Pacers 107, Timberwolves 103: Hypnic jerk

Hypnic jerk is something I’d assume we’ve all experienced. It’s that involuntary muscle twitch you experience as you’re falling asleep. Unless you’re a zombie, it will jolt you back to a higher stage of consciousness. For some people, it makes you feel like you’re falling and maybe even coincides with a pseudo-dream you’re having, which really makes the entire experience even more harrowing.

For the Minnesota Timberwolves heading into last night’s game, it was their fourth game in five nights. The NBA has tried to eliminate those moments in a team’s schedule as much as possible, and I think it’s good that if you’re going to have to get through those stretches then get to them early in the season. In the first three games of that stretch, the Wolves were taxed.

I loved what they learned about themselves in that 34-point lead that evaporated in Atlanta. They ended up taxing themselves more than you’d like, but it was a great teaching moment. Then they turned around short-handed the next night and couldn’t keep up with Charlotte. Then they had to try to keep up with the Warriors and instead of lying down when it was a blowout, they fought back and made it a decent showing. But that took energy too, especially with that taxing moment happening in the second half.

For much of the second and third quarters in Indianapolis, they were sleepwalking. Great fight in the first quarter and great fight in the comeback in the fourth quarter, but they were sleepwalking in those middle quarters, which was to be expected on a fourth in five. It’s not ideal, but that’s just the grind of the NBA season and the Wolves didn’t seem prepared to manage that in a balanced way. At a certain point, they jolted themselves back into consciousness and made a game of it, but they were asleep for a significant portion of the game. No team can do that, especially not a young team.

You already know what happened though, so I’ll spin it forward with the three biggest things on my mind with this team:

Ricky Rubio sitting out is just fine with me

There’s been some griping about Ricky Rubio missing games as of late. “He’s injury prone” seems to be the sentiment regarding Rubio right now. After his bad ankle injury last season that was far worse than was ever let on to be, it held him out of having a normal offseason. Because of that, it’s tricky to have him get back into the swing of things. His body is susceptible to nagging injuries popping up because there is a gigantic effort in re-familiarizing your body to the shock of the physical toll it takes fighting through screens, taking charges, and absorbing contact on a nightly basis.

Furthermore, Arnie Kander is in charge of all of this. He’s brilliant when it comes to treating and preventing big injuries. It’s a lot like what the vaunted Phoenix Suns Warlord training staff was able to do for Steve Nash over the years. He’d miss a few games here and there to rest his back or whatever ailments he had because the training staff knew he needed it to recover and avoid a bigger injury. I can’t help but trust that if Rubio is night trying to force his way into playing for a couple games right now, it’s because Kander is making sure that Rubio isn’t missing 25 games later on in the season.

It’s very possible I’m wrong or naive on that, but with such an emphasis on being smarter about injuries, I applaud the Wolves for being proactive and not reactive. Sure, we’re excited about the current incarnation of the Wolves and want to see it at full strength as much as possible to know what’s real and what isn’t. But if that comes at the price of Rubio or any crucial player missing a big chunk of the season later, how is that worth it? There’s obviously a balance but I trust Kander to find that balance like he did for 20-plus years in Detroit.

The Zach LaVine freakout

This probably deserves its own post, even though I’m certain the majority of people having this discussion have made up their mind early without the proper amount of time to actually analyze it. But let’s pretend changing the future is still possible here. This craziness over playing Zach LaVine at point guard probably needs to lessen quite a bit. I’ll share two thoughts on this entire ordeal:

1. LaVine playing point guard doesn’t help him: I just flat-out don’t agree with this in any way. One of my favorite things to do was to shoot around with one of those heavily weighted basketballs. They come in varying weights but a standard one is three pounds, as opposed to an NBA basketball, which is only about 22 ounces. By shooting around with a weighted ball, it made shooting anything from layups to jumpers pretty damn hard. Then when you’d practice with that for 15-20 minutes and switch to a real basketball, you felt like you could shoot full court jumpers. It made NBA 3-point range feel like a free throw.

To me, this is what we’re doing with Zach and his minutes at the point guard. I was fine with him being thrust into it last year because the Wolves didn’t have a choice due to injuries. And I’m fine with him doing it with the second unit FOR NOW. I think LaVine has the potential to be a very good impact player off the bench for a decade. Maybe he’s a future starter? I’m not sure. But unlocking his potential with his scoring ability and ability to attack is something I’m in favor of doing. I think him playing point guard weighs him down.

There’s the weight of the decision-making. There’s the weight of finding the balance between your attack and the team’s attack He shows flashes but mostly he shows struggles, and that frustrates fans. Surprisingly, it’s caused a lot of fans that interact with me on Twitter to write him off, which I don’t understand. I see this as development. He’s learning skills/situations (and you don’t have to show improvement game-to-game to have the learning process happen) that will help immensely when he’s moved to the more natural shooting guard position. You NEED multiple players who can attack off the dribble, get into the middle of the floor, and make plays.

