Wolves’ Tragic Start, All Too Familiar Finish

It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith.

The Minnesota Timberwolves will miss the postseason for the 12th straight year, but a promising young core built by their late coach offers hope for the future.

ForFlip

Postmortem: The Timberwolves, and the NBA, lost a legend just before the season tipped off when Flip Saunders succumbed after a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Saunders touched countless basketball lives, coaching in college, the CBA and then the NBA for the past 20 years. He had his most success in the early-2000s coaching the Wolves and grooming Kevin Garnett into a superstar. He returned to Minny as coach and President of  Basketball Operations in 2013, charged with changing the fortunes of a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2003-04. In his brief time back he switched out the grumpy Kevin Love for 1st overall pick Andrew Wiggins and drafted Karl Anthony-Towns first overall in the 2015 Draft, admirably setting up the Wolves for years to come with potential franchise players at the wing and center position. It would have been fun to watch Flip work his magic with Towns and Wiggins this season and beyond. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Like most things in his life, however, he left the current Timberwolves better than he found them.

Enter Sam Mitchell, thrown into the fire as Flip’s replacement in the most unenviable of circumstances. Mitchell won the 2006-07 Coach of the Year award in his one winning season as a head man. His record coming into this season was 156-189, and it’s important to note, he came into 2015-16 expecting to be an assistant on Saunders’ staff. The 22-47 record this season is bad, but let’s agree that the deck was stacked against Mitchell from the start. Having said that, he hasn’t done much to fend off the critics who’d like to see his first T-Wolves season be the last. He’s gruff with the media as part of the tired “old school”, set-in-his-ways approach that’s done wonders for Byron Scott this year. Zach Harper of CBS Sports and A Wolf Among Wolves does a great job outlining the debacle that is the Mitchell Experience this season, so read that and come back. The main problem, outside of not having much prep time with the team before taking over, is Mitchell subscribes to an outdated idea of NBA basketball, where three-pointers are undervalued on both ends, floor spacing is not considered and positional identities are set in stone.

He should get some of the credit for the crazy development of Towns in his miracle rookie season. The no-question Rookie of the Year in a loaded class, Towns has gotten better as the season has gone on, looking astute offensively and defensively beyond his years and looking like the best rookie big this century. His first month as an NBA player he averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds – impressive enough – now in March he’s averaging 22 and 10 on 59% shooting. Consider the following:

Anthony Davis rookie season – 52% FG/75% FT/8.2 REB/1 AST/1.2 STL/1.8 BLK/13.5 PTS

Karl Towns rookie season – 55% FG/82% FT/10.3 REB/1.7 AST/0.7 STL/1.7 BLK/17.9 PTS

Source: BasketballReference.com

I attended Friday night’s Wolves game at Houston, where I witnessed KAT putting up 32 points, 11 boards, 2 steals and a block; completely unfazed by Dwight Howard and Clint Capela. Here he is beasting the opening tip against Dwight (hey, is that Brad Stevens sitting in the first row ignoring the game? Maybe his dopey twin):

tipoff

KAT and his sidekick Wiggins are the reason Wolves fans have smiles on their faces even in this failed season. Wiggins is talked about a lot these days for his faults – lack of confidence with the ball, lack of aggressiveness, shaky jumper – but remember this would be his junior year at Kansas. The kid’s still raw, and already a top wing defender which is a premium skill set in the modern NBA. I’ve now seen him up close twice, once as a freshman at Kansas against Texas, and now once in the pros. Both times I came away shrugging – in the Texas game he deferred too much and struggled to finish his drives, against the Rockets he had three killer turnovers late in a close game. But with heavy gym time working on his handle and outside shot, these rough edges can be smoothed out. He’s also hurt by Mitchell’s system, which is easy to scout for and leaves him little space to operate on the wing. He’ll be fine, at least I hope.

Which brings us to the Wolves’ third key 20-year old, Zach LaVine, a real enigma. He wows with his speed, springiness and jumping ability. Here he is leaving the Rockets transition D in his dust (admittedly not that hard to do) and soaring for a fast-break jam Friday night:

lavine

His dunking is legendary, as evidenced by his second straight Dunk Contest win in the best contest in history vs. Aaron Gordon. But will his game ever develop past the raw theatrics of that event into meaningful production for a winning NBA team? Is he Harold Miner, or major? One thing’s for sure: he’s not a point guard. Mitchell mercifully pulled the plug on the LaVine-at-point experiment it seems, and he’s played much better at the 2-guard. LaVine needs to be able to focus on using his rare quickness to make plays from the wing or as a runner in transition. His game is not suited to run an offense and set the table for others. In the two most-used lineups with LaVine at point, the Wolves are -2.0 and -7.5, with fewer assists and field goals attempted than their opponent per 100 possessions. Add Ricky Rubio to the mix as the point guard with LaVine at the 2, their assist rate goes up and they’re scoring slightly more points than opponents per 100. The numbers and the eye test conclude the same thing – LaVine needs to spread his wings on the wing.

