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Timberwolves 2015-16 preview: a deceptively crucial season

The primary goal of the 2015-16 Minnesota Timberwolves is incredibly basic: They need to become a team.

As for moving Andrew Wiggins to shooting guard: Hooray.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Let’s cut right to the quick: The unexpected death of Flip Saunders on Sunday, three days before the Minnesota Timberwolves 2015-16 season opener in Los Angeles tonight, will damage this team.

The mentally weak will too easily invoke this franchise-wide body-blow as justification for lapses and flaws that could well have occurred anyway — finessing a tragedy into a free pass on accountability.

But their excuses will have credence, because they piggyback on the reality that Saunders is still the fingerprint of this franchise — his personal and professional influence remain extraordinarily pervasive in both the DNA and the personality of the ballclub. He is both the nature and nurture of the current Timberwolves brand.

It belittles the big-picture enormity of the tragedy to call Saunders’ death a distraction. But in the comparatively mundane realm of the mental preparation and play execution required of a successful NBA team, distraction is exactly the right word for it — and, like termites making themselves at home in a weight-bearing pillar, it is no small matter.

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Furthermore, it is the latest in a long series of distractions that have plagued this franchise. In the last four years alone, there has been the knee injury that sidelined transformative rookie Ricky Rubio and derailed coach Rick Adelman’s inaugural season on the sidelines; the seizures affecting the wife of Adelman that sapped his commitment and eventually prompted his retirement; the two-part soap opera of the Kevin Love “knuckle push-up” imbroglio and the Kevin Love opt-out chronicle, low-lighted by Love’s embittered interview with Yahoo Sports; and last year’s tacky swan dive from “Eyes on the Rise” to “Tank for Towns.”

To that passel of tough luck and dysfunction, we now add grim reaping.

Continuity or chaos?

The primary goal of the 2015-16 Minnesota Timberwolves is, at least to me, incredibly basic: They need to become a team. Right now they are an assemblage of intriguing individual components. There is a rudimentary sense of how they might complement each other and gradually develop the sort of synergy required to win games against teams of comparable talent. But they have yet to really test and temper that rudimentary sense in the crucible of NBA regular-season basketball over a meaningful period of time.

Losing Saunders makes this team-discovery process more problematical, but in times of despair it is better to rely on the basics anyway. The alternative is the sort of weak-character chaos that even the team’s die-hard followers will not want to watch.

The key is pursuing continuity, a two-part process that begins with the trial-and-error stage of finding out who meshes well with whom on the court and then providing ample opportunities for those complementary skills to mature and adapt against a variety of opponents.

To take this out of some high-falutin’, theoretical context, let’s revisit the clown-car spectacle that was the Wolves’ 2014-15 season. People wearing the same Wolves uniform performed on the court for a total of 3,961 minutes of play. But the most frequently utilized five-man lineup was out there for 151 minutes and 17 seconds, or 3.8 percent of the time, the lowest total in the NBA.

Yes, it was deliberate sabotage, a tanking strategy designed to secure the top pick in the 2015 draft. And it was a roaring success on those terms, securing the franchise the obviously special skills of center-forward Karl-Anthony Towns.

The problem is that the sabotage not only prevented synergy, it corroded it.

People think I’m joking when I say Saunders deployed callow rookie Zach LaVine out of position at the point guard position as a deliberate, perhaps primary, component of his tanking strategy, but the numbers bear this out.

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ESPN has an analytical formula known as “real plus/minus,” or RPM, that calculates a player’s value on the court relative to the value of his teammates, essentially determining levels of individual responsibility for a lineup’s success or failure. LaVine ranked 471st out of 474 players measured, with a RPM of minus 6.87 points per 100 possessions.

Most coaches want to win basketball games and so don’t allow players performing at LaVine’s level to torpedo their lineups very often. But Saunders, in full tank mode, put LaVine on the court for 1,903 minutes last season, the third most amount of playing time of anyone on the Wolves roster. Nobody else came close to playing so badly for so long.

Consequently, in the analytical metric that determines Wins Above Replacement value, LaVine finished with a total of negative 5.34. The next-worst player among the 474 measured, former Wolf Derrick Williams, was way “behind” at negative 2.90 wins above replacement.

Assuming the WAR rating is relatively accurate, the Wolves would have won 21 games instead of 16 games deploying a typical, replacement-level player instead of LaVine. That would have elevated the team from the worst record to a tie for the third-worst record in the NBA last season. Or, in lottery-speak, Goodbye Towns.

