Of the many by turns illuminating and inscrutable tidbits I dug up in the past few weeks while doing research for the Truehoop post, this was among the most glaring: the Wolves’ situation on the wing is a true riddle, a strange machine, filled with moving parts and missing pieces.
Let’s start with what we’ve recently learned. Michael Beasley is the team’s most gifted scorer, but hurts the team defensively (though we’ve seen improvement in the past week), especially when partnered with his young mates in the starting lineup, Darko Milicic and Kevin Love. Wesley Johnson and Corey Brewer both have severely limited offensive games, but come with a desperately needed energy and athleticism that complements Love’s and Darko’s special talents. And although it’s too soon to know for certain how Martell Webster affects the team–and he seems to be still very much inhibited by his stiff back, particularly on defense–it’s clear that Webster brings a reliable shooting touch and what passes on this team for veteran savvy (i.e. he’s, like, played in a playoff game before). How do we figure this out?
If you never watched any NBA basketball games besides those played by the Minnesota Timberwolves, this is what you would think: LaMarcus Aldridge is the tallest man in the world; LaMarcus Aldridge is more like a physical force than a human–like gravity, like radiation; LaMarcus Aldridge is a genius at basketball. (You might also wonder if there was some kind of new rule prohibiting you from guarding three-point shooters. But we’ll get to that.)
Another game slips through the hands – or paws – of our mighty Wolves.
But it allows me to get into the topic of plus/minus, which is sort of fascinating to me. Whenever someone asks me what I think of the plus/minus stat, I always answer that it’s just as useful as points per game in evaluating players. The guinea pig for that comparison is last year’s Monta Ellis. 2009-10 Monta Ellis scored a career-high 25.5 points per game, and yet was a complete albatross on the court for the Warriors.
There’s been another entry into the Wolves revolving door of injuries. As Martell Webster and Jonny Flynn make their way back from the mend, down goes Tolliver.
Our friend Ray Richardson from the Star Tribune breaks the bad news.
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Tolliver will miss the next 6-8 weeks to recover from a knee injury he suffered in Friday night’s game at San Antonio.
Tolliver, signed by the Timberwolves as a free agent in August, had an MRI on Sunday that revealed a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee. A Timberwolves spokesperson said the 6-foot-8 Tolliver will not require surgery.
As much as we’ll miss Tolliver’s stellar help defense-and we undoubtedly will-I’m still looking forward to more of this smiling mug on the front line.
According to a league source, the Timberwolves have asked the NBA to look into whether Portland knowingly traded them an injured player when the Blazers dealt Martell Webster to Minnesota for the 16th overall pick in last summer’s draft.
Webster on Monday underwent surgery to repair a disk in his back and is expected to miss about six weeks. He said the injury dates to last spring’s playoffs, when he was undercut and fell hard in a game against Phoenix.
The Wolves are likely looking for a draft pick as compensation.
Over at Truehoop, Henry did some work of his own (including unsuccessfully getting either the Wolves or the league to comment and concludes, essentially, that there is very little chance of the Wolves could actually proving that they were knowingly deceived. Here’s the best/worst part:
However, everybody I talked to says it’s unlikely the Timberwolves could prove information was withheld.
“We’re all laughing about it,” says one front office executive, who expressed no sympathy for Minnesota’s reported position. “You can’t watch the freaking playoffs? That was a pretty obvious incident, right on national TV.”
Wow, that is just exactly what the Wolves need: more reasons for people to make fun of their front office. Because, as you probably know, lots of folks have that covered already and we’ve only played one game. At Fanhouse, Tom Ziller points out that after Kevin Love was removed in the 4th quarter of Wednesday’s game, the Wolves allowed 18 points on 16 possessions, including 12 by the Kings’ frontcourt. Further confirmation that the Tolliver/Beasley/Darko frontline experiment went on at least five minutes too long. Then Ziller drops an intense interpretation of it all:
There’s a really weird vibe with the Wolves, and Rambis in particular. It’s his second season on the job, and his roster has been remade by GM David Kahn completely … for better or worse. Yet it’s almost as if Rambis is searching for excuses. By benching the player almost everyone agrees is the team’s most polished if not most talented asset, Rambis is detaching himself from this version of the Wolves. Most coaches in Rambis’ situation — at the head of a completely overmatched, young roster — would embrace the heck out of Love, an altogether likable, hard-working player. But on Wednesday, Rambis looked like he was distancing himself from Love and the Love era.
