Archives For Player Analysis

Another year and another bundle of frustration for Michael Beasley and those that want him to be great good oh hell let’s just be adequately productive.

Michael Beasley had the excuse last year of the ankle injury that seemed to crop up every time he hit the floor. This year, he had the excuse of a lockout-hastened season, a new coach, a new system, new teammates, the sun was in his eyes, the locker room is too cold, the locker room is too hot, the arena is a little outdated, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia hasn’t been very good for the last three seasons and it’s affecting his mood, Anthony Randolph’s lack of emotion on his face is freaking him out, he has to keep an eye on Pek at all times, are they using that synthetic ball again?, and whatever else his supporters will try to figure out to throw at his detractors. That’s been the problem with Michael Beasley since he came into the league with Derrick Rose and Kevin Love, et al.; there’s always an excuse for why he isn’t better on the basketball court.

In high school and college, the competition sucks. We can pretend college basketball is the heartland of fundamentals and team basketball but the reality is college basketball is a big arena of suck. You can press against teams because the guards aren’t that good. Passes are off, dribbling is weak, shooting is off, and anybody with superior athletic ability and a pretty decent chunk of skills can pretty much show out each night. That’s what Michael Beasley did on the AAU circuit and that’s what he did at Kansas State. If he slipped up, it didn’t matter because the competition wasn’t good enough to stop him. Move to the NBA and the competition, scouting and preparation is far too good to just fake your way through the game. Anybody can end up putting up points at the NBA level but HOW do you put up points?

In 2010-11, when Beasley was battling ankle turns and jacking up shots to put up pretty points, he was doing so inefficiently. In the 3-point era (1979 to present day), 38 players have put up 20 points or fewer per game while attempting 17 or more shots per game. Michael Beasley is on that list and ranks 31st in WS/48. He’s sandwiched in between Isaiah Rider’s 2000 campaign with the Atlanta Hawks and Ron Mercer’s 2001 season with the Chicago Bulls. His PER for that season is 26th out of those 38 players, between Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1993 and Antoine Walker in 2005.

When this season started, Rick Adelman seemed to at least pretend to try to make it work with Beasley. He started the first seven games, averaging 12.9 points on 14.1 attempts per game. He shot just 39.4% from the field. Then he sprained his foot and missed the next 10 games. It gave Adelman an excuse not to have him in the lineup much anymore. When he came back, the team was playing pretty good basketball, figuring things out on the fly. Beasley was given the role of being the scoring sixth man off the bench. As long as they were winning, Beasley said he was fine with it. There were games in which this looked like a brilliant move. Beasley would actually attack the glass or play a little defense (not often but it happened!). Beasley would still jack up the same shots that frustrate coaches non-stop but there was intermittent effort.

As the season went on and things took a turn for the worse, Beasley never fully embraced his role as the Lamar Odom or James Harden or Jason Terry of this team. He broke off plays on the offense. If he got hot (remember the Clippers?), it all looked justified. When he wasn’t hot, it looked like Adelman was ready to try J.J. Barea at small forward instead.

Now the Wolves have to decide tomorrow whether or not a qualifying offer should be extended to Beasley. The qualifying offer would mean that (most likely) worst-case scenario for Beas is a one year, $8.2 million deal. If you’ve watched Beasley the last two years and aren’t related to him, it’s probably making you break out in cold sweats thinking about paying him $8.2 million for a year of basketball. That’s Kris Humphries money after all!

Believe it or not, I actually like Michael Beasley quite a bit. He’s fun to be around in the locker room. He’s a jovial and off-the-wall kind of guy. And MAYBE another year under Adelman and a full training camp with the coaching staff could finally right the ship that is Michael Beasley. However, at a certain point it’s no longer about the things going on around him. The things he’s choosing to do in the game of basketball are the only excuse for why he’s not playing up to his potential. He may figure it out some day and make everybody that didn’t give him a “long enough chance” look foolish.

I just don’t want the Wolves to continue to wait to see if THIS is the year he puts it together.

Wolves have taken themselves out of the 18th pick fiasco that I babbled about yesterday by dealing it to the Houston Rockets for Chase Budinger and the rights to Lior Eliyahu.

