Author: Jerry Zgoda
Rare road victory is welcome for Wolves
Tayshaun Prince didn’t sign with the Timberwolves as a 35-year-old free agent last summer intending to play 30 minutes a night like he once did in his youth, but he did so anyway for the eighth time this season in Wednesday night’s unexpected 108-102 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Wolves’ young stars — namely Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine — provided the offense that ended a five-game losing streak and delivered only the team’s fourth victory in 23 games.
Prince offered the defensive performance that did the same.
Promising his teammates Wednesday morning that he was willing to do whatever was necessary, Prince chased Clippers J.J. Redick — the NBA’s leader in three-point accuracy at 48.6 percent entering the game — down the court and around screens all night at Staples Center.
Until Wednesday, Redick had done more than his part to lift a Clippers team that had gone 15-3 since injured All-Star Blake Griffin last played on Christmas Day. This time, Redick made one of nine shots — including one of four threes attempted — and scored a mere five points.
“He’s playing a lot of minutes, but we asked him, ‘Can those legs chase J.J.?’ because J.J. probably is one of the best moving without the basketball,” Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said, “and he told our guys I’m going to give you everything I got.”
It was the Wolves’ first road victory since they won at Brooklyn on Dec. 20 and their first this season on the second night of back-to-back games, and it sent them home winners from a four-game trip after losing at Utah, Portland and in Los Angeles to the Lakers.
It also came one night after retiring superstar Kobe Bryant scored 38 points and the Lakers ended a franchise-record-tying 10-game losing streak by beating the Wolves 119-115.
“No one gave us a chance to beat that team the way they’ve been playing,” Mitchell said of the Clippers.
Wiggins followed Tuesday’s 30-point performance in a shooting guard duel with Bryant by scoring 31 on Wednesday, the second time this season he has reached 30 points in back-to-back games. He scored 21 of those 31 in the first half. Towns missed his first six shots from the floor and then made his next six on his way to his 27th double-double — 17 points, 12 rebounds — this season.
LaVine scored 12 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers trailed by eight points with 4 ½ minutes left, twice tied the score in the final 2:20 and then became the team that made the deciding mistakes in the final seconds.
Chris Paul’s untimely technical foul for protesting an official’s call enabled the Wolves to build a four-point lead with 20.6 seconds left, and two seconds later, Redick lost the ball out of bounds after Prince harassed him, as he had done almost all game.
“He’s a specialist,” Wiggins said of Prince. “That’s what he does.”
And this time, Prince had done what he assured his teammates he would do.
“He did a hell of a job,” point guard Ricky Rubio said after the game. “This morning he stepped up and said he was taking that matchup. That was the key of the game.”
Towns, LaVine chosen
The NBA on Thursday shook up its All-Star Saturday skills challenge by naming big men Towns, Anthony Davis of New Orleans, DeMarcus Cousins of Sacramento and Draymond Green of Golden State to compete alongside four guards: Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, Portland’s C.J. McCollum, Houston’s Patrick Beverley and the Lakers’ Jordan Clarkson.
The league also announced LaVine will defend his slam-dunk title against Denver’s Will Barton, Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Orlando’s Aaron Gordon that same night, Feb. 13 in Toronto.
Wolves Press Clippings
Outlet: Star Tribune
Author: Michael Rand
Is Kevin Garnett the MVP of this year's Timberwolves?
Crazy headline, right? You might as well just say, “No,” problem solved, and move on from this clickbait nonsense, right?
But wait. Hold on a little longer. Because it’s not as crazy as it sounds to ask if Kevin Garnett is the MVP of this year’s Timberwolves.
Maybe it seems weird, particularly after a night in which leading scorer Andrew Wiggins piled up 31 points, Karl-Anthony Towns put up his typical 17 points and 12 rebounds and even Ricky Rubio stuffed the stat sheet with at least five of each of these: points, rebounds, assists and steals. All of that came during an impressive 108-102 win over the Clippers in which Garnett didn’t play.
But let’s look inside a few interesting numbers before we all decide that I’m crazy:
1) Last night’s game was the first game this season the Timberwolves won in which Garnett — slowed lately by a knee problem — didn’t play. Going in, they were 14-24 with KG and 0-12 without him. Now they’re 1-12 without him. Some of that is arguably circumstantial because a lot of games he missed early in the year were the second nights of back-to-backs, which are harder to win anyway. But it’s still a dramatic win/loss difference.
