Anthony Tolliver is one of the nicest, most earnest, least self-important professional athletes you will ever hope to meet. What’s more, over the past three years, he’s poured remarkable quantities of energy and passion into some of the more hopeless NBA teams imaginable. Even when his coaches have neglected to actually coach defense (see: Nellieball), or have done so exceptionally poorly (see: Kurt Rambis), or when his teammates have given up on the idea of doing the difficult, painful things necessary to compete in NBA basketball games (see: well, you know), there has been Anthony Tolliver: diving on the floor, rotating with fervor, contesting shots, fighting for loose balls.
And there were a handful of games this season in which Tolliver’s energies, particularly on the defensive end, won the Wolves extra possessions, disrupted their opponent’s execution and inspired his teammates to hang against teams with vast manpower and skill advantages (I’m thinking particularly of those grueling consecutive road losses to San Antonio and Oklahoma City in mid-March). Tolliver is a touch undersized to guard fours and more than a touch slow to guard threes, but his willingness to compete defensively, plus his great team defensive instincts, allowed Rick Adelman to plug him into both spots when needed. Indeed, the Wolves’ were .8 points/100 possessions better defensively when Tolliver was on the floor, a feat made more impressive when you consider that the bulk of his playing time came after Ricky Rubio went down and the Wolves’ defense went into its death spiral.
The problem, of course, the thing that kept Tolliver at the end of the bench for much of the season, was the offensive end of the floor. Simply put, Tolliver had a terrible season shooting the ball. He hit only 35% of his twos outside of ten feet and only 24.8% of his threes, both of which are far below his career averages. Tolliver has a nice shooting stroke and many of those misses were wide open looks; and so a great portion of his struggles seem to stem simply from an extended slump.
But it also seemed as if Tolliver was struggling to find a role within the offense. In the past, the better portion of Tolliver’s buckets came from hard work around the rim and smart off-the-ball movement. He got a lot of putbacks, a lot of layups and a nice helping of open midrange j’s. For much of this year, though, Tolliver seemed stranded in the corners, simply waiting for the Wolves’ guards to do their thing and find him for the open three (and I guess you can’t really blame him). He kept shooting and kept missing; his offensive game became both one-dimensional and ineffective. Not a good combo.
Tolliver has been is a free-agent this summer and its hard to predict whether he figures into the Wolves’ plans. If he does stay on, the team would be well served by finding a more nuanced role for him within the offense. Also: if you’re an undersized tweener, frontcourt energy guy, you’d be advised to hit those open j’s.