Note: Two brief comments before diving into this. First, I am pumping out a pair of season review posts a few games early as I will be on vacation next week. The first will focus on the players and injuries; the second will be on front office/Flip dynamics and big picture team coaching with as good of an attempt as I can make to keep those parts separate, though that will ultimately be impossible. If something major is missing from this piece, apologies from the Yucatan. Second, a disclaimer to those who embrace the tank with unbridled optimism: what will follow in two parts is an honest review of the season and addresses both the positive and negative aspects with where the Wolves are headed, as I believe there to be a heavy dose of both. As always, feel free to disagree or agree in the comments or appropriately rip it to shreds in the forums. Onward to part 1.
At the time of this writing, the Wolves are 16-62. It will be the 9th time in 26 seasons, roughly a third of the team’s existence, in which they have been defeated in at least 60 games. As a franchise, the Wolves have the 2nd worst all-time winning percentage at .394, behind only the LA Clippers at .388. In all likelihood, with another 50+ win season for LAC in 2015-2016 and another sub-30 win season for Minnesota, by this time next year the Wolves will have the worst all-time winning percentage among the 30 franchises still in existence. And this degree of awfulness isn’t driven by expansion blues. 4 of those 60-loss seasons have occurred within the last 8 seasons, with a 58-loss stinker thrown in for good measure (thanks Wittman, looking forward to seeing you back on Flip’s staff next season!). In the simplest of terms, the team has not been able to develop any form of sustainable momentum in well over a decade and things don’t seem ready to improve much relatively soon without a hefty stroke of draft (which seems promising) and injury (a bit more questionable) luck.
So now that I have painted a distressingly bleak picture of the last few years , let’s move on with a recap of the Wolves roster as it stands today, starting with the big positive, before addressing the concerns surrounding injuries and player health moving forward.
The Biggest Positive: Andrew Wiggins Likely the Real Deal
When Flip Saunders acquired Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love last August, it was widely viewed as an unparalleled coup, a shockingly positive removal of a harsh wedge driven between the team and a franchise big man for the third time in seven years. After a complex web of events spanning more than a decade brought him here, the excitement was high and has, well, stayed pretty damn high.
For the first two months of the season, Wiggins struggled, as many rookies do, which prompted some rather short-sighted doubt and criticism of his potential trajectory. While much of his poor play was due to playing alongside shoot first point guards such as Mo Williams and Zach LaVine after Rubio injured his ankle, his spots in the offense also were a primary driver. At that point, Wiggins was generally getting the ball 20 feet out from the hoop and was asked to create from there despite a known issue with ball handling. After a couple of months, Saunders appeared to limit Wiggins’ long drives to the lane from isolation, instead opting to get him the ball in the post for the bulk of his possessions, where fewer dribbles were required to get into quality scoring position. This allowed Wiggins to score primarily inside and at the free throw line, while leaving him the option to pull-up from mid-range when he didn’t see an opening to the rim from the mid-post area. The result has been a steady uptick in free throw attempts throughout the season, but a harsh drop in 3 point attempts throughout most of 2015, where he has stayed away from the perimeter:
While the above only shows us one piece of the pie, Saunders surmising Wiggins should generate more offense inside and from the line actually was a pretty solid strategy in the end. It allowed him to score reasonably efficiently for a 19/20 year old tasked with such heavy responsibility on both ends of the floor, and essentially resulted in him turning his rookie season around quickly, as he is now the runaway favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award. In general, it gave him a consistent go-to scoring position from which to build from, without overwhelming him too much given his other responsibilities. We will get into the massive issue of team 3 pointers tomorrow, but the spots Saunders had Wiggins shooting from resulted in what I would view as a pretty successful rookie season, save for one frustrating inefficiency: 23% of Wiggins shot attempts were long 2’s (16 ft. to 3) where he shot 31%, vs. 11% of his shots were 3’s where he shot a slightly better 32%. He really should be shooting more 3’s and developing that critical aspect of his game in tandem with the attacking inside game.
