The 2014-15 season of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball is aging like a beached fish in the morning sun.
On Monday night at Target Center versus the Utah Jazz, the Wolves trotted out the most absurd starting lineup yet in their clown-car campaign for a high lottery draft pick: A trio of rookies and two second-year journeymen who had logged more time in the D-League minors than the NBA before this season. Zach LaVine, drafted by the Wolves nine months ago, had seniority status in team tenure among the quintet.
Before the season started, the Wolves were marketing a brilliant slogan to corral paying customers: “Eyes on the Rise.” It disingenuously conflated the leaping ability of the team’s cadre of new athletic acquisitions with the tantalizing prospect of a similar elevation in the standings.
This second part of the “more dunks = more wins” equation was always a bit of a hoax, of course. Having swapped their superstar, Kevin Love, for a collection of beguiling jumping jacks, the Wolves were not about to “rise” above their 40-win, 10th place standing in the rugged Western Conference. But when injuries wiped out a trio of complementary veteran starters within the first three weeks of the season, the Wolves unofficial slogan inexorably became Guise on the Demise, as the team began figuring out ways to tank games in favor of developing youth and positioning themselves for this summer’s draft.
Before this year’s pratfall, the largest decline in win total in the 26-year history of the franchise (not counting the abbreviated strike season) was 14, from 58 victories in the magical 2003-04 season to 44 during the dysfunctional 2004-05 campaign that prematurely ended coach Flip Saunders’ first stint with the Wolves. Even if the current ragtag remnants of the Wolves’ roster were to miraculously win the team’s final eight contests of the 2014-15 season, they’d finish with a record of 24-58, or 16 wins behind the 40-42 mark posted in 2013-14.
No matter. As the Wolves face-plant themselves into another cruel April, there is optimism within the organization and among the fan base that is in stark contrast to the dolor generated by the team’s failed playoff chase and the impending departures of Love and coach Rick Adelman a year ago. This sunny outlook isn’t simply a refraction from the fool’s gold of slogans and wishful thinking. It is based on the cornerstone of a budding star with unfathomable potential who refused to be blinded or otherwise struck dumb by the glare of the hype. It is based on the fact that during his rookie season, Andrew Wiggins has consistently delivered the goods.
Last man standing
When second-year center Gorgui Dieng missed Monday’s game due to a concussion, Wiggins became the only member of the Timberwolves to appear in every game the team has played thus far this season. But that fact represents just the tip of the iceberg of what Wiggins has endured.
He has logged 2,640 minutes, most of it as a teenager, during this rookie season, the fourth most in the entire NBA. Two of the three players ahead of him, James Harden and Trevor Ariza, are teammates in Houston. The other one, John Wall, is a fifth-year veteran most commonly playing beside Marcin Gortat, Paul Pierce, Bradley Beal and Nene Hilario. Three of those four are holdover starters alongside Wall from last year’s playoff team in Washington; the fourth, Pierce, is a 37-year old former star and sage professional.
By contrast, Wiggins has played 447 minutes more than any of his teammates, the largest gap in the NBA. Only one teammate has been on the court with him for more than half of his minutes — Dieng, a second-year backup center with just 3011 career minutes. After that, it is Thad Young, who lasted 48 games in Minnesota before being traded away in February. The most commonly deployed three-man combination on the Wolves has been Wiggins, Dieng and Young, but at 862 minutes, the combo represents slightly over a third of Wiggins’ total court time — and will never be replicated now that Young is gone.
In other words, Wiggins has been thrown into the maw of adjusting to the NBA in an atmosphere of total chaos. He is the polestar among a rapidly rotating crew of mostly motley characters. From the start, he was a teenager given the arduous task of defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. By January 10, he had already logged more minutes than his sole season in college at Kansas. And by that January night, the Wolves had already been without starters Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin for nearly two months.
Throughout the season, storylines have come and gone. Consider the point guard position alone. When Rubio went down, callow Zach LaVine leapfrogged over Mo Williams into the starting lineup and proved so stupendously unprepared for the task that he was mercifully replaced. Williams erupted for a team-record 52 points and was soon peddled to Charlotte. Before that, Corey Brewer, nicknamed the “drunken dribbler” by the Wolves’ faithful, logged some surprisingly effective minutes at the point before he was shipped out to Houston for dimes on the dollar. Then there was the night Lorenzo Brown played all but a few seconds of the game against Cleveland.
