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What the competition for minutes between Bazzy and LaVine means for the future of the Wolves

The NBA has become a league that increasingly features athletic wing players, which the Wolves have in abundance. And yet the team can’t seem to get out of its own way. 

Maybe the father of Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Shabazz Muhammad had a crystal ball when he consistently claimed his son was a year younger than he actually was.

At the time of the embarrassing disclosure — after Muhammad’s lone season at UCLA and shortly before the 2013 NBA draft — the theme was that playing against supposed peers who were actually a year younger than he was falsely elevated Bazzy’s basketball prowess and fed the hype that made him “Mr. Basketball USA” and the “Naismith Prep Player of the Year” coming out of high school.

But now, enmeshed in his third NBA season with the Wolves, Bazzy has consistently been underrated and shuffled to the fringes of the team’s future core of contributors because he is not as ridiculously precocious as some of his teammates.

The best word to describe Muhammad’s tenure with the Wolves is “star-crossed.”

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The late Flip Saunders sounded rueful and apologetic the night he drafted Bazzy, saying his first three choices had been scuttled by the prior picks of other teams, and acknowledging that Muhammad neither fit a specific need for the Wolves nor was likely to be a popular acquisition with the fan base.

A year later, the Wolves unveiled their notorious “Eyes on the Rise” marketing campaign, showcasing the acquisition of top overall picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett from Cleveland, along with Minnesota’s own first-round choice, Zach LaVine, and even Thad Young, coming over from Philadelphia. The phrase was meant to convey that the Wolves as a team were prepared to ascend in the standings, even as their athletic young roster would be rising above the rim for a boatload of crowd-pleasing slam dunks.

Anyone who has seen Bazzy perform for the Wolves now knows that it was preposterous to leave him out of that campaign, and to regard him as an afterthought heading into the 2014-15 season.

This year, the Wolves added a third straight top overall pick — their own, this time — in wunderkind center Karl-Anthony Towns. And now the marketing machinery is overheating on the notion of three spectacular 20-year old teammates —Towns, Wiggins and LaVine (replacing Bennett, who flamed out and was quickly discarded).

Muhammad, not yet 23 when the 2015-16 season began, was too old to fit the narrative.

A basket of wings

One of the more fascinating and yet rarely mentioned aspects of the Wolves auspicious rebuilding plan is the closet competition for minutes between LaVine and Muhammad and the domino effect it will have on the roster moving forward.

There are many who believe that LaVine is best suited to play the shooting guard position. Among those was Saunders, who before he died expressed a preference for sliding LaVine over from point guard, where the player spent much of his rookie season. It also includes current coach Sam Mitchell, who thrust LaVine into the starting lineup as a shooting guard during the preseason and benched veteran Kevin Martin for a while this season in order to open up more there for the willowy second-year pro.

It is a hallmark of the Wolves dysfunction that LaVine has instead logged 84 percent of his career NBA minutes at the point, according to the stats at Basketball-reference.com. Yes, playing LaVine out of position 94 percent of his minutes last season was a sneaky way to tank the season and broaden his skill set. But why is he getting fully two-thirds, 67 percent, of his playing time at the point this season as well?

The most sensible answer is that the shooting guard spot belongs to Wiggins, who at 6-8 but just 199 pounds has a height advantage over opposing two-guards and avoids the pounding inevitably administered by burlier opposing small forwards. The development of Wiggins and Towns is absolutely the top priority for this season, because they are the cornerstones of the franchise.

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Shabazz Muhammad
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
The best word to describe Shabazz Muhammad’s tenure with the Wolves is “star-crossed.”

But there are two more worrisome rationales. One, espoused by Mitchell, is that the 6-5, 189-pound LaVine is as physically overmatched at shooting guard as Wiggins is at small forward.

The other is the sense among some members of the Wolves organization that incumbent point guard Ricky Rubio will never be able to shoot well enough to take the Wolves deep into the postseason, when every flaw is magnified and exploited.

Given Rubio’s currently enormous value in choreographing the team’s sets at both ends of the court, not to mention his hefty five-year contract that doesn’t expire until 2019, no one is going to publicly verbalize this concern. But suffice to say that Rubio’s long-term value is a divisive topic among those in and out of the organization, with some beguiled by LaVine’s astounding athleticism and the notion of him maturing alongside Wiggins and Towns. Remember, when Rubio’s deal expires, that trio will still only be 23 (Towns) and 24 (Wiggins, Towns) years old.