Wiggins was also tasked with the nightly challenge of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player, while also playing huge minutes to boot. At the time of writing, Wig ranks 3rd in the league in total minutes played, up from 6th just yesterday, behind Lillard and Harden, a mark that will surely rise if those two rest going into the playoffs. Defensively, he showed promise in one-on-one situations, but the Wolves’ historically poor team defense yields few tangible positives that can be credited to Andrew alone.
Overall, Wiggins showed tremendous promise this season as a potential two-way force for the long haul, and any concerns over acquiring a replacement superstar have been alleviated for the time being, as the Wolves seemed to have already completed the biggest and most difficult part of any rebuilding process. That is, of course, fantastic. As for the rest of the roster, like always with the Wolves, the opinions will start to become far more mixed.
Rubio and Addressing Shooting
In November, Ricky Rubio sprained his ankle and will end up missing 60 games total as a result. It was the second significant injury of his four-year career and, much like “Knuckle Pushups,” was a watershed moment for the front office and coaching staff in terms of direction for the season. Things quickly turned into a developmental project that resulted in young players being thrown into the water in classic sink or swim style with predictably terrible results for several months. After a promising start, the Wolves play and fan morale plummeted to an all too familiar place.
Good point guard play, and lack therof, has been a bit of a theme this season for Minnesota, and Rubio’s presence and absence was felt in both tangible and intangible ways. You know the drill and have read about it before, so I won’t add much more depth: he is fantastic at just about everything but shooting the basketball. To simplify this greatly and avoid cryptic statistical acronyms, the Wolves as of today were 7-14 (.333) when Rubio played a full game, and are presently 9-49 (.155) in games he missed, with various other starter injuries sprinkled in throughout each of those periods. However, a glaring problem still remains and it is something you just have to consider when you evaluate him and that is his shooting, which clocked in at 35.6% overall in 22 games played. While this mark is understandably deflated due to injury and rhythm, know that among players who shot 36% or less in a season, played in at least 20 games and 30 minutes per game or more (starters minutes), only a single player shows up other than Rubio (Rex Chapman) who didn’t play in the NBA in the 1950’s or early 1960’s.
Interestingly enough, and a BB-sized piece of ammo for the few Coach Saunders supporters left, the area Ricky shot above his overall average in those 22 games was from mid-range, where he attempted 58% of his shots this season, shooting above 40% from both primary areas (10-16 ft. and 16 ft. to 3). Overall, his attempts went from a heavy dose of inside last season to primarily long 2’s, right in Flip’s wheelhouse, where he surprisingly had his best shooting. See below the dramatic change in area splits under Flip this year vs. last year under Adelman.
Though shooting okay from mid-range relative to other areas, and at a much higher volume, the main reasons Rubio’s fg% dropped this year were far fewer shots inside (0-3 ft.) vs. a year ago, but on those inside shots this season he also converted an abysmal 33% of his attempts vs. a still poor 49% last year on about 41% of his attempts. He also shot a career low 26% from beyond the arc which drove his percentage down to a career worst 35.6% (by tenths of percentage points, he shot a rounded 36% his first two seasons as well). While it could be argued that a midrange emphasis from Rubio was a coaching tactic designed to keep him out of harm’s way and prevent him from re-tweaking his ankle, he unfortunately ended up re-injuring it regardless. There is also little evidence from previous Saunders point guards that the above shot splits will change much moving forward. Here are a few examples of how some of Flip’s point guards generated shot attempts during his previous Wolves stints:
This long 2 emphasis is classic Saunders no matter where you look, save for his Billups-led Pistons teams. It appears Rubio was pigeonholed into the same type of role and suggested offensive output as his ancient predecessors were, mostly pulling up for a long 2 off of a screen, regardless of his known strengths prior to Saunders’ return to coaching. Both Brandon and Cassell were widely known to be fantastic mid-range players, while Rubio shoots only 30% from 16 ft. to 3 for his career, a below-average-for-him mark that is also positively driven by this season’s likely unsustainable percentage from that area.
