthermore, I agree that the wolves are probably 2 years away from the playoffs. The closest (optimistic) precedent for the wolves situation is the 07-08 Sonics. While Wiggins’s output roughly approximates a rookie Kevin Durant (roughly), the teams were similarly terrible and full of forgettable talent. A Durant-led team made the playoffs for the first time in Durant’s 3rd pro-year: ’09-’10. This seems to be the pattern for a lot of NBA cornerstones… Anthony Davis just snuck into the playoffs this year, his third (likewise Curry, KG, etc). I hope Wiggins has the opportunity to follow in these footsteps.

    Miraculously, Flip acquired a potential cornerstone through a trade (this is very rare). Now that the dog (wolf?) has caught the car he’s been chasing, I hope he knows what to do with it. The wolves aren’t re-building anymore (NBA speak for losing and trying to find a cornerstone player), they are now just plain building.

    After drafting Durant, the thunder picked up at least one impact player in every draft year. The list of post-Durant sonics/thunder picks includes: Reggie Jackson, Eric Bledsoe, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Carl Landry, and Glen Davis. That’s insane, and that list excludes a number of other serviceable players they have drafted. I wouldn’t expect any team to match that level of drafting success, but the fact remains, in order to contend flip needs to fill roster holes at breakneck speed. Let’s start by knocking this draft out of the park. Adding talent will likely mean some tough/painful decisions in the next few years. Only 2 sonics/thunder players played in both KD’s rookie year, and his first playoff season: Nick Collison, and Jeff Green. On top of that turnover, the thunder famously traded away James Harden. On the court and off the court, turning wiggins’s considerable talent into team success will require a lot of work.

    So much work that maybe flip wants to hire a head coach that runs a modern NBA offense so he can focus on acquiring the right players?!?!?! right? hello???

  5. Submitted by Tom Om on 04/17/2015 - 06:36 pm.

    Rubio Mayo and Dr. Ferkel

    The good news about Rubio surgery is that it was done by Dr. Ferkel in CA., and not by the Mayo guys. Dr. Ferkel performed the same surgery on Curry’s ankle after Curry repeatedly injured this ankle. Since the surgery Curry is averaging 78 games per season. Hopefully Rubio will be able to do the same in the future after playing 82 games (full season) last year.
    Healthy ankle would also contribute to Rubios FG% and eFG%. As Britt pointed out several times in the past, Rubio’s mid range FG% improved markedly (10-16ft to 45%, and 16-24ft to 40%), and if Rubio’s would repeat his last year 49% at the rim (this year because of his ankle he had much less attempts from this distance and with much less accuracy) his eFG% would be probably close to 50% even with 33-34% of 3s.

    Modern basketball is not just 3pt which is, by the way, the most heavily assisted shot in the NBA. Modern basketball is also passing the ball and assists. GS, ATL and SA are all in the top 5 in assists and Passing. The biggest improvement in GS game was in its passing game. They added 70 passes per game, and moved from the last place in this category (2013-14) to the 5th this year.
    The return of a healthy Rubio, for sure, will contribute to this aspect of the game.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/18/2015 - 07:36 am.

    Relegation

    One of the things that frustrates me with American sports is that the owners of professional teams pay no price when their team is bad. In soccer, bad teams are replaced by better teams. Yet in America, obviously incompetent owners drag on for year after year, decade after decade.

    I know there is no prospect of a relegation system being instituted in professional basketball. In theory, we could be stuck with this team forever. But here is a modest proposal. Instead of giving bad teams good draft choices, draft choices they are incapable of using effectively, and which have the effect of exiling the new stars the league into venues where no one watches, my proposal is this. Don’t give the bad teams good draft choices, instead let’s put them at the end of the line, make them draft last rather than first. This really wouldn’t hurt the genuinely bad teams all that much because they will draft badly no matter where they pick, and it will at least encourage, the bad teams with hope to play at least credible basketball, particularly in the final days of the season.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/18/2015 - 07:47 pm.

    Bazzy

    The only place I would differ with your excellent analysis is Bazzy.
    I think his best contribution would be as a sixth man (in the Havlicek mode) who would come off the bench, but be in the game at the end and play more minutes than the fourth or fifth players. But the Wolves may not have this luxury.
    IF Wiggins beefs up a bit (the way Bazzy did) I think that he would be effective at small forward. If the Wolves can put two solid (physically and fundamentally) players next to him, I don’t think that he would suffer from physical play. He’s good a drawing fouls.
    That would leave Lavine at two guard (his true position). He’s still a bundle of potential, but if he can realize it he would be ideal there. All this is contingent, of course, on Saunders waking up and getting another competent point guard to back up Rubio.

Leave a Reply