Archives For Nikola Pekovic

I wasn’t prepared for how interesting watching an NBA team practice was going to be. When the assembled media was granted access to the Timberwolves’ first day of training camp for the last half hour, we filed in and sat down on the north side of the Taylor Center’s court. The players were going up and down, divided into three sets that matched last night’s squads for the Dunks After Dark scrimmages — black, white and gold.

The coaches on the floor — Flip Saunders, Ryan Saunders and Sidney Lowe — set up a drill on dealing with the pick and roll, working on specific calls and approaches. Some of it may have seemed basic, but training camp is about getting everyone on the same page. It’s a way to say, “This is how we do things.” To that end, it’s not a test just of learning specific things, but a test of how well a player learns things in general, how coachable a player is.

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Dunks After Dark Wrap-Up

Steve McPherson —  September 30, 2014 — 3 Comments

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In the grandest barnstorming tradition, the Minnesota Timberwolves descended on the 4,500-seat Taylor Center on the campus of Minnesota State University Mankato for Dunks After Dark last night. One hundred percent completely sober students filled the arena to capacity quickly once the doors opened at 11 pm and they mugged for NBA TV’s cameras while being entertained for a good hour by DJ Mad Mardigan and an assortment of breakdancers and trampoline dunkers. As anticipation built for the Wolves to take the floor, the energy thrummed and the building pulsed with all the casual fun of basketball without playoff implications, without the pressure of filling a big arena, without the freight of the NBA proper.

But let’s not kid ourselves: in terms of actual basketball, last night meant less than nothing in the grand scheme of things, so let’s celebrate that with a bunch of GIFs of dunks and fun stuff, plus a couple observations. All GIFs are courtesy of the incomparable CJ Fogler. Continue Reading…

Media Day: Quick Hits

William Bohl —  September 30, 2014 — 6 Comments

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Good morning! Prior to all of last night’s “Dunks After Dark” fun, Wolves media day took place deep within the cellar of the Target Center. Here are a few quotes and general observations, in the order the players and coaches went to the podium to talk to those of us assembled:

1. Flip Saunders

– The Wolves’ minority owner/ President of Basketball Operations / Head Coach began with the usual coachspeak platitudes, about being ready to build a contender, being excited to get to camp, and discussing the leadership roles on the team. But he had a few noteworthy quotes that offered a peek into his mindset as the team embarked on its journey to Mankato.

– “One of the great thing about having young players,” Flip said, “is that you have a really significant impact on what they might become down the road.” He also spoke about getting to the grind of camp and working on things with his team daily. “What coaches love are practices. What you have the opportunity to do is mold these players.” But in his mind, it isn’t just up to the coaches to get Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and the other Minnesota youngsters ready to be successful. “The success we have will not (come from) the rookies (alone). It’s the veterans being able to help these rookies out.” Continue Reading…

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With media day and training camp just two days away, and the first preseason game less than two weeks away, we finally have a (mostly) set roster. Now that the Timberwolves have announced the names off their official training camp roster, the first attempt at a post-Kevin Love era has more or less taken shape.

We start with the group big men that Kevin Love used to lead. Even with a haul as good as the one the Wolves got, replacing a frontcourt presence like Love can’t be done right away.

In short: Minnesota’s frontcourt won’t be as strong as it was a year ago. While the center position may actually be the deepest it has ever been, there are some big question marks, especially at power forward.

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As 2K Sports is wont to do, they’ve been dribbling out bits of footage here and there leading up to the release of NBA 2K15 on October 7. Their latest trailer is called “Momentous” and features lots of pretty visuals, precise details, “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest and — most importantly — a glimpse at this year’s Timberwolves.  Continue Reading…

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With the likelihood of a swap with Love-for-Wiggins at its core looking more likely, a lot of fans have apparently shifted their focus for the time being onto what else will come along with this trade exchanging proven superstar for potential superstar. The big problem with moving Love for a swingman is the enormous hole left at the power forward position, especially given Dante Cunningham’s expiring deal (and whether or not the team exercises its option for him, he isn’t a viable starter). Sure, there’s the potential for Gorgui Dieng to get some minutes at the four as a supersized PF next to Pekovic, which could surely create some excellent and interesting high-low action given the passing skills that Dieng showed off in college, but Dieng is also not an every-game starter at power forward.

So the question becomes who the Wolves can get back in the trade to man the four spot, and it seems like people are waffling over the still-raw-but-possibly-better-than-we-thought-last-year Anthony Bennett or the largely unsung and in some cases unknown Thaddeus Young, who could be routed from Philadelphia should they be brought into the deal.

Now if you know me, you know I like Thad Young. I wrote about him for the New York Times and HoopChalk prior to last season, essentially lauding his evolution into a true smallball power forward and noting that if he could add the 3-pointer back into his game — he shot ~35% in his second and third seasons — he could become even better. (Also worth noting that he was most successful from 3-point range on the left wing — Love’s favorite spot.)

