Heat 96, Wolves 84: The Trial Phase


Coming into this season, expectations weren’t high for the Wolves in terms of wins. Even after a pair of wins on the road to open the season, few expected anything more than a win total somewhere in the 20s this season. And as the Wolves start coming down to earth, the fall is going to be rocky here and there.

Tonight’s game against Miami was the first example this season.

It was an ugly game for Minnesota by just about every measure. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, who got plenty of looks, did not play well tonight, shooting a combined 8-31 from the floor, Wiggins only getting to the line once (and Towns not at all). Wiggins, while more aggressive tonight, is still missing shots, and would probably benefit from taking more shots near the rim. Towns looked overmatched against a rising interior protector in Hasaan Whiteside.

But as usual – especially tonight, the loss was very much a collective effort.

Zach LaVine, while never letting the game slip away from the Wolves (he had a team-best -4 on the night for players who got over 20 minutes), continued to show his ineffectiveness running the point. Nemanja Bjelica had his second straight rough night, eventually getting pulled for Adreian Payne. The list goes on.

On the other end, Dwyane Wade had spurts of greatness, and is looking much stronger and healthier than he did a year ago. Chris Bosh had a double double, and Hassan Whiteside did a great job making the paint unscorable for the Wolves. Also, Goran Dragic reminded me why he’s one of my favorite players.


While most acknowledge individual (lack of) performance as the main issue, complaints of certain minute allocations from coach Sam Mitchell have become a strong topic of conversation as of late. Ricky Rubio only played 22 minutes tonight (for this one, Mitchell simply said “I’m not gonna leave my starting point guard out there when we’re down 19 points”). Same number for Towns. And same for Shabazz Muhammad, who was Minnesota’s most efficient scorer on the night. Andre Miller, while finally seeing the floor in garbage time, continues to sit in key minutes.

Of course, it’s fair to examine and question what Mitchell is doing. Questioning moves, subs and rotations should and will be examined. As well as Muhammad did tonight, he rarely scored points on passes in a halfcourt set. A big part of that has to do with those rotations, mainly being partnered in the backcourt with scorers LaVine and Martin. One might think that having a guy like Andre Miller in the backcourt could help things. Or maybe it wouldn’t. That’s what trial and error is about.

But take a deep breath. We’re 4 games in, and this is still the trial phase.

Sure, maybe the “Zach LaVine: point guard” experiment is past the trial phase, especially after messing with it (out of necessity) last year. And seeing a facilitator like Miller out there to give Shabazz more looks, and get Martin and LaVine good shots is appealing. Very appealing. But if you want Andre Miller in the game, whose minutes do you cut? Keep in mind all the guys that played fewer minutes than preferred, even with the rotations as they are.

Do you take Tayshaun Prince from the rotation, even though the Wolves’ starting 5 has been, by far, the best unit on the floor early this season? Do you cut minutes from Kevin Martin, the team’s one consistent three-point threat? Do you cut LaVine’s minutes, despite the “development over win-now” mentality?

As many questions as many of us have for what Sam Mitchell is doing, it’s all too likely that these rotations will mold into something more concrete as the season goes on. Odds are it’ll lend itself to what the fans are thinking. But this early in the season, with this young a roster, some experimentation with different groups isn’t entirely a bad thing. Are some of the lineups going to look awful? Of course. But odds are few would have guessed, before the season started, that a lineup involving Tayshaun Prince was going to be the team’s steadiest right away.

There’s no easy answer or quick fix to this, and no matter what adjustments Mitchell makes, the end result isn’t guaranteed to bring great results. For now, the mixing and matching is going to be frustrating, and maybe could use some altering, but it also isn’t terribly surprising.

And what happened tonight wasn’t all that surprising either. The Wolves played poorly, and lost to a good team that played well. Go-to guys like Towns and Wiggins need to play better in the minutes they’re given to set the tone for those bench guys, who have also struggled to find an identity. The hope is unquestionably strong in Minnesota, and while the short-term struggles are going to be hard to swallow, especially when coaching decisions aren’t always unanimously approved by the fanbase. But the talent pool is there. This is where they learn.

