Bright future, big questions: what we know about the Wolves as they head into the All-Star break

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Can Coach Sam Mitchell lean more heavily on 39-year old Andre Miller, above, to spell Rubio so Zach LaVine can remain at shooting guard? “We’re going to find out.”

Minnesota Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell knew he had to do something.

It had been a dark six weeks for Mitchell’s crew since the night of the winter solstice, when the Wolves had their modest two-game winning streak snapped by Boston in a 14-point loss that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated. Thus began a torrent of ineptitude, pouring forth 19 losses in 22 games, with 11 of those defeats debacles in which the opponent left the Wolves double-digits behind. 

Once again, the Wolves were piling up losses with a numbing, repetitious familiarity, so it was perhaps fitting that they landed in Los Angeles on Groundhog Day.

The previous week, respected Associated Press beat writer Jon Krawczynski had published a story claiming that, “There is a battle of wills going on in Minnesota between an old-school coach and a roster built around new-school talent,” and revealing that “nearly half the roster of 15 players privately expressed concerns to the Associated Press about Mitchell.” The article also noted that Kevin Garnett, whom Mitchell had mentored when both played for the Wolves in the 1990s, had pointedly refused to comment about fan criticism of Mitchell’s methods this season.

At the shoot-around before the Lakers game in L.A., the normally reclusive Garnett came over to the media to set his version of the record straight. “I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I am endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” KG announced. “I want you guys to understand that not only do I endorse Sam Mitchell but the other players do too.”

That night, the Wolves played perhaps their worst half of basketball in this entire wretched season, yielding 66 points to a team whose offense ranked next-to-last in the 30-team NBA. And although the Wolves would rally and make a game of it in the second half, the bottom line was their 20th loss in the past 23 games.

On the morning of Feb. 3, only four NBA teams had won-lost records that were worse than Mitchell’s Timberwolves. Two of them, Brooklyn and Phoenix, had already fired their head coach. A third, Philadelphia, had compelled the NBA to intervene in the front office machinations of team architect Sam Hinkie, adding other decision-makers to counter Hinkie’s strategy of blatantly tanking games to secure better draft choices.   

The fourth was the Lakers, who had just vanquished the Wolves.

Mitchell wants to keep coaching this team next season and beyond. The record and the prevailing attitude about the course of the roster was making that notion increasingly far-fetched.

It was time — long past time, actually — to recalibrate.

A more sensible rotation

The night after the loss to the Lakers, the Wolves remained in Los Angeles to face the Clippers. Although the Clips were without star power forward Blake Griffin, they had already thrived in his absence, winning the past four in a row, and 16 of the past 19 games en route to their 32-16 record.

On the other end of the spectrum, this would be the eighth time in the 2015-16 season that the Wolves were playing a second game in as many nights. The previous seven back-to-back scenarios had resulted in losses.

The Wolves’ best defender, Garnett, was missing his sixth straight game; ditto shooting guard Kevin Martin, felled by a balky wrist and the sting of the Wolves being unsuccessful in the efforts to unload him in a trade. And center Nikola Pekovic delivered the latest indictment of his chronically ailing body, sitting out his second straight game after having his minutes steadily diminish in the five previous games when he had suited up.

Odds-makers had put the Wolves chances of winning at seven percent.

But at long last, Mitchell realized it was time to shake up the status quo.

When the glorious rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns picked up his second foul less than five minutes into the game, Mitchell substituted in three-point specialist Damjan Rudez, who had looked good in a stint the previous night after playing just 20 total minutes in three games since that loss to Boston on the winter solstice.

Even more significantly, when Ricky Rubio likewise picked up two fouls in the first 6:42 of the opening quarter, Mitchell only filled Rubio’s point guard slot with Zach LaVine for three and a half minutes before bringing in veteran Andre Miller and sliding LaVine over to shooting guard. LaVine wound up logging more than 34 minutes of action, and over 30 minutes of that time was spent at two-guard, with either Miller or Rubio manning the point.

These rotation changes by themselves were not close to being the reason the Wolves pulled off the near-miraculous upset, beating the Clippers 108-102. On offense, Andrew Wiggins hit a key basket with 46 seconds left to play to finish with 31 points overall. On defense, the aged-but-game Tayshaun Prince relentless chased Clippers shooting guard J.J. Redick around and through picks and harassed Redick into a 1-for-9 clank-fest from the field and a meager five points overall.