2) Lest you think it’s coincidence that the Wolves have won at a much higher rate when Garnett plays … well, it’s not. He’s been one of their most effective players when on the court.
For all the talk of the Wolves’ trio of under-21 players producing big numbers (Wiggins, Towns and Zach LaVine), astute NBA/Wolves observer Britt Robson tweeted an interesting stat on Wednesday: if you look at the 20 most frequent combinations of three Wolves players who have been on the court at the same time, the Wiggins/Towns/LaVine combination has the worst net points per 100 possessions (Wolves points minus opponent points) of all 20. When those three are on the court together, the Wolves are getting outscored by an average of 10.3 points per 100 possessions.
Garnett, meanwhile, is in EACH OF THE TOP SIX GROUPS — including the group of Garnett, Towns and Wiggins, which is outscoring opponents by 5.0 points per 100 possessions. The most efficient three-player group: Garnett, Ricky Rubio and Tayshaun Prince, at plus-9.3.
What about five-man groups? After all, that is the requisite number of players on the court at once. Well, the group of Garnett, Prince, Rubio, Wiggins and Towns — often the starting five when Garnett is healthy — is easily the best of any group of five that has played together for more than 100 minutes this season with the Wolves. That five is scoring 9.1 points more than its opponents per 100 possessions.
Interestingly, if you substitute Gorgui Dieng for Garnett and keep the other four players, the Wolves drop to a stunning minus-7.5 points per 100 possessions — a swing of 16.6 points per 100 just by swapping Dieng for KG. And it’s not like Dieng has been terrible, at least to the naked eye.
3) Garnett’s Player Efficiency Rating is not good (12.6), but much of that stat is a product of offense. Defense is where his profound impact is being felt.
When Garnett is on the court, the Wolves have an offensive rating of 104.9, meaning they produce that many points per 100 possessions. It’s nearly identical when he’s not on the court (104.8). But when he’s on the court, Wolves’ opponents have an offensive rating of just 99.4. When he’s off the court Wolves opponents have an offensive rating of 111.2. So the Wolves gain about 5.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and lose about 6.5 points per 100 when he’s off the court, with virtually the entire difference being defense. It works out to a net of +12 points per 100 possessions when Garnett is on the court vs. off the court.
Now again, some of this is circumstantial. He’s playing the vast majority of his minutes with the Wolves’ other top players since many of his minutes come at the starts of games. If he had to play more minutes with second-unit players, would his individual net rating numbers go down? Most likely, yes.
But it’s also undeniable that Garnett adds a strong element, much of it intangible (playing good team defense, setting good screens, communicating), to that starting five. Remember, when you swap Dieng for KG, the Wolves suffer dramatically.
Garnett plays 14.6 minutes per game. When he’s back healthy, I’d love to see the distribution of those minutes go something like this: 6 at the start of the game; 5 at the start of the second half; and the final 4 minutes. And I’d love it if almost all of them were with Towns, Wiggins, Rubio and Prince.
Towns is already the Wolves best all-around player. Wiggins is their best scorer. LaVine is their most dynamic player. Rubio might be their most important player.
But their most valuable player? Even though he plays only 15 minutes a game, it might be the nearly 40-year-old guy who’s twice as old as the kids getting all the attention.
Wolves Press Clippings
Author: Official Release
LaVine to defend title in Verizon Slam Dunk
The Minnesota Timberwolves' Zach LaVine will defend his title in 2016 Verizon Slam Dunk at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 13. LaVine, who won the NBA's signature above-the-rim showcase in spectacular fashion as a 19-year-old rookie last year, is joined by three first-time competitors: Will Barton of the Denver Nuggets, 2016 NBA All-Star Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons and Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic.
Verizon Slam Dunk is part of State Farm All-Star Saturday Night, which will be exclusively televised by TNT in the U.S. at 7:30 p.m. ET. This marks Turner Sports' 31st year of NBA All-Star coverage. Sportsnet and TSN will simulcast Verizon Slam Dunk in Canada.
LaVine is seeking to join Michael Jordan (1987-88), Jason Richardson (2002-03) and Nate Robinson (2009-10) as the only solo back-to-back winners of Verizon Slam Dunk. LaVine, who was also selected to the U.S. Team for the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday, Feb. 12, is averaging 12.8 points and 3.2 assists in his second NBA season.