This past season he did re-introduce the 3-pointer, but it didn’t go super well. He only shot 31% from 3-point range, but I think it’s worth remembering that he more or less hadn’t taken a 3-point shot in a game for three years (34 3PA in those three years combined) and that he was on an atrocious Sixers team where the offense wasn’t designed to get him 3-point looks. With seven years of experience but still just 26 years old, I still think Thaddeus Young can be a tremendous player in the league, if not a marquee star.

That veteran experience is what I’m more interested in talking about than his specific game, though. It’s true that Bennett looked much better in Summer League than he did at any point last year, and it’s true that he was dealing with a host of physical issues from rehabilitating an injury to his shoulder to sleep apnea (for which he’s since had surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids). There’s every reasonable expectation that, given the right environment, he can evolve into a very good basketball player.

But that’s the sticking point: environment. There’s a natural tendency to look at a player’s skillset and potential and believe it will blossom one way or another, but it’s more complicated than that. Simply put, if the Wolves are already going to be giving heavy minutes to Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, it’s going to be very difficult to also give heavy minutes to Bennett. Three years down the line, a starting lineup with LaVine, Wiggins and Bennett could be great, but I just don’t think they get there if they’re all having to start this season, or even just play heavy minutes.

First and second year players simply need to be surrounded by veterans to reach their full potential. If this trade goes down and if it involves Kevin Martin and if the Wolves feel they need to start Wiggins over Brewer, that means the longest tenured starter would be Pekovic, with four years of NBA experience. Rubio has three, and just barely given that he’s played 180 games in those three years. Young more than doubles Rubio’s experience and nearly doubles Pekovic’s.

Now obviously the kind of veteran leader he can be matters, but so far he’s shown himself to be quiet and steady, plus he hasn’t needed the team to be designed around getting him looks for him still to be the best player on the floor for the Sixers the last two years.

You need balance on a team, not just to be successful, but to grow. Young versus Bennett probably won’t change the win total of next year’s Wolves very much — and I don’t expect them to be good in the sense of making the playoffs either way — but a team on which Wiggins, LaVine and Bennett are all getting heavy minutes would not only be not very good next year, but it would stunt all of their development. It’s better for LaVine and Wiggins to be finding their feet next to a veteran like Young, even if he leaves after next season by not picking up his player option. If he does leave, that’s nearly $10 million in cap space.

The bottom line here is that playing a bunch of potentially great rookies might work in NBA 2K15, but doing so in the real world not only hurts the team’s present prospects but also their future ones. The Baby Bulls of the early 2000s are instructive here. They were not only a 21-win team in 2002 when they had Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry as rookies plus Jamal Crawford and Marcus Fizer as sophomores, but they stayed bad for years.

No matter a player’s potential, growth curves are not inevitable. Developing one rookie is ideal. Two simultaneously is a challenge but possibly worth the payoff if it works. Giving three young players big minutes is likely to compromise all of their development and hamstring the team for years.

If standing next to Zach Galifianakis is the Michael Jordan of this picture, the Mickey Mouse shirt is the Scottie Pippen

If standing next to Zach Galifianakis is the Michael Jordan of this picture, the Mickey Mouse shirt is the Scottie Pippen

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 2013-14 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.

Here’s something I didn’t expect to see when I pulled up Nikola Pekovic’s page on Basketball Reference: in 2013-14, he improved his points-per-36-minutes, his PER, his true shooting percentage and his field goal percentage, and held just about every other category steady. Somehow I thought he had been a little worse this year than last. Maybe it only seems weird because of the price tag that comes along with those numbers. In 2012-13 he did it all for $4.8 million; in 2013-14 he made $12.1 million. Continue Reading…

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The emergence of Gorgui Dieng has been a fascinating development to a weird season that never fails to drop my jaw.

Through the first 41 games of the season (he got hurt in Game 42), Nikola Pekovic was a godsend. He was worth the five years, $60 million the Minnesota Timberwolves, Flip Saunders, and Glen Taylor committed to him this past offseason. They navigated his restricted free agency beautifully, remaining patient and never succumbing to the pressure of rumors about the market or other suitors. The Wolves got him for exactly what their initial offer was to him, which is pretty stunning for a mid-market team like this one.

Pek earned that contract for much of this season, exuding his brute strength and deft touch around the basket and at the free throw line. His defense was better than reported but not as good or effective as last season. He seemed to be often lamented for not being a rim protector, even though he wasn’t one last season when he was a really solid pick-and-roll defender. Perhaps it was the absence of Bill Bayno on the Wolves’ coaching staff, which kept Pek from keeping that form on the defensive end. Or maybe last season’s effort and production on defense was an outlier to what he is supposed to be.

Regardless, Pek was still giving the Wolves something very few centers have given their teams this season, and for $12 million per season, that’s pretty good value. Then the forgotten first round pick of the Wolves stepped in during a recent string of missed games for Pek. Continue Reading…

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In the skyway back to the parking lot after the Minnesota Timberwolves’ comprehensive mangling of the Los Angeles Lakers 143-107, two Laker fans stood vigil with a view of the exit to the visiting team bus. This was well after most of the crowd had made their way to their cars and the skyway was mostly empty.

