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Let the Wolves’ wheel of player rotation spin

With the winless Philadelphia 76ers in town Monday night, it seemed like a safe time to tinker with a relatively successful but increasingly moribund formula.

On Sunday, coach Sam Mitchell said he would use the fewer minutes allotted Tayshaun Prince to secure more time for Shabazz Muhammad
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The roulette wheel on the Minnesota Timberwolves player rotation has begun to spin.

Following a disappointing loss to the Detroit Pistons Friday night that sent the Wolves home record to 0-6, coach Sam Mitchell announced on Sunday that Kevin Martin would replace Tayshaun Prince in the starting lineup, a gambit that bumps Andrew Wiggins from shooting guard (Martin’s natural position) to small forward.

With the winless Philadelphia 76ers coming to town Monday night, it seemed like a relatively safe time to tinker with a relatively successful but increasingly moribund formula.

For the first 13 games of the season, Mitchell had started wizened veterans Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince and burgeoning young stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with point guard Ricky Rubio bridging the young and talented with the old and sagacious. It worked to further Mitchell’s top priority of instilling a culture of defense. But opponents couldn’t help but notice that neither Garnett nor Prince are inclined to shoot much, and began concentrating their efforts on denying the remaining three good looks at the basket.

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Meanwhile the second unit was crowded with shoot-first scorers who have difficulty defending and lack a “pure” point guard who can help distribute the ball.

Swapping in Martin for Prince didn’t address all these flaws. But Prince had been noticeably wearing down and exposed as an afterthought on offense and the ascension of Martin removed a ball-dominant wing player from the second unit and put him in a place where he could better space the floor for Rubio to operate with him, Wiggins and Towns.

In my last column, I had suggested swapping in Zach LaVine for Prince and providing more regular rotation minutes for Andre Miller at the backup point guard slot. On Sunday, Mitchell said he would use the fewer minutes allotted Prince to secure more time for Shabazz Muhammad, who, like Martin and LaVine, is in his element as a ball-dominant scorer.

A heroic escape from embarrassment

One game is obviously not enough of a sample to judge the switch. But Monday night’s contest qualifies as an ugly win that raises more questions than it answers. The Wolves trailed for most of the game, and required another spectacular crunch time performance from Wiggins to overcome the 0-14 Sixers, who, Wiggins perhaps aside, lost the game more than Minnesota won it.

More than any other game this season, the Wolves were thrashed on the front line. The marquee battle between Towns, taken first overall in the 2015 draft, and Jahil Okafor, taken third overall by Philadelphia, was a stunning mismatch, especially in the first half. Through those two quarters, Okafor rained in 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting, suckered Towns into foul trouble and blocked two of his shots, and grabbed nine rebounds, four of them on the offensive glass. Towns had two points, two rebounds and three fouls in an abbreviated 8:15 of first half action. 

With Towns burdened with fouls, Nemanja Bjelica out with a knee injury and Kevin Garnett on the limited playing time that is the special province of veterans who have already logged more than 50,000 NBA minutes in their career, the Wolves were strapped for capable big men.

Center Gorgui Dieng and power forward Adreian Payne were both in the game by the middle of the first period. Individually, both seem to be slow learners and thus inconsistent, undisciplined performers. Dieng seems to chronically make the wrong decision when given a choice on how to react when caught in space. Payne is a banger who seems to lack peripheral vision and an impulse for teamwork.

That’s my eye test anyway. By the numbers, the Wolves were 27.5 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents in the 38:18 Dieng and Payne have shared the floor before last night. Even with the small sample size, that’s an eye-popping statistical display of synergy.

Alas, it didn’t sustain against the Sixers, as the Dieng-Payne frontcourt combo was minus 7 in 11:56 together Monday night. Payne was the chief despoiler, expanding his brusque, ragged m.o. into a full-blown tragicomedy in the third quarter, when he was whistled for four fouls in the span of 4:14, refusing to curb his enthusiasm for moving picks and jostling dribblers even as each succeeding whistle brought him closer to a game-long banishment. He fouled out with 3:16 remaining in the third quarter, having logged a grand total of 11:56 on the court.

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Payne’s misbehavior was especially piquant coming on the heels of some throwback magnificence from Garnett, who gave younger Wolves fans the exceedingly rare treat of watching silk instead of sclerosis course through the fundamentals of his jumper as he nailed three straight from midrange to trigger a 10-0 run. After Payne was doinked for his sixth foul, Mitchell called for Garnett again (three times, in fact, as Garnett sighed heavily and composed himself before standing to check in), but KG’s fountain of youth was tapped to parchment for the night and he sat back down 97 seconds later with the Wolves having coughed up all of their five-point lead.