The Eliyahu aspect of the trade shouldn’t really matter. He’s a good athlete that really can’t shoot or do much with the ball. I guess a guy like Rubio could make him valuable in the open court on some level, but he really shouldn’t have a real chance at making the team if the Wolves are serious about filling out this roster. He’ll be at Summer League and we’ll see how he’s progressed.

As far as Chase Budinger goes, I love this deal for the Wolves. Is Chase Budinger a future star in the NBA? No. It’s also unlikely the Wolves would have picked up a wing player at 18 that would have provided the instant production that Chase will bring to the team. Terrence Ross falling to the Wolves seems like the only way the team could have maximized this pick. Otherwise, it’s a lot of square pegs into holes that already have square pegs there.

Chase Budinger is as good of an athlete as anybody that will be available, so let’s not pretend they downgraded there. He’s also a guy that shot 40.2% from 3-point range last year. Not only did he shoot 40.2% from 3-point range last year but he can make corner 3s as well.

Check out the next three shot charts.  Continue Reading…

Metta World Peace. Kevin Martin. Nicolas Batum. Russell Westbrook. Steve Nash. Eric Bledsoe. Some of these guys are scampering point guards, some are long, explosive scorers, some are bruising forwards.  What do these people have in common? The answer is they were all guarded by the 6’2″, 175-lb Luke Ridnour this past season. If that seems a little strange, well that’s just a testament to how strange and experimental the Wolves’ 2012 season was.

Many of these matchups were the result of Rick Adelman’s backcourt pairing of Ridnour with fellow point guard Ricky Rubio. The reasoning behind playing this unconventional lineup (apart from the always hilarious David-Kahn-loves-point-guards punch line) is actually pretty easy to understand. First, Adelman knew that without Ridnour his starting lineup would be hurting both for scoring and, outside of Rubio, proficient ballhandling. Second, and more basically; Adelman simply wanted his best players on the floor together as much as possible. (Incidentally, both of these needs were exacerbated by Adelman’s need to give Wesley Johnson 20 minutes a game.)

Oddly enough, it worked out pretty well for the Wolves. The Wolves were +22 overall with Rubio and Ridnour playing together. The presence of Ridnour’s offensive skills gave Rubio a perimeter safety valve. And Ridnour attacked his impossible defensive task with enough energy and guts to prevent the Wolves from being hurt to badly for their lack of backcourt size.

One of the mysteries of Ridnour’s career is that his perimeter shooting has been inconsistent, not from game to game but from season to season. Scattered throughout his career, Ridnour has three times shot better than 37% from three and twice shot below 30%. He finished the ’10-’11 season as the league’s fourth-best three-point shooters, at 44%, and then regressed to 32.2% this year. (More Ridnour-ian oddities: because of his tiny frame and lack of real explosiveness, Ridnour has typically been poor finisher; for most of his career he was a sub-50% shooter at the rim. This year, though he suddenly hit 65.5% of his shots at the rim, significantly above the league average. I’m at a loss to explain this.) So its a little bit difficult to predict just what kind of shooting performance we’ll get from Ridnour in the future. While its probably not reasonable to expect another season of 40% three-point shooting, I think we can certainly hope that in a less compressed, injury-plagued year, he’ll again be a solidly above-average shooter.

So Luke Ridnour is not a perfect player. He’s too small to be a great defender. His shot selection can be a little shaky. He can’t claim to have Ricky Rubio’s preternatural knack for playmaking. Nevertheless, Ridnour’s contribution to the team this past year can’t be overestimated. Early in the year, he provided much needed backcourt stability, easing Rubio’s transition to the NBA and running the point for the second unit as J.J. Barea battled through his numerous injuries. And later on, after Rubio went down, Ridnour became the team’s primary playmaker, the only player capable of making sure that the Wolves’ offense ran coherently. (As it happens, the Wolves’ offense was more efficient with Ridnour on the floor than with Rubio).

Only after Ridnour went down with his own season-ending injury and the team entered the final stages of its downward spiral did we understand the full extent of his contributions: his ability to coordinate an offense; his competitiveness; his simple professionalism. Luke Ridnour’s a nice guy to have around.

