Archives For A roster of Wolves

Ricky Rubio has magical vision. He sees things–spaces, angles, movements–before they are able to be seen. This vision, and the savant’s ball skills that he’s honed since he was a child, make him that exceptional kind of point guard, the kind that can create new, unexpected shapes and situations on the basketball court. There were times this year when coverage of the Timberwolves became little more than a catalog of the mystical things Rubio could do with the basketball. We know all of this already; and we know the galvanizing effect, the deep inspiration, that Rubio bestowed both on his fans and his teammates, not to mention the extreme demoralization that took place after his season-ending ACL injury.

Strange, then, to realize some cold realities. Despite his massive assist ratio (36.3) Rubio’s PER of 14.64 was only 36th best in the league among point guards.  The Wolves’ offense performed no better with him on the floor than off. Indeed, Rubio’s humble backup Luke Ridnour had a much more significant positive effect on the Wolves’ offense than did Ricky himself. These numbers are not a fluke, nor are they difficult to explain. Ricky Rubio is a terrible shooter. His effective field goal percentage (.398) and true shooting rate (.476) are both morbidly bad. He was noticeably terrible at the rim (47.1%) and in the midrange game (31.4% between 10 and 23 feet) despite being begged by opponents to shoot from that distance. (Incidentally, at 34% he was no worse than average from three and shot well from the line too.)

Much of Rubio’s early, highlight machine success stemmed both from the rest of the league’s unfamiliarity with his game and from his uncharacteristically good shooting start. But once Rubio’s shooting regressed back to the mean (which is to say: became terrible again) and teams discovered the olde “give Ricky ten feet of space” defense, Rubio’s life became significantly more difficult. Defenses sagged into the lane, clogging those interior passing lanes that had enable so many successful pick-and-rolls early on. (It’s worth mentioning here that the rest of the team’s poor outside shooting didn’t help matters. Once it became clear that Wes Johnson and Martell Webster were not going to consistently hit spot-up threes, it became that much easier for opposing defenses to gum up the interior pick-and-roll.)

By now most of us know that Rubio’s most significant tangible contribution to his team’s success came on the defensive end. It’s long been said that great defense begins on the perimeter. If your team’s guards and wings can slow or prevent penetration, the matrix of help and rotation that makes up the substance of NBA defense becomes infinitely easier. Rubio was an object lesson in this truism. His length, energy and persistence on the ball allowed his teammates to maintain an aggressive, rather than simply reactive, defensive posture. And after Rubio left the stage and opposing guards began to romp into the teeth of the Wolves’ D, everything fell apart. The Wolves were a remarkable 7.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Rubio was on the floor. That’s no joke.

So Rubio’s future, while certainly inspiring optimism, has always been a little uncertain. Would he be able to cut down on his turnovers and improve his shooting? Would he mature from a good defender into an elite, Rondo-esque ball swarmer? All of these questions are, of course, now cast in starker relief by his knee injury. We don’t know how long it will take him to play again and how long after that he will recover his former rangy quickness. Rubio will miss out on that summer of hoisting a thousand jumpers a day. He’ll again miss out on a Rick Adelman training camp. Despite everything, and despite his resplendent good nature, we’re all still waiting on Ricky Rubio.

When is the last time this organization had toughness?

Perhaps Kevin Garnett wasn’t the epitome of a bar fight — despite what he may have blurted out at Craig Sager — but he at least feigned an attitude of some mental toughness, whether he was actually ready to risk a suspension or not. But pure brute strength and toughness is not something we’re used to seeing on our end of the floor at the Target Center. We’re not used to seeing everybody trying to figure out how to deal with the big guy on our team. We’re not used to seeing a little scrap break out and an opponent from the other team immediately go joke with our big guy to make sure he doesn’t get involved.

In the course of about eight months, Pek went from being an overmatched backup big man to the Chuck Norris of the NBA.  Continue Reading…

How do you solve a problem like Barea?

Okay, J.J. Barea wasn’t really a problem last year, but he also wasn’t a solution in the way we hoped he might be.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first. In his first season with the Wolves, Barea was riddled with injuries throughout a good chunk of the season and he dribbled the life out of the basketball when he was on the court. The injuries didn’t seem like anything major that should mar his future seasons with the Timberwolves. He was banged up and pulling muscles you don’t want to pull, but he wasn’t suffering knee injuries or having chronic back problems. It’s possible they just happened. It’s possible they were related to the lockout and not being prepared for the regular season. Whatever the injuries were related to, it’s nothing that alarms me as him being an injury prone player.

It seemed pretty obvious — and Barea would be the first to admit this — that he had a problem adjusting to the new team/system/teammates in his initial moments of the season. He didn’t quite seem to know how to find the balance of what he should do on offense. Instead of moving the ball when he was faced with this unfamiliarity, he dribbled. And dribbled. And dribbled. AND DRIBBLED SOME MORE. It got to the point that you wanted him to shoot or get off the pot. Continue Reading…

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.

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.

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.

Brad Miller’s swan song wasn’t a feel good Disney movie that ended up leaving everybody with a warm tingly feeling. He didn’t give us the John Salley in Eddie where he squeezes every ounce of game out of his scar tissue-addled knees to help bring this team the playoffs after years of down-and-out malaise.

Brad Miller was acquired to help bring some veteran leadership to a team Rick Adelman was taking over. He was supposed to come in here and be a competitor, teach these guys how to win. He was supposed to be a coach on the player roster. And to many degrees, he did those things.

He only played in 15 games during his final season in the NBA, but he seemed to show every bit of pride he possesses in all of those games. He was out of shape, gasping for streams of oxygen as he labored up and down the court. His silhouette wasn’t as lean as it once appeared. He was doughy, relying on the same type of adapted strength you’d see from a steelworker of 30 years rather than the finely tuned power you commonly see from NBA athletes married to the weight room. His skills were still present as he dropped bounce passes to backdoor cutters and rained down seven 3-pointers in 15 attempts this year.

Brad Miller’s knee probably was never truly healthy enough to play this season. He labored in most actions he performed, but he did try to gut through the pain and discomfort to show the younger guys how you’re supposed to be a professional. He talked to guys on the bench, attempted to joke and rally with them in the locker room, and help teach the big guys how to operate in Rick Adelman’s system. He wasn’t good and he wasn’t bad. He wasn’t really anything at all. He was holding onto one final gasp, dangling above the pit of retirement that so many athletes dare to avoid. While he didn’t provide much tangible production on the court, his spirit and leadership helped root out those that should and shouldn’t be on this team moving forward. If you weren’t able to get ahead of Rick’s guy in the rotation at the end of the year, you probably shouldn’t be long for this team.

Brad Miller helped separate the real from the potential on this roster. He showed Rick who was a fighter and who deserved minutes. Brad Miller was the colander that kept the good in and let the bad wash itself down the drain. He may not have given the Wolves what he used to have, but he definitely gave them all he had left.

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.