Expectations can be tough to live up to, even when the original expectations aren’t as high as you’d want them to be. When the Timberwolves opened the 2014-15 season, the hopes of the front office were to sneak their way into a surprise playoff run. After a trade that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland was complete, the starting lineup (Pekovic/Young/Wiggins/Brewer/Rubio opened the year, as Kevin Martin sat with a groin injury) had promise for something decent, but nothing was guaranteed.
Ultimately, a slew of injuries, inexperience, and There were some fun moments this year, but it’s hard to look back on a 16-win season with much fondness. But it’s also impossible to cover a pro basketball team, even one as bad as the Wolves were this season, and not embrace the good things that happened throughout the year. It’s the same thing for fans of the Wolves.
If one simply focused on the losses, the inconsistent (mostly bad) play of Adriean Payne the second half of the year, the injuries, and the health of Nikola Pekovic, it wouldn’t be fun. That’s not why we watch sports. So, as bad as the Wolves were this year, I’m going to look at both the good and the bad, for the sake of everyone involved. Especially myself.
Injuries suck, especially when they happen to the same guy over and over. Past the impact it has on the basketball court, impact it can have on athletes after they retire is even more worrisome.
Doctors have said they’re expecting him to be able to play regularly next year (but possibly on a minutes limit), but Nikola Pekovic’s injuries are mainly what I’m talking about here. This year, he only played 31 games, and played poorly in those games, shooting a career-worst .424 from the field. He was missing “bunny” shots that any offensive-minded center could make in their sleep, and never looked totally comfortable on the floor with his teammates. A lot of this can probably be attributed to his injury. Without healthy legs/ankles, it’s impossible to be completely comfortable in the paint, especially when your means of scoring generally involve strength and physicality. Past the play itself, he’s a smart basketball player, and always keeps the locker room loose with his nonstop joke cycle. It’s always nice to have Pek in uniform, but first, that Achilles has to heal up.
Ricky Rubio’s ankle injury is far less serious, but it was still rough watching the Wolves without him for the majority of the season. When he was healthy, the team looked better, and he started showing shades of the unorthodox (for today’s game, anyway) star point guard Wolves fans are hoping for. He’ll never average 20 points per game, but he’s shown a tendency to hit big shots in big moments, and we already know about his playmaking and tenacious defense.
It’s unclear how injured the equally (okay, more) tenacious Kevin Garnett was down the stretch of the season. He only played 5 games this year, due to problems with a sore knee. Knowing Garnett’s drive to play basketball, he probably could have gutted it out if he really wanted to, but the hope is that he was simply resting his body to ensure that playing next season will happen for him. We’ll have to wait and see on his decision, but indications seem to point towards KG returning next year. For this year, though, his absence was apparent. On defense, in the 98 minutes he played, the Wolves defensive rating was a staggering 93.8. To put that into perspective, their season defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was a NBA-worst 109.6. The Warriors led the league with a 98.2 rating. Whether it was actual on-court skill or something else, KG on the court was helping.
After those three, guys were coming in and out of the lineup with different nagging injuries. Ranging from Kevin Martin, to Chase Budinger to Anthony Bennett, to Robbie Hummel, to Gorgui Dieng, all missed a fairly significant amount of time, and the combination of all these injuries led to lots of different (at-times ridiculous) lineups, and lots of losses.
Unproven and Inconsistent Rookies (We’ll get to Wiggins later)
At times, Zach LaVine looked like a legitimate scoring threat able to play both positions offensively. At other times, he looked lost and anything but a guy that should see any time at point guard. Defensively, he got killed on the pick and roll so often that it came as a surprise when a stop came before the ball entered the paint.
It’s important to mention his improved play as the season pressed on, but LaVine probably hasn’t guaranteed himself status as a long-term pro yet. He’s had moments, but moments don’t get you contracts. Production does.Even worse off than LaVine is Adreian Payne, who the Wolves acquired from Atlanta for a lottery-protected first round pick back in early February. Like LaVine, he had his moments this year, usually above the rim, but he looked even more lost most of the time.
It’s hard to figure out if he could be a good offensive player right now, because his most glaring issues are mind tricks he plays on himself. Instead of acting immediately, he often throws up a slew of pump fakes and jab steps before doing anything. This, if orchestrated correctly, is probably throwing off any chance at an open shot.
He’s as active as any power forward in the league, and has the athleticism and body you want in a rookie big, but between his questionable skillset and his self-mind trickery, there’s a long way to go for him.
The Mid-Range shots vs 3-pointers debate
I’ll start with this: while Flip Saunders clearly has some personal preferences for closer shots, it’s not like he has a lot to work with in terms of 3-point marksmen. Kevin Martin, Mo Williams and Gary Neal all shot as many threes as they ever have. When Zach LaVine came into his own, he was taking them too. If he doesn’t want Andrew Wiggins or Anthony Bennett taking a bunch of them, there might be something to it.