Some players drafted second overall in the past decade or so: Darko Milicic; Michael Beasley; Stromile Swift; Hasheem Thabeet. Marvin Williams: a perfectly fine player and all but is markedly less fine when one considers that he was drafted ahead of  both Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Yes Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Alridge were second picks, but so was the unfortunate Jay Williams. (I suppose it depends on your perspective whether you consider experiencing a hellaciously awful motorcycle crash that ruins your career and nearly kills you, but does not kill you, fortunate or unfortunate.) Steve Francis was a second pick.

And so was our very own Derrick Williams. In the second pick pantheon Williams will surely find himself somewhere in the hazy middle between Darko and Durant. Better, I truly hope, than Mike Beasley. Better than Williams? As good as LaMarcus? Now it’s getting tricky.

Williams’ first season in the league was recognizable to anyone who keeps tabs on young talent in the NBA. It consisted of a handful of sobering, only-a-few-humans-alive-can-do-what-he-just-did kinds of plays, a handful truly wincingly awful plays and a large portion of stuff in the middle. Williams certainly doesn’t fall into the “insanely athletic/talented but has no idea what he’s doing category” but in the more even more tantalizing “insanely athletic/talented and almost (but not quite) knows what he’s doing” category. There are a lot of perfectly mediocre NBA players in that latter category.

Continue Reading…

Martell Webster’s season will most likely be remembered with agonizing humor.

His blunder at the end of an overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets on February 20th was a frustrating mistake that potentially cost the Wolves a victory when the season still had life. He stole an inbound pass from Julyan Stone with the Wolves down three and just under four seconds left in the game, drove to the basket, and slammed it home. Rick Adelman said it was possibly emotions getting the best of Martell.

Martell explained his thought process as “But what was going through my mind was go to the rim and possibly get fouled. The contingency to that shot was get a bucket, get a foul, they miss free throws and we get another shot. It didn’t work out that way.” By the time he flushed the ball through the rim and the Wolves fouled Corey Brewer, there was only half a second left in the game and the Nuggets held on for victory.

He was the butt of the joke for the rest of the season whenever Wolves and end-of-game situations came up. In reality, it was a microcosm of sorts for how the Wolves played at the end of basketball games. Webster rushed through the motions and tried to extend the game. When the Wolves found themselves in “clutch situations” (plus/minus five points with five or fewer minutes left in the fourth or overtime), they had one of the highest paces in the league.

Considering the Wolves and their up-tempo DNA, it’s possible that was by design. They wanted to continue to run teams out of the building, no matter what the situation. But their execution in these situations left a lot to be desired.

There wasn’t really many clutch situations in which they were that close to having an advantage. When the defense was good, the offense seemed to not be able to match it. When the offense increased as the time ticked away in close games, the defense became pitiful.

Not all of those can be blamed on Martell Webster. In fact, very little of it can be blamed on him. Webster was not good this year. In fact, other than the five-minute season he had in 2008-09, he’s only had a worse PER once (9.9 in his second season) and WS/48 twice (.039 and .036 his first two years) than the 10.0 PER and .064 WS/48 numbers he put up this season. He also tied the second worse true shooting percentage of his career with a 53.3%.

Some of this could be chalked up to frustrating decisions with the basketball. Some of this could be due to the back injury he’ll pretty much have to live with the rest of his career. He’s a lottery pick that has never produced relative to his draft position, but he’s also a guy that can be a valuable veteran in the right role. And it seemed like for most of the season, Webster was accepting of and thriving in that role.

He has young players’ ears and even though he’s just 25 years old, he’s a seven-year veteran that has learned how the league works. He’s here to help the team but he’s also here for veteran stability.

Unfortunately on that particular February night in Denver, Martell will be remembered for not playing with stability or poise. He’ll be remembered for that embodiment of frustrating Wolves’ play at the end of clutch games this year. They made strides, finishing 7-7 in games decided by three points or less. But to be a serious playoff contender, the Wolves need all of their guys to continue to grow.

Webster is a reminder that grit and determination can get you on the court in the NBA. But he’s also a reminder to this young Wolves team that you have to keep your head when the game gets tight.

With just $600,000 of his $5.7 million contract being guaranteed before July 1st, we’ll find out in the next two weeks if he’ll get more chances with this team to learn how to close out games in the future.

The plight of Wayne Ellington was befuddling to many Wolves fans throughout the season.

