A Season-Preview Question for Every Wolf
The Timberwolves begin another season tonight in Memphis. Having released Rasual Butler and Toure’ Murry on Saturday, Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden (Thibs & Layden, LLP, as I sometimes like to refer to the new front-office power partnership) finalized the 15-man roster. So we know who the players are. But do we know what to expect from them?
The other day our staff of writers took stabs at guessing “over or under” on a number of Wolves issues they will face this season. In this additional preview-y post, I look to pose some more general, or qualitative, or even abstract questions that face each Wolves player as he heads into the 2016-17 season. I don’t make predictions here; no crystal ball. But the answers to these questions that form over the course of this season will help determine whether the Wolves make the leap into the playoff picture that some expect, or instead take smaller, baby steps in a more gradual path to basketball relevancy.
In terms of organization, I think it makes the most sense to begin with some warm-up swings on the five players least likely to play meaningful minutes. I’ll take a quick-hitter run through Tyus Jones, John Lucas III, Adreian Payne, Jordan Hill, and Nikola Pekovic. From there, I’ll break it up by point guards (2), wings (4) and the front line (4).
Without further ado…
- Will Tyus get traded?
This is the elephant-in-the-room question for Jones. Many interpret the decision to keep Lucas on the roster as a sign that Jones will be moved. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that teams are showing interest in Tyus. He may not be our hometown hero much longer.
John Lucas III
- Is he actually going to play?
Lucas played 0 minutes of NBA basketball last year and only 272 in the season before that. (In Detroit.) If Jones is traded, the Wolves will be one Rubio or Dunn injury away from Lucas joining the regular rotation. Well, unless they opt for more Point LaVine. Third string point guard isn’t the most important position in the world, but it would probably not be a good thing if Lucas sees the floor this season.
- How many more NBA games are left in his career?
It doesn’t seem to be working out, and it’s probably a matter of time before Payne is released. He’ll make plenty of money overseas.
- What’s going on with his hair?
Apparently it was the same last year in Indiana.
I guess I missed that.
- Will the Wolves waive Pek and find a way to get him off the salary cap by next summer?
I discussed this possibility in the context of next year’s cap space here. Assuming Pek (sadly) will never be able to play at an NBA level again, this seems like the prudent course of action.
Okay, moving on…
THE POINT GUARDS
Ricky Rubio & Kris Dunn
- Will Thibs & Layden show patience with this position battle?
I’m cheating with a two-fer here because so much of Rubio’s Timberwolves future is tied to Dunn’s. At least it seems that way right now.
At Media Day, Ricky’s presser began with Sid Hartman asking him if he still wants to be traded. The question was silly for a couple different reasons. One, Rubio has never asked for, or demanded a trade. (He did strongly suggest to Spanish radio over the summer that he might want to change teams if the Wolves miss the playoffs again.) Two, Sid is 96 years old and was just instigating. The whole situation called or laughs; not real awkwardness.
Ricky smiled, said something to the effect of, “You never change, do you?” and then went on to say that he never wanted to be traded, and that he just wants to play for a winner.
That lighthearted exchange between star point guard and still-working-even-though-he’s-almost-100, statue-of-himself-outside-Target-Center reporter did not end the speculation surrounding Rubio’s future in Minnesota.
In the above-linked report involving Tyus Jones trade rumors, Wojnarowski also cited anonymous league sources for the proposition that Thibs expects Dunn to overtake Rubio as the starting point guard about 20 games into the season. Woj is widely known for breaking news due to his unmatched network of agent sources. In this instance, projecting something like “Dunn will start in 20 games” sounds pretty dumb to anyone who has recently watched the Timberwolves. (Rubio has looked good, as expected. Dunn has looked like a player trying to learn how to play NBA basketball — also, as expected.) Many believe this Woj-missile came from Rubio’s camp — specifically his agent Dan Fegan — since it wouldn’t make sense for any front office insider to leak this, even if the basketball opinion made sense. Which it doesn’t.
But let’s be real: We’re kidding ourselves if we assume that Ricky remaining a Wolf for much longer is a certainty. The first major move of Thibs & Layden, LLP was to choose Dunn with the fifth pick in the draft. Many viewed that as a “best player available” value pick independent of current roster construction, but point guard is a little different from any other basketball position. It’s more like quarterback in football than, say, linebacker or receiver. Basically, there is only one of them.
