Which player has the most to prove over the final month and a half of the season? Why?
Zach: Ricky Rubio. I don’t think the Rubio trade situation with Milwaukee is necessarily a bad thing. It shows the value they put on Rubio (depending on which version of the story you believe happened in terms of which team offered the other and how far it went), and it shows the value another team puts on the player the Wolves allegedly said it would take to get the deal done. But Sam Mitchell wasn’t thrilled about Rubio being the point guard that held his interim fate at the beginning of the season and there are concerns within the organization that eventually Rubio’s limitations limit how far the Wolves are capable of going.
All of that is a long time away and the salary cap jump makes Rubio’s contract a bargain coming up. That still doesn’t mean his play won’t determine just how quickly the Wolves turnaround and move him. Maybe if they fall in love Kris Dunn in the draft or think Jamal Murray can be an NBA point guard, the Wolves will look to move Rubio this summer for a wing or a big man to put next to Karl-Anthony Towns. Rubio has to prove he can be a threat. He’s shooting 41.5% FG and 40.9% 3FG since the All-Star break. Last seven games have him at 46.3% from the field and 44.4% from deep. He doesn’t have to be that the rest of the season but he does probably need to show he’s the point guard of the future, no matter what the Wolves want to do with their next step.
Steve: Shabazz Muhammad. Muhammad is a fan favorite for his aggressive offensive play and the spark he provides off the bench. And plenty of professional (or at least semi-professional) followers of the game love his potential as a disruptive force — a guard who can bully other guards on the block and be a 3-point threat from the corners.
But real talk? He has the fifth worst net rating on the team, edging out only Tyus Jones, Nikola Pekovic, Greg Smith and Adreian Payne, none of whom have really impressed anyone this season. His offensive rating is only 102.0 — only .2 better than Tayshaun Prince (TAYSHAUN PRINCE!). Although Mitchell has often praised his dedication to getting better and being in the right place on both sides of the ball, he’s still a net negative right now. If he’s going to be a part of the Timberwolves’ long-term future, now is the time for him to show that he can be a consistent contributor and not just a fun lark.
Tim: I think there’s a general assumption around the league that Zach LaVine recent success isn’t anything completely permanent. In other words, LaVine at his best is a streaky shooter, that will go through hot streaks and then eventually fall off. The last month and a half of the season, it would be great if he could keep his consistency up and finish the year strong.
His move to shooting guard has to help. Whether the time he spent at point guard helped him or not can’t really be quantified, but he is now playing in his position that he’s clearly most comfortable with, and has had a small sample size of success. The down games will happen, but keeping them at a minimum would be the separator.
Bill: Gorgui Dieng. He’s become a favorite of the current coaching staff, and will certainly be considered for a contract extension this offseason, especially if the front office remains intact. He started very slow, averaging just 6 points and 5 rebounds on 48% shooting over his first 13 games, but began to pick up his play shortly thereafter. From January 25th through the end of February, he took it to a whole new level, averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists while fostering frontcourt chemistry with Karl-Anthony Towns.
‘G’ has dipped a bit in March, but if he can manage to finish the season on a strong note, it could mean a bigger payday, as well as a more prominent role in the Wolves’ future plans.
Nemanja Bjelica had a few nice moments, but overall, it’s been a pretty disappointing rookie campaign. Are you concerned about him going forward? Does he need a new coach and system to unlock his true potential?
Zach: I never liked the way Nemanja Bjelica was being used with this team, aside from a few spots here and there this season. And most of that happened early on. Moving forward, he needs to be in a system and playing for a coach that values his shooting (he should never hesitate to shoot and a coach should be killing him if he does) and his playmaking ability. It doesn’t mean he has to be featured as a point forward or anything. It just means they should run sets that have him running a pick-and-roll from the other side of the court after an initial PnR has been snuffed out and the ball has been kicked to him. He should be aggressive at all times and trusted more late in games.
Honestly, I’m not sure how much of that Sam Mitchell had the luxury of doing. With the way he took over, there wasn’t a ton of time to get that across or establish an offensive system that better utilized Bjelica. And the forward needed to establish himself a bit more too. I don’t put too much stock into his struggles this year. Nikola Pekovic looked completely lost his first year over here. Bjelica was a better Euro player than Pek, but it doesn’t mean the adjustment isn’t the same level of difficulty. If he’s still playing poorly three months into next season, then I’ll worry.
Steve: I think Zach’s comparison of Bjelica with Pek in terms of adjustment is spot on. Pek was limited in his rookie year by personal fouls and 3-second calls, and that was largely because of having to adjust to a new set of rules. For Bjelica, he’s adjusting to a similar thing in terms of being assertive with the ball from the perimeter, which functions very differently in the NBA than in Europe. It’s also a big adjustment to going from an MVP to a guy coming off the bench.
That said, he definitely needs a different system to take advantage of what he can do. On the other hand, it’s not totally out of place to be concerned about a Shved situation, where his game was basically neutered as soon as anyone got decent NBA film on him. I hope that isn’t the case, though, and that Bjelica goes from forgotten to an important element of a team with a very different looking offense next season.
Tim: I’m with Zach and Steve here. I was a fan of the idea of running Bjelica at some backup point forward a year ago, especially if Andre Miller wasn’t going to play and Tyus Jones wasn’t ready. This would have given Zach LaVine some freedom to play more off ball, even if his technical position on the floor was “point guard”.
More than anything, as mentioned already, Bjelica needs to learn to just take the damn shot. This could be a coaching thing, or it could just be his psyche. But he needs to figure it out to be successful in the NBA. He’s a very good shooter, but he won’t be able to showcase that if he doesn’t shoot the ball with confidence.
