Archives For Minnesota Timberwolves

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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Love at the Lottery

Benjamin Polk —  May 17, 2013 — 4 Comments

This from the Wolves:

The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced that All-Star forward Kevin Love will represent the team at the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery, to be held on Tuesday, May 21…

“It’s an honor to represent the Wolves at this year’s Draft Lottery,” said Love. “With two first-round picks, we are in a good position to add to our current roster. Hopefully I can bring us some luck.”

Repping a team at the lottery is not a huge thing obviously. Jay-Z has done it; season-ticket holders have done it; nerdy little kids have done it (click on that link and just look at David Kahn’s face); Real Housewives have done it.  But just days after Kahn capped a career of subtly belittling his team’s best player, this seems to me to be a small but decisive acknowledgement of where this team’s fortunes lie. Perhaps this is a baby step to repairing Love’s relationship with the team’s management.

Exit Brandon Roy

Benjamin Polk —  May 11, 2013 — 19 Comments

Pretty much immediately upon assuming office as Timberwolves’ President of Basketball Ops, Flip Saunders excised David Kahn’s final boondoggle. As should probably have happened halfway through last season, Brandon Roy has been waved. Here’s Flip waxing sentimental on the end of the Brandon Roy era: “We wish Brandon and his family all the best in the future.” Your desk should be cleaned out by 5:00, please. Also, we hope you enjoy this nice watch (and the $5 million you made last year).

Kahn has a few majestic failures to his name, but most of his moves were mediocrities of this sort. Easily defensible moves with relatively low risk that simply didn’t pan out. Many of these shone with Kahn’s signature grandiose faux-humility, which made it easy to relish their failure–thinking here of the Beasley and Anthony Randolph trades and the Darko experiment. But the Brandon Roy story was sadder and more poignant. Roy is an incredibly good basketball player who, at 28-years-old, would be in the heart of his prime right now if he had any cartilage left in his knees. Kahn’s gamble would have paid off if Roy would have been able to access even a shred of the talent his body surely still possesses. But he couldn’t. His stat line from last year is almost cruel: Five games; 5.8 points; 4.6 assists; 2.8 rebounds in 24.4 minutes per game. Brandon Roy deserves better.

 

I was intending to post something supremely thoughtful on the David Kahn era this coming weekend. But before I could get my thoughts/act together, Henry posted a piece on Truehoop which was essentially what I was intending to say. Its worth reading in full, but the gist of it, to my eyes, was this: David Kahn was a sub-mediocre general manager with a weird, abrasive personality. He made one very great move (trading up to draft Ricky Rubio), one spectacularly bad one (drafting Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry) and a bunch that shade somewhere to the wrong side of the middle. He restored the team to fiscal sanity, but drafted exceptionally poorly. He wooed two of the team’s three best players from overseas, but mortally alienated its only bona fide superstar. He hired Rick Adelman, but he also hired Kurt Rambis. He signed AK; he signed Darko. Like I said, sub-mediocre. But the reason he is considered to be monumentally bad is because he is such a strange dude. Here’s Henry:

All of which is to say I have glimpsed Kahn’s odd, bitter personality. I can guess why his various stops have been short, and why he has been in the business for a long time without developing many allies. I join a big crowd in not crying for Kahn today. 

So yup, call him an iconoclastic crank who’s short of friends and long on big, pompous mistakes. 

But please, don’t call him the worst GM in the NBA. 

Henry adds to this account today with a report that the Blazers have agreed to pay the Wolves $1.5 million to resolve the Martell Webster dispute, news that comes as a surprise to those of us who assumed that the Wolves’ claim was laughable.

Update: In case you are interested, here is Kahn’s “exit interview” with Jerry Zgoda in the STrib. By now, Kahn’s mode has become pretty predictable: Kahn talks up the Wolves fortunes, takes partial responsibility for his own failures while subtly shifting blame to Taylor and McHale. Check out this last bit though:

Q. Why did you say [Kevin Love] needs to win back the respect of his teammates?
A. I think there’s some work for him to be done in terms of, he didn’t play very much this year, right? And I think there’s a void there because of that. Many of those guys really fought their way back from injury, sometimes multiple injuries. He had two broken hands. He came back once, didn’t play well, broke his hand again and then decided to have his knee done at the end of the year when the pain was such. I think he has some work to in the locker room and I believe he will. I certainly don’t want that to come across negatively. I believe he will and I believe he’s on the right path.

This is just classic Kahn, the exact stuff that earns him his reputation. Subtly casting aspersions on Love’s toughness and desire to play–which, while Love may not always be an ideal teammate, I think its ridiculous to malign those particular qualities in him–while attemping to frame it as some act of generosity and mentorship on his own part. Guy, I realize that you don’t want that “to come off negatively” but you just suggested that your best player has lost the respect of his teammates by not coming back from an injury. Honestly, how do you expect that to come off? You could write this off as a slightly bitter farewell by a guy who just lost his job–if it didn’t conform so closely to the patterns Kahn has established throughout his tenure.

Kahn still on the job

Benjamin Polk —  April 27, 2013 — 7 Comments

Before we praise/bury David Kahn and/or Glen Taylor and/or Flip Saunders, lets be clear on one thing: nothing has been confirmed by anybody. Taylor has been silent; Kahn is acting like he still has a job; Flip ain’t saying one way or another. And while this is all most likely the typical “cannot-confirm-or-deny” waltz as performed by every owner and prospective hire before things become official, better recognize: nothing is official. Indeed, Kahn is seeming rather sanguine about the whole affair. As quoted in the Strib:

It is no different than when we make decisions on players who have options. We wait for the process to unfold. In the meantime, Glen and I have been having conversations about the staff, free agency and other plans…I wake up every day knowing it’s a privilege to have this job, and not a right. Speculation about our jobs is part of this business, especially when you strip the emotion out of it. Speculation is especially understandable now, as we have a deep and talented team, with several cornerstone players, and will be poised for big success once it regains its health.

If this seems oddly low-key for a guy on the precipice, its worth remembering that Kahn has presided over this exact situation before. So he’s no stranger to the Wolves’ allowing an incumbent to twist in the wind for a while as a decision is being made. Wow, the Wolves sure are ungraceful in situations like this. Makes you wonder why anybody would want to work for them in the first place.

 

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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