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We’re halfway through the 2014-15 NBA season and things haven’t gone exactly to plan. The Minnesota Timberwolves missed at least three starters for two months of the season and it’s helped them go from a promising start 4.5 games into the season to a 7-34 record at the halfway point. Granted, that record is mostly skewed because of the loss of Ricky Rubio (Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic’s absences hurt too), but you don’t get wins on a grading curve in the NBA.

Either you can win them or you can’t. And without Rubio, the Wolves’ defense has been a mess and the offense hasn’t been much better. However, there has been one constant beacon of hope on the horizon, showing the future seasons won’t be so bad.  Continue Reading…

WolvesRebuild

It’s safe to say the Minnesota Timberwolves won’t be making the playoffs for the 11th straight season.

With a record of 5-29, the Wolves sit just 2.5 games ahead of the New York Knicks and are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the second worst record in the NBA. The Knicks have played four more games than the Wolves and have one-upped the Wolves for the longest current losing streak at 14 games (Wolves are at 13 losses in a row).

The injuries have taken their toll on the Wolves this season, which is the main reason for their record being as abysmal as it appears. Ricky Rubio’s high ankle injury, Nikola Pekovic’s sprained wrist and ankle, and Kevin Martin’s broken wrist have decimated the veteran leadership on the court and the organization needed to remain competitive most nights. NBA.com has the Wolves with the worst defense in the NBA at a rating of 110.2 points per 100 possessions allowed. The Los Angeles Lakers are the second worst at 109.8 per 100. They have the fifth worst offense at 99.2 points per 100 possessions scored. Only the Sixers have a worse net rating (minus-12.9 points per 100) than the Wolves (minus-11.0).

I never thought the Wolves would be good this season and hopes of them approaching what they did last season with a deeper team seemed foolish and too Disney story for my liking. But expecting them to be this bad would also have been crazy, if you assumed this team was going to be healthy. Since they are currently this bad and looking like they’re officially focused more on the future than the present (we’ll see how it goes when the veterans get healthy), I thought we could take a look as we approach the mid point of the season and look at the long-term, rebuilding prospects of each player on this team.  Continue Reading…

UCLA v Arizona State

The trade of Corey Brewer to the Houston Rockets wasn’t just a signal that the Timberwolves are ready to go young, sacrificing a veteran player in the name of draft picks and a young shooter with upside (Troy Daniels). While that type of deal is the one rebuilding teams often make, and while this one made sense for Minnesota’s long-term plan, there was something else motivating the Wolves to move Brewer: freeing up playing time for second-year man Shabazz Muhammad. Continue Reading…

(Getty)

(Getty)

Earlier on Friday, I had a big long-form feature about Andrew Wiggins on CBSSports.com posted. I traveled to Brooklyn last week to follow the team on part of their road trip. I attended the Wolves’ win over the Nets, then followed them to Orlando, and came back to Miami with them. Part of the purpose of this trip was to try to write about Wiggins and the development process of creating a star. I was able to spend time and talk to some friends around the team, talk to scouts, coaches, players, and media members from around the league, and try to get a handle on just how realistic and great Wiggins’ potential development could be.

A very cool part of the research of this piece was running into David Thorpe of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida and ESPN.com. I’ve known David for a few years, and he’s worked with dozens of NBA and international players, including Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. He and I sat down to discuss Andrew Wiggins’ potential and the process of developing such an exciting prospect. His answers were incredible and he offered up great insight. I decided to post the full Q&A here, since I could only use so much of what he said in my piece on CBSSports. Hope you enjoy both the conversation, and the post on Wiggins:  Continue Reading…

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 2012-13 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.

As a member of the Utah Jazz and a student of Jerry Sloan–legendary codger, American Gothic come to life–Andrei Kirilenko spent the first decade of his NBA career toiling within that nest of cuts, screens and re-screens known as the flex offense. The flex is both highly choreographed and Pynchon-esque in its complexity; and Sloan was an exceedingly exacting and demanding coach. In each offensive set, players would be expected to arrive at certain spots on the floor at certain moments in the shot clock. If they didn’t hit their mark, they could often be treated to a profane tongue-lashing from the old man.