Before rolling your eyes too fiercely, the reality is there is no easy way to determine what is best for Rubio offensively right now, even with him entering his 5th year in the league, and that is a problem in and of itself. He was ineffective shooting the ball for both Adelman and Saunders, regardless of where those shots came from, and there lies your big picture problem. In general, I do believe mid-range shooting can be an invaluable skill for a primary ball handler (Chris Paul, vintage Rondo, and Cassell and Brandon of course, come to mind), so it is encouraging to see Ricky show some promise shooting away from the hoop in any capacity, and hopefully the inside shooting was an anomaly given his career percentages suggest it was. But, the system vs. strengths issue in regards to Rubio remains a notable discussion point that provides ammo for both sides of the Saunders debate. Is this about Flip’s nauseatingly obtuse “Right Way,” or figuring out what Ricky is really best at? Which is the better approach for him? Given his shooting has been all over the map in a largely negative way throughout his career, it isn’t easy to say.
Rest of Roster Remains Mixed Bag of Long-term Talent and Dependability
To prevent this thing from becoming a Simmons-esqe tome, I’m switching to bullets to address the rest of the roster, player-by player, with a few Pros and Kahns for each, in the order each player came to mind.
- Shabazz Muhammad showed superb scoring promise in the middle of the season as a potential long-term sixth man, but he missed 44 games with various injuries, tended to free-lance and get tunnel vision, and was a very ineffective team defender (though, who wasn’t?).
- Anthony Bennett showed modest improvement from his rookie year, but was still lost all year on both ends of the floor and again struggled with injury. Contractually, with $5.8 million owed next year followed by a $7.3 million option for the next that the Wolves would be wise to decline (please learn from the D-Will mistake), he is not likely to be a part of the future.
- Gorgui Dieng was dependable night in and night out and proved, at a minimum, that he can be a very solid backup for the long haul. However, his post defensive fundamentals are in need of serious work and actual NBA coaching. He also lacks the speed and strength necessary to be consistently effective on defense.
- Nikola Pekovic had his Achilles tendon rebuilt yesterday, leaving questions as to whether he can continue his career. When healthy, Pek is among the better starting 5’s in the league, but sustaining an 82-game season seems near-impossible even if he comes through the surgery with intent to play.
- Zach LaVine is 20 years old and has shown some signs of becoming a microwave bench scoring 2 guard, but has struggled mightily as a point guard this season. He has produced some pretty impressive stat lines to end the season, but fair questions remain as to why he was played blatantly out of position for most of the year.
- Adreian Payne had some occasional nice stretches of play shooting and rebounding, but overall made the mental mistakes you typically see a 19 year old make, and has poor hands and worse instincts on both ends. Though the 24 year old rookie’s salary is very favorable vs. Bennett’s, conveying a first rounder to get him looks even worse now than it did at the time.
- Chase Budinger is playing his best stretch of ball in three miserable, injury-riddled seasons as a Wolf. Don’t let it convince you that he shouldn’t be moved at the first possible opportunity. Hopefully this stretch helps the Wolves move on, while also helping Chase revive a career many thought was over.
- Lorenzo Brown and Justin Hamilton were both added from the waiver and D-League scrap heap, a much better way to audition potential bench talent than hemorrhaging assets in trades, and both have shown signs of being plausible 3rd stringers at their respective positions for next season.
- Robbie Hummel was hamstrung by injury this year but remains an all-around smart player, better than his experience suggests, on a minimum contract and will likely have a long NBA career.
- Kevin Martin had another effective year as s scorer, but at 32 years old, the timing of his presence feels a bit off with the likely trajectory of the rest of the roster. Martin again missed considerable time due to injury, a consistent trend for him throughout his career.
- Gary Neal was a trade throw-in, was (of course) quickly injured after angling for a buyout, and is highly unlikely to play for the Wolves again.
- Lastly, Kevin Garnett received a warm welcome after he was acquired, a period of the season that perhaps surpassed the Wiggins State Fair intro in terms of good will for the Wolves. But, the result left a sour taste in a matter of weeks: KG played 5 games and all but vanished from the team thereafter, prompting a reasonable line of questioning as to why this move was made in the first place other than for a temporary, seedy cash grab from bored fans and frustrated sponsors. More on this in the front office and coaching installment.