Mitchell went small the rest of the way, giving Dieng nominal help with Prince as a front court mate. But with the Wolves down five with 9:34 to play, he brought back Towns with four fouls and surrounded him with Rubio and three wings—Wiggins, LaVine and first Muhammad, then Martin to close it out.

Wiggins closed it out. During the final five minutes, he scored 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting and a trio of made free throws. He cut into feeds from Rubio for layups. He executed his soon-to-be-patented spin in the lane, bank off the glass penetration move. When Martin poked the ball loose on defense, Wiggins pounced and flicked a perfect pass to the streaking K-Mart, who nevertheless had the shot blocked. But there was Wiggins, trailing the play, and unleashing the sort of ferocious dunk he seems to save for big moments in the game. This one tied the score with 2:11 to play.

Wiggins subsequently provided the lead with a pair of free throws, then iced the win with a deft pass to Martin on the weak side wing for a three-pointer that pushed the lead to five with 28 seconds to go.

The Wolves were giddy with their first home win of the season, a hard-fought triumph over a winless team that disintegrated in the waning minutes of the game.

Rotation review

After the game, Mitchell gushed about Wiggins’ latest cape-donning flight toward crunch time superstardom, and about Garnett’s timely offensive resurrection and ceaseless leadership and enthusiasm. He also appropriately noted Martin’s key exploits in a supporting role, including the steal and the three-pointer as Wiggins’ crunch time sidekick.

I certainly won’t begrudge either Mitchell or Martin that satisfaction. K-Mart has been in one of the worst shooting slumps of his long career recently, which, given his dearth of other talents, made him especially wretched to watch.

All things considered, Martin, LaVine and Muhammad would just as soon chuck it up on offense — and given the rest of their skill sets, that isn’t necessarily a wayward strategy. But as an 12-year vet and last season’s leading scorer (in points per game) on the team, K-Mart has a sense of entitlement to further goad his inner gunner.

Of course, the flip side is that as a 12-year vet less than three months’ shy of his 33rd birthday, Martin doesn’t fit into the blueprint of a team besotted with younger wing players that is ostensibly building for the future.

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Martin wasn’t happy about being excluded from the starting lineup to start the season. And with LaVine as the primary point guard on the second unit, and either Wiggins or Muhammad as the small forward, who could blame him? Touches were at a premium and moving without the ball augured the anonymity of a treadmill workout.

Even casual Wolves fans can cite Martin’s primary response to this personally distressing state of affairs: a few careening dribbles into the midrange area of the court, a pronounced feint and then a sideways leap into the defender while hoisting up a shot.

Consequently, Martin is getting to the free throw line more frequently than any season since the reward for the “rip through” method for drawing fouls was changed from foul shots to sideline possession of the ball in 2011. But the need to draw contact necessarily sends him beneath the three-point arc — his frequency of treys is at a nine-year low and he hasn’t been this inaccurate from long range since his rookie season.

And, as we learned two years ago, when the Wolves of Kevins — Love and Martin  — had a habit of blowing games in the fourth quarter, the referees tend to swallow their whistles on those manufactured collisions late in games, resulting in much clanging of iron and angry waving of hands as opponents head back up the court.

None of that was in evidence Monday night. In 31:58 of playing time, Martin attempted two free throws, and they occurred at the very end of the game when the Sixers were desperately fouling to secure another possession. That fourth-quarter trey was one of four he launched, and although it was his only make from distance, when someone of his reputation is shooting them, it spaces the floor for others.

In other words, Martin is better suited to play alongside the other starters than come off the bench with the other guys on the second unit.

But is the team better suited?

With 9:02 left in the game, Rubio checked back in to play alongside LaVine for the first time all night. The duo proceeded to add ten points to the gaudy plus/minus total together in those nine minutes. The Rubio-LaVine tandem is now plus 43 in 47 minutes together on the court — the highest total of any twosome on the team. Indeed, the next four-highest totals are from duos that have logged at least 133 minutes together.

One might imagine that Rubio and LaVine could be the backcourt of the future. In the very precious minutes they have been allowed to share in the present, they benefit their team like no other tandem.

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Maybe it would be a good idea to pursue this experiment and see what happens.

Yes, yes, the Wolves brain trust is hell-bent on providing LaVine with minutes at point guard. But when the Wolves were in danger of watching a game against a winless team slip away, being outscored 13-4 to trail by nine less than two minutes into the second quarter, Mitchell suddenly had room for Andre Miller at the point, moving LaVine to shooting guard. And it temporarily stopped the bleeding.

Zach LaVine is plus 43 in 47 minutes with Rubio and minus 39 in 295 minutes without Rubio. The eye test is that they are complementary. The stat sheet vigorously agrees. In this season of development, it would behoove the Wolves to deepen their burgeoning good habits.