Rebuilding the Wolves: Vol. 1 or Vol. 11… One of those
It’s safe to say the Minnesota Timberwolves won’t be making the playoffs for the 11th straight season.
With a record of 5-29, the Wolves sit just 2.5 games ahead of the New York Knicks and are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the second worst record in the NBA. The Knicks have played four more games than the Wolves and have one-upped the Wolves for the longest current losing streak at 14 games (Wolves are at 13 losses in a row).
The injuries have taken their toll on the Wolves this season, which is the main reason for their record being as abysmal as it appears. Ricky Rubio’s high ankle injury, Nikola Pekovic’s sprained wrist and ankle, and Kevin Martin’s broken wrist have decimated the veteran leadership on the court and the organization needed to remain competitive most nights. NBA.com has the Wolves with the worst defense in the NBA at a rating of 110.2 points per 100 possessions allowed. The Los Angeles Lakers are the second worst at 109.8 per 100. They have the fifth worst offense at 99.2 points per 100 possessions scored. Only the Sixers have a worse net rating (minus-12.9 points per 100) than the Wolves (minus-11.0).
I never thought the Wolves would be good this season and hopes of them approaching what they did last season with a deeper team seemed foolish and too Disney story for my liking. But expecting them to be this bad would also have been crazy, if you assumed this team was going to be healthy. Since they are currently this bad and looking like they’re officially focused more on the future than the present (we’ll see how it goes when the veterans get healthy), I thought we could take a look as we approach the mid point of the season and look at the long-term, rebuilding prospects of each player on this team.
(Team option = TO, Player option = PO, Qualifying offer = QO, Early Termination Option = ETO)
RICKY RUBIO, 24 YEARS OLD, $12.7M IN 2015-16, $13.4M IN ’16-’17, $14.1M IN ’17-’18, $14.7M IN ’18-’19
It could just be the latest production in Small Sample Size Theater, but the first five games of this season and the last 29 games of this season have given a glimpse into exactly why the Wolves’ contract extension with Ricky Rubio was such a no-brainer. Rubio is the leader and organizer of this team on the court, keeping them in proper place on offense and giving them a much-needed resistance at the top of the defense. Any potential offensive improvements in Rubio’s game from the first five games of the season that may or may not be real pale in comparison to the way he keeps them organized on the court.
For now, Rubio is the star of this team. He’s the placeholder as the best player on the team until they can add/develop more talent. Eventually, Andrew Wiggins will be the star of this team and the face of this franchise. The high ankle sprain that has kept Rubio out for so long shouldn’t be a lingering issue past this season (fingers crossed), meaning his development is strictly impacted by coaching and work ethic. Rubio is a player that will make players better on both ends of the floor for years to come, but he also shouldn’t be asked to be the main focus of future Wolves teams once Wiggins is capable of leading with action on the court. Rubio is a complementary piece long-term unless his development truly does take a leap in the next year or so. But you can have a great complementary piece that means a lot to great teams. That’s the goal of keeping Rubio around long-term and it’s a reachable one.
ANDREW WIGGINS, 19 YEARS OLD, $5.7M IN ’15-’16, $6.0M IN ’16-’17 (TO), $7.5M IN ’17-’18 (TO), $9.8M IN ’18-’19 (QO)
The majority of what I feel about Andrew Wiggins’ future in this league as a star and with the Wolves was (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT) said right here back in November. I’m sold on him becoming a star and the moments of him floating on offense or being too passive in establishing his game don’t really bother me. You see him working on defense during all games. Sometimes it’s not good defense and sometimes he looks like a lockdown defender, but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t make it to the Paul George level of stardom on the court. I’d consider that his most likely floor, and the Wolves could certainly use someone at least as good as George for the future of this franchise.
Having a potential star of Wiggins’ caliber is exciting, especially when you factor in the rookie deal he’s on. The Wolves haven’t had a prospect like him since Kevin Garnett. That doesn’t mean he’s the next KG or will be as good as KG, but Wiggins has been the future star of this team since the moment they’ve acquired him — something you couldn’t necessarily say about Kevin Love or Rubio. Defensively, Wiggins will be one of the best in the NBA and the process of catching his offensive potential up to his defensive reality is the key for him and this Wolves’ developmental staff. You see flashes of it here and there. His 3-point shot is workable and mildly successful (good percentage but low volume). His post game looks to be a real possibility for match-up advantages. His dribbling is still an issue when he needs to get to a spot with more than two dribbles. But it all looks to be on the uptick, which is exciting.
