Trail Blazers 107, Timberwolves 93: Free Shabazz

FREE SHABAZZ 2

If you haven’t seen “The Boondocks”, it’s on Netflix. Watch it.

The NBA (and every major professional sports league) is composed of proud, competitive and supremely talented athletes who have worked extremely hard and sacrificed a great deal in order to attain (and maintain) their employment at the game’s highest level. This reality doesn’t stop sportswriters and fans from questioning the dedication or commitment of athletes or even entire teams to their craft, whether it’s “effort”, “heart”, “focus”, “energy” or any other euphemism.

Of course, coaches and players themselves will mention “effort,” “heart”,”focus,” and “energy”, often as buzzwords in stock answers to routine questions about why they’ve won or lost a particular game. After a victory, it’d be unbecoming to simply say, “Well, clearly we’re superior to the team we beat, we have better players, this really isn’t a surprise.” After a loss, it’d be disheartening to admit “We never really had a chance anyway, those guys are way better than we are.” So instead, everyone relies on effort-related jargon, vows to either improve (after a loss) or maintain (after a win) their level of intensity and focus when the next game rolls around.

Fans and media see the effort put forth on the basketball court and make judgments about players based on that alone; for coaches, however, games are only part of the equation. Exemplary effort or energy when the lights are on is one thing, but knowing the playbook and understanding the subtle aspects of your offensive and defensive assignments is another. Practice habits are key. A simple, cliched way to put it: the process is more important than the results, and people outside the locker room and front office are only afforded glimpses of the process.

Which brings us to Shabazz Muhammad. The Wolves’ second-year man out of UCLA put up 28 points in 29 minutes, shooting 12-of-17 from the floor while adding 5 rebounds (4 on the offensive glass) in Minnesota’s loss to Portland. He employed an array of post moves (a few even utilized his right hand) and weakside cuts to tally 20 of his 28 points in the painted area, an absurdly high amount for a 6’5 non-dribble-driver.

What’s endeared Muhammad to fans is his energy and fearlessness. He dives onto the floor and into baseline crowds to save loose balls. He fearlessly skies through the air for putbacks and rebounds, and aggressively takes the fight to his man on the low block. For these reasons, Wolves observers are beginning to murmur that Shabazz has earned more playing time, and perhaps even a promotion to the starting lineup as long as Kevin Martin is injured.

It’s a notion that Flip Saunders isn’t quite ready to buy. “I’m a big fan of (Shabazz), and I’ve told him this many times – if you don’t know plays, if you don’t know what we’re doing, it’s going to hurt you,” the Wolves’ coach said recently. “I’m hard on him. He has to understand where he’s supposed to be all of the time. I love his energy. But a lot of times he’s a little late on defensive rotations, he’s not quite there on our offensive sets, he starts in the wrong spot.”

Despite his nice statistical night, these problems reared their ugly heads in Portland on Sunday. On a couple of occasions, Corey Brewer had to let Muhammad know, mid-play, where he was supposed to be. At around the 8:00 mark of the 3rd quarter, this confusion led to poor spacing, a bad entry pass by Shabazz, and two easy points for the Blazers going the other direction when Muhammad turned it over.

In case you aren’t familiar with the show “The Boondocks”, pictured above are the protagonist Huey (left) and his friend Jazzmine (right); the two are planning a trip to visit Shabazz K. Milton Berle, a falsely imprisoned man. The show centers around the unjust nature of his incarceration and attempts to break him free, touching on several topics that are a bit too heavy for casual inclusion in a recap about a basketball game. I really only bring it up because of the coincidence of names and the banner in the background – a lot of fans want to Free Shabazz, turn him loose in the starting lineup, since good things seem to happen when he’s on the court.

But Muhammad isn’t being locked on the bench unjustly. The gates keeping him in are locked from the inside. He has abundant energy when he checks into games, which everybody loves, but until he brings that same energy, heart, focus and effort to learning offensive sets and the subtle elements of his game, he’ll keep being a role player. There’s a reason Muhammad’s cracked 30 minutes in a game just once in his entire career – if a coach doesn’t trust that you know what you’re doing, or doesn’t believe you value the process as much as the results, he has a hard time inserting you into the starting lineup.

In short, Shabazz’s energy and devotion to his craft (i.e. getting into amazing shape over the summer) is commendable, but until that effort manifests itself in all aspects of being a professional, including knowing the playbook, he’ll be stuck where he is

A few other notes:

– Speaking of effort, Corey Brewer might be the most valuable member of the team at the moment. He struggled last night (8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists on 4-of-11 field goals) but over his past 9 games, including 5 starts, the 7th-year man out of Florida is averaging 13.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.4 steals on 49% shooting. Granted, he can’t buy a bucket from beyond the three point line (2-for-20 on the season) but he’s sparked scoring runs by getting out in transition and either finishing or finding shooters. He earns his keep by being an energy guy but has a firm grasp of the offense – a quality example for the young players (Shabazz especially) to follow.

