The Dawn of a New Era: Notes from Preseason Game #1

Timberwolves basketball is back. Sort of. The Wolves first basketball game since April ended in a 103-90 loss to Indiana. Since only 14 players can dress for preseason games, Mo Williams and Nikola Pekovic sat out. Kevin Martin and Anthony Bennett were also inactive, due to minor injuries. Consequently, the majority of the Wolves minutes went to the young guys. The result was fans receiving an unobstructed view of what the future has in store.

(Charlie Nye/ Indy Star)

(Charlie Nye/Indy Star)

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Kevin Love to Cavs Appears Done Deal, Wiggins to Join Wolves

Well, there you have it. It appears that the trade buzzed about for weeks will finally go through. According to multiple media outlets, the Timberwolves have reached an agreement with Cleveland that will send All Star forward Kevin Love to the Cavs in exchange for No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round draft pick.

The deal took so long to materialize because Love vocalized hesitation to sign an extension with any team he signed with. Less than a week ago, things were not looking too ideal for the Wolves. On Aug. 1, Bob Finnan wrote the following“[Love] can get far more money if he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2015 and re-signs with the team in which he is traded. That puts considerably more risk in a trade, especially if the Cavaliers are giving up a prospect like [Andrew] Wiggins.” This is the largest reason Love did not end up in Golden State, although earlier rumors implied that a deal came close to being made. The transaction fell through when the Warriors refused to include Klay Thompson as part of the package. No team wants to risk trading 1-2 of its top players to acquire a guy who may walk after one season. 

Cleveland, however, appeared the most likely of teams to convince Love to stay. The team expressed interest in Love earlier in the offseason, but only after LeBron James announced his return to the Cavs did Love express a desire to play there as well. According to Yahoo! Sports, Love will commit to opt out of his contract in 2015 and re-sign with Cleveland next summer for five years and $120 million-plus.

(photo credit: huffington post)

(photo credit: huffington post)

As with any major NBA deal, varying opinions continue to pop up across all social media platforms. In general, though, the consensus of Minnesota seems to be a giant “thumbs up.” It’s always difficult to watch genuine talent leave one’s city for a rival squad. But in this case, Love’s attitude ate away like a cancer to the team. Bridges were burned, and it became painfully clear that the UCLA alum would opt out following this season anyway–so Wolves fans could only hope to see a trade rather than walking away empty-handed.

This is absolutely the best-case scenario.

Love and LeBron certainly hold the cards to make a championship run next season (I’m not convinced they’ll succeed, but that’s a story for another time). Cleveland is taking the instant-gratification route, while this transaction offers Minnesota a very real chance at building a team the right way.

Some fans may be concerned that Wiggins will resent being traded to the Wolves, but that is likely an inaccurate assumption. In an interview earlier this week, Wiggins told ESPN that he wants to play where he’s most desired and appreciated. “I just want to play for a team that wants me. So whichever team wants me, I’ll play for.” Wiggins has clearly known for awhile now that being moved to Minnesota was a very real possibility. AP‘s Jon Krawczynski said he was “told that [Wiggins] had his reps start lining up local endorsement opportunities.” 

While the rookie would admittedly have a better chance at a championship in Cleveland, he would be living in the shadow of much larger names. Joining the Wolves offers Wiggins a very real chance at creating a league name for himself, becoming a standout athlete in a smaller market.  ESPN’s Royce Young tweeted the following Thursday afternoon:

 

The trade should be s done deal, but nothing will be official until Aug. 23, as league rules prohibit players from being traded until 30 days after signing a new contract. Wiggins’ rookie contract was signed July 24.

Countless Minnesota fans are expressing excitement over the deal, and it looks to be a great foundation for the “rebuild” talked about for several seasons. Welcome to Minnesota, Mr. Wiggins.

The End of an Era?

Hello, everyone.

