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Zach Harper of CBS (and A Wolf Among Wolves) and I joined Chase Thomas at the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate covering the Knicks (KnickerBlogger) to preview Minnesota’s game against New York. The final two paragraphs detail the ways in which the Wolves could end up losing the game… which they did, 118-106.
Things have gotten a little crazy since December 15th, when my wife and I welcomed our first child (a healthy, impossibly happy boy) into our lives. As a result of all the love, attention and maintenance our little guy requires, a few things have slipped through the cracks, such as keeping tabs on the work I’ve been doing around the internet.
A few game recaps from the past month and a half (you can see the full thing by clicking on the titles):
“Last year, the Blazers’ starting five was felled by a historically weak bench, and they won only 33 games. Improvements in that area – Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, and Thomas Robinson in particular – have helped them begin this season 33-11. The Wolves are saddled with the same issues. Their bench isn’t atrocious every night- they’ve actually been decent, of late – but the drop from the first unit to the second is a problem, nonetheless. It’s be nice to think of the Blazers as a team further along on the long road to contention, and that the Wolves can follow their road map. Whether Minnesota’s front office has the creativity (nevermind the cap space) to pull this off, no one knows.
“But a funny thing happened at the end of the third – instead of laying down, as many road teams would do on the second night of a back-to-back, the Wolves began to fight, but could never seem to get over the hump. Whether it was lingering frustration over being unable to close the gap, or whether the officials grew weary of his bickering, or whether Barea finally said the magic word (or words), he was hit with two consecutive technicals with 6:43 to go and was tossed from the game. J.J. had spent two solid minutes seething, jawing at officials on both ends of the floor, nary a teammate about to settle him down. It played out like a bizarre sideshow – a child throwing a tantrum in a crowded place, his parents (the coaches) and brothers (his teammates) too apathetic to step in and take charge.”
“The real turning point came in two sequences – the final play of the 3rd quarter, and the first play of the 4th quarter. Two Alexey Shved free throws with 8 seconds to go in the 3rd tied things up at 77, and Oklahoma City had the ball for the final shot. Derek Fisher airballed a three, but then Gorgui Dieng did something I can’t quite explain (just watch the video). Then, to open the 4th, Chase Budinger fouled Jeremy Lamb in the act of shooting a three (which went in), leading to a 4-point-play opportunity. The Thunder didn’t cash in, but the entire sequence spelled the beginning of the end for Minnesota.”
“Minnesota’s core group could do no wrong. That especially includes Kevin Love. No matter what happens in the future, it’d be a shame if Timberwolves fans didn’t just stop and appreciate what it’s like watching this guy suit up for their favorite team on a nightly basis. All the little things that might rub you the wrong way about him – sniping at referees, a lack of hustle in transition defense, poor body language – were absent tonight. What you got instead was all the good stuff – beautiful outlet passes, a precise understanding of the halfcourt offense, a stepback three, gorgeous catch-and-shoot rhythm jumpers, and tough rebounds on both the offensive and defensive ends.”
“Even the most optimistic Timberwolves fan probably didn’t expect the hometown squad to dominate one of the top teams in the NBA as thoroughly as Minnesota dominated Indiana on Wednesday night. True, the Pacers were on the second night of a back-to-back, and the Wolves were fresh after having a full week off thanks to the All-Star break. But this is Indiana we’re talking about, owners of a 41-12 record (at the beginning of the night), rolling along with the game’s next superstar (Paul George) and sporting the league’s best defensive rating. How did Minnesota, short two of their three best offensive options (Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin), manage to handle Indiana so convincingly?”
“Tuesday night, Minnesota’s most unique player played a vital role in their victory over the Phoenix Suns. Shabazz Muhammad’s modus operandi doesn’t fit the mold of most NBA shooting guards – he’s going to post up and crash the boards with reckless abandon. The superstar (Love) nearly notched his second triple double in three games (33 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists) but it was Shabazz’s unique traits that sparked the Wolves’ important win.”
“You knew the Wolves weren’t going to blow another game to the lowly Kings, especially given their current desperate state, right? That the bench wouldn’t be to blame, especially since they’ve been better of late? You knew beforehand that Quincy Acy and Reggie Evans weren’t the same person, correct? That the Timberwolves weren’t going to fail to keep Rudy Gay in check for the second time in a month and a half? And you knew, at some point, the Wolves record in close games would progress to the mean, that they couldn’t just keep losing tight contests in perpetuity?
The answer to all these questions: “I thought they might.””
“The loaded Western Conference features five teams that figure to be shoo-ins to the playoffs, barring catastrophic injuries: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers, and Houston. The final three spots will almost certainly come from the following group of six teams: Phoenix, Golden State, Memphis, Dallas, Denver and Minnesota. It will probably take 46 wins to make the playoffs in the Western Conference (side bar: the 8th seed in the East will likely have 35 or so). Can the Wolves get to 46 victories? They’d have to finish 23-13 in order to make the (somewhat arbitrary) benchmark I’ve set for them.