Below, other fans stood a meager layer deep waiting for a dejected Lakers team to make their way to the bus. The 143 points Minnesota put up set a new Timberwolves franchise record and also gave them their largest win since a 42-point victory over the Thunder on Jan. 7, 2009. Their 67.1% shooting set a single-game franchise record and was the highest in the NBA so far this season. Kevin Love had a triple double at the end of the third quarter. Nikola Pekovic was a plus-38, Jordan Hill a minus-38. The Wolves biggest lead was 41 points, the Lakers biggest lead, zero.

These two Lakers fans, in jerseys and hats, in Forum blue and gold, waited. If this Laker team manages two more wins this season, they’ll be spared the ignominy of having the second-worst win total in Laker history, beating out their 25-50 finish in 1959-60 and their 19-53 finish in 1957-58. They were still the Minneapolis Lakers during those two seasons. Terrible basketball has a long tradition in Minnesota.

Maybe that’s why these fans who come out of the woodwork in the visiting team’s colors for games against the Lakers, the Heat, are such easy targets. Being a Wolves fan for any serious amount of time demands resilience. It fosters a mistrust of success, an expectation of disappointment. At the core of this fandom is the sense that it has to be earned with hardship, not bought in the form of a #24 jersey with “BRYANT” on the back.

Even an offensive explosion like last night’s — a game Nikola Pekovic, back from injury, called “a triumph from the very first moment” — is going to bring with it a sour little note: Where was this kind of performance when it could have gotten them into the playoffs, when it could have mattered?

But “mattered” is a strangely relative term. Since the Wolves have fallen out of contention for a playoff spot, they’ve been peppered with questions about what there’s left to play for and they’ve given the same bland, generic responses that most athletes do in such situations. Stuff about still having things to learn, about seeing where they are for next year, about playing hard because that’s what you do.

But last night there was a little pure joy in the game. Returning to the bench after starting six games and putting up a double-double in all but one of them, Gorgui Dieng got a hero’s welcome when he checked into the game for the first time at the 4:17 mark of the first quarter. Some of the applause was also no doubt for Pekovic’s sterling effort in that first quarter, where he went 4-4 and scored 12 points. And some of it may have been for the simple fact that a bench player checking in for the Wolves was not a reason to nervously bite your fingernails. Dieng acquitted himself well in his backup role with 14 points and 9 rebounds. (“The guys were giving him a pretty hard time there with only nine rebounds,” said Adelman in his postgame presser.)

And as the third quarter was ending with the Wolves up comfortably, an errant Laker shot bounced harmlessly towards the Wolves bench. Love was the closest to the ball and the Minnesota bench, well aware of his 22 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds, starting shouting, “GET IT! GET IT! GET IT!” When Love gamely scooped the ball off the ground for a buzzer beating rebound, they cheered. In the break between quarters they patted him on the back and smiled. Everyone was just having a good time.

You can take what you will from a historic win like this at the tail end of a disappointing season. You can say that when the chips are down, this team didn’t step up, that their inability to close out games shows a lack of character. That any team can have a good time when they’re romping all over an opponent as hopeless as the Lakers. That Love is leaving so none of it matters. I get it: It’s a weird thing how at the end of a bad thing, there are good things.

But then I think about those Lakers fans waiting for their team — without Kobe Bryant, without Pau Gasol, without any clear path beyond lottery luck — and I think about why they’re out there in the skyway. It’s possible they’re Los Angeles transplants, that they grew up there and grew up with the Lakers, that they’re sticking by their hometown team. But I would almost prefer for them to be bandwagon fans who jumped on a frontrunner because of the glitz, the rings, the Black Mamba. Maybe the weird thing for them is that they actually started liking the team and now they can’t get out of it.

One way or another, we end up places. We get there by a mix of things we can control and things we can’t, and then we have the choice of either leaving or sticking around. Those Lakers fans and this Timberwolves team last night are a reminder: If you’re sticking around, at least try to enjoy yourself. It’s just much easier on your constitution.

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We’ve been here before, hoping for competitive losses.

I should clarify. I’ve certainly been here before. I can’t assume you guys are necessarily there with me and based on the frustration flowing through my Twitter feed and some of the local media on Sunday, I might be mostly alone on this one for now. That’s probably the case because this is the latest in a season the Wolves have been competitive in about a decade. It’s also probably because the expectations heading into this season were competing for the playoffs. With roughly three weeks left, it would take two monumental collapses and the Wolves not collapsing to make that a reality.

Because of the draft pick implications heading into the game against the Phoenix Suns, my hopes for the game were for it to be extremely competitive and for the Wolves to protect their draft pick lives. Losing to the Suns was going to all but guarantee they keep the pick, assuming the Suns don’t come through on the 1.8% chance of landing a top 3 pick on the night of the lottery (that’s also assuming they don’t make the playoffs). The Suns making the playoffs altogether would actually be ideal because the Wolves would almost certainly keep the pick.

What I wanted out of Sunday’s game happened.  Continue Reading…