We have entered into the mocking phase of the National Basketball Association calendar year. As less than a handful of elite teams remain hell bent on grasping a championship, the other 27 or 28 NBA franchises have begun scrambling their wits and resources with new coaches, extensive scouting and film study on collegiate and international players eligible for the June 23 draft, and financial spreadsheets and personnel dossiers on upcoming free agents and trade targets that can be added or subtracted in July.
In other words, as a tiny fraction of the franchises lay it all out on the court before millions of viewers, the vast majority feverishly work behind the scenes, revamping their grand agendas in secrecy.
It is a time when even idiotic speculation is accorded a hearing by fan bases starved for information; when heated debates rage over scenarios that will never come to pass; when the words “mock draft” become a deliciously delirious double entendre.
Over the decades, the Minnesota Timberwolves have generally had wiser fan bases and dumber front offices that your typical NBA outfit, which has added a frothy, tragi-comical element to these late spring shenanigans.
I usually opt for hibernation on Wolves-related issues in May. I’d much rather marvel at the postseason blossoming of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the mixture of mania and precision infusing LeBron James in Cleveland or the charismatic teamwork of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx instead of tracking down footage of 7-foot Croatian teenager Dragan Bender playing for Maccabi FOX, Tel Aviv, in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague.
This long history of ignorance spares me the embarrassment of even trying to project the future production and fit of kids on the basis of video highlights and lowlights. I make enough mistakes pontificating about players I’ve watched extensively, up close and in the flesh, at the NBA level.
But it has been at least 12 years since followers of the Timberwolves could be as viably optimistic about the fortunes of the team as they are for the 2016-17 season. The Wolves already boast the most coveted collection of young, inexpensive talent in the NBA. They have just hired the most respected coach on the market, Tom Thibodeau, to fast-forward their development, adding President of Basketball Operations to his job titles to broaden his clout.
The big things — cornerstone talent, and a proven, purposeful director — are in place. Consequently, it is easier to identify where weaknesses exist on the current roster and how they might be addressed in the months before the opening tip in late October. Put simply, it is simultaneously more fun and less fraught to contemplate these Wolves. And so, I succumb to the temptation — with the caveat that I have nearly zero direct knowledge about any of the potential draft choices and am thus relying on the consensus expertise that has developed around each player.
Avenues of improvement: add or grow?
For all the justified goodwill attending the Wolves current state of affairs, it helps to remember that the team’s won-lost record over the past two seasons is 45-119. To make the playoffs in 2016-17 — an ambitious but reasonable goal for this franchise — Minnesota will almost certainly have to win more than it loses over an 82-game slate.
To accomplish such a remarkable improvement, the agenda-setting process facing Thibodeau and owner Glen Taylor this offseason seems logical enough. Where are the weaknesses? Are those deficiencies better addressed through the growth and mentorship of the current personnel, or by additions to the roster? And where adding players is the chosen remedy, is that better undertaken through the draft or free agency?
The primary weaknesses on the Wolves were apparent to even casual observers: wretched team defense and anemic three-point shooting. Depending on your source, the Wolves ranked either 27th (nba.com) or 28th (basketball-reference.com) in the number of points yielded per possession last season, the most credible measure of a team’s defensive prowess. When it came to shooting treys, they ranked 29th in frequency and 25th in accuracy from long range.
Thibodeau burnished his stellar reputation as both an assistant coach and a head coach on the basis of establishing a gritty, claustrophobia-inducing defensive identity. In his evaluation and interaction with some of the Wolves’ young, hyper-athletic swingmen, it will be fascinating to see how much he is able to banish the defensive cluelessness of Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad and the defensive indifference of Andrew Wiggins from their current profiles.
Thibodeau is less accomplished as an offensive tactician, including his wielding of the three-point weapon. During his five-year tenure coaching the Chicago Bulls, his teams never finished in the top half of the NBA in three-point attempts, although their accuracy from long-range always ranked higher than their frequency.
The good news is that the Wolves could immediately improve this aspect of their performance with some common-sense tweaks in the offense. Breaking down the frequency of the team’s shots by distance, it is remarkable to notice that in increments of 0-3 feet, 3-10 feet, and 10-16 feet away from the basket, Minnesota attempted field goals in roughly the same mix as the NBA average. The blatant outliers occurred in percentage of long twos and threes.
The Wolves launched a higher percentage of long two-pointers (shots attempted from 16 feet out to the three-point arc) than any other team — 23.9 percent of their total shots, way ahead of second-ranked Indiana, at 21.9 percent, and grossly above the NBA average of 16.2 percent. By contrast, their 20.2 percent of three pointers taken in the shot mix was lower than everyone but Milwaukee (18.9 percent) and way below the NBA average of 28.5 percent.
