Yesterday we went through part 1 of our season recap which discussed players individually and future concerns surrounding player health. Today we will go broader and discuss the front-office and coaching-related events of this last season and how it might impact the Wolves moving forward. Please be aware that this piece is not going to be overly, um, rosy.
Continuing from where we left off yesterday, aside from Rubio, Wiggins, potentially a small group of others, and whatever player the Wolves select in the draft, big questions remain in terms of who will be a part of the future moving forward. Injuries derailed many possibilities to evaluate the supporting cast, and the roster is likely to continue to churn a bit as Flip acquires more players that fit his frustrating style over time. Having made four trades during the season, Saunders was quick to make adjustments to his roster on the fly, and the net result has been pretty concerning when you start to break it down. But let’s start with Flip’s body of work from the beginning as the head basketball decision-maker.
Familiar Themes and Why the Little Things Matter
First and foremost, and to rightfully appease folks who support Saunders in the Front Office, he has made two trades thus far in his 23-month tenure that have worked out pretty damn well. The most important move was trading Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins and some pieces that, well, didn’t work out quite as well. Though it is far too easily forgotten that the Wolves once again found themselves in a position where they had to trade a star big, it was a miracle trade that could very well save the franchise while allowing the front office to greatly accelerate yet another rebuilding project. The second move was trading Trey Burke for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng during the 2013 draft. Though Bazz has missed time, both players have individually been more productive than Burke has been in Utah thus far. Pretty good trade as of now, despite two other questionable factors that swayed opinion at the time: Flip all but admitted publicly he didn’t even want Shabazz at all at the time, and he also sold an additional 1st rounder (and two 2nds) in that same draft for a 2nd rounder and cash. Here is where we get into why those seemingly small moves matter big in the long term, and have always killed the Wolves as a franchise throughout its bleak history.
Many view the Wolves future as peachy and keen as a result of Wiggins emerging as a likely marquee talent on a roster that will receive a big talent boost in the 2015 draft, but I caution that viewpoint heavily. One player is not enough, and the secondary decisions are always what will ultimately matter, arguably, more. We have been down this familiar road before with the likes of Kevin Garnett, Al Jefferson, and Kevin Love. All three “eras,” while getting the biggest component right, were failures in the end because the seemingly small decisions at the time added up to a collective squandering of opportunities due to several factors that include: overall poor decision making, bad free agent contracts, GM apathy, cheap ownership, illegal contracts, trading away draft picks for little in return, failing to resolve contract disputes, and poor front office personnel and/or coaching. Thus far, I don’t see much happening that has convinced me we are headed for anything much different than we have seen in previous eras, although a lot of that will depend on the 2015 draft.
An added challenge is the Wolves face the unfortunate circumstance of being in the Western Conference, which sadly is unlikely to get any easier for the remainder of the decade. While teams like Dallas and San Antonio may rebuild in a year or two and leave a temporary opening, New Orleans, Phoenix and Utah are light years ahead of the Wolves in their rebuilding process and will surely make the leap sooner, while both Dallas and San Antonio have world class front offices that will rebuild their teams quickly, potentially leaving the Wolves on the outside looking in barring a miracle of draft luck and pristine health.
So let’s look at what we can reasonably claim was the initial front office strategy this season: a blended roster of youth and veterans, with no tanking in mind, that could win enough games to keep the motivation high while having enough veterans on the roster to foster accountability for the young players. The blended roster approach had its merits, but the reality is the upside was minimal, and the Wolves would have had very limited opportunities to add elite long-term talent, and the likely result would have been a tire in-the-mud fate in no man’s land for an indefinite period. After the injuries mounted, Saunders was quoted as saying something along the lines of, “to become really good you have to be really bad, the last thing you want is to be mediocre.” But, isn’t mediocrity exactly where we were headed no less than six months ago?
These sort of make- it-up-as-you-go-along moments have been a key theme of Saunders’ stint as POBO. In a way, the tank and the draft was always going to be the only way for the Wolves to get out of the mediocrity that Flip aimed for when he questionably thought he could compete for a playoff spot this season. But this makes getting this pick right all the more critical, and given the Wolves are all-but guaranteed a top 5 selection in what is shaping out to be a phenomenal draft, things are looking like they may work out as a result of this previously unforeseen golden parachute.