ZACH LAVINE, 19 YEARS OLD, $2.1M IN ’15-’16, $2.2M IN ’16-’17 (TO), $3.2M IN ’17-’18 (TO), $4.4M IN ’18-’19 (QO)
We’re learning and confirming many things about Zach LaVine during this time of futile basketball from the Wolves. I think it’s been established pretty well that he’s not a point guard in the NBA but his potential of being an impactful combo guard off the bench is evident. What most impresses me about Zach’s game so far is the potential I see on defense. I never thought of him as much of a defender in the NBA, but you see stretches in which he properly utilizes his athleticism and length to disrupt plays. I’m not even sure they’re just pure instinct plays either; he’s learning and adjusting to what he sees on the court and finding ways to make a defensive impact. Granted, the bad defense has outweighed the good defense, but that’s to be expected of a 19-year old rooking point guard that’s probably a shooting guard.
What’s concerning with LaVine’s offensive attack is how much he settles for jumpers. I’m not sure if this is a lack of a strong handle (his dribbling looks pretty good to me), a lack of strength for driving (defenders can guide him where they want him to go), or just not seeing the driving angles that are possibly there (again, he’s 19 and not really a point guard), but LaVine’s taking a shot from 16 feet or farther out 54.2% of the time. For someone shooting 34.9% from 16-23 feet and just 23.5% from 3-point range, that’s a bad pie chart for where his shots are coming from. Realistically, he’s probably three years away from truly making an impact on offense because he just has a lot to learn as a guard in the NBA. I still like his long-term prospects of turning into a Sixth Man of the Year type of impact player.
NIKOLA PEKOVIC, 29 YEARS OLD, $12.1M IN ’15-’16, $12.1M IN ’16-’17, $11.6M IN ’17-’18
And here’s where we start getting into the tricky one on this list. This is going to be the most fascinating part of the rebuilding process for the Wolves. Nikola Pekovic is signed for three more seasons after 2014-15 and he’s on what’s basically a flat/declining contract. Without the typical raises in contracts, it makes it slightly easier to swallow if you’re a team considering acquiring the Monstrous Montenegrin. When you consider that Pek’s injury problems have reared their ugly heads once again this season and he’s actually out with two injuries right now, you’ve turned trading his contract into that Saltines cracker challenge the kids love to YouTube these days. Then again, the new TV money coming in is about to turn salaries, cap room, and money thrown around into the Wild West.
The Wolves believe in Gorgui Dieng and with the likelihood of securing a top 4 pick in the 2015 draft, Pek has become even more expendable after the Wolves took a stab at placating his agent and his agent’s fellow client Kevin Love two summers ago. I had no problem with the deal then and I still don’t have a problem with it now. The Wolves didn’t retain Bill Bayno as an assistant in the summer of 2013 and I believe it was a big part of Pek’s regression last season. And I’m not sure how he fits in with an über-athletic lineup the Wolves seemed determined to throw out there in the future.
So… at some point is Pek a movable player to a team that is fine absorbing his deal in an ever-growing economic structure? Does he become a Sixth Man big that comes in to wreck second units for 20 minutes a game? Does he become a glorified, highly paid cheerleader on the bench? He doesn’t fit in with the future of this team as it’s being constructed but he’s also wedged into the roster pretty snuggly.
GORGUI DIENG, 24 YEARS OLD, $1.4M IN ’15-’16, $2.3M IN ’16-’17 (TO), $3.3M IN ’17-’18 (QO)
I have a weird feeling about Gorgui Dieng right now. He’s better than he was last year when he looked like a breath of fresh air with the interior. He’s putting up 9.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.6 blocks in 29.1 minutes while shooting 50.0% from the field and 77.9% from the line. And yet, I’m left looking like his play hasn’t been what you want it to be. I’m not even sure I know how to explain it. You can’t expect him to be a defensive anchor on a team that is so otherworldly bad from a defensive standpoint. For him to make a positive defensive impact, he’d have to be Alonzo Mourning or Ben Wallace in their primes. But for a guy who has been billed as a defensive center, he doesn’t seem to have an impact on this defense in any way. As unfair as this is, it just has rubbed me the wrong way so far.