It’s the top way to attack defenses that run you off the 3-point line. If the Wolves ever have a coach that values the 3-point shot, this will make Zach really difficult to guard. Playing down a position helps develop skills that make dominating the position up easier to do. Michael Jordan played lead guard. Dwyane Wade played point guard. Victor Oladipo played point guard. Kevin Durant played shooting guard. Andrew Wiggins is playing shooting guard. There are varying degrees of good to historic players on here, but they all benefited from having to do more at a less natural position.

It’s not a foolproof plan by any means and it’s important to balance the mental bashing a player could endure during the struggles of the process. It’s also a big part of the reason I think he seems to instantly excel when he moves to the off-guard. So what’s wrong with doing this for his second season as much as possible? It doesn’t have to be a long-term deal.

Perhaps, you’re wondering: “But doesn’t it hurt the development of the other guys? It’s not worth sacrificing everybody’s development just for him.” I’m glad I made up that line of questioning for you just now because it brings me to my next point.

2. Zach LaVine isn’t hurting the development of the other young guys by playing point guard.

Thanks to, I’m able to look things like this up (going by points per possession, FG percentage and True Shooting percentage):

Wiggins with LaVine and no Rubio or Andre Miller playing: 1.10 PPP, 50% FG, 56.6% TS
Wiggins without LaVine on the court but with Rubio: 0.96 PPP, 37.8% FG, 47.1% TS

Towns with LaVine and no Rubio or Andre Miller playing: 0.98 PPP, 46.2% FG, 51.7% TS
Towns without LaVine on the court but with Rubio: 1.14 PPP, 49.3% FG, 56.1% TS

Muhammad with LaVine and no Rubio or Andre Miller playing: 1.18 PPP, 50% FG, 58.4% TS
Muhammad without LaVine on the court but with Rubio: 0.90 PPP, 42.9% FG, 50% TS

Dieng with LaVine and no Rubio or Andre Miller playing: 0.97 PPP, 48.3% FG, 51.6% TS
Dieng without LaVine on the court but with Rubio: 0.73 PPP, 50% FG, 50% TS

Granted, these aren’t the end all, be all measurements to know what is and isn’t working, but they’re pretty decent enough to illustrate the point. Towns is the only one who takes a dip, and I’m not entirely concerned with Towns’ development. THAT seems foolproof to me.

We don’t need to pretend he’s hurting their production. There are a couple more lineups that do poorly with him at the point than do well, but I don’t think it hurts development of others. It’s all for the greater good.


Don’t worry. This will be quick and also deserves its own post. The Wolves did it last year and they’re doing it this year and it’s driving me crazy. Everybody goes under the screen defending a pick-and-roll. Errbody does it. It’s a schematic thing that I can’t seem to get someone to explain to me how it’s a better way of defending in this era of basketball. The idea behind it is to protect the basket, and it was very important to do when defensive rules made it tough to help off the ball and 3-point shooting was viewed as a gimmick.

Now? Going under the pick against Steph Curry or Paul George or James Harden or any halfway decent shooter is death, especially when you’re not shooting 3’s on the other end of the floor. The Wolves are fine defending the pick-and-roll big man, ranking 16th in the NBA, according to Synergy.

They’ve dropped to 26th in points per possession defending the pick-and-roll ball handler. They’re 23rd in field goal percentage against by that ball handler. They’re 22nd in effective field goal percentage against by the ball handler. Only the Pistons have a higher percentage of possessions against their defense happen with a pick-and-roll initiator. The Wolves are tied for 28th with Phoenix. This strategy has to go because that surprising defensive rating at the beginning of the season is starting to fall.

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. gjk says:

    Just a question about that strategy and those numbers: doesn’t it seem counterintuitive that they’re giving up such a high eFG% by going under the screens? Most times, that would mean being burned by a guy hitting a pull-up, unassisted 3, but the tracking stats indicate they’re not getting burned by that type of shot: the only games where the opponent had more than 25% of their 3s be unassisted were Denver (when one was hit by Mudiay, the type of guy one would want to go under the screen for) and Miami (when one of those makes was Wade’s halfcourt heave). I mostly ask because it’s baffling that they both go under the screen and seem to get burned closer to the hoop when they do, but maybe that’s a misinterpretation of the numbers.

    • Zach Harper says:

      No, it’s a good question. Lot of teams are taking those uncontested or lightly contested pull-up jumpers. Not every team runs those pick-and-roll plays so high up in the half court, so it doesn’t necessarily lead to a ton of 3’s.

      At the same time, the big man is essentially getting tangled up with the guard fighting through the screen, except for when it’s KG. Towns is getting better about it (although Ricky isn’t great at getting through screens even still), but Bjelica and Dieng are more getting in the way of recovery than cutting off any dribble space. It seems to basically cause a bunch of confusion in the defense of that PnR, rather than cutting off initial attack, forcing a pass, and recovering with rotations.

  2. pyrrol says:

    Spare us the LaVine at point lecture. Funny how you had to spend over half the write up on it to make it at all convincing, yet it gives zero explanation for the complete lack of effort to play him at the 2. It also glazes over the obvious problems that crop up when he’s running the offense (turnovers, suddenly tiny playbook, lack of communication on offense, lack of movement on offense, questionable shot selection, below average passing) using elementary analytics to try to show that he’s not that bad for people out there. He is–the whole offense is changed and dumbed down. The amount of minutes LaVine is out at point with certain guys has to have a negative influence on them at times. This includes development.