As the dreadful 2014-15 was winding to a close, Saunders began repeating a mantra in post-game press conferences that essentially warned his young charges that both playing time and the primacy of roles within those minutes-played would be dramatically altered once the Wolves had a full complement of healthy players. (Translation: Once he could stop corroding and start synergizing his player rotations out on the court.)

Enter Sam Mitchell

It is a sad, damn shame that Saunders won’t be around to finally tinker positively with all the compelling components he has amassed. That task now falls to Sam Mitchell. Thus far signals are mixed, but overall slightly encouraging, on how well he’ll fare.

When Adelman resigned, Mitchell interviewed for the head coaching position that Saunders not-so-secretly was going to confer on himself. Off the sidelines for two years after being let go from the head positon in Toronto and spending a couple of years as an assistant in New Jersey, Mitchell took the consolation prize of assisting Saunders last year and would have happily taken over on another team during the off-season. Now, amid somber, trying, potentially chaotic circumstances, he has a chance to prove himself here.

My dominant takeaway on his fledging tenure thus far is that on two occasions his actions have showcased his capability far better than his words and demeanor.

The first occasion regards his approach to the three-point shot, which has become an increasingly important component of a team’s offense in the modern NBA. The four teams in the conference finals last season, ranked first, second, fourth and seventh in three-point attempts, and first, second, fourth and fifth in three-pointers made. The Wolves were 30th — dead last — in treys attempted and made, continuing a troubling pattern in Saunders’ coaching legacy that I have belabored in other columns.

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When I asked Mitchell about this aspect of the game at Media Day in late September, he replied, “You have to earn the right to shoot threes. … But guys, there are not a lot of plays that you run to get open three-point shots. … If you’ve got some plays that I can come out and design to get some wide-open threes on a consistent basis, you’re in the wrong job. You need to come sit with me.”

In retrospect, I assume this ridiculous response was either a petty semantical distinction as pushback against all these new-fangled analytics showing the value of three-pointers, or a strawman argument in partial defense of Saunders’ bias against maximizing three-point opportunities.

To state the obvious, no offense is capable of designing “wide open threes on a consistent basis” — or consistently wide open layups, for that matter. But that is the best-case scenario, and you want to frequently run plays that have that option at hand if the defense miscalculates. Because if you run an offense that results in dramatically fewer threes than almost every other team in the NBA, you are operating at a disadvantage that would behoove you to rectify.

The good news is that under Mitchell, the Wolves attempted and made three-pointers at a fairly typical rate relative to other NBA teams during the preseason. What’s more, plays were designed that had players with feet set in the weakside corner behind the three-point arc, a classic contingency that Saunders frequently eschewed.

Center Gorgui Dieng is launching treys with Mitchell’s guarded approval. European combo forward Nemanja Bjelica has made a habit of slinging crosscourt passes into that far corner and Mitchell has praised him for his ball movement. Inside that skeptical curmudgeon is a reasonable coach.

The other example of Mitchell’s deceptive bark was in his response to a question from the superb local AP writer, Jon Krawcynski, before the final preseason game against Milwaukee last Friday. Krawcynski appropriately noted how effective the tandem of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Garnett were on defense last season and wanted to know if Mitchell was simultaneously inserting them into the lineup together (after long absences for each) on purpose.

Mitchell said there was not enough evidence to make those connections. Krawcynski conceded that it had only been five games together (indeed, before Saunders recognized their synergy and pulled the plug for the sake of securing Towns), and Mitchell pounced, saying he could choose a five-game sample and justify any theory or gambit.

Again, Mitchell seemed to be belittling the notion that you can find value in numbers and formulas. But if he’s against small sample sizes, he might want to put a blowtorch to every tape of the 2014-15 Wolves season, which has near-zero continuity.

Meanwhile, earlier in the preseason, Mitchell had made the surprising decision to anoint Zach LaVine as the team’s starting shooting guard over veteran Kevin Martin (who had expressed unhappiness over that possibility during Media Day), only to reverse himself just three games later and move Andrew Wiggins from small forward to shooting guard. Apparently some small sample sizes are more significant than others.

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But what links Mitchell on threes and Mitchell on lineup synergies is his arrival at the better outcome (in my opinion, at least) in both cases. The new non-interim Wolves coach had in fact brought Rubio and KG along together, perhaps conserving Rubio’s body and Garnett’s endurance as long as possible before the necessary preparation for the regular season.