How do the Wolves stack up against the competition for the 6th, 7th or 8th seed in the Western Conference? What does the remaining schedule look like for each contender? Are they trending upward, downward, or have they leveled off? If we take a look at each, what can we learn about the road ahead for Minnesota, and their odds for reaching the postseason for just the 9th time in 25 seasons?”
“Nowhere are Barea’s faults highlighted more vividly than at the ends of quarters. When the Wolves gain possession with fewer than 35 seconds left in a quarter, it’s a safe bet that they’ll hold for one attempt at the end of the shot clock – common practice in the NBA. The strategy is sound – the Wolves’ transition defense leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s better to leave the opponent with little or no time to hustle down the floor for a quick bucket. The problem, of course, is execution.”
Earlier this season, over at A Wolf Among Wolves, I charted the locations on the floor where Kevin Love racks up his assists. While his outlet passes get a lot of attention, his most lethal position on the floor is from the left wing, where he distributes nearly half his dimes. His mastery of Rick Adelman’s half-court offense is aided by the presence of skilled off-ball cutters (Corey Brewer, Luc Mbah a Moute, and when healthy, Chase Budinger and Kevin Martin), which typically leads to easy looks at the rim.
Lately, Love’s been more adept at passing out of the low block, especially when he’s playing center, which makes sense. Without Pekovic on the floor to patrol the paint, Love becomes a post-up threat. Even though he’s a skilled scorer in this spot on the court, he still looks for his teammates, whether it’s veering around him on hand-offs, or kicking the ball out to shooters.
Here’s the assist chart from earlier this season (through December 4th):
And here’s the updated “Dimes Chart”, current as of 3/1/2014. As of now, Kevin Love has tallied 220 assists this season:
A few observations:
1. 13% of Love’s assists from early December through the end of February came from the left block, doubling his season-long rate. Ronny Turiaf’s injury meant more time for Love at the five, and once he returned, Nikola Pekovic went down as well. As a result, the Wolves have deviated a bit from their routine of steady elbow catches for Love, but he’s still an effective passer.
2. The early assist chart showed a focus on elbow facilitation, and that’s only become more concentrated. Since December 4th, almost half of his assists have resulted from an elbow or wing catch – despite the fact that Kevin Martin, his favorite target for baseline cuts to the rim, has missed significant time.
3. Finally, his full-court outlet assist rate has slowed a bit, but is still a major part of what the Timberwolves do. Defenses are keying on Love’s ability to hit wing players in stride for easy buckets. In a recent game against the Blazers, for instance Love’s defenders would crowd him every time Love would pull down a defensive rebound – something rarely seen in the NBA. But not every team is so diligent. If the opposing defense is lackadaisical about getting back in transition, Love is still launching accurate downcourt passes – and the Wolves are getting easy buckets because of it.
William Bohl covers the Timberwolves at BreakTheHuddle.com and is a contributor to A Wolf Among Wolves, part of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some members of the ESPN TrueHoop Network were brought in to help Marc Stein’s post-All Star Break power rankings by writing short bits about each team; what do you know, I supplied 50 words about the Minnesota Timberwolves. Link can be found here.
Friday, I made a “suggestion box” post over at A Wolf Among Wolves, detailing ways the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offense could be tailored to aid Kevin Martin. Specifically, he needs to encouraged to keep shooting transition threes, needs to be run off of screens or handoffs in half-court sets, and shouldn’t be isolated as much as he used to be. Take a look at the full article here!
With the new show website up and running, these recaps will move over there, eventually. But until then, here’s a link to the latest show, in which Zach, John and I discuss fashion, midseason awards and all things Timberwolves.
On the latest installment of the Break The Huddle Show, Zach Bennett, John Meyer and I dissect the Wolves’ latest malaise and break up the Sacramento Kings. Audio and video can be found here, and starts approximately 8:00 in.
I joined Kyle Weidie of TruthAboutIt.net, a Washington Wizards blog, to preview the Wolves-Wizards game on December 27th. Our email exchange can be seen below; the article can be found in its entirety right here.
Q #1: The 13-15 Timberwolves currently sit 10th in the West having played the sixth toughest schedule in the NBA to-date.
They started 8-6 and have gone 5-9 since, losing four out of the last six, including getting swept in their most recent Staples Center back-to-back set. Are the results thus far simply the result of a team finding its way in a tough conference? Do they have the equipment to compete for a top five seed in the West, or are there deeper problems to be concerned about in Minnesota?