But what hasn’t worked too well are the little things. As mentioned above, the downfall of the Wolves has almost always been a result of failing to surround a special player, or two, with quality talent. In their history, the Wolves have consistently overpaid marginal talent, dumped first round picks in short-sighted moves that have never worked out, struggled with injuries, failed to satisfy their best players’ financial demands (other than KG), sold draft picks for cash, and other small little moves that may seem like nothing at the time but have always, save for one magical year in 2004, resulted in a roster that is never strong enough to compete at en elite level. This franchise has been out of the first round of the playoffs a single time in its existence as a result.
Many of the secondary moves Saunders has made are already starting to add up, for example:
- A 5 year, $60 million deal for Pekovic despite known foot issues
- A 3 year, $15 million deal for Budinger off of a blown knee
- Selling a 2013 first rounder for cash and a 2nd round pick that was sold a year later
- Selling multiple second rounders while claiming no other trades were available despite 2nd rounders changing hands by the dozen every draft.
- Inexplicably trading a first round pick to Atlanta for Adriean Payne
- Routing a potential lottery pick to Philly for Thaddeus Young
- Then trading Young for 5 games of Kevin Garnett, who, after a spirited ballyhoo, has all but left the team at this point. Garnett will be a free agent this summer and could have easily been signed then.
- Managing the roster this year in a questionable manner, failing to even get more than 7 healthy bodies on the court for a game repeatedly, putting an already depleted roster further at risk of injury, compounding problems.
Since many like to look at things from a big picture standpoint, here is Saunders’ secondary trade history, excluding the Wiggins/Shabazz trades, presented in Comic Sans:
Some might look at this and view it as a favorable result. I do not, though I understand not all trades work out. The net result here is essentially three 1st rounders (or 2+ Thad, however those who nitpick this want to frame it to feel better about how bad it is), 2 2nds, and roughly $9 million in expiring contracts of quality rotation players in exchange for Payne, $4 million in expirings, 3 2nd round picks, 5 games of KG, and good old cash considerations, a long-time member of the Wolves roster. Not to mention owing two first round picks during a rebuild. Youch.
The above is certainly nothing that will cause the franchise to fold, but when aggregated you can see very quickly how these seemingly small trade whiffs can add up in a negative way, and there is no reason to assume these types of moves will cease. It is a poor use of now dwindling trade chips that reeks of the sort of short-sighted asset squandering McHale and Kahn made famous during their own checkered tenures. Take the Payne trade for instance. They might really need that pick one day when they are capped out, or to make a bigger move when the future needs of the roster are more clear. With so much up in the air in terms of the draft and where this roster was going, that move felt incredibly short-sighted and unnecessary. Not to mention Saunders elected not to change his evaluation of the player as a professional and gave up draft day-level value for him, a highly questionable decision that doesn’t bode well.
Overall, many of the moves Saunders has made as POBO have been questionable at best.
Ineffective Coach Saunders and Lacking Checks and Balances
Back when Saunders hired himself to coach the Wolves, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Many who praised the move felt a motivated Saunders would inject some energy into a woebegone franchise in the wake of Rick Adelman, who lost his passion for coaching and entered retirement, only recently speaking about his tenure with the Wolves in surprisingly candid fashion. Those who criticized the move understood the danger of a clearly dysfunctional situation which resulted in Saunders, ever engrained in the organization from top to bottom, becoming virtually unfireable unless Taylor, known for ruling with a satin glove on the worst day of his life, stepped in for him. Those concerned with accountability were exactly on point, as Flip pretty much has full power to decide when he is going to step down as coach. And the coaching is where things have gone downhill the most.
Before getting into the concerns, I want to acknowledge two positives with the Wolves’ offense. The first is offensive rebounding, where the Wolves are 7th overall at just under 12 per game. Though there is ongoing debate whether crashing the glass is actually a positive given it can lead to fast break baskets, I am a big believer in 2nd chance points and extra posessions and that is a pretty nice development. The second, and one that is actually very positive, is free throw attempts, 33% of what makes for a modern offense. The Wolves ranked 2nd overall this season in the league at 25.5 (and 7th in percentage at 77%). Good stuff. With that said, other more glaring concerns remain.
