Archives For Benjamin Polk

As Steve discussed earlier, the precise relationship between the Summer League and competition is a little foggy. We know the wins and losses mean almost nothing; we know that two thirds of the Wolves’ Summer League roster won’t be around in September. And yet it was still a little disheartening to see the stagnant mess that was the Wolves’ offense for much of the tournament. And it was still pretty cool to see that offense turn itself on and really flow as it did in the team’s final game, against the Pelicans. What do we take away from this? Well, for one, I think we discover what happens when Shabazz Muhammad takes half of your team’s shots.

I think we also discovered that most of the players the Wolves invited to Summer League really lacked the dynamism to get a real look in the NBA. Sorry to fans of Matt Janning, Dennis Horner, D.J. Kennedy and Markel Starks, who all showed flashes of skill but all struggled, for various reasons, to really hang.  Jordan Morgan some charges and worked the glass, but his lack of size, skill and explosiveness really showed. Brady Heslip is, without a doubt, one of the purest shooters I have ever seen. Heslip is so pure, in fact, that it’s a damn shame he looked so overmatched in every other phase of the game. Depending on what happens with Kevin Love, the Wolves will probably have an open roster spot or two. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of these guys have a real shot. So: on to some players who we might be seeing in the fall.

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Tyler the Creator, who look very much like Andrew Wiggins

You have most likely seen the reports that the Cavaliers have relented a bit in their unwillingness to include Andrew Wiggins in a deal for Kevin Love. Here is the original story from the Lake Country News Herald:

Up until this point, it was assumed the Cavs wanted to hang onto Wiggins, largely because of comments made by Coach David Blatt. However, a source said James wants the 6-10, 250-pound Love on the roster. And, what James wants, he normally gets.

Cleveland’s original reluctance may simply have been a negotiating tactic–though if it was, they seem to have given up on it rather early in the game–but the lack of consensus around this issue has been shocking to me. Check it out, two out of four Grantland writers and seven out of 12 NBA GM’s would not move Wiggins for Love. Experts! So let me understand this. You would refuse a trade to pair one of the league’s ten-best players (which is, by the way, a statement of fact), a floor-spacing, glass-eating, high-post passing, outlet machine, with LeBron James while both are in their primes.  Which trade would give you the most formidable Big Three in the league (yeah, I capitalized that) and would automatically make you the favorite in the East. And you refuse this trade because one day, when LeBron is in his thirties and has played some 50,000 NBA minutes, Wiggins has a chance of becoming…one of the leauge’s ten-best players? I understand that it’s painful to let a player with as much talent as Wiggins walk–I’d say we Wolves fans know exactly how painful that is actually–but Cleveland really has no choice.

From the Wolves’ perspective, this is the only trade that has a chance of getting them even close to equal value. Klay Thompson is a nice player and everything, and Flip is right to insist that he be involved in any discussion with Golden State. (Although, please, Kevin Love for David Lee, Harrison Barnes and a future first rounder from a team that would likely be picking in the twenties? That is a hilarious joke!) But, as Zach pointed out some weeks ago, that trade feels, at my most optimistic, like a one-way-ticket to possibly competing for the eighth seed. You’ve just given up one of the two best players in franchise history in exchange for a lot of salary and not much hope for getting better.

No thanks. I’d much rather play out the season with Love on the roster and pray that the animal spirits bless the Wolves with some miraculous change in fortune. (It could happen!!!!!) Barring that, a player of Wiggins’ potential–or at least a draft pick that gives you the hope of landing such a player–is the only way to make this completely depressing situation feel even a little ok.

A quick Google search for Zach Lavine reveals a few things. He is 19 years old and from Seattle Washington. He went to UCLA. He is really, really good at dunking. It will also very soon reveal just how thrilled the young man is to be playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Just a word of advice, kid: If you have just been drafted and there are TV cameras staring right at you and you are trying at all to impress your new employer and fans, I recommend not bowing your head on the table in utter heartbreak and then repeatedly mouthing the words, “f___k, man” like your girlfriend just broke up with you (and also killed your dog). And anyway, cheer up dude, the cross-country skiing is great out here. (Also you might get to play with Kevin Love for part of training camp.)