But Rudez and Miller were knowledgeable soldiers who limited the damage that could have been wreaked on a depleted lineup facing a superior foe. Miller finished minus-6 while racking up seven assists in 14:27 of playing time, his longest stint since late November. Rudez sank all three of his shot attempts, two of them from long range, and finished minus-3 in 18:25, his most extensive playing time since Dec. 13.

Three nights later, back home against the Chicago Bulls, the Wolves again benefited from Mitchell’s more sensible rotation. This time, with no foul trouble to force his decisions, Mitchell made LaVine his first man off the bench, moving Wiggins to small forward so he could rest Prince. When Rubio needed a break, Miller once again was called, keeping LaVine at shooting guard — all 35:41 of Zach’s minutes were spent at the position best suited for his skill set.

Meanwhile, after judiciously limiting Towns’ playing time the entire season, Mitchell turned him loose for a career-high 40:52 against the Bulls frontcourt, and steadfastly paired him with Gorgui Dieng, who logged a season-high 41:29. Not coincidentally, the Wolves gutted out their second victory in a row over an opponent destined for the playoffs with a winning record, this time by a score of 112-105.

After the game, I asked Mitchell two questions about the shifts in his rotation. Can he continue to play Towns and Dieng as much as 40 minutes apiece per game? And can he continue to lean more heavily on the 39-year old Miller to spell Rubio so LaVine can remain at shooting guard? His grinning answer was the same to both queries: “We’re going to find out.”

Persisting holes and the stakes ahead

And thus ends, at least temporarily, our feel-good snippet for the Wolves in February.

Two nights later, at home against the Pelicans, the Wolves again faced an exceptionally unpleasant scenario for this team — early foul trouble for both Rubio and Towns. Not wanting to burn out Miller, the oldest active player in the NBA, Mitchell subbed in LaVine at the point for nearly two minutes before sliding him to shooting guard at Miller’s insertion. And with Garnett and Pekovic still on the shelf, Rudez was again called upon to replace Towns beside Dieng in the frontcourt.

Ah, but Dieng needs a breather at some point, and Miller can go more than five or six minutes at a time before catching some time on the pine to recharge. So it happened that Mitchell brought in Adreian Payne for Dieng when the score was 28-27. New Orleans promptly erupted for 11 straight points in 101 seconds.

Mitchell then brought in Wiggins for Miller, moving LaVine to the point. After three more points extended the Pelicans’ run to 14-0, he called for Towns so that Payne could take an ignominious perp-walk to the bench. Less than two minutes later, after New Orleans had tacked another point on to what was now a 16-point lead, Rubio replaced LaVine. And less than a minute after that, Prince and Dieng restored the original starting lineup — just in time for a jumper by ex-Timberwolf Dante Cunningham, pushing the lead to 20 and culminating a 22-3 Pelicans run that essentially decided the outcome before halftime.

After the brutal loss, Mitchell was measured in his criticism, chalking it up to a team-wide “clunker” that inevitably occurs three or four times to every team over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Of course, if you trot out a frontcourt tandem of Adreian Payne and Damjan Rudez against a Pelicans squad that is long and deep in front court personnel, “clunkers” are not random circumstance. Payne was minus-13 in just 2:25 of play; Rudez minus-16 in eight second-quarter minutes.

Obviously, this wasn’t the rotation Mitchell would have preferred. The ongoing absence of Garnett, Pekovic and Martin and the limited minutes that can be accorded Miller, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Prince, makes the roster’s lack of depth a glaring flaw and puts players in a position to fail.

Fine. But even after that two-win boomlet, the standings offer cold facts. The Wolves continue to sport a better won-lost record than only four teams. Three of those teams have experienced massive shakeups in either their coaching ranks or front office personnel, while the other team, the Lakers, is ostentatiously staging a farewell tour for future Hall-of-Famer Kobe Bryant as a way to mask reality: that if they don’t have one of the top three picks in next summer’s draft, they will lose it to Philadelphia under the terms of a previous trade. More than any other ballclub, the Lakers need to tank their season.

We have heard Mitchell’s justifications for the disappointing record, and some of them have merit. The roster is exceedingly young and unschooled. The top priority is the development of the cornerstones, Towns and Wiggins. Lessons are being taught at the first fundamentals, the most basic levels of instruction.

