Archives For Benjamin Polk

We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2012-13 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2012-13 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.

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

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

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

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When we watch March Madness we watch very young, extraordinarily gifted men burn like roman candles. It is a carnival, less a display of basketball prowess than an ecstatic frenzy. We see the spirit carrying the body to places it literally cannot go. There are shows of incredible effort and passion, fevered battles for loose balls, defense played on the edge of exhaustion, wild last-second drives to the hoop. But also: shots crush the back iron; muscles drown in adrenaline; so many turnovers. The tournament is like the most spectacular party you barely remember, the one where the floor bent to the beat of the music, where you could not speak, only scream, where your veins ran with gold, where you loved everybody.

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Its a given that this Timberwolves’ season has been a bitter disappointment. I always believed that prognosticating before the year even began was foolish; the calculus of variables was just too ornate to ever settle confidently on one outcome. I think its safe to say, though, that the year has become something close to the worst-case-scenario. Yes, Andrei Kirilenko returned to his mid-oughts form–at least until fatigue and injury robbed him of a little of his vivacity–and Ricky Rubio has made incredible strides in his recovery. But Kevin Love’s injury, and the plague of injuries to key players that has infected the team all year long, has negated all of that.

Still, it could be so much worse. You could be a Wolves’ fan of four years ago, wondering if Randy Wittman could turn things around, hoping that Randy Foye and Rashad McCants could one day justify their lottery status. Remember that? Or even worse: you could be a Phoenix Sun’s fan right now.  If that were the case, you would have endured a recent 10-game losing streak and a road record of 8-32, not to mention an entire season of Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson. You know what that’s like and it’s no fun. The “core” of your team would be Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley, fine players, to be sure, but nothing to build a team around. Your most recent lottery pick, Kendall Marshall, would look, and play ball, like a member of Das Racist. You would be placing your hopes for the future on the only front office with a claim to being worse on draft day than the Wolves. You would be cheering very hard for PJ Tucker and also for the Morris twins.

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This nice young man just got his 1,000th win.

In many ways, Rick Adelman’s 1,000th win resembled his 703rd loss. As in Friday night’s game against Toronto, his team enjoyed spells of real ease, in which an overmatched opponent appeared ready to fold the tent and cede the game. In this one, the Wolves cruised to an 11-point lead in the first quarter. They dropped a 12-0 run in the second quarter and a 10-0 run late in the third. But as in their loss to Toronto, they repeatedly gave those leads back with stretches of unfocused play. That is what young teams do I guess, especially one whose primary ballhandlers include an emotional, turnover-prone 22-year-old, a 5’8″ shot-chucking black hole and the fourth Karamazov brother (the skinny, depressed-looking one with the wildly inconsistent shooting mechanics).

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There are few things in basketball as deflating as watching an opposing midrange jumpshooter on a hot streak. You know that, even with his impressive arsenal of fades and stepbacks, when he shoots that beautiful 18-footer over his defender’s outstretched hand, he is taking the least efficient shot on the floor. He is doing exactly what you want him to do. And still, the ball goes in the basket.

For the most part, the Wolves defended DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay the way that you hoped they might. They walled off the paint, prevented layups, kept the two long slashers off the free-throw line, stayed at home on three-point shooters. There are a few quibbles here and there–we might’ve liked to see Andrei Kirilenko give Gay less room to maneuver at the point of attack; they blew a rotation with two minutes to play that resulted in a DeRozan three-point play–but, in general, when we see anybody besides Dirk Nowitzki circa 2010 taking contested long-range twos, we can conclude that the defense has done its job. Nevertheless, there were Gay and DeRozan deploying their full array of pivots, hesitations and crossovers, hitting contested jumper after contested jumper.

Still, a team could do worse than allowing its opponents’ two best scorers–both unreasonably accurate from outside and preying on mismatches–to tally 51 points on 46 shots. Much more problematic, if you ask me, were a) the Wolves’ inability to fully capitalize on their 40-16 free-throw advantage and b) their inability to parlay moderate leads into decisive leads, to complete the job of beating a team that, for a while, was begging to be beaten.

