The first two games of the 2015-16 season provided some needed hope and sustenance for the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise and their long-suffering fans.
The Wolves, who won only seven road games all of last season en route to an NBA-worst 16-66 record, rallied from 15 points down with less than 16 minutes to play, then held on for a last-second, 112-111 victory over the Lakers in Los Angeles last Wednesday. Two nights later, they executed a resounding, wire-to-wire triumph in the high altitude of Denver, thumping the Nuggets 95-78.
With these two contrasting wins snug in their psyche, the team flew back home Saturday to a sobering memorial service for the architect of the current roster, head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, who died of cancer three days before the start of the season. Saunders will again be honored before tonight’s home opener against the Portland Trailblazers.
The schedule-makers have been initially kind to Minnesota. The Lakers and Nuggets, like the Blazers, and, for that matter, the Wolves, are expected to comprise the bottom rungs of the rugged Western Conference hierarchy.
But as designed by Saunders, the 2015-16 Wolves are concerned with fostering habits for development more than wins for playoff contention. Even attaining respectability is a daunting climb for this franchise, and thus the process begins with a search for reliable niches that will be the footholds for the ascent.
In other words, it is a pleasant grace note that Saunders’ replacement on the sidelines, Sam Mitchell, is the first coach in Wolves history to start 2-0 in his inaugural season. But the real music here is that key investments in the future of the franchise have begun the season showcasing physical skills and psychological maturity that indicate the painstaking process of rebuilding can not only be thorough, but occasionally thrilling.
Garnett and Rubio as bedrocks
In last week’s Timberwolves season preview, I noted that the prevailing carnage of the 2014-15 season made the primary goal of the current campaign extremely basic—find synergies in various player combinations on the roster that can be developed and wielded to mold and carve a team identity. The most promising place to start that process is relying on the dynamic between Kevin Garnett and Ricky Rubio.
The 40-year old Hall of Famer and the Spanish point guard are, by leaps and bounds, the most fundamentally sound players on the team. Garnett is long past his nonpareil prime, and Rubio has a well-publicized weakness or two in his execution, but both are so thoroughly aware of “the right way to play,” that it is indelibly engrained in their approach to the game.
Consequently, both are volatile when confronting incompetence, but wise enough to channel their frustration on to themselves, their opponents and the officials instead of their teammates. And each is the one best-suited on the roster to appreciate what the other is bringing to the team.
After Saunders engineered the trade that brought Garnett back to Minnesota from Brooklyn last winter, he and Rubio played together a grand total of 97 minutes and 58 seconds—long enough for Saunders to realize his strategy of tanking for a top draft pick was in severe jeopardy if he allowed the pairing to continue.
In their five games together on the court, the Wolves went 3-2. More to the point, a team that allowed an NBA-worst 109.6 points per 100 possessions last season, saw that number plummet to 93.8 points per 100 possessions when KG and Rubio played together.
“I never played with a guy who jumped so hard on [pick and roll] defense,” Rubio marveled of Garnett during the Media Day interviews that kicked off this preseason back in late September. “I really was impressed with the way he was leading from behind. I was on defense and I heard him yelling all the time, telling us what to do. That felt pretty good, I’m not going to lie. I think we can build from there. He can teach the young big guys how to lead because that is the key to winning games.”
Sifting in the potential superstars
One can congratulate Sam Mitchell on his undefeated tenure as Wolves coach. But where the guy really deserves a handshake and a slap on the back is in his assembly of a starting lineup that, at least initially, accomplishes exactly what the franchise needs this season.
Rubio and Garnett were essentially held out of preseason games until just ten days before the regular season. The concern was that there would be too much rust accumulated on their respective games, and that the Wolves suffered from such a lack of continuity in last year’s tanking campaign that every moment they could be together should be utilized.
But Mitchell correctly trusted that KG and Rubio were born ready to play with each other, and that Garnett’s age and Rubio’s injury history should be risked only as a means of maximizing their contributions when the games started to matter.
The third member of the starting lineup was also a no-brainer—reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins. Not coincidentally, Wiggins joined Rubio and Garnett for all but one minute of their 98-minute tandem last season.
Once Mitchell got a look at the diverse skill-set and mental maturity of this year’s top overall draft pick, center Karl-Anthony Towns, it was apparent Towns could handle the instant immersion of being an NBA starter.
That left one slot to fill. During the preseason, Mitchell initially went with second-year guard Zach LaVine, who is as fundamentally raw as he is athletically gifted. But it was blatantly apparent — and eminently predictable — that LaVine’s many flaws would effectively destroy the cohesion Mitchell needed to establish in building a team identity, especially on the defensive end of the court. So the coach reversed his initial miscalculation and settled upon another heady veteran with a championship pedigree, Tayshaun Prince.
Installing Prince as the starting small forward allowed the Wolves to play Wiggins at shooting guard, where his 6-8 height can be used to better advantage and his body can potentially avoid the pounding administered by opposing small forwards, who are typically larger and more rugged than shooting guards.
More to the point, with Garnett, Rubio and Prince, Mitchell is surrounding the two players with the highest upside — Wiggins and Towns — with the most reliable and capable mentors of fundamentally sound basketball, especially on defense. This is how high expectations are set and habits are formed. This is how enormously gifted talents learn to play team hoops in a manner that maximizes their value.
On the flimsy but eminently satisfying basis of two games against lackluster competition, it is a brilliant concoction thus far.