    I’m not trying to be a jerk. I get it, some people are getting sick of the constant LaVine at point griping by fans. But those complaints are not coming from nowhere. They are rooted in reality and brought up by some of the wisest fans. For me, given our roster at the moment, I see a situation in which LaVine will have to play point guard at times (particularly with Rubio out). But he’s not good at it. He’s improved a lot as a player since the beginning of last season, yet little of that improvement has been point guard skills. That’s notable. I just don’t think it’s in his DNA. He’s more of a combo guard and the few moments he’s played off-ball he’s looked better. Miller getting minutes has given our team an infusion of calmness within the second unit. Perhaps this will result in a rotation that includes him when Rubio comes back. I think the most baffling aspect of this is the complete reluctance to give even limited minutes to Zach off the ball to at least try out what he can do at shooting guard. The idea that Zach learns how to play both guard positions better by being forced into the one that comes less naturally for him is strange and showing signs of being bad theory. On a related note, I’m not sure Wiggins as shooting guard is a net gain for him and Zach as far as roles and matchups go.

    All this is not to focus on the bad. The Wolves have been competing way more this season and are fun to watch. Rubio will be back soon. As passionate fans, we just want our team to do as well as possible, using all useful options to do so. Playing LaVine at the 2 at times is one of these useful options. We’re in it to win games this season.

    This is an interesting take on the issue that aligns more with my perspective than the defense above, although I am more willing to admit that in some situations, given circumstances, we will have to play LaVine at point:

    • Zach Harper says:

      Spare you the lecture but you’re cool to lecture me? Got it.

      I read the CH article and while it was well-written, I didn’t find it to be all that accurate in terms of the overall point being made. Just a difference on player development theory, but I feel confident in mine based on the people I’ve talked to. As for “zero explanation for the complete lack of effort to play him at the 2” comment:

      You can’t play him at the 2 if you’re playing him at the 1 already. It’s a weird basketball theory but they typically just let you play one position at the time and that’s why you have four other teammates.

      I’m assuming this type of “rant” stems from two things: 1) You’re sick of the Wolves being a non-playoff team and 2) you think there’s a chance they can be a playoff team this season. This season still is about player development and it should be. They shouldn’t be confused with Byron Scott and the Lakers and chase meaningless wins now at the risk of slowing the development process. If you do things properly, you can storm through the second half of the season much like the Jazz did last year and set yourself up for next season. Plus, having a top 10 pick adds one more big piece to the puzzle.

      This is still about building a great team, isn’t it?

  3. pyrrol says:

    It’s not a rant anymore than your than your piece was. I say ‘lecture’ because your tone came off as someone who’s sick of hearing about the debate from fans. Well, it’s not fans’ fault, in my mind. They will keep calling it out until it makes sense to them. And we’re lucky to have such smart and passionate Wolves fans.

    As discussed in the article I linked, player development shouldn’t mean ‘play guys who aren’t earning minutes and don’t try to win games’ which at its worst is what playing LaVine exclusively at point means. Also discussed in the article was the concept of how everyone else has to earn minutes at a specific position, except LaVine who is given the luxury of being able to grow into a competent role. It’s just a little strange.

    Yeah, you could easily have LaVine come in early at shooting guard (Prince resting, Wiggins to the 3) with Rubio (when he’s back) and then have him split backup point time with Miller. Or other ideas… I mean, to my eyes (and I’m not alone) he’s at best a combo guard, and so he should be playing both positions at times. From a developmental standpoint playing both would help clear the debate up about what position he should play at. As it is, the minutes are so overwhelmingly at point that it is hard to assess the situation well (fueling fan speculation). That said, his results and slow learning curve at point and the fact that his best skills and traits are more shooting guard oriented, suggest he’s not a natural point guard.

    This whole ‘what should development look like’ thing has been a lively debate during the dark ages of the Wolves lately. I think we’re past the stage where we might consider tanking, and I question development minute effectiveness on a club that’s not competitive. I think there is a low ceiling there. A lot of LaVine’s minutes last year on the team with the worst record can be called into question. How effective were they? How far can you develop with meaningless games? Well, we’re a lot better this season. Gone is any excuse to go into ‘develop above win’ mode, even if we have a losing season and don’t play in the post season. We are at the point with talent and ability that we try to win as many games as possible, like a normal sports team. And I think graduating to that will only help us build a great team.

    None of this is meant as a knock at LaVine. While Ricky his here, he’s the starter, and while we ask LaVine to be a point that relegates him to back-up. (We might be moving Martin this season, which will clear things out some). He might have too much talent to be a backup. Might the future include LaVine starting at the 2, while Wiggins (who’s got to be pushing 6’9″ and will add weight) could slide to small forward? I want to see maximum results for our talent at a given moment in development, and I’ve never seen that payoff from LaVine at point, but we’ll see what the future holds.

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