When Saunders took over again, there was little reason to believe he wouldn’t run the exact same system he ran when he was somewhat successful 10-15 years ago which, in its simplest terms, is a wildly complicated playbook designed to get players into a position to attempt the worst possible shot you can take in basketball: the long two pointer. This, paired with a defensive reputation that leaves much to be desired, left many questioning whether Saunders had the chops and understanding to adapt to what makes for a successful NBA team in 2015. Additionally, the assistant coaching hires, a pair of unremarkable former Wolves along with Adelman and Flip’s own next of kin, left us with a group that by and large is probably not employed by any other NBA team if not for Glen Taylor’s comfort level. Overall, those who questioned the move and disliked it were accurate in just about every way imaginable.
Long 2’s we feared, and long 2’s we got. With impunity and reckless abandon. Saunders greatly suppressed the 3 point shot from the team’s offense from day 1, and the result was a predictable league low 14.8 3’s attempted per game (league average is around 22), ahead of Memphis, who runs its offense through a top front court in the league, and Washington, led by Flip castoff and future Wolves assistant coach Randy Wittman. In total they attempted 20 or more 3’s in seven games, and connected on 10 or more 3’s in five games, going 4-1 in those five games.
The lack of 3 point shooting emphasis from Saunders is impossible to explain in any way that makes sense, and is a justifiable cause of immense frustration from those who follow the team. While it is more than beating a dead horse at this point, I firmly believe that horse should be beaten as often as possible. Many seem to think that the Wolves do not have 3 point shooters, but I would argue to the death that this is a system/coaching issue first and foremost, and nothing would change if the personnel had a more positive history of connecting on 3’s. As you can see below, the Wolves have a near-identical distribution of field goal attempts from their top 3 shooting areas as they did in 2004, Saunders’ last full season as Wolves coach.
While indeed the Wolves reached the conference finals that season, you need to take into account that this was a very typical offense 11 years ago. Additionally, the Wolves were only able to get out of the first round once with this offense, despite having a top 20 all-timer on the roster (who admittedly had little help through most of his tenure as implied above). Here is how the Wolves shook out vs. the rest of the league in 2004 in terms of distribution of FGA’s from the key spots.
And how about now?
And to put this thing firmly to bed and hopefully not anger you too much, let’s take a look at how Gregg Popovich has adjusted his offense across the same period:
This, to me, reeks of a stubborn system issue vs. anything related to personnel, and has resulted in an irresponsible lack of emphasis on building a team skillset critical for success in the 2010’s. The Wolves, while not lighting the world on fire from outside, shoot 33.3% from 3, 25th overall, but understand the difference between the Wolves and 15th ranked Houston at 34.7% is only 1.4 percentage pts. This amounts to only four more points on the board over the course of 100 3 pointers attempted in favor of Houston. Hardly a blip when you consider the Wolves as a team attempt 24% of their field goals within 16 ft and 3 point,where they actually shoot 37%. Vs. threes, this is actually a smidgen worse relative to the rest of the league at #26. (Of note: only Houston and Philadelphia have a higher shooting percentage from 3 than they do on long 2’s, so this swing is normal). Possibly related: there are only five teams these days that attempt more long 2’s than 3’s (MIN, WAS, CHA, LAL, NYK). One is a playoff team led by a soon to be Wolves assistant with a bad reputation. The rest are out of the playoffs, engaged in a tank battle, or both. While lack of talent obviously plays a huge role, four of those teams have coaches or systems with similar negative reputations to Flip. Their combined record is 128-382, a ferocious .335 winning percentage.
In a now notorious interview with Britt Robson earlier this season, Saunders made several comments that added more fuel to the fire. The gist of Saunders’ comments were that no teams run plays on a consistent basis to generate 3 point field goals (comically false to anyone paying attention, no statistical backup needed), and in his patented roundabout, difficult to understand way, Flip added that 3 point attempts lead to fast break buckets for the defending team. However as Robson pointed out in a follow up column, and given what we know about Flip’s disdain for statistical evidence, there is little known correlation between 3 point field goal attempts and fast break defense, at least this season.
My initial retort to Flip’s comments was to assume there actually was a correlation between forcing long 2 point jumpshots (viewed today as successful defense), and easy fast break opportunities, given many defenses allow long 2’s, another ridiculous naivety from Saunders, but after looking at a few rankings I found there to be no meaningful topline correlation there either. Several mid-range shooting teams, such as the Knicks and Bucks who both rank top 10 in opponent fast break points, have been effective at stopping the fast break with the proper defensive system and players simply knowing what to do and when. From what I have been able to gather, none of it matters. What it basically comes down to is giving instructions and having a basic plan when a 3 point shot is attempted, or even defending it all. This is where we will move on to the defense.