He then starts to sharpen the knives, calling the decision “gonzo” and referring to the “vast problems within the franchise.” As you may know, this isn’t my particular interpretation of the situation but I completely understand why an outside observer would take a quick peak and then conclude that the Wolves have gone all Fear and Loathing. As a close follower of the team, this kind of stuff is painful to read; it really voices our worst fears for the team. Simply for my own sake, and yours too, I’m hoping the Wolves prove Ziller wrong.
Bad enough to have surgery this morning apparently, says a Wolves’ press release. The surgery is called a microdiscectomy. This means it is a small discectomy (never even been to medical school!) The release goes on to tell us that “no timetable for Webster’s return has been established, but the typical recovery time for this procedure is 4-6 weeks.” This is kind of a bummer, by the way.
Death and decay are two inexorable facts of life. Everything gets old; everything wilts and fades; everything dies. We’ve been dealing with this for quite a while now. We U.S. Americans, though, are becoming practiced in the art of forgetting these facts. We’re smitten with newness and youth. This is maybe the great appeal of sports. When we watch, we get to forget about dying and our own aging bodies. We get to feast our eyes on the powerful, fluent movements of the young and in so doing, briefly make their bodies our own.
This is both magical and, like most of the best parts of our pop culture, also a huge problem. Because in sports (particularly the NBA and the NFL), even the slightest sign of aging (remember: inexorable fact of life) is viewed as weakness. And weakness is intolerable to us. And so, in a world in which personal worth is assumed to be perfectly quantifiable–in dollars, wins, tails in seats–as a player begins to age, begins to enter into that phase of life known to us non-physical geniuses as adulthood, said aging is accompanied by rapidly diminishing value, until that fella is finally judged to be of no value at all.
This is disconcerting for a guy like me, 33 years old, really just now coming into bloom as a human. I’m not crazy about watching men younger than me casually discarded for their advancing age, for the grave sin of minutely diminishing lateral quickness. Just seems really cruel. (I would imagine, by the way, that this sense of unease at watching our heroes fade, and the way it turns us back toward our own creeping mortality, is fairly common. And I’m convinced that this is a huge part of the NFL’s great success. With players faceless under those masks and that gear, its easy to maintain that sense that they are interchangeable. When a player gets old or damaged, he’s easily replaced by someone younger and fitter who looks essentially the same. We get to remain comfortably enthralled by the dream of perpetual youth.)
Oh, did I not mention that this was a Timberwolves season preview? In the NBA, youth signifies vitality and hope. And right now energetically embodied, hysterically physical youth is what the Timberwolves have to offer us. This youth is presented to us in many forms. There’s Michael Beasley’s adolescent exuberance (genuinely charming), unavoidably accompanied by his equally adolescent decision making and penchant for indulgent heroism (not at all charming).
There’s Wesley Johnson, whose plainspoken, almost naive earnestness stands in stark contrast with his alarming quickness and leaping ability. And Kevin Love, still only 22 (!), cocky and self-assured in the way of people who have never really had anything bad happen to them. And Jonny Flynn (see Beasley, Michael); and the bruising, occasionally lewd and rude Nikola Pekovic; Corey Brewer and his ridiculously skinny legs; the shy, boyish Darko Milicic; and so many more.
You get the picture; overflows of energy and talent coupled with barely burgeoning maturity. Sports are already an inverted world. But when you consider that, at age 23 with five years of NBA experience, Martell Webster is the even-tempered veteran presence, suddenly gravity really does seem to be pulling us up.