The big question here is whether there is a preconceived notion about Dunn in Thibs’s mind. Does he have Dunn penciled — or etched in stone, even — as his “point guard of the future?” To continue the quarterback comparison, is this like the Eagles drafting Carson Wentz and waiting on the right Sam Bradford trade opportunity to surface? Or, are the Wolves going to look at both point guards with an open mind and make ongoing evaluations that affect possible trade decisions?
We know Rubio is the starter right now. We (basically) know that Dunn isn’t good enough to deserve the starting job right now. The things we don’t know are whether Dunn will eventually get there, how long that will take, and what opportunities might arise to upgrade the roster at large via trading Rubio, or even trading Dunn (!).
The answer to this question of patience could have a big impact on the entire franchise trajectory. Fans and players alike want this year’s team to compete for a playoff spot. Nothing would remove that possibility more swiftly than trading Ricky Rubio so that Kris Dunn can be the starting point guard.
- Will LaVine learn how to use his athleticism as a slasher?
There are countless questions that could be posed about Zach LaVine as he enters his third NBA season. His three-year path from reserve college guard to potential NBA star is completely unique in history. LaVine averaged 24.4 minutes per game as a freshman at UCLA. He averaged single-digit points per game with “meh” efficiency. Normally, for a scoring guard, this would mean an automatic decision to stay in school.
The complicating factors in LaVine’s choice of whether to turn pro were that he was 6’5″ with clever handles, a smooth shooting stroke, and — most importantly — the greatest basketball leaping ability ever.
So it was that LaVine turned pro after a mediocre freshman season and was selected by a Flip Saunders self-described “home run swing” thirteenth in the 2014 draft. The story only became more unusual when Flip used Rubio’s early-season ankle injury as cover to “tank.” For 19-year old LaVine, that meant being thrown into the deep end of the professional-basketball pool. Not only did he log more minutes than anyone could have anticipated as a rookie (1,902 total, averaging more per game (24.7) than he did in college) but he logged many of them at point guard; unnatural to his shoot-first instincts and much deeper with responsibility than if he played wing. LaVine posted some big scoring nights as a rook — 37 at Golden State remains a crazy memory of that season — but his overall floor game was woefully unprepared for the rigors of the NBA schedule. He was inefficient on offense and abysmal on defense.
Last year, LaVine came into his second season with big-picture question marks and some of those lasted through the All-Star Break. Sam Mitchell continued to play LaVine at point guard in the early months of the season, much to the chagrin of fans but to the benefit of his young guard’s overall development. After struggling at times with a shoot-heavy lineup that he was tasked with guiding, LaVine was mercifully shifted to starting shooting guard. With this job change, he had fewer decisions to make, and more shots to attempt; especially 3-point shots. After the All-Star Break, playing mostly at shooting guard, LaVine averaged 16.4 points per game on 48.0% shooting, including a blistering 43.7% from deep. Many of the holes in his game remained evident — he has been a poor, sometimes terrible defender throughout his two-year career — but down the stretch of last season, we saw consistent shooting and flashes of serious offensive firepower from LaVine.
Questions, at this point, could range from “Will he play better defense?” to broader brush, “Will he become an All-Star?” Trying to balance the micro with the long-term, I think that — this year — it will be interesting to see if LaVine can become a better dribble penetrator so that he can cash in on more of his physical gifts. For a player mostly known for his leaping ability, LaVine is a surprisingly poor slasher. While he has cool handles when loosely guarded — like Kris Dunn, LaVine has definitely learned crossover-dribble technique from Allen Iverson — he is not very strong with the ball when taking it into traffic. This sometimes-loose handle combined with his featherweight frame leads to situations where he either loses the ball outright, or ends up getting crumpled up into a mid-flight ball, allowing much less athletic big men to easily block his shots.
Imagine what Russell Westbrook or LeBron James looks like when they get a burst of steam and fly toward the rim. Bodies bounce off of theirs, and they usually score, sometimes also drawing a foul.
LaVine, so far, looks absolutely nothing like that.
This, despite his reigning back-to-back slam-dunk titles and other-worldly athleticism.
A basic statistical representation of what I’m describing is the 3.2 free throws he attempted per 36 minutes, last year. That’s less than half what his extremely-good-at-attacking teammate Andrew Wiggins earned.