As far as the Wolves go, this seems to me to be an example of the Wolves going with the player they considered to be the best available and not making much of an attempt to move the needle in the short term. If there were any thoughts that the team were trying to impress Love enough with an instant rebuild to entice him to stay (I know, I know), this probably puts those to rest. Here is Zach Lavine’s Draft Express video:

And here is some more footage of him dunking, if that makes you feel any better:

How should a superstar be? Should he be a grudge-carrying sociopath like Michael Jordan? A mercurial loner, a la Kareem? An ebulliant cheerleader like Magic? Or a Duncan-esque Buddha? Should he be a high-volume one-on-one scorer or a group-first facilitator? We tend to talk as if there is one way to be great in the NBA, a set template that every elite player must follow. We measure success in championships and then retrofit our champions such that they suddenly, upon winning, fit that very template. Dirk, for instance, miraculously transformed himself overnight from a beta-male into lionhearted champ, without changing an ounce of his game or personality. Kobe went from bratty wunderkind to Jordan’s heir to petulant ball-hog and back to Jordan’s heir again, all in one career. For some reason, we seem more comfortable molding superstars–and all players, really–into templates that are familiar-unto-cliche than in appreciating the overflows of wild identity that make them so fascinating to begin with.

So: Kevin Love. When the collective mind attempts to process the idea of Love as a superstar, said mind melts. Love crashes the computer. First of all, as Ricky Rubio, in his perfectly plainspoken way, put it last month, Love is not a leader. He is a little sulky on the court and tends to retreat into his own bad mood when things go wrong. He’s not a primary ball-handler and so doesn’t drive the offense in the way that the league’s other elite players do. He leads the Wolves’ simply through the force of his production, but he doesn’t project gravitas like LeBron and Durant and Chris Paul. What’s more, he doesn’t really look like an elite player (and I don’t mean what you think I mean). Love is among the first wave of superstars to fully exploit the margins of the most high efficiency spots on the floor: the three-point line; the paint; the free-throw line. And while Kevin Durant gets a similarly high yield from those spots, Durant comes by that yield in more recognizably superstar-ish ways (if a 6’10″ human bird with an impeccable handle could ever be called recognizable). He slashes to the hoop out of isolations; he takes leaning, Jordan-esque, off-the-bounce jumpers.

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Let’s get some things out of the way. We all know that the Wolves’ bench was terrible this season. There are a number of reasons for this: J.J. Barea running the show; injuries to Chase Budinger, Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf; the lack of second-unit wing scorers and three-point shooters. And while all of these things forced him into a more prominent offensive role than one might deem advisable, none of these things are specifically Dante Cunningham’s fault. He is an undersized four with incredible hops, a great motor and an occasionally accurate midrange jumper. It’s unwise to expect much more than that.

But still, in the season’s first three months, when the Wolves lost all of those close games and their bench was particularly awful and they could have really used some production from anybody at all, Dante Cunningham was terrible. In the first 31 games of the season, he hit just 42.9% of his 177 field goals, the great majority of them wide open jumpers and none of them threes. In that time he attempted just 10 free throws. That’s low efficiency offense right there.

Even his vaunted defensive energy was inconsistent this season. When Pekovic and Turiaf were hurt and before Gorgui Dieng discovered himself, the Wolves really needed Cunningham in defensive freakout mode. Much of the time, it didn’t happen.

And all of this before Cunningham allegedly did some terrible things:

The woman, who is not named in the complaint, told police he kicked down a locked bedroom door, grabbed her around the neck and slammed her against the wall, choking her for 15 to 20 seconds during which she could not breathe.

“Victim’s eyes were watering and she felt like she was being strangled to death,” the complaint alleges.

Nice. Just a few days after being released from jail, Cunningham violated his restraining order by allegedly texting “terroristic threats” (that is to say, a threat to “directly or indirectly, to commit any crime of violence with the purpose to terrorize another”) to that same woman. I say “allegedly” there, but police actually confiscated his phone and reviewed the offending messages. There’s not a whole lot of reason to doubt the charge. It’s also worth noting that Cunningham has made no effort to deny any of it.

At the very least, Cunningham is guilty of some egregiously poor decision-making–not to mention being a massive, aggro jerk–of a kind that makes discussing his value to the Wolves’ bench seem crass and irrelevant. I’m sorry I had to do that. The reality is likely much, much worse. Given the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the Wolves had no option but to play Cunningham his usual minutes over the final games of the season, blithe and gross though it may have seemed. But now Cunningham is a free agent; the Wolves have the luxury of letting him fade away without a sound.