So where does all this, plus the team’s startling 6-2 pre-season leave us? There are some things I think we can be pretty sure about already. The team will (thank goodness) defend with much more verve and awareness than they did last year. With any luck, they will run the floor with some seriousness of purpose (as opposed to last year’s haphazard, often turnover-friendly chaos). Their half-court offense will probably look a little stilted for a while as these young guys begin to scratch the surface of the reads and reactions necessary to run Kurt Rambis’ offense.
And there’s still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know whether Jonny Flynn will improve enough (or whether Luke Ridnour will get enough minutes) to keep this ship afloat. We don’t know whether Darko and Koufos and Pekovic will be able to protect the basket (or even whether Pek will be able to stay on the floor). We don’t know whether Beasley will ever become a viable, every-night NBA scorer.
But what is most important to me right now is that even one quick glance tells you how strikingly different this team is than last year’s. These Wolves communicate a kinetic energy, a sense of immediacy and motion that has been missing since KG left the building. It’s been this lack, more even than the innumerable losses, that have made the Wolves so miserable to watch over the past three years. Activity and abandon and potential and desire: these are youth’s essences. This extreme youth will probably cause the Timberwolves to lose a lot of games this year. And this team will certainly not challenge us to rethink our assumptions about the aging athlete. But at their best, they could also give us the opportunity to indulge in one of life’s sweetest, guiltiest illusions: the one that tells us that we just might live forever.
Ben and Myles seemed to perfectly sum up all of the areas, possibilities, good and bad of the draft night; However, the most important aspect of it could end up being the trade of Luke Babbitt and Ryan Gomes to the Portland Trailblazers for Martell Webster.
While the salary cap aspect seems to be a mystery to people it shouldn’t be a mystery to, the talent aspect is very clear. The Wolves are getting rid of a very incredible role player in Ryan Gomes. Gomes is one of those San Antonio Spurs-type of guys off the bench that is very understated but always seems to make the right play. He’s also an incredibly likable person who seems to get what being a professional athlete is all about. He’s one of the good guys that doesn’t force anything with his fame and physical prowess. He just lets everything come to him in life and with a young team it’s hard to imagine you’d want to get rid of veterans like that.
What the Wolves give up in goodguyness (made it up) and basketball talent, they definitely get back with the acquisition of Martell Webster. Martell’s career has been a bit of a struggle so far. After feeling his way from high school to the highest level of basketball competition for two seasons, he broke through during the Blazers breakthrough season as a franchise. The Blazers went 41-41 as their young team (almost exemplified by Martell Webster in a way) started to put the potential into progress.
But after Martell and the Blazers broke out into being taken seriously in the league, he played just five minutes in the 2008-09 season. He was sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot in the pre-season before the season started and then only made a brief appearance in a December game against Raptors before sitting out the rest of the season while trying to heal.
When Martell returned to the Blazers rotation last season (82 games, 49 started, 24.5 minute per game) with a fully healed foot, a lot of the promise he showed before the injury returned. His skill set reads like a GMs ultimate fantasy. He can knock down the three, play lockdown defense against good perimeter defenders and has the athleticism to wow the crowd. And he’ll bring a lot of that to the Wolves.
However, figuring out where Martell is going to play next season might be the key to whether he is successful or not in his time with Minnesota. In case you haven’t paid attention to the Wolves David Kahn five-year plan of forming a full team by drafting just one position each season, year two was the small forward year. Even with acquiring Martell Webster, the Wolves pulled in four small forwards on draft night and a Brazilian center to be forgotten later. And of the four small forwards acquired, Martell is the most likely to be able to play the shooting guard position.
The problem is the idea of him playing shooting guard is sort of a foreign concept. According to 82games.com, Martell Webster played 11% of the allotted shooting guard minutes in Portland during his rookie season, while logging 14% of the minutes at small forward. Unfortunately, that was four years ago and he’s never played more than 4% of the shooting guard minutes in any given season since. In fact, in 2006-07 and 2009-10 he played just 1% of the shooting guard minutes. While it’s really fun to imagine him as a shooting guard because he’s athletic, can shoot and sort of looks like one, the evidence shows that he really doesn’t play there.
