If you are a longtime fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves, you are very, very weary by now of hearing about potential. Because, to put it bluntly (and still understate it), potential hasn’t panned out.
With four games remaining in the 2014-15 season, the Wolves long-ago secured the title of the worst team in the NBA over the past decade. They are the only NBA franchise without a single winning record in the ten seasons since the onset of the 2005-06 campaign. Their 544 losses over that span are 30 more than their nearest competitor in on-court crime, the Sacramento Kings.
The Wolves have lost at least 60 of their 82 games four times in the past ten seasons. To suffer three losses for each time you win is a soul-crushing experience, yet it happens on a fairly regular basis around here. The bedrock fan base long ago moved past the “die hard” stage into Rasputin territory.
It has become an existential question: How do you root for the Wolves without becoming either a cynic or a sap?
As someone who has followed the franchise since its inception and been on the Wolves beat since 1990, my advice is to identify, and then cherish, the precious few virtues you see. Separate the thin shreds of wheat from the ample chaff and then partake of that wheat like it is homemade ice cream.
This season’s nourishing exploits primarily came courtesy of Andrew Wiggins. And Shabazz Muhammad.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a SEAL
Wiggins, the inevitable Rookie of the Year this season, is understandably the most coveted gem for those who follow the Wolves. But Bazzy, the dude left off all those Eyes on the Rise posters, is the whirling dervish emblazoned in the memory bank, the reliable ace in the hole when that hole is the space that needs to be filled inside the hoop.
With just a week left in the 2014-15 season, he has scored more points for every time he touched the ball than anyone in the NBA who has played more than 20 minutes per game.
Of course, the Wolves have not reaped the benefit of Bazzy’s services since February 20, the first game after the all-star break. Two days earlier, he had ruptured a ligament in the middle finger of his left (shooting) hand during practice. He tried to play through it because he was just a couple of games back from missing a month of the season due to an abdominal strain in early January. But surgery to repair the finger was recommended and the prognosis was that he would miss the remainder of the season.
But Bazzy doesn’t cotton to inactivity. An hour before the Timberwolves tipped off against the Orlando Magic at Target Center last Friday, he was out on the court working on his shots while being fed a constant stream of balls by assistant coach David Adelman.
For those in the media who are allowed to watch the end of the team’s practices or who arrive early for games, the sight of Bazzy launching balls at the hoop is a common tableau. During his rookie season, when he played just 14 times in the team’s first 50 games, and never for more than 10 minutes, a particular focus was on his midrange jumper, long-range shooting, and back-to-the-basket post moves.
Given a chance to play more during the second half of that rookie season, he seized the chance and proved to be a beast on the lower left block near the hoop. It helped him convert 50 percent of his shots after the all-star break.
On Friday, Bazzy concentrated on “floaters,” shots that waft off the hand and rely on the momentum of the player’s entire body. They are a type of shot used to counteract defenders who deter pathways on drives to the basket, hoping to either block the shot or draw a charging foul.
Over and over again, Bazzy would take the feed from Adelman, move toward the basket from various angles and then suddenly pull up and arch a 10-to-12 footer.
The practice with floaters continued Muhammad’s doggedly proactive approach to his offensive arsenal. Just 11 of his 124 shots during his rookie season were three-pointers, but all that work on his long-range game while he was languishing on the pine paid off this season. His percentage of attempted threes among his total shots jumped from 8.9 to 12.8 (under a new coach, Flip Saunders, who says he doesn’t design plays for three-pointers) while his accuracy rose from 27.3 to 39.2 percent.
Then, during the off-season, Bazzy embarked on a brutal six-week training regimen patterned after the program for Navy SEALs, and lost 15 pounds while adding strength and sculpting his torso. When I saw his 225-pound frame at Media Day at the beginning of preseason, I skeptically asked him how he could continue to be effective jousting with much taller and heavier opponents down near the hoop. I am stronger and quicker now, he replied, certainty in his voice.
And so he was. The percentage of Bazzy’s shots taking place within three feet of the hoop rose from 32.3 to 36.5 this season, while his accuracy on those shots leaped from 47.5 to 67.6 percent. Sure, some of those were uncontested layups and dunks accomplished by Bazzy running the floor in transition. But plenty of them also came when he flew past defenders and was able to muscle up shots down low. (One reason why his free throw attempts jumped from 5.0 to 6.0 per 36 minutes this season.)
This combination of speed and muscle was gorgeous to behold in this doomed season. Inevitably, opponents are going to start trying to take away his aggression toward the hoop by positioning themselves for charges and giving him space for the midrange jumper. That’s where the floaters will hopefully provide the counter.
Wing platter with maestro marination
Working out before the game on Friday, Muhammad didn’t seem at all hampered by the aftereffects of his finger surgery. But there is no doubt that he is finished for the 2014-15 season. It is by now apparent that Wolves management is far more interested in securing losses to better position themselves in the draft than they are in maximizing current player development for next season.