@BreakTheHuddle: There are some problems in Minnesota, and the tough slate of games to open the season has fixed a bright spotlight on them. Some of the issues are potentially fixable, some are the result of roster construction (and are likely here to stay), and some will only be answered in due time. For example, the Wolves are 28th in the league in bench scoring per game, ahead of only the Warriors and the Wizards. Injuries to Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf have hurt Minnesota’s depth on both the offensive and defensive ends (respectively), and the return for each is imminent, which ought to help in that department.
While the defense has been statistically average (15th in D-Rating), the Wolves lack a proven rim-protecting big man and are prone to long stretches of allowing easy buckets in the paint, signifying that defensive problems are probably here to stay.
Time will tell if the Wolves can improve on finishing games, which has vexed them through their first 28 games. They’ve played the Spurs, Clippers (twice) and Thunder very well on the road, only to fall apart in the final quarter in each contest. They’ve dropped winnable games in some Eastern Conference cities, too (Boston, Washington, Cleveland). Becoming a contender is a process, and not a short one; can Kevin Love & Company gel in time to make the playoffs this year? I don’t have the answer—but they’ve certainly taken their lumps through the first two months of this season.
Q #2: Mostly because of #JanVeselyAlert, Wizards fans have long had their eye on Derrick Williams, mostly as an attractive prospect prior to the 2010 draft (but before they slipped to 6th in lottery), and since, as a potential reclamation project (also via Jan Vesely).
Williams is Sacramento’s problem now, good or bad. Turning to Prince Luc Mbah a Moute, can you assess how he’s fared since arriving in Minny, and does the trade still make sense from a needs perspective (i.e., a defensive player over an offensive player like Williams)?
@BreakTheHuddle: For whatever reason, Derrick Williams never earned Rick Adelman’s trust, and therefore, consistent minutes were hard to come by. The talent, visible in flashes, never materialized for prolonged stretches. Williams had plenty of opportunities to prove his worth when Love missed 64 games last year and was underwhelming, to say the least. To flip him and his $6.3 million 2014-15 salary for Mbah a Moute, who will earn $2 million less and is a trustworthy rotation player, was a smart basketball move.
As for the Mbah a Moute fit, he’s done quite nicely since arriving in the frigid north. He’s averaging nearly a turnover per game, which seems fluky (and should correct itself in time), but other than that, he’s been just as advertised: a solid defender, smart with off-ball cuts and crashing the offensive glass.
Q #3: Last time out in the District, Kevin Love had 15 points in the game’s first eight minutes and Minnesota took a 12-point lead, 63-51, into halftime.
But in the second half, Nene became more interested in guarding Love on the perimeter and John Wall’s athleticism overwhelmed the T-Wolves guards. The Wizards won the third quarter 30-18 and the game 104-100. The most glaring stat was that the Wizards crushed the sprint, outscoring Minnesota 33-9 in fast break points. Past the obvious, what goes different for Minnesota this time?
@BreakTheHuddle: Well, hopefully, the coaching staff shows the team some video of Wall, Beal and all their friends running like gangbusters for easy buckets in the last meeting, and writes four simple words on the white board: “GET. BACK. ON. DEFENSE.”
Transition defense has given the Wolves problems, at times, but the loss in Washington was where it was most pronounced. Washington’s surplus of capable perimeter players means Kevin Martin has to guard someone, and Kevin Martin is … um, not a plus defender.
Other than that, the Wolves haven’t changed all that much since the last time they played the Wizards. Their offense flows through Kevin Love and is heavily predicated on both his production and the team’s ability to get to the free throw line. The Wolves are 25th in the league in eFG%, but have the league’s 11th most efficient offense, so earning free throw attempts is key to their success. Getting to the line, getting back in transition, and getting production out of bench—all three will be vital to the Wolves getting a victory.
A) If you could transfer the powers of Tom Gugliotta’s barbed wire bicep tattoo to anyone on the Wolves, whom would it be and why?
@BreakTheHuddle: I wouldn’t wish that awful tattoo on anyone, but if you MADE me pick, it’d be Ricky Rubio. He’s the only guy on the roster with enough political/goodwill capital to pull it off, and maybe it’d give him a little extra swagger. Lord knows he needs it, sometimes.
B) Which individual is to be blamed most for Minnesota’s inability to close-out tight games, such as the OT loss versus the Clippers, and what percentage of the responsibility would you assign them?
@BreakTheHuddle: Blame for the Clippers loss, specifically, falls primarily on Kevin Martin. He had two costly turnovers, one at the end of regulation, one early in overtime. But generally, I’m not sure any single person deserves much of the blame. The Wolves are learning some lessons and taking some lumps, and while the losses are frustrating, when they’re viewed from a historical perspective, it’s not unusual for a team like Minnesota to encounter some rough patches on the road to success.