If all that LaVine ever becomes is a smooth shooting guard who spreads the floor for teammates and runs out in transition, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Over time, he’ll almost inevitably improve on defense and become something of a “3 & D Guy.” That’s useful. That’s sort of like JR Smith, the player to whom LaVine is most often compared.
But in this embryo stage here, that’s also setting the bar really, really low. We’re talking about possibly the greatest leaper in history who already shoots threes like a seasoned vet. If he can learn to score in the lane even half as well as Westbrook — a stronger, but less athletic player — LaVine could easily become an All-Star caliber player in two or three years. He could become the best offensive player on this team. (Well, the best offensive player on this team who doesn’t have a hyphenated first name, anyway.) He’s fascinating due to this wide range of possible outcomes. Baggage-less JR Smith or something closer to Raptors-era Vince Carter. And for a player we’ve already seen two full seasons of!
While “defense” is the short-term question that will decide his playing time this year, effective slashing will define LaVine’s entire career.
- Could Rush challenge LaVine for a starting spot?
The juxtaposition of discussing LaVine as a future hall of famer and then discussing him possibly losing his spot to journeyman role player Brandon Rush helps illustrate the uncertainty of the season ahead.
Unlike with LaVine, we know exactly what Rush is. He’s a role player who knocks down open shots and knows his limitations. Rush is a full ten years older than LaVine. He’s been a starter — including in an injury-substitute role on last year’s 73-win Warriors — and he’s been a reserve. He shoots over 40 percent from three for his career, and he won’t make frequent mistakes that lead to defensive breakdowns.
This question has a lot more to do with LaVine than it does Rush. Zach certainly controls his own destiny here. But if LaVine makes too many mistakes — especially on D — and Rush stays healthy, it wouldn’t shock me to see a shooting guard lineup swap with Rush cracking the starting five.
- Has he been a victim of circumstance?
Two years ago, despite missing a lot of time due to injuries, Muhammad turned in an impressive individual season. As a 22-year old in his second NBA season, he averaged 21.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting almost 50 percent from the field. If in his third season, ‘Bazz could’ve added a layer or two to his game — defense and passing were areas in need — we would be wondering if he is a part of this team’s “core” much like Towns, Wiggins and LaVine.
That didn’t happen.
Almost across the board, Muhammad’s per-36 minutes stats regressed from Year 2 to Year 3. He scored less, rebounded less, assisted less, and shot worse percentages from the floor. Maybe worst of all, Muhammad carried the worst plus-minus stats (net rating of -6.6) of any of the team’s regular rotation players.
My question is whether, and to what extent, his poor third season was caused by the horrific point guard play that he was always aligned with.
As anyone paying attention knows, last year’s Timberwolves had one capable point guard (Rubio), one shooting guard trying to develop his playmaking via point guard reps (LaVine), and a 19-year old rookie point guard who was too physically overwhelmed to set up his teammates with any consistency (Jones). Playing with Rubio generally meant good things — or at least “average” things — and playing without Rubio meant bad things.
In terms of plus/minus stats, this was especially true, and sad, for Muhammad. He played only 412 minutes with Ricky. In that time the Wolves outscored opponents by 22 points. In the 1,270 minutes he played without Rubio? Muhammad’s lineups were outscored by 289 points.
Muhammad will be a restricted free agent next summer, and his market value is very uncertain right now. If the poor performance of his lineups was caused not by his own deficiencies as much as his usual point guards’, maybe he’ll show us something this year next to Kris Dunn.
- Can Wiggins make plays for his teammates?
If there is a single “X Factor,” for the Wolves progression into a title contender, it is Andrew Wiggins. The number one pick in the 2014 Draft was the Franchise Savior before Karl-Anthony Towns was the *Actual* Franchise Savior. By now everybody is familiar with the pros and cons of Wiggins’s game:
Pros: Athleticism, upside, drawing fouls, and scoring.
Cons: Non-scoring stats, especially rebounding, and game-to-game engagement/intensity.
The hope here is that some of Wiggins’s non-scoring struggles are attributable to constant flux — Thibodeau will be his third NBA coach in as many seasons — and youth, and that the newfound stability brought by Thibs will help set his career on a steady track of improvement.
But where to begin?
