“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.”
-Mark Z. Danielewski, “House of Leaves”
More than six months ago, on April 16th, following the Wolves’ season-ending 136-130 loss to the Utah Jazz, Rick Adelman and Kevin Love walked off the floor tired, disappointed and with their eyes on the exit signs.
A week later, Adelman announced his retirement and stepped into an advisor’s role, done with the daily grind of the NBA after more than four decades on the job. Depending on your level of cynicism, you might contend that Kevin Love’s exit strategy began to take shape the moment he was refused the five-year maximum offer in January, 2012. But the mechanics kicked into high gear in mid-May, and by the end of that month, it was fairly obvious Love had played his final game in a Timberwolves uniform.
In June, Flip Saunders’ search for a new head coach resulted in Flip Saunders naming Flip Saunders the new head coach. The Wolves selected Zach LaVine (12th) and Glenn Robinson III (40th) in the NBA Draft. In July, LeBron decided he was going to head back to Cleveland, which changed the offseason trajectory of the entire league. In August, Minnesota was able to finally complete the long-rumored trade of Kevin Love to Cleveland, acquiring Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thad Young for their trouble. Training camp opened on September 29th, followed by seven preseason games over the next three weeks, and now we’ve arrived at opening night.
A lot happened in six months. Rick Adelman is a Hall of Fame coach, and Kevin Love is a superstar. Both are gone. This season, the franchise is in the hands of Flip Saunders and Ricky Rubio. A lot of the pieces are the same – 9 of the 15 players on roster were here a year ago, including 4/5ths of the starting lineup – yet everything feels different. People are excited about the future rather than worrying about expectations. There’s some passion in the air.
Other than the Kevin Love trade and subsequent introduction of the Timberwolves’ new players at the Minnesota State Fair, the signature moment of the offseason was “Dunks After Dark,” the midnight madness-inspired open scrimmage in Mankato, played in front of a raucous crowd and broadcast live on NBATV. It was the brainchild of Flip Saunders, whose more upbeat, positive outlook is a contrast to the quieter Rick Adelman. The organization, following Flip’s lead, spent August, September and October promoting the Wolves’ new identity – high-flying wings and team defense – in an effort to foster passion within the fan base.
The Wolves’ new leader, according to fellow players and various media thinkpieces on the subject, is Ricky Rubio, known to casual fans for his flair, passing ability and dreadful jump shot and known to more astute ones as a confident, competitive true point guard who plays lockdown defense. With a month to go in the 2013-14 season, he finally admitted some of his spark was gone, that he needed to start having fun playing basketball again. The weight of expectations, the pressure to succeed in what turned out to be Love’s final season, got to him. Free of those burdens, perhaps his passion, the joy we saw as a rookie, will return to his game.
“House of Leaves,” a novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, was published in the year 2000 and endures as a genre-defying mindtrip with a dedicated cult following. The main plot of the book centers on the Navidson family, who discovers that the house they’e just moved into measures larger on the inside than it does on the outside. Turns out, one of the closets in the home leads to a labyrinth. Will, the family patriarch, decides the mysterious, cavernous room in the closet must be explored.
Soon, the characters in the book aren’t the only one making their way through a maze; as they dive deeper into the labyrinth, the book itself becomes a maze. Some pages have few words, no words, or words written in various languages that must be translated in order to discover key plot points. The text changes color, font, and whether it’s written backwards or forwards. There are codes to decipher, maps to follow, clues to gather. The picture above gives an idea what I’m talking about.
Eventually, the main character comes to realize that his passion for exploring the labyrinth won’t get him through; he’s got to be patient as well. And passion, often associated positively with love or dedication to a craft, has a more subtle connotation: suffering. Loss. In basketball terms, culture change won’t come without growing pains. Patience, the Latin cousin of the word passion, is necessary to succeed.
Passion and patience. Without further ado, your 2014-15 Minnesota Timberwolves season preview.
1. The Coach
I’ve already written extensively about what the Wolves’ new offense will look like – lots of midrange jumpers, with only players who’ve passed Flip’s “system” having the “right” to shoot threes. When Saunders’ offenses operated at their peak, they were beautiful, freeing up wide open midrange looks with regularity. Can he adapt his offensive philosophy to fit the modern game, predicated so heavily on looks from outside? Or will he stick to his guns?