Such military-style precision may not have been much fun to execute (although it could be a real thing of beauty when it was humming), but his apprenticeship gifted Kirilenko with an almost preternatural instinct for the game. Which is to his credit: many players so-schooled might find it difficult to thrive in a less systematic environment. For AK, though, the flex’s rhythm and flow have become internal. His intuition for off-the-ball movement and for the dynamics of an offensive possession are nearly unmatched in the league. You could just see him envisioning the flows of movement and open space even before they occurred. The perfectly timed backdoor cut; the telekinetic high post feed; the interior touch pass–these were the staples of Kirilenko’s game. (By the way, if you ever want to feel better about life, I suggest checking out all 177 of AK’s assists from this past season. Really makes you breathe easier.) Watching him play was one of the real joys of the Wolves’ year.

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The Timberwolves have had their share of splashy injuries, the kind that lead on Sportscenter and receive their own Twitter hashtags, injuries that date models and endorse Nikes. But the Wolves also boast injuries that are less gaudy and heavy-trending but that were nonetheless essential to last season’s disappointment and frustration. Because for much of the season, while the Wolves were desperate for perimeter players who could a) capably execute the corner offense and b) hit a three more than 30% of the time and c) be taller than 6’1″, they had just such a player sitting behind their bench in a slightly ill-fitting suit.

That player, of course, is the fair Chase Budinger. Like most things involving the Wolves this year, Budinger’s season was disfigured and disjointed. He was felled after six games by torn meniscus in his left knee; and when he finally returned, 59 games later, he looked like he was running with a ten-pound weight on his left ankle. He had no explosiveness, no lateral movement and no rhythm in his jumper.

Still, when he returned to the lineup in March, his effect on the team was palpable. Because the Wolves’ lineup was so depleted during the heart of the season, Rick Adelman radically simplified the offense, abandoning most of his corner sets, putting the ball in the hands of his guards and asking them to make plays. This was out of necessity–the Wolves just didn’t have enough talent to run sets with multiple options–but this distillation of the offense made it one-dimensional and awfully easy to defend. When Budinger rejoined the team, his ability to move without the ball, to hit midrange jumpers off of flare screens and to even marginally threaten the defense from beyond the arc significantly improved the Wolves’ spacing and offensive continuity. After all, if you want to run the pick and roll, its helpful if the defense is forced to do something beyond packing five players into the paint.  It was no magic bullet–certainly nothing that balanced the loss of Kevin Love–but the Wolves’ offense was noticeably better when Budinger was on the floor (about two points per 100 possessions better according to 82games).

What’s more it underscored the importance of skilled, savvy role players to a team’s makeup. When those roles go unfilled, especially a role as essential to success in the contemporary NBA as outside shooting, a team’s offensive idea collapses in on itself. You get what you saw in the Wolves this year: a team forced to improvise and scrape just to keep its head above water.

This summer, the Wolves will be scouring the draft and the free-agent market for shooters. Despite his struggles last season, Budinger is still shoots 36% from distance for his career, will likely once again be able to dunk like this and is still tall. All that, plus he isn’t likely to command much more than $3 million per year. I’d advise them to look into it.

Correction: In an earlier version of this post, I said that Budinger was unlikely to command “much more than the veteran’s minimum.” The 2013/2014 minimum for a five-year vet will be just over $1,027,000. Clearly, in real world dollars, $3 million is quite a bit more than that. Certainly, the difference is enough to buy and sell you or me many times over. Still, my point remains: for a player with the potential to help the Wolves offense so much, in NBA money, $3 million a year is a solid bargain.

Mickael Gelabale defending the pick-and-ro–I mean sitting on a couch.

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 2012-13 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.

