The Minnesota Timberwolves have lost six of seven, with their lone victory in more than two weeks coming in overtime at home against a Los Angeles Lakers team that is 3-21.
A little more than two weeks ago, the Wolves had split their first 16 games. If the season had ended on November 27, that 8-8 record would have sent the franchise to the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years.
But now it is time for all the clichés to reveal how they acquired their banality.
The Wolves are an exceptionally young team already branded by the prodigal talents of their two 20-year old cornerstones, swing man Andrew Wiggins and big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins and Towns lead the ball club in total minutes played, and 20-year old Zach LaVine is fourth. All three of them do at least one or two things every game that flare out of the humdrum and sear the memory like the sweet-and-sour tang of barbecue on the spit.
But even at the individual level, great basketball takes time to prepare, a learning curve that chars raw talent to seal in the goodness and create durable pith. Great team basketball is an even trickier recipe.
At this stage of the season, a hungry Wolves fan base is besotted by these regular whiffs of savory greatness. The more impatient are angry because the meal isn’t ready, and the more reasonable are churlish because they don’t agree with the recipe.
Patience with Mitchell
To continue just a little bit further with this labored analogy, Wolves coach Sam Mitchell is not a particularly sympathetic chef in these proceedings. Mitchell is grumpy, proud, old-school and protectively tight-lipped about the details and nuances behind the team’s performance.
But it is time to get a little perspective and exercise some patience with the coach.
Less than four months ago, Mitchell had no clue he’d be running the show — in fact, better preparing for his current duties would have been disloyal to the man who hired him, and once coached him, Flip Saunders. It was a sudden surprise when, just six weeks before the season opener, the Wolves held a press conference to announce that Saunders would at least temporarily cede his coaching duties to Mitchell and his control over personnel matters to GM Milt Newton.
Now we know that Saunders was in a coma for an extended period of time and that his family fiercely guarded his privacy as he waged an uphill battle for his life. We don’t know when the word was passed to Mitchell and Newton that they were no longer viewed as a bridge to Saunders’ eventual return and could start making decisions on the basis of a more dire and open-ended future. But we do know it couldn’t have provided enough time for either one to seamlessly cope with the circumstances.
As I’ve said before, at the time of his death, Saunders had exerted more impact on the composition of his team than any other coach or general manager in the NBA. And what he assembled was an outlandishly bifurcated roster of distinguished veterans past their prime and precociously athletic kids with loud potential for boom or bust.
Furthermore, it was a roster whose ostensibly crowning piece was acquired via a season of tanking through chaos, of continually tossing out half-cooked omelets and breaking new eggs. The worthy prize was the right to draft the phenomenally talented Towns with the first pick in the draft. But the cost was starting this season nearly from scratch, with any leftovers pieces scarred from the potentially bad habits picked up from an indifference to losing.
It didn’t take a genius to recognize that developing Wiggins and Towns — the most desirable talents in the past two NBA drafts — had to be the top priority of the makeshift post-Saunders regime.
To that end, Mitchell preached that he would establish a culture of defense. At the beginning of the season, he deployed both Garnett and Prince in the starting lineup alongside his two spry cornerstones, Wiggins and Towns, with the vitally enabling point guard Ricky Rubio as the bridge between them.
It may have been the most inspired gambit of Mitchell’s tenure thus far. Garnett and Rubio are superb big-picture communicators who feed off each other’s competitive tenacity. Prince is the consummate pro, always in the right place and, when not fatigued, nearly always at the right time. What better defensive template to stencil into the habits and experience of the two burgeoning superstars?
But after thirteen games, culminating in a stretch where the Wolves played five times in eight days, Prince was demonstrably wearing down. At the same time, the starters were having trouble scoring with non-shooters KG and Prince joining the poor-shooting Rubio on the court, and last year’s leading scorer Kevin Martin was unsuccessfully trying to mask his disdain for coming off the bench.
Mitchell addressed all three issues by swapping Martin in for Prince among the starters. That’s when I became an enthusiastic participant in the increasingly popular parlor game of second-guessing the coach.
The bulk of the criticism directed toward Mitchell stems from the notion that he is botching player rotations. Variations on this theme include that he is deploying players either out of position or with incompatible personnel, and that he is lifting key performers at crucial times of individual games.
Obviously, some of this criticism is warranted. But it shouldn’t be surprising that different critics have different priorities on where Mitchell should change his ways. Remember, the recipe is tricky and the stakes are high.
As we take our potshots, however, the perspective of a roster full of tykes and greybeards should again be taken into consideration.
Saunders signed Garnett, Prince and Miller mostly as behind-the-scenes mentors, sages of practice-time execution, locker room atmosphere and perseverance through the seasonal grind.
This is not to discount what this trio can impart through their performance on the court. On the contrary, it is the quintessential classroom, the place where they can best demonstrate by fundamental example against legitimate NBA competition, and grasp how thoroughly their younger brethren are responding to various aspects of their mentorship.
But that on-court time is limited, and thus precious. That is why I have been less troubled than many of Mitchell’s critics by the deployment of Gorgui Dieng over Towns, especially in the fourth quarter.
It’s not that I think Mitchell’s hook is warranted, or even understandable on many occasions. But stepping back for a broader view, we can see Towns ranks fifth among rookies in minutes per game, and just ahead of his primary rival for Rookie of the Year honors, Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks. Also that Towns is second only to Wiggins in minutes played on the Wolves.
Perhaps more significantly, however, Towns has been on the court for 307 of the 328 minutes Garnett has logged this season, compared to 20 for the Garnett-Dieng pairing. Towns has spent the most shared court time with Wiggins — 559 of his 622 minutes thus far this season have featured that cornerstone tandem. And 427 of Rubio’s 506 minutes this season have been spent with Towns.
