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Buckle up, T-Wolves fans, it’s going to be a bumpy ride

Ironically, the most incendiary ingredient in the Wolves’ situation this season is hope. 

On the big things, head coach Sam Mitchell has laid an excellent foundation for a ballclub sorely in need of priorities and an identity.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves played their worst game and best game of the young 2015-16 season 48 hours apart last week, an understandable zig-zag for a team with a spread-eagled salad of young studs and aged former stars playing for a new head coach in the aftershock of losing the architect of the franchise less than two weeks earlier.

The death of Flip Saunders has already provided the big-picture definition of the season, the opening sentence on any future synopsis of what happens in the 82 games of this campaign.

But beneath that frame is a fascinating whir of tangible goals and fundamental uncertainties. Saunders’ replacements, head coach Sam Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton, have to assemble the disparate assets Saunders collected in a manner that establishes them as worthy heirs to his blueprint — a balancing act of force and finesse further complicated by the presence of Saunders’ son and closest confidant, Ryan Saunders, on the coaching staff.

Ironically, the most incendiary ingredient in this whole situation is hope. These first five games of the season have already revealed that rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns in conjunction with reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins and a healthy Ricky Rubio at point guard are the most reliable foundation for a sustained run at championship contention that this franchise has ever amassed. That raises the stakes, and the passions of a fan base that has long been given two options on how to approach rooting for the Wolves — as a cynic or a sap.

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In other words, this season is set up as a bumpy ride with incredibly valuable cargo using a continually improvised road map under fraught emotional circumstances.

The agony of defeat, the thrill of victory

Thursday night’s home loss to the Miami Heat was the sort of soul-sucking experience that inflames lingering doubts and emboldens nasty, sardonic quips that assure everyone you are above any investment in such a tawdry spectacle.

The Heat are the most talented team the Wolves have faced thus far, with capable counters to all of Minnesota’s marquee figures. Center Hassan Whiteside is enough of a rim protector to compel Towns to take his shots from outside the paint, leading to a miserable 3-for-13 field goal performance. Shooting guard Dwyane Wade has always played larger than his 6-4 height, and has enough strength and savvy to bedevil 6-8 Andrew Wiggins even when Wiggins isn’t mending from an aching back. Wiggins shot 5-for-18 and only got to the free throw line twice. Goran Dragic is one of the few point guards who matches the intensity of Ricky Rubio, and blended a pass, penetrate or pull-up for a jumper bag of options with an ingenuity Rubio couldn’t parse.

In other words, the Wolves weren’t going to win this game under any circumstances. But the outclassed starters made the typically lackluster performance by the second unit more aggravating. 

Playing Zach LaVine at the point is ongoing source of provocative confusion for fans and his teammates alike. It’s bad enough that LaVine has trouble making a proactive pass that rewards movement off the ball, incapable of the vision and timing that sweetens the flow and brightens the confidence of shooters in rhythm. He is also playing alongside teammates who are competing for minutes and don’t believe they are receiving their proper due.

Like Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammad. Both are ball-dominant scorers who can make a case for being in the starting lineup. LaVine’s inability to get them touches, let alone set them up, triggers a go-it-alone mentality when they do snag possession. Given the tragicomedy that point guard LaVine likewise is more successful simply creating his own offense rather than passing to teammates, the situation devolves into a wretched display of hero ball by all three. The Miami loss was the most blatant example thus far.

Having already armed his critics by continuing to deploy LaVine as a backup point guard, Mitchell compounded the second-guessing by benching the hot selfish scorer, Muhammad, until the game was out of reach, and bringing in the more capable backup point guard, Andre Miller, for the first time this season with 3:58 left in the game. Miller led the Wolves to a plus-9 scoring advantage in that closing garbage time.

Two nights later, on the road against a Chicago Bulls team many expect to finish second behind only Cleveland in the Eastern Conference, the Wolves delivered a signature victory by holding the Bulls scoreless in overtime.

Wiggins, who looked so stiff and disengaged against Wade, finally backed up his claim that his back was feeling better by dominating 6-foot-7 All-Star Jimmy Butler at both ends of the court, including a 13-point first quarter that including a trio of three-points, two assists and a blocked shot. Wiggins had 22 by halftime and 31, compared to Butler’s 11, for the game.

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Towns, gulled into foul trouble by the wily Bulls pivot man Pau Gasol, was faced with the challenge of blending in with a positive flow after logging less than six minutes of play in the first half. Mission accomplished.

The 11 points, 7 rebounds, two blocks and an assist that Towns registered in 15:51 of plus-16 basketball in the second half was a mere prelude to his versatile overtime heroics. He began the extra stanza by blocking Gasol’s shot on the low left block, came down, grabbed an offensive rebound and fed Nemanja Bjelica for a layup, then went back on defense and blocked a Derrick Rose layup attempt.

After that bouquet of big-man skills, Towns tipped in a Wiggins miss and fed Tayshaun Prince for a layup. At that point there were 30 seconds left to play. Towns was responsible for 6 of his team’s seven points without having a play called for him, and was the main reason Chicago was held scoreless in overtime.