Bill: I’ll echo what everyone else has been saying: I firmly believe Bjelica would be solid in the right system – a pace and space approach, surrounded by shooters, where he’d have the option to shoot or put the ball on the floor to create for others. If that isn’t how he’s going to be used, what you’re left with is a good shooter who is hesitant to shoot and gives up a TON on the defensive end of the floor.
For what it’s worth, I’ve heard Bjelica’s teammates and Mitchell himself implore Nemanja to shoot when he was open during games – they call out from the bench, or in one particularly memorable instance, Shabazz Muhammad yelling “SHOT” as he passed him the ball. He just hasn’t settled in; there’s still hope for him to do so.
Pretend Andrew Wiggins asks you the one main thing he should focus on improving this offseason (ball handling, post moves, jumper, etc). What would you tell him?
Zach: Ball handling. Everything with him ties back to ball handling because improving upon that just means a general comfort with the ball, which is the only thing he’s lacking. When you have that comfort with the ball, passing and shooting just get easier for a wing player. We see flashes of both from him, and extra comfort means consistency. There isn’t much more than I can even think about him needing to improve. Experience takes care of the rest with him. I don’t buy into the crap about him needing to be more aggressive. That’s sports talk radio jargon and that stuff is usually a placeholder in lieu of something that actually has meaning in the game of basketball.
Steve: Zach said handle, which is probably the single thing he needs to work on the most, but since Zach already said it, I’ll go with multi-tasking as a discrete skill. At times, he looks dominant offensively. We’ve seen him look dominant defensively at times as well. Sometimes he passes the ball surprisingly well, occasionally he rebounds like his size and athleticism dictates he should. But we’ve rarely seen his game look complete in the sense of being able to transition his focus seamlessly among different disciplines of the game. Maybe part of it is just having so much potential along so many axes, but at some point he needs to start putting the skills he has together in real time.
Tim: You’ve heard the story before.
“I brought a basketball everywhere as a kid.”
Wiggins needs to do that now, as an adult, this summer. Take a basketball everywhere he goes, dribble that basketball until it goes flat. He’s undoubtedly an improved dribbler, but he’s still being held back. There are still things he clearly wants to do that he simply cannot because he doesn’t handle the ball well enough.
He knows this, though. He’s said before that it’s the thing he needs to work on most, and I have no reason to believe he isn’t going to work his ass off to get better. Once he does, crazy things could happen next to Towns.
Bill: Yeah, it’s the handle. It’s hard to “practice” court vision – like, if this was NBA2k, and I could spend offseason “development” points on Wiggins, it’d be on a category like “passing” or “offensive IQ,” but it doesn’t work like that in real life. What Wiggs can work on is confidently handling the ball into traffic. If he gets that down, sussing out when and where to pass the ball can come a bit more naturally.
There’s more time to write on this, and a lot of dominos have to fall this summer, but… gut feeling, is Sam Mitchell the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves on opening night in October?
Zach: I’ll say no. I know rumblings seem to be that Glen Taylor is more and more comfortable with the idea of Mitchell removing the interim tag and getting another chance next season. We’ve seen improved play over the last couple of weeks. But I still think the new regime (which I still expect to happen) will eventually have their say. Glen will be more preoccupied with keeping some of the front office people (doesn’t necessarily mean personnel/roster deciders) in place than keeping a familiar coach. Of course, all of this could fall apart and Sam gets to keep coaching next season.
I don’t think that would be a disaster. I do think it shouldn’t happen past the summer of 2017 though. For now, it’s fine. Way more has to be in place before we even worry about the coach and Sam might end up being a decent enough stepping stone coach for the organization. I guess I just don’t expect him to be the future of this team. Whether that means opening night in October this year or next year, it doesn’t really matter to me.
Steve: There’s something very Schrodinger’s cat about this situation, because on the one hand, there’s nothing that Mitchell has really done to prove he should be the coach going forward. Even if you want to credit him with some or even post of the development that’s happened, for most any franchise that’s squarely focused on eventually contending, it hasn’t been enough.
And yet, this is the Timberwolves, and momentum and inertia rules. They hang on to people way past their sell-by date. If you’re the Timberwolves, it’s what you do. If Mitchell is the head coach come next October, it’s indicative of business as usual in the most frustrating way possible. If he’s not, it might augur a different kind of influence in the ownership. Basically, Mitchell’s job security says less about Mitchell than it does about the organization. And in this case, the organization hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. I’m preparing my soul for Mitchell to return.
Tim: I’m going to guess no. The “interim” tag has to be one of the toughest things to deal with as a head coach, especially when he’s slapped with the title for an entire 82-game season. But that’s what he is, and (as Zach mentions) a new regime switch would probably seal Mitchell’s fate.
Even if the Wolves stick with Milt Newton as their lead man, I’m not sure how much that saves him. Newton has been in the NBA for a long time, and his experience with Mitchell isn’t as long as Taylor’s. If Newton is retained on a permanent basis, I would assume the head coaching decision would be left up to him, not Glen.
Bill: I’m not a betting person, but to be perfectly honest, I’d be stunned if the Wolves do anything other than remove the interim tag from Sam Mitchell this offseason and give him at least another season as head coach. I’d say it’s 90/10 he’s back. Robert Pera is making it difficult for Steve Kaplan to get out of his minority ownership stake in the Grizzlies, delaying any sort of transfer of power, and even if that process does get back on track, who’s to say Glen Taylor will immediately cede decision-making power to a newcomer? And who’s to say Kaplan and his group would necessarily want to oust the current regime as their first order of business? No, Sam Mitchell will be the head coach on opening night, 2016.