You’re probably supposed to take it easy on the Minnesota Timberwolves. The team was picked, after drafting yet another teenager at the top of the draft, by many to act as the worst team in the Western Conference. Of sadder concern was the loss of team president and head coach Flip Saunders after his battle with Hodgkin lymphoma right before the season started.
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The team rallied under interim head coach Sam Mitchell to begin 2015-16, though, working up an 8-8 record to start the season; conquests that included quality wins against the Hawks (twice) and Bulls. Since then, however, the squad has lost 26 of 32, with only the incompetency of the Byron Scott-led Lakers keeping them out of the cellar in the West.
As it is with Scott’s Lakers, though, there are fears that the coaching staff is acting similarly pound-foolish. That the Wolves could lose with abandon – sweet, another chance at a No. 1 overall pick – but not at the expense of player development. Lose to the Lakers and let a 37-year old drop 38 on you, fine, but make sure the kids aren’t sustaining bad habits left over from the combined four years of NCAA training that Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine had.
Such fears, combined with the ongoing swoon, apparently have Wolves observers both in and out of the team’s camp more than a little worried. The Associated Press’ Jon Krawczynski discussed as much last week:
But nearly half the roster of 15 players privately expressed concerns to The Associated Press about Mitchell that centered on three basic tenets: His outdated offensive system, his tendency to platoon his rotations and a lack of personal accountability for the struggles. The players spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize their head coach.
Kevin Garnett, who has known Mitchell since the two were teammates in 1995, was asked about the heavy criticism Mitchell has faced from fans this season before a victory over Memphis last Saturday. He quickly replied: "Next question." Garnett often swipes aside questions he views as negative, but one of Mitchell's close allies passing on a chance to back him didn't help the coach's cause.
Mitchell is a former NBA Coach of the Year and a longtime Minnesota mainstay. These things tend to speak volumes to both owner Glen Taylor …
"I talk to the players. I talk to the coaches," Taylor said. "I'm glad that they're frustrated. I'm sure they're trying very hard in practice to improve their skills. I know they want to win. I'm confident that it's just going to be some game that we win against somebody that probably has a better team than us and it just kind of gets us going."
"I feel real good about the progression of this team since Day 1 and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I'm endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization," he said. "More importantly, I'm excited about our future. I'm excited about our young players. I feel like we're getting better. These last 10, 15 games, we've gotten better. You see it and I think that needs to be said. I think you all need to understand we're supportive around here."
Apparently Garnett realized that his “next question” approach was understandably being viewed as a dimmed endorsement of the 52-year old Mitchell. KG went on:
"Since Day 1 you see the progression how guys are getting the schemes, their IQ levels, the rhythm," he said. "It's not just offense and putting the ball in the basket, but how guys communicate with each other, the chemistry throughout the guys. When you're watching your team progress, those are the things you're looking for. Our assists have gone from single-digit some halves and some nights to over 30 and over 20. And that means ball movement. That means players are understanding not only the system that's in place, but ball movement and sharing the ball.
"We're communicating with each other on and off the court. We've been doing a lot of hanging. We did movies one day, we did turkey burgers another day. Those are the things that build character and chemistry throughout the team and those are the things of which I speak."
KG and the gang (well, at least, all the old guys) also did breakfast the other day!
The AP was fair to point out that Mitchell’s playoff teams in Toronto often ranked highly when it came to taking and making three-pointers, but the current Minnesota system appears to be a carryover from the Flip Saunders era. Saunders’ offense were aesthetically pleasing, but they mostly relied on heaps of long two-pointers that did well for Terrell Brandon and Wally Szczerbiak’s bank accounts; anachronistic in the modern era.
It’s also fair to point out that some of these players’ long jumpers are straight up broken. Guard Ricky Rubio (35 percent on the year, 28 percent from long range) has been mired in a terrible slump in spite of reported endless jumper practicing on off days. In a league where Devin Booker and even the beleaguered Doug McDermott can enter and start splashing right away, Andrew Wiggins makes fewer than a quarter of his treys despite repeated attempts, and LaVine (at 35 percent) is as streaky as they come.
