Timberwolves wings: an unsolved riddle

Benjamin Polk —  December 21, 2010 — 7 Comments

Photo by iwouldificould

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.

Benjamin Polk

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7 responses to Timberwolves wings: an unsolved riddle

  1. I think the biggest risk is that none of these guys is above average. And while I applaud your research it is hard to reconcile the view of “Brewer is an elite defender” with what I see on the floor. It is not uncommon to see a completely uncontested 3 by Brewer’s man.

  2. When you see that uncontested three, though, you have to ask whose responsibility it was to rotate to that shooter. It’s very often not his primary defender. You’re right that Brewer’s tendency to gamble and overhelp occasionally leaves the team exposed outside, but I actually feel that he is the best player on the team at closing out on shooters. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Hi Ben,
    Did you get any feedback on whether the scheme being can reasonably be mastered by this group of players? A bunch of young guys, some injuries, and roster turnover is pretty common in the NBA. If the scheme takes forever to master and fails if any one of five guys makes a mental error, it seems pretty unlikely to work.

  4. For as good as Brewer is defensively he is twice as bad offensively. i think the more mixed bag trade off you get with Webster and Johnson are enough for me too say Brewer should play under 20 minutes a game. He is just such a horrendous offensive play any serious ball club cannot have him in their top ten.

    My solution: Coach Beasley up. Rambis can complain about Love/Beasley defensively all he wants but its his job too coach them up, make them smart. They both seem coach-able. Beasley has the athletic ability to be at least okay defensively to the point where he isn’t hurting his team, and I think this is just as much on Rambo as anyone.

    Start Webster and Beasley, without question.

  5. Shawn, I don’t think the issue is that the scheme can’t be mastered intellectually by the players; it’s complicated but I don’t think it’s as out of the realm of normal basketball offense as people seem to think it is. I think the real question is whether the scheme suits this roster’s particular talents. And I’d say that is still uncertain.

    Justin, while it’s clear that Brewer is an embarrassingly bad shooter and ballhandler, the thing is–and this is something I probably should have mentioned in the post itself–the offense plays nearly six points better per 100 while he’s in. Of anyone on the Wolves this year who’s played meaningful minutes (ie excluding Flynn and Webster), Brewer’s offensive rating of 106.85 is the second best on the team. Those are obviously not definitive in terms of saying who’s a good offensive player and who isn’t, but they’re surely meaningful. I think for Brewer they measure his excellent passing skills and his ability to create easy baskets on the defensive end.

  6. I would think that Wes is hard to knock since it’s his rookie year. He should make a leap over the summer and be more confident next year. He seems to have wide eyes and seems to prefer sitting out on the 3 point line observing whats going on. He needs to be more aggressive and attack the rim. The few times I have seen him do so he has made a great pass when the defense collapses on him. When he learns the speed I think he will be great at getting to the rim and either scoring or droping off a pass to Darko/love.

    Also thanks for this website. Being a wolves fan is hard enough with all the knocks we take from ESPN (when they gett around to talking about them.) Great articles and insight. Thank you.

  7. Appreciate it. Thanks for the comment, Eric.

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