Broaden that out to three-player combinations and the most frequently deployed trio are Wiggins, Towns and Rubio at 410 minutes — it would be higher if Rubio hadn’t missed six games due to injury. The second-most frequent trio are Wiggins, Towns and KG, at 300 minutes.
The subject is obviously open to debate, but I’d rather see a 20-year old prodigy developed on the basis of who he plays with more so than when he plays. That isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t emphasize both — yes, I’d like more crunch-time Towns, beside Dieng on the front line if KG is unavailable. But let’s not pretend that Towns is being ignored or his development significantly stunted by Mitchell’s rotations.
Kevin Martin is in the way
Having said all that, I’ll proceed to air my own primary gripe with Mitchell’s rotations — the prominent presence of Kevin Martin in the lineup.
First, let’s give Martin his due. After an atrocious start, he has begun to regain the scoring touch that is his primary reason to be on the court. In particular, he has converted 52.7 percent of his three-pointers 24 of 26 free throws in six December games.
Martin still has a tendency to hog the ball and overemphasize drawing fouls on his defender. And he will probably never be a quality defender. But his ability to score efficiently at the free throw line and from beyond the arc should make him a valuable role player on the right team.
This year’s Timberwolves are not that team. The first principles of this edition of the Wolves revolves around the development of Wiggins and Towns — and many would argue, LaVine.
Here’s the rub: There is plenty of evidence to suggest that both Wiggins and LaVine are best suited to play the shooting guard position. Right now, Martin’s presence is impeding that development. His 575 minutes currently ranks third on the team and nearly of them have been spent at shooting guard.
This is not a difficult argument to make. Not counting Sunday’s loss to Phoenix, which hasn’t yet been computed in the Basketball Reference data base, Wiggins has performed most frequently in two five-man lineups. In the 99 minutes he plays shooting guard alongside Towns, Rubio, KG and Tayshaun Prince, the Wolves are 9.2 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions. In the 96 minutes the Wolves swap out Prince for Martin and move Wiggins up to small forward, the Wolves are 6.3 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions.
That’s a difference of 15.5 points for a nearly equal sample size involving 80 percent of the same personnel. And although the sample sizes are smaller for other lineups, there is a consistent trend of the Wolves faring better when Wiggins is a shooting guard instead of a small forward.
Wiggins is listed at 199 pounds spread over his 6-foot-8-inch frame. That is the same weight as the 6-foot-7-inch Martin, five pounds more than the 6-4 Rubio. The notoriously slender LaVine is three inches shorter and just ten pounds lighter.
Now consider that in recent games the small forward Wiggins has been matched up with Luc Mbah a Moute (6-8, 230) of the Clippers, Danillo Gallinari (6-10, 225) of the Nuggets, and Al-Farouq Aminu (6-9, 215) of the Blazers.
Not surprisingly, the stats at nba.com indicate that Wiggins’ positive rating on defense stems almost entirely from his performance on the perimeter. Opponents that take him down in the paint are far more successful.
Mitchell has defended his judicious use of Towns by saying he doesn’t want to burn him out and leave him with a 35-year old body at the age of 30. So what is the rationale behind using Wiggins, who is just nine months older than Towns, for 35 minutes a game as a go-to scorer in crunch time and out of most timeouts (both of which I endorse) while playing him at a position where he absorbs more physical punishment?
The best justification for Wiggins at small forward is that you are developing LaVine as your shooting guard. Again, the data on this favors LaVine at the two guard instead of the point, and the eye test is even more blatantly in that direction.
Again using the Basketball Reference numbers that don’t include Sunday’s loss in Phoenix, LaVine is on the court for 51 percent of the Wolves’ total minutes. During that time, the offense is less efficient — scoring 103.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays versus 104.9 points per 100 possessions when he sits — despite having a higher shooting percentage. The reason is because the team’s assist percentage is significantly lower — 50.3 when he’s playing versus 63.1 when he isn’t — and the turnover percentage is significantly higher, at 16.8 when he plays versus 14.5 when he doesn’t.
Yesterday’s debacle in the desert, where the Wolves rallied at precisely the point where LaVine was moved off the ball in favor of Andre Miller, will only strengthen that disparity. Meanwhile, the positive synergy between Rubio and LaVine in the backcourt has been well documented.
There is a compelling debate to be waged about whether the Wolves should move forward with Wiggins at shooting guard and Bazzy Muhammad at the small forward slot, with LaVine the super scorer off the bench; or ride that Rubio-LaVine synergy and let Wiggins fend at small forward with Bazzy as the points-oriented sixth man.
Right now, Mitchell is sidetracking both sides of that worthy discussion in favor of a 12th-year veteran who will turn 33 in seven weeks.
Yes, there are perspectives and contingencies here too. LaVine has improved significantly this year even while playing out of position for a second straight season. Rubio has not answered lingering questions about his health or his shooting accuracy definitively enough to foreclose the need to groom a viable option at the point guard position.
Most intriguingly, Mitchell went out on a limb during the preseason, proclaiming LaVine as his starting shooting guard, only to rescind the decision three games later. Perhaps the front office consensus is that Martin needs to be showcased for a trade.
Good luck with that. Even as Martin has flourished recently, the only trade rumors involving the Wolves are about Bazzy, a dynamic scorer who is piquing interest from other teams because he’s mostly riding the pine.
But let’s circle back to the need for patience. With an encouraging record of 9-14 in his first 23 games while providing the bulk of his minutes to his two cornerstones, abetted as much as possible by the most capable mentors, Mitchell has earned the right to prove whether the path he is charting for this team is justified.
As we inevitably heckle from the cheap seats, let’s try to enjoy the fact that, whether the glass is half-empty or half-full, it might be the most beautiful Timberwolves glass we’ve seen thus far.