Archives For Benjamin Polk

Despite much searching, I wasn’t able to catch Friday night’s preseason loss to the Pacers in Indiana, bringing to mind that old Buddhist paradox: if the Wolves lose in the preseason and I can’t watch it on TV, does it make a sound? Apparently it did, because our friends at 8 Points 9 Seconds have a nice little summary of the decisive action:

An early lead dwindled to 1 by the end of the 1st, then became a double digit deficit after Minnesota hung a 13-2 run on the Pacers to start the second. The teams went to the half with Minny up 11, but that was quickly erased as the Pacer starters (playing against the Minnesota bench) scored the first 10 points of the third.

The T-Wolves pushed it back to 6-to-8 points, and held that lead for the rest of the quarter, entering the 4th with a 7-point cushion. Trailing by 7 with just over 10 minutes left, a unit led by the backcourt of  Ben Hansbrough and Gerald Green rattled of 19 straight points to give the Pacers the lead for good. Hansbrough, who finished the game with 10 points, collected 4 of his 7 assists during the 4-minute stretch, while Green scored 5 points and dished an assist. The big man tandem of Miles Plumlee and Jeff Pendergraph combined for 10 points and 4 rebounds, and fun was had by all.

Ah yes, the dreaded Hansbrough/Green/Plumlee/Pendergraph quartet. Here are some other things you should know:

  • Kevin Love played 12 minutes; Brandon Roy played 8 minutes; Big Pek played 12; JJ Barea played 16; Luke Ridnour, Andrei Kirilenko, Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and George Hill did not play. Thus the decidedly D/Summer League flavor of the box score.
  • Derrick Williams did play, though. He played a lot: 38 minutes to be exact, scoring 25 points on 9 of 19 shooting. Here’s what Rick Adelman had to say about that (via the Star Tribune):

I thought [Williams] played pretty good…What I liked about him was he made two or three efforts. He’d go to the basket, they’d bother him and he’d go right up and get it. That’s good to see. … If he plays that hard all the time at both ends, that’s a completely different circumstance for him.

This is amazing news for the Wolves. An aggressive, efficient Derrick Williams could make the difference between the Wolves remaining an oddly formed curiosity and a legitimately threatening team. Keep doing this, please.

  • Look at the ridiculous stuff Gerald Green was doing to the Wolves. And it even looks like Shved was sticking him pretty hard on some of those. Man Pacers fans, get ready for an amazing ride.

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.

Any of these names sound good to you: Nicolas Batum, Jordan Hill, Greg Stiemsma, Brandon Roy? That’s the shortish list of players that the Wolves are pursuing in free agency this summer. The team has reportedly offered Batum a four-year deal worth around $50 million, although Batum left Minneapolis yesterday without agreeing to a deal.

The wrinkle, of course, is that Batum is merely a restricted free agent, meaning that if Portland is dead set on retaining the lithe Frenchman, there’s not much the Wolves can do about it. On the other hand, as Jerry Zgoda points out, if Batum were committed enough to coming to Minnesota–and Portland were willing to part with him–the Wolves could conceivably land him in a sign-and-trade deal. But that’s all speculation for now.

I will say that, even if the Wolves’ do swing a deal for Pau Gasol, signing Batum would be, in my opinion, their only unequivocally great move of this off-season. Batum is a young, three-point shooting veteran with ridiculous athletic ability and alarmingly long arms. He can convincingly play a few different wing positions and has a Rubio-esque defensive impact: disrupting passing lanes; swallowing up penetrators; sowing general perimeter chaos. He’s a perfect fit for this team and fills a need that’s been aching for years now.

The AP reports (via ESPN.com):

The Minnesota Timberwolves are trying hard to land Pau Gasol. If they have to part with the highest draft choice in franchise history after just one season, the Wolves appear ready to do it. That much became clear leading up to the NBA draft on Thursday night, when Minnesota offered Derrick Williams in hopes of landing the second pick from the Charlotte Bobcats to help get Gasol from the Los Angeles Lakers, two people with knowledge of the discussions told The Associated Press.

Teaming Gasol with Ricky Rubio has long been a dream of David Kahn’s–and evidently the Wolves are still looking to make a deal to land the big Spaniard. I have no doubt that a Gasol-Love frontcourt as coached by Rick Adelman is a nice idea. But I wonder: does giving up on the second pick in the draft in exchange for a 32-year-old star smack of impatience? After all how old, and how effective, will Gasol be when Rubio reaches his prime?

 

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Minnesota sports fandom entails a kind of perpetual anxiety. We worry that the rest of the country will see us as quaint or provincial, not to be taken seriously. We lost the Lakers and the Stars to more temperate climes. Our football and baseball teams, both collegiate and professional, toiled away for decades in a concrete, plastic and teflon model home, a cut-rate interpretation of some Carter-era child’s sci-fi fantasies. Gopher football has been an en-domed joke, prey to decades of charlatans, incompetents and opportunists. The Twins are called the Twins. None of this helps.

The Wolves have been the worst, though, wandering through most of their existence in a state of dorky, benighted ineptitude. Consider: their expansionary brothers, the Orlando Magic, made their first Finals before the Wolves could boast of even one All-Star; the Wolves forfeited years of draft picks in a harebrained scheme to sign Joe Smith; in order to salvage a draft pick they lost in their undying quest for Marko Jaric, they tanked a game in the most horrifically obvious way possible; you don’t really need me to go on do you?

But in the years since the Kevin Garnett trade (oh sorry, there’s another one), this anxiety congealed into something more existentially dreadful.  These Wolves’ rosters were so haphazard, their coaching so misguided, their play so callow and inelegant and futile–they were, in short, so embarrassingly bad–that we wondered whether what we were watching was actual NBA basketball at all. The anger that we have all often expressed at Kevin McHale, David Kahn, Glen Taylor and Kurt Rambis is, if you ask me, actually an expression of a deep fear, the fear that we might have invested ourselves in a doomed enterprise.

Rick Adelman and Ricky Rubio’s greatest gift to their fans may have been simply restoring a sense of competitiveness and seriousness, of basic competence, to the proceedings; the fans responded to these gifts with fairly undiluted euphoria.  All of which made the team’s catastrophic unraveling at season’s end even more disheartening.

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