It is officially official, we can now watch the Wolves in live, actual, crystal clear HDTV instead of grainy 1995 jumbo-tron/radio web links, complete with virus-laden car insurance ads shouting into your speakers at unpredictable times. We can now pause and rewind plays while anticipating what opposing teams’ announcers will laud the Wolves for now that JJ Barea has been waived. All of the nuances, all of the Dave Benz-isms, the Jim Peterson reactions to the Dave Benz-isms, the Shabazz “bail me out, ref” expressions of disgust, Gorgui arms-at-his-sides running stances, Bennett scoring outbursts, Wiggins/LaVine slams, and other quirks and nuggets that will be unearthed organically this season with a new cast of misfits. It will be a fun year, but a trying one. And it starts on the road against a defensive stalwart of a roster.
Some basketball minds predict the Grizzlies as team in danger to lose its foothold in the unruly Western Conference. Age, injuries and a lack of a quality offense may be too much of a handicap in a conference containing the league’s best offenses. But when two way maestro Marc Gasol came back from his knee injury last season, the Grizz finished 40-19 and easily made the playoffs. The team has made itself more formidable on the wing position this summer, adding Vince Carter, promising rookie Jordan Adams and getting effective two-way shooter Quincy Pondexter back from injury. The team appears poised for success but, like with many teams in the West, its final playoff seeding and record will likely come down to health. One tough 5-10 game stretch without a key player could spell a trip to the lottery for many West teams, including Memphis.
The Wolves open the season with two of their first three games against a pair of the best defenses in the league with Memphis tonight and Chicago on Saturday, so Flip will have his work cut out for him crafting an effective offensive game plan. Here are a few things to keep in mind going into the season opener at Memphis:
1. Will Wiggins start from Day 1?
While preseason must be taken with a grain of salt (the 2008 Timberwolves went 7-1 in the preseason before starting the season 1-8), if there is one thing that stood out to me about the glut of wing players on this team, it is the declining role of Corey Brewer. Unless he is cutting to the hoop or running in transition, Brewer was generally ineffective. We saw him awkwardly try a few mid range jumpers off the dribble, an area that should be eliminated from Brewer’s arsenal entirely, and generally seem out of the mix on the offensive end. Brewer has always been a questionable one-on-one defender, relying on gambles, which often resulted in team defensive breakdowns, to force turnovers. Without Love throwing the outlet pass immediately after nabbing the rebound, Brewer’s production as a starter or even bench player is likely to drop even more. In a mid-range heavy offense, starting both Rubio and Brewer is a dangerous idea offensively as both players shot 30% or less from 10 ft to the 3 point arc last season. Brewer made up for it last year in transition, but those opportunities will be fewer this season for obvious reasons.
In addition, many of the theoretical skills Wiggins brings are a bit duplicative of Brewer. Wiggins can play the passing lanes on defense, run in transition, and is already a better all around scorer in the halfcourt today. It would be wise for Flip to begin the development process with Wiggins immediately and not joke around with carrots on strings and other unnecessary motivational tactics.
2. Where Will Rubio generate his own offense?
Much like Brewer, Ricky Rubio’s midrange shooting percentage last year was something out of a Walking Dead episode; however, his 3pt percentage was a respectable 33%. An underdiscussed sub plot of this preseason were Ricky’s 3 point attempts: just 1 of 2 for the entire preseason, both occurring in the 1st quarter vs. the Pacers on 10/21. The lack of 3 point attempts from Flip’s offense have generally been a subject of fan ire this pre-season, and it became worse when Flip announced players must earn the right to shoot 3’s in some sort of shooting contest.
I see two sides to this: 1. Ricky actually does need to improve his mid range game despite the (sometimes lazy) fan outcry for 3’s only. In the rise of the analytically minded “3 pointers and layups only” movement, it is often forgotten that the best point guards, particularly the best assist-men, in the game generate floor spacing by shooting the ball from all spots on the floor. For example, 48% of Chris Paul’s field goal attempts from last season came from 10 ft to 3pt according to Basketball Reference. Jason Kidd, often compared to Rubio as a benchmark for shooting percentages, is actually a poor comparison for Rubio, generating 42% of his shots from the same spots in the earliest season shooting stats are available (2000-2001). Last year Ricky attempted 32% of his shots from mid range shooting an abominable 17% from 10-16 ft., and 31% from 16 ft. through 3. The implications of these shooting splits are not favorable for Ricky. He still shot below 40% from 2 point range despite attempting 41% of his overall shots from within 3 feet of the basket. So, no, he is not anywhere near Kidd’s shooting “prowess” at this point in his career simply due to the volume of outside shots Kidd took. With fewer 3 point attempts to improve his percentages, and another summer playing internationally versus what could have been a 3 month tour of the Mike Penberthy boot camp*, he has his work cut out for him. Bottom line, he needs to get dramatically better from outside and the good news is we saw that shot fall a little bit in the preseason. But should this come at the expense of 3 point attempts?
*no shot intended. But I am selfish and want Ricky to unearth his potential as a Timberwolf. Shoot me.
The other side of this is simple logic: why take away Ricky’s best chance of hitting an outside shot? And one that is worth an additional point to boot? This is one glaring misstep by Flip in my view, if it is even a true concern. It may not be once the regular season starts. But keep an eye on this.
3. Can Dieng sustain his late-season production?
Gorgui is due for a consistent role this season. When Pek isn’t sitting out (because he is going to miss games) Gorgui is likely to get about 20 minutes per night. His preseason was inconsistent. Dieng sometimes appeared a bit aloof, was not effective one-on-one defensively and fouled often. While his lines looked solid, many of his points came in garbage time of blowouts. While I don’t think it is a big concern since he will have plenty of chances to work through any preseason doldrums, it is something to monitor. Jack Sikma not being re-signed may be a tough blow to the Wolves’ front court. It cannot be stated enough the positive role Sikma played in the development of Pekovic and Dieng as capable NBA players on both ends of the floor.
There will be plenty of burning questions and storylines to monitor throughout the season, and watching actual games will open up more questions and concerns. While it will largely be a growing year, it will probably be a year where actual, legitimate signs of growth are shown as well, unlike those Jonny Flynn years. Teams don’t often lose their home openers, so the Wolves will have a big challenge ahead tonight before their first back-to-back against Detroit tomorrow at home.