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 NBAwowy.com, 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.