Timberwolves wings: an unsolved riddle
Of the many by turns illuminating and inscrutable tidbits I dug up in the past few weeks while doing research for the Truehoop post, this was among the most glaring: the Wolves’ situation on the wing is a true riddle, a strange machine, filled with moving parts and missing pieces.
Let’s start with what we’ve recently learned. Michael Beasley is the team’s most gifted scorer, but hurts the team defensively (though we’ve seen improvement in the past week), especially when partnered with his young mates in the starting lineup, Darko Milicic and Kevin Love. Wesley Johnson and Corey Brewer both have severely limited offensive games, but come with a desperately needed energy and athleticism that complements Love’s and Darko’s special talents. And although it’s too soon to know for certain how Martell Webster affects the team–and he seems to be still very much inhibited by his stiff back, particularly on defense–it’s clear that Webster brings a reliable shooting touch and what passes on this team for veteran savvy (i.e. he’s, like, played in a playoff game before). How do we figure this out?
We’ll begin with Wes Johnson. To me, Johnson is probably the Timberwolves’ most aesthetically pleasing player; there’s just something noble about the graceful, balanced way that he carries his body. Still, despite his great vertical athleticism, it’s been clear that he’s still at one extreme of the defensive learning curve. “He doesn’t have elite level quickness,” says David Thorpe, “and he doesn’t really have anticipatory skills at that position. And that’s primarily because he’s not really been a wing before, defending wings. And even if he was a wing player in college, which he wasn’t, he was also almost entirely playing zone, which is a very different movement than man-to-man.” This goes a long way to explaining why, as we’ve discussed here before, Johnson is still struggling with the nuances of NBA defense.
What’s more, we know that Wes’s is a one-dimensional scorer. His undeveloped ballhandling and inexperience as a slasher prevent him from using his formidable leaping ability at the basket. As a matter of fact, Wes has attempted more threes than free throws and shots at the rim combined. That’s really amazing.
Fascinatingly though, despite his shortcomings, the Wolves score almost 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Perhaps his three-point shooting spaces the floor for his teammates. Perhaps his poised, often creative passing fosters offensively fluidity. Perhaps his one-dimensionality is actually a sign of a self-awareness uncommon to rookies; perhaps, unlike many of his teammates, his ambitions don’t wildly overreach his abilities.
All of those things are a little strange, but Corey Brewer is the real puzzle. Lets be clear: right now, Corey Brewer is dominating defensively. In the past weeks, he’s swallowed up a roll call of the league’s best perimeter players. Manu Ginobili, Kevin Durant, Jason Richardson, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony (among others) have all been driven to distraction by Brewer’s great quickness, his feverish energy and his fabulously long limbs.
Thorpe again (Thorpe does coach Brewer, but is also among the most knowledgeable and observant basketball watchers I’ve ever spoken to–so you should pay attention to what he says): “He denies the hell out of you. He’s the best wing defender I think, other than maybe Gerald Wallace, at harassing dribblers. He’s the kind of guy that can create chaos for the guy he’s guarding, but he can also create chaos as a helper.”
Brewer’s greatest struggle as a defender has been to balance his deep urge to gamble for steals with the team imperative to “play solid,” to stay at home on his man, to make the proper reads and rotations. But although he does make the occasional bad gamble, Brewer’s conceptual grasp of team defense is impressive. Here’s Wolves’ assistant JB Bickerstaff:
Well he’s got a really high basketball IQ and understands his teammates strengths and weaknesses. So he puts himself in a position a lot of times where he does have to do things that where he knows somebody else is making a mistake, now he has to go and cover up for them, because he does have an understanding of what we’re trying to do as a team.
Still, Brewer’s most compelling trait is the fact that he views a defensive possession as an occasion for attack, a moment to sow disorder in the opponent and create scoring opportunities for his own team. This attacking mentality has led to some of the more amazing highlights of this season: at home against San Antonio, in a crucial fourth quarter possession, Manu Ginobili drives to the basket. Brewer, attempting to recover after the initial step, reaches back behind his body to strip the ball from the rising Manu. And another: Brewer strips Kevin Durant; the ball rolls into the backcourt. Brewer outsprints KD to the ball, leaps onto the ground, from his back tosses the ball over his head to Johnson for a dunk. Things like this happen for Brewer almost every game.
Explosive leaping ability, exceptional court vision, stunning speed in the open floor–all of those things, coupled with his defensive abilities would make him an irreplaceable facet of this or any team. They would, that is, if he were even an average scorer or ballhandler. But he’s not. Far too many of those miraculous defensive plays have been negated by blown layups or zany passes or wild threes. The numbers tell a sad story: Brewer is hitting 26% of his threes and just 44% of his shots at the rim. Watch Corey careen into the lane with his flailing limbs and that high dribble; it’s one of the truest moments of raw suspense you’ll ever see in a basketball game. You’ll be astonished the ball ever goes in the basket at all.
In some ways, the Wolves perimeter Rubik’s Cube is an advantage, particularly with Webster’s return. As we saw on Saturday night in Denver, this plenitude of young wings gives Kurt Rambis tremendous flexibility in deploying multifaceted, athletic lineups, particularly when the opposing team plays small. A second advantage is more pragmatic. “We want competition,” Wolves’ assistant GM Tony Ronzone told me. “[We’re] just trying to find the best player from that group and move forward.”
This is where things get tricky. Of all of these four–Beasley, Brewer, Johnson and Webster–Webster is the closest to a finished product. But, like the rest of these guys, with their unique gifts and glaring weaknesses, his role on the team remains fluid. There’s so much we don’t know: can Beasley ever play with Love and Darko? Does Brewer have a future? How good can Wes Johnson be? Can Rambis find the right rotations and combinations to make this whole dance work? Thinking about these dudes reminds us chatterers, so inclined to stormy commentary and grand proclamations, that his building project is still in its nascent stages. There are no set answers, just a stream of possibilities.