Friday, 17 January 2014

"Now is the winter of our discontent." - Wolves Chatter with Zachary Bennett

Wolves' Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, and Corey Brewer.
If a team fails in Minneapolis, does it make a sound? Yes, yes it does. In fact, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been quite vocal of late about their lack of cohesion, chemistry, and effort. Following a recent loss on their home floor to the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota's Corey Brewer harangued the team's lack of hustle, insisting "They [Sacramento] are playing harder than us... and when teams outplay you, you are never going to win." From the outside looking in, for the Wolves, things appear to be advancing in the wrong direction -- their play and team balance ranging from "inconsistent," to "concerning," to "messy." For a greater understanding of the Wolves' woes, I reached out to Zachary Bennett, Minnesota basketball aficionado, resident "Timber Pups" blogger and contributor, co-host of the "Break The Huddle" radio show on Sizzlin99.9 in Minny, and the mind behind Hickory High's regular "Rants, References & Revelations" feature. You'll see below why Zachary is a great go-to authority on all matters Minnesota (check out his portfolio here), and is a very worthy follow on Twitter (@ZacharyBD). (Side note: Statistics compiled for questioning were overwhelmingly up to date as at January 14, 2014)

Angus Crawford: After a blistering 3-0 start that included a 19pt demolition of Oklahoma City, the Wolves’ season has ebbed and flowed, lacked consistency, and regularly wrestled with the idea of “.500 basketball.” As John Schuhmann of notes, “The Wolves are [now] 0-9 in attempts to get back over .500 since falling to 8-8 on Nov. 25.” How frustrating has it been to follow this fluctuation, and what have been some of the primary causes of Minnesota’s inability to string wins together?

Zachary Bennett: If you update this statistic, well, times for the Timberwolves have grown dark aside the winter in Minnesota. Someone, not sure who - the press conference was played on 830 WCCO Radio Twin Cities - but someone asked Rick Adelman if Wednesday's loss to the Sacramento Kings put things at, “critical mass.” I don’t want to misquote an NBA Legend, but Adelman mentioned that things had felt this way, “since Christmas.”

The Wolves didn’t play on Christmas day but they did manage to blow a late-lead against the Los Angeles Clippers. Kevin Martin caught an inbounds pass in the backcourt. I thought the play was well-designed, it got one of the league’s best free-throw shooters the ball with a chance to put the game out of reach. However, Martin dribbled laterally, had it stolen, the game was tied and the Wolves missed a three that would have won it at the end of regulation -- overtime.

The Wolves came home for the holiday’s after losing to both Los Angeles teams in Staples Center. This very easily could have been a, “Staples Sweep.” Since then it’s been drama. Close loss, blowout win, close loss, blowout win -- you get the picture.

Here are some of the frustrations buzzing around the Wolves, and my opinion on them.
  • Consistency
    • Whether it’s Ricky Rubio or J.J. Barea playing at the end of games, this team needs a leader guiding them in battle; consistently. 
    • Only the Kings are worse defending the rim (Wolves are 67-and-some-odd percent defending the restricted area) and there’s a lack of consistency on that end of the floor.
    • The bench has played better as of late, but was abysmal nearly the entire season up to January. 
  • Comradery
    • There was a moment in the Wolves two-point loss earlier this month to the Dallas Mavericks (I believe this was the game, but it may have been another -- the incident remains the same). Barea was on the floor and saw Rubio checking into the game with a little over 3:00 minutes remaining. Barea threw up an inexplicable three-point attempt and it was a possession that was wasted in a close loss. 
    • Of course, the Kevin Love incident after the Wolves loss to the Phoenix Suns is the biggest blow-up this team’s had. Love went out of his way, breaking his post-game routine, to call out two teammates (Barea and Dante Cunningham) for not being in the huddle in a late-game situation -- somewhere teammates should WANT to be together. 
To put it simply, I question the coaching. Why is there an inconsistency in late-game execution? Why are there different players playing late-game situations? Why are players failing to restrain emotions on/off the court? Adelman’s been in this game a long time, and to question his greatness is simply foolish -- but has he lost the drive to rally his roster of young players? What’s it going to take for this team to play with a drive to win? Right now, there’s a ton of negative energy and it feels as if the Wolves play without a passion on the court. That’s what this team needs to find, a passion for winning.

If you want to read more thoughts I had on Adelman possibly being a little past his time, here’s a link to something I published at Hickory-High on January 7th. An Old Dog Named Larry.

AC: The proverbial elephant in the Target Center is Kevin Love's ability to opt out of his contract with Minnesota at the end of the 2014-15 season, and what that means for the stability and direction of the franchise. Often times over the past twelves months, the team, it’s fan base, and Love himself have become submerged in the media-led hysteria and paranoia of “what if…?” scenarios, and mesmerised by the romanticism of the notion of Love leaving for Los Angeles. What sort of a distraction has Kevin Love’s contract proven to be for Minny, and how realistic a possibility do you feel a Love exile might be?

ZB: Here’s another self-plug to a piece I wrote on Rubio’s production outside of his scoring, and how his shooting could potentially improve. The piece is called “Rubiowoahs.” In the piece there are references to some interesting quotations from both the Wolves front office and Love himself. I mention these bits in this particular piece because when former General Manager, David Kahn, and current owner, Glen Taylor, got together to budget for Love and Rubio’s contracts, they denied Love a fifth-year and essentially $20-million dollars. Now, it’s not about the money with Love -- it’s about respect, the way things went down. Taylor can be quoted as saying, “I don’t think Kevin Love is a star, because he hasn’t led us to the playoffs.”

