Is J.J. Barea the X-Factor for the Timberwolves?

Photo Credit: Tyler Parker

Photo Credit: Tyler Parker

Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman demands his Pups to run the Princeton Offense like a high-powered engine. Head mechanic Flip Saunders has made quick work installing a Kevin Martin turbo, patching the transmission with Corey Brewer while changing the oil with Chase Budinger’s new contract. Ricky Rubio sits behind the wheel and Kevin Love rides shotgun as the rest of the Wolves-Wagon idols patiently waited for Nikola Pekovic to climb aboard. The grueling NBA highway is conquered by a steady, and more importantly, healthy, pace. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. With no more Luke Ridnour or Malcolm Lee, who keeps between the lanes when Rubio needs rest? Alexey Shved is still adjusting to driving in the right-lane, leaving J.J. Barea responsible for keeping alignment steady to help drive the Wolves to the desired destination: the postseason.

Barea was a few nonsensical shots away from acquiring the label of a ‘chucker’ last season. He struggled to play within Adelman’s system, taking below average looks at inopportune moments, either in critical possessions or too early in the shot clock. Playing an expanded role on a roster ravaged by injuries, Barea tallied career highs in minutes, FG and 3PT attempts, turnovers and points last season. These numbers, to me, show he left it all out on the floor. He didn’t quit. It’s easy to look for scapegoats, but Barea shouldn’t be knocked for trying to do everything he could to try and help win games.

With the team’s newly acquired depth, Barea returns to a role we are comfortable seeing him in. He’s a phenomenal sixth man, a pure scorer and relentless worker on both ends of the floor. Where Barea lacks in size, he makes up for in heart and hustle.

In his final season playing for the Dallas Mavericks, Barea was everything that Mavs fans hoped he would be as an instant offensive boost from the bench. He even recorded his career high in assists en route to the Mavericks eventual claiming of a World Championship. Barea hasn’t had a chance to be the player he was in Dallas so far playing for the Wolves, but he will get the chance, at least early on, this season.

During the offseason, rumors surfaced that Barea could potentially be traded. Speculation landed him in either Dallas or Brooklyn, where he would reunite with former teammate, and now Nets head coach, Jason Kidd. JJ is owed $9,206,500 over the next two seasons and it’s almost certain, in my opinion, his name will swirl in discussions as the trade deadline approaches. Barea is set to become an unrestricted free-agent prior to the 2015 season.

I am concerned that the Wolves are not deep enough at point guard to make Barea expendable. Barea is currently second on the depth chart behind Rubio and in front of rookie Lorenzo Brown (who is not guaranteed to make the final roster). I’m not going to ignore the idea that Rubio could get hurt at some point during this season, it has happened before. In many ways our tiny point guard’s skill set is that of a shooting guard, although his stature demands that he play as a point guard. Meanwhile, Brown has no NBA experience other than Summer League in Vegas last month.  Shved is also not a natural point guard but can handle the ball respectably when asked to do so. Barea’s role significantly changes if Rubio becomes unavailable for periods of time this season, this much is certain.

It’s impossible to ignore trade rumors and one should never expect a roster to stay 100% healthy for a complete season, but until either become an obstacle I’ve defined Barea’s role to this team as such: He needs to provide between 15-23 quality minutes off the bench, playing with, but not limited to a scorer’s mentality that will put himself and his teammates in positions to score points. He’s a smart, hardworking and dedicated player who will do whatever is asked of him to win. When Rubio steps out and Barea is given the keys to the offense, sure, he may drive recklessly and aggressively at times, but he would never steer Adelman’s vehicle off-course or run it into the ground. He’s a T-Pup, and I’m glad to have him aboard.

Analyzing How The Timberwolves Stack Up In The Western Conference

Is a core of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic strong enough to carry Minnesota to the playoffs? (Brace Hemmelgarn, Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Is a core of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic strong enough to carry Minnesota to the playoffs? (Brace Hemmelgarn, Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

So far this offseason, the Minnesota Timberwolves have made a splash in both the draft and free agency. The Wolves started things off by drafting first-round picks Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, both of whom could provide solid minutes off the bench this next season while being potential  future starters. Shabazz has a high ceiling due to his play-making abilities on offense and Dieng has the body to become an elite defender in the NBA.

In free agency, the Timberwolves were able to sign UFA Kevin Martin to a four year, $28 million deal to fill the void as the new starter at shooting guard. The former sixth man from OKC brings perimeter shooting that the Wolves desperately need as he shot a tremendous 43% from behind the arc last season. In addition, the Wolves were able to bring back RFA Chase Budinger who also brings strong perimeter shooting and an extensive knowledge of Rick Adelman’s corner offense. In addition, former Timberwolves lottery pick Corey Brewer is also back to help replace some of Andrei Kirilenko‘s defensive versatility after playing an integral part to Denver’s terrific season in 2012-13. It is safe to say that Flip Saunders has assembled a very talented offensive roster that could very well make a playoff push come next spring.