Defensively, there were some exciting things in the preseason. There was a little matchup zone, some traps, and very active defending going on. One of the benefits of having a deep roster (more on that later) is the ability to play a more intense defensive style. Shorter stints with higher energy output could be what Saunders is after.
Zach Harper of A Wolf Among Wolves wrote about Saunders’ late-game effectiveness as a head coach, citing his teams’ good records in close games. A little late-game magic would be a welcome change from last year’s all-too-common fourth-quarter meltdowns. Flip is the most successful coach in franchise history and has been to the Conference Finals four times; he’s got the chops to do the job, and seems eager and ready to get back to the grind of coaching.
2. The Starters: Amaze
Hey, it’s four of the five guys who were starters last season. They’ll be pretty much the same, right?
Well, no, of course not. Thad Young can shoot a little bit from outside, is an above-average passer for a power forward and allows opponents to shoot a high percentage at the rim, so you might think he’s a poor man’s Kevin Love, but what he can’t mimic is Love’s gravity, the way he pulled a defense towards him, freeing up teammates with lanes to the basket.
Spacing is going to be an issue with this group; Kevin Martin is the only above-average three-point shooter of the bunch. Of course, perimeter attempts will be down for the Wolves under Saunders, but even the looks they do try to generate won’t be easy with this personnel group.
In the frontcourt, Pekovic and Young complement one another nicely. Pek ought to see a minutes reduction given the rise of his backup, Gorgui Dieng, which will hopefully keep him fresher, healthier and more effective. Young will do all of the little Thad Young things that make basketball nerds swoon; he’ll defend, he’ll pass the ball, he’ll play smart and he’ll be a leader on and off the floor.
As far as the backcourt goes, Kevin Martin is Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer is Corey Brewer, and it’s unlikely either will change their ways any time soon. Martin will score and knock down free throws but play defense like a swinging saloon door. Brewer will hustle in transition and give a lot of effort on defense, but he’ll also clank threes and gamble for steals a little more often than he should.
The real key is Ricky Rubio. Can he embrace his role as a leader? Can his play back it up? Will he successfully execute Flip’s offense? Expect to see steps in the right direction from Rubio this year – maybe not enough to transform the team from lottery-bound to playoff contender, but enough to make fans and the front office believe he’s a foundational piece for years to come.
3. The Bench: A Maze
A. The Second Unit
Pour one out for J.J. Barea, whose spot as the second unit point guard was lost to Mo Williams. Barea was bought out the other day and is free to head wherever he’d like (he’s already been linked to Dallas). The Wolves’ dreadful bench from a year ago looks completely different, and it starts with Mo Williams, who is a much better fit as a backup point guard. He’s already taken on a leadership role with some of the younger players and is much more adept at finding the balance between when to look for his own shot and when to be a distributor, something J.J. never quite figured out a season ago.
A healthy Chase Budinger (knock on wood) will also be a major upgrade over the Chase Budinger of 2013-14, who struggled to find his legs (and subsequently his jumper) after having his second knee surgery in as many years. Andrew Wiggins will probably graduate from the bench to a starter’s role at some point (or he may start tonight, and I’ll look stupid) and I’m totally fine making him earn it. His ceiling as a defender is really exciting; the kind of “casual athleticism” and instincts he display is something the Wolves have never had on the wing. Offensively, he’s a work in progress. His jumper needs work and he needs to work on his handle, but the raw ability is undeniable. He’ll learn on the fly, and it’ll be good for him.
The same goes for the other arrival and former number 1 pick from Cleveland. Anthony Bennett. A myriad of health issues teamed up to submarine his rookie season, from sleep and breathing issues, to shoulder problems, knee and even vision problems. Finally healthy and afforded a fresh start, Bennett ought to be granted a long leash as well, empowered to learn on the fly. Again, the glimpses of talent are undeniable, he just needs time and the patience of the coaching staff and fans.
The true “sixth man” on the team is Mo Williams, but Gorgui Dieng will likely be the first man off the bench most nights for the Timberwolves. Expect 20-22 minutes per night for the second-year Louisville product, who averaged 12 points, 11 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game over the final month of 2013-14, breaking out of his spot on the deep bench (he averaged 6 minutes per game prior to that run, with 22 DNP-CDs) to show he belongs in the rotation. His continued development provides the Wolves with insurance for the oft-injured Nikola Pekovic, as well as a nice complement to him in the big man rotation when he’s healthy. Dieng can shoot jumpers a bit and is more of a rim protector than Pek has ever been. Dieng’s arrow is pointing up, and it’s exciting to think about him taking the next step this season.