Taylor remains but Kahn does not, Flip Saunders is running the show in Minnesota. He’s got plenty of support locally, his daughters attend the University of Minnesota (like their father) and Saunders also has more wins as coach of the Wolves than anyone else in team history. He also knows what it’s like to see a superstar player named Kevin walk out the door (Kevin Garnett, for those who have forgotten).

The problem is Rubio hasn’t played well enough to earn a max contract, and Love may still not have the help capable of getting to the playoffs, let alone compete for a championship. Saunders will be faced with the choice of either --
  • Sell Love when he’s at his highest value
  • Get Love everything he needs to win a championship
“Flip” went out and did the things he needed to do for this team to win during the offseason. He signed Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic. He got a defensive specialist in exchange for Derrick Williams (This may turn out to have been a bad choice, but it got a part necessary for a championship caliber roster). With the return of Ronnie Turiaf and Chase Budinger, this team is poised to make a run throughout the remainder of the season, whether they do a lot will tell a lot about the potential route Saunders and the Wolves may go about dealing with their most valuable asset.

AC: Ricky Rubio is shooting a career-low 34.3% on 2pt field goals, has a PER of 15.0, and his FTr has sunk from 51.4% in 2013 to 35.0% thus far this season. It’s becoming increasingly popular to lambast the Spaniard’s progress as a player, and to immediately associate his shooting woes with a backwards step in his point guard play. Rubio is, however, averaging a career-best 9.3 assists per-36 minutes, in addition to improved standings of 35.9% from deep and 84.9% at the charity stripe. As someone who has closely followed the Timberwolves this season, where do you see the third-year international’s game at, and what might be the next facet to be added to his relatively limited arsenal?

ZB: The problem is Rubio is that he’s continuing deficient behavior from nearly everywhere on the court, and his three-point attempts diminish with each passing game. His defense is incredible against opposing point-guards, that often is overlooked, and his passing accounts for over 1/5th of the team’s PER GAME scoring. He’s a great player, and his lack-of-scoring has been overblown at times, but this team is looking for answers as to why they’re losing close games. Rubio not being able to execute the pick-n-roll late in games because of teams encouraging him to shoot is an issue, but also, Adelman not living-and-dying with someone that is supposed to be a franchise player could be a problem for his confidence.

Rubio can improve, but he hasn’t stayed healthy - nor has the team - for long enough and we just can’t assess his progression because of all the small sample sizes up until this point.

AC: Minnesota’s leader in bench points per game is J.J. Barea, who has averaged 8.4 such points over 37 games (while only shooting 40.7% from the field). Other than Barea – whose high-volume, low efficiency numbers are somewhat inflated – the Timberwolves do not have any other players in the Top 100 in the NBA for the category, highlighting the dearth of offensive production from the reserves on the roster. Wolves fans may hope that the return of Chase Budinger from a knee injury will help to solve some of these problems, though that is largely yet to be seen (Budinger has played in limited minutes in three games so far). To what extent is the lack of a scoring and creativity punch off the pine a legitimate quandary for this roster, and the key crippler to Minny’s playoff aspirations?

ZB: There has been a number of games where the bench has been abysmal, to the point where they’ve scored five points or less in losses by four or less points (that statistic never goes away). Now, surprisingly, the bench is playing better. Alexey Shved has scored 10 points in 5 of their last 7 games and seems to have turned the corner, I may be guilty of writing him off earlier in the year -- BUT THAT’S HOW BAD THIS HAS BEEN.

Budinger has been short on nearly every shot, we haven’t seen him in two years. However, the return Bud and Turiaf puts veteran presence around Barea, Shved, and Cunningham. Shved and Budinger can space the floor for Barea, who can create off-the-dribble of P-&-R of either Turiaf or Cunningham. Barea has favored dumping balls off to Cunningham at the elbow (that’s his spot) and I think having more experienced players will ultimately help Shved’s development.

The bench is in a position to get better, will they? We’ll see. This question cannot be answered at this time.

AC: Nikola Pekovic has been playing some extremely impressive offensive basketball of late. Over his last seven games, Pekovic has averaged 24.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per-36 minutes, with shooting splits of 55.1% on FG’s and 85.0% on FT’s. How much of Minnesota’s offensive successes can be attributed to the Montenegrin Serb’s continued rise as a force in the low post, and how pleasantly surprised were Wolves fans when Pekovic was not pursued harder (despite restricted status) by rival teams in free agency this past summer?

ZB: This guy has been huge, and worth every penny, so far this season. I don’t think anyone wanted to pursue him in the offseason, though. The market for centers has been inflated recently and there were skeptics, and still are for that matter, that believe Pekovic’s contract was too much (Think about the Love situation, earlier). Pek’s rim defending is abysmal, and the Wolves have looked to him late-in-games at inappropriate times -- causing frustration. He’s been so dominant offensively so much that the Wolves have remained in games because of Pek’s performance. This is our center, and if Love were to leave, this team is going to need to find a power forward that is complimentary of his skill-set.

The worry, Pek is playing a lot of minutes (33 per) -- he’s never done this in his life. The man is 295 pounds and I’m worried about his health in the long haul, for now, he’s our rock of stability in the low-block.

Thanks to Zachary for his time and words on the Timberwolves, I recommend everybody track his Wolves-centric wisdom, and especially recommend his writing over at

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