Last week, in reviewing Othyus Jeffers’ brief tenure with the Wolves, I made mention of the thin line separating NBA rotation players from D-Leaguers. The same could be said of the margin between making an NBA roster out of training camp and finding yourself on the outside looking in. In this most recent Timberwolves’ preseason, four players were competing for the team’s final two roster spots. AJ Price and second-round pick Lorenzo Brown were vying to be the team’s third point guard. And Robbie Hummel and Jeffers were competing for the team’s final wing spot.

Hummel, a not-terribly-athletic 24-year-old rookie with two surgically reconstructed knees may have seemed like the longshot of the two. But he had two things going for him that Jeffers did not: First, Hummel had a reputation as a three-point shooter. And the Wolves, still in morning-after mode after the worst outside shooting season basically ever, were desperate for three-point shooters. Second, Hummel’s size (he’s not the 6’8″ he’s listed at, but he’s still a big guard) allows him to guard multiple positions. Jeffers can’t say the same. Hummel made the team.

Let’s take the last part first. Hummel is indeed a versatile defender who can guard twos, threes and the occasional four. He doesn’t lock anyone down or create holy chaos like Corey Brewer, and you certainly wouldn’t want to stick him on your opponent’s most dynamic scorer, but his court awareness, body positioning and great effort generally mitigate his lack of footspeed. He grabs some rebounds he probably shouldn’t be able to grab; he contests some shots you wouldn’t think he could contest. The Wolves were able to plug him into various spots in the lineup throughout the year without being punished too severely for it.

All of these are useful things. If Hummel had turned out to be a great or even above-average three-point shooter, they would feel like nice corollary benefits. (As in: “Wow, what a shooter–and how nice that he plays hard and can passably guard three positions!”) But Hummel was not an above-average three-point shooter; he was an exactly average three-point shooter, (I mean exactly: both the league as a whole and Hummel himself hit 36% of their threes). And hitting wide-open, spot-up threes is by far the best thing Hummel does. Once he moves inside the arc, things get dicey. 27.3% of Hummel’s field goal attempts came in the dreaded “long-two” zone–and he hit just 29.2% of those shots. He isn’t quick or skilled enough to create space for himself off the dribble and he isn’t athletic enough to hit contested shots.

And so, despite his average three-point shooting, despite his skill at spotting up in open space on the floor, Hummel’s True Shooting rate was a deeply below-average 49.2%. In other words, he wasn’t really helping the team much offensively. Indeed, Hummel’s mediocrity was a contributing factor to the Wolves’ difficulties off the bench this season and their general lack of outside shooting by players not named Kevin. I would be surprised if Hummel finds himself in a Wolves uniform again next season.

 

We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2013-14 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.

Othyus Jeffers is incredibly good at basketball. He is so good, in fact, that he has been named the Co-MVP of (arguably) the second-best professional league in the world, which means he is among the best 500 basketball players alive today. He is 6’5″, which is very tall by almost any standard you could imagine. He is probably stronger and quicker and more skilled and more athletically explosive than anyone you will ever know personally. Also, his name sounds like the name of a fictional space gladiator. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could say any of these things about yourself?

But Othyus Jeffers has a weird life because in professional basketball being the 300th best player in the world is wildly different from being the 500th best. The 300th-best player might be a rotation player on an NBA playoff team. He has a decent chance of keeping his job for an entire season and then coming back the next year. He has a good chance of a salary in the millions. But the 500th-best player’s life is not like that. This player scrapes by on a wage slightly lower than that of a first-year public-school teacher in New Mexico (which is to say: very low). He might play basketball in many different leagues in many different countries in the same year. He might get a fleeting chance to play in the league of his dreams, catch 34 minutes of burn over seven days and then get waived. He might currently be playing for a team called…The Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters of the Philippine Basketball Association.

(That is a real basketball team! Say ‘text’ again!) As anyone who watched the Wolves’ Summer League squad, or who make a point of following the NBDL’s Iowa Energy, Othyus Jeffers does a lot of things really well. He attacks the basket with passion. He runs the floor. He rebounds and defends like he has murder in his heart. But the margins between that 300th-best player and that 500th-best player are very fine. If you are an off-guard who can’t shoot the three and aren’t quite long enough to guard the league’s bigger perimeter players, it doesn’t quite matter how hard you fight for boards or how lustily you throw yourself at the basket. Your road to the NBA will be a hard one.