Making an identity, sorting out a rotation

Sam Mitchell remains unpredictably churlish and defensive at times. He belittled the media for reasonably asking why Rubio didn’t play more against Miami, claiming it would be silly to give him more burn in a blowout situation with a slew of games bunched on the horizon. But he sat Rubio with the Wolves down 10 and 4:44 left in the third quarter, and brought him back (for all of 78 seconds) with the Wolves down 19 with 5:17 left to play. Either bring him back earlier or don’t bring him back at all.

But on the big things, Mitchell has laid an excellent foundation for a ballclub sorely in need of priorities and an identity.

Specifically, the coach has backed up his claim that Minnesota would emphasis defense this season. As ugly as the Miami loss looked, the final score was 96-84 because even when the ball isn’t moving and the shots aren’t dropping, the top crop of starters know how to limit points at the other end.

What makes that defensive acumen especially fulfilling is that Towns and Wiggins are among those responsible. Two years ago, Saunders proclaimed that the Wolves roster desperately needed more two-way players, who could be equally adept at offense and defense. Towns and Wiggins have that capability and Mitchell is mining it at a formative point in their careers. For that alone, he deserves high praise — and an acknowledgement that in this crucial phase of the game he is an improvement over Saunders on the sidelines.

As I mentioned in the last column, this virtue is bound up in Mitchell’s decision to surround his future core of two-way stars — Towns, Wiggins and Rubio — with a pair of past-their-prime veterans who nevertheless can perform and teach quality defensive teamwork in their dotage.

Fans and critics can complain about how little KG and Prince score. It’s true, that the five starters are collectively 36-for-99 from the field and 2-for-9 from three point territory together, which is just terribly inaccurate shooting. But they have yielded a mere 91 points in 59 minutes on the court together—that’s an average of 74 points per 48 minute contest. And it is 18 fewer points than they’ve scored.

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Establishing an identity that can help you win ballgames? Check. Developing the bedrock of your future — Towns, Wiggins and Rubio — together in a manner that creates synergy and compels teammates to follow their example or get exposed? Check.

Attaining these two priorities has not come without a cost, however. Specifically, it is at the root of the otherwise unexplainable and inherently ugly immersion of LaVine at the point.

Remember the brief three-game flirtation of LaVine as the starting shooting guard during the preseason. Mitchell, who has always liked LaVine extending back to his days last season as an assistant, was forced after those three games to listen to his head and not his heart. If defense was indeed to be the team’s calling card, LaVine would be a saboteur.

So why not play LaVine as the backup shooting guard? Because that would mean even less court time for Martin, the 11-year vet who led the Wolves in points-per-game last season and is less-than-enthused about coming off the bench in the first place. Martin, like LaVine, lacks the dogged defensive proclivities that further this year’s culture; and, like LaVine, would bump Wiggins back up to small forward in any case.

The elephant in the room is Martin’s presence on the roster. By now, everybody knows what you are getting with K-Mart: a remarkably efficient scorer whose ability to sink three-pointers and draw fouls has him ranked 30th all time in true shooting percentage; and a chronically indifferent defender.

Right now, the Wolves are enduring the worst of both worlds pairing Martin beside LaVine as the second team backcourt. Thus far this season, K-Mart has played 112 minutes and sat 133 minutes. According to Basketball Reference, the Wolves score 95.7 points per 100 possessions when he plays and 102.3 points per 100 possessions when he doesn’t — a difference of 6.6 points in an area that is his strength.

At the other end of the court, Minnesota yields a whopping 107.7 points per 100 possessions when Martin plays and 87.9 points per 100 possessions when he doesn’t — 19.8 more points! Put the two together and Martin is factoring into a drag of 26.3 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court.

Oh, and he is also impeding the development of LaVine and Muhammad — and he’s unhappy with his role.

If you look beyond the development of the three core players, arguably the next priority is figuring out how to align the starting wings in 2017 or so. There are some who argue that it should be LaVine and Rubio in the backcourt, with Wiggins as the small forward and Muhammad coming off the bench. Others (including yours truly), would prefer retaining Rubio and Wiggins in the backcourt and slotting Muhammad as the small forward, with LaVine the instant offense off the bench.

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This presupposes that either LaVine or Muhammad can become at least rudimentary defenders and at least adequately foster ball movement. And let’s face it; a lot can happen in terms of their respective developments and potential roster moves Newton and the front office can make.

But right now, that closet competition for a future starting slot between LaVine and Muhammad isn’t happening, and mollifying an ineffective Martin is a significant reason why.

NBA rotations are like a game of musical chairs — there are always more eager applicants than available slots, and the more meaningful the situation, the fewer slots become available.

Right now the second unit is a mess and the most valid source of criticism concerns Mitchell’s rotations. Both LaVine and Muhammad are players with at least theoretically huge upsides who aren’t being put in a position to succeed — or fail definitely enough to make a decision on their future viability.

P.S. Hopefully next time I’ll get to Nemanja Bjelica, the only healthy player on the roster in the prime age-span of his career (27), with an assortment of tantalizing skills and a couple of concerns. The 6-foot-10-inch Serb, nicknamed Professor Big Shots, is a former Euroleague MVP with the potential to play either forward position.