We were a team full of shooters who could no longer shoot. After blistering the NBA with 3-point baskets when down double digits in 2010-11, the Wolves either regressed to the mean, had a lockout-induced outlier, or thought the new CBA brought about horseshoe rules in which close was good enough. Whatever the reasons were, Wayne Ellington seemed like a decent answer for a team that wasn’t making long-range shots.

He started out the first month of the season seeing solid minutes on the floor. Through the first 19 games of the season, he averaged 21.2 minutes per game and was providing an adequate threat for spreading the floor. Granted, these were all small sample sizes after a chaotic start to the season, but after going 1/6 from 3-point range in the first game of the season, Wayne hit 39.4% (13/33) of his 3s in the month of January while the team managed to make just 34.6%.

The team was still playing good defense during his extended minutes on the court as well (102.3 defensive rating in January; 99.5 as a team overall). Wayne’s defensive effort was often commendable even though he was a bit shorter than the wing scorers he was asked to defend. His footwork was solid and his effort to keep up was consistent. Unfortunately, he simply wasn’t tall enough to truly bother a lot of shots.

As Ben Polk mentioned in his Wes Johnson post, “But what’s really strange is that, given the depth of his offensive struggle, given his great athletic gifts and given his stated desire to be a great NBA defender, he would be so noncommittal on the defensive end.” The weird thing about the Wes Johnson experience is his minutes stayed consistent over the course of the entire season. He never dropped below 20 minutes per game in any month of the season. He couldn’t make shots and he didn’t seem engaged on defense. And yet he was consistently on the floor, perhaps in the hopes that Ricky Rubio could figure out how to make Wes work.

When February hit, Wayne Ellington’s minutes vanished. In back-to-back games from January 23rd and 25th, he logged 71 minutes. Over the next 13 games, he played just 96 minutes total. Why did Wayne fall out of favor with Rick Adelman’s rotation? Perhaps there were practice issues, although the team didn’t really have a lot of time to practice. Perhaps there were personality clashes, except nothing ever seemed to get out about Wayne or Rick being unhappy with one another. Perhaps it was the hope that greater “talents” in Martell Webster and Wes Johnson would figure out how to play in a budding rotation that was starting to take off even when their wings remained grounded.

Whatever the reason was, the Wolves’ best shooter was left for rotting on the pine during a key month of the season. It wasn’t a good move and it wasn’t a bad move. I don’t even know that it was a move at all. It was just confusing to watch one of the team’s best shooters struggle to find time on the floor when his shot had been threatening and his effort to play defense has shone through.

Wayne would regain minutes after Ricky Rubio’s injury but his shooting touch was inconsistent over the last two months of the season. It’s weird to think that Wayne Ellington was actually the answer at shooting guard during the season because he probably wasn’t. He’s a backup kind of guy and even then I’m not sure you have to have him in your rotation.

It’s also weird to think a guy that was providing a need and needed effort at a consistently struggling position for the Wolves would just stop playing without much explanation or proven alternative available.

Long-term, this isn’t a big deal but in the short term, it was pretty puzzling.

Let’s talk about the things that are and are not Wesley Johnson’s fault. The coming civil war in Syria? Not his fault. Being drafted ahead of DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe and Paul George? Not his fault. Being born with a sweet, mild demeanor? Not his fault and not really a bad thing either if your goal is to be a well-liked nice person. But if your goal is to be a terrific NBA player, a gentle nature is, while not necessarily a hindrance, an attribute best kept in its proper perspective.

Because no matter what kind of person you are, the passivity and seeming indifference with which Johnson approached his job this season is something that you can control. I’m personally not too mortified by things like a player laughing on the bench during a blowout loss; we’re all unique after all, and process things in strikingly different ways. What’s a bit more concerning to me is that Johnson seemed to bring no particular passion or investment to the actual task of playing basketball.