One of the more puzzling strands of the Wolves’ season was Rick Adelman’s routine postgame praising of Mickael Gelabale. ‘Geli’ (or ‘Jelly‘?) often received kind words for his defensive energy or his corner three shooting or even, it seemed, his mere presence. I say ‘puzzling’ because to the naked eye Gelabale seemed to be only a moderately interested bystander on the court. With the exception of the Great Ten Day Contract Miracle of January 19th, in which he and Chris Johnson combined to score 23 of the victorious Wolves’ 29 fourth-quarter points, he never had much of an impact on the game’s outcome. He has a sleepy, uninflected face and a loping stride, both of which express less “playoff intensity” than “mildly hungover Sunday afternoon softball game.” Rather than providing “good energy” or whatever, he seemed instead to be a kind of null presence, just a blurry outline of a not-quite replacement level NBA player.

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Its hard to believe that there was ever a time during the 2012-2013 season when Malcolm Lee played basketball for the Timberwolves. Think hard now. This is before Ricky Rubio’s return, before the re-breaking of the shooting hand, before Rick Adelman’s extended leave. These were the days of the shocking 5-2 start and of Josh Howard and Brandon Roy.

Lee’s season was laid low after only 16 games by a right knee condition I have never heard of, in the second wave (or third, depending how you’re counting–at some point the waves all just flow together) of Wolves’ injuries. His loss was little noticed at the time because it was so overshadowed by Kevin Love’s shooting hand fiasco. This, of course, after playing in only 19 games in 2011-2012 because of mensiscus surgery on his other knee. So: two seasons, 35 games, 532 mostly un-memorable minutes. Doesn’t leave us with much to work with does it?

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RubioSmile

Over the next few days on A Wolf Among Wolves, I’ll be breaking down the play of Ricky Rubio since he’s returned from his ACL surgery last March. When Rubio came back on December 12th against the Dallas Mavericks, we all wondered how long it would take him to regain his form. In an attempt to figure out the turning point for Rubio and how we can track his change, I’ve decided to chart various parts of his game. In some areas, I’ve found improvement and in some areas, the numbers don’t bear out a lot of change. But what I have found — and something everybody has noticed — is a change in his game recently that reminds us of his incredible play as a rookie. Today, I’ll be breaking down Ricky Rubio as a scorer:

We’re starting to see results.

The box scores of Ricky Rubio the past few games have been nomadic, moving all over the place. His aggressiveness on the basketball court has been something that we didn’t see in his shortened rookie season. It’s a new style of play in which he’s looking for his own shot because he knows he has to get the defense to respect the chance that he might try to score. If this threat isn’t there, even in the back of the defense’s mind, then it’s a lot easier for them to sit in his passing lanes and ruin the effect he has on a basketball court.

His aggression isn’t something we saw right away. The flashy passing was there the night of the return against the Dallas Mavericks back in December; however, he rarely looked for his own shot in an attempt to keep the defense honest. This could have been due to a lack of confidence, a lack of conditioning in his body, or a lack of strength in the leg he worked so hard to bring back to a professional athletic environment. But regardless, there had to be a turning point with Rubio that finally brought about the spark we’ve seen through him.  Continue Reading…

As observers of the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of our favorite idle activities is wondering about Derrick Williams. There are a lot of reasons for this, but principle among them is a) the fact that, after he devoured everybody during his sophomore year of college, the Wolves made him the second pick in the draft and b) the fact that he is frighteningly athletic and talented but has yet to come anywhere close to living up to either his potential or his draft position.

The combination of those two facts tend to distort our perception of Williams’ performance. To us, Derrick Williams may always be “extremely talented/second pick” rather than simply “young player learning the game.” Incidentally, Rick Adelman, who has been around too long to be unduly impressed by either high draft position or exceptional, but unrealized talent, clearly views Williams through that latter lens. More than once, he has seemed mildly perplexed by the fuss that we all make over Williams. To Adelman, D-Will is just another gifted young guy who may or may not become good enough to stick.

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