What does the Zach LaVine pick say about the state of the Timberwolves?
According to Flip Saunders, LaVine was seventh on their board, so getting him feels like a coup to the front office, even if he’s not ready to be an immediate contributor. “Some players you go after, they have the ability to hit a home run,” Saunders said at a brief press conference immediately after the pick. “Some players that are ready-made players, they’re only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has the opportunity to be a home-run type player.”
The pick as it relates to the Wolves right now, though, could go in a couple different directions. On the one hand, it (along with the pick of Glenn Robinson III) signals the Wolves’ desire to fill a need for the team as currently constituted: athletic play on the wing. No one on the roster last year — from Shved to Budinger to Brewer to Martin — was going strong to the hoop from the wing position. Brewer got there on the break, but that was as often a disaster as it was successful.
The problem with this is that in spite of Saunders’ insistence that LaVine can play physical and GM Milt Newton’s belief that LaVine is a guy who can go get a basket or get to the foul line, the fact is that LaVine is more or less the same size as Shved (6-6, 185 lbs) and we’ve seen how physical he can(‘t) be. Also, as Layne Vashro points out in this post for Canis Hoopus, LaVine only got to the rim 1.5 times per 40 minutes, and only shot 46% there when he did.
LaVine is not going to magically put on muscle over the summer, nor will he suddenly become better at getting to the hoop in the half-court in a league that’s faster and bigger, so this also doesn’t look like the kind of win-now move intended to convince Love to stay.
But on yet another hand, the Wolves didn’t draft a player like Adreian Payne who could step in and immediately fill the gap a Love trade would leave. As a stretch four who can also finish at the rim — plus being an older prospect at 23 — Payne could have been a contributor from day one should the Wolves move Love in the next couple months.
In summary, Minnesota appears to be moving in many directions at once: filling needs while not exactly signaling a clear direction forward. At the presser introducing LaVine and Glenn Robinson III, Saunders emphasized that they were attempting to diversify the talents on the team, and that their two picks this year are not like any players they already have. It sounds really good, especially when Saunders invokes the diverse approach of the Spurs as a model but it remains to be seen if the Wolves have the kind of infrastructure to make the most of their roster.
What does LaVine’s F-bomb say about the state of Wolves fans?
It no longer really seems to be in dispute that LaVine dropped a clustercuss when his name was called.
“I might have uttered something completely wrong,” he told the media in a conference call. “But I put my head down, thanked God, kissed my mom, kissed my dad. I can’t believe this is happening to me right now.”
“I’m going full-fledged,” he continued. “Ready to become a Timberwolf.”
You can read that as backpedaling or revisionist history if you want, but to me, he sounded sincere. News flash: 19 year olds often express themselves inappropriately and often with plenty of swear words. Please go ask my dad how pottymouthed I was when I came back from my freshman year of college. I’m willing to bet that getting drafted is one of those things that you can imagine a thousand different ways and think you’re totally ready for and then when it happens, it’s suddenly more overwhelming than you can believe. That’s how I’m choosing to interpret LaVine’s reaction.
Wolves fans, though, not so much, at least not some vocal ones who are ready to see anything and everything as a slight. I don’t exactly blame them for being a little shellshocked after the trials and tribulations over Love for the last few years, but please remember this: Playing in the NBA is way more important to these young players than where they’re playing. We want them to be devoted to their franchises, but LeBron James broke that template four years ago. This might hurt to hear, but it’s just not about you. Players on draft night aren’t thinking about the composition of the team or the team’s needs or their record last season. I guarantee you if you asked LaVine or almost any other prospect the Wolves’ record last year they wouldn’t know it. I wouldn’t even guarantee you they could name all the starters.
Fans are all waiting with baited breath to find out who their team picks but the prospects are just waiting to be drafted period. That’s why I think whatever you read into LaVine’s reaction has to be looked at in the context of making it to the NBA period, not being drafted by this or that team.
So stand down, Wolves fans. There’s a long way to go before the next season and one F-bomb is not going to make a difference.
Can the Wolves actually develop players?