Remaining on the agenda is the status of RFA Nikola Pekovic, who has still not found common ground with Timberwolves brass on a long-term deal that could keep the Montenegrin in Minnesota for another four seasons. Despite the current lack of a deal, it remains unlikely that Pekovic decides to leave millions on the table and instead signing his one year tender that would pay him around $6 million this season while allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. It remains very unlikely that Pek signs his one year tender as he would be taking a significant risk walking away from a $50+ million contract, especially considering his injury history. It will be very important for Flip to find common ground with Pek’s camp in order to find a mutually beneficial resolution to the extended negotiations, given how important of a piece he will be for Minnesota this season and in the future.

Is it be possible that this may be an inopportune time for the Wolves to significantly improve? As ridiculous as that may sound, let us take a peek at next season. With the hard cap created in the latest CBA, there are significant ramifications that result from the luxury tax largely as it applies to small market franchises. As it stands right now, the Timberwolves will have very little flexibility going forward for adding any more high-impact players. If their free agent additions fail to produce or if injuries continue to plague the team as they have in previous seasons, the Pups may miss out on both a playoff spot and a high spot in the draft. That would not bode well for the future of the team as the 2014 NBA Draft is considered by many experts to be the best draft in the past decade. The draft boasts high-end talent that includes Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Chris Walker, Aaron Gordan, Gary Harris, and the Harrison twins. There is a chance that multiple teams may draft their next superstar with a high selection, but having a pick in the 10-14 range would mean missing out on both a postseason run and a top end talent. With all of the talent and depth the Wolves have accumulated, it is very likely that Minnesota will miss out on players that could fundamentally change the franchise. As Minnesota is in clear win-now mode, it is somewhat unfortunate that the first time in a decade that the team does not appear in the NBA lottery may very well end up being the most important lottery to be apart of.

It is interesting to note that the last time the Timberwolves made a significant run in the playoffs in 2003, it ended up being arguably the greatest draft class in NBA history. Just look at some of these names: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and David West were some of the players selected before Minnesota who held the 26th overall pick. They ultimately selected Ndudi Ebi, who proved to be a completely useless asset for the franchise. While it is not guaranteed that 2014 will bring as many studs as 2003 did, it is initially alarming to think about history repeating itself.

The Western Conference currently boasts a highly competitive group of teams that will make it increasingly difficult to make it to the postseason. At the top there are the unquestionable contenders, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. The Thunder have arguably two of the top five best players in the NBA with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.  The Spurs are coming off of an NBA Finals defeat in which they played the Miami Heat incredibly close despite ultimately coming up short. However, they will be returning all of their core players and should be a force yet again next season. The Grizzlies have only added pieces around their core and remain one of the most defensively oriented teams in the NBA, a strength that makes them one of the most unique teams in the league. Coming off of their memorable playoff run, Golden State was able to add a new starting small forward in All-Star Andre Igoudala to complement their sharp-shooting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Clippers took care of their offseason priorities by re-signing Chris Paul while also addressing their needs at shooting guard by signing sharpshooter JJ Redick away from Milwaukee. Los Angeles also gained depth at small forward after trading for swingman Jared Dudley. Houston made arguably the biggest addition of the summer after signing Dwight Howard and have now positioned themselves as a championship contender with the addition of the best center in the NBA. Pairing Dwight with Chandler Parsons and James Harden will be interesting to observe to say the least.

Fighting for the final spots in the West with the Wolves will likely be between the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets. The Portland’s young lineup is set to make a playoff run this season as they are bringing back their entire starting five. Dallas and New Orleans have both completely revamped their rosters and should be the biggest wildcards of the Western Conference, while Denver has undergone a complete turnover of their management and coaching staff while losing a number of key players. Obviously, as shown by the Los Angeles Lakers last season it is nearly impossible to predict the playoff standings. It is no guarantee that even with their improved roster and a full season of good health from both Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, there is enough competition and talent in the West to keep Minnesota from snapping their streak of missing the postseason.

In the end, I am happy that the Wolves are going to be a competitive ball club next season. It’s about DAMN time! But there is always a price to being competitive that could negatively impact our future, just as it did in 2003.