And when he does play there, it’s just a small sample size that is all over the board that it’s hard to know if this pipedream of him being a legit 2-guard is… well… legit. Check out the performances at shooting guard and small forward over the past couple of seasons:
It seems nearly impossible to predict that Martell Webster can be the shooting guard on this team based on these sample sizes. Appearance makes him fit the part of the shooting guard role but history says he doesn’t fit the bill. Of course, playing on the same team as Brandon Roy over the past few years makes playing time at the shooting guard position kind of scarce. Roy played 33% of the shooting guard minutes in 09-10, 59% in 07-08 and 42% in 06-07. For Webster to receive a lot of minutes at the shooting guard would have caused the Blazers to put their best player out of position.
But if Roy wasn’t around, would Webster have been the right call as the shooting guard anyway? Last season, he shot 37.3% from three-point range, which is right in line with his 37.2% career rate. According to Synergy Sports, Webster was a 38.3% shooter on spot-up jumpers and a 39.8% shooter on spot-up threes. These spot-up jumpers accounted for 41.6% of his offensive plays that ended in a shot attempt, turnover or trip to the free throw line. While those aren’t terrible percentages, they also don’t make you want to lump him in with the Steve Kerr’s, Reggie Miller’s and Jason Kapono’s of the league. Webster isn’t strong taking the ball to the hole and he’s not a deadeye shooter. So throwing him into the shooting guard position doesn’t scream of guaranteed success.
While this all seems to be a negative case for Martell Webster, my thoughts couldn’t be further from that assessment. The strength of Webster isn’t going to be the offensive production he brings; it will be the defense he brings to the table. The Wolves got killed on defense last year. The perimeter defense was terrible. The interior defense was terrible. The pick-and-roll defense was pretty bad too. And while Webster doesn’t solve all of that, he does provide a lockdown presence on the perimeter that makes the best offensive perimeter forces in the league have to work extra hard.
In most normal seasons, Webster would have been lauded for the defensive presence he was on the floor during the 2009-10 campaign. He didn’t exactly reinvent the way to play perimeter defense but he was a solid road barrier in the way of guys scoring efficiently. Unfortunately for him, he played on the same team as Nicolas Batum who received the highest remarks for his defensive efforts all season (and deservedly so too). Webster is strong enough to body-up the bigger players and still athletic enough to stay with the quick players. His quick leaping ability, quick feet and 6’11” wingspan allow him to challenge jumpers on the perimeter. And best of all, he’ll be able to teach Corey Brewer and Wesley Johnson the tricks of the defensive trade.
Overall, I love the idea of Martell Webster being a Wolf next year, especially when it means having to replace Ryan Gomes. You don’t find many 23-year olds as savvy and veteran (I like using it as an adjective too) as Webster.
Let’s just not fall in love with the idea of him at the shooting guard position just yet…
The Timberwolves’ draft party seems like it would be kind of fun. Hang out with a bunch of people, watch some huge TV’s, drink some beers, get pumped up for your team’s future. All of those things were there, but the proceedings were, from the start, inflected by the Wolves’ star-crossed history. Within two minutes of walking in, I spotted both a Rashad McCants jersey and a Michael Olowokandi jersey. It was hard to tell whether rocking two of the more spectacular flops in NBA draft history to a draft party were signs of ridiculous naivete or just plain cynicism. Knowing the jaundiced state of Wolves’ fandom, I’m guessing the latter.
