Talkin’ About Timberwolves Practice

Until the Timberwolves play their first preseason game on Saturday night (against the Heat, in Kansas City) we are left discussing practice. As Allen Iverson would attest — has attested — this can be pretty silly. It’s barely open to viewing and isn’t a reliable measure of how the Wolves will fare against other teams; other teams with different players, under more important circumstances, and facing greater pressure.

But thanks to the great work of the Timberwolves website crew, we at least have a ton of quotes available to digest, interpret, and discuss. They have been posting videos of post-practice interviews of Coach Thibodeau and the players.

Take all of this discussion with a big pile of grains of salt. We know it’s early. All of this is subject to change as soon as the games — especially the regular season ones — begin.

But we enjoy talking Wolves, and right now that means we TALKIN’ ABOUT PRACTICE.

Here are some quotes we listened to, and what we make of them:

Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, after practice on October 3rd:

“Sometimes you can get away with a non-traditional point guard if you have a big guy who’s highly skilled that can make plays. In Chicago I had Noah, so often times we ran our offense through him, when Derrick [Rose] got hurt…

[in response to question about a possible starting five]

“We can’t allow [opponents] to over-help onto Wig and Karl at the end of games, so we gotta make sure we have the right people around them.”

Andy G: I’ll start.

Three things that we know are true:

  1. Ricky Rubio is a “traditional point guard.” He always brings the ball up the floor and runs the offense. He looks to pass more than shoot. He is not a combo guard. He is nothing if not a point guard.
  2. Thibs understands that the NBA is a pick-and-roll league, and only deviated from that in Chicago out of necessity, after D-Rose’s knee injuries.
  3. Ricky Rubio is a poor perimeter shooter.

I listened to these quotes and couldn’t help but think of Rubio. It is just so hard to imagine the Timberwolves being functional without Ricky. Thinking back to all of the lineup combinations they’ve had since KG left, only two come to mind.  There was the Al Jefferson-led group with Randy Foye and Kevin Love — coached by McHale, not Wittman — that clicked for about a month (Never Forget January 2009!). Then there was the very early part of the K-Love knuckle push-ups season when Rubio was still recovering from his ACL surgery. Rick Adelman was invested, Alexey Shved hadn’t been scouted yet, and Kirilenko and Pek were healthy. That team was shockingly decent for a while, looking back on it.

So I just covered 10 years of Wolves basketball and thought of two, one-month examples of lineups missing Ricky Rubio that were better than a dumpster fire.

The rule here has been that the Wolves don’t function without Ricky. They need his passing and leadership, and they especially need his defense.

And yet, we had the draft night trade rumors involving Rubio and the Bulls, and then the selection of Kris Dunn, a point guard, with the fifth overall pick. It seems fair to at least wonder by now what Thibs thinks of Rubio, and these quotes probably reinforced my suspicion that he doesn’t think quite as highly of him as he should.

If the Wolves decide to “run their offense through” a big man, they’ll not only buck the Thibs-acknowledged NBA trend of initiating sets with screen-and-roll, but they’ll also design a system highlighting Rubio’s primary weakness (shooting) and hiding his primary strength (passing).

When Thibs mentioned that they need players around Wiggins and Towns who can’t be helped off of, that obviously means players who bury open shots. That sounds more like Zach LaVine and Brandon Rush than it does Ricky Rubio.

We noted at the outset that this entire exercise involves “overthinking.” But am I wrong to read at least *some* Rubio into these Thibs remarks?

Patrick J: Agreed. Rubio *is* the issue here, whether Thibodeau intended for him to be or not. And your closing salvo – “that sounds more like Zach LaVine and Brandon Rush than it does Ricky Rubio” – is the key point: Kris Dunn might be the elephant in the room, but his main weakness aside from inexperience is the same one that plagues Ricky–shooting.

The inconvenient truth in your colorful chronology of occasionally functional Wolves point guard play amid their long history of dysfunction is this: young gun Zach LaVine has played a lot of point guard for this franchise, largely during the “Tanking for Towns” season of 2014-2015, and his overall performance at that position has been poor. This has been especially true on defense and as a floor general who creates good shots for his teammates. Yes, LaVine found something of a niche as a shooting guard last season, especially during the second half. But if the coach is working on implementing an offense that is unconventional in today’s NBA and that wouldn’t really play to either of his best point guard’s strengths, you have to scratch your head. I suspect that this is much ado about nothing, and will work itself out over time. If anything, I suspect it is just an indication of Thibodeau’s restlessness and desire to get off to a fast start using approaches with which he is familiar and has had success. He’s a smart and good enough coach that he’s likely to make adjustments as necessary. After the trade rumors about Rubio over the summer, the fact that Ricky is still wearing a Wolves uniform bodes well for the team’s future.

