Many have covered the embarrassing pair of defeats from this past weekend, capping off a horrific road trip that quite possibly could not have gone any worse for a multitude of reasons. After a 2-2 start that rose expectations to unhealthy levels, the following transpired: Ricky Rubio injured his foot and is out, potentially, until Christmas, the team spent its longest time away from Target Center in team history, Thaddeus Young’s mother passed away, the Pelicans delivered the Wolves its worst loss in franchise history, and to cap it all off, Pekovic injured his wrist, a report that was delivered in an oddly late manner following an absence from practice for “personal reasons.” Did Pek kill a guy in Dallas?
Despite all of this happening, I want to bring in a reminder that injuries, personal absences and other nuances impact all 30 NBA teams during every season. In no way, shape or form should these things justify the degree of horrific play that occurred over the weekend against the Pelicans and Mavericks. As a Dallas-area resident, I look forward to attending the two games per year the Wolves are in town and was able to make it down to AA Center last Saturday for the game. For those readers who have not seen such domination occur in an opposing arena, it is a notable perspective that is difficult to explain, but easy to see if you are present and are able to be objective in the situation. In addition to an in-arena experience that makes the Target Center look like a crypt with a 1995 tube television as a light source, you get the true perspective of the other team and the fans that you miss watching on television or in person at Target Center. You see Jumbotron cutaways to the opposing team’s players following a dominant defensive play, you see the bench appropriately making a mockery and joke out of the effort the Wolves exerted on Saturday. You see the way the crowd and bench react when a 60 year-old Richard Jefferson converts two And-1’s, an alley-oop and a dunk in twelve minutes of court time. As a fan with a harsh and honest voice, often times admittedly over-reactive, but one who also deeply wants this team to succeed: it was humbling. And I left the arena that night with a mindset that, despite the fact that the Wolves seemingly have a bright future (again!), it is okay to not follow the “young team/developmental” narrative. It is okay to be down on the current iteration of the team and to begin to bring up concerns about where we are headed.
If Flip Saunders, the GM version, had a page on metacritic.com, he would likely receive a summary rating of “generally favorable reviews.” Even a curmudgeon like myself can take a step back and understand the reasons why. Flip has arguably done a fine job acquiring players of varying, yet generally positive, quality; many of whom are certainly, at a minimum, bench pieces for NBA playoff teams of either conference. In the summer of 2013, he was aggressive in acquiring players as a Hail-Mary attempt to keep disgruntled superstar Kevin Love around. After this endeavor failed, he certainly acquired close to all-time value for Love in nabbing two prospects in Wiggins/Bennett and starter Thaddeus Young to fill the void. Over the course of an offseason as dramatic as the one that recently transpired, it is easy to buy into the excitement and, as a fan, you really should. Wiggins was as highly-hyped of a prospect as we have seen in years, Thaddeus was a good-but-not-great player with tremendous character (a perfect Wolf), Bennett and LaVine were intriguing. There was a lot to like and even more to anticipate at the time. But the issues with Flip the GM thus far have always been forest vs. trees issues. Big picture stuff. TEAM building. How do these individual parts work as a cohesive unit? How is this team built to expand from its current position and add additional pieces?
In order to succeed in the modern NBA you need players who possess various fundamental attributes, and contribute in ways where their net strengths overshadow their weaknesses, resulting in a positive contribution. This sounds simple, but it is true. If I had to narrow down a set of top three “attributes” that are most aligned with my personal basketball ideas, I would say ballhandling, interior defense, and outside (3pt) shooting are critical for success. Of course there are more skillsets that are just as important: perimeter defense, ability to draw fouls, playmaking, shooting off the dribble, passing, unselfishness, leadership, hustle, etc.; the list goes on and it all amounts to a strategy where you can use your pieces to your advantage and thwart opponents, not unlike a game of chess. But the problem is the Wolves are a team built without any sense of reason or identity, even at their projected best.