Checking in on Derrick Williams

Associated Press

Associated Press

This summer, Derrick Williams has passed his time by starting the #DwillSneakerHunt and it continued Tuesday as he went about hiding hot styles of sneakers around the greater Los Angeles area. Why hide them? So the kids following him on Twitter and Instagram can race to find a new pair of kicks. After all, school is just around the corner. Along with his playful act of charity, Williams has also spent time this summer promoting his clothing store, VII Grand, which opened in February and is located in Tucson, Arizona. When Williams isn’t in Tucson overseeing operations, he’s on the phone almost daily with close friend and store manager Mario Escalente. At age 22, it’s obvious Williams has already spent a lot of effort promoting himself as an entrepreneur, but what has he been doing this offseason to improve himself as a basketball player? After two seasons in the NBA Williams should have developed a more formidable identity in the league by now, right? So far, this hasn’t exactly been the case, although he still has time to prove to the Timberwolves and the rest of the NBA that he was worthy of the second overall selection nearly two years ago.

Williams’ identity crisis begins with his stature, currently listed at 6’8’’ and 241 pounds and perfectly fitting the mold as a “tweener” forward. As he stands right now, he has too much bulk while lacking the proper handles that are necessary in order to have sustained success as a small forward. Contributing to his dilemma, he lacks the height, length and refined post game that is necessary to be an effective power forward. During his time playing for Arizona, Williams used his size as an advantage. He found success by dragging bigger and slower defenders away from the basket which allowed him space away from his opponent. From there, he greatly relied on his athleticism to make up for the fact that he was and is still not a great dribbler. When opposing bigs left Williams open on the perimeter, he punished them by shooting a blistering 56.8% from three during his final season. If opponents tried to stop Williams by assigning him smaller and quicker defenders, he muscled his way inside for an easy layup or dunk, which he converted at a high rate. One of the most notable discrepancies between his success in college and the NBA has been his increased difficulty finishing around the rim, as he continues to face much bigger frontcourts than he previously saw in the Pac-12.

Williams’ progression from his rookie to second season can be attributed to his increased playing time under Coach Adelman. It’s important to assess how players respond to increased minutes, and in Williams’ second season he appeared in 12 more games while playing 498 more minutes than during his rookie season. Now, this is largely a result of the high frequency of injuries that the Wolves roster was hit by last year, especially in the frontcourt. Nonetheless, he was able to improve in every offensive statistical category, as depicted by this graphic:

Derrick Williams totals

The statistic that jumps out to me the most is his significant improvement shooting from 3pt range. Williams made 28 more three-pointers last season than he did during his rookie season and improved by a total of 6.4% on 58 more attempts. After being dubbed as one of the top perimeter shooters in the 2011 Draft, it was a disappointment seeing Derrick struggle so mightily in his rookie season. However, it is clear that he has made shooting one of his priorities last summer as was quietly the second best three-point shooter on the team only behind J.J. Barea.

Williams currently finds himself in a tough spot on the depth chart and in Adelman’s rotation. I can only speculate that he will see most of his time on the floor splitting minutes with fellow SF/PF Dante Cunningham as Kevin Love‘s backup. Cunningham understands his role and has Coach Adelman’s trust as a proven role player.

The center position is occupied by incumbent starter Nikola Pekovic - assuming he re-signs – and rookie Gorgui Dieng and there is currently an abundance of players at the two wing positions. Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, Shabazz Muhammad, Alexey Shved and Kevin Martin will all share time on the wing, with Adelman likely going with a hot-hand on a nightly basis. I touched a bit recently on the starting lineups we could see this season and, unsuprisingly, none of them featured Williams. However, in situations where the Wolves potentially play small by inserting Love at center, Williams could man the power forward spot as he is a respectable rebounder.

It’s only fair I expose my bias: I am a fan of the University of Arizona and have been for a long time. I remember being excited about Loren Woods (yes, Loren Woods) joining the team in the early 2000’s. It’s just one of the reasons I loved bringing in and retaining Budinger. Williams is a Wildcat and I want to see him do well.

Lucy Nicholson/Rueters

Lucy Nicholson/Rueters

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Evan Turner, Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley and Williams were all taken with the No. 2 overall selection dating back to 2008 draft. This year it was Victor Oladipo out of the University of Indiana. If I’m building a team and have these players to select from, I would choose Williams with little hesitation. Beasley has obviously had his chances, Oladipo hasn’t played a minute as a pro, and last season as I compared D-Will to Evan Turner the numbers show that Williams has made more out of his time in the league than the former Ohio State Buckeye. I believe that Williams has outperformed the previously mentioned names taken with the same selection, granted that each player’s situation has been different.

