Let’s begin with a positive.
In the grand scheme of things, the Minnesota Timberwolves 2015-16 season already stands as a resounding success, if only for the presence of rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns, who at age 20 already bruits the complete package of skills required of an All Star performer in the NBA.
The key word in that declaration is “already.” Towns does not need to improve one scintilla of his overall game to punch his ticket to the annual All Star festivities in future Februaries. Consider that he currently ranks fourth in total rebounds, eighth in total blocked shots and eighth in field goal shooting percentage among all NBA players. That is a phenomenally precocious blend of gristle and silk.
Going by the listed weights at NBA.com, Towns is the lightest player to rank among the top ten in total rebounds this season (and remember, he is fourth). According to Basketball-Reference.com, all of the seven players who rank ahead of him in field goal accuracy take at least 76 percent of their shots within 10 feet of the basket. By contrast, Towns is not chained to the painted area—only 56 percent of his field goal attempts are launched within 10 feet of the hoop.
At the age of 20, KAT is already an elite performer in terms of jousting in the scrum for rebounds, swatting away shots by opponents, and scoring reliably and efficiently from most anywhere on the court.
Along the way, he has demolished the so-called “rookie wall,” so-named because newbies to the NBA traditionally discover that the size, speed, physicality and frequency of play at the pro level takes an enormous toll on the body and the mind. This was supposed to be an especially lurid red flag on the expectations for Towns, who averaged a mere 20 minutes per game during his lone collegiate season at Kentucky.
Remember when Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell justified holding Towns out of games in the fourth quarter in order to prolong his career past the age of 30? Hah. Towns is the only player on the Wolves roster who has started every game. His minutes per game have increased every month since November. So have his assists per game. Thus far in the month of March, he has the highest usage rate (the percentage of times he is directly involved in the play), the highest points per game, and the best true shooting percentage as well as the most minutes and assists of any month of his career.
To complete the gush, let’s add that the spectacle of Towns on the court is as impressive as the numbers he is compiling on paper. By now, Timberwolves fans are familiar (but hopefully not too accustomed) with watching him pirouette through bodies for a finish that could be a delicate, underhanded, banked in scoop shot while veering to the side, or a vicious slam-dunk as lightning quick as it is ferociously primal.
We’ve seen the court vision and decision-making that allows Towns to get the ball to point guard Ricky Rubio the instant after he snatches the rebound, or, if unavailable, start dribbling up the floor himself like a seven-foot guard. We’ve seen him assume position facing the basket in the high post on offense like a king on a throne, snapping passes to shooters in the corners, cutters along the baseline, and teammates with advantageous post position. Or maybe he’ll run the pick-and-roll, as the screener or the roller. Maybe the shot clock or the defensive scheme will convince him that all of those options are closed, and, almost with a shrug, he’ll bury the mid-range jumper — or fake the jumper and embark upon the aforementioned pirouette.
You watch this panoramic, endorphin-generating display of hoops over the course of dozens of contests and realize that Towns won’t turn 21 until mid-November. It dawns on you that while his mental and psychological makeup are already sage-worthy, the experience of repetitions is going to vastly upgrade his instinctual timing and recognition on defense, even as his body matures. That will sew up the precious few furtive holes in the fabric of his game where one might plausibly nit-pick.
You realize that Karl-Anthony Towns is under the Timberwolves contractual control through at least the 2019-20 season at very favorable financial terms that allow for management to add the right complementary pieces to his polished, versatile and reliable skill set.
If you are a Timberwolves fan, there is a very good chance that your elation over this state of affairs is besieged by the nightmarish possibility that the franchise will find a way to squander this phenomenal bounty. And in fact you are already getting pretty damn testy mentally recapping the reams of evidence — decades of it! — that have made your dread a fundamentally sound supposition.
For a dozen seasons now, the month of March has been an especially dispiriting time to follow the Timberwolves. Attempts by the franchise to engender hope among the flagging faithful over this stretch of time goes well beyond the tortured analogy of putting lipstick on a pig. It is more like the pig has been butchered into bacon, consumed, and shat into manure that fertilizes the feed for the next swine in line for their Maybelline moment. The 21st Century Timberwolves have become a factory farm of false hopes.
When regarding the Wolves in this March of 2016, there is a solid case to be made for succumbing to the hypnotic sway of silver linings — and maybe later this month I’ll make that case. But right now, I’m compelled to be more in the mood for some righteous cynicism. For the faint of heart, the extended Towns preamble should be sufficient novocain to soldier though the following scattershot litany of complaints.