For me, I think seeing more plays like his game-winning assist at OKC (in the video) would be cause for optimism. Wig’s number one strength is getting into the lane with the ball and either scoring or drawing a shooting foul. Players like that tend to eventually draw double teams. Assuming this happens to Wiggins, the next step will be anticipating the moves of his opponent and finding teammates open for shots.
*extremely ‘Inside the NBA’ voice* “Star players… make life easier… for role players.”
Wiggins averaged just 2.0 assists per game last year. If he is going to become an All-Star and playmaker for his teammates, that number needs to double. DeMar DeRozan is an All-Star who Wiggins is frequently compared to, especially by analytics types who believe both players are overrated. Well, DeRozan averaged 4.0 assists per game last year — exactly double Wiggins — so even that seems lofty for Wig comps until he starts setting up his teammates with more open looks.
Wiggins was on the cover of this morning’s Star Tribune sports page. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst was in town recently for a Wiggins feature. Everyone agrees that he is the key to this franchise launching into serious playoff contention. Many, including me, expect significant improvement from him in Year 3.
Playmaking would be a great place to start.
THE FRONT LINE
- Does Gorgui have a natural position? (And bonus second question: Does it matter?)
Thibs & Layden, LLP have a few more days to decide whether they want to offer enough money to Gorgui Dieng that he will accept a contract extension beyond this coming season.
How much would it take?
Nobody knows. My personal guess is somewhere in the range of 4 years, $65 Million.
The alternative is to let Dieng become a restricted free agent next summer. Regardless of how that plays out, as long as Dieng is here, he will be an important player and viewed as a possible long-term part of the team’s foundation.
While the tanking/rebuilding mandate has been carried out from the top of the Wolves organization over the past two years, Dieng has been putting everything he’s got out on the game floor. Logging almost 4,400 minutes in two seasons — his second and third as a pro — Dieng has produced across-the-board stats and generally shown up well in the plus-minus categories, at least relative to his teammates. He plays extremely hard, remains durable (his only missed time was for a concussion caused by Adreian Payne trying to steal a rebound from him — no, really, that’s what happened) and increases his skillset in unexpected ways. Toward the end of last season, Dieng could be seen practicing corner threes before games. He even made 1 or 2 of them during live action.
When it comes to paying Gorgui a lot of money, the question I find myself asking is, “What position does he play on a good team?” He generally looks a little bit undersized against good centers like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond (to name two possibly-unfairly-sized examples) and he looks a little bit too slow to play the modern four position which often stretches out to the three-point line and brings dribble penetration into play.
At Media Day, Dieng talked about all of the pounds he put on in the summer, but admitted that it isn’t easy to maintain heavier weight during the basketball season. His metabolism is not yours or mine, methinks. This mindset suggests Dieng wants to become a more reliable center, as opposed to a more versatile 4/5 hybrid. Against the Hornets in this preseason, the Wolves opened the game with Dieng on the large Roy Hibbert, and Towns on the perimeter-shooting Frank Kaminsky. In that one-game sample, it seemed that Dieng would be the five man.
Does this matter? Does it matter on the Wolves? With KAT as the undisputed franchise cornerstone, maybe the better way of describing Dieng’s potential position is, “The Big Man Who Plays Next to KAT.” That job description, on offense, is easier because it can involve high-low entry passes from the top of the key, and just getting out of KAT’s way when he decides to take his defender off the dribble. Gorgui has enough range to spread the floor in that basic sense. He doesn’t necessarily need three-point range to play offense with KAT.
Defense is the bigger question in terms of playing next to KAT, because he is less polished, or physically-ready, on that end. At least he was last year. The Gorgui-KAT pairing was great on offense and poor on defense in 2015-16. (111.1 offensive rating, and 107.4 defensive rating, in 1,128 minutes, according to NBA.com.)
I’m interested to see if this pairing holds up over the course of the whole season, or if Thibs experiments with the bigger KAT-Aldrich pairing that would probably defend better, and would save KAT some foul trouble. (He had 5 fouls in 15 minutes in that Hornets game, for what it’s worth.)
Whether Gorgui’s position has serious importance is up for debate. But his fit next to KAT absolutely matters, and we’ll get a good chance to assess it over the course of this season.
- Is he an NBA rotation player?
