Archives For Player Analysis

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.

By way of reviewing this strange season, we here at A Wolf Among Wolves are going down the Wolves roster, discussing each individual player’s season and their outlook for the future. We’ll start with the man in the suit, Darko Milicic.

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Back in October, while we were all still whiling away the lockout, I had this to say about Darko:

He is well over seven feet tall; he has supple feet; he handles the ball with rare ease. Unfortunately, he also seems intimidated by his own gifts and desperately afraid to succeed. We’ve seen too many dunks turned into layups, too many blown three foot jump hooks, too many looks of resigned relief as he settles down on the bench to believe otherwise. I’ve said it before: playing with Rick Adelman, a coach who loves those skilled, finesse Euro big men, seems like Darko’s last chance.

I’ll stand behind every word of that paragraph. Because despite Darko’s customarily great moments, moments that give you just a brief glimpse at what could be possible–his first half in Los Angeles against the Clippers comes to mind–this very large, very talented man clearly blew that chance. His PER was 9.0, his worst since he was a teenager, and three points below his already modest career average. He posted a true shooting rate of .458, embarrassingly bad for a center. His rebounding rate of 11.4 was also, as has been typical, far below average. As always, he blocked a shot or two (1.9 per 36 minutes); but even this was drop from his career numbers. Furthermore, his shot-blocking stats have always papered over the inconsistency of his defensive effort, a fact that was no less true this season.

The sad truth is that Darko has never been able to summon the consistent effort or focus or confidence necessary to be an effective NBA player, much less live up to his talents. And while Kurt Rambis (perhaps tantalized by the glow of those talents or, more likely, simply responding to a mandate from higher up the chain) persisted in giving Darko floor time, Rick Adelman, to his credit wasn’t having it. Here’s what Adelman told the Strib in March:

He hasn’t done anything to really give you a lot of faith that he’s going to go out and do the job. He’s gotten himself out of shape. He hasn’t been as drive (sic) as you’d like so when a situation like this happens, it’s time for someone to have their opportunity and get back in there.

Even when Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love went down and the Wolves were seriously thin on the front line, Darko Milicic remained suited on the bench’s second row. The team can opt out of his contract a year from now, but I would be surprised if we ever see the man in a Wolves’ uniform again.

In the interest of full disclosure, I really wanted Nikola Pekovic to win Most Improved.

This isn’t just because he’s a T’Wolf or because I’m terrified he’ll give me the guillotine if I don’t say this. I appreciate the fact that he went from being a borderline “we can’t play this guy at all” player his rookie season to the other team thanking Tebow when the rare moments Pek got into foul trouble. For some reason, I wanted the words “most” and “improved” to actually mean “most” and “improved” when we looked at Most Improved Player this season.

Ryan Anderson has won MIP because he played more minutes and took more shots this season on a playoff team. That’s it. This isn’t a jealousy thing and this isn’t a biased homer thing. Ryan Anderson was exactly as good last year as he was this year, except this year he had a different role on the team.

It’s not even that I think Pekovic deserves the honor more; it’s that I think Ryan Anderson doesn’t deserve it at all. Some people will claim Anderson helped Orlando win games and that’s why he earned the award. They’ll claim his defense was much improved and his rebounding was better. I don’t buy it.  Continue Reading…

Miller moves on

Benjamin Polk —  April 30, 2012 — 2 Comments

I hope that the Wolves horrendous, disheartened season-closing efforts didn’t swear you off the team forever. Moreover, I hope that you checked out the team’s final game in which the woodsman, Brad Miller, dissolved into tears as he checked out of his final NBA game. And if you missed it (even if you didn’t) I hope you took a look at Zach’s moving and eloquent tribute to the man himself on Truehoop. Some choice words:

Miller is a beautiful passer. Watching him operate out of the post and the high-post throughout his 14 years has been a pleasure. He often seemed to know there was an opening to deliver the ball before his teammates even knew they were open. He could throw bounce passes, chest passes, behind-the-back passes, or whatever was necessary to get his teammates a score. The passes were on point, allowing the least amount of movement and execution to get a good shot off. When he integrated himself into Adelman’s system, he was thrown into a world that allowed his game to flourish.

Dude was a baller. I’m sad to see him go.

In case you wanted to know almost everything I think about Kevin Love, here it is all spelled out in today’s Truehoop. This here’s the gist:

We’re all enchanted by the mythology of the high-volume scorer. We love to see players enter that altered state of consciousness in which the game is reduced to the simplicity of an attacker, his defender and the dance the two of them perform together. But Kevin Love — the superstar role player, the sweet-shooting banger — complicates this mythology. A great portion of his charm and effectiveness lies in the contradictions and dissonances in his game, the strange, unprecedented way he plays. Do we really want him to accede to the conventions of superstardom? Do we lose something essential when a measure of that offbeat magic is drained away?

In case you wanted to know what I think about “Brand New Love” by Sebadoh, I really like it.

Check out this video from TrueHoop TV with Henry Abbott and David Thorpe glowing about Kevin Love figuring out there is no spoon.

The problem with Kevin Love’s numbers is he only gets them because he’s on a bad team. If the Wolves were a team capable of making the playoffs, he wouldn’t grab nearly as many rebounds or score nearly as many points. He’s just a product of nobody else on the team being capable of putting up numbers. Sure he’s one of the top rebounders in the league but if they had anybody else on the team that can rebound, he wouldn’t grab a lot.

Remember that nonsense?

One year, 2/3s of a season with a Spaniard, and a Hall of Fame coach later, Kevin Love isn’t just putting up insane numbers; he’s making it hard to discount him as an MVP and All-NBA 1st team candidate.  Continue Reading…