LaVine to start? Exploring the fallout from Sam Mitchell’s Sirius XM interview

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 3: Zach LaVine #8 of the Minnesota Timberwolves handles the ball against the Orlando Magic on April 3, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – APRIL 3: Zach LaVine #8 of the Minnesota Timberwolves handles the ball against the Orlando Magic on April 3, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

At last week’s media day, Kevin Martin had an interesting response when he was asked whether a “compelling case could be made for him to be used as a sixth man instead of a starter.” He said:

A compelling case can’t be made. I know where I stand among shooting guards in this league… I’m the starting shooting guard.”

The black and white text doesn’t do the answer justice; Martin almost shrugged off the question, as if the idea that he should come off the bench on a lottery-bound team was absurd. He even seemed a bit irritated. A few days later, in a post-practice media scrum, he gave a very diplomatic answer to a follow-up question about it:

“We’re just in here working hard, trying to get things together to have a better season than last year and we’ll go from there.”

That was somehow framed as Martin softening his stance, but I, for one, question that interpretation. Listen for yourself – here’s the audio (fast forward to the 2:00 mark):

Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon, when Justin Termine of NBA Today on Sirius XM radio tweeted the following:

Later, a brief portion of the audio became available (the rest will air Wednesday evening at 6 PM on Sirius XM channel 207):

This raises a few questions:

  1. Why make this decision? Kevin Martin is a better player than Zach LaVine. Period. Martin can provide more in the way of floor-spacing, playing him next to Wiggins and Rubio would help hide his defensive problems, and he’s a great safety valve to have on the court when initial actions don’t work and you need to generate a shot with under five seconds to go on the shot clock.
  2. Why make this decision NOW? Why not make LaVine earn his way into the starting lineup by playing well in a reserve role to start the season? Put the offensive side of the ball away for a minute: Martin is not a good defender, but LaVine was a DISASTER last season. All caps. DISASTER. Why not make him show that he’s improved on that end before promoting him to a starting spot over a 12-year veteran? The reviews of Zach from camp have been overwhelmingly positive, which is great, but why rush things? It’s not like LaVine needs a vote of confidence – the dude positively drips with swagger. The Wolves can be committed to LaVine’s development without naming him a starter and potentially pissing off one of their best players in the process.
  3. Does all of this mean Kevin Martin would like to be traded? He holds a player option for next season (at $7.37 million), meaning he could become a free agent this summer. The Wolves figure to be bad again, and Martin could help a contending team in a reserve role with his bench scoring – something he’d probably be much more willing to do than sitting behind an inferior player on a lottery team. So it makes sense that the Wolves would explore the trade market to see what they could get for Martin…
  4. … But, again, why now? His value isn’t nearly as great as it would be approaching the trade deadline. By then, the contenders have separated themselves from also-rans and tanking developmental teams. Almost all of the contenders will be dealing with an injury to someone in their rotation, and adding a veteran scorer who has hit 39% of his career three-point attempts would be an appealing thought. Plus, his $7.1 million salary wouldn’t be all that tough to fit in; even teams that are over the cap could pull that off with a little bit of creativity. But instead, it seems Sam Mitchell has created a somewhat awkward situation, and potentially forced the organization’s own hand when they didn’t really need to.

I’m sure everyone will address the situation before Wednesday night’s preseason opener at the Target Center, and I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone, Martin included, downplays the news. But it’s certainly a situation to monitor closely in the days and weeks ahead.

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13 Responsesso far.

  1. Refuge says:

    If Lavine is outplaying Martin in camp he deserves the spot. Simple as that. If Martin is that much better then he shouldn’t get beat out, but right now the word is Lavine is looking like the best guy in camp on the whole team. If Lavine is playing better why not play him with Ricky/Wiggins/Towns to build continuity for the years to come? Why wait just to keep a 32 year old on possibly the last year of his deal happy? I get the development angle, but it’s not really that far fetched that a guy who finished last year averaging 21/6.6/5.8 in April and is an other worldly athlete could conceivably have made the jump to being a better player than Martin. It doesn’t get any harder than playing out of position your rookie year with limited talent around you so how is starting at SG this year with better players around him going to affect his development in a negative way? What kind of message do you send the players if the best guy in camp doesn’t get the starting nod because you have to keep a vet happy on a 16 win team? I highly doubt if Lavine showed up to camp and was playing significantly worse than Martin that Sam was going to give him the job anyway so Lavine must be doing really well to already have that decision be made. I don’t get why Zach needs the kid gloves while Wiggins and Towns are expected to bare-knuckle brawl right away.