Williams has been labeled a bust by some thus far into his short career and has been the constant subject of trade rumors since coming to Minnesota, however in my opinion he has not received a fair opportunity to demonstrate how valuable he can be to this team. Although his roots stem from the southwest, he has not once spoken against playing in Minnesota. He has a positive attitude and doesn’t shy away from interacting with fans, on and away from the camera. In my opinion, Derrick will need a more defined role in order for him to be able to succeed going forward.

This season should be the most crucial one to Williams’ young career. With the depth that currently surrounds him, he will need to earn the trust of his coach and teammates in order to get consistent minutes on a nightly basis. The chances of his name resurfacing in trade rumors around the deadline are a possibility as the Wolves could look to move him for a player with a more defined skill set or even a future draft selection. Regardless of what happens, I believe that Williams will become a mainstay in the league as long as he remains healthy and shows incremental improvement every season. If it isn’t meant to be with the Timberpups, it’s only a part of the business, but as long as he is here he will be important to the development of the Pups as a team.

Timberwolves Summer League Rewind

Shabazz Muhammad at Timberwolves Summer League

“Here’s what we need you to do Shabazz…”
(Photo credit: Chase Stevens / Las Vegas Review Journal)

While the Summer League rolls on tonight and tomorrow, the Timberwolves’ participation in the tournament ended this past Friday.  After falling to the D-League Select team for the second time on Thursday, the Wolves were bounced out of the tournament, wrapping up with a consolation game on Friday – their fifth game in as many nights.

The Pups finished the tournament with a 3-3 record.  Their wins came against the Heat, Kings, and Blazers, while they lost to the D-League team twice and lost at the buzzer to the Suns.  What did we learn from the Timberwolves Summer League session?  I think there are a few takeaways from the week.

  1. Shabazz Muhammad is going to work his tail off to get meaningful minutes.
  2. As Flip alluded to during one of the broadcasts, Gorgui Dieng is ready to play in the NBA from a defensive standpoint, but has a good amount of work to do on the other end of the floor.
  3. Beyond Muhammad and Dieng, there is likely only to be one open roster spot and a few guys from this team made a decent case for that spot.

[Read more...]

Probable Timberwolves Lineups for 2013-14

What are some Wolves lineups we’ll see on the floor this season?  Assuming Nikola Pekovic’s contract is finalized according to plan and players remain healthy, I’ve broken down possible combinations for who would be in the starting five, and have included the positives and negatives for each.

Who will join these two in the Timberwolves starting five?

Who will join these two in the Timberwolves starting five?

I call this the “Five with Fire”, because what is a lineup without a corny nickname:

  1. Ricky Rubio
  2. Kevin Martin
  3. Chase Budinger
  4. Kevin Love
  5. Nikola Pekovic

In this five, Chase Budinger starts at swingman.  Most of the lineups will contain the Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin backcourt and with Budinger’s cutting and spot-up shooting abilities, fits right in.  His length and speed makes him a tough guard for opponents not used to chasing a faster 3 around the floor.  Look for Chase to cut around screens for catch and shoot opportunities as well as backdoor cuts to the basket such as this one: [Read more...]

Corey Brewer to Sign with Timberwolves, Pekovic Still Working on Deal

Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that the Wolves are close to signing both free agent swingman Corey Brewer and RFA center Nikola Pekovic. Pek’s deal is an extension that is pressumed to be in the four-year, $50 million range and Brewer’s new contract is expected to be around $15 million over three years.

Brewer was drafted by the Wolves in 2007 and played 3+ seasons with the team before being included in the three-team trade that sent him, Carmelo Anthony and pieces to the Knicks while bringing Eddy Curry and Anthony Randolph to Minnesota. Brewer was immediately waived by the Knicks before playing a game and ultimately signed with the Dallas Mavericks in March of the 2011 season. Even though Brewer played in only thirteen games, he became an NBA Champion as the Mavs defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. Following the season, Brewer was traded to the Denver Nuggets where he averaged 10.7PPg in 141 games. The 6-foot-9 SG/SF is a lengthy and pesky perimeter defender who has a knack for releasing quickly for easy transition buckets. [Read more...]

Rumors: Timberwolves Interested in Corey Brewer?

Corey BrewerBeing as it is July 9, the heart of the offseason for sporadic NBA rumors is among us with the latest rumor involving a potential return of a former Timberwolves lottery pick. The former 7th overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft out of Florida is Corey Brewer, the 6-foot-9 SG/SF who Minnesota fans remember best for his smile and big heart.

Brewer failed to live up to the hype after being a top-10 selection for the Wolves but proved to be a serviceable swingman in the NBA after  contributing in a reserve role for the 2010 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks and following the title victory with two productive seasons for the Denver Nuggets. [Read more...]