Its not even his offensive reticence that really puzzles me. Although let’s be clear: Johnson had a terrible offensive season. I challenge you to find an NBA starter with a PER worse than Johnson’s 8.08.  (Ups, I found one: DeShawn Stevenson, though he started fewer than half as many games as Wes.) And I certainly also find it strange that a player would seem less confident playing with Ricky Rubio and under Rick Adelman than he did in his first year learning the Triangle and that, under those circumstances, he would become a less intuitive passer, a less efficient shooter and turn the ball over at a higher rate. And it’s no doubt strange that, though he had clearly worked on his skills over the long off-season, Johnson’s game would remain so remarkably static and one-dimensional, that his midrange game would remain so undeveloped, that he would make even fewer attempts to attack the basket and draw contact (dude only went to the line 34 times in 65 games).

Yup, that’s all really strange. But what’s really strange is that, given the depth of his offensive struggle, given his great athletic gifts and given his stated desire to be a great NBA defender, he would be so noncommittal on the defensive end. We’ve talked about this before. But it remains a mystery. Why doesn’t Johnson, pursue his man around screens, or deny passing lanes or rotate to the basket or close out on shooters with more vigor? I really have no idea.

This season, many people wondered aloud a player struggling so badly would be given starting nods so frequently. Considering the Wolves’ limited options on the wing, this wasn’t something that ever particularly bothered me; after all, Johnson finished games much less frequently than he started them. And in any event, it was certainly to the Wolves’ benefit to give Johnson–just one year removed from being the third fourth pick in the draft–every opportunity to improve.

But he didn’t improve. And so in addition to wondering how that possibly happened, we have to wonder how much better we can expect him to get. Was this merely a crises of confidence? a dark spell that the lithe, formerly pure shooting kid can be coached out of? Or is Wes Johnson simply one of those players temperamentally unsuited to the NBA? I’d love to know the answer.

Anthony Tolliver is one of the nicest, most earnest, least self-important professional athletes you will ever hope to meet.  What’s more, over the past three years, he’s poured remarkable quantities of energy and passion into some of the more hopeless NBA teams imaginable. Even when his coaches have neglected to actually coach defense (see: Nellieball), or have done so exceptionally poorly (see: Kurt Rambis), or when his teammates have given up on the idea of doing the difficult, painful things necessary to compete in NBA basketball games (see: well, you know), there has been Anthony Tolliver: diving on the floor, rotating with fervor, contesting shots, fighting for loose balls.

And there were a handful of games this season in which Tolliver’s energies, particularly on the defensive end, won the Wolves extra possessions, disrupted their opponent’s execution and inspired his teammates to hang against teams with vast manpower and skill advantages (I’m thinking particularly of those grueling consecutive road losses to San Antonio and Oklahoma City in mid-March). Tolliver is a touch undersized to guard fours and more than a touch slow to guard threes, but his willingness to compete defensively, plus his great team defensive instincts, allowed Rick Adelman to plug him into both spots when needed. Indeed, the Wolves’ were .8 points/100 possessions better defensively when Tolliver was on the floor, a feat made more impressive when you consider that the bulk of his playing time came after Ricky Rubio went down and the Wolves’ defense went into its death spiral.

The problem, of course, the thing that kept Tolliver at the end of the bench for much of the season, was the offensive end of the floor. Simply put, Tolliver had a terrible season shooting the ball. He hit only 35% of his twos outside of ten feet and only 24.8% of his threes, both of which are far below his career averages. Tolliver has a nice shooting stroke and many of those misses were wide open looks; and so a great portion of his struggles seem to stem simply from an extended  slump.

But it also seemed as if Tolliver was struggling to find a role within the offense. In the past, the better portion of Tolliver’s buckets came from hard work around the rim and smart off-the-ball movement. He got a lot of putbacks, a lot of layups and a nice helping of open midrange j’s. For much of this year, though, Tolliver seemed stranded in the corners, simply waiting for the Wolves’ guards to do their thing and find him for the open three (and I guess you can’t really blame him). He kept shooting and kept missing; his offensive game became both one-dimensional and ineffective. Not a good combo.

Tolliver has been is a free-agent this summer and its hard to predict whether he figures into the Wolves’ plans. If he does stay on, the team would be well served by finding a more nuanced role for him within the offense. Also: if you’re an undersized tweener, frontcourt energy guy, you’d be advised to hit those open j’s.

This is Anthony Randolph with his shirt on backwards.

