As many of you are well aware, the Wolves' bench has fallen surprisingly flat to start the year. Like any current Wolves information, it has been covered ad nauseam at just about every Wolves-related touch point on the internet. In each of the past few contests, the starters have been forced to overextend themselves, playing long, hard minutes, often in a battle to do whatever they can to bail out the non-existent production of the second unit after they (quickly) return to action. The blame can be placed everywhere, for those looking to place it:
1. JJ Barea, while providing really the only semblance of consistent scoring production aside from a dabble of Williams, has had a very difficult time facilitating the second unit. This, of course, would be improved if the bench unit weren't shooting 36.2% which, as Britt Robson pointed out, is good for last in the league. JJ continues to be perhaps the ultimate love/hate player in the league, and his early runs have been mired by bad decision making and shot selection as well as failing to provide a rhythm from the 1 spot off the bench.
2. Shved. I'm not sure whether Shved is having a shooting funk as much as he is having a mental funk. Something is up. It would be inappropriate to speculate what that may be, so I will not. He clearly does not have the mental toughness to succeed at this point in his career. And while he had a very nice start to the year last season, his play completely derailed after the all-star break and that negative trend seems to have continued its decline over the summer into what we have witnessed thus far. If his worse-than-poor play continues, he simply does not belong on an NBA floor; and sadly, benching Shved would only make whatever mental drawbacks he is facing continue to haunt his once-promising career. Unless he turns around his play, I don't see his Timberwolves, or even NBA, career lasting much longer.
3. Williams, despite a fairly promising pre-season and a notable increase in defensive effort, remains the Williams we know and love. While Williams has continued to show "occasional flashes" of NBA productivity, his overall fit and presence on this roster continues to baffle the mind. Flip electing to pick up his $6 million+ option is appearing to make his contract borderline untradeable in this harsh, increasingly finance-driven trade market of the league. GM's in this league, particularily the ones manning the young teams, are likely well aware of Williams up-and-down, average-at-the-very-best play that has defined his career and will not be fleeced in trade. Derrick is who he is at this point, a player who will not live up to his potential as a #2 pick and, like hundreds of other bench players, will likely continue his inconsistent production for the duration of his career. There really isn't anything wrong with such a career either, taking the draft pick out of the equation of course.
4. Dieng. I had no idea the Wolves had administered a new rookie hazing ritual of requiring all rookies to dip their hands in a bucket of butter before a game. Thus far, he has looked extraordinarily out of place, and more nervous than Anthony Bennett has in Cleveland. Of course, we are just five games in, but Dieng's play the other night goes to show you how much mental toughness this second unit lacks. Dieng has shown an ability early to be a rim protector, and while getting a high amount of blocks, his foul rate may only be rivaled by Trevor Winter who, as some may remember, played 5 total minutes of NBA action with the Wolves and in those 5 minutes committed 5 fouls and was never heard from again. The ultimate Moonlight Graham moment (even more fitting because Moonlight was from Minnesota).
5. Cunningham. Dante's lack of defensive rebounding skills and poor shooting have rendered him of little use to start the year. We can feel confident enough that his famous elbow shot will start to drop and his confidence will improve from there. HAM was a big part of last year's team and I fully expect us to view him in the same light on an annualized basis at the completion of the season. Flip will then likely award him with a 3-year, $18 million contract. Just kidding. Maybe. Crap, that's totally going to happen, isn't it?
Furthermore when you continue to look down the rest of the roster, it remains befuddling that the remaining spots are filled with developmental guys who, at this point, Adelman is uncomfortable with playing. I'm talking about Muhammad, Hummel, and Price (and Dieng to a lesser degree though he is being forced into bit action). I ask this question: if Adelman will not give these guys playing time, or shuffle the rotation, then why are they even on the roster? The Wolves currently are "wasting" about 4 total roster spots to developmental players who are currently not getting the experience they need to play when, not if, WHEN, the starters fall to injury. And as much flack as many gave for the Muhammad selection, he was surprisingly active in the pre-season and showed some solid signs of adjusting his game to the NBA. Is there any universe out there right now where Shabazz isn't on the floor playing harder, stronger and faster than Alexey Shved, providing some energy and helping these bench guys pull their heads out of their behinds? Doubtful. The makeup of the bottom half of the roster is baffling and will likely haunt the Wolves when the starters get banged up due to being over extended. It makes sense having recently drafted rookies on the team, and to build your bench via good drafting, but having a Hummel and a Price on this team when there are minimum salary veterans (such as DeShawn Stevenson, Marquis Daniels, among others) waiting for a phone call remains confusing and counter-productive.
But aside from the bench play, there are a few other patronizing critiques we must mention thus far over the first 5 games. The first is the play of Nikola Pekovic.
It remains to be seen what is up with him to start the year. There has been a noticeable lack of post touches, the elite footwork and positioning that once allowed Pek to thrive has all but vanished. When he gets the ball, often Pek rushes in the post a la Darko (yes, I said it), leading to another wasted possession. He is shooting just 41% from in close, which is not nearly effective enough for any player in this league. Now, 11 and 10 averages is nothing to sneeze at by any means, but we have seen a much more passive Pek to start the year. Part of this could be the complete lack of Pek and Roll plays that so much defined that legendary pre-Rubio-injury run of 2011. Pek was so good at moving off the ball and off the pick that it completely tore several teams apart during that period. Now? The play is gone, rarely, if ever used. My only question is, why?
Pek's shot chart (NBA.com Stats). Not to be confused with Rubio's.
The second issue has been Rubio, our lone folk hero left in the sports scene. To start the year Ricky has been trying hard to find his shot, often taking shots early in the clock or early in a play in an effort to keep the defense honest and play closer on him in a effort to open up the floor. Unfortunately, he has not converted on these attempts over these past three games, shooting an abysmal 5-26 from the field..This has lead to a multitude of challenges in the halfcourt, where the Wolves are currently 25th in the league in points per possession in half-court sets at 0.82 points. Due to Rubio's complete inability to contribute offensively thus far in the season, the defense can sag off of him and cut off just about every passing angle, rendering the Rubio magic near useless unless the Wolves are in transition, where they do their most damage speeding up the pace. The half court will continue to be a massive challenge unless Rubio starts converting shots. I'm not talking about improving his percentage by 5 pts., I'm talking a total overhaul. The defense can surrender 1 or 2 successful mid range shots from Ricky if it continues to make our half court efficiency reek in this manner. It is bad, and the lack of PnR for Pek (or anyone) and Rubio's angles being nullified is the bulk of the problem.
So, tonight we face the Mavs. The Mavs are a peer. A team fighting for a low playoff spot and also playing well at 3-2 to start the year. For the Wolves, the laurels have been properly rested on. It would be pretty surprising to not see an eff-you game from all starters to quell these recent fears from "Wolves Nation" as it were. Barring a catastrophe, we should be 4-2 by night's end.