With Dieng off the court this season, the Wolves are bad on defense, giving up 107.6 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the court, the defense gives up an apocalyptic 111.8 points per 100. Defenders shoot 56.8% against him at the rim, which isn’t much better than Pek’s 58.2% and is much worse than 6’6″ Jeff Adrien’s 48.4%. For a random reference, I looked up the newest Cleveland Cavaliers’ acquisition Timofey Mozgov and he gives up 48.6% at the rim and just 55.8% inside six feet as opposed to Dieng’s 63.6%. I don’t think Dieng is a bad defender. It drives me crazy that he doesn’t raise his arms consistently when defending pick-and-rolls, but he does everything else well in PnR defense. I’m just waiting to see the shot blocking and shot challenging ability coupled with the mobility in a meaningful manner. And maybe that’s just unrealistic this season with the way the team has been deconstructed.
Moving forward, it’s hard for me to look at guys like Jahlil Okafor, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Karl Towns and not think, “I’d rather have that guy who could be better right away and 4-5 years younger too.” Dieng is good enough to be a starting center in the NBA; I have no doubt about that. I’m just not sure how important he is to the future, outside of development, building trade value, and eventually including him in a trade for a very good player. At least he’s a bargain for the next few years.
KEVIN MARTIN, 31 YEARS OLD, $7.0M IN ’15-’16, $7.3M IN ’16-’17 (PO)
There’s no real reason to be tied to Kevin Martin on this team outside of his contract. I do believe he’s a nice veteran voice for guys like Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad, but is that worth $14 million over the next two seasons? It’s probably not. If the Wolves were competitive, I’d love him as a floor-stretcher or even a scorer off the bench, but they’re not and they won’t be for a couple of seasons. Ideally, the Wolves could move him for an asset, but you’re not getting anything over than a second rounder and the Wolves don’t have a stellar reputation for valuing the second round.
There could be an outside chance that Martin doesn’t want to be a part of this rebuilding process and doesn’t exercise his player option in 2016-17. He could head off to a contender somewhere and leave the $7.3 million on the table. If he doesn’t, the Wolves can try to package assets with him to get rid of Martin or he just plays the role of veteran voice over the next two seasons.
ANTHONY BENNETT, 21 YEARS OLD, $5.8M IN ’15-’16, $7.3M IN ’16-’17 (TO), $9.5M IN ’17-’18 (QO)
We have good news about Anthony Bennett: he’s not the horrendous player we saw in his rookie season in Cleveland. The lost weight and improved breathing have done him some good in how he’s able to stay on the court, be in good condition, and not look like he’s going to pass out. It’s also made him a not abysmal shooter, raising his field goal percentage from 35.6% as a rookie to 43.5% so far this season. He’s cut out 3-point shooting almost completely, which is good until he figures out how to shoot. I don’t mind Flip’s approach to not giving Bennett the green light from downtown; although, I hope that’s not a long-term idea because I believe he’ll be able to shoot it from there.
The bad news about Anthony Bennett: he still has a long way to go. There was a little bit of hope that he’d be a brand new player and that’s simply not the case. But he also is being developed for the first time in a couple years and some of these things just take time. He has some decision-making issues (more with the right play/shot rather than time it takes to make decision, i.e. – Derrick Williams). He’s a solid rebounder but could be better. He’s a bad defender and you’ll need him to figure out team defense long before man defense. With all of his deficiencies on the court right now, you feel great when he’s around the basket and truly attacks the hoop. He can wreck the rim and that kind of stuff builds confidence for big men like him.
He’s a solid shooter when he’s open, but we’ll see in the future how that extends to the 3-point line. A telling stat for his development right now is the amount of time he touches the ball. When he takes a shot after holding the ball for under two seconds (quick decisions), he hits 48.0% of them (this includes cutting to the hoop for dunks). When he has the ball for over two seconds, that shooting percentage drops to 25.0%. Get him reacting to the defense and you’ll find success. I love his long-term projection for this team but it truly is a project.