– Mo Williams returned to the Moda Center and had 21 points, 5 rebounds and 11 assists in 40 minutes. He had a fine night, but his defensive woes hurt the team late. The Wolves had managed to cut the lead to 8 with 4:30 to go when Williams was caught dawdling under the hoop on defense (for some reason), leaving Damian Lillard wide open. When the ball was swung to him, Mo hurried to close out and wound up fouling Dame on his (made) three, giving him an opportunity for a four point play. He struggled to contain Lillard on even the simplest of actions, and Minnesota paid dearly.

– Zach LaVine… 0-for-3, 0 assists, 2 turnovers and a minus-15 in 10:48 on the floor. Saunders has been tough on his rookie guard, who struggled mightily in the follow-up to his big night in Los Angeles. When Mo finally subbed out 14 minutes into the game, Minnesota was up 8. When he came back four and a half minutes later, the game was tied, and there was no slowing Portland from then on.

– Andrew Wiggins battled through what was described as “food poisoning” and clearly wasn’t himself, recording 7 points and 1 rebound in 18 minutes. Other than one nice play in transition, he was largely a non-factor.

– Minnesota dominated points in the paint (60 to 34),had more fastbreak points (15-to-13) and won the turnover battle (Portland 18, Minnesota 15) but ultimately couldn’t slow LeMarcus Aldridge in the midrange (26 points on 17 shots), Wes Matthews from beyond the arc (23 points on 13 shots, including 6 threes) or the Blazer point guards from breaking down the defense and dishing out assists (15 combined between Lillard and Steve Blake).

– The Wolves head back to Staples tonight to take on the Clippers. Hopefully, newcomer Jeff Adrien is up to speed enough to be available; if you thought the Minnesota frontline (Dieng, Bennett, Hummel) was overmatched against Robin Lopez and LeMarcus Aldridge, wait until they face off against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan… (shudders).

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  1. Mo Williams drove me crazy at the end of this game and made me miss Rubio so much more then ever before. Right before the aforementioned foul on Lillards 3 he threw an ill advised “touchdown” pass that was picked off, he threw up a contested 3 early in a possession, and then threw another long pass that got picked off all on the last few minutes. Bazz is really fun to watch and I hope he figures out where to be. I didn’t realize wiggins wasn’t feeling well so that makes more sense. All of that being said I enjoy watching this team so much more then last season, and believe the future is bright.

  2. One more thing. If my memory is correct at the time the Trey Burke for Bazz and Deing was marked as a horrible or at least bad deal for us. Is that correct? And how is it looked at now?

  3. “– The Wolves head back to Staples tonight to take on the Clippers. Hopefully, newcomer Jeff Adrien is up to speed enough to be available; if you thought the Minnesota frontline (Dieng, Bennett, Hummel) was overmatched against Robin Lopez and LeMarcus Aldridge, wait until they face off against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan… (shudders).”

    What’s going to set me off is we all see it coming, the Wolves are going to be out manned and out gunned and the score is probably going to be horribly lopsided. Yet you will get “some” people posting negative comments about defense and effort regardless of the fact this team is lacking several key starters and their bench is so incredibly young.

    Also Jacob, you’re right I remember all the naysayers (I was actually one of them in regards to Shabazz). Flip is obviously a much better judge of talent then I am. I never saw the LaVine pick coming, I so wanted Adreian Payne (who has not played a second for Atlanta). I guess we still have to wait and see. Last year I had my heart set on KCP, who still looks like he will be a good player. But the combination of Deing and Shabazz looks like a pretty good consolation prize.

    But in regards to Flip it really makes you wonder where this team would be if he was at the helm during the Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson, Derrick Williams, drafts.

  4. Will~ I get what you’re saying about Shabazz. He was fun to watch last night doing his usual “Shabazz”-stuff: hitting hook shots, hitting the offensive glass, general hustle stuff and it even looks like his dunks in traffic might now be a feature of his game now that he is in incredible shape. But executing great at what he does well didn’t cover up the things he still has problems with. His defensive rotations were pretty sloppy and he still has a tendency to stop the ball on offense. He only seems to when he feels like he can’t get his shot off – and those panic-passes often lead to two easy points the other way.

    Jacob~ I don’t think many people thought the Burke for Bazz/Dieng trade was horrible at the time. Some people (aka the JJ haters) didn’t like it because we lacked a solid option behind Rubio at the point and Burke would have seemingly fit that role. It’s still too soon to declare who got the better of the trade but I think the needle is pointing in the Wolves direction. Trey Burke has really struggled in his starters role and both both Shabazz and Dieng have proved to be competent and efficient role-players.