Earlier this summer I didn’t believe the Minnesota Timberwolves would trade Kevin Love before the 2014-2015 season, unless the ‘right deal’ came along. Many things have happened since then, but, to summarize, a “handshake deal” is in place that will send Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who in-return will send Andrew Wiggins, along with Anthony Bennett and potentially some future draft selections to Minnesota.

Although, none of this is truly written in stone.

The trade cannot be consummated until August 23rd, because Wiggins may not be traded within 30 days of signing a rookie contract with the Cavaliers. Henceforth, the 23rd is already being referred to as “Wiggins Day”– mostly just by me, though. From what has been reported one would think an agreement between the two-sides is in place, but, because Cleveland isn’t allowed to trade Wiggins; neither team may not publicly confirm the reports of an alleged, impending trade between them.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t loopholes, though, like the one Wolves Owner Glen Taylor jumped through last week via the Pioneer Press.

“I’m saying it’s most likely because Kevin has made it pretty clear that that’s what he wants to do,” Taylor told Charley Walters of the Pioneer Press. Taylor expects Love will be traded sometime between August 23rd and September 1st, essentially reinforcing the notion that Wiggins will become the newest member of the Timberwolves.

 

Going away from the Love saga, the Timberwolves recently signed Mo Williams, who spent last season with the Portland Trail Blazers and provided an offensive spark by coming off the bench as their sixth man. His deal is for a little under $2 million for one season of work.

It is entirely possible that Williams could also be dealt elsewhere, although, for now, the belief is he will remain in Minnesota. This leaves a copious amount of guards on the roster. Williams, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, J.J. Barea, Alexey Shved, and Kevin Martin occupy six roster spots and over $10-million in salaries this season.

It is speculated that the two mostly likely to be dealt by the Wolves are Martin and Barea. Martin is owed a little more than $7 million over the next few seasons while Barea will earn just above $6 million next year (he is referred to as an “expiring contract”). I don’t see the Wolves buying out Shved’s contract, but, again, there’s certainly nothing that is certain just yet.

What Wolfson’s tweet does not mention is the Wolves reported interest in Sixers’ forward Thaddeus Young, who is coming off a career year albeit playing for one of the NBA’s worst teams last season. Young is 26 years old, and averaged 18 points and six rebounds over 79 appearances with Philadelphia last season. Flip Saunders’ going after a solidified power forward with decent skills playing around, or away from the basket is an indication the Timberwolves are intent on being competitive next season– despite Love’s unwillingness to participate.

Where does this leave the team, realistically, in terms of expectations for next season? I’m not interested in making that prediction. What I believe to be the admirable byproduct of the Wiggins deal is that a dense population amidst the fan base seems to be moving forward as if the trade between the Wolves and Cavs has already happened, and they’re excited about the future.

It’s not that they’re are expecting a run at the NBA Finals, moreover, the thought of rebuilding with the youthful core of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, and Gorgui Dieng bestows enough excitement to hopefully encourage people back into Target Center and cheering on the Wolves. Minnesota ranked 27th in attendance last season.

It’s a bitter ending to an era that failed to reach a realm of playoff contention; Love didn’t really have synchronized competency around him, whether it were crummy teammates or an uninspiring coaching staff. Unfortunately, plenty would rather have reminisced about the Kevin Garnett era than make the effort to go see Love fill up a statsheet at a game the Wolves would ultimately lose anyway. To top everything off, this entire offseason has taken its proverbial toll on those following the trade-chatter. At this point, it would be fair to assume most of us just want this saga to end, because when the Wolves obtain Wiggins there will be no more uncertainty– it will just be another chance to start over again.

 

Timberwolves 0-3 in Summer League After Losing to Chicago

(photo credit: NBA.com)

(photo credit: NBA.com)

The Timberwolves fought hard in attempt to gain a summer league win, but in the end their offense proved no match against Chicago, and Minnesota came up on the short end of the 107-73 final score. Kyrylo Fesenko and Zach LaVine led the Wolves in scoring with 13 and 12 points, respectively. The Bulls boasted an all-around stronger lineup with six of their guys scoring in double digits. No. 11 draft pick Doug McDermott led all scoring with 20 points and six assists.