Yet again on the precipice of spring we have watched the Wolves roster dissipate into tatters. Some veteran players have been tossed aside, others have been felled by injuries that range from mysterious to utterly predictable to blatantly deceptive. Any reinforcements brought to shore up these absences are ridiculously insufficient — a fringe player on a 10-day contract, a chronic bench-rider suddenly drowning in the exposure, a callow local hero as a bauble of distraction.
The real reason for this strip-mining of the roster is plausible deniability. Last year we heard Flip Saunders lament the absence of healthy bodies in the wake of each numbing loss. This year we hear Sam Mitchell lament the physical and mental limits of youth. Both men paid tribute to the persistent effort and hard work displayed by the troops who do grace the court, and of course allude to the supposedly inevitable improvement of the future.
Beneath his crocodile-teared pleas for empathy and understanding, however, Saunders was tanking for the chance to draft Towns. And while Mitchell has less control over his situation, there remains a morass of head-scratching shenanigans that are being ignored or elided as we close out the season.
Let’s get specific. Kevin Garnett is in the first season of a two-year $16 million contract. When he has played, he has exerted an enormously positive impact, especially on defense. Behind the scenes, he has formed an integral bond and mentoring relationship with Towns, and thus must be accorded some credit for the rookie’s preposterously good season. The inspirational diligence with which he prepared his aging body for the rigors of NBA competition has been detailed by both Mitchell and Rubio over the course of the season.
But after helping the tanking by sitting out the final 22 games of the 2014-15 season, Garnett abruptly pulled the plug on his time in the lineup this year after January 23, the 45th game of an 82-game campaign. The stated reason is an injury to his right knee, but that’s moot: KG has decided to physically renege on the remaining grind. It will be a shock if he returns for anything more than ceremonial purposes this season, leaving him with a career-low 556 minutes, barely more than half of last year’s previous career low of 952 minutes.
Fans who demand more detailed information about Garnett’s extended absence should be careful what they wish for — Kobe Bryant is currently torpedoing the Lakers’ entire season with the attendant fanfare surrounding his swan song into retirement. But providing closure on this season is the professional thing to do, and would help mitigate the stain of KG’s bait-and-switch return to the Wolves last season, when many tickets were sold for games in which he sat in a suit on the sidelines.
If Garnett could play, he would help this team in the short-term and the long-term. They are a wretched defensive ball club without him and it is not like his playing time is hindering the development of some deserving youngster. Even given his handsome salary, he has earned the right to call his own shot. But the fans who underwrite those checks have earned the right to have the likelihood that he won’t return, at least this season, either confirmed or clarified by additional detail.
Next up is Nikola Pekovic. He played a total of 156 minutes over 12 games this season and was a shell of the player whose rugged low-post excellence earned him a 5-year, $60-million contract three years ago. In early January, after Pek returned from April surgery on his Achilles, we watched him make no effort to chase loose balls to which he was the closest player. We watched him wince when he pivoted, the severity of the pain causing him to short-arm shots at the rim. The Wolves were outscored by a dooming 21.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court.
Announcing in late February that Pek would be sidelined “indefinitely,” Wolves Vice President of Sports Performance Arnie Kander said a typical recovery time for the type of debridement and repair surgery he endured was “9-15 months.” But he claimed the body part that prompted the surgery, the Achilles, wasn’t the problem; it was heel pain related to surgery that was at issue. Incredibly, Kander was also quoted by the Strib saying that “He will be fine. He will be Nikola Pekovic again.”
So, a 290-pound behemoth with a chronic and sordid history of leg and foot woes returns to action less than 10 months after a surgery that typically requires 9-15 months to heal, plays horribly with obvious impediment just long enough to forestall any discussions about invoking insurance provisions on his contract, and is then shut down with an announcement that he’ll someday be as good as new?
Which brings us to Nemanja Bjelica. The reigning Euroleague MVP came over to the NBA this season in the credible hope that he could help alleviate the Wolves three-point shooting woes and help facilitate ball movement. During the preseason, the 6-10 stretch power-forward looked worthy of the hype and the MVP designation from a quality league overseas. His passing was savvy and unselfish. His shooting was smooth and accurate. His defense wasn’t too shabby either.
Then the season began and Bjelica became a key cog off the bench during the Wolves surprising 8-8 start. And then everything fell apart.
NBA opponents started roughing up Bjelica’s relatively doughy, 240-pound frame, and in a manner too reminiscent of failed Russian import Alexey Shved a few years ago, the contours of Bjelly’s game began to shrink from the onslaught.
After backing the 27-year old Serb during the preseason, Mitchell began administering some tough love via tongue-lashings and reduced minutes. Bjelica’s confidence, already quavering during this first extended rough patch in the NBA, plummeted to a visibly pitiful level. Pretty much all of December and early January was trainwreck for the team when he was on the court.