Wolves Team Defense is a Historical Abomination
Say what you will about Flip’s utterly perplexing dislike of 3 point shooting, but nothing compares to the complete travesty we have witnessed on the defensive end throughout the entire season. Whether it be guarding a basic pick and roll for consecutive possessions or communicating a basic switch, the Wolves have been a matador as a team and have shown few signs of improvement as the season has progressed.
Two stats to chew on: this Wolves team is one of just seven teams in NBA history to allow an eFG% of 53% or higher and currently ranks as the third worst team all-time in opponent eFG%, behind the 15-win 1997 Celtics and the 22-win 1985 Warriors. In terms of opponent eFG% this season alone, the Wolves are predictably 30th and, in a list that drops down in fractions of percentage points from 46.7% (Warriors) to 29th ranked Orlando at 51.6%, there is a full two point gap until you get to the Wolves at 53.6%. It is nothing short of abhorrent compared to the rest of the NBA and teams throughout the history of the league. We are talking a near all-time bad level of defensive acumen in which the Wolves will how have to build from.
What drives this gulf are two things: 3 point defense, where the Wolves are bottom 3 in percentage allowed at 36.7%, and points inside, where the Wolves allow a preposterous 20 baskets per game at a 65% clip, league worst in both and by point gaps unseen between any two other subsequent teams. While the popular opinion is to fault the interior defense, the reality is interior D starts on the perimeter, where the Wolves essentially allow teams to shoot 3’s with no resistance, while then being unable to switch effectively as a result of pick and rolls and spacing issues. This left Dieng as a sitting duck and a scapegoat for much of the season. Simply put, the Wolves are in critical need of a defensive system that both covers the 3 point line and provides proper help inside. This, while certainly driven by the players as well, strikes me as a fundamental coaching issue and no injection of Karl Towns, Omer Asik (just throwing out a name), or whomever, is going help dramatically unless the strategy changes. Injuries and youth be damned, numerous other teams, Philly and Utah come to mind, have demonstrated an acumen and drive to become effective at team defense with similar youth and/or roster volatility. It is far more important than the offense, despite the 3 pointer stuff generating the bulk of the discussion.
To wrap up the Flip bit, at the end of the day you have to give us more than “dunks are cool.” Dunks are, but every player in the league can probably throw one down. That good-will has come and gone. Personally, I want to see measurable team growth and momentum, progression away from the 8-bit era of basketball, checks and balances, and a firm understanding that Wiggins isn’t the only key to building this team. But in the end, regardless of what churns in the mill, I find it hard to believe Flip steps down from coaching any time soon. He is a coach at heart, and surely realized this year how much he missed it and will probably fight to the death to keep the job as long as possible, and succeed in doing so. I am firmly in the minority on this. One last thing to consider: even if he does hand the keys over in the next year or two, what possible positive was there, then, in instilling a system that peaked in 2004? Furthermore, what convinces you Flip won’t just live vicariously through whomever he hires eventually, a la Derek Fisher and PJax? Further yet, as Saunders becomes more and more entrenched in an ownership role (there are real reasons to suggest this was one of the reasons he brought KG back), it could become very, very difficult to remove his terribly antiquated basketball philosophies, from the front office to the floor, from the organization in what could seriously amount to a few decades. Poor, poor form that can’t be described in any way other than “classic, dysfunctional Wolves.”
Light Ahead: Draft Offers Wolves the Best Chance at Long Term Success
In closing, and in a half-wit attempt to end this somewhat positively, the draft and the upcoming May lottery will reveal a lot about what to expect over the coming months, and the odds are the result will be very positive. While Flip has squandered some chances, the positive is if he comes out this draft with Towns, Russell, or Okafor, the Wolves really may end up ok and in a position we haven’t seen since the Marbury/KG days. Ideally this is coupled with a new coach willing to understand 2015 basketball, who also surrounds himself with the best possible assistants, and this troubling purgatory will be soon forgotten.
As someone who dislikes tanking at its core, deep down I understand that a healthy roster with Thad Young, Martin, Rubio and Wiggins was perpetually destined for no-man’s land, and this result gave the Wolves its best chance for long-term success, even if it has been challenging to follow. While the process and results have been poor, they still have a chance to come out of this in a promising manner, and that remains a big reason for intrigue and excitement.
Like with everything Wolves related, “maybe next year will be better,” or so we said back in 2005.