Was this strategy an appropriate accommodation of the personnel on last year’s roster? No, not really. Yes, the Wolves were marginally more accurate on long twos, 40 percent, than the NBA average of 39.8 percent. But that’s not enough of an edge to overcome the points they sacrificed denying treys, even when you consider that their three-point accuracy of 33.8 percent was lower than the NBA average of 35.4 percent.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that turning more of those long twos into three-point attempts will improve the team’s offensive efficiency, beginning with Zach LaVine, who sank 35.1 percent of his long twos versus 38.9 percent of his threes last season. And for a team that finished dead-last in the number of corner three-pointers taken, it might be nice to emphasize that feature next season, given that LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Wiggins and Muhammad all shot better than 40 percent from the corner in their scant opportunities last year.
The point is that with the addition of Thibodeau and some meshing of strategy with the skill sets and growth of their young core, the Wolves have a chance to improve upon their two main weaknesses with just a marginal overhaul of the roster. Of the two flaws, however, team defense would appear to be the more intractable problem, even with Thibodeau in charge.
Draft and free agency
Okay, time to dive into the sordid netherworld of the mock drafts. For the first time in the history of the NBA lottery, the ping pong balls did not alter the order of the draft based on won-lost record, meaning that the Wolves, with the league’s fifth-worst winning percentage last season, will have the fifth pick.
If Minnesota does not trade up or down from that slot, the mock consensus has the Wolves drafting either shooting guard Buddy Hield of Oklahoma or point guard Kris Dunn of Providence.
Both are 22 years old with at least three years of college experience (Hield has four), meaning they are not “projects” needing an inordinate amount of time to develop. Both are athletically gifted, with the 6-4 Dunn being more physically dominant for his position than the 6-5 Hield. When it comes to addressing the Wolves needs, the consensus is that Hield is most attractive for his three-point shooting and Dunn for his rugged defense.
My personal preference is an emphasis on defense, especially perimeter defenders who can guard athletic wingmen or “stretch” power forwards. A deadly three-point shooter like Hield would certainly be nice, but if he can’t defend on the wing, than his value depends on Thibodeau’s faith in turning Wiggins, LaVine or Muhammad into more competent defenders while honing the offense to emphasize their development from three-point range.
Dunn’s defense would be welcome too, but mitigated by the fact that the Wolves already have a quality defender at the point in Ricky Rubio. (More on that in a moment.)
Using the fifth overall pick in the draft as leverage for a bigger deal regarding a veteran is also very appealing. The draft “experts” don’t appear to believe that the more established wing stoppers and stretch-four defenders are worthy of being taken among the first five players. But there may be some further back in the draft that could help the Wolves.
Jerry Zgoda of the Strib has reported that Thibodeau hit it off with 6-8 forward Ben Bentil at a pre-draft camp in Chicago last week. Bentil, 21, is a defensive-oriented wing defender who is expected to return to college if it doesn’t appear he will be taken in the first round. Acquiring a veteran while moving back to draft Bentil might be an option here.
A hot scenario among the Wolves fan base has the Wolves packaging their top pick, LaVine, and Gorgui Dieng, for Chicago star swingman Jimmy Butler. It has been fueled by the mutual love Butler and Thibs had for each other when the coach was running the Bulls, and by the recent report that Thibs had hired Butler’s strength coach for the Wolves next season.
These are exactly the kind of rabbit holes I avoid entering. There are too many variables for a deal this consequential to be bandied about seriously without more evidence that both sides want it to happen.
In the realm of pure speculation, I’d rather throw out some names of unrestricted free agents that might be both a good fit and interested in joining the Wolves. One would be forward Luol Deng, a past Thibs favorite in Chicago who has broadened his defensive expertise to guarding stretch power forwards during his time in Miami. Deng is also a capable three-point shooter, a respected veteran, and a player well versed in Thibodeau’s systems and methods on both sides of the ball.
Another possibility is multiple all-star Al Horford, a center-forward who seems ready to part ways with Atlanta. As a longtime mentor and role model to cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns, Horford is another tremendous character guy in the locker room, a burgeoning three-point shooter, and an ideal complement to the Towns-Dieng front court rotation that may or may not have Kevin Garnett around to shore up the defense next season.
In the inflationary world of NBA contracts, Horford and probably Deng will command maximum salaries. The key negotiation point would be how many years they need — Deng is 31, Horford is 30, and both have logged a lot of hard NBA minutes thus far in their careers.
As a backup plan, a more physical but limited role player, like burly center Zaza Pachulia, would be a cheaper option as an unrestricted free agent signing.
Defending Rubio. Again
Amid all the Wolves-related chatter since the end of the season, the notion of Rubio’s value to the franchise seems to remain a debatable topic of conversation. So let’s go another round.