And instead of the festive atmosphere that one might expect from fans of a team with five draft picks, the mood was more one of muted acceptance. We’ve just been subjected to too many false starts and reboots to be genuinely excited at the prospect of another; we’ve seen this movie way too many times. When the little fellow called Wesley Johnson’s name and performed his trademarked blindlingly awkward handshake (don’t you sometimes feel that the entire racial history of our country is played out before our eyes in those awful encounters?) the noise that emanated from the Wolves’ faithful (and remember, these are fans intense and committed enough to attend a Minnesota Timberwolves draft party) was something like “eeehhhhmm?”. Not shocked, not elated, not disappointed, just accepting.
So lets us talk about Wesley Johnson. It’s my feeling that, despite the hope and optimism generated by the lottery (at least by teams other than the Wolves and sad Clips), despite the dim possibility of magically picking up a transcendent, franchise-saving player, the only mandate is this: if you draft in the top ten, you must land a quality starter. You can get lucky and land a superstar, but you can also draft Randy Foye. GM’s get yourselves a starter. Wes Johnson has long, muscular arms; he’s got a lovely, economical jumper; he very much wants to play defense; he can jump over the backboard. To me, he is a solid NBA starter and one who does things–move fast, shoot threes, play defense–that the Wolves desperately need.
The only problem is that one of the two guys in the draft who seem to have a chance to be genuinely great, was sitting right there waiting to be chosen. Kahn had a ready explanation for passing on Demarcus Cousins: “We spent most of the last season talking about the lack of length and athleticism and speed on our front line and I didn’t feel that he would improve those areas.” If this, and not Cousins’s (possibly undeserved) rep as an immature hothead is really the reason, it strikes me as a little thin. Consider other players of Cousins’s great size, wingspan and footwork–I’m thinking folks like Pau Gasol and Joel Pryzbilla right now. They are able to use their skill and length to cover ground and challenge shots in the paint; the lack of great athleticism isn’t a huge hindrance. And although Cousins could certainly be in better condition and although the speed and duration of the college game pales in comparison to the NBA, he was able to play well in transition at Kentucky. Wouldn’t you imagine that he as at least a good a chance of being able to withstand the rigors of an up-tempo NBA game as, say, Darko Milicic for instance?
Moving right along, dudes. There’s evidently a great deal of frustration over the Martell Webster deal. It seems to fall along two fronts: first, that its irresponsible to trade a first-round pick for a player who has been, essentially a role player in the NBA. Second: that his skills and position overlap with those of Johnson and Corey Brewer (not to mention possible free agent pickup Rudy Gay). Here’s how I would respond (and I’m very much open to the possibility of being totally wrong about this): does anyone actually believe that Luke Babbitt, or anyone drafted beneath him, will be a better NBA player than Martell Webster? Webster is, like Johnson, 23 years-old and ridiculously athletic. He is an above average three-point shooter. He is a bright, thoughtful guy who loves to play defense. I’m actually on board with Kahn’s explanation, passive voice notwithstanding: “It was felt…that if we could add a young veteran, somebody who has been in the league for a number of years but still was on the young side, and that player could help us as much as a college player could and in some cases more, then that might be the route to go.”
As for the issue of redundancy with Wes Johnson. I’m of the belief that in the NBA right now, a team can never have too many long, athletic shooters who play defense. For way too long, the Wolves have been routinely torched for their deficiencies on the wing. Wes Johnson is a three. Martell Webster is a two. I’m not seeing the problem.
It does make a person wonder a few things, though: is Corey Brewer now going to be consigned to coming off the bench, or are his days, like Ryan Gomes’ now numbered? And now that Rudy Gay seems no longer to be an option, just what will the Wolves do with all of that cap room? Oh, and what about Mr. Jefferson? And I almost forgot the most curious thing of all: why did the Timberwolves trade down to select Lazar Hayward with the 30th pick, a player that could have been had with at 45, free of that guaranteed first-round contract? The Wolves shored up some serious shortcomings on Thursday, but they raised even more questions than they answered. And, ultimately, they failed to address their central concern, the lack of a truly elite player, a player who can give meaning and shape to the rest of this young roster. Seems to me, these loose ends are conspiring to tell us that this off-season is far from over.