Bjelica came into last season with some fanfare, at least among the hardcore Wolves followers who keep an eye on what’s happening with overseas prospects. Playing for his Turkish League team, Bjelica earned Euroleague MVP honors, perhaps the top individual basketball honor outside of the NBA. Given that recent high-level success, his transition to the American game was expected to be somewhat smooth.
It wasn’t, and Bjelica found himself not only playing behind KAT and Dieng, but also losing minutes to the likes of Adreian Payne at different times. In his 27-year-old rookie season, he posted a bad PER of 11.2 and more often than not seemed to have lost his confidence.
There is a sense around this team that Bjelica is a player to watch. Thibs goes out of his way to praise him, referring to him as being, “like a point guard” on the floor who can make plays for his teammates. Many of the pundits who were high on him a year ago are expecting a breakout season in Year 2. At Media Day, Bjelica’s humble self-assessment was (paraphrasing) that he wanted to finish his basketball career in the NBA, acknowledging that last year’s performance would not be good enough to allow that to happen.
Depth has been a major problem for this team, and if Bjelica can prove to be a reliable part of the rotation, the Wolves will benefit immensely.
- Might Aldrich start some games?
When the Wolves play the Clippers, DeAndre Jordan looks like an unfair, “varsity versus JV” type of center matchup. He’s huge. Neither Gorgui nor KAT is huge.
Jordan is an extreme example, but there are other very big centers around the league who command a full-sized opponent. Drummond comes to mind.
In the interest of not racking up early fouls — especially early KAT fouls — I wonder if Aldrich will start some games this season to bang bodies with huge opponents and deliver any necessary, early-game fouls.
Aldrich was a good signing either way, but his “questions” are pretty limited in scope. He’s a big banger who serves a clear purpose. The Wolves will be a better team for having signed him.
- Could KAT make a run at league MVP… this year?
Dissecting the nuances of KAT’s game seems pointless until he shows a potential weakness. It also doesn’t seem like a fun way to wrap up this post, that is running about 1,000 too many words.
So let’s get crazy and talk KAT MVP Odds.
First, no. He doesn’t have a chance this year.
At least I don’t think so.
But it’s being discussed right now around the NBA Twitter-Blogos-Podcast-sphere, so it’s worth at least having fun with the question at the conclusion of this preview post that’s all about uncertainty.
In order to contend for (probably best defined as, “finish in the top 5 for votes”) MVP, the first requirement would be that the Timberwolves be a good team. I’m on record as predicting their realistic win-total range to be 34 to 50. That’s pretty wide, and 50 is probably the minimum win total the Wolves would need to nominate a realistic MVP candidate. So they’d have to max out their potential as a team.
The second requirement would be that the best players on the best teams would — for whatever reason — not be as strong of candidates as they might otherwise be. This requirement might actually be met this year. Consider who the last MVP winners have been, and what their current situations are.
Steph Curry won the last two awards and Kevin Durant won the MVP before that. Now, they have to share the ball as teammates in Golden State; not only with each other but also with fellow All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. There is almost definitely going to be a watering-down of both Curry’s and KD’s stats (volume-wise) that will hurt each of their chances at winning the MVP. Before Durant won his, LeBron won 4 out of 5 MVPs. He remains a strong candidate for the award, but he will probably save some of his legs for the playoffs, and defer more to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the regular season.
So it might be an unusually wide-open race for MVP this year.
The final requirement for KAT to contend for MVP is that he produce all-around stats. As a 20-year old rookie he averaged 18.3 points on 54% shooting (!!!), along with 10.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.7 blocks per game.
He was awesome — one of the best rookies I’ve ever seen — but that’s not enough scoring for serious MVP consideration. At least not for a player who is neither a table-setting point guard (like 2-time MVP Steve Nash) or a rim-protecting big man (like Dwight Howard, who has finished 2nd in MVP voting). As a forward (so far) known primarily for his offense, KAT needs to score a lot.
Realistically, in this “Wolves win 50 games and Curry, KD & Bron leave the MVP race open” scenario, KAT probably needs to average at least 22 efficient points, along with something like 11 or 12 rebounds and 3 assists to get in the conversation. He’d be up against singular forces like James Harden and Russ Westbrook, and “best player on a different great team” types like Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul. But he’d at least be in the conversation which was what this question was all about.
Okay, that’s crazy enough. It’s time to wrap this up.
It all begins tonight. Here’s hoping that many of these questions are answered in ways favorable to the Wolves.