Timberwolves: a Team in Turmoil?

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ESPN’s panel of experts has been speaking for nearly two weeks now. So far, they think the Heat will win lots of basketball games, that Amare Stoudemire will be a disappointment and that Lebron James will be good. Nothing all that controversial there. Today, though, the panel pronounced that our Timberwolves would be the most tumultuous team in the NBA this year. The Pups narrowly beat out the Cavs and Hornets but still, I thought, our honor needed some defending. So over at the ESPN NBA page, I did just that. Here’s the nuts and bolts of the thing. As you can see, they caught me on an optimistic day:

I realize it seems questionable to brazenly flout the “best player available” maxim by drafting Wesley Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins, and then immediately duplicating Johnson’s skill set by trading the 16th pick for Martell Webster.

It’s strange to trade Al Jefferson, the team’s best player over the past three seasons, for two draft picks, and then bring in Michael Beasley to replace him as your go-to scorer. And even stranger to sign two Serbian centers for a grand total of $34 million over the next four seasons, especially when one of them is named Darko Milicic.

And maybe you’re also amused and/or exhausted by the knowledge that in the first year of Kahn’s tenure, the Wolves have acquired no fewer than seven point guards, some of them more than once (although, to his credit, not all at the same time).

And that teenage prodigy Ricky Rubio — the fifth pick in the ’09 draft and maybe the best player of all of those PGs — currently runs game in Barcelona with no guarantee of ever setting foot in Minnesota…

It’s fashionable at the moment to ridicule Kahn as an abrasive, unqualified hack. It’s clear the man has had some awfully low moments this summer and that he and Rambis haven’t yet found that transcendent player who will give meaning to their long-suffering franchise. And it’s equally clear that the Wolves are going to lose a lot of games this season.

But if you scan this lineup — Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Wes Johnson, Martell Webster, Corey Brewer, even Darko Milicic and Michael Beasley — you’ll find a lot of young, smart, athletic, hungry players. These are players who want to learn, who want to run, who want to move the ball and play defense. Aren’t these just the type of players who would seem to fit well into Rambis’ up-tempo-and-triangle offense? And when you consider the Wolves have roughly $10 million in cap space, doesn’t the picture look a lot less ridiculous than this chaotic offseason might have suggested?

Am I just being naïve? Is it wrong for Wolves fans to hold on to even these tiny shreds of optimism? Let me tell you a story.

For the three years beginning with their six-game Western Conference finals loss to the Lakers in 2004 and ending with the Kevin Garnett trade of 2007, the Wolves slowly melted down. With very few exceptions (KG among them), the team became a nightmare of ball-hogging, extravagant contract demands, intentionally careless defense and mediocre effort. As the front office hemorrhaged draft picks, this collection of aging jump-shooters and corrosive personalities contributed to the firing of both Flip Saunders and Dwane Casey and helped hasten the KG era’s sad, pathetic end. What I’m saying is: We’ve seen turmoil and this isn’t it.

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0 thoughts on “Timberwolves: a Team in Turmoil?

  1. I really liked your analysis. I have heard the criticism building for Kahn and despite all of the questions that have been raised, I don’t think we really know if his moves are pure madness or pure genius yet. But my reasons for continuing to believe in Kahn are:
    1. Kahn helped rebuild the Portland franchise up to where it is playoff bound. This is only his second year of moves. It takes a while to remold a team and craft its identity.
    2. Drafting Rubio gave the team a high value prospect and drafting Flynn helped the team with its immediate need. I think that was smart.
    3. This offseason’s moves look to me (as you suggest) like collecting young hungry players, and since none of whom makes more than $5 million there is no obvious star. Love is probably the best player and will excell without Jefferson. But there is a lot of space for one or two other players to take a big step forward and help lead this team. At best, the team of the future will start to emerge this year or at worst, we will find out which of these young hungry players want to be part of the future.

  2. I disagree mightily with the term turmoil, it’s not like there is dissension or anything, just a million and a half question marks. Talent-wise I would even say we aren’t the worst team in the league in talent, it’s just that all the talent we have comes with a million question marks with it.