But most often it has been LaVine at the point when Wiggins is playing. Anyone who has watched LaVine play knows that, to put it charitably, he cannot play point guard in anything but a rudimentary fashion.
Consequently, Wiggins has shot 39.1 percent from the field and 24.5 percent from three-point territory during the 1101 minutes he has played alongside LaVine and 46.4 percent from the field and 39.1 percent behind the arc during the 1539 minutes LaVine has been on the bench. Folks who want to decry his wayward shooting percentage may want to file away that fact.
Indeed looking at Wiggins’ statistical shortcomings without considering the context is malpractice in punditry. Basketball is a team sport. If you consider Wiggins’ own youth and inexperience versus the responsibilities he has been handed and environmental shambles of his situation — the constant losing, the roster that has never stopped churning, the gross incompetence — nobody in the NBA has toiled so mightily and been provided with less support this season. He has had no “team” to speak of, no place to fit in and flourish with familiarity.
On the contrary, he has been buffeted by temporary pecking orders and challenged by head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, tromping the throttle on his development. Kevin Martin returned and starting jacking up jumpers. Nikola Pekovic returned and re-established his primacy in the post. Ricky Rubio returned anxious to feed his familiar veterans and showcase his new shooting stroke. Kevin Garnett created a tsunami of goodwill and sold-out crowds, then proclaimed that he’d rather instruct his teammates in practice and skip the games, even though scheduling, health, and a ravaged roster ensured that the Wolves rarely practice.
Through it all, it was up to Wiggins to do the adjusting, not vice versa. When asked if Martin was taking shots away from Wiggins, Saunders replied that it was up to Wiggins to seize those shots if he wanted them. Later, the coach added that he wasn’t going to call plays for Wiggins anymore. Apparently the rookie didn’t have enough on his plate and had to start hunting for his own spots on the floor and moving with the ball — before returning to guard a high-powered wing scorer on the defensive end. Imagine Kevin Martin trying that. Or any other member of this roster.
And yet, Wiggins has made both Saunders and himself look good by streaking to the finish line of his rookie campaign. Two months ago, Saunders was noting that he’d hit the notorious “rookie wall.” Seven games ago, back home in Toronto for the only time this season to play against the Raptors, Wiggins conceded that he was tired but determined to play all 82 games. Since then, he has averaged more than 42 minutes, 21 points (abetted by nine trips to the free throw line), four rebounds and two assists per game.
That stat line culminated on Monday night against Utah, when Wiggins took the floor beside four teammates who all would have been better off playing in the D-league this season. Before the game, he was the topic of conversation from both coaches. Saunders remarked that, “These last four games are probably as good a stretch as he’s had from the perspective of playing aggressive. He’s finding different ways to play.”
At the other end of the hallway, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, “He’s putting a lot of pressure on the defense. Anytime a player can get his shot, it puts the defense in a position where, in order to defend him they have to be more aggressive. He’s taking advantage of that by making basketball plays — shot fakes, step-throughs and things like that.”
Utah has surged in the second half of the season on the crest of premiere shot-blocker Rudy Gobert, who stands 7 foot 1 inch, has a nearly 7-foot-9-inch wingspan and a 9-foot-7-inch standing reach. Just four minutes into the game on Monday, Wiggins drove up down the middle of the paint and delivered a slam-dunk beside the outstretched arm of Gobert. With five minutes to play in the first half, he topped that spectacular feat with a more impressive dunk.
Gobert was ready for him this time, and got himself set. Instead of trying to fly by him, Wiggins planted both feet and rose, exceeding Gobert’s hand well above the rim and slamming it home. When he landed, for the first time in memory, Wiggins allowed himself a celebratory roar as the crowd, players, everyone in the building, erupted.
It didn’t matter that minutes later, Gobert squashed Wiggins’ third dunk attempt at another miraculously high level and sent him tumbling backward from the clean block. And for this one night it didn’t matter that Wiggins finished with the horrible plus/minus of minus 38 in a 20-point loss.
It was ironic that in a rare game where his overall performance actually hurt his team, everyone was too fixated on his high-flying joust to notice — “Eyes on the Rise” indeed. His ineffective play was a rare chink in the armor of a season where Wiggins has been the consummate pro, grinding away at the dirty work in a losing cause.
If more celebratory roars and moments of joy can find their way through those chinks, let them come. Andrew Wiggins has nothing left to prove this season.