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Why Sam Mitchell and Zach LaVine have the most at stake in the final 28 games of the season

A little review and reorientation seems in order for the final 28 games of the season, the 12th in row where Minnesota will fail to qualify for the playoffs. 

It has been nine days since the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Toronto Raptors for their third victory in four games. It is the longest mid-season break in the history of the franchise, encompassing not only the myriad festivities surrounding All Star weekend, but the passage of the trade deadline for the 30 NBA teams.

Before the Wolves travel to Memphis tonight to play a Grizzlies squad reshaped by recent trades, then return home on Saturday night to play the New York Knicks, a little review and reorientation seems in order to whet our appetites for the final 28 games of the 12th season in row where Minnesota will fail to qualify for the playoffs. 

Skills, dunks and beguiling stars

For a team 20 games under .500 (17-37), the Wolves certainly made a dent upon the All Star shenanigans.

For the Skills Challenge — a rapid-fire regimen testing a player’s ability to dribble adroitly, pass accurately and shoot from long range — the new wrinkle this season was having a parallel bracket of big men progressing in elimination rounds in sync with the backcourt personnel who normally participate, arranged so one from each group would square off in the final round. Along with a desire to rejuventate what had become a routinized competition, the change was an acknowledgement that modern NBA big men have become increasingly adept at “little men” skills.

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The Wolves’ seven-foot, 20-year old rookie Karl-Anthony Towns proceeded to set the nail on this newfound reality.

In his three rounds of competition, Towns snaked his dribble around the s-curve barriers with the aplomb of a guard each time. In the part of the competition where you need to thread a pass through a hole not much larger than the basketball about 17-feet away, Towns failed miserably on his maximum three tries in the first round. This delay put him well behind Golden State’s Draymond Green in completing the remaining tasks: dribbling back the length of the court for a layup, then again traversing the court via dribble to attempt three-pointer until one goes in.

But Towns’ quick dribbling closed the gap to the point where Green had unleashed only one three-point miss by the time the rookie was also set to shoot. Green clanked his second trey just before Towns swished his second attempt to move on to the next round against DeMarcus Cousins.

Towns annihilated Cousins, out-dribbling him down the court, putting the ball through the hole on his first pass, and then efficiently covering the remaining dribbles and layup so he could come back down and nail his first three-pointer.

That put him in the final round against Boston’s quicksilver, 5-9 guard, Isaiah Thomas, who is talented enough to have been named to the Eastern Conference All Star team this season and had competed in the Skills Challenge last year.

Remarkably, Towns held his own with the quicker Thomas off the dribble. Once again he accurately fired his first pass through the hole. On the final return dribble after the layup, he and Thomas were neck-and-neck. Neither one could make a three-pointer on their first trio of attempts. When Towns buried his fourth jumper, he was the unlikely champion, immediately engulfed in a jumping hug-circle by his fellow big men.

The other marquee Timberwolf of All Star Weekend was guard Zach LaVine, who was voted MVP of the Rising Stars game on Friday and then on Saturday successfully defended his title in the most thrilling Slam Dunk Competition since Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkens threw down against each other in 1988.

Regular readers are aware of my pro-Towns and anti-LaVine biases, and won’t be surprised to hear that I put more stock in Towns’ exploits over the weekend.

Granted, all of the All Star-related festivities — including the game itself on Sunday — are leavened by levity and the cool-school maintenance of a fun vibe. It’s a little silly to take any of it too seriously.

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That said, Towns’ performance involved a breadth of skills that are fundamental to team success in the modern game, and despite the supposed obstacles of his height (it stands to reason that short people have an innate advantage when dribbling) and inexperience, he executed them with more consistency than anyone else in a talented field. It ratifies the still somewhat awesome notion that he is the most complete rookie big man to enter the NBA since Tim Duncan in 1997.

By contrast, LaVine affirmed once again that his athleticism is off the charts and perhaps without peer in the NBA. But we knew that after last year’s Slam Dunk Competition. In the twelve months since then it has remained stubbornly difficult to translate that astounding ability into something beyond marvelous but isolated spectacle. It still doesn’t generate performances that synergize the skills of his teammates and otherwise elevate his team.