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7 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    I’m not too worried about some of the things that looked bad tonight–yet. Bjelica will figure it out and find a way to get some confidence. We saw all the great stuff Wiggins can do last year. He seems to be struggling with confidence started by having to play with a back issue. I really think it is all about getting a few breaks and getting confidence back. He will need to keep working on his shooting, particularly because we use him at the 2 so much. I actually thought Towns played OK against a hot rising talent in Whiteside. I mean, his shots just didn’t go it, but most of those normally do. He had a smart plan in that he tried to take Whiteside out of his comfort zone by shooting from different areas. Eventually, Towns will be able to go toe to toe with Whiteside near the basket (just look at his blocks on him tonight) but perhaps the way Towns approached it tonight was perfect for the situation. Towns just missed shots that usually go in, and frankly so did many of our guys. An alarming potential cause of this is stagnant offense even when Rubio was on the floor. Better action needs to be run. We looked like our feet were in concrete tonight, and that’s not acceptable for such a young team. These things will get better–we’re still on track to surprise, potentially.

    On the other hand, I’m getting a little worried about Sam’s decision making. Maybe it’s just fatigue from years of these ‘Wolvesy’ kind of problems. With the talent we now have, and history we’ve had to deal with I’m out of patience for slow adjustments and black hole ‘development’ minutes. Sam has a healthy Rubio and a better out of the gate than expected Towns, but I have to give him credit for improved defense and grit so far. On the other hand, the LaVine at point thing is getting really tiresome for the fans, and one senses, the players. Who to take minutes from? Start with LaVine himself. Imagine if we gave just some of his more key point minutes to Miller… Another option is greatly reducing Prince’s minutes. In today’s NBA, you just can’t start (even if it is for limited minutes) two guys scoring like 2 points a game each. Prince has been good at D, but so horrid at offense—several times his inability to finish or hit a shot has killed momentum for the team. I think between the two, we should keep Garnett in as ‘old man starter who helps on D a lot but can’t score’. He’s the hometown hero and helps teach D communication so well. But Prince needs to come out of the starting lineup and have his minutes cut. This season we’ll see a reduced point guard role for LaVine and Prince removed as a starter. Why not start early and keep confidence up?

    One last observation–we don’t look as athletic as we are and we have a person at every position who can get out and run. We should be doing well in transition and getting more dunks alley-oops and easy points. We have to work so hard for our points. I’m not sure why we can’t get this ‘youth’ aspect of our game going, what the factors are, but we need to get out and run. It is a way to keep pressure on the other team and run up momentum for the young guys as well as excite the crowd. We can be a competitive fun to watch team all season if we put our minds to it.

    • gjk says:

      They’re 11th in the league in fast break points (Warriors/Wiz/Cavs far ahead of the rest), give up the 9th-highest % of offensive rebounds, and force the 17th-most turnovers. So it’s not that bad, but they’re held back by not securing more misses. Forcing turnovers isn’t as big a deal to me because they’ve been much better near the rim and contesting 3s.

  2. gjk says:

    Tough to get worked up about that one unless you have unrealistic expectations for this team. Most teams aren’t going to win on their home court shooting under 30% for most of the game against a likely playoff team unless they’re a 45-plus win team.

    I mostly just feel bad for the bench guys. It’s obvious Dieng needs more help inside than Bjelica, but that’s who he always plays with. It’s obvious Muhammad would benefit from having Rubio on the court to help generate turnovers and feed him in transition, but that’s not happening. It’s obvious Martin would benefit from not being the primary offensive option so he could get more spot-up 3s, but that’s happening in limited spurts.

    They hockey substitutions are annoying, but we should just consider Martin and Bjelica starters. This isn’t like 2 seasons ago when they trotted out JJ-Bud-Luc-Cunningham-Turiaf second units. Martin is within 7 minutes of being the leader in minutes played, and Bjelica has 22 more minutes than the 6th-highest guy in minutes played (Dieng). KG is playing the fewest minutes of anyone who has played all 4 games, and Prince is 7/10 on that list. In that frame of reference, 2 of their best 5 players are always on the court.

    The bigger question is whether Bjelica should be getting that many minutes or if they should be sprinkling Dieng in more with Towns. Bjelica needs to be more aggressive when the ball comes to him and not just move it along; he’s their only playmaker when Rubio and Towns are out. It’s also arguable that Muhammad should get more of Martin’s minutes, but I get why they’d want to play the guy who leads them in scoring per 36 minutes.