Flip talked a lot this summer about building an athletic two-way team. Okay. That sounds great in theory, but any invested basketball fan will tell you that athletic ability means nothing unless it is blended with actual basketball ability. How can you build a defensive team when you have two of the bottom 5 players in 2013-2014 opponent inside fg% in your starting front court? How can you build a defensive identity with Mo Williams and Kevin Martin playing significant roles in your back court? With chronic gamblers breaking down your team defense? While ignoring the corner 3 pointer, the single most efficient shot in basketball? On the other end, how can you build even an average NBA offense while ignoring the 3 point shot? By congratulating your players for firing up contested 18-footers? Is the plan to develop Wiggins into a defensive-minded Rudy Gay? As a team culture, is it fair to be concerned with Flip as a team leader/coach/owner/GM after the abysmal effort we saw over the weekend, concerns which have followed him on all three of his stops? Absolutely. As a reader, it would be reasonable to call these concerns an overreaction given we are nine games into a long season. There is certainly heavy truth to that fair call-out, but on the flip side I would find it disingenuous to suppress them. He is literally his own boss’ boss, after all, and so a certain degree of accountability should be desired by the community who so closely follow this team.
Back to the roster. There is a perception out there that the Wolves have depth in terms of individual player quality, but the issue, again, remains a painful imbalance of skillsets. This team does not have “depth” as much as it has a collection of okay players with skillsets that don’t compliment each other, or don’t address glaring weaknesses that plagued the team throughout the Adelman era up until today. For example, the team jettisoned JJ Barea, a maddening player who certainly needed a new start, but a fair-enough ball handler and shooter, for Mo Williams. Thus far, Williams has exhibited near-identical tendencies as Barea, only he doesn’t penetrate to the basket. Given that Rubio was unlikely to sustain his 82 game bill of health this season, and given the largely negative contribution Barea made last season, Flip responded by replacing JJ Barea with….JJ Barea. Other examples were loosely addressed above: no interior defense, very little ball-handling, poor passing, a team that Flip seems to think will one day click as “part of a process” despite the bulk of the players on the team being what they already are. It sounds a bit like forcing a square peg into a round hole, and not maximizing individual strengths of players. We see this in other cases, too, such as when Flip runs plays resulting in Thad Young heaving up low percentage mid range fadeaways that are eerily similar to the Garnett days…of the late 90’s.
But the future is bright, correct? Well, maybe in terms of prospects currently on the roster and the Timberwolves stats so far, but where to go from here? The Wolves are currently 17th in the league in player salary and 27th overall in win percentage. The team has a payroll of nearly $70 million. A lot of this can very reasonably be pinned on holdover veterans from the Love era, but it remains notable in my view than Flip signed players to such lengthy deals not commensurate with their production that he can’t offload them without attaching draft compensation. Call it a Wolves tax if you will, but this kind of salary management has plagued the Wolves for nearly 15 years and the characteristics remain similar to the Marko Jaric, Trenton Hassell, Troy Hudson contracts of yesteryear. Next summer with Rubio’s extension kicking in, and assuming all players opt into their contracts (something I think is a near guarantee, including Thaddeus), the payroll will hover close to that $70 million mark once again. So, like it or not, we are largely stuck with this imbalanced group for much of the next two seasons, after which point the salary situation will blow open for the Wolves (and, unfortunately the rest of the league). If Flip has a chance to offload a middlesome contract for anything resembling value, he should do so with little hesitation. At that point, we may get a better sense of his team-building ability as it pertains to his tastes as a coach.
Given where things stand, I hope the following things become clearer by the end of the season, at least in terms of the context of the above:
1. Establishing which veteran guys are worth keeping around, and jettisoning the rest. They need to move some contracts in a bad way.
2. Understanding if Flip is the long term coach and, if that is the case, learning whether he going to adapt his offense and defensive systems to something loosely resembling modern NBA basketball. Reacting honestly and in kind as appropriate.
3. Understanding what the tangible identity of this team is moving forward and what SKILLSETS they need to get back into the hunt.
4. Is Nikola Pekovic able to be a dependable starting center for the duration of his contract? If not, what is the solution?
But to address the biggest concern of them all, I want to close with a loosely relevant curve-ball. This is something that was eye opening to me at the time, but I haven’t really discussed much at length. Remember the State Fair? Remember the Glen Taylor interview following the event, how he slammed Love a bit but also praised Big Al Jefferson for coming to him in person and requesting a trade a few years ago? How he loved the professionalism of that? That comment has stuck with me for some time. Completely lost on the owner is that he has had a Hall-of-Famer, a potential Hall-of-Famer, and an All-NBA Center leave the organization under his watch in a matter of seven years. You truly can’t be any more tone deaf. The cycle of ineptitude continues.
The Wolves face off against New York tonight. They are undermanned. I wish them success. They need a quality home win.