    C: Is Darko the real deal or just a mirage that we blew our load at
    PF: Is Love happy? can he and Beasly play together
    SF: Can Beast play small forward, if he can’t is either Webster or Johnson the answer
    SG: Is Web or Johnson the answer
    PG: Will Rubio actually play for us/be any good, also was last year just growing pains or does Flynn actually suck?

    For me I think the big thing that will happen this year that will open eyes is I do believe Love and Beasly can, should and will play on the court for most of their games together. Beasly was more productive at the 4 in Miami but serious is there anyway a ball hawking wing will ever be efficient playing alongside D-Wade? The guy touches the ball 90 percent of every possesion, the best chance for Beast to be effective is basically get the Anderson Verajo baseline J once Wade kicks it off the drive (Which is why I don’t think Bron and Wade will work)

    I believe that the duo of Love and Beast will nab us just south of 30 wins and be viewed as a team on the rise when Rubio gets here, so then all we need is either Johnson or Webster to be legit and for Darko to not be a mirage and we’re golden….maybe a little draft luck couldn’t hurt either.

    Again, a lot of ifs, but I’d put 20 bucks on the fact we don’t have the worst record this year.

    Another thing is I just don’t get the Wolves hate, I mean did Khan really do our 15 win team a disservice? Is it so bad to have Webster and Johnson? So what if they both do the same things, how many players actually become studs in the NBA? Why not have two battle it out and see if competition makes either one better? In 4 years will we really want Cousins on this team? It sounds great on paper but I just don’t think in any way shape or form was he a remotely good fit, he didn’t even want to be here, odds he actually signs a second contract: 30:1, odds he’ll be Derrick Coleman: 20:1

    1. Justin,
      Good point about Beasley’s role and position in Miami. I agree that if this has any chance of working, the Wolves are going to have to figure out how to play Beasley and Love together. Given the positional fluidity in Rambis’ system, I can see this working offensively. Defense, however, is where things might get weird.

      And I’m inclined to agree with you on the rest of it, too (although I have a feeling that Cousins will be pretty good)–maybe its the lovely weather, but I’ve got optimism in my veins at the moment.

  3. Great work Ben! I thought you really encapsulated the state of Wolves nation in a very humorous, yet positive way.

    I have been as critical about Kahn and his handling of well, everything, as anyone but the recent Isiah-back-to-the-Knicks fiasco reminded me that things could be a lot worse. Kahn may not be perfect, but at least he isn’t sexually harassing women and signing Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury to massive long term deals. Sometimes people make it sound like Kahn is an epochally bad GM and the current Wolves are an epochally bad team. When in reality they are not remotely so bad, people just need to make news and Kahn is an easy target.

  4. I would add another reason for optimism/acquiring all the players we did, and that is defense. This team is stacked with the long, athletic types needed for Rambis to run the defense he wants to – with the added bonus of most of these guys having a good to great defensive awareness and desire to actually play defense.

    Think about it – Darko’s primary role is to be a defensive rim-protector, something he can do very well. Pek is pretty solid defensively and should be fine going against backups.

    Love, according to Synergy, is actually a pretty good defender. I think he’s a bit undersized, but his feel for the game and ability to jive with his teammates makes him competent. Again, going against backups, Tolliver and Beasley are fine.

    At SF you’ve most likely got Beasley and there are some question marks there, but they aren’t size or strength related, they’re quickness/speed related. So to me the question defensively about Beasley that we need to answer is whether or not Beasley will enforce his defensive will on the other player and make him play a strength game (Beasley’s strength), and if not can Beasley learn to how to effectively channel his guy to either Wesley/Webster/Brewer or into Love and Darko. See where I’m going here? Beasley could only be an average defender at SF, but this year’s team has help available to compensate that last year’s team didn’t. And if he does struggle against the occassional player (which all guys will from time to time), then bring in Wesley or Brewer – between them they should be able to guard any SF in the league.

    At SG you’ve got Martell or Corey (most likely, maybe some Wes), and those guys have great length and athleticism, plus good defensive instincts. Perhaps even enough to compensate for…

    …our PGs. This is our biggest weakness on the team, in my opinion. Hopefully Ridnour and Bassy can show Jonny that you don’t have to be a lockdown defender to be effective, you just have to learn how to use the other guys on the floor to your advantage. Make your guy go where he doesn’t want to – where you have help.