The Saunders hallmarks are all there, which means the Wolves score exceedingly well when they do run those endless curls, and for a Flip-formed team Minnesota does get to the line quite a bit. KAT is the Rookie of the Year thus far, as Mitchell has only just begun to scratch the surface of his offensive potential (sometimes, especially in the fourth quarter, to the consternation of Timberwolves fans).
So why is this team only ranked 21st in offense? It can’t all be on Ricky’s jump shot, can it?
Andrew Wiggins isn’t truly working through a sophomore slump, he’s made advancements in terms of scoring, but the overall jumps haven’t been as pronounced as some would like. It feels appropriate for someone with his skills to not have leveled off between his first and second season when it comes to rebounding and passing. The Wolves aren’t exactly begging for Kevin Love back, but (near) 21-year olds can do big things in this league, and despite those 20.9 points per game Wiggins on many nights doesn’t look like a surefire All-Star to-be.
Karl-Anthony Towns (a 7-footer that Mitchell has already called his “best shooter”) does, which is warming, but too often he’s surrounded by players that just shouldn’t be a part of either a winning NBA rotation, or a developing NBA rotation.
Nikola Pekovic will be paid over $12 million this year and $23.7 million over the next two seasons, so ideally the Timberwolves have to see what’s left in the oft-injured big man, while potentially showcasing him for a trade. Pekovic’s skill set doesn’t translate to the modern NBA, sadly, and his force-fed minutes over the last month have put the Wolves in tremendous holes prior to his trips back to the bench.
Nemanja Bjelica, despite his abilities to keep defenses honest while behind the three-point line, has been just as destructive, as has second-year big man and recent D-League call-up Adreian Payne – a player the Wolves gave up a first round draft pick for, presuming they ever make the playoffs (it has and will continue to be a 12-year absence, the longest streak in the NBA). Meanwhile, though eminently respectable, there is no reason Tayshaun Prince should be averaging nearly 22 minutes a game in 2016. We have hoverboards now.
Again, the 14-36 record (tied with Phoenix for fourth-worst in the NBA) is not the problem. The Wolves will once again wind up with a high-end draft pick to add to its already impressive cadre of kids born around the same time the team was sussing out trade offers for Isaiah Rider. It’s the worry that Mitchell, now working with Kevin Garnett’s blessing, might be holding the team back.
This isn’t as bad a situation as what’s happening in Los Angeles with Byron Scott. Despite the occasional, “the kids don’t know how to throw an entry pass” or “AAU is for the birds, I tells-ya”-bluster, Mitchell isn’t going out of his way to condemn Minnesota’s young core in the face of the press. He can coach.
The issue is structure. Team owner Glen Taylor reportedly was set to let Flip Saunders guide this team into a new ownership group, whether that included Saunders or not (Garnett, with another year on his deal, would be prohibited by NBA law from owning a piece of the team until July, 2017). Current general manager Milt Newton is a respected NBA lifer, but does he or Taylor have the gravitas to ease Mitchell back to the assistant ranks once a Tom Thibodeau-type becomes available this summer? Sam Mitchell was a Timberwolf back in the 1980s, for crying out loud, and he KG’s guy.
Long two-pointers, though. It’s hard to want to fathom Andrew Wiggins shooting any more three-pointers while he’s still learning how to clean up his footwork coming off of a screen, but the fear that Sam Mitchell is mistaking activity for achievement is legitimate.
Expecting a batch of 20-year olds to lead an NBA team into the playoffs is ridiculous. Luckily, despite the 8-8 start, nobody expected as much; and in a lot of ways Sam Mitchell getting 14 wins out of 50 tries with this crew is miraculous. What we do worry about is how this team will be performing when everyone is 25. Minnesota has been too starved for playoff basketball for too long.
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