    • gjk says:

      Here’s why I’m skeptical: he was one of the worst players in the league last season by statistical measures and was considered the rawest prospect in the entire first round of his draft. This was a long-term process where he was supposed to sit and watch while working on his game in practice and the offseason, and everything he’s shown on the court indicates he should be doing that instead of playing major minutes. They’ve been practicing for a week and emphasizing defense; who cares if he’s been better than Martin in that amount of time? Martin deserves the benefit of the doubt because he’s proven he can not only play in a rotation, but start. LaVine has proven neither; scoring points during a 12-game losing streak mostly means they needed somebody to shoot. Second, development means giving young players a pathway to earn their time and then not micromanaging their mistakes if they’re doing more good than harm. Towns and Wiggins have earned their time because they’re better than the other options. Muhammad and Dieng earned their time last season. LaVine hasn’t even earned a spot in the rotation.

      • Refuge says:

        You lost me at Towns “earning” his spot before even playing a real NBA game yet. He got his spot because you don’t bring the number 1 pick off the bench coming off a 16 win season. I would argue Lavine improved from being the statistically the worst player in the league because he was actually playing a lot and not watching. Again I ask why is Lavine the odd one out when it comes to being thrown in the fire? He has just as much talent as Wiggins and Towns and needs to learn just like they do how to utilize that talent to be a good NBA player. He already played a ton last year so how is it moving forward if you send him back to the bench and cut his minutes in half? I just don’t see how a backtrack at this point in his career is a better option than letting him play in his natural position with better guys around him. The later option seems like proper career progression where the former option is no guarantee to “right the ship” with his career.

        • gjk says:

          At no level of basketball does a person earn their spots with in-game performance. They can lose their spots through lack of performance, but playing time is earned based on whether they’re better than their teammates in practice. Being picked #1 is no guarantee of a starting spot; ask Anthony Bennett.

          GTFOH with putting him at the same level as Wiggins and Towns. Those 2 are potential franchise cornerstones; he’s “hopefully a cross between Jamal Crawford and Gerald Green,” 2 guys who took years to become serviceable bench players on playoff teams. He’s clearly the odd one out because Towns and Wiggins are showing and have shown that they add more to the team than they take away when they’re on the floor. I don’t get how you can’t see the difference between 2 guys who were clearly great college players and top-5 prospects and a guy who didn’t even start for his college team and was considered the rawest prospect in the 2014 draft. It’s not even clear he’s more effective than Tayshaun Prince would be in his role. That’s not even mentioning that they have another former 1st-round pick, Bazz (taken with the 14th pick while LaVine was 13th), who proved that he can play in a rotation while showing complementary skills with Wiggins. Why prioritize LaVine over Bazz?

          Also, this idea that players improve through playing in games is a myth that you should’ve learned by watching Randy Foye, Rashad McCants, Corey Brewer, Wes Johnson, and Derrick Williams flail around for multiple seasons. Those guys kept getting playing time; did it help? 3 of those guys carved out a niche because they were playing fewer minutes and weren’t getting exposed. All of them played on bad teams, and most of them showed more in their rookie seasons than LaVine did.

          Him playing fewer minutes isn’t a “career backtrack.” He got those minutes because they literally either had no other options or were obviously trying to lose. I’ve never gotten why athletes are treated like these fragile characters whose careers will be seriously derailed when things don’t go their way. And when it comes to figuring out the best path to their development, “making a guy develop his skills and BBIQ so that he becomes a functional player” is much higher on the list than “giving him more and more to do even if he hasn’t proven he can handle it.

