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The boom-or-bust risk for the star-studded Timberwolves

Put bluntly, the great danger here is that the heralded coach and the star trio are a bad match.

By now it is obvious to the point of patent truth that Tom Thibodeau has decided that this season will be devoted to Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine playing together as much as possible.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

When people on the Minnesota Timberwolves have gotten injured during this curiously dysfunctional 2016-17 season, it complicates the plans and strategies of head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau. Not because the Wolves get worse and play in disarray, but because, at least for a while, they become strikingly more purposeful and coordinated.

Back on January 9 at Target Center, shooting guard Zach LaVine pulled up wincing with a bruised hip and walked off the court toward the locker room just 53 seconds into the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks. The youngest player on the roster, second-year point guard Tyus Jones, stepped in as the pint-sized replacement versus the Mavs’ small lineup and played well enough over the final 11 minutes to bump a six-point lead into a 9-point victory.

In the next two games, with LaVine in street clothes on the sidelines, the Wolves thumped a pair of teams headed to the playoffs this season, the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, by double-digit margins.

In many respects, the catalyst for these wins was veteran shooting guard Brandon Rush. After playing a total of 21 minutes in the previous three and a half weeks, Rush, the senior member of the team at age 31, was suddenly fulfilling every second of LaVine’s workload rotation, logging 36 and 39:53 minutes in the best back-to-back performances the Wolves have logged thus far this season.

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The most succinct way to describe Rush’s value is that he knows how to play team basketball. But the longer explanation gets to the conundrum of balancing success with development that has vexed the impatient Wolves players and their fans the entire season.

After the win over Houston, Thibodeau talked about the style and attitude toward which he has been bum-rushing his youthful roster. “When guys are playing for each other and everyone has the discipline to do their job. When you have a drive-and-kick game [or] you can get into a spacing game off the post, or a spacing game off the trap [or] the pick-and-roll, there are a lot of times when you can share the ball.”

Two nights later, following the impressive victory over OKC, he elaborated some more. “Offense is timing and spacing; everyone moving at the appropriate time; everyone doing their job, not making things up; everyone reading the ball and seeing what is going on. Whether it is a double-team [trap], or dribble penetration, or at the point of the screen if there is a flare in the timing of the roll [on the pick-and-roll], whether you are running to the rim or sliding behind, and finishing up your spacing. Oftentimes there is an initial cut [movement off the ball by a player] and if you stop you are going to screw up spacing for the next guy.”

The coach’s description of the synergistic collaboration that timing and spacing can have on each other suddenly made me realize why Rush had been such an elixir for the team. It is not just that he flashes out to the corner to position himself for a three-pointer; it is knowing exactly when to do so and the benefits for the offense regardless of whether or not he gets covered, or whether or not the ball is passed to him.

That knowledge of timing and spacing also works to Rush’s advantage as a defender. It is not just that he effectively left his man on the wing and hurried to double-team a big man, or rotated over to cover for a teammate on the pick and roll; it is knowing the vision of that big man in the paint relative to the man he was guarding on the wing; the time left on the shot clock; the relative skill sets of those players, and, finally, where his teammates were on the court.

I said to Thibs that Rush seemed to be conducting a master class in this timing-spacing calculation and the coach was more than ready to answer. “He is a very smart player, outstanding timing and spacing. I think that comes from being a veteran.”

He described how when Rush saw a pick-and-roll play happening between his teammates, if he was in a certain slot in the offensive placement as a teammate was rolling, he needed to “place behind,” meaning move out for a possible three-pointer. This either creates more spacing for the roll man by pulling his man away, or makes himself open for the trey if his man chose to deter the penetration to the basket.

We had just witnessed two fantastic games by the Wolves, who played with a spirit and selflessness that was revelatory and rarely witnessed this season. It wasn’t all attributable to the presence of Rush and the absence of LaVine, of course. But it did put in stark relief the difficulties of playing three 21-year old kids — Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as well as LaVine — whose phenomenal talent has always enabled them to passively ignore or downplay the obsessive details and awareness that synergize timing and spacing.

So when Thibs was done raving about Rush, I passive-aggressively asked the coach the abiding question of this Timberwolves season: Do you have to sacrifice wins to get the kind of development you want [from the kids] this season? The question really had two connotations. One was, “are you choosing to do this sacrifice?” The other was, “is there a way to use your rotation to give you better balance between the two?”