I have very warm feelings for Othyus Jeffers. My sense of moral justice wants to believe there’s a place in the league for someone with such great desire and resolve.  But the NBA is a cold place. You can approach a 1:30 pm Summer League game–mostly a venue for 22-year-olds in weird practice jerseys to hoist 10 threes in eight minutes of court time–like it’s game 7 of the apocalypse; you, an undersized off-guard, can average 9.9 boards a game in the D-League (really!); you can throw a tomahawk on every Filipino who gets between you and the rim…you can do all that and still barely get the faintest look in the show.

It was easy to say that the Wolves’ horrifying struggles in close games were a statistical anomaly. In the abstract, we always knew that a few lucky bounces were all that separated the Wolves from a record more befitting their point differential. (Seriously, how strange is it that for all of this team’s problems, they could easily be sitting in the fifth or sixth seed right now?) But after seeing how this team has performed in close games it became much harder to imagine how they would actually manage to win one. This wasn’t just bad luck; there are actual reasons that the Wolves have been so bad in late-game situations. They are short on shooters, which allows teams to trap ballhandlers and collapse into the paint. Their offense relies on getting to the free-throw line and refs tend to swallow their whistles late in games. They are given to moments of insane decision-making.  They are simply inconsistent in their execution on both ends of the floor.

It’s not as if any of these things changed on Friday evening in Oakland. In the final three minutes of this impossibly close game, the Wolves did the following: committed a turnover on an entry pass; nearly committed a shot-clock violation; missed a wide-open three; fouled a three-point shooter; committed a foul in the backcourt, up one with 30 seconds to go while in the penalty.

But, somehow, they made just enough plays to win the game, and a road game against a playoff team at that. Ricky Rubio made a midrange jumper after Love fought through a triple team to shovel him the ball. Brewer hit an incredibly cold-blooded, contested corner three. They were able to get the ball out of Stephen Curry’s hands on the final key possessions. Finally, Kevin Martin hit a clutch, last-second jumper, the first such shot for the Wolves, really, since the season’s first game. Make no mistake: this was a huge win for the Wolves and, at the risk of undue optimism, one that could set them on a new path.

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As we speak, the Wolves are sitting at 16-16, three games out of the eighth spot in in the Western Conference. For many of us, this comes as a great disappointment, especially after the team’s strong start. This was supposed to be the year that the Wolves finally fulfilled those years of deferred promises (deferred by injury, by the vicissitudes of foreign contract buyouts, by drafting Wes Johnson). It doesn’t seem to make sense. The Wolves have added Kevin Martin, the perimeter scorer they’d always craved. Nikola Pekovic is learning how to dominate games in the paint. Kevin Love is having a near-MVP season. Most importantly, thanks to the relative paucity of injuries (knocking so hard on basically anything that even remotely resembles wood) all of the Wolves’ principals are able to share the floor (at the same time!).

So what’s happening here? There have been many explanations offered, most of them containing a large grain of truth. Up until just this past week, the Wolves’ schedule had been a gauntlet of road games, back-to-backs and elite teams. Their half-court defense has been inconsistent, their transition D abysmal. Their late-game execution has been awful, accounting for their 0-8 record in games decided by fewer than five points. Their bench has been among the league’s worst.

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From the Wolves:

The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced the team has reached an agreement in principle on a contract with restricted free-agent center Nikola Pekovic. Per team policy, terms of the agreement were not  disclosed. ‘Retaining Pek was our No. 1 priority this offseason and we’re very excited that he’s chosen to continue his career in Minnesota,’ said Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders.
Meanwhile, Marc Stein is reporting at ESPN that the contract is a five-year deal, worth $60 million “and potentially up to an additional $8 million in incentive-related bonuses.”
The deal was clinched, sources say, when Minnesota offered a fifth year. Initial indications are that neither side possesses an option in the new contract, making it a straight-up deal for the next five seasons for the 27-year-old.
Now, it’s hard to speak definitively until we know for certain about the option status of that fifth year and about the details of those incentives. But if the deal really is as Stein says it is, another fully guaranteed year and extra incentives strikes me as too great a concession on the Wolves part to a player who, remember, had no meaningful bargaining leverage. (Although we can certainly speculate on the effect of Kevin Love’s looming free-agency–and the fact that Pekovic’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, also represents Love–on the negotiations). The cumulative effect of those little things–the extra year here and there, those extra few million–can be disastrous down the road for small-market teams under this Collective Bargaining Agreement.