THADDEUS YOUNG, 26 YEARS OLD, $9.9M IN ’15-’16 (ETO)
Everyone is expecting Thaddeus Young to opt out of his contract with the ETO this summer and cash in on the free agency market. With guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, and probably Marc Gasol expected to stay with their current teams, it could allow Young to take advantage of all the salary cap room being cleared by various teams. There will be a lot of money to spend and most team executives with cap space to fill typically throw money around like I used to at a $5 DVD bin. There aren’t a lot of good decisions being made and you’re just hoping people are laughing with you instead of at you.
Young hasn’t been as good as advertised this season, especially as of late, but he’s also been asked to do too much for this team. He had a rough November, rebounded nicely with a solid December, and is now back to rough games in early January. I’ve liked what Thad has done for the Wolves. Being put in a situation where you have to overextend yourself and play outside your means can be vulnerable as a player. And it leaves you looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. Put him with Rubio, Pek, Martin, and Wiggins, and I think you’d see a player everybody loves to watch. The question is just what will he do this summer?
Was he worth moving that Miami pick to Philadelphia? Personally, I think he was. That Miami pick will be somewhere in the 15-18 range and the odds of them finding a player better than Thad in that range are extremely low. But if he doesn’t re-sign with the Wolves or stick out that nearly $10 million season he can be under contract for, it’s natural to question giving up that pick. I think he’ll opt out and I think he’ll re-sign. I think it will be a short, two-year deal for around $25 million. That leaves him the flexibility to stay in a situation he supposedly likes and be in position to cash in two years from now when the money gets crazy.
SHABAZZ MUHAMMAD, 22 YEARS OLD, $2.0M IN ’15-’16, $3.0M IN ’16-’17 (TO), $4.2M IN ’17-’18 (QO)
What a breath of fresh air Shabazz Muhammad has been all season long. He showed flashes of being a volume scorer in weird ways during his rookie season, but he was always plagued by inconsistent effort and not knowing where to be on either end of the floor. When he was focused, he was effective. This season, he’s been thrust into a scoring role off the bench — and sometimes in the starting lineup — and he’s responded as well as you could hope for. Many nights, he’s the biggest spark plug for the Wolves and the best scorer. He’s the rare player who learned exactly what he should and shouldn’t do out there and adheres to those guidelines almost every time. A tweet recently by Jim Petersen made me think exactly of the season Bazz is having:
A message to all young players: Athleticism is great. Being skilled is important. For coaches the most important skill is playing hard.
— Jim Petersen (@JimPeteHoops) January 5, 2015
Regardless of things going well or going poorly for Muhammad this season, he’s played hard and he seems to have that skill set and then some. He’s a bully inside, overpowering bigger and stronger players with a headstrong, relentless pursuit of getting a bucket. He’s improved as a defender, but still has a long way to go. He’s a sledgehammer in transition and seems to get one dotted line dunk just about every game. He’s learning how to be a better shooter and he’s able to do a little bit with the ball off the dribble. The post game is still deadly.
I’m not quite sure what I want his role to end up being, and I wonder if Flip totally knows the answer to this either. I think we can officially bury the concerns of the Wolves making two good selections with that draft night trade. Gorgui and Shabazz are future role players on this team. Do you think Muhammad can be a full-time starter in this league? I’m not convinced that’s his greatest role. I love him as a scorer off the bench, an untenable match-up for the opposition. It’s exciting to see what the future holds for him, and he’s another cheap, young role player at the Wolves’ disposal.
MO WILLIAMS, 32 YEARS OLD, EXPIRING CONTRACT
Mo Williams has been the better version of J.J. Barea and he’s another veteran having to overextend himself this season because of injuries to the rest of the team. He’s the only real healthy point guard at the moment and could definitely use Rubio back in the lineup. I’d be shocked if Mo is long for this team past this season and he’d probably be better off chasing rings the rest of his career anyway. Even though he can drive you crazy at times, he’s been a nice veteran presence on the team this season.