The contest started out rather evenly, a back-and-forth battle that saw the lead change three times. In the early part of the second quarter, the Wolves delivered a solid performance. Georgetown alum Markel Starks grabbed a three-pointer immediately followed by a Fesenko slam dunk. Minnesota held the lead at 27-24. However, Lance Thomas answered with a long three of his own, and from that point on the Bulls held the upper hand.

Fesenko played well with rookie Zach Lavine, each of them putting up strong numbers this week.  At 7’1″ and 280 lbs, Fesenko could be a huge—pun intended—asset for the Wolves. The Ukrainian has been in the NBA since 2007, but he has struggled to find real success with any team. His longest stint was with Utah, from 2007-2011. He also made appearances with Indiana and Chicago.  It will be interesting to see what relationship the Wolves choose with Fesenko following summer league.

Despite watching Minnesota lose its first three games in Vegas, Timberwolves fans have reason to smile about their team’s No. 13 draft pick. LaVine impressed the crowd at the Target Center scrimmage last week, and he’s continued to draw attention on the road. LaVine averaged 12 points, five rebounds and 2.3 assists over the trio of games. According to Wolves writer Megan Schuster, “LaVine had a few tough baskets in the quarter, taking a leadership role while playing point.”

Both teams scored well from downtown, hitting over 40 percent from behind the three-point line. It was in free throws, though, that Minnesota fell miserably short. Chicago knocked down 13-16 from the charity stripe, while the Wolves made only 12 of 22 attempts. The young lineup also struggled to consistently handle the ball, and 18 turnovers certainly hurt in the end.

Shabazz Muhammad also played well, adding 10 points for Minny. One surprise performance for the Wolves was D.J. Kennedy. Kennedy, who went undrafted in 2011 and has been playing for the Israeli Basketball Super League, tallied nine points and four rebounds in just 18 minutes on the floor.

A few Wolves players never got off the bench—among them third-year guard Alexey Shved.  Shved played well in the first two games this summer, leading the team in scoring. Minnesota fans are anxious to see if his regular season performance improves over last year.

 

Up Next:

 

Minnesota will face Phoenix this afternoon for Game 4. Tipoff is set for 3 p.m. CST.

Glenn Robinson III Shows Strong Potential for Wolves

(photo credit: lockerdome.com)

(photo credit: lockerdome.com)Am

Among the seven rookies slated as part of the Timberwolves’ summer league roster is second-round draft pick Glenn Robinson III. The forward’s physicality was raved about prior to the Draft, and although only in his first week of practice, he looks to make a big impact with the Minnesota squad. Robinson III does have some areas to improve upon technicality-wise, but his athleticism and energy are exactly what head coach Flip Saunders aimed at.

“They add a lot of excitement to our team,” Saunders said of Robinson III and first-round pick Zach Lavine. “They’re going to become fan favorites. They’re our two highest-jumping guys right now — I do know that. We want to take that athleticism and turn them into basketball players … and with our team they’ll have good success.”

Robinson III started all 76 games of his two-year stint with the University of Michigan. During that time, he averaged 12 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. At the end of his sophomore year, Robinson III had totaled 912 career points. The forward is no stranger to pressure, as he  helped U-M to its first outright Big Ten regular-season title in 28 years. 

Now, at just 20 years old, Robinson III is taking in the NBA experience. He posted the following on Twitter Monday:

GRIIITweet

Timberwolves web editor Dane Mizutani gave a recap of the first offseason practice, saying it was far from “a casual offseason workout.”

“I’ve always believed that basketball is a game of reaction,” Saunders said. “We have to simulate pressure and demands of what’s going to happen in a game in a practice. We try to make it as difficult as we can to try and make it as close to a game time setting as possible.”