    More than anything else the reason why I am convinced the team will win 30 games this year is because of the defensive improvement. Last year our SGs and SFs gave up, on average, 10 points a game to the opponents SGs and SFs, perhaps no coincidence then that our team scoring differential was -9.4 (or something). Scoring differential is highly correlated to wins, and boosting our differential into the -4 range (which should be doable with the vast improvement amongst our SGs and SFs) puts us right in the 30 win range (+/- 3 wins or so). There might be questions offensively about this team, but there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t see a significant defensive improvement and emphasis from Rambis this year.

    1. Bernt, thanks for the great, thoughtful comment! I agree almost entirely with what you’re saying. Defense is absolutely one aspect in which Kahn’s off-season work has been underrated. As you say, this team is hugely improved in terms of athletic ability and defensive aptitude.

      A couple of points on this though: first, you’re right that Darko can block a shot or two. But as I pointed out a few weeks ago, despite his size and length, he isn’t a significant defensive improvement over Al overall. He’s just really inconsistent when it comes to help D, pick and roll D and overall defensive energy. For me, the big advantage is that between Darko and Pekovic the Wolves should be able to keep Love out of size mismatches on D, which is where, as you say, he struggled most last year.

      Also, you’re right that Ridnour will be able to help Jonny figure out what he’s doing, but lets not pretend that either he or Bassie (especially Bassie-so thin, so small) are great defenders. I have a feeling the Wolves will be doing a whole lot of covering up for their point guards this year. Thanks again for the comment.

  5. Ben – great response. It seems like ESPN has a lot of reporters that want to fan the anti-Kahn flames quite heavily this offseason (and perhaps with justification), but I’ll be curious to see if you are this optimistic a few weeks into the season. As a displaced wolves fan living in Los Angeles, it has been very difficult to be optimistic about this team, particularly when it seems like there are so many other teams with brighter futures – even the lowly Clips. I want things to turn around, I really do.

  6. At least Team Flux Capacity (“Turmoil” probably is too strong as others have pointed out) and Kahn are at least interesting, which is better than being boring AND not really any good which, when you really think about it, is the situation for a great many teams in the league. Although Kahn is not a great personnel man you can’t argue with the financial position he’s put the club in. Compare with Isiah (to use him as an example for a textbook terrible GM again) whose whole MO was basically “I’m going to create a financial and personnel quagmire so bad that I can’t be fired because no one else will have any idea how to fix my horrific mess either” Kahn will leave more than a smoking hole in the ground when he is (inevitably) shifted off to do whatever he is really meant to do.

  7. Ben, my big issue with Cousins is: is there any chance he plays more than 3-4 years as a T-Wolf? 10 percent at best he re-signs with us, and if he does it probably means he isn’t all that good. So really the Wolves gain nothing by drafting he Cousins, either he is a bust or he is good and wants nothing to do with Minnesota. I guess we could make a trade for him but Khan would just get ripped for doing that, why not draft a solid prospect at a position of need and worry about drafting top flight talent when the individual isn’t an ass and has the potential to bury a franchise that can’t afford it.

    Also, look at Johnson through this lens: now I am 23 which puts me at like 6-8 when Ray Allen was in college, but how different of a senior was Ray then Wes? Wes has probably the nicest jump shot of anyone under 25 and is way more athletic than Ray Allen ever was, and Ray Allen went out as a senior too….where people that concerned about Ray Allen’s potential coming out? And he isn’t even the best defensive player ever nor has he been the best teammate consistently either….I think the upside with Wes has been undersold because of his affiliation to the Wolves

    1. Justin, I guess I would caution you about statements like this: “is there any chance he plays more than 3-4 years as a T-Wolf? 10 percent at best he re-signs with us, and if he does it probably means he isn’t all that good.” My feeling is that we really have no legs to stand on as far as predicting decisions a 19-year-old might make four years down the road. It’s true that Cousins is from the South (and therefore might not, on the face of things, take too well to chilly, white MN) and that he certainly didn’t seem enthusiastic about the Wolves before the draft, but I think that its really a media-induced illusion to believe that we really know this guy’s mind. Given the right situation–a winning team, a fun style of play, good relationships with coaches and teammates–I could imagine any rookie signing an extension. What’s more, its awfully bad policy for a franchise to pass on drafting the best available player simply because they don’t believe he’ll stick around. Sounds like a recipe for prolonged mediocrity to me.