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As I expected, he ducked both connotations with boilerplate clichés. “Every day we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We can’t feel good about ourselves. We have got to get ready for Dallas.”

Thibs and the kids, the slam dance continues

But Thibodeau doesn’t have to talk to provide an answer that is loud and clear. About 40 hours after his postgame remarks from the win over OKC, LaVine and his recovering hip returned to the starting lineup in an afternoon road game against Dallas. He played 33:39. Rush played 3:21. The Wolves scored a mere 87 points and ceded 98.

By now it is obvious to the point of patent truth that Thibodeau has decided that this season will be devoted not only to Towns, Wiggins and LaVine playing together as much as possible, but doing so as the coach points out every mistake and foible in their processing, both on the sideline as they commit them, and in the film room later.

It is a bold gambit designed to take the most talented young triumvirate on any one team in the NBA and fast-forward their development into savvy veterans. Furthermore, Thibs wants his star trio to utilize their phenomenal skills in sync with a disciplined system that maximizes everyone’s contribution and fosters teamwork.

There are some huge risks, or at least complications, in this strategy. One is that by tutoring his vast knowledge of the game so hard, so fast, and so relentlessly over the course of the season, Thibodeau could muck up the positive, intuitively flowing elements of their spectacular performance and dampen their enthusiasm for the learning process.

Each of the three young stars has a distinct personality. LaVine has the carefree affability of a gym rat. Towns has the earnest over-accountability of a teacher’s pet. And Wiggins has the implacable stoicism of a well-fortified enigma.

But what they share is a lifelong ability to blow observers away with what they can do on a basketball court. If anything that has only gotten stronger and more ingrained as they find their way through this highest level of hoops competition.

Because they play for the least successful franchise in modern NBA history and are logging the heavy minutes that produce gaudy statistics, the core trio are ideal maws in the ongoing hype machine. Whenever the Wolves come to an opponents’ town, or play on national television, visiting media and other folks who don’t keep up with the team’s exploits have the easiest way to simultaneously promote and label the Wolves — a long-terrible team now slowly on the rise due to three incredible talents.

And they are incredible. LaVine is a two-time winner of the slam dunk championship who has added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal, teasing him out to be a potentially un-guardable matchup. Towns is the prototypical modern big man who can score from anywhere on the court and has skills that resemble a guard as much as a center. Wiggins may well be the best athlete of the three, with laser-quickness to his leaps and spins, and a thirst for being the go-to guy in crunch time.

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But in 43 games under Thibodeau, they have been less than the sum of their individual parts. On offense, they are more baton-passers than synergistic enablers. On defense, they are each wretchedly inconsistent and chronically prone to mental lapses that are often ruinous to team play.

Put bluntly, the great danger here is that the heralded coach and the star trio are a bad match. The detailed, demanding Thibs is expecting that his kids want to achieve real greatness, which only comes with team success, and will thus trust and endure this often rocky and discomfiting crash course toward NBA maturation. That’s a lot to ask from a trio of publicity-pampered kids, who have entourages, be it social media or two-bit fame-by-association junkies, whether they want to or not.

So alienation is one risk. Another is that, even if the kids buy in, the task Thibs is trying to pull off — the simultaneous maturation and cohesion of three alpha talents in breakneck speed with minimal veteran seasoning — is simply too ambitious to execute, and may cause more harm than good. (Over on the bench, Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich are nodding their heads.)

As if that weren’t enough, there is another ongoing drama on this team that is a crucial complication: The mess at point guard.

Missing the point

In the realm of things that are not plainly stated but remain palpable reality, the always frayed rapport between Thibodeau and holdover point guard Ricky Rubio has been an ongoing awkward component of this season.

Rubio, of course, is a polarizing figure because of his remarkably dilapidated pros and cons as a teammate. Never has a player been better qualified to be a pass-first point guard. The breadth and dimension of his court vision, coupled with the nuance of the spins, angles and touch of his dishes make him a nonpareil ball-distributor. Those skills and his intense competitive desire also make him a frequently superb defender despite his relative lack of quickness.