    • pyrrol says:

      Good thoughts. It does matter who starts even if they play few minutes, like Prince and Garnett. I think if you started Muhammad, then he could play with Rubio a lot. As it is, Martin is the overlap guy off the bench with Muhammad only playing with LaVine at point, and I too feel bad about that. Prince burns minutes with the first team that someone else could benefit from and he might actually look a bit better against teams’ second units. A lot of these problems would look better, too, if LaVine didn’t play all the back up point minutes. A lot of those second unit guys have to feel frustrated about that at times. I do think Bjelica will figure it out and has the tools the justify his minutes–just a matter of time thing. Dieng has expanded his shooting range, but he’s too clunky to really be a PF, so I think you see the minutes the way they are because Deing is backup center, and really only fits that role at the moment. But as you mention, Deing could see some minutes with Towns, because Towns can play C or PF and between the two of them they’d have the floor covered on both ends. Not sure how that would work with rotations, though.

      • gjk says:

        Yeah, it gets tricky with Martin because it’s seemingly a pecking-order issue of “If you’re not gonna start me, I at least need to be the first wing off the bench.” The team is being too rigid with the Prince and Miller situation. If they really are playing LaVine at PG to save he and Wiggins from being undersized, that doesn’t really apply to every situation. Every team they’ve played so far has employed at least 1 SG who is 6’4 or shorter (though Miami’s is Wade, which is notable because of his strength); also, teams aren’t going to be afraid to stick the taller player on Wiggins and have their worst perimeter defender guard Prince. Why not just play either Miller or Prince depending on the opponent’s size on the wing and then start Martin when Miller plays? As for Dieng, he looks awkward everywhere on the court. He’s much more comfortable guarding a perimeter-oriented big than a post-oriented one and has one of the highest steal percentages for a center in the league. They got good minutes out of him last season when he played next to Pek, and he showed he could feed the post from the free-throw line and make jumpers. His defensive flaws mostly stand out when he’s asked to play the center role because he gets pushed around easily and doesn’t protect the rim well.

  3. skune says:

    pyrrol pretty much encapsulated all my thoughts from tonight. It doesn’t bother me that we lost to a good team like the Heat or that some of our young guys struggled to hit their shots, but there are plenty of glaring philosophical errors of lineups, rotations, and development that did bother me.

    I’m pretty done with the “Zach LaVine: Point Guard” experiment, too. He has the tools to make it work, but this is the NBA: the pros. No organization (except maybe the 76ers) has the patience to put up with years of poor decision-making for the outside chance this guy figures it out. Heck, even the 76ers cut bait on MCW when they felt that they understood his ceiling. Better to try an let Zach thrive in a more limited role as an off-guard.

    Prince in the starting lineup still flummoxes me. He’s smart and experienced, but he doesn’t have the physical tools to be a lockdown defender nor has he demonstrated the ability to space the floor on offense (he’s taken only 9 shots and only made 2 of them over the course of four games). It also betrays Flip’s GM philosophy of trying to A) develop young guys and 2) surround Rubio with guys that can get out and run and finish at the rim.

    I think its time to stop being cute and insert KMart or Shabazz into the starting lineup with Andre or Tyus running the 2nd unit.

    Last thing is ball-movement. The Wolves had the highest Asst% in the league after their first two games so it surprised me that tonight they went away from everything that was going well on O. The ball seemed to stall a lot on offense and I didn’t see a lot of effort to push the ball in transition. Hopefully they can go out and improve on that after watching the tape today.

  4. iga777 says:

    “Do you cut LaVine’s minutes, despite the “development over win-now” mentality?”
    Actually, I would. Zach shouldn’t be on a court right now to be honest. At this moment he’s just horrible at all things. He can’t run the offense, he’s weak defender, he’s afraid of contact when attacks the rim, and he doesn’t score. So what’s the point of keeping him on the court, especially with this amount of minutes? He should watch from the bench ale learn from there more, because when he’s on court with K-Mart, Bazz and Dieng NO ONE is learning and they’re doing wrong things instead of developing.

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