  2. gjk says:

    Absolutely correct. This Zach LaVine Scholarship Program is annoying when considering what Muhammad has had to do to earn time, particularly since everyone wondering about Martin coming off the bench would start Bazz in that hypothetical. It’s just annoying, in general, since I don’t know how it’s possible he’s outplayed Martin by so much in camp that they’re making this call.

    • farnorth says:

      Seems like the kind of mistake a rookie coach would make when he doesn’t know how to handle the spotlight and wants to come off as “having it all under control”. I am not saying LaVine should not start. I am saying there is no reason to make a decision before the first preseason game is even played.

      I know Sam is not a rookie, he did well in Toronto before his team mutinied because of his tactics (something that still worries me). But maybe he has been too far removed from the head job to know when to hold his cards a bit tighter to the vest.

      • gjk says:

        Right. They’ve been on the court for 8 days and their first regular-season game is 4 weeks away. He could just frame it as trying out different lineup combos, particularly because Rubio won’t play tonight. Speaking of that, starting Tyus also irritates me because I can just imagine the homers (especially at TC as opposed to one of their neutral-site games) exaggerating a good preseason performance from either of those guys.

  3. DimeZin says:

    Hate the fact that Rubio is still not 100%. After sitting out many games last season and resting the whole summer. Because when fully healthy I think twolves can make the playoffs. Can we say he is brittle.

  4. pyrrol says:

    While it may be premature, isn’t Martin a prototypical ‘first guy off the bench’ at this point in his career? Many things probably went into this decision: The fact that we are rebuilding and trying to get our future guys minutes now, the fact that by all reports LaVine has been one of the most impressive players at camp, the fact that Martin will never be a good defender, and LaVine has the athletic ability to potentially be, the fact that Martin is getting up there, and if we feel his contribution is important it might be wise to have him play a bench amount of minutes rather than get injured as a starter, and perhaps Sam thought Martin would fit in and raise the bench unit more than he’d do the same for the starting unit, and lastly, LaVine is now at his natural position. I’m no LaVine fanatic, but I have to admit that throwing an inexperienced rookie into a starting point guard position when he’s a shooting guard is going to make anyone look foolish. Also, going forward, Sam is free to change his mind. At this point he seems to be going with LaVine as a starter, but he can easily play his way out of that role. I’m not one to jump on this decision with outrage until I actually see the team this year play.

    • dmeven says:

      Well said – I couldn’t agree more with these thoughts. To add – LaVine will be a great player in the NBA and has shown signs that he can light it up. He is so RAW that he just needs more minutes (in his natural position), experience and practice.

    • DimeZin says:

      Hate the fact that Rubio is still not 100%. After sitting out many games last season and resting the whole summer. Because when fully healthy I think twolves can make the playoffs. Can we say he is brittle.

    • Voice of Reason says:

      Pyrrol is exactly right. Mr. Bohl’s concerns and criticism are more than a bit panicky. The analysis isn’t what’s good for Martin, who Bohls has an admitted soft spot for. The coach is looking at what’s best for the TEAM, and long term (i) Martin isn’t this championship team’s two guard and (ii) Lavine may well be. Moreover, there’s little to beef about giving the soph a shot; he’ll either sink or swim, and Mitchell made clear the lineup slot is written in pencil, and a switch made before the team blows up. Maybe even before Bohl’s head explodes. Ativan may help him.

      • farnorth says:

        I do not think telling the media who the starting 2 guard is going to be before you sit down with your players has anyone’s best interest in mind. It was flat out stupid. LaVine may well be the future 2 guard I hope he is. But you also have to know how to handle veterans and show them the respect they deserve. This was a simple matter of handling the situation with a lot more maturity and poise. Which Mitchell showed little of either.

        “we have a lot of good competition at the 2 guard I am going to see how Zach handles it” “No decision has been made yet” Meanwhile you’re letting Martin know that you’re going to play LaVine in the starting roll and let what happens happen. Fortunately Martin is a pro and he is saying all the right things.

        See coach Zimmer and any decision he has made regarding starters and you’ll get a better understanding how a mature coach handles things.

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