Before we close the book on Bazzy’s season, however, let’s marvel a little bit at the fine print. According to the stats page at nba.com, he led the NBA by scoring .541 points every time he touched the ball. (Unless you count the three benchwarmers ahead of him who combined for a total of 25 touches in 10 games. Bazzy had 930 touches.)
What is even more remarkable about this prolific scoring is how much Muhammad was hindered by sharing the court with a point guard, Zach LaVine, who was overwhelmed by the demands of the position.
During the 399 minutes that Muhammad and LaVine shared the court, the Wolves were outscored by 20.1 points per 100 possessions. During the 378 minutes Muhammad and Mo Williams shared the court, the Wolves outscored their opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. That is an astounding disparity of 21.3 points per 100 possessions in fairly comparable minutes.
Now imagine what would happen if the Wolves stumbled over the bright idea of putting Bazzy and Wiggins in a wing platter with Ricky Rubio running the point. Bazzy’s strength and quickness compels opponents to use their larger wing defender on him, enabling Wiggins to avoid the physical beating that has become the standard way of retarding his offense. Because Bazzy is also a credible three-point threat (as is Wiggins, if given the opportunity), he can provide better spacing for Rubio’s choreography. Then there is the smooth flow and devastating efficiency they could generate in transition.
Coach Flip Saunders belatedly understood the value of a Muhammad-Wiggins wing platter. Unfortunately, it occurred after Rubio had already gone down with a severely sprained ankle. The Wolves were minus 8.6 points per 100 possessions during the 441 minutes when Wiggins and Bazzy shared the court, but again, that was dragged down by the presence of LaVine, who played almost exactly half (221) of those shared minutes, during which time the Wolves were minus 16.4 points per 100 possessions.
It doesn’t seem like rocket science: Take the guy who led the NBA in points per touch and pair him with a perspicacious passer who happens to be a historically wretched shooter. Oh, and throw in a budding superstar and franchise cornerstone.
It’s got potential.
‘I’m definitely happy here’: a Q&A with Bazzy
The following is a ten-minute conversation that occurred last Friday afternoon after shootaround practice, before the Orlando game at Target Center.
Muhammad talks like he plays, in sweeping gusts that contain just enough herky-jerky rhythm to keep you guessing. In both, he is eager to carry out the wishes of the Wolves management without deterring his youthful enthusiasm.
Minnpost: When you get your exit interview with Flip, what do you think he is going to say?
Shabazz Muhammad: I think he’ll say this summer just continue to work on your body. That is pretty much the main thing for me, working on my body, staying fit, continue to have the body fat down and eat really good. That helps my game overall and is something that is really important to me.
MP: What do you think you have established with your play this year? And after that I am going to ask you what areas do you think have fallen by the wayside that you need to get right on?
SM: I think I have established and satisfied myself that I can be a pretty good scorer in this league, and a young scorer at that. Probably the one thing I am really going to work on is defending. That is the one thing the coaches really stress for me is guarding and trying to be a two-way player and that is something I really want to do for myself personally.
MP: Does it matter to you, on either side of the ball, offense or defense, whether you play the two [shooting guard] or the three [small forward], position-wise?
SM: No, it doesn’t. I’m really going to work on my ball-handling this year. With Wigs being a three, I think I can play the two alongside him. This year we saw a little of it; we give [opponents] a lot of problems. We are pretty much really big twos and threes and they really pretty much have to pick which one they want to guard. That is something we have even been talking about, getting my ball-handling right and get down that two spot position.
MP: I guess it also doesn’t matter if you played the three and he played the two; it is all matchups anyway.
SM: Right, right. I agree. Two or three, I think we can both play those spots. I think he is going to do the same thing, work on his ball handling. He has pretty much had an excellent year. I think the proof for us to get that ball handling tight and make us a much better team next year.
MP: When I watch you guys, it seems like when you are both on the court you could play a drive-and-kick game, like Atlanta has that spread offense, only with Rubio running it. Being able to spread the floor like that, you are naturally a penetrator by instinct, but I think both of you have the capability to step back and hit that three so that if one of the guys is driving someone will be open at the weak-side wing.
SM: Yeah definitely. That is something that I really worked on is my three-point shot. Also ‘Drew is working on his three-point shot too. I think that is the next big step for us to really be a complete team and really be the team we want to be. Next year I think — I don’t know what our record is right now — but next year we are really going to turn it around. I’ll be in my third year next year and much more mature. And ‘Drew will be in his second year. It feels like he is already two years in the way he has started to grow.
MP: One thing I noticed is you were able to back people down your rookie year; you had that back to the basket capability, especially on the low left block. You seem to have expanded your game this season and also seem to be able to take people off the dribble better. Your handle isn’t obviously where you want it to be …
MP: … but you say that is something you are going to be working on. Did getting to the hoop better happen through working on a specific point of improvement or just general maturity?