I think.

Shabazz Muhammad, after practice on October 3rd:

[when asked if cracking the starting five is one of his goals]

“Oh definitely, that’s definitely a goal for me. I’ve been working hard this summer and I can’t wait to start playin’ and showing coach how I can play both ends and be a two-way player. I think if I can do that I can be one of the best players on our team. That’s something I’m trying to do…

My goal is to become a two-way player in this league and I really think I can do it. Coach has been telling me I can do it. So that’s something I’m really gonna strive for.”

Patrick J: I have an irrational fondness for Shabazz Muhammad as a player, so I probably *want* all of this to come true more than I should even care about it. The truth is, Muhammad is a bit player who does one or two things really well. He’s an excellent scorer on the block. He has become increasingly adept from distance. And he has a great heart and an unrelenting motor. But Bazz’s weaknesses–particularly on the defensive end, as well as general mental lapses–are equally striking, and will be difficult to “undo” no matter how much work he put in during the summer or how much work he does with Thibodeau and his staff. I’ll wave the towel for Bazz probably harder than the next fan, but his game screams “instant offense off-the-bench energy guy,” not “starter on a playoff-contending team.” Am I wrong?

Andy G: It is perfectly reasonable for Bazz to make “two-way player” his goal. Every young player should have that goal.

If he is going to START on this team, then it has to be as the second wing next to Wiggins. Right now, if I were a betting man, I’d lean toward that spot going to LaVine or even Brandon Rush. But it isn’t inKahnceivable that it could go to Bazz.

Basically, to hold out hope for some Real Shabazz Improvement, you have to focus on two things:

  1. He plays unbelievably hard, and it’s possible that Thibs will be able to simplify his defensive approach to better channel that energy in the right ways. Right now, he is at once too obsessed with either where his own man is, or where the basketball is at any given point in time.  He doesn’t show much by way of anticipation, or zone/help concepts.  In this training camp, Shabazz has already discussed being taught to get his weight back on his heels during close-outs (instead of blowing by the guy with the ball, who then drives past him to the basket). Maybe it’s a fundamental that he happened to miss on his AAU and one-and-done route to the pros. Maybe with Thibs Teaching he becomes a merely “mediocre” defender with plus offense. That describes a lot of NBA starters. I don’t think he has the physical frame to every be a good defensive player at his natural position(s).
  2. A disproportionate share of Shabazz minutes last season came with a non-Rubio point guard. He played 412 minutes with Ricky, in which time their lineups outscored the opposition by 22 points. He played 1,270 minutes WITHOUT Ricky, in which time their lineups were *outscored* by 289 points. (!) No other player suffered the “bad Wolves backup point guard” effect worse than ‘Bazz. His plus-minus on the season was really bad — worst among regular rotation players — but it really isn’t clear how much of that was his fault.

I worry about Shabazz’s ability to learn team basketball, so I doubt he’ll be a starter. But like you said, he does some things *really* well, and — like I just said — there are some reasons to think improvement or improved circumstances could happen for him. It is a quasi-Kahntract year for him — next year, he will most likely become a restricted free agent — so the pressure is on.

Andrew Wiggins, after practice on October 3rd:

[when asked what his next steps of development are]

“Rebounding…big thing for me… Pushing the ball off a rebound… Getting the ball out in transition, pushing the ball up the floor. Creating for other people.”

Andy G: We have fewer Wiggins words to parse because, well, he’s a man of few words. I liked this answer though because it was more ambitious than just, “I’m working on my shot.” Or, even more limited, “I’m working on corner threes.”

Of course he’s working on those things, but it’ll be a shame if a day comes when Wiggins puts that sort of cap on his potential. He is possibly the most athletically-gifted wing player in the world right now, so he should have extremely high goals for himself. By aiming to not only get better at shooting, but also improve his rebounding and his ability to create open-court plays for teammates, he is raising his own expectations. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll become a star, but it is a sign that he continues to believe he should become one.

Patrick J: I expect Wiggins to benefit from and thrive on Team Thibs more than anyone else. ‘Drew might not know it yet, but he has that je ne sais quoi mix of talent, youth, endurance, and coachability that Thibs has extracted maximal results from in the past. Comparing him to Jimmy Butler has become something of a cliche by now, but you can easily see it. We’ll certainly see the occasional growing pains and frustrations in Wiggins’ development we’ve seen over the past two years. But I think the only one on the Timberwolves who doesn’t know that very big things might be in store for Wiggins sooner than later is Wiggins.

Or he does know, but — like most things — he just keeps it to himself.

