Should fans be encouraged — or disappointed — by the T-wolves thus far?

Andrew Wiggins
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
There is a consistent trend of the Wolves faring better when Andrew Wiggins is a shooting guard instead of a small forward.

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.

Rotation vexation

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.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/14/2015 - 11:40 am.

    question

    How much if any do the T wolves improve when Pek returns?

    Also it seems like the NBA is such a talent driven league rather than experience why is it then that the wolves with some decent talent on the roster still struggle. At this point in the careers of most of the players most things should come very easy to them despite previous habits. I’m not saying we should be the top in the league but the recent stretch has me a little disappointed.

  2. Submitted by Erick Sorenson on 12/14/2015 - 11:54 am.

    Perceptive perspective

    Kudos, Britt. The analysis of *who* Towns is on the court with is extremely perceptive.

    Without matching your due diligence in terms of quantifying it with numbers to support, it seems to me that Shabazz has often been the victim of lineups weighted to the “me ball” black hole tendencies he himself shows. Bazzy spends a lot of court time with LaVine, Martin and Dieng. When the four of them play together, I find myself wondering if the fifth guy (Bjelica in many cases) is allowed to even touch the ball without offensive rebounding or bailing out a failed drive.

    Perhaps Shabazz is struggling this season because of who he’s playing with and even his awareness of Mitchell’s short leash? I love Shabazz’s effort and determination (if not his tunnel vision in trying to score damn near every time he touches the ball) and wonder if and when he’ll get enough court time to potentially refine other areas of his game. If nothing else, it seems the Wolves might benefit more giving big minutes to a 23-year-old ball hog vs. a 33-year-old one. Muhammad might not be the priority when it comes to development, but I would think he’s shown enough to warrant more burn than what he’s getting. He’s only topped 25 minutes once and only 20 minutes five times, which I find a bit bewildering.

    In short: Free Shabazz!!!

  3. Submitted by charles thompson on 12/14/2015 - 12:21 pm.

    woof woof

    From where I’m sitting LaVine seems much improved this year. Without KMartin the second team has no offense that I can see. Rubio’s lack of offense has been huge drag, and finally the lads play well but get a little enthusiastic running up and down at crunch time resulting in key turnovers that lead to narrow losses. This last might be attributable to a lack of confidence in their half court offense.

  4. Submitted by Robert Garfinkle on 12/14/2015 - 12:41 pm.

    Patience, indeed

    Yesterday was tough to swallow…I try to think long-term but also want them to compete and not throw the ball away for an entire quarter. Yikes.

    But I do agree with the “patience” argument. That includes patience with Newton, too. I do think K-Mart will get traded by February, and I think Milt needs to showcase him for that. You might not get much but you need to get enough so he’s off your payroll. Relegating him to the bench for a year and a half is no good for anyone, including the team morale. Let the calendar turn to 2016, find a deal for Martin, and make the moves you’re suggesting here for the second half of the season.

    I, too, have been a big Bazz fan and, like you, have been disappointed by his play this year, especially his defense. He may be pressing with limited minutes, but that’s a chicken-and-egg thing: It’s hard to justify bigger minutes when he’s struggling on defense. Hope he finds his way soon.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/14/2015 - 01:10 pm.

    Okay with where they are

    At this point, I’m skeptical about this increased “interest” in the team if it’s only showing up on Twitter and sports talk radio, for it’s not showing up at the arena. To extend Britt’s cooking analogy a bit, criticisms about the making of the meal are dubious if the critic has little knowledge of how long the meal should take or wasn’t paying attention to the meals that other chefs burned or half-cooked or should’ve known would taste terrible. I don’t have a problem with fans jumping on and off the bandwagon, but how closely someone has paid attention in the past does affect their opinion about this franchise. It’s also not hard any more to get enough information to fill in the gaps, with every statistic and video of every play available for free online. For example, there are constant questions about playing Prince, but he’s got the 2nd-best on-off numbers on the team behind Rubio, even with the move to the bench.