When I look through that list of players a few times, two primary questions surface:
First and most importantly, can the majority of these players be counted on to be available to play each night? Furthermore, can the medical staff keep them healthy when it matters?
On the increasingly rare occasions these days I write a post, much of the content influence is attributable to discussions I have with Twitter followers (thank you for following and participating) in order to get a sense of what people are feeling about the team, and then crafting arguments accordingly. In the case of injuries, the overwhelming opinion in these discussions is that the team is holding players out in order to maximize its draft position while simultaneously managing long-term health. Essentially taking the long-view approach. While that certainly may be what is happening in Rubio and pre-surgery Pekovic’s case, a quick look at the injury history of this team shows that may be a convenient position to hold. According to the fairly new website ManGamesLost, the Wolves have led the league in player games missed for two of the last three seasons (remember, it mattered during the Adelman era), and were middle of the pack last year in what was considered a generally healthy season. It has long been a problem, even prior to Flip 2.0 and Adelman.
Matters are not helped by a coach known for hard practices and a heavy minutes load for his core players, an issue that was compounded by poor roster management throughout the season. For example, after Rubio had his minutes restriction revoked, Flipadeau immediately elected to play him in the high-30’s and low 40’s in minutes, a trend that applied to Pekovic to a slightly less aggressive degree, before both went down again for the season in a matter of weeks. During the months Rubio was injured the first time, Saunders rode Mo Williams in a similar fashion, inexplicably electing not to sign a backup point guard, resulting in a set of injuries for Mo, and so on.
While injuries are all flukes and always happen, the questions I have are these: given the long-term injury history of this franchise, what reason is there to assume next year everyone will be healthy and dependable for an entire season? Is the grass really greener with another terrible year behind us? Do you really think suiting up 25 players (3rd all-time, might I add) and needing 5 injury hardship exceptions in a single season is a tanking measure? Do you really think Glen Taylor, who once allegedly hired David Kahn over Dennis Lindsay because he would have had to buy out front office contracts, is the type of owner who would pay healthy players to sit out when his franchise is, I’m guessing, in need of sponsorship partners and ticket sales? I’ll go ahead and say no to the latter two questions.
Some believe the Mayo Clinic’s new facility across the street from Target Center will be the saving grace, so let’s break that down. To my knowledge, that relationship extends mainly to diagnostics (the Wolves used Bloomington-based TRIA for diagnostics last year), as most all teams have a third party partner for such matters. Being across the street, it also provides an obvious proximity advantage. However, as far as I know the day-to-day operation is still in the hands of the current staff which consists of long-time head trainer Gregg Farnham, a trainer Flip brought from Washington, a collection of folks who have been around since around the time Taylor bought the team, and various others. Mayo is also a brand new division/subsidiary of the Rochester-based medical power house with 126 years of institutional history behind its sterling reputation. It is also notable this is the second time this decade the Wolves have been involved in a public co-branding/business-driven partnership with a medical provider in various capacities (the Wolves used Lifetime Fitness trainers for a period during the Kahn regime). Even if those partners were the best medical professionals available and are reputable, part of it just doesn’t feel right or like something you want to mess with if it came at the expense of getting the best care possible. Did it? I have no clue and neither do you. Either way, injuries and player health is, simply put, an issue that affects the Wolves more than any other franchise today, and it requires answers and perhaps a heavy investment from the team if it so warrants. Unfortunately, there is only speculation to be made, as much of the above is, and there are very few specifically identifiable problems the public can factually address.
The second and final question of part 1 requires a much shorter response. Of “the rest” of the group, other than Shabazz, Dieng and perhaps LaVine, ask yourself honestly: are any of these players likely to be on the team in two years? When I look at the list above I see a group of placeholders requiring some form of disingenuous reach to convince myself he is a player we should even want on this team long-term, while also questioning why he was acquired in the first place in lieu of hoarding assets during a rebuild. And this brings us straight to the man who acquired those players: President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2.