Karl-Anthony Towns, after practice on September 29:

“Defense is one of the first things I think about. It creates my offense. A lot of the dunks I had last year, whether it be fast break dunks, or anything, they always started with a defensive play. So, for me, defense is a big counterpart if I wanna score, so I just continue to play defense at the best of my ability so it can lead to easy points…

I worked more on my lateral quickness. I wanted to be a better defender. I wanted to be able to even guard Steph [Curry] better. I wanted to be able to be what KG was. I think I have that in me. I showed that last year a little bit but I wanna show it even more this year. The ability to play all five positions at any given time. That’s a lot more what I prepared myself for this year.”

Andy G: Before he played an NBA game, I thought KAT’s big upside was on defense, and I just hoped he’d be a “good” offensive player.

My watching-Kentucky-on-ESPN-from-the-couch-on-Saturday-afternoons scouting regimen seems to have failed.

He had one of the best offensive rookie seasons in NBA history. He also had a pretty average defensive season for a rookie big man; maybe below average compared to veteran NBA bigs. When paired with KG in limited minutes, he seemed great. His intensity was channeled in the right ways and there were times when the two seemed incredible. But when KAT was without KG, instead teamed with players like Nemanja Bjelica, Adreian Payne, or Gorgui Dieng, the team’s defense was pretty awful, and KAT was sometimes out of position. This wasn’t always KAT’s “fault,” but he wasn’t able to do much to impact defense, or to get control of the defensive side of the floor the way that true “rim protectors” sometimes can. The team defended better without KAT (105.0 points allowed per 100) than it did with him (108.1).

When I watched KAT at Kentucky, playing next to Willie/Trillie Cauley-Stein, he seemed ridiculously good at defense. College isn’t the pros, but the WAYS that KAT dominated defensively — athleticism, intensity, size, instincts — seemed transferable to the NBA. He’s still extremely young (20). If he can tap into the potential on that end that he teased at UK, I think he enters the MVP conversation. I doubt it’ll happen THIS year, but if he shows substantial improvement on D, he might one day become the best big man in the world.


Patrick J: KAT will be great. (Eds. Note: Fortunately, there is no need to overthink this issue.)

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One Responseso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    –Bringing in Thibs means a complete coaching and organizational reset. This encourages speculation about even very basic things like who our starters will be. At the same time, it is kind hard for me to imagine that the starters won’t be, Rubio PG LaVine SG Wiggins SF ? PF Towns C. The only starting position that is up in the air is PF. Thibs’ open mind about the meaning of position means he could look at many of his bigs as a C or PF, and that complicates things. He seems to like Dieng, but is Dieng really a PF? I’d guess we’d see a Dieng KAT combo in the starting lineup but I’m just not sure. So hearing a quote about surrounding KAT and Wiggins with the right people around them so defenses can’t just focus on them is a bit odd. We seem to have a fairly set starting lineup unless Thibs gets really wild.

    –Shabazz is a quirky guy with unexpected strengths for his logical position(s) and size. His weirdness and skill at a few things (such as on the block) can make him a hard cover. But I just don’t think he has starter on a good team talent, period. He’s a bench player. Even in that case, it would be nice to have him coming off the bench with better shooting (or Rush is going to get all his minutes) and defense. I like his ambition, though. But his expectations are not mine.

    –Wiggins is odd, because he’s so talented and ‘prototypical’ as a basketball player, yet he’s got so many holes in his game. I think last year we fell into that trap a bit, making him the hands down finisher at the end of games when it would have been better to move that responsibility around and keep teams guessing. It’s easy to look at Wiggins’ talent and see a better current player than is actually there. It’s nice he has more to say about what he’s working on than ‘my shot,’ but frankly he has a long laundry list to choose from, which includes: passing, ball handling, 3 point shooting of all kinds, defense, taking advantage of ability in transition, guard style post game, exploding with full athleticism when finishing instead of relying on ‘lazy finishes’. This list isn’t just long, some of these one word things he needs to work on are very big projects. His ball handling is really below average. He was touted as an instant defensive plus in the draft, but is still a below average defender. His ability to pass well out of doubles is really bad, and every aspect of his passing needs to get better. His career trajectory may depend on his ability to add a consistent three point shot…

    –KAT was scouted wrong. No one seemed to see his Tim Duncanesque offensive prowess coming in, and thought he’d be dominant on D. The only aspect about KAT that in any way disappointed was his D. However, our team D last season was so bad, largely because of youth and coaching, not player potential, that it’s hard to really blame KAT for not impressing on D as much as O. I expect with more experience, and good coaching this season, KAT can become a real difference maker on defense. He may be more of a Duncan than a KG, long term, but I can’t see a reason he won’t be, in his own way on KG’s level on D if he works hard.

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