Muhammad also has had difficulty finding a regular niche that suits his overall skill set. At 6-6 and 223 pounds, he has a build that is tailor-made to swing between the small forward and shooting guard positions, and yet possesses the sheer physical strength enough to post up and rebound like a power forward, while adding in more three-pointers to his shot selection this season. He played 70 percent of his rookie minutes at shooting guard, bumped up to 80 percent his second season, although his playing time with Wiggins last year probably misidentified him as a guard, when he was frequently the de facto small forward. This season, he has split time almost 50-50 at the swing slots.

A pair of teases

Here is the rub that is so maddening to the die-hards who still doggedly follow the chronically wretched Wolves franchise: The NBA has become a league that increasingly relies on and features athletic wing players. With Wiggins, Muhammad and LaVine, the Wolves possess three young and extremely gifted players in that mold, along with arguably the best-passing point guard in the NBA and a young center who shows every indication of becoming a future Hall of Famer. And yet the team can’t seem to get out of its own way, and currently sports one of the five-worst won-lost records in the 30-team association.

There is blame to be shared by Mitchell and whoever is advising him on the sidelines and in the front office. But it doesn’t absolve Muhammad and LaVine, who are two of the worst defenders in the entire NBA. Both are prone to lapses in concentration and stupid decisions at either end of the court, but which are most injurious on defense with respect to floor balance (guarding the leak-out opponent in transition), pick-and-roll coverage and timing on rotations.

A major reason neither Muhammad nor LaVine has settled into a reliable niche is because they don’t defend well at any position. Not coincidentally, the Wolves generally suffer when they are on the court.

Net rating is a statistic that measure how many points per possession your team scores when you are on the court and subtracts it from how many points your opponent scores when you play. Muhammad’s net rating this season is -7.0 points per 100 possessions. LaVine’s net rating is -7.1 points per 100 possessions. Aside from physically overwhelmed rookie point guard Tyus Jones and rusty, injury-prone center Nikola Pekovic (both rarely used thus far this season), Muhammad and LaVine have the two worst net ratings on this 14-32 team.

Ah, but what magnificent highlights both players can produce! Stylistically LaVine is a quicksilver flash in contrast to Bazzy’s relentless brute, but both deliver spectacular leaps culminating in thrilling dunks. Both give you that breath-catching shiver when they are just a long stride or two from the hoop with no one—or, better yet, just a hapless foil — in front of them.

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It’s a delicious tease. But it is high time that these two players and the people in charge of mentoring them refine their performances enough to remove the bitter aftertaste they too often leave behind.

Prescription for a solution: Bazzy

It is time to hasten the decision-making process by putting both Muhammad and LaVine into positions where they are most likely to succeed.

First, treat Bazzy as an asset who is potentially as valuable as LaVine. Mitchell has already begun to do this to some extent, rewarding Muhammad’s greater inclination to share the ball and hone his shot selection. Thus far in January, Bazzy has played 362 minutes compared to LaVine’s 261 minutes, the first full month he has logged more time since LaVine entered the NBA.

In fact, LaVine has logged more career minutes in two seasons than Bazzy has in three, a fact that should be noted as we chart developmental progress.

More minutes is encouraging, but now is the time to start generating moments of truth on the real upside to Bazzy’s career. Put simply, if he can learn to defend small forwards well enough to form a potent wing tandem at both ends of the court alongside Wiggins at shooting guard, it will be a huge boon to the Wolves future status as a playoff contender. If not, he’s a not a great fit for this franchise.

Tayshaun Prince has been a godsend for this team as a starting small forward, a player who provides more defensive ballast than anyone on the roster. (The limited minutes Kevin Garnett can play disqualifies him from this honor.) But the Wolves are mired in the dregs of the standings and it is time to transition from veteran example to young crucible. Start Muhammad at small forward and see what happens.

This will give Bazzy a chance to play with Rubio at the point. The two have a net rating of +1.8 per 100 possessions in 205 minutes together on the court. In 150 minutes with Andre Miller and Bazzy, the net rating is + 3.2 points. In 666 devilish minutes alongside LaVine, most of them with Zach at the point, Muhammad’s net rating is -8.6 points.

Time in the starting lineup will also give Muhammad a chance to learn from KG more directly. They have shared the court for all of 25 minutes thus far this season, barely more than a normal half of basketball. The Wolves have outscored their opponents by 22 points in that span.