At the same time, it’s tough to hear things like “we don’t want that to become a main part of his game” when it comes to Wiggins and shooting threes. Flip’s point in that quote was to say that he’s already such a threat attacking the hoop that settling for threes might take away from that threat. But it’s hard for me to imagine how Wiggins as a 3-point threat wouldn’t open up his game even more.To be fair, Saunders seems to be okay with letting him shoot threes as long as he continues to attack the hoop at the same rate as he has before. He’ll let him shoot them as long as he is able to hit them at a solid enough rate.
The team concept is where it gets complicated. Teams shoot lots of 3-pointers now. It’s the NBA world we live in, and the Wolves were last in the NBA in attempted threes. Part of that, obviously, involves taking more threes. But it also involves developing more guys that can make them, or bringing in guys that will. Both, to an extent, fall onto Flip, but also the players.
The Good (with lots of videos)
2 Straight Years with a 50-point game!
The three Timberwolves with 50 point games: Kevin Love, Corey Brewer, Mo Williams. Way to keep the tradition alive, Maurice.
Kevin Garnett’s Return and Memories
It’s easy to get carried away in Kevin Garnett nostalgia, but in a season as bad as this one turned out to be, isn’t that okay? Kevin Garnett’s return came in a blowout win over the Washington Wizards. Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio both put together very good performances, and we didn’t get a huge statistical boost from Garnett, but the video at the beginning of the game is what got everybody pumped up.
I saw the Wolves get past the 1st round for the first time. I was Kevin Love’s 30/30 game. I saw Corey Brewer go for 51. Nothing quite equates to the mood that was in the arena that night. It was as unique an atmosphere as you’ll find, and I’m not sure it will be repeated.
It sounds like KG will be back next year with the Wolves. He hasn’t played a full season in a number of years, but his impact goes way beyond what he does on the court. I wrote a piece about his leadership, and the impact he’s already had on youngsters like Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. He was brought here to establish a culture, bring out the dog in Wiggins, and teach the team how to act like a professional in the NBA. So far, he’s done that. But man, that game was fun.
Promising Young Pieces
We already discussed the problems the Wolves have seen from a pair of rookies this year. Adriean Payne and Zach LaVine had their problems this year, but it’s important to remember a couple things: Zach LaVine is 20, and Adriean Payne went from 0 minutes to starters minutes virtually overnight.
And, to be fair, LaVine did turn it on the close the year. In April (keep in mind, just 8 games), he averaged 21.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. His 37 points against the Golden State Warriors took Christian Laettner out of the Timberwolves record books, making LaVine the rookie with the most points scored in a game.
In other words, there’s still time for both LaVine and Payne. And, oh yeah, that other Wolves rookie is probably going to win Rookie of the Year in the coming weeks.
Wiggins went from a timid rookie in November to dunking on anybody that got in his way by the end of the season. In between, he learned how to hit the step back (though that’s still a work in progress), how to take advantage of mismatches in the post, and how to defend well without fouling (Jimmy Butler…sigh).
Whatever passive tendencies he had when Flip Saunders first acquired him is now virtually gone. He seemed to bring his game and aggressiveness to another level after the Kevin Garnett trade. It’s possible that his development would have led him to that point at that time regardless, but KG’s influence couldn’t have hurt. Not in the video above is my favorite slam of Wiggins’ young career, which took place the second to last game of the year.
Another guy that could have taught Wiggins how to play with a nonstop motor is Shabazz Muhammad. Bazz missed the end of the season with an abdomen tear, but he was showing signs of a breakout season before the injury stopped him from really blowing up.
A year before, Muhammad was really only useful in the post. His weight stunted his athleticism and forced him to play a bit more below the rim than he would have liked to. A year later, he came into media day much slimmer, and with much more confidence than he did his rookie year.
When he hit the floor, you could see the difference. He was lighter, but hadn’t lost any strength. He was still a beast on the offensive glass, but now had a burst to the hoop that made him a legitimate threat. He wouldn’t have won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, but a healthy Shabazz Muhammad would have gotten a vote or two. He’s on his way to something fun, it’s just unclear how much fun we’re talking.
Adding Ricky Rubio to the mix, it’s safe to say the Wolves have, to some extent have their backcourt of the future formulating before our eyes. Rubio/Wiggins/Muhammad played next to no minutes together, which is both disappointing and extremely exciting.
The idea of Wiggins abusing shooting guards on the block, while Muhammad abuses everybody going for rebounds, all while Rubio sets both of them up, is a fun concept. It’s unclear how Flip Saunders will use his rotations, especially when factoring in LaVine and Kevin Martin to the mix, but that’s an issue that doesn’t need to be addressed for a number of months.
There’s still a lot to do, including the draft, but that’s another topic for another day. For now, Wolves fans can embrace the fact that there are pieces here that are good, and will be here a while. Amidst all the bad times this year, cheesy as it may sound, there is undoubtedly a nice young core building in Minnesota. They have a long way to go, but things can, and should, only get better from here.