When it comes to dunking the basketball, LaVine rules above all others (with the possible exception of Orlando’s Aaron Gordon), and that is a wonderful tease to possess on your roster with the 13th pick of the 2013 draft.

As for the Rising Stars Game MVP, it was granted solely because LaVine was the top scorer on the winning team. But, just for context, consider that his 30 points came on 13-for-20 shooting and that he was a game-worst minus-9 for the team that won by three points. Meanwhile, his Timberwolves teammate Andrew Wiggins — a Canadian playing for the World squad against LaVine’s USA contingent — shot 13-for-15 for 29 points and was a game-best plus-10 for a team that lost by three.

Like much of my criticism of LaVine, this box score dissection is a little bit petty, a little bit churlish — and accurate.

Rubio rumors and K-Mart shopping

One of the reasons I push back so diligently on the LaVine love is because the shiny-object allure of his signature skills beguiles people into believing his talents are transferrable to many other aspects of the game.

Specifically, folks see a 6-5 greyhound a month shy of his 21st birthday, with lightning quickness and incredible hops, and decide that simply adding tutorial experience will transform him into a quality NBA point guard. 

Couple that with the fact that his team’s incumbent starting point guard is a historically inaccurate shooter, and you get a boomlet of opinion that the Wolves would be better off dumping Ricky Rubio to fast-track the process of grooming LaVine as the team’s floor general.

It was thus utterly predictable that in the wake of LaVine’s buzzed-about dunks and dual trophies from his All Star Weekend, the rumor mill leading up to the trading deadline was churning with talk of Rubio getting dealt to the Knicks or Milwaukee.

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Zach LaVine
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Zach LaVine

Had the rumors become reality, it would have been the sort of top-tier idiocy for which the Wolves are renowned; the kind of crucial, epic miscalculation that has disabled the franchise into 35 fewer wins than the next-worst NBA outfit over the past 11 years.

Lest we forget, this is Season 1 of the two cornerstones, the inaugural campaign of the Towns-Wiggins duo. Their ongoing development is far and away the top priority of the 2015-16 season — and beyond.

Nobody on the Wolves roster facilitates that development better than Rubio. His ability to distribute the ball constitutes a cocktail of timing, instinct and court vision that is at or near the top percentile among his peers. His on-ball and help defense blend mostly sensible gambles into a prevailing knowledge of the team’s schemes and rotations. And he plays at both ends with a palpable passion that contagious and instructive.

In sharp contrast, LaVine doesn’t know how to best facilitate his own game, let alone those of his teammates. LaVine has one of the prettiest jumpers on the team, while Rubio’s looks like it was assembled from spare parts. Yet Rubio’s true shooting percentage is not that far behind LaVine’s (50.5 to 52.1) because a greater portion of Rubio’s shots are three-pointers and he draws proportionally more fouls from his shooting than anyone on the team — and he makes his free throws. Too often LaVine will dribble out of an open three-pointer into a contested two-pointer, then compound the error by fading away with his jumper rather than drawing contact.

Those who cling to the notion of LaVine at the point cite his youth and say experience will elevate his play. Sure, but not enough to transform him into a reliable distributor on an NBA contender. Eighty percent of his 3,217 minutes of play in the NBA have already been spent at point guard and the progress is evident, but painfully slow.

The more optimistic compare LaVine’s phenomenal athleticism to Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City as a template for his future stardom at the point. But the only true comp for Westbrook I have ever seen is former Sixers point guard Allen Iverson, and — beyond physical gifts — the magic ingredient they shared was a fearless arrogance that unfurled the full extent of their inner dynamo out on the court. Like almost everyone else on earth, LaVine lacks that nuclear desire to simultaneously dominate all five opponents out on the court.

No matter: In the click-happy world of some lazy, gullible or cynical pundits, it wasn’t hard for opposing teams to plant the notion that LaVine’s slam dunks logically equated into the expendability of Rubio.

That is the hope anyway, that no one connected to the Wolves front office was silly enough to gin up Rubio trade speculation. After the deadline had passed Thursday, General Manager Milt Newton said the team initiated no phone calls with regard to Rubio, but listened to all proposals about all of their players in case any could improve the team.