There have always been Rubio detractors within the Wolves organization, which partially accounts for the disastrous LaVine experiment at the point and the commentary of Kevin Lynch on the Wolves’ postgame broadcasts, where Rubio is criticized more than any other prominent member of the roster. The fact that Thibodeau did not mention Rubio at his introductory press conference, and that the point guard Dunn is frequently cited as a potential draft pick for Minnesota, fuels the notion that Rubio’s standing within the organization remains tenuous.
I am well-acquainted with the anti-Rubio arguments and have some empathy for them. Accurate long-range shooting and reliable scoring in general are crucial components of successful franchises in the modern NBA. The point guards of the four remaining teams in the playoffs are Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry. Rubio can’t hold a candle to any of them in terms of scoring, and he never will.
Furthermore, this deficiency becomes more pronounced in the playoffs, where teams relentlessly attack weaknesses until adjustments are made over the course of a four-to-seven-game series. For all his improvement as a shooter last season, Rubio does not exude confidence and swagger in that aspect of his game (to be fair, neither does Lowry). The crucible of the NBA playoffs, where Rubio has no experience thus far, will up the pressure to produce and gnaw at his self-esteem.
All that said, addressing concerns about Rubio at the point in the playoffs should rank around 48th on the Wolves priority list. I believe Thibodeau is smart enough to realize that. He mentioned other Timberwolves at the press conference because they were sitting in the audience in front of him (Rubio was already back in Europe).
As for picking Dunn, why not ensure that Thibs doesn’t burn out the injury-prone Rubio with his relentless defensive schemes; ones in which Rubio seems uniquely suited to help him execute? The Wolves can’t afford to flip the keys to a physically overmatched Tyus Jones too often, which will cause Thibs to rely too extensively on Rubio without a quality backup.
If Dunn lives up to his pedigree and becomes a potential two-way star, well, that’s a great problem to have. Rubio, whose relatively inexpensive contract will expire before Dunn’s rookie deal would evaporate in 2019-20, remains a tremendous asset.
Now I’ll stop damning Rubio with faint praise and begin the rebuttal. During his five years with the Wolves, the team has compiled a dreadful won-lost record of 142-252, or a whopping 110 games below .500. Yet in the 8,748 minutes Rubio has logged during that tenure (46 percent of the total playing time), Minnesota outperforms their opponents by two points per 100 possessions according to basketball-reference.com. In the 54 percent of the time he is not on the court, the Wolves are 7.2 points per 100 possessions worse than the opposition, for a net impact of 9.2 points.
Why is Rubio so valuable? Despite his notorious 36.8 percent shooting from the field, the Wolves offense is 5.2 points better when he plays because of the timing and vision of his passing and his ability to generate transition opportunities with steals and on-ball defense.
Yes, he’s been injury-prone, playing more than 70 games only twice in those five years. But in those two healthy seasons, including last year, he ranked in the top five in assists and the top three in steals. His career assist-to-turnover ratio is 8.3-to-2.8.
The steals are one reason why the Wolves have allowed 3.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when he plays compared to when he doesn’t. He actually has become a better defender by gambling less in recent years and playing more rugged positional defense. The glorious sense of anticipation that fuels his offensive ball movement contributes to him denying dribble penetration and positioning to the man he is covering.
I don’t see how Thibodeau doesn’t already know, and cherish, all this.
Which brings us back to the big issue: Accurate shooting.
Fortunately, with his typical genius basketball IQ and competitive drive, Rubio has figured out a way to diminish this ugly aspect of his game, to an extent that will hearten his defenders.
The three most efficient ways to score in the NBA are right at the rim, from three-point territory and at the free-throw line. Last season, Rubio increased his shooting accuracy at the rim to a career-high 51.7 percent. More importantly, he took far more three-pointes and drew far more fouls than at any point in his career. His three-point shooting was still below average at 32.6 percent, but higher overall than if he’d been clanking two-pointers at a slightly better rate. And his free throw percentage was a career high 84.7 percent.
The most comprehensive NBA statistic for shooting prowess is true shooting percent (TS%), which factors in two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws. According to nba.com, Rubio’s TS% was 52.9 percent in the 2015-16 season. Among other point guards, that was better than Derrick Rose (47.9). It was better than John Wall (51.0). It was better than Ty Lawson, Elfrid Payton, Rajon Rondo, Dennis Schroeder, Cory Joseph, Michael Carter-Williams, and Raymond Felton. Among shooting guards, it was better than Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Danny Green, Monta Ellis, Marco Bellinelli and many others.
Rubio’s 52.9 true shooting percentage was the same as the player who just won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award for his scoring off the bench — Jamal Crawford of the Clippers.
In other words, if Rubio’s shooting is the problem, the Wolves are in very good shape indeed.