But at the end of this season, there needs to be a reckoning. The Timberwolves are on the way to having back-to-back rookies of the year. The reason why that has never happened before in the NBA is because the prevailing talent of the first rookie should be sufficient to ensure you don’t get a chance to acquire another rookie stud.

Obviously, last season’s brilliant stealth tanking overrode that obstacle. But boasting two premiere young players and still looking at a scenario where you lose twice as often as you win? That’s not a good bargaining position for Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton to be in at the end of the 2015-16 campaign.

The most positive comparison that can be made is to the 2008-09 edition of the Oklahoma City Thunder, when the team finished 23-59 despite having rookie Russell Westbrook and second-year forward Kevin Durant as a pair of 20-year old future superstars. But a key difference is that the Thunder finished strong, going 18-27 from early January through the close of the season. They also experienced a coaching change, from P.J. Carlesimo to Scottie Brooks, shortly before that surge.

After tonight’s home game against the Toronto Raptors, the NBA will have its annual All-Star break, extended to more than a week this season, and followed by the trading deadline. Mitchell says the plan is to meet with Newton and owner Glen Taylor to take stock and determine the best way to proceed.

In my next column, I’ll offer up my own thoughts on how the franchise should pivot into the final 28 games after the break. For now, the biggest takeaway is that, thanks to Towns and Wiggins, the long-term future has never looked brighter.

Or put another way, the stakes have never been higher.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 02/10/2016 - 11:18 am.

    S’OK

    So long as Bernie keeps winning, I can take another season of this (just barely).

  2. Submitted by Ryan Kuschel on 02/10/2016 - 12:22 pm.

    The Stakes Have Never Been Higher

    This is why I do not believe Mitchell should be the coach moving forward. Karl-Anthony Towns raises the ceiling on how successful this team can be so high, that I feel the Timberwolves deserve an elite level coach. They should start by offering Izzo the keys to Flip’s kingdom, but after he turns them down they should go after Thibodeau.

    Britt, is there any way Sam Mitchell could return as an assistant next year? I do feel he has value as a player development coach after reading about his binders, and seeing Gorgui continue to improve.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 02/10/2016 - 04:33 pm.

    Different reasons for consecutive ROY

    It’s at least partially because some seasons just have multiple good candidates. In a different draft class, Westbrook would’ve won, and Wiggins basically won last season due to lack of competition. Also, teams have a hard time nailing consecutive lottery picks, whether it’s the Cavs following up Kyrie Irving with Dion Waiters or the Sixers following MCW with Joel Embiid. I get the point, though, that they shouldn’t be this bad.

    In a normal scenario, Mitchell would’ve been fired. We all know why he won’t be this season, and it likely wouldn’t matter because I don’t see a notable difference between him and his likely replacement Sid Lowe. His fate is basically sealed, though, even if they make a run in the second half. They may do it over the last 30-some games instead of the last 45 like the Thunder did, but I could see like a 12-16 second half. I have no idea how they evaluate Milt, though he could be kept if they bring in a coach who wants personnel control.

    Rudez and Miller’s value were encapsulated in Zach Lowe’s role player column for ESPN yesterday: role players have to be decisive offensively. It’s a mentality Bjelica hasn’t picked up yet and a main reason why LaVine and Dieng can be so maddening to watch at times. His piece also had me visualizing what an upcoming free agent role player like Marvin Williams or Jared Dudley could help with on this team.

  4. Submitted by Mike martin on 02/10/2016 - 09:01 pm.

    No D-league team Why??

    Why don’t the Wolves have their own D-league affiliate or share one with another team?

    Given that Flip started in th Continental league (minor league pro basketball with not NBA affiliation) I don’t understand why that wasn’t one of his first acts as GM.

    With a D-league affilate Lorenzo Brown could have been assigned to it instead of being completely cut. Brown could provide some minutes when Miller & Rubio need a rest or have foul trouble. at PG. Then Zach could stay at the 2 where he belongs. (Brown is a stop-gap at best, but one the Wolves needed last year)

    Pyane, Rudez, Bjelica and Jones are learning little or nothing sitting at the end of the bench not playing. They should be playing 20-35 minutes per game in the D-league. This would be especially good if Ryan Saunders coached the team. (everyone kind of assumed Flip was grooming his son to replace Flip someday.)