Practice ended with a scrimmage between the summer league starters and the summer league reserves, and Mizutani reported that the competition level was high. In the end it was the startersRobinson III, Lavine, Alexey Shved, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammedwho took the game.

“It’s a whole different level … and this is definitely the most competitive and amped-up practice [I’ve been a part of] physically and mentally,” Robinson III said. “It’ll take a little adjustment to get to but I thought we all did fine.”

The newbies will have the next two weeks or so to find their groove and become accustomed to Saunders’ coaching style. They will play with and take passes from more seasoned bench players, and now is their chance to prepare before they start practicing with starting point guard Ricky Rubio. Robinson III said he has spent a considerable amount of time viewing tape of Rubio’s technique and highlights, and he is looking forward to playing alongside him when preseason starts up in October.

There’s no guarantee that either Lavine or Robinson III will start, as the Wolves also carry veterans Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer who each have considerable experience running the floor with Rubio. However, it’s clear that Saunders has a long-term plan in mind for this year’s draft picks—and it involves regular-game minutes. 

According to the Star Tribune‘s Jerry Zgoda, Robinson III “believes both he and LaVine can help the Wolves ‘speed the tempo up a little bit’ with the Rubio running the show with the ball in his hands.”

Come October, it will be interesting to see how this new-look squad operates under Saunders’ return.

Kevin Love: Trade-or-Stay Scenario Remains Unclear

The 2014 NBA Draft has come and gone. Many people figured that a transaction involving Kevin Love would be almost certain on Draft Night, and yet the All-Star forward is still very much in Minnesota.

With the summer league games approaching and various other trade rumors floating about the league, what is the latest buzz when it comes to K-Love?

(photo credit: dimemag.com)

(photo credit: dimemag.com)

Golden State out of the Picture?

The Warriors initially looked like a probable trade partner for Minnesota, as the two teams were in discussions about a deal that would involve Kevin Martin and Love in exchange David Lee, Klay Thompson and draft picks from GS. However, the two squads reached a stand still when Golden State decided it was not willing to part with Thompson as part of the deal.

Part of the problem may be this: whatever team acquires Love will take on his contract, which includes runs only through the end of the upcoming season. Should the Warriors—or any other team—grab Love for 2014, they would want some sort of reassurance that the forward will not walk after one season anyway. ESPN said the following:

“Any team that trades for Love […] will need assurances that the 25-year-old is prepared to stay there for the long term. Love’s intent to become an unrestricted free agent in July 2015 is the reason Minnesota has been forced to consider trading him and makes it highly unlikely any potential suitor would offer anything of value to the Wolves without assurances Love wants to sign a new contract with them.”

 

Other Big Names Affecting the Trade Scene

One thing is for sure: Love is not the only big name looking for a new deal and a possible new home. When the news surfaced that LeBron James would exercise his early-termination option, Love found himself no longer the headline on the SportsCenter sidebar. While many feel that James will ultimately end up re-signing with Miami, that doesn’t stop the slew of teams from offering deals and hoping to land the star. Some of the squads—Houston, LA, Chicago—have also been mentioned as prospective teams for Love, and it seems likely that conversation with him will be on hold until it becomes clear where James will end up. 

Carmelo Anthony is also looking to leave his current roster. The forward averaged 27 PPG for New York last season, and he is certainly a hot ticket item as well. Although Love and Anthony play different spots, it seems more probable that a team will make the run for a LeBron/Anthony deal rather than a Love/Anthony deal. In addition, the number of franchises who could afford to add more than one of these names to their roster is incredibly low.

And, just to add one more complication into the mix, it was reported today that Houston is offering a four-year, $88-million deal to Miami Center Chris Bosh.  Bosh’s decision will certainly affect James’ (or vice versa), and I have a feeling that things will start falling into place very quickly when the 2014-2015 Heat roster is established.

One interesting option here would be Love and James playing together. Although it may seem a bit far-fetched, NBA fans can’t dismiss this idea completely. According to Fox Sports, “if James chooses to leave Miami and return to Cleveland, the Cavs still feel they can obtain […] Love in a trade if need be.”