  5. Just for clarification, yes people (including Bill Simmons) did rip the Trey Burke trade all the way untill Dieng started playing really well late, late last season. Funny enough, is Flip the wolves best asset?? I think so…especially if he can somehow deliver us a KG ownership group…

  6. Give Bazz a couple years in the same system to help cover his deficiencies and let him play to his strengths and he will be a very good player. I think he could start next to Wiggins on the wing eventually but he needs to shore up his game first. With Burke though, I wouldn’t trade Bazz or Dieng for him straight up so I would definitely say we got the best of the deal as of right now.

  7. I know it’s good to have a veteran presence, but the shot selection from Mo Williams and Thad Young drives me crazy at times, and I hope it doesn’t affect the development of the younger guys. Going to Wolves/Clips game tonight, and I hope Wiggins is feeling better, or LaVine wants to prove something again like he did on Friday night against the Lakers. Otherwise, I’m worried it’s going to get ugly fast.

  8. That’s exactly right with Shabazz. In general, their development of him to this point has gone well from day one. He wasn’t good last season, he didn’t earn a spot until late in the season, and he’s now earned at least the opportunity to play every night. Any of us who have played basketball know that the coaches will, other things being equal, favor guys who can execute the plan. It’s what separates the Spurs from other talented teams.

    The zone worked because Portland missed shots, but that could’ve been Mavericks-level ugly if they were making those shots. Several times, the two guys up top guarded the ballhandler, let him slip between them, and then were late in rotating to the wing shooter.

    The one thing that bugs me about the veterans is that they’re reactive instead of proactive. They don’t anticipate what’s going to happen. Portland was a step ahead of the Wolves all night and just missed too many shots to keep it as close as it was.

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  10. I thought this game was especially tough to watch. I really really love this group of guys this year, but two things are starting to drive me insane: the offensive system flip has established (injurys or not, there is NO spacing whatsover, man I hope this gets better as the season continues) and the complete disregard for corner threes, both offensively and (especially) defensively.
    the wolves’ strategy of dealing with 3s is “if we just pretend they don’t exist things will be alright”. so maddening.
    how many more breakdowns until flip realizes that defending the corner 3 really helps if you’re trying to, you know, not get blown out?
    (also the roster is out of whack, but we knew that already.)

  11. Too tough to Mo. Overcriticise. He is not a starting PG in most of his career and he played 40 mins last night. If he can efficiently defense a quick guy like Lillard, he should be a superstar with his contribution in the offense.

  12. And before the start of the season, I pointed out that Wolves are short of backup PG after buy out JJ (Although I agree to buy out JJ rather than GRIII). Trey Burke is good but he may not wish to be in Minnesota as Rubio is a solid PG. His mins should be drop compare to now the status in Utah if Rubio stay healthy.

  13. Bill Simmons? Ha.

    Tough for me to be hard on Shabazz It seems like he’s one of the few players that is playing in sync consistently. Most of our guys look good one game and putrid the next. You can count on Muhammad for some stuff–more than I thought you’d be able to at this point. He did show signs of competence last season, so I’m not surprised he has something to contribute so far this season. But back to the critique of him… Our whole team looks clueless and out of sync most of the time on both ends. They have a real hard time putting together full games as a team where offense and defense seem to be working like they are supposed to on the marker board. I like Brewer a lot—he’s a fan’s player. But his decision making and sloppy play has been detrimental at times (and his shooting is horrid). This season he doesn’t feel like a vet, and he enrages as much as he charms or excites. He doesn’t really have an excuse for those mental and judgment mistakes all the time—Shabazz does still. This season has convinced me that Brewer is a good energy D guy off the bench at best. When we are healthy I want him there. I feel the same way about Martin. He’s too inconsistent for a 30 year old vet. You don’t know if you’ll get 8 points on horrid shooting or 30 points of efficient scoring. He’s ultra streaky and his effort and D have been really bad, overall. I’m starting to think he has attitude problems. I feel like we need to get someone else in starting at shooting guard soon. Might that be LaVine someday instead of this point stuff? Who knows.

  14. It’s a pretty big problem when the opposing team makes more 3 pt shots than your team even attempts.

    I do have to agree with Pyrrol though the vets seem to be just as out of sync as the young guys. But that is what happens when you have 0 continuity on a team. That’s what I am looking forward to more than anything. A roster that has a few years working together. So many plays against the clips last night guys just looked lost. They went from everything clicking to nothing working and went into panic mode.

    That’s a sign of a team that is not on the same page. I just hope we can get everyone back and work on playing as a cohesive unit. Last night was pretty much unwatchable after the Wolves hit 39 points it all went downhill.

  15. About the trade or Dieng and Shabazz. People like to forget that we had a pick 3 or picks after the Dieng pick that we gave away for cash. If we had not pulled the trigger on that trade we would have still gotten Dieng, but would have ended up with CJ MCullum or Burke. Both still look like better options than Shabazz long term. Wait until people have him scouted better. Tough to make a living with a 6’5 post up 3 man.