(One also hopes Newton was offering Kevin Martin and Adreian Payne to any and all comers. But Payne has already been sent to the D-League by the two teams that have owned him in his first couple of seasons, and K-Mart controls the option on the final year of his contract at $7 million next season, an uncertainty that scared away potential trade partners.)

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Some speculated that Rubio’s agents were behind the trade speculation with New York, which seems absurd, given that the Knicks just fired their coach for his perceived infidelity to the triangle offense, an over-regimented system that seems like a dreadful fit for what Rubio provides. If anyone beyond the New York tabloids had something to gain here, it was the Knicks, with precious few tradeable assets, trying to leverage a younger replacement for Jose Calderon to feed star scorers Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis.

The rumors of Rubio to the Bucks were more clearly generated by eager opponents. Milwaukee has suffered a pratfall season because they dumped sage veterans and rode a roster that was too inexperienced into the campaign. Coach Jason Kidd — a Rubio prototype — wanted Rubio to facilitate the development of young stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker.

A consequential 28 games

Standing pat at the trade deadline was obviously not the worst thing that could have happened to the Wolves, despite their lack of depth and a roster too significantly bifurcated at both ends of the age spectrum.

Newton and the front office will almost certainly buy out Martin’s contract, leaving him free to negotiate with a contender as payment for enduring the indignity of being benched for the sake of developing the Wolves’ young cadre of wings, including Wiggins, LaVine and Bazzy Muhammad.

There are 28 games remaining in the season and it is an inevitably momentous time for the two “interim” substitutes for the late Flip Saunders, Newton as personnel chief and Sam Mitchell as head coach.

I expect the Wolves to tilt more significantly toward minutes for their young core. Minutes for the sage mentors — Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller — will be reduced. Garnett may even reprise last season’s disappearing act, even as the frontcourt is ravaged by injuries both chronic (the feet and ankles of Nikola Pekovic) and haphazard (Nemanja Bjelica extends the nightmare of his season with a toe injury apparently incurred during the All Star break). This will provide Payne another opportunity (his last?) to prove he can be more than a clueless bull in a china shop and an intermittent three-point shooter while adjusting to the team concept.

But beyond the abiding goal of furthering the progress of Towns and Wiggins, it feels both propitious and imperative for the Wolves to throw LaVine into the deep end as the starting shooting guard and intently study the ways he sinks and swims.

For all my carping on LaVine, even I can see that at the very least he has the potential to be a dynamic scorer. Playing four out of every five minutes at the point guard has done neither him nor the team any favors in honing his shot selection, or giving him the rude but necessary awakening that he has to capably guard larger opponents. And that’s just for starters.

The Wolves have been the worst defensive team in the NBA for awhile now, plummeting to 29th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency after a top-ten start. Starting LaVine in place of Prince, with Wiggins moving up to small forward, will exacerbate the matador moments, and if Muhammad grabs most of the minutes that once went to Martin, the bench isn’t like to provide many stops either.

But this isn’t a tough decision. The Wolves not only will miss the playoffs regardless of improvement, but every loss enhances their chances of acquiring another quality prospect in the draft. That isn’t as optimal as watching LaVine click at shooting guard, or seeing the front court synergy between Towns and Gorgui Dieng continue, but it is comforting mitigation.

Last but not least, it is time for the offense to show improvement under Mitchell. The Wolves once again shoot a lower percentage of three-pointers than any NBA team, and the argument that Mitchell can’t tweak the offense to reverse that trend is past its due date. LaVine over Prince among the starters almost necessitates more treys, as knowing when and why to shoot the three is a vital lesson in LaVine’s learning curve and future role on the ballclub. Towns and even Dieng likewise need to become accustomed to more “pace and space.”

Mitchell and LaVine seem to have the most at stake over the final two months of the season, but there is plenty of consequence to go around. Muhammad is going to have to elevate his defense and long-range shooting enough to prove he can crack that competitive wing rotation, Newton has to convince owner Glen Taylor (and perhaps Taylor’s potential partners from Los Angeles) that his inactivity was proper prudence. Payne and rookie point guard Tyus Jones can’t be as woefully overmatched as they were earlier in the season. Bjelica needs a spine and clue.

Last but not least, Towns, Wiggins and Rubio need to keep demonstrating the flair and fundamentals that will continue to provide this beleaguered fan base with the only asset they possess. Hope.