ROBBIE HUMMEL, 25 YEARS OLD, $1.1M IN ’15-’16 (QO)
I’m not sure Robbie Hummel is every going to get consistent minutes in this league. He shot a respectable 36.2% from 3-point range as a rookie, but has followed that up with just 28.0% on only 25 attempts in 27 minutes. He’s played some power forward/stretch-4 for the Wolves. He’s played both wing positions. He’s a filler at an award show, willing to take any seat that opens up out there. I hope he’s available to keep at a cheap price for the next few years. You love hard workers like him and it has a positive influence on practices and conditioning sessions. I’d love to see him get a few more opportunities on the floor, but he has limitations and he has to earn those minutes.
CHASE BUDINGER, 26 YEARS OLD, $5.0, IN ’15-’16 (PO)
Based on the two knee injuries and his play so far since returning from said injuries, it would be crazy for Chase Budinger to not exercise his player option for next season. Some fans are fed up with him because he’s a shooter that isn’t reliable at making shots the last two seasons, but you have to understand how that knee injury once is really hard for athletic guys to recover from. He had it twice in less than a year. It will take time for him to build up the proper strength and confidence in his legs before he can regain everything he’s so good at doing.
Maybe that comes in a Wolves’ uniform, but more likely than not, it doesn’t. I hope Chase opts in for next season and has another chance to be a floor-stretcher for the Wolves. I’d just be shocked if he’s there past the summer of 2016.
TROY DANIELS, 23 YEARS OLD, $947K IN ’15-’16, $1.2M IN ’16-’17 (QO)
We don’t know much about Troy Daniels but we know he’s an outside shooter. That’s what he did in college, that’s what he did in the D-League, that’s what he did briefly with the Rockets, and that’s what he’ll do with the Wolves. He’s already taken 20 3-point attempts in eight games, and it’s not like he’s playing heavy minutes either. Hitting 40.0% of those should be easy enough for him, but I wouldn’t mind seeing if he can run a little point guard in small doses and provide LaVine and Mo with some relief. If not, let him play more often and keep tossing up 3-pointers. He’s someone Flip can trust from downtown.
JEFF ADRIEN, 28 YEARS OLD, EXPIRING CONTRACT It seems like anything could happen with the Wolves and Adrien the rest of this season. I’d be shocked if he matters long-term to this organization, but he’s been a breath of toughness and fresh air for the interior. But his contract doesn’t impact the Wolves past this season at all and it may not even last past the month of January if they decide to go with another big man to back up Gorgui and Pek. Adrien has helped the Wolves in stretches and he’s a proper rebounder/defensive player. However, he was merely a band-aid for the wounds of this roster that require stitches.
MIROSLAV RADULJICA, 27 YEARS OLD, 10-DAY CONTRACT
Miroslav Raduljica just signed a 10-day contract and will essentially fill the Jeff Adrien role. It makes you wonder just how serious they are about having Nikola Pekovic on the court the rest of this season. There is a potential logjam at backup big man positions if/when Pek comes back, which creates competition for playing time that Flip loves to have. He’s a gigantic human being that is built like a little bit of a mini-Pek (I think he’s technically smaller). He’ll be there to throw some bodies around. There’s no way the Wolves don’t survive the future laid out by the movie Pacific Rim.
GLENN ROBINSON III, 20 YEARS OLD, $1.0M IN ’15-’16 (QO)
We haven’t seen much of GRIII so far. He’s played 69 minutes in 15 games. He could be a nice role player — a fifth wing or so — or he could be a bad role player not worth having on the roster. It’s hard to know what he’ll look like in the future or if he even has a future with the Wolves. There isn’t much of a commitment to him, so you’d like to know the Wolves have him developing properly. He’s a prime example of why the Wolves should 1) take the second round more seriously and 2) have a D-League affiliate all to themselves. I don’t know what the D-League plan for expansion is next season. I know they don’t want to overgrow the system too fast and not be able to keep it sustaining as much as it can on its own.
Robinson should be in the D-League, working with assistants or developmental staff members for this organization and getting reps in D-League games. He shouldn’t just be toiling away on the bench and only practicing with the team. But when you’re sharing a D-League affiliate with 12 other teams, it probably sounds like a better idea to keep him with your roster.