Timberwolves scan the horizon


Friends, if you have even the slightest inclination toward professional basketball, I would urge you to begin watching the NBA playoffs this weekend. I can't remember a year in which, especially in the Western Conference, so many teams were so much fun to watch, so compelling, so good. The injury ravaged but stunningly resilient Blazers will face the beautiful but brittle Phoenix Suns. The child-prodigious Oklahoma City Thunder and their baby genius, Kevin Durant, will attempt to do something fun with the wayward Lakers. The Nuggets will attempt to avoid a total meltdown. Manu Ginobili will attempt to flail and contort San Antonio to an upset. Utah will be (I can't believe I'm saying this) fun to watch. Lebron will dance and giggle and then get heavier than "War Pigs"; Dwight Howard will devour your babies. Seriously guys, its going to be awesome.

So its a pretty large bummer that our Wolves are so many universes removed from this potent stuff. Right now, after a full three years of halting rebuilding and so much unsatisfied hope,  it feels like it would take a fundamental realignment of the cosmos for the Wolves to ever get back to playing fun basketball in April and May (to say nothing of June). Should we be hopeful? Should we despair? Let's discuss.

Wolves' coach Kurt Rambis had this to say in summing up the Wolves' year:

Our players held it together and they are to be commended for that. And again, I cannot reiterate enough, it was not their fault. The blame falls right here, with David [Kahn, Wolves GM] and me. It is not the players' fault, it is our fault.

As we've discussed, the ultimate cause for this grinding, painful season (the blowouts, the awful defense, the blown leads, the squandered opportunities, remember?) is the players' inexperience and collective lack of talent (relative to the rest of the league, of course). This is kind of just a fact of nature and inasmuch as blame can be assigned, that blame ought to fall on David Kahn, the man who mostly assembled the team last summer. Kahn, of course, was under punishing time and logistical constraints, having been hired only four weeks before the draft, not yet having a coach, and being forced to unravel Kevin McHale's incoherent roster.

Some folks have already written off this past off-season as a total bust but I don't happen to be among them. It does seem apparent that Kahn blew it in taking Flynn--at the time, perhaps, the obvious choice given his righteous athleticism, high visibility and postseason pedigree--over Steph Curry, the scrawny gunner from Davidson. But, folks, draft hindsight is 20/20 and for everybody that "knew" Curry was the right choice, there's another person that was sold on Flynn from the start. (I myself wanted Demar Derozan, so there you go).


If Ricky Rubio comes over in a year and is as good as advertised, if Flynn either settles into a more appropriate role (probably as a scorer off the bench) or gets traded for somebody good, and if Kahn can manage to shore up the team's many other dire needs, the 2009 point guard orgy won't have gone so badly (if not...). That last one is the key: the Wolves have three first-round draft picks, around $15 million in cap room, and lots of room to deal. Things need to happen now.

Of course, Rambis also made his mistakes. His banishment promotion of Kevin Love to the bench was done in the name of improving the second unit, but it mainly just seemed to limit Love's minutes and destroy his confidence. Love is arguably the Wolves best player: it was absurd to see him sitting on the bench while the Wolves bled.

More: it seemed clear all year that Ramon Sessions was better qualified that Flynn to run Rambis's offense with the first unit. He facilitated greater cohesion and ball movement in the half-court and he made shrewder decisions in the open floor. Flynn's year-long odyssey as a starting point guard was justified as a learning opportunity, but it never seemed a good fit. Both Flynn and Sessions were out of their element: Flynn's struggles as a floor leader are well-document here, but Sessions game also suffered. Playing alongside such luminaries as Ryan Hollins and Sasha Pavlovic, he often found himself in the wilderness, the only player on the floor capable of creating a shot. Needless to say, this did not suit his game: his assist rate, turnover rate and true shooting percentage all regressed from his previous season with the Bucks.

But there are deeper worries. For the past three seasons, Al Jefferson has been the Wolves' centerpiece. Coming into this year, he faced two deep questions: could he recover from ACL surgery? And could he adapt his game to Rambis's up-tempo-and-triangle offense? Well, Al had a tough year. His body cooperated only in fits and starts; he was plagued all year by personal problems (some of his own making); he was, as he has been every year of his career, caught in the upheaval of a rebuilding team.

Al is known as one of the league's few remaining classic back-to-the-basket scorers, owner of sublime low-post skills. If his defense is erratic, if his passing leaves something to be desire, the thinking goes, he makes up for it in sheer scoring prowess. But here's the thing: for a big guy, Al is actually not that efficient a scorer. He tends to use his skills to avoid, rather than draw, contact. And he settles far too often for jumpers, which he hits at only a 39% clip.

Even in '08-'09, before his knee injury, his true-shooting percentage was just 53.2%. Among centers and power-forward who used at least 20% of their team's possessions (Al's own usage rate was 28.9%), a full 14 players scored more efficiently. This includes obvious players like Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire, but also folks like Kevin Garnett and Andrea Bargnani, who play mainly from the outside in (Kevin Love and, adding insult to injury, Craig Smith also clocked in above Big Al).

So the question is: can Jefferson learn not only to mesh with a fast-paced, ball-sharing offense and play more consistent defense but also get to the line more often and settle for fewer contested, outside shots? If not, then its unlikely that he'll ever be able to assume anything approximating the Pau Gasol role on this year's Lakers (to say nothing of Shaq's role from LA's early-'00s championship teams). And let's not kid ourselves that Darko Milicic is any kind of solution to this problem. Sure the big Serb can block a shot or two, but he certainly doesn't play with the energy and activity that you might hope for from a top-notch defender and rebounder. And although he is a deft passer and moves his feet nicely...have you seen that clunky, fading jump-hook lately? Its becoming more obvious why, despite his great potential, Darko was such a strange fit with so many teams.

So this is kind of depressing. Because if Al can't be an elite scorer and can't adapt his game, and if Darko is not the player we wish he was, and if Jonny Flynn is no better than a scoring sixth (or seventh) man, these Wolves really have a long, long way to go. Let's hope they make some progress soon.