SM: I think it was just losing that extra 15, 20 pounds, being able to move better. My rookie year, posting up, I was a lot slower. This year I was way faster, getting a lot more dunks. I was getting more playing time, but just being more explosive, that is something that our team really needs. And like I said, being able to take a guy off the dribble really gives us a great option because we have guys like Andrew who can really step it up and play off of it.
MP: You have played very few minutes with Rubio and it seems like that is an opportunity for you.
MP: I mean Zach is over his head right now and Mo is gone but he was a shoot-first guy anyway. Are you looking forward to Rubio? Did you have a pass-first point guard in college?
SM: Nah, never. The crazy thing is, I remember Rubio was in and it was me and Andrew; I mean he was just having a field day. It was so much easier for him to just pass it up and he didn’t have to do so much stuff. He could pass it up to me with me running the floor so hard. That is something I think is really going to take a lot, it will ease off of Rick and it is really going to help our team out a lot.
MP: Have you talked to Flip at all about whether he wants you or Kevin Martin to come off the bench? Because it seems like one of you guys has to be the sixth man and there are arguments for that either way. What does he say?
SM: I’ve just been trying to wait my turn. Kevin’s the vet. This is my second year and [Saunders] said just keep doing what you’re doing, you’re really doing a good job and I always try to listen to coach to see what he’s talking about. But like I said, they are going to make the opportunity for whoever it is. I’ve been just coming off the bench for now and I think it has been a great opportunity for me; I’ve really been learning from Kevin and I think next year, he’s taught me a lot of things like moving off the ball, without the ball. So I think that we’ll see what happens with that, but I’m not too worried about that. I know coach will do the best thing for us.
MP: Defensively, what do you think needs most work — on-ball, communication, transition?
SM: I think on-ball. I think my communication and help-side defense is really good; my lateral movement has really improved. But on the ball is the most important thing for me because I really want to be able — I know Andrew plays really good defense and that’s something that I am trying to do too. The guard positions are the biggest spots [to defend], especially how he scores too, we can switch off on the better defenders and I think that will be something we can both benefit off of.
MP: What gives you more problems; size or quickness?
SM: Probably quickness. I can pretty much use my body to my advantage. But if they are a little bit quicker, unless I give them a little more room, I have really got to move my feet.
MP: Strength-wise, are you going to go back to that same guy next year for your workouts?
SM: Yeah yeah yeah, definitely. I am probably going to take three or four weeks off and then go to him this time. Last time I only worked out with him for a few weeks and this time I’ll be able to work out with him for a lot longer and then do basketball after that. So I think it is going to work out really well for me.
MP: When you came into the league, for whatever reason, you didn’t have a reputation of being this solid citizen and really hard worker. Was that just a misrepresentation or was that maturity on your part?
SM: I think it was a misrepresentation. When I was in college, I had a lot of people doing my stuff for me and didn’t really know what was really going on with my off-the-court things. That was the main reason they were really concerned, and that is something that I really changed. I have really just been talking for myself and knowing that I am a good, good person, a good guy. That’s one thing coach told me that it was a big mistake — that everyone thought I was not a hard worker, but I try to get better every day. I love having this opportunity here, and being drafted in this spot because this could be a really good team and a really young team also.
MP: It seems like your rookie year, whenever I would come in a see you after practice, you were always shooting outside jumpers. You really worked hard on honing an outside shot. You didn’t do much of that in college; it was mostly transition.
SM: Right right. That is something I am really trying to do. The NBA three is obviously longer [distance away] than the college three and it is something I have been trying to do. I think I am something like 39 percent from the three so that is really good and something I have really improved on. Just take a little time after practice and get a lot of shots up with our coaches. That is something that has really helped me out a lot, just making sure I have a feel for that and having the correct technique on my jump shot.
MP: Who are you tight with on this team?
SM: Who am I tight with? Probably, uh, a lot of guys. I mean Andrew [Wiggins] is a really good guy. Anthony [Bennett], I mean all the young guys. We just really hang together and it is really good because I know these guys are going to be here in the future, like Zach, and it is going to be a really great opportunity for us. Guys are willing to work hard and that’s the biggest thing. I know we’re losing, but guys want to work hard here and guys can see it. That’s why I think we’re going to be pretty good in the next couple of years.
MP: So you are happy here?
SM: Yeah I’m definitely happy here. I am happy that Flip drafted me here. He’s the coach, gave me an opportunity. I mean, my first year here he told me I am going to get my opportunities and I listened to him, even though I didn’t play and went to the D-League. But I just kept my head up. I think that was the biggest thing for me, to listen to what coach was saying and everything came out to be just fine.
MP: Last question: Coming into this season, did you think you were going to get minutes? I looked at this roster coming in and I was thinking, if there is an odd guy out here, it is going to be Bazzy.
SM: Definitely. Definitely. That’s why I was thinking I’ve really got to work hard this summer. When we got Andrew, I knew I had to work hard. There are a lot of guys at the guard position and that was something I really had to do and really be serious about this. It has really worked out for me.