A small, gaudy, sample of success
By the numbers, the Wolves new starting lineup is ready to raze the Cavs in the NBA Finals.
All joking aside, Mitchell’s blend of Rubio bridging two grizzled veterans and two wunderkinds has ratified the synergy of all five players. This quintet has played 31 minutes together over the first two games. They have allowed an unsustainably marvelous 69.3 points per 100 possessions in that time. Among other five-man combinations in the NBA with 30 minutes or more together this season, only Utah, with their twin towers of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, are stingier, at 60.5 points per 100 possessions.
But because the Wolves offense is also being powered by the precocious rookie Towns and the surprisingly aggressive shot-making of Rubio, the Wolves net rating — the difference between how much they score and how much they allow in terms of points per possession — is a league-best plus-43.7 for five-man combinations with at least 30 minutes together.
What is sustainable?
Okay, so it was fun to type all that out. We’ve seen pinball-like numbers inflation before in the context of the recent Wolves, but mostly connected to the individual exploits of Kevin Love or the damage being wrought by the opposition. In a season where tangible signs of progress are expected to be measured in sure-footed baby steps, what are we to make of these triple-jump statistical acrobatics?
In terms of sustainability, you can put KG’s leadership at the top. No one knows how often he’ll play as the season moves along, but you don’t have to be a hoops savant to notice that everyone on the Wolves is generally in the right place trying to do the right things when he is on the court. That $8 million per year contract is money well spent. Kudos to Flip Saunders for making that happen from start to finish.
After that, bank on Rubio as a capable floor general. No, he’s not going to average 20 points per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 7.3-to-1 (22 assists versus 3 turnovers thus far). But Rubio has gotten past his antiquated notion that a quality point guard should shoot only as a last resort, a mindset that enabled him — and therefore opponents — to neglect that aspect of his game to the detriment of the Wolves.
Rubio is second on the team in field goal and three-point attempts, and tied for second in free throw attempts. It is not optimal for him to shoot that often going forward, but it is a welcome signal that he will be more aggressive if opponents dare him to shoot. And while it is too early to say that his career-long shooting woes are behind him, the threat of him scoring opens up his ability to find his teammates better looks.
Again, the sample size is laughably tiny, but even with the Lakers (and probably the Nuggets) giving Rubio space to shoot, his ability to run the offense is embedded in the numbers. When Rubio is on the court thus far this season, the Wolves are shooting 52-for-105 from the field, or 49.5 percent. When he is off the court, the numbers are 16-for-52, or 32.7 percent.
Gushing about Towns (and Wiggins) is more about long-term potential than short-term sustainability, but far be it from me to set a curfew on the current love affair the kid from Kentucky is fostering with the fan base right now.
Begin with the foundation of his innate skills. Towns possesses attributes that can’t be taught, such as extraordinary coordination for seven-footer, and a superb sense of timing that enhances his court vision and acumen on defense. Add in advanced learned skills such as passing, dribbling, offensive footwork, and a couple of signature moves around basket.
Top it off with a mental makeup that can be canned and corny in a meta-reality show manner in interviews and other off-court activity, but is a phenomenal component of his on-court success. I don’t know of another 20-year old baller who would follow up a solid preseason with a boost in his all-around performance once everyone got serious and the games started counting.
Right now the ceiling on Karl Anthony-Towns is too high for me to see.
If you want a sign that the season is off to a rousing start, consider that Andrew Wiggins is moving beneath the radar. Bothered by back trouble that is clearly hindering the speed and flow of his trademark glide, he is nevertheless drawing fouls and factoring into opposing game-plans out on the court.
Some are concerned that without the force-feeding that occurred during the ugly tanking of last season, Wiggins will revert to the shrinking violet aspect of his personality. I see a player willing to be a Scottie Pippen if there is a Michael Jordan on the premises. That’s a bonus, folks.
The landmines ahead
“Bonus” is also the operative word on the glitzy 2-0 start to this season. The reality check is that Minnesota has played a couple of games against teams expected to be the dregs of the NBA this season, both of them with rookie point guards going up against Rubio.
Minnesota will be lucky to win 32 of 82 games. (A week ago I would have said they will be lucky to win 28.) It will be interesting to see how long both KG and Prince can contribute at such a high level out on the court. You’ll notice I didn’t spend any time on the significant drop-off in production at both the power forward and point guard slots when KG and Rubio take a seat — or for that matter, in the pivot when Towns has gone to the sidelines.
It was a bit of a concern to see Mitchell insert the rookie back in the lineup after Denver whittled the Wolves lead down to single digits in the second half on Friday, because Towns had dinged his ankle and was noticeably less mobile. But, as with Wiggins and his back, Mitchell has determined it is better not to treat the kids with kid gloves. And there is a laudable case to be made for that philosophy.
Champions are built with foundational pieces. If you have three, and their skill set is magnificent and their development is assiduous, you have a shot at something special. It is very very early yet, but that is the future vision of the Wolves that Mitchell is attempting to focus.
As tantalizing as Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine are to their mostly disparate fan bases, and as much as some provincial folks want to beat the drum for the hometown kid Tyus Jones, the Wolves are about the development of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Ricky Rubio as the fulcrum that leverages their greatness. If the fates and some far-sighted management enable the synchronized maturation of those three foundational pieces — Rubio, Wiggins and Towns — the rest is the easy part.
Two games in, it feels like more than a pipedream.