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.
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.