B. The Deep Bench
Speaking of J.J. Barea’s buyout/release: if either Rubio or Williams suffers an injury, Zach LaVine is next in line to get minutes at the point guard position, which is sort of frightening, because he’s extremely raw. Wiggins and Bennett have to learn on the fly, but the team could have some success as they do so, and neither of them play ball-dominant positions. In Flip Saunders’ offense, point guards are extremely important. Hopefully, Ricky and Mo stay healthy so LaVine can be brought along at the proper pace, maybe even as an occasional fill-in for Chase Budinger as the second-unit shooting guard, where he’d have less responsibility. For all of his dunking ability (and my God, the kid can dunk), his jumper is inconsistent, his decision-making skills need work and he needs to put on some weight and muscle in order to hold up on the defensive end.
Shabazz Muhammad deserves more minutes than he’s probably going to get, and I say that as someone who likes his game an irrational amount, so take that for what it’s worth. He completely remade his body in the offseason and is in the best shape of his life, and his game is particularly difficult for opposing shooting guards to handle. He does his best work from the low block and bullies his way into position for his little lefty hook. Rounding out his offensive arsenal and improving on defense ought to be his two main goals this season.
Glenn Robinson III will be inactive most nights, but it was nice to see the Timberwolves hang onto the second-round pick out of Michigan, as he has a little bit of upside as a wing. Robbie Hummel might be the other inactive, but offers plenty of flexibility when he does dress, as he can play three positions (shooting guard and both forward spots) and is a smart team player on both ends of the court. Ronny Turiaf is Ronny Turiaf, and I love him for it, and everyone else should, too. This is the start of his tenth NBA season, and the veteran big man has embraced his role as a mentor to the younger bigs on the roster. He also keeps things, um, light.
The issue with the bench is going to be distributing minutes effectively. Conceivably, there are ten guys with strong cases to be in the rotation (Ricky, Mo, Martin, Bud, Brewer, Wiggins, Thad, Bennett, Pek, Dieng), three veterans who ought to get some regular bench minutes to stay fresh and sharp (Shabazz, Hummel and Turiaf) and two rookies who deserve occasional developmental minutes (LaVine and GRIII). That’s quite a maze for Flip Saunders to manage. This squad seems coachable, and so far everyone is saying the right things. But after a month or two, will the sentiment be the same? The one downside of so much depth is managing minutes, expectations and personalities. That will be the challenge for Flip as he deals with this roster.
4. Passion and patience in the maze, and what a successful season would be…
It’s not about wins and losses with this group. It’s about players buying in. It’s about finding out what the young guys have, and starting their careers off on the right foot. It’s about veterans leading, rookies following, and everyone adapting their styles to fit the coach’s strategy. It’s about the franchise moving on from the Kevin Love era. It’s about a little bit of excitement being back with the fan base. It’s about patience and passion and taking steps in the right direction. It’s not about wins and losses.
That being said, it’s time to predict wins and losses, as well as a few other tidbits…
The Timberwolves will finish with a 34-48 record.
That will be the 12th-best record in the Western Conference.
Utah, Sacramento and the Los Angeles Lakers will finish with fewer wins than the Wolves.
Only the Lakers will shoot fewer threes than the Timberwolves this season.
Mo Williams will play more fourth quarter minutes than Kevin Martin.
Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer will be linked to trade rumors as the deadline approaches.
Neither will end up being dealt.
Zach LaVine will not appear in the D-League this season.
Glenn Robinson III will.
Andrew Wiggins will be the starting small forward by December 15th.
Thad Young will be an absolute treat to cover.
Nikola Pekovic will average under 30 minutes per game.
Ricky Rubio will shoot 40% from the floor.
He’ll lead the team in minutes played.
He’ll finish in the top-5 in assists per game.
He’ll lead the league in steals per game.
The Wolves, as a team, will lead the league in steals.
The Wolves, as a team, will take the most midrange jumpers in the NBA.
The Wolves, as a team, will follow Ricky’s lead, and by the end of the season, we’ll know if he’s a building block for the future or not.
If ‘passion’ implies suffering, the Wolves will suffer. They’ll lose more than they’ll win. But if patience is kept in mind, if ‘endurance’ is the aim, if making it through the maze of this oddly deep roster, this mix of veterans and young players, the season will be a success.