But most important, the starter minutes will provide a wider sample of how Muhammad meshes with the cornerstones, Wiggins and Towns. I have long trumpeted what seemed to be the obvious synergy of a Wiggins-Muhammad wing platter, including their ability to space the floor and drive to the hoop from either wing or in transition.

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The reality of this vision is less rosy. The Wigs-Bazz due have a net rating of -8.5 in 348 minutes together, a carryover from last season when they were -8.6 in 441 minutes as a tandem. That’s becoming a significant sample size and it is worth finding out why they haven’t clicked. (Muhammad and Towns is likewise problematical, albeit in many fewer minutes.)

Maybe it is too much time with teammates from the second unit. Maybe the fact that neither one has been an especially accurate three-point shooter (although Bazzy shows promise from the corner) enables opposing defenses to pack the paint and wall off penetrating. Maybe their defensive inexperience and shortcomings are exacerbated together. Heading into the dog (dogsled?) days of a noncompetitive season is the right time to get forensic on the cause. 

Prescription for a solution: Zach

Stop pretending Zach LaVine can somehow take this franchise further than Rubio at point guard. Even if we grant that Rubio can’t shoot (and his true shooting percentage is not that much worse than LaVine’s), Zach can’t facilitate. What skills are more likely to be mastered through experience and repetition — the mechanics of shooting or the court vision and timing of NBA-caliber facilitation?

At halftime of Monday’s game in Cleveland, LaVine told sideline reporter Marney Gelner that “the last four games I was trying to be a point guard, and not being aggressive.” It revealed something long suspected: LaVine becomes overwhelmed and thus stymied trying to absorb all the point guard duties that are not a natural part of his style and flow.

LaVine is a confidence player, best when his extraordinary athleticism and giddy impulses are mostly unchecked. When he is fettered, it should be by just a few simple rules that pertain to shooting guards, such as, catch and shoot that three-pointer rather than dribbling into defenders and launching a long, fadeaway two-pointer.  

Yes, under the current circumstances, LaVine still needs to log some minutes at point guard. But he should probably enter the game as a shooting guard, sending either Muhammad or Wiggins to the bench to play alongside Rubio. Then, when Rubio rests and LaVine does play the point, he should still be primarily a scoring combo guard who facilitates by instinct more than design. The eye test indicates that he actually runs an offense with more pace and effectiveness that way, with more proactive passing that gets his teammates involved.

The rest of the time, bump up Andre Miller’s minutes and give him some time with LaVine. It will be an unmitigated disaster on defense, but a gas to watch the way Miller’s ingenuity gets LaVine quality shots — or uses the threat of LaVine to get others open looks. Again, these are dog days and lessons can be learned.

In general, be harsh with LaVine’s awful shot selection. He has better form on his jumper than most anyone on the team, but he also has no idea when to deploy it. Benching him for bad defense or poor ball-distribution won’t be taken to heart as much as benching him for bad shots, because the antidote is still shooting rather than onerous tasks that sap his confidence.

The other day, LaVine made the comment that Mitchell’s treatment of him was at times “unfair.” When it comes to way his position has been yo-yo-ing back and forth between point guard and shooting guard, he has cause to gripe. But if he is told he is being groomed to be a shooting guard and a dynamic scorer — which is his future in this league — he’ll accept tough love with more equanimity.

Last but not least is the crapshoot with the highest risk-reward factor — a wing-heavy small-ball lineup.

In my last column I mentioned how other teams were torturing the Wolves with lineups that used a wing player like Chandler Parsons of Dallas at power forward. As anyone who regularly watches the NBA knows, these quirky small-ball configurations are becoming more common and effective for some teams. At the very least, if you are going to become a credible contender, you need to devise a counter lineup.

This is a golden opportunity for the Wolves to strut their future and see what happens. When opponents go small-ball, answer back with Rubio at the point, LaVine at shooting guard, Wiggins at small forward, Muhammad at power forward and Towns at center.

Yes, it is a dreadful quintet defensively. In 14 total minutes spread over the course of five games this season, this unit has ceded 36 points, a sieve-like showing that telescopes out to 123 points allowed in a normal 48-minute game.

But over that same 14-minute span, that unit of Wiggins and the Wolves’ last four first-round draft picks, with Rubio the oldest at age 25, scored 37 points.

That kind of rise is a sight for sore eyes.