Archives For Benjamin Polk

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

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

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Lets talk about what constitutes breaking Timberwolves news in early August. Lou Amundson is still unsigned? Ok, not bad but I think we can probably do better than that. Money is the crux of Nikola Pekovic’s contract negotiation? Ok, let’s run with it. From Darren Wolfson of ESPN 1500:

But one central issue remains, according to sources: money. The Wolves are offering Pekovic a four-year, $48 million extension. [Pekovic's agent Jeff] Schwartz wants more. In fact, at least initially, a lot more. One league source said his opening asking price was in the vicinity of $15 million/year.

This is actually less troubling than it seems. According to Wolfson, Schwarz is likely simply attempting to create bargaining leverage with which to negotiate an incentive package into the deal–most likely continent on Pekovic’s remaining healthy. As Wolfson points out, Pek’s only other option is to accept a $6 million one-year qualifying offer and then become a free agent after next season. But it makes no sense for an injury-prone big man entering his prime earning years to leave that much money on the table (unless, say, a Russian mafioso has delivered his mom a suitcase full of cash).  It’s remains a near-certainty that Pek will sign a deal by next month.

Wolves in Summer

Benjamin Polk —  July 24, 2013 — 5 Comments

Past NBA Summer Leagues have been characterized by a distinctly midnight basketball feel. Stripped down strategic approaches; players unfamiliar with each other and their systems; the deep desire to show and prove–all of these things have typically led to a kind of league-wide Nellie-ball fever. Breakneck pace and hypertrophic scoring were the rule. But the vibe was different this year. Perhaps  the presence and success of the D-League Select team, a group of grown men playing for their lives, added a note of seriousness to the proceedings. Perhaps it was the fact that teams like Phoenix had loaded their roster with experienced NBA players. Or maybe it was simply as David Thorpe suggested: The vogue for strongside pressure defense took the air out of the ball. But for whatever reason, defense (and competitiveness) enjoyed a bit of a renaissance while offenses were less manic.

As for the Wolves, their Summer League contingent shot the ball well, especially from distance (47.7% overall, 42.5% from three) which was an incredible relief to see from any team wearing a T-Wolves jersey–and I don’t care if those jerseys are ridiculous short-sleeved practice jerseys that make the players look like eight-year-olds or if none of those players ever step onto the Target Center floor.  They defended energetically and frequently well; they turned the ball over at an incredible volume. That’s pretty much the recipe for a 3-3 team, which, ultimately, who cares. In any event, here are some observations from the week.

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Garbage time, blown calls, awesome plays, victory celebrations: All of these just got a lot more fun, because Flip Saunders has signed the exceptionally enthusiastic, spectacularly bearded Ronny Turiaf for two-years and $3.2 million. (That’s the veterans’ minimum in case you were worried.) Turiaf isn’t really a good player or anything; I’d quote you some stats but there’s not really much to see. He’s a nice guy to turn to if your team needs a burst of frantic energy, or if your coach wants to change the flow of the game by making it suddenly frazzled and chaotic or to change up the defensive looks on an opposing power forward. Mostly, though, Turiaf is a bright, pulsing orb of positive vibes. That is a nice thing to have.

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For weeks we have been speculating that either Luke Ridnour or J.J. Barea would be on the move in order to fill the team’s many non-point guard related needs. We’ve also been hearing for a few days now that the Wolves were attempting to regain the services of one Corey Brewer, either by signing him outright or via a sign-and-trade.

Well, according to multiple reports, the both events have come to pass. In a nimble bit of salary cap ballet, the team orchestrated a sign-and-trade for Kevin Martin and sent Ridnour and his expiring $4.6 million deal to Milwaukee. This created the cap room needed to sign Brewer to a three-year deal reportedly in the $15 million range.

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Now here’s a surprise–as if this draft wasn’t already full enough of surprises. In a move not a single mock draft that I’m aware of predicted, the Wolves took Michigan’s Trey Burke at #9. Now Burke was a great college player, but this is a strange pick for the Wolves for many reasons. So strange, in fact, that I would be shocked if they didn’t trade Burke before the night is over (if they haven’t already. So: more analysis later. Meantimes, here’s the DraftExpress profile vid of Burke.

While most prognosticators (including our very own) still have the Wolves selecting ninth and drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, there is still talk that the Wolves are trying to move up. (That name, by the way is so epic. Its like a Downton Abbey heiress married a Roman gladiator.) Here’s Marc Stein on Truehoop:

The teams working hardest to move up higher in the lottery are the Jazz, the Wolves and the Thunder[...]The Wolves are also trying to get up very high in an attempt to land Victor Oladipo or Ben McLemore. Their trade bait, as we’ve previously reported, is in the form of picks 9, 26 and Derrick Williams. 

We’ve discussed before that Oladipo is the Wolves’ dream pick in this draft and so its not surprising that they’re going fishing in the top five. A couple of things to think about here. The first is the problem of assessing the quality of the draft in general. We seem to know that the top of the draft is relatively weak: there are no LeBrons or Durants up here. But what does that mean about the middle of the draft, a place where many effective role players and even All-Stars have emerged in recent years. Are we really confident that there are no Kawhi Leonards or Ty Lawsons lingering in the middle of the first round? Is KCP more of a Paul George or a Wes Johnson? Oladipo seems to fit the Wolves’ needs perfectly, but should we be concerned about his age, his relative lack of size and the fact that he only shot well in one of his three college seasons? Cody Zeller, a player who could very well still be on the board when the Wolves draft at number nine, rates very well statistically. But he was a big man in college and will likely play a more outside-in game in the pros. Will these stats translate into a new role? Hard to know, right? But obviously important if you’re going to trade both of your first round picks and a young player to move up five places.

All of these issues are in play both in the Wolves’ decision to make a deal and in the likelihood that any team in the top five will take it. Another thing for those teams to consider: just how good is Derrick Williams? I’ve seen almost every game he’s played over the last two seasons and I basically have no idea–and neither, as far as I can tell, does anyone else. Should be an interesting night.

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.

We do ridiculous things when we are 22 years old. We climb trees and then fall out of them. We smash things we find on the street. We punch the pavement. We (“we”) make awful choices and then write long, agonized, hand-written letters explaining/apologizing for/recanting those choices. We are newly birthed into the adult world but still soaked in a purply, emo brain-haze, a volatile emotional soup that spikes the adrenaline and clouds the judgement.

Remember, now, that despite his many years of playing professional basketball as a teen, despite his experience leading his countrymen against the best basketball players in the world, Ricky Rubio is this very age. And its not just Rubio’s bio that misdirects us. He possesses a set of seemingly native-born skills that generally belong to much more seasoned players. His total court-vision, his almost physiological feel for movement and spacing–these are things that are usually acquired only after a decade or so of apprenticeship. Even when he was just a very skinny boy with floppy hair he was able to perform feats that, while not adult exactly (more like sylph-like or even transcendent) certainly belied his age.

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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.