    People expecting better than 9-14 after 23 clearly don’t get how long it takes youngsters to win in the NBA. Every quick success story includes a heaping of productive prime talent: Carmelo Anthony had Andre Miller, Nene, and Marcus Camby in their primes; Wade had Eddie Jones, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant in a weak East; and Kobe had Van Exel, Jones, Horry, and Shaq. The only reason KG made it in his 2nd season was of how weak the West was; they were a 6 seed with a sub-.500 record. Every other All-Star or superstar has taken at least 3 seasons to make the playoffs.

    With Martin, I still think there’s value in having him here. Their basic offense really diminishes what he’s best at (moving without the ball and spotting up) and at the same time puts pressure on him to do things he’s not good at (playing one-on-one). It’s like bringing in a cornerback in football who’s better in a zone defense, then being mad that he’s not good at playing man defense. It’s also been overlooked how clutch of a shooter he’s been for them; in clutch situations, he’s shot 54.5% (6-11) from 3 while LaVine is at 13.3% (2-15) and Wiggins is 0-7. It’s nice to have that vet to rescue a few games that might have been otherwise lost in a long season, and every report suggests he’s been a similar leader as the other vets in practice. I agree that they should be cautious about wearing out Wiggins, but they can achieve that with fewer minutes and better balance as opposed to dumping Martin.

  6. Submitted by charles thompson on 12/14/2015 - 07:28 pm.

    britt

    The Kmart thing is up for grabs and may hinge on either bjellica turning into a three point threat, or as you suggest, contract type machinations. As much as I like Rubio, a few more open 15 footers going down and a few less drives to the hoop that end up with passes that handcuff the big guys would be welcome.

  7. Submitted by Chris MICKOLICHEK on 12/15/2015 - 11:16 am.

    Back up PG

    The most frustrating item for me on this season is the complete lack of of a back up PG. Given Rubio’s durability issues, Miller’s age and Lavine’s obvious in-ability to run an offense, reaching for Jones in the first round looks even more foolish now than it did draft day. It sure appears as if he will be a D-league all star but his limited NBA minutes highlighted his slow feet and lack of strength to play in the men’s league. Maybe strength will come with age but he lack of explosion will be issue forever. Sunday’s game highlighted what a weapon Zach can be at SG when given time next to a PG that can get them into a set play and a second line that can provide some offense is a key to success in any league. Hopefully any trades made will next some PG help and not cost the team Bazzy, who deserves more minutes at SF.

  8. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 12/15/2015 - 03:05 pm.

    Logjam issue

    First, I agree that KMart should be moved. We’ve got two more months until the trade deadline, so my guess is that we’re just stuck with him until then. I’ve always liked KMart’s game, but his lack of versatility is really hurting him on this team. Wiggins, Muhammad, and LaVine can all play multiple positions, but Martin can only play the SG, which is the position that each of the previously mentioned players would be best (with the possible exception of Bazzy). I don’t know the thinking around the league, but I’m guessing Martin is an undervalued asset that a playoff team seeking depth could really use.

    While I’m sold on LaVine at the 2, moving Martin would also mean more minutes for Muhammad at the 3. This certainly has the potential to create some of the same problems a Martin trade would alleviate, such as ball movement and team defense. I mean, do we *really* want Martin’s shots going to Muhammad? While I love watching him post up defenders, I’m not sure he can take advantage of mismatches as often and reliably as Martin can shoot.

    Either way, it’s frustrating to watch LaVine and Wiggins play out of position just to keep Martin on the court. Hopefully the minutes would also allow Mitchell to play Andre Miller, whose reliable play has been sorely needed and almost completely overlooked as an option thus far.

  9. Submitted by Mike martin on 12/18/2015 - 03:17 pm.

    Trade for Ty Lawson?

    Should the wolves consider trading 1 or 2 second round picks for starting point guard Ty Lawson?

    It would create something of a log jam at PG Rubio, Miller, Jones and Zach.

    It would put pressure on Rubio to improve his shooting percentage.

    Ty would give the wolves a proven PG who could play 20-35 minutes/game if Rubio gets hurt

    It would force Zach to play SC where he belongs for now. Given the amount of playing time miller is getting, waiving or trading would not be a big loss.

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