Lakers 106, Timberwolves 98: What to expect when you’re expecting


President-coach-owner Flip Saunders has been under fire since his comments in Portland about not wanting 3-point shots to be a “main part” of Andrew Wiggins’ game. It’s led to yet another dissection of what Flip can mean for the ceiling of this latest rebuilding project for the Minnesota Timberwolves and the potential pitfalls of this organization and Flip as both shopper and cook when it comes to the grocery list. With a team that dropped to 47 games under .500 in their loss to the Lakers Friday night, development and future is all Wolves fans have to look forward to right now.

Wiggins is the biggest part of that hope for the future because he’s going to be a superstar in this league. If only one thing has been certain with this team in the 2014-15 campaign, it’s that the Wolves acquired one of the future stars of this league back in August (really July but the trade had to wait). The Canadian via Kansas has been a revelation most nights and you can see the confidence building, the skill set getting more diverse, and the approach to the game being one of the more impressive things you can imagine from a 19/20-year old player in the NBA.

I’ve written about Wiggins’ development this season and Steve McPherson had a great Q&A with David Thorpe on Thursday diving into making him the star he needs to become. In looking at what happened with the Wolves’ loss and more importantly Wiggins’ incredible play at Staples Center Friday night, it’s made me look at Flip’s comments in a new light. First, let’s take a look at the full quote, via Ben Golliver of SI.com

“I think he can become a better three-point shooter,” Saunders asserted Wednesday. “You don’t want that to become a main part of his game. Anytime he shoots a three or a 20-foot shot, the guy who is guarding him goes, ‘Woo, thank God.’ When [Wiggins] starts coming at [the defender], doing his whirly-dervy, they’re going to foul him or he’s going to score. Something is going to happen.”

Because of Flip’s reputation with the 3-point shot, it’s easy to freak out about this type of analysis about Wiggins’ game. I certainly did when I read it Wednesday night, as did most people who like to talk about basketball on Twitter. It was an easy joke to cherry-pick and it was certainly an easy thing to criticize Flip about. Excluding his final season with the Washington Wizards (just 17 games), Saunders’ teams are on average ranked 23rd in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted. The only times he’s had a team finish in the top 20 in 3-pointers attempted were his first two seasons coaching a Detroit Pistons team that already had their identity (finished 10th and 19th in his first two seasons there).

You can’t blame pace of play for the reason Flip’s teams don’t finish higher in 3-pointers attempts because they’ve averaged the 16th fastest pace in the league during those years. Those numbers are also skewed by the Pistons’ days when they were 29th his first season and last in his next two seasons. In his 10 years with the Wolves, Flip’s teams were 12th in pace over the decade. In terms of 3-point accuracy, his teams have averaged the 16th best accuracy over those 15 years and were top 10 in accuracy five times (four times with the Wolves). His teams have been capable of hitting 3’s during his tenures in various places, but they just don’t have a great opportunity to take them within the flow of the offense.

That bit of information is the main criticism of Flip. “He’s not coaching in the current era with this team” is the criticism you hear because the 3-point shot has become so important to almost everybody except a handful of coaches. And those coaches (Flip, Byron Scott, Randy Wittman, etc.) aren’t regarded as guys you desperately need coaching your team. It’s a fair criticism of Flip’s style of coaching and it’s one I share. If you don’t believe setting up 3-point shots within the flow of the offense is a weapon your team needs in 2015, I don’t believe you’re setting your team up for success elsewhere on the floor.

With that said, Wiggins’ game against the Lakers was a momentary justification of exactly what Flip was trying to get across about Wiggins. As some places like to pretend this Rookie of the Year race should be close because a couple of guys (who I’m very high on, by the way) had a good March, Wiggins maybe had his best overall stat line Friday night. He finished with 29 points on 7-of-15 from the field and 15-of-16 from the free throw line, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals, and three turnovers.

One thing you won’t see in that stat line is a single 3-point attempt. Is there justification for something like that in 2015? In looking at his performance and looking at Flip’s comment above, I almost think there is.

What do you expect out of the Wolves night in and night out? The snarky answer is losses. Once we get the joke (?) out of the way, I think you want to see development. That’s what the Wolves’ future hinges on: development of its young players. If you want an embodiment of what Flip was talking about in that comment, check out this highlight against the Lakers:

Those plays are ridiculous, right? In the first one, you had Wiggins taking the ball up the floor in transition and according to Jim Petersen, Flip told Andrew to go. He went. He went and dunked all over two guys like he had go-go gadget posters ready to deploy. The second play was even crazier in terms of athleticism. A slow spin move with an extra dribble against Wes Johnson in which he just calmly gathers, rises, and yammed all over the former Wolves’ forward. Those are the plays that Flip is talking about in that quote above.

Wiggins was 5-of-8 around the restricted area and 2-of-7 on jumpers. But more importantly than him not shooting any 3-pointers is he shot 16 free throws, which are a career-high in attempts. His 15 makes are also a career-high. This is the development process of Wiggins and what Flip is talking about for right now. While the 3-point shot is likely to complete what Wiggins can do on a basketball court when he’s destroying worlds out there, having him be comfortable in attacking the basket is what will set him apart because of his athleticism.

His jump shot numbers on the season have tailed off and they don’t look good, while his numbers attacking the basket and scoring around the rim look great. Synergy has his jumpers off the dribble at 28.4% and his jumpers overall at 32.1%. He ranks in the average to poor ranges for almost all things jumper related and good to excellent range for all things attacking the basket. Having him just chucking a bunch of 3-point shots isn’t something that will benefit at this time.

What we have to remember is Wiggins is a rookie still. He has a long time to advance his game and it won’t all happen at once. The process is more important than the results and I think you can see the process of his offensive game working out as the season goes along. He draws a ton of fouls now and he’s getting really good at attacking the basket. It’s something he’ll always need to have at his disposal and being comfortable attacking off the dribble is more important to learn right now than 3-point shooting.

That doesn’t mean 3-point shooting shouldn’t be on the priority list either. Flip’s history with the 3-point shot is troubling for a team in the present and a team building toward the future. What’s odd is Flip has acquired guys in his two summers as president that either are or project to be outside shooters. It’s just the offense doesn’t seem to lend itself to creating those opportunities at all. If they started running the same stuff but extending the realm of the play five feet, would it work? Does it work now? Do we even have proper context to judge anything this season?

I get back to the question of “what are you expecting?” and I’m just not even sure how to answer it for this season. It’s Year One of a rebuild and it’s also involved a year in which almost every key player has suffered a major injury that cost them a significant number of games. That leads to chaos with a pretty young team and chaos is exactly what we’ve received.

Moving forward, I know that I want Flip to either embrace the 3-point shot (and actually embrace it; don’t just give lip service) as a major part of an offensive system or to find a coach who gets it. Because Flip is acquiring guys that can or will be able to shoot in this league and Wiggins is one of them. He just needs more time to develop it (a summer with Mike Penberthy will be phenomenal for him) and he needs a system that creates those opportunities.

I don’t think it’s necessary to kill Flip now over that quote because we got to see exactly what he meant Friday night when Wiggins was absurdly good. That also means that the future of this franchise is potentially hinging on Flip adapting to the modern NBA in hopes of being a future force in this league. What am I expecting? I’m expecting Flip to continue developing the young guys now and find a way to make it matter in the future with an offense that explores the space available to hurt a defense.

Apropos of nothing, let’s end on this dirty pull-back crossover for the jumper. This kid is absurd.

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