But, as everyone knows, Rubio is a historically inaccurate shooter, a crippling liability that has only grown more onerous in the modern NBA game, with its emphasize on magnetizing defenses out of position through space-and-pace marksmanship. Rubio has done everything he can — better shot selection, cajoling fouls, value-added leadership — but the problem persists and his reputation for clanking is now burnished to the point of embarrassment.

From the start last spring of his five-year tenure here, Thibs determined that Rubio was not the point guard of this team’s future. Through his agent and with an occasional statement (during the off-season he said he wanted to play for a winner for a change) Rubio has indicated that he doesn’t appreciate the animus and would sooner be traded than put on the shelf.

National reporters with access to anonymous rumors that are frequently specious agenda-setting volleys from their “inside sources” have had a field day doling out the imminent scenarios that have yet to come to pass.

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Meanwhile, the point guard Thibs clearly favors as soon as he can resemble a competent performer at the position, 22-year old rookie Kris Dunn, has been a magnificent disappointment thus far. And the point guard that Thibs has seemingly discounted out of his master plan for the future, 20-year old Tyus Jones, has outperformed both Dunn and Rubio in his very limited minutes thus far this season.

The argument for Rubio, who began playing professionally in Spain at the age of 14, is that he possesses the experience, savvy and willingness to execute Thibs’ tutorial on teamwork to the core trio. Indeed, he has endured the indignity of standing in the corner while Wiggins frequently initiates the half-court offense, robbing the Spaniard of his prime value.

It was also telling that when LaVine went down and Rubio had either Tyus or Rush as complements, his game was raised to new heights. From the game where LaVine limped off against Dallas up until last night against the Clippers in Los Angeles, Rubio had racked up double-digit assists, and 70 dimes overall, in five straight games. When players know how to use timing and spacing, Rubio will get them the ball.

This brings us to the tilt against the Clippers, who were bereft of their two injured superstars, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. In the first half, Rubio was left wide open, as opponents are wont to do, and he badly missed all three shots he attempted.

When the second half began, Dunn was the point guard. This time Rubio was the player sidelined with a balky hip. Dunn performed relatively well in the third quarter, and certainly better than his customary effort thus far this year.

(More context: The game was nationally televised by TNT, meaning that the yuck-it-up contingent of “Charles, Kenny and Shaq” would take a whack at overlaying their extensive and accomplished personal experience on the court decades ago with the prevailing reputations of Rubio and the three stars and their otherwise woeful ignorance about the Wolves performance thus far this season.)

Barkley, whose formerly incisive snap judgments have increasingly taken on the forays of a Ouija board the longer he’s been retired — especially if the team he is analyzing doesn’t play on TNT very often — proclaimed that the Wolves didn’t play with enough pace and that Rubio should be replaced by Dunn (the halftime take) and Dunn and Tyus (the postgame take).

In the third quarter, Kevin Garnett was invited in by his friend and color commentator Chris Webber to provide his thoughts. KG, who clearly wanted a veteran mentorship role on the Wolves that was probably denied by Thibs, compelling his (perhaps temporary) retirement, opined that the Wolves needed a “culture.” He then noted that his former teammate and friend and last year’s Wolves coach Sam Mitchell was providing a culture for the 2015-16 edition of the team.  

Webber, who is a smart and erudite commentator, took up the cudgel against Thibs on both fronts, agitating for more pace and a culture that sifts in more veteran leadership.

All the while, the Wolves were climbing back into the game, mostly on the astounding offense of Towns, KG’s prime mentorship project last season, and Tyus Jones, who entered to start the fourth quarter and promptly provided the compelling spark that has become a staple of his second NBA season.

The whole thing amounted to a classically dreadful-hopeful Wolves parfait. When the Clippers went super-small at crunch time, Thibs countered with the duo of Tyus at the point and Dunn using his physicality as a guard-forward beside the core trio.

Got that? The 22-year old rookie Kris Dunn was the oldest player on the court for the Wolves, who proceeded to beat the Clippers for their ninth win in the past 19 games even as Webber was somewhat legitimately ripping Thibodeau’s process.

The clear star of the game was Towns, who gave big credit and a shout-out to Dunn in the post-game interview.

The rumor mills continues to churn out Rubio trade tidbits. Dunn continues to prove that as a point guard, he’s a hell of a defensive shooting guard or small forward. Tyus Jones continues to make his doubters look silly.

And the Timberwolves continue to be the most compelling boom-or-bust future play on the NBA tote board.