This, to me, is the million dollar (or more) question. Historically, the Wolves have not done a great job developing players, which is something we hear all the time with regard to players like Derrick Williams, but I want to add a wrinkle to this idea of development: it’s not just about making players better. It’s about maximizing strengths and masking weaknesses.
Consider Kawhi Leonard on the San Antonio Spurs. He was the Finals MVP this season but there is absolutely zero guarantee he would have grown into what he’s become in system different from the Spurs’. Being a third or even fourth option on offense behind Duncan, Parker and Ginobili has maximized him while allowing him to grow. When the Spurs drafted LaVine’s teammate Kyle Anderson at #30, people who lean heavily on analytics flipped out because Anderson had looked very good analytically while not looking very good in terms of the eye-test. Being drafted by the savvy Spurs seems to confirm what advanced analytics implies. Going to the Spurs is as near a guarantee as you can get that Anderson will develop into a solid player, but there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. Had Anderson gone to Oklahoma City at #29 or the Clippers at #28 his role on those teams might have meant he never reached his potential. If Anderson is an important contributor two years from now, everyone will second guess passing on him through the first round, but the truth is that he will only become a contributor by playing in a system that fits him as well as San Antonio’s looks to.
Which brings us back to the Wolves. Looking at player growth in terms of maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses, the Wolves don’t look very good, even in the case of their historically best players, Kevins Garnett and Love. They leaned heavily on Garnett for, well, everything and this spurred questions about Garnett’s ability to take over games late, to be that clutch player. But that’s not where Garnett truly shined. Placed next to players like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen — who were more than willing to shoulder the scoring load late in games — Garnett’s defensive prowess suddenly sprung to the fore.
Likewise, the Wolves have been spectacularly unsuccessful at building a team that can cover for Love’s less-than-stellar defense, or even Rubio’s much-less-than-stellar shooting. Nikola Pekovic and Love are each great players in their own way, but they can’t cover for each other’s shortcomings. Neither Martin — with his shaky handle and lack of spot-up shooting — nor Brewer — with his streaky shot — can offset Rubio’s poor shooting. Teams like the Spurs or the Heat provide an environment where success begets success. If you think Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole or Marco Bellinelli are Finals-caliber players on any other teams you’re out of your gourd. But they’re tasked with contributing in very specific ways and are often — though not always (see Miami’s point guard play in this most recent Finals) — successful.
What Minnesota can’t do with LaVine if they want him to be successful is throw him into the meat grinder and expect him to fill every gap he has on his own. Wolves fans are by now used to this story: Minnesota drafts a player with some kind of upside or potential, that potential goes unrealized over the player’s first two or three years, player gets traded and maybe blossoms. Time and again, Minnesota drafts or acquires a player, plops him down on the court like unmolded clay, pokes at him, then sells low to another team that molds him into a handsome piece of pottery. (Or maybe just a nice spoon or even just lumps the clay onto some other hunk but in any case, they DO something with it.)
Or the inverse: A player is successful elsewhere (like Barea), is brought to Minnesota, and then can’t replicate that success. Developing players is more than just waiting for them to ripen magically. It means putting them in the best position for success and nurturing that success as it happens, not releasing them into the wilds of NBA play and then making a frownie face when they look a little lost.
To Saunders credit, he emphasized that the most important thing in player development was to not put them into situations that set them up for failure. One need only look at Alexey Shved’s arc in the NBA to see the fruits of that kind of situation. Injuries forced Shved to play more than he should have for a team that was in full-tilt win-now mode under Adelman. It’s debatable whether Shved has the wherewithal to be an NBA player, but burning him out his rookie year and then putting him off the ball next to Barea his sophomore year certainly didn’t help.
Furthermore, the Wolves have more or less a completely new coaching staff with the hires of Sidney Lowe and Sam Mitchell alongside Saunders. Yes it’s a bit of an old-boy network, but that shouldn’t discount the job they have yet to do. This is going to sound like a Donald Trump quote, but the first step to success is succeeding, so we should suspend judgment on the coaching front until after we’ve seen how the team develops over the summer and well into next season.