Barton is enjoying a breakout year, averaging career highs in points (15.5ppg), rebounds (6.0 rpg) and assists (2.3 apg) in his fourth season. His scoring average is second among players who have come off the bench in more than half their games, behind the New Orleans Pelicans' Ryan Anderson (17.2 ppg). No Nuggets player has ever won Verizon Slam Dunk.
Drummond, who leads the NBA in rebounding (15.0 rpg) and double-doubles (41), earned an All-Star nod for the first time in his four-year career. He is the first Detroit player to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team since Allen Iverson in the 2008-09 season. The last Piston to compete in Verizon Slam Dunk was Jerry Stackhouse in 2000.
Gordon, the fourth pick of NBA Draft 2014 presented by State Farm, is averaging 7.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in his second season and recently became a starter with the Magic. He is looking to join Dwight Howard (2008) as Orlando players to win Verizon Slam Dunk.
Verizon Slam Dunk is a two-round event in which the four participants can perform any dunk they choose without time limits. The players have a maximum of three attempts to complete each dunk in both the first round and the final round. Five judges score every dunk on a scale of 6 to 10, resulting in a high score of 50 and a low score of 30. All four competitors get two dunks in the first round. The two dunkers with the highest combined score for their two dunks advance to the head-to-head final round. The player with the highest combined score for his two dunks in the final round is crowned the champion.
NBA All-Star 2016 in Toronto -- the first NBA All-Star held outside the U.S. -- will bring together some of the most talented and passionate players in the league's history for a global celebration of the game. The 65th NBA All-Star Game, which will take place at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 14 at Air Canada Centre, will reach fans in more than 200 countries in more than 40 languages. TNT will televise the All-Star Game in the U.S. for the 14th consecutive year. Air Canada Centre will also host the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge at 9 p.m. ET on Friday, Feb. 12 and State Farm All-Star Saturday Night. Other events at NBA All-Star 2016 include the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game presented by Mountain Dew and the NBA Development League All-Star Game presented by Kumho Tire.
2016 Verizon Slam Dunk Participants
Will Barton,Denver Nuggets
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Aaron Gordon,Orlando Magic
Zach LaVine,Minnesota Timberwolves
The fact Kevin Garnett publicly expressed support for Sam Mitchell this week could be considered both admirable and not surprising.
A week after Garnett essentially gave Mitchell a no-confidence vote in a story written by Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press, the veteran forward spoke highly of his coach during the Timberwolves’ road trip to Los Angeles.
Krawczynski’s story in late January reported that nearly half the roster of 15 players privately expressed concerns about the job Mitchell has done as the Wolves’ coach this season. Garnett, asked then about the criticism Mitchell has received from fans, elected not to answer by replying “next question.”
As Krawczynski pointed out, Garnett often handles questions he views as negative in that manner but this didn’t help because it presented Garnett with an opportunity to defend Mitchell and he didn’t take it.
That changed Tuesday when Garnett approached a group of reporters after a morning workout.
“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,” Garnett told the Star Tribune. “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.”
Garnett’s loyalty to Mitchell dates to the 1995-96 season when he joined the Wolves as a 19-year-old fresh out of high school and was tutored by a then 32-year-old Mitchell. Garnett is now a 39-year-old nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, in his second stint with the Wolves and seeing limited minutes in his 21st season.
“Just because I haven’t done a lot of interviews and voiced my opinion on a lot of things, I want you guys to understand that not only do I endorse Sam Mitchell, but other players do, too,” Garnett said. “We believe not only in him, but the system and what we’re trying to do here. I think everybody needs to understand that.”
While Mitchell is certain to appreciate this, what’s far more important is what Garnett is telling those in charge at Target Center when the microphones and recorders aren’t around.
The Wolves won their 15th game of the season on Wednesday night, beating the Los Angeles Clippers, and are now one victory from matching their win total from last season. But the Wolves’ 8-8 start to the season, and their subsequent 7-28 slide since, shouldn’t be the only figures on which Mitchell is judged.
Mitchell was put in an extremely difficult position when Wolves’ basketball boss and coach Flip Saunders passed away because of complications from cancer just before the season. That meant Mitchell was charged with trying to carry out Saunders’ vision while attempting to hold things together with a group of grieving players.