Rubio is signed long-term and finally healthy but has not been the player the Wolves thought they were getting when they took him ahead of Steph Curry. His jump shot is always a problem, as is his inability to finish. He shoots 52% at the rim and a horrid 29% between 3-10 feet. He’s a dazzling passer working in an offense with clogged spacing and not enough pace. With Wiggins, Towns and LaVine around him, you’d think Rubio would lead the league in assists. But he’s posting 8.8 per game (8.3 career); not bad, but not justifying his draft position. He’s a potential trade candidate if they can find another point guard option in the draft.

There are many things this team needs to get better at, among them three-point defense, pick-and-roll defense, transition defense, offensive spacing and establishing a crunch time lineup that can reliably close out games. I’ll move on, but leave you with a bit of video of the last 30 seconds of that Rockets game. It highlights the Wolves’ haphazard organization on the floor and poor execution at the end of a winnable game (apologies for fake Brad Stevens getting in the way of the shot):

Low Moments: Anything that happened on the court pales in comparison to the loss of Flip. But in a 22-47 season there are bound to be plenty of in-game lows as well. Much was made of Kobe Bryant’s last game against Sam Mitchell, who was the coach of the Raptors when Bryant had his historic 81-point game against them in 2006. This version of Kobe was a shell of his former self, but found lightning in a bottle against the Wolves, going off for 38 points and 7-11 three-point shooting. Prior to the game Mitchell said of Kobe, “I hate him. If I don’t ever see him again it will be too soon.” Kobe’s retort: “Thank you for the hate.”

A nine-game losing streak in January saw the Wolves get blown out five times and put up just 74 points in a game against the Nuggets. In that game Wiggins shot 29% with four turnovers. They lost by 25 to the Pistons to start that woeful streak. Their worst loss this year was a 27-point defeat on Feb. 28 to the Mavericks. Oh but they get the Warriors two more times this season – so 27 can be beat!

Sadly, we didn’t get enough Kevin Garnett in our lives this season, as the Wolves legend hurt his knee and has been out since January. In other injury bummers, the always-banged-up Nikola Pekovic suffered an Achilles problem, limiting him to just 12 games this season. Pek came over from Europe in 2010-11 with a lot of promise as a 6’11” bruiser that could score in the post (averaging 20 ppg in 2013-14), but you wonder if the game has passed him by after his many afflictions.

Bright Spots: In one of the more heartwarming moments of the season, the Wolves honored Flip in their first game of the season and played in a way he would be proud. Entering the fourth quarter seven points down to the Lakers, Minnesota rallied to win the fourth quarter 24-16 and pull out a one-point victory. Towns had 14 and 12 in his first pro game and even Rubio was on fire, putting in 28 points (10-17 FG, 2-4 3PT). I thought Rubio may have finally turned the corner and fixed his shot in the offseason, but it turned out that no, he was just playing the Lakers defense.

Towns and Wiggins may be the best under-21 tandem we’ve seen since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The two complement each other well and play better than average defense. Towns is a great passer and Wiggins a dangerous cutter, so get ready for years of highlights. Especially if they get a coach in place that will run the pick-and-roll consistently with the two of them. Be excited, Wolves fans.

Led by such prodigies, the Wolves were able to beat both the Clippers (Feb. 3) and the Thunder (March 11) in their own buildings. In those games Towns and Wiggins combined for 48 and 37 points, respectively.

Assets: The T-Wolves have locked up most of their roster to multiple year contracts and have the benefit of drafting/trading well in recent years, so their biggest assets are relative bargains. Here are their assets, ranked:

  1. Towns – OBVI
  2. Wiggins – Ditto
  3. LaVine – Intriguing as a 20 year old shooting guard. Just not point guard.
  4. 2016 1st Round pick – Should be top 7.
  5. Gorgui Dieng – Had moments this season, including 25 in that win over OKC. At 26, should be ready to peak after years of development.
  6. Rubio – Trade chip for a team looking for a distributor at point guard.
  7. Nemanja Bjelica – Disappointing rookie season in which he wasn’t used very well. Still potential as stretch 4 or 5.
  8. Tyus Jones – Very young, also had a disappointing rookie campaign, but should be groomed as a rotation guy at least.
  9. 2017 1st Round pick
  10. Shabazz Muhammad – Fan favorite, will be on expiring deal next season.
  11. Adreian Payne – Never has performed to expectations and the front court is getting crowded. May be a trade chip.
  12. Pekovic – At wrong side of 30 and overpaid, you’re not getting much for him.

Free Agency prospects: The Wolves will have some cap space this summer but will have 11-13 players under contract. Minnesota has never been a free agent destination, but with Towns/Wiggins in tow that may change in the near future. They may add some wing depth and/or three-point threats, but the most prudent angle may be to stand relatively pat and focus on the draft and development of their youngsters. There also may be an ownership shake-up this summer, which makes their offseason moves hard to predict.

Resurrection Scale: 80% (Re-animation in T-minus Two Seasons) – Fantastic young core, more high draft picks on the way and cap space to burn. All that’s needed now is a 21st century coach to run better schemes and get the most out of the developing stars. I expect the playoff drought to end in 2017-18.

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