Lets dispense with part ‘a’ quickly, because it is both aggravating and tedious. The Wolves, as they do, got to the line a lot. And, just as typically, they missed 25% of those free-throws. They missed three out of their last six free-throws and, of course, Ricky Rubio missed the one that would have tied the game at 94 with 1.7 seconds remaining. There, done.

Now for ‘b.’ The Raptors played some stretches of truly listless defense, in which, for instance, Alexei Shved was allowed to dribble unimpeded to within five feet of the hoop and loft an uncontested floater and Chase Budinger was given free reign to run off flare screens, rise up with a nice, clear look at the hoop and hit some perfectly relaxed, unimpeded jumpers. What’s more, the Raptors were saddled with the problem that neither Jonas Valanciunas nor Aaron Gray seemed capable of single-covering Nikola Pekovic without blatantly fouling him.

And so, in the first three quarters, the Wolves were able, with relative ease, to cruise out to leads of nine, eight and 11–but no more than that. That they were unable to extend those leads into more forbidding territory is a testament to their simple lack of consistent execution. A case in point are the minutes following the third-quarter Andrei Kirilenko three that gave the Wolves their one and only double-digit lead. Ricky Rubio penetrates the Raptors’ defense but delivers a pass to Pekovic’s feet. Derrick Williams falls over while attempting a rather ornate spin move in isolation. Luke Ridnour dribbles the ball out of bounds. Rubio attempts to initiate the offense by entering the ball to Kirilenko at the elbow; but AK does not fully seal his defender and Rubio’s pass is too casual. Rudy Gay jumps into the passing lane and streaks to the other end of the floor for a breakaway dunk. The Wolves go to a 2-3 zone in order to contain Kyle Lowry’s dribble penetration–and yet Lowry still manages to split the two backcourt defenders and hit an open floater at the third-quarter buzzer.

And things only got worse over the first few minutes of the fourth quarter when Rubio got his rest and J.J. Barea took the opportunity to perfect his ball-pounding, clock-killing, impossible-jumper routine. Its worth noting that at no point during the 12-4 run that brought them back into the game did the Raptors look particularly dynamic on either end of the floor. Minnesota’s slack execution simply allowed them to crawl back into the game.

By the time Rubio had settled things back down with a series of shrewd pick-and-rolls, in the process remembering to take advantage of Pekovic down low, the one truly shining matchup advantage at the Wolves’ disposal, Toronto had gained a measure of confidence. Their defense started to buzz, Gay and DeRozan got hot. It ended badly.

Although in our hearts we always suspected it to be true, we couldn’t help feeling a little distressed over Rick Adelman’s admission yesterday that he is considering walking away from the Wolves this coming summer. (Though you certainly can’t blame the guy for wanting to actually live with his ailing wife, especially after a pair of seasons as cosmically aggravating as these past two.) We can talk all we want about Derrick Williams’ development or Nikola Pekovic’s contract, but the truth is that the middle-term future of this franchise rests entirely upon the relationship between Rick Adelman, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Take out one vertex of that triangle and, one suspects, the entire spindly structure might collapse.

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Roy “Dr.” Hibbert

The Wolves’ street-clothes squad boasts a pretty impressive resume. You’ve got multiple All-Star appearances, a Defensive Player of the Year, a former Most Improved Player candidate, even some MVP votes. What’s more, whoever has been dressing Nikola Pekovic deserves a firm handshake. That fitted herringbone blazer? the deep pink tie? the open-collar-plus-gold-chain combo? Dynamite.

In contrast, no one would say that the Wolves’ actual active roster is brimming with talent. In essence, you have a future-superstar with a sub-40% shooting percentage leading a crew of backups and D-Leaguers. This is a team that can compete for victories under certain circumstances–like when the Washington Wizards lay a total egg on the road, or when, say, the Spurs rest all of their good players–but that on most nights has very little chance to win. (I should mention: no shame in being a backup or a D-Leaguer. The NBA is much the better for the Dante Cunninghams and J.J. Bareas and even the Chris Johnsons of the world.)

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