      That said, I agree with you that Johnson is a really nice player, probably much better than most people think; smart dude, great athletic ability, lovely j. But even with Wes’ defense, Ray Allen might be pushing it a bit right? Ray hit 47% of his threes and scored 24 per game his senior year–he was really, really good.

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. This article sums up my thought on the wolves nicely. I’m rather optimistic that we win at least 30 games this year (I’ve got my sights set on 35) and at least one player really becomes a budding star. Looking at that lineup there is no position where we’re not improved from last year and every position has at least one potential (even if it is minimal) star. I’m really interested in two things. 1. How does Pekovichs power-post game fit into this run-n-gun/ball movement offense if Al’s similar game didn’t. 2. Can we play some serious defense for 82 games? If last years playoffs proved anything it’s that defense still wins championships.

  9. I’m old enough to have gone to college on the East Coast when Ray Allen was at UConn. I’m sorry but saying Allen wasn’t any better of a prospect is simply not accurate. I’m not saying Wes won’t be a great player and obviously people are wrong valuing draft picks all the time, but Ray would have been a top five pick had he come out as a sophomore and a lottery pick as a freshman, in an era where guys were still generally expected to play three years (remember KG just started the straight from high school trend the year before). Ray also was already a great, great shooter. He had a special skill that basically guaranteed he would be a quality player, Wes is just in a different category. He could be Shawn Marion, he could be Hakim Warrick, it’s just hard to take these athletic slasher types and say for sure the guy will be special because so much depends on staying healthy and working on your game. Ray’s game (like Tim Duncan) was already superdeluxe straight out of college. Also, Ray was two years younger as a rookie (he came out as a true junior, Wes is a fifth-year senior),

    The 1996 draft was one of the greatest of all time with three future MVPs (AI, Kobe, Nash) and 11 All-Stars. Time will tell, but the 2010 draft is generally considered not particularly strong.

    I’m not disrespecting Wes, but to me this is just a strange comparison seeing as how they are not in any way similar except they both played in the Big East and were good. You may as well ask what is so different about Alonzo Mourning and Wes Johnson, or Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson. I’m not sure what “different” means in such a context.

  10. Umm Mac, I think it is a completely valid comparison, I want to clarify by saying I don’t believe Wes will be as good as Ray but I was asking how much different of a prospect was Ray coming out of college? He was a 6’5 senior that could shoot the lights out but was basically average at every other area of his game no? At least that is how is NBA career has gone, best shooter of the decade but essentially just decent in every other area. I don’t see how different Wes is right? legit shooter, probably the best in the draft and he is more athletic than Allen.

    Let me phrase the question like this, if 1996 Ray Allen and 2010 Wes Johnson came out in the same draft who would be the better prospect and why?

    Ray Allen is an elite shooter, Wes Johnson is great but not quite as good
    both a pretty decent but not great defenders
    both are decent passers
    Wes Johnson is an elite athlete Ray Allen is good enough

    We all know what happened to Ray Allen so it is an admittedly awkward comparison, and I would be stoaked if Wes was even Shawn Marion but I think the idea of my comparison is completely valid because of the skill set of the two individuals

  11. The biggest improvement i have seen for this wolves is defense. I think Al Jefferson was the weakest link because he didnt play with passion in my opinion. Darko came in out of shape and hurt because he didnt play in NY. when darko came he was aggressive and had heart when he played.

    Webster (i heard) would defend the opposing teams best players (ex: kobe). Brewer is a solid defender and w. johnoson supposidly is too. So defense in the starting lineup and reserves should be improved.

    Our offense should be improved too, darkos low post game is good, webster can shoot, johnson can shoot and hopefully flynn doesnt start so ridnour can get some assist which is one thing that flynn lacks. Flynn is a score first gaurd with below average shooting which in my opinion is a large reason the offense doesnt click.

    The floor is much more stretched out with love on the floor than with jefferson. love and beasily can shoot deep jumpers which will help the starters and the reserves. I have confidence in the wolves but im a homer so… we will see.

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