As for moving Wiggins to shooting guard: Hooray. The reigning rookie of the year finished second only to James Harden in total minutes played last year, guarding the opponents’ best wing scorer on defense and serving as the focal point of the offense amid a revolving door of deliberately mismatched personnel. It was an enormous burden that Wiggins accepted the way he accepts everything — with quiet grace and determination.

This season, if the shift to shooting guard holds for the majority of his minutes, Wiggins won’t be physically pummeled so significantly on offense and, at 6 feet 8 inches, will also more often enjoy a height advantage.

The hope for logical development

Shifting Wiggins to shooting guard also produces a chain reaction of potential synergies for Mitchell and the Wolves.

It enables Mitchell to plug in veteran Tayshaun Prince as the starting small forward. In his interactions with the media since Saunders signed him during the off-season, Prince has come across as thoughtful and proud, exuding a quiet dignity. He will almost certainly regard his starter status as a gesture of respect, always a positive occurrence when dealing with a mentoring veteran.

With a starting lineup that includes Rubio, Garnett, Wiggins, Prince and Towns, the Wolves are surrounding their prized rookie with four players who know how to play defense. Unlike the brief flirtation with LaVine as the starting two-guard, it is consonant with Mitchell’s proclaimed self-identity as coach who prioritizes team defense.

When Prince and Garnett inevitably go to the bench sometime during the first period, Mitchell has some pleasant options. At KG’s power forward slot, he can bring in Dieng, a solid backup at both frontcourt positions, or Bjelica, who, like Dieng, can be bullied in the paint (the Wolves will have rebounding woes all season) but is a marvelous passer and capable three-point shooter.

To replace Prince, Mitchell can tap Martin, the team’s most efficient scorer, to come in at shooting guard, which would move Wiggins back up to small forward. Or he can go to Shabazz Muhammad, like Martin a subpar defender but prolific point producer (indeed, he led all NBA players in points per touch last season). 

My most vociferous soapbox advocacy has been in favor of Wiggins and Muhammad as a combo platter of swingmen. Both are incredibly strong and quick. Both have a nose for the basket and a killer instinct for finishing at the rim. Both possess a nascent but promising three-point stroke from the perimeter. Spreading them out on the court for cuts and kick-outs from a floor general like Rubio, or each other, strikes me as one of the more viably exciting synergies available on the roster. Few opponents can counter with two large and mobile wing stoppers, there will be a dominant matchup waiting to happen. The key is both to improve their dribble and, especially for Bazzy, their defensive awareness so they don’t forfeit their advantage elsewhere on the court.

Most of the time during the past few games, Mitchell has subbed in Muhammad for Wiggins, in part to clear minutes for Martin and LaVine. Rumors are that the Wolves suddenly feel LaVine is better suited to play the point after all, which, if true, is more likely due to his ineptitude at guarding opposing shooting guard rather than any elevation of his skill set at the point.

Either way, this coming season needs to be regarded as the time to find out. It is wonderful to bask in the prospect of what Flip Saunders has wrought. Two straight years of acquiring the consensus-best collegian available in Wiggins and Towns. A point guard, Rubio, who when healthy has finished in the top two in total steals and total assists for a season, and who has dramatically improved the point-differential and won-lost record. Those are three potential cornerstones, all 25 or much younger, all under contract through at least the 2017-2018 season.

But time flies and chances for success can be fleeting and precious in the NBA scrum. Four years ago the Oklahoma City Thunder had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka all play more than 2000 minutes, winning 55 games with none of them older than 22. Today they soldier on without Harden and keeping a wary eye on the recovery of Durant after foot surgery. If they don’t at least get to the NBA Finals, there is a good chance that Durant will go elsewhere. And the Thunder never had to waste a year of development in tank mode.

The point is that this is a deceptively crucial season. Wiggins is a national hero in Canada and noticeably unsheathes a more outgoing personality when playing in his native Toronto. It is of course very early yet, but Towns looks like another poised and multitalented kid who will justify the hype and top-pick status.

Both players seem destined to determine their future on their own terms. Nothing will cement their loyalty more firmly than engineering an environment where their talent produces tangible progress and success.

No one needs to tell the Wolves franchise that fortunes are capricious.

Last Friday night, the team concluded their preseason with a surprisingly thrilling game, beating a solid Milwaukee team with a wonderful rotation engendered by Mitchell, with Rubio, Towns, Wiggins and Muhammad all making spectacular and synergistic plays.

On Sunday afternoon, Saunders passed away.

The Wolves will need perseverance to find the joy in this season. But perhaps they have a source of motivation to see them through: The capstone of Flip Saunders’ legacy will be defined by their performance.