Until James and Co. makes the call, Love will either have to settle for a city not in the hunt for LeBron, or be patient—not something he holds a strong record with.

 

 

 

 

What Sam Mitchell’s Past can Tell Us about His Present as an Assistant Coach with the Wolves

Long-time NBA assistant coach and one-time NBA head coach Sam Mitchell has officially joined Flip Saunders’ staff as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as was confirmed by Mitchell himself.

After spending just four full seasons as the Toronto Raptors head coach, from 2004-2008, before being fired midway through the fifth season of his tenure, it is difficult to get a feel for what Mitchell’s coaching philosophy is or what he might bring to the Wolves’ staff given the small sample size of games he spent at the helm in Toronto.

Of course, the responsibilities that come with being an assistant coach are far different than those of a head coach, but Mitchell will still try to bring his philosophy and ideas to the staff, so it is important to try to understand both the way he thinks about the game he has been a part of for so long in myriad capacities.

Although we don’t know much, here are some questions that we have general answers to from Mitchell’s reign as the Raptors head coach.

What did his offense look like?

The easiest answer here is a jumbled, chaotic mess. In his four, full seasons as an NBA head coach, Mitchell never ironed out a clear-cut offensive game plan, and that was ultimately a big reason why he did not last long. Toronto’s offense trended in an interesting direction over the course of Mitchell’s tenure. That is towards more mid-range jumpers, leaving less shots to be taken at the rim and behind the arc.

With mid-range jumpers generally one of the least efficient shots on the court for a player to take, Mitchell’s team trending that way as his time with the team progressed was at best odd and at worst downright stupid. There is no way to know if Mitchell was telling his team to take more mid-range jumpers, but part of being a coach is, at some point, telling your guys to stop taking bad, low-percentage shots or finding a way to put them in situations to get better, more efficient looks at the basket. Mitchell seemingly did neither, which is a sign of poor coaching.

To get a better feel for which direction Mitchell’s Toronto teams trended offensively, one must notice how the spots on the court where shots were being taken changed from the time he got there up until his termination.

Field Goal Attempts Restricted Area Mid-Range Three
2004-05 23.9 27.6 20.5
2005-06 23.3 28.0 19.8
2006-07 22.8 30.7 17.9
2007-08 22.9 33.9 17.8

In the table above, it’s easy to see that Mitchell’s teams began to settle for more mid-range jumpers as opposed to putting their heads down and getting to the rim or pulling up for more efficient three-pointers. As a result, Mitchell’s teams shot far fewer free throws in his last season as head coach than they did in his first. In the 2004-05 season, the Raptors were 18th in the league in free throw attempts. In the 2007-08 campaign, the Raptors had dropped down considerably to rank 30th, or dead last in the NBA, in free throw attempts.

Free Throws Free Throw Attempts
2004-05 25.6
2005-06 25.5
2006-07 24.2
2007-08 20.2

What did his defense look like?

We know little about what Mitchell’s actual plan on offense was as a head coach, but we know even less about what his defensive scheme entailed. Looking at the numbers below, it’s easy to see that the Raptors’ defense improved under Mitchell’s guidance, which is really impressive given how few players he had on his roster that made their name as defensive stoppers.

Defense Defensive Rating League Rank
2004-05 105.9 24th
2005-06 109.7 29th
2006-07 103.2 12th
2007-08 104.3 14th

Was he a player’s coach or an X’s and O’s guy?

Mitchell was never known to be an X’s and O’s guy. He liked to have his team work out of the horns set on offense, but it didn’t seem to work for the Raptors under Mitchell like it is supposed to given the increasingly poor looks his teams got offensively. Horns is an extremely versatile set, and it’s hard to argue that Mitchell’s teams should not have been able to do a lot more offensively by leaning on that set as much as people say he did. Admittedly, it is difficult to tell just how much his Raptors teams utilized horns given the lack of film from his time as a head coach. Mitchell is also not known as someone that could draw up a jaw-dropping play out of a timeout, which is an assignment that is not uncommon for NBA assistant coaches to draw.