    Bjelica could practice shooting more and learning to be more comfortable with the more physical style of the NBA . Jones would get experience playing against bigger and stronger point guards And the Wolves would learn how likely is Jones to become a reliable back-up point guard

    These 4 could bounce between the D-league and the Wolves depending on injuries and match-ups with who the Wolves are playing

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/11/2016 - 07:11 am.

      Seems like there is a lot of bodies just holding down the bench

      I’m no expert, just a fan, but there seems to be a lot of dead (or near-dead) weight on this team. You have a young, talented core group. Then you have the Pyane, Rudez, Bjelica and Jones group with two guys they should probably cut (Payne and Jones) and two guys they may have to give up on if they don’t improve. Bjelica seems pretty advanced to send to a D league. He needs to step up though. Then there is the old guy/ injured group of Pek, Garnett, Martin, Prince and Miller. Pek sure ain’t earning his salary and apparently never will. Garnett is way overpaid as a player I think. He earns money as an informal assistant coach and role model. I like Miller and Prince, especially Prince, but it would be nice if those roles were filled by mid-career guys instead of end of career.

      I’m guessing the next couple of years will see a lot of turnover in the secondary roles and improvement in the skills and chemistry of the young leaders. Unfortunate that about the only way we can win is to pile the minutes on the group that started last night in Toronto. I hope fatigue doesn’t lead to injury. We are playing with half a team, but there has been a lot of improvement in the last 10-20 games and 30 wins for the year seems like a reasonable prediction. As I recall that was about Britt’s prediction and the national prediction for the year. So why fire Mitchell for meeting expectations and showing steady improvement? If Newton does his job there should be at least five new guys here next year. Would be nice to have a D team though.

  5. Submitted by C Cloutier on 02/11/2016 - 11:13 am.

    What are your expectations?

    I don’t understand some of this criticism. For instance:

    The Timberwolves are on the way to having back-to-back rookies of the year. The reason why that has never happened before in the NBA is because the prevailing talent of the first rookie should be sufficient to ensure you don’t get a chance to acquire another rookie stud.

    So, the team is at fault for this? I fail to see why this is a bad thing. Just ask Sacramento how excited they would be if some of their picks turned out this way. The one ROY is the result of a masterful trade by Flip and then a great job of tanking. Which of these should they not have done to avoid the awful fate of potentially two ROY’s?

    I also am not sure what you expected from Newton and Mitchell considering both of these guys had their roles radically altered just months ago.

    I’d love to see Prince play less and hopefully last night’s game convinces Sam to do that. But, Sam is showing he is willing to try to adapt and is experimenting. It’s not really fair to use incredibly small sample sizes of certian rotations to draw conclusions.

    As a season ticket-holder I have very few complaints about this year. When your three best players are ~20 yo and have a combined NBA experience of >5 years and your head coach, pobo dies right before the season, one should have reasonable expectations.

  6. Submitted by Marty Smith on 02/11/2016 - 03:47 pm.

    2016-2017 Roster

    Ok, I am getting ahead of things, but I have a few questions about next year’s roster.

    I count 9 players who are all but guaranteed to be here next year.
    This would be the last 6 draft picks, plus Rubio, Bjelly and the number one pick from next spring.

    From the remaining 7 current players who do you see coming back next year?

  7. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 02/11/2016 - 10:33 pm.

    Coaching

    Despite last night’s win over Toronto, I’m pretty pessimistic about this teams’s chances to succeed in the coming years. I guess my question is whether Thibs really is best utilized as a head coach again, or if he’s willing to accept a role similar to that of a defensive coordinator in the NFL. There are some coaches who can handle the holistic view of both ends of the court (Pop, Carlisle), but as much as I respect Thibs’ defensive scheming, I’m not sure he can be one of those guys.

    Don’t get me wrong – I think we have the pieces in place to establish a defensive identity. At the least, we have the most difficult pieces to find available to us in Rubio and Towns. With proper defensive fundamentals in place, this team could absolutely compete in the playoffs in a few years.

  8. Submitted by Marc Andrew on 02/13/2016 - 09:05 pm.

    Coach

    Why hasn’t Scottie brooks name been brought up regarding coaching this team. He took a team with 2 young superstars from a near the bottom record to an eventual nba finals team.

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