But for a few weeks before the mid-February All Star break, Bjelly flashed some beguiling glimpses of his preseason form. In late January, I wrote a column making the case for him to get steady minutes at power forward beside Towns.
The All Star break was extended this season to nine days off. When Bjelica returned from the midseason vacation, he announced a mysterious injury to his right foot.
“I did my normal routine like I always do and when I landed here in Minneapolis I felt some pain in my foot so that’s it. I just did my normal routine like running and on the treadmill. I don’t know how this happened,” he said. “We will see in the next few days what is wrong.”
That was more than three weeks ago and Bjelica hasn’t played since, although there are reports that he is close to returning.
Slightly less than a year ago, Flip Saunders told a postgame gaggle of media that the competitive rotation of players on the Wolves would be entirely different during the 2015-16 campaign. No longer would members of the Wolves receive playing time by default, Saunders warned.
But here we are, with chronic underachiever Adreian Payne getting minutes by default at power forward. Payne had been losing minutes to D-League performer Greg Smith, signed earlier this month to a 10-day contract, but Smith has been hobbled by an ingrown toenail, the news of which sent Mitchell into a postgame tirade earlier this week because he hadn’t been notified of it by the medical staff until an hour before a game.
Aside from that tempest in a teapot, the morass in the front court looks disturbingly familiar. It was just last year, of course, that Garnett went missing because even abbreviated minutes during the toll of a typical season was too much for his body to bear, with confirmation of his unavailability withheld long past the reasonable time for that news to be communicated. And it was last year — and the year before that, and the year before that — that Pek was relegated to the sidelines because of lower-body injuries during the final weeks of the season. Although word that he’ll eventually be “fine” is a cruelly piquant twist.
Last year’s Bjelica, was Anthony Bennett, a young forward who came to the Wolves with considerable hype, showed flashes of skill that justified a past honor (in Bennett’s case being taken as the top draft pick in 2013), fell out of favor with the coaches and got down on himself, then suffered a mysterious injury that both coaches and player seemed content to let linger while the player’s NBA career circled the drain.
Repeating such a desultory state of affairs with eerie resonance is not a great testimonial for a franchise that is now a dozen years out of the playoffs.
Spring already sprouts enough chaos in the NBA to taint earnest evaluations of developing teams and players. Some ball clubs are in abject tanking mode, while others are desperate to snag that last rung on the playoff ladder. Some teams are periodically resting their stars to better endure the coming playoff grind, while others are benching more capable vets to get a look at promising youngsters. Some teams have already fired their coaches or torn down their rosters, while others are acclimating new additions that hope will propel their playoff push.
It is time for the Timberwolves to understand that chaos is no longer their ally. In another month they will officially boast the past two rookies of the year on their roster—Towns is certain to join last year’s ROY Andrew Wiggins. Surrounding these two cornerstones with the best and most compatible talent is the top priority, not working the system for a few more ping pong balls to move up in the draft.
By obtaining both Wiggins and Towns, the Wolves almost literally won the lottery the past two seasons. Now it is past time to make some bold moves that consolidate the team’s extreme good fortune. But bold hasn’t usually been a component of the franchise’s DNA.
It didn’t take a savant to realize that Kevin Martin needed to be moved in order to create space for Zach LaVine to get minutes at shooting guard instead of being played out of position as the backup point guard. I wrote that specific thing in November. But it wasn’t until February that Martin’s contract was finally bought out and LaVine started receiving regular minutes — and flourishing — as the shooting guard.
Troubling questions remain, the foremost of which involves Wiggins, whose sporadic effort on defense may be a continuation of his anemic motivation in college at Kansas, or all the losing and heavy minutes that have characterized his two-year run with the Wolves.
Also prominent on the radar is the fate of Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton. Are they the best tandem to transform the platinum-caliber potential of Towns and Wiggins into a legitimate juggernaut capable of winning a championship?
The answer may be yes. But the situation in Minnesota is no doubt highly attractive to a lot of stellar candidates for both positions, and owner Glen Taylor should explore all his options.
That’s not disrespectful to Mitchell or Newton, who are now known commodities. That’s making sure that you get the most important decision of your long ownership tenure exactly right. That’s being respectful to the dwindling legion of die-hard fans smart enough to know what is at stake.
The bottom line is that the Wolves have not proven to be a trustworthy organization. With the arrival of Towns (and to a lesser extent Wiggins, and, some would even say, LaVine) there are no excuses left. To paraphrase a cliché from postseason tournaments—“win or go home”—Taylor and this organization need to understand that the prevailing mood among the faithful is, “win or go away.”