There is no unanimous feeling coming from Mitchell’s former players about him. Several guys, i.e. Vince Carter, Rafer Alston, Charlie Villanueva, and Morris Peterson have all either said something negative about Mitchell or been thought to have had a run in with him at some point while he was in Toronto. However, it also speaks well of Mitchell that he got so much out of players that left a lot to be desired on the court. He was always able to get guys to buy into his “system” for the most part, which was play tough and give great effort. Getting guys to do those two things, not X’s and O’s, won Mitchell his one coach of the year award after his team had a major turnaround from a 27-55 record in 2005-06 to a 47-35 record in 2006-07. He was able to milk the most out of the likes of Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, etc. That’s no small feat, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Maybe that will be Mitchell’s role as a Timberwolves assistant – player mentor, confidant, talent developer, and team morale builder. Those skills, while unmeasurable, are important nevertheless.

How did the front office affect his relative success or failure as a head coach?

From 2004-2006, the first two seasons with Mitchell in charge, the Raptors general manager was Rob Babcock. Interestingly enough, Babcock is now Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Timberwolves. That might give those two some connection, and that could mean something. Maybe not though. After all, Babcock did not do Mitchell any favors roster-wise in Toronto. In 2004, Babcock drafted Rafael Aurajo, who turned out to be a complete bust, with the 8th overall pick in the first round. The very next draft, Babcock took a flyer on another guy, Charlie Villanueva, who turned out to be another colossal disappointment.

The bleeding to Mitchell’s roster didn’t stop there. Early on in the coach’s tenure, Vince Carter was traded for what turned out to be nothing useful in return. Of course, Mitchell might be partially to blame for Carter’s departure. The two were rumored to get into a fight not long after Mitchell arrived north of the border. Additionally, temperamental guard Rafer Alston was signed to a five year deal in 2004, and he and Mitchell reportedly never saw eye to eye.

With all these poor roster moves and decisions made by management, it’s easy to see how Mitchell’s teams stagnated and piddled around the mediocrity line, a state with which the Wolves are far too familiar. Yes, he deserves a fair share of the blame, but at least part of his squad’s offensive woes and mediocre defense should be attributed to the hand he was dealt in his four full seasons. A coach can only get so much out of a limited roster. It will be really interesting to see what, if anything, Mitchell can do for the development of a guy with great talent such as Ricky Rubio. In four years under Mitchell, rare talent Chris Bosh didn’t improve as much as he probably could have under different circumstances. Bosh was already really good when he started with Mitchell, but his best two seasons in Toronto were admittedly his last two, once Mitchell was out of the picture. Maybe under different circumstances, with a better roster surrounding his star, Mitchell could have done more for Bosh’s development. As a former NBA small forward himself, maybe Mitchell is just who the Wolves need to get through to Shabazz Muhammad to help him reach his potential. Certainly, it seems like player development might be one reason Saunders added Mitchell to his staff. Remember, he does have a knack for getting a lot out of very little. He’s proved that.

Overall, Mitchell might bring just enough to the table with his big personality and motivational skills to justify his addition to Minnesota’s coaching staff. He has shown a general lack of expertise when it comes to offensive and defensive schemes, but that is not all his fault. His rosters in Toronto tended to be chock-full of either bad, overrated, or aging players.

After Mitchell’s name swirled around as a potential candidate for the Timberwolves’ head coaching gig before Saunders appointed himself to the position, Saunders will surely be keeping a close eye on him to develop a better feel for his basketball philosophy and what he brings to the table. Maybe this is an audition of sorts for Mitchell where Saunders is trying to see if he is capable of being the head coach down the line. Who knows? Right now, we hardly know anything substantial about Mitchell and what he brings to the table as a coach because we have limited information to go on, so we’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out.