Not to get into the habit of quoting myself, but this is what I had to say about Anthony Randolph last fall:

It’s hard to tell what will become of this strange dude. But here’s my best guess: with his blank, far-away demeanor, Anthony Randolph falls into that vast category of NBA player with overwhelming talent but a temperament that prevents that talent from ever fully flowering.

Sad to say, but I don’t think that’s changed much over the ensuing season. There was hope, of course, as there was for every Timberwolf, that Ricky Rubio could manage to invigorate Randolph’s career, could teach him to play, as it were, as Steve Nash and Jason Kidd have done for so many of their teammates. There were glimmers, early on, that this might actually be possible: the incredible back door alley-oop that Rubio gifted to Randolph was a sign that, just maybe, AR’s immense talents had found a home.

But, just as it did for Darko Milicic, precedent willed out. Rick Adelman soon grew tired of Randolph’s bipolar effort and his finesse-at-all-costs approach to the game. By midseason it appeared that Adelman would have preferred to forfeit a game than hand Randolph meaningful minutes. But then everybody got hurt. Adelman was forced to choose between Randolph and Milicic as his big man of last resort; Randolph began to log his first serious minutes of the season.

And the results were pretty much what you would have expected them to be. Randolph had his requisite share of fine games–28 points on 11-16 shooting against the Nuggets, 22 and 11 three nights later in Oklahoma City. And he had his share of stinkers–a combined 2-15 from the field in the two games following his OKC triumph. For a man playing the majority of his minutes at center, he still takes in inordinate amount of jumpers (58% of his shots, as it happens) without making enough of them (38.3%) to justify that volume.

He boasts a true shooting rate (.532) and rebound rate (13.2) that are decidedly below average for his position. (A very curious thing: Randolph’s rebounding stats–both his per-minute numbers as well as his rebounding percentage–have steadily declined every year since he entered the league. That really is not good.) His PER (17.6) is rescued only by the sheer volume of shots that he takes which, for a a player of such mediocre efficiency, is no real rescue at all.

And we haven’t even gotten to the worst of it. 82games.com estimates that Randolph’s opponents averaged a PER of 21.8 when they played against him this year, the worst such number on the team. Estimates like that are clearly not an exact science, but they correspond with what we saw. We saw a player with only intermittent focus and energy, particularly on the defensive end. We saw a player reluctant to do the hard yeoman’s labor necessary for good post defense. Randolph was surely one of the players that J.J. Barea had in mind when he assailed his teammates effort, commitment and just basic level of caring. This off-season, the Wolves can either make Randolph a one-year qualifying offer or sign him to a multi-year deal. Don’t expect them to do either.

Malcolm Lee’s NBA career began pretty humbly. Before the season even began, Lee had torn his meniscus and gone under the knife. He was an injured rookie point guard with three guys ahead of him on the depth chart, one of them a Finals hero, another a boy genius. But things happen strangely in a season as breakneck as this one. Thanks to the Wolves’ plague of injuries, Lee went from wearing a suit, to playing in Sioux Falls (where I guess even the basketball players wear camo), to sitting on the big club’s bench, to logging serious minutes in a matter of weeks.

When he did finally find himself on the court, he looked every bit the overwhelmed rookie. Running an NBA team is hard; Lee was not quite up to the task, not quite prepared for the speed and complexity of the pro game. His ballhandling looked a little shaky; he didn’t see the floor particularly well; in his decision making, he often seemed a step behind the action. When he was on the floor, the Wolves’ execution was noticeably less crisp, their offense noticeably more stagnant. Lee turned the ball over on 20.9% of his possessions, and the Wolves’ offense was 5.9 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the bench.

Luckily for him, Lee was drafted mostly for his defensive skills and in this realm, things were a bit more encouraging. Like most rookie point guards, Lee was a bit lost in the weeds when it came to defending the pick-and-roll–his low point in this regard was getting repeatedly shredded by Jonny Flynn in Houston. But he showed quickness, energy and, most importantly, desire on the defensive end (although as the Wolves careened toward their catastrophic end, these latter two qualities seemed to wane a bit).

Nevertheless, life is tough for a young point guard trying to make his way as a defensive specialist.  Possessing neither the instincts nor the length of, say, Ricky Rubio, Lee will have to become a productive defender the hard way: through many minute and many repetitions. And for a player with so many offensive shortcomings, those minutes may be hard to come by.