But as the Wolves enter the upcoming offseason the most important question will be this: Is Mitchell the best person to carry on what Saunders hoped to build when he returned to the Wolves in May 2013?
Let’s forget for a second that Mitchell has rubbed many people the wrong way with how he has treated them. That’s not the key thing.
What the Wolves need to be most concerned with is finding the best coach to develop and win with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and what looks like it could be a quality supporting cast for many seasons to come.
Garnett’s words carry additional weight because there appears a good chance he will buy a stake in the franchise once his career is finished. That could be after this season, or after next when his contract will expire.
Owner Glen Taylor reportedly is in the process of selling 30 percent of the team to a group led by Los Angeles private-equity investor Steve Kaplan, with the understanding that Kaplan will be able to purchase controlling interest when Taylor decides to get out.
Taylor, Kaplan and a respected member of the organization, like Garnett, can’t afford any missteps this offseason and can’t remove the interim tag from Mitchell’s title because they think he might be the right guy, or in Garnett’s case, feel a sense of loyalty.
The Wolves haven’t made a postseason appearance in 11 years and that streak will hit 12 this spring. Guys like Towns, Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio have the chance to turn that around, but that’s not going to happen unless the Wolves have the right guy calling the shots on the bench.
Finding that person will require a lot of due diligence. Towns and Wiggins’ presence makes should make this an extremely attractive job for many qualified coaching candidates. Keeping Towns and Wiggins happy will be extremely important because if they get frustrated and decide to walk away you could be talking about a playoff drought of 20-plus seasons.
That means if Garnett wants to say all the right things about Mitchell to the media that’s fine. Just as long as he’s being truthful with the people that matter.
That candidness should, and likely will, result in the Wolves thanking Mitchell for taking over in a very difficult situation and doing his best. It also will result in the Wolves going in a different direction when it comes to their coach in 2016-17.
Wolves Press Clippings
Outlet: 1500 ESPN
Author: Derek James
Several Timberwolves players could make intriguing trade chips
At 15-36, the Minnesota Timberwolves are most likely not buyers at the February 18 trade deadline. Nonetheless, the Timberwolves do have a couple of intriguing pieces that could be on their way elsewhere.
As of now, the Timberwolves sit at $72 million on their payroll, which is a couple million over the salary cap. Because of this, any move the team makes would require that the incoming-outgoing salaries are within 125 percent of each other.
Don’t expect to see a draft pick included in any deal. The Timberwolves owe their pick this season to the Boston Celtics if they finish better than 13th in the league, but that becomes two second rounders each of the next two years if it doesn’t convey. Similarly, the late Flip Saunders traded the team’s 2018 first round pick with lottery protection through 2020, so they can’t do anything with that chip either.
Still, there are still ways the team can address its needs in the frontcourt and backcourt. Let’s take a look at a few players of note.
This may be the most obvious name on the roster to be moved. Martin, 33, has missed 15 games this season after playing just 39 in 2015. On top of missing time, Martin is having by far the worst shooting season of his career, and comes with a $7.3 million player option for 2016-17.
Consequently, his value isn’t very high. The idea of paying Martin that much money with his production down, and the fact that it’s been three years since he’s played 70 games in a season, hasn’t appeared to be enticing to other teams around the league. The good news is that, with all the talent on the roster, the Timberwolves don’t need to get a lot back in return for him. Removing the threat of him exercising his player option and freeing up playing time for their young wings should be enough.
Payne will turn 25 one day after the trade deadline. No matter if he stays or goes, being that age with so far to go in his development is not a great sign. When the Timberwolves brought him in at the 2015 trade deadline, Payne was the Atlanta Hawks’ first round pick that season that couldn’t find time on a contending team.
To acquire him, Saunders talked to Payne’s former college coach and friend Tom Izzo about Payne, and Saunders gave the Hawks a lottery protected first-round pick for him.
Now in his second year, Payne’s minutes have been reduced, and his improvement is negligible from a year ago. Unsurprisingly, the Timberwolves are open to moving him, and according to KSTP and 1500ESPN.com’s Darren Wolfson, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the Los Angeles Clippers are among those interested. Regardless of why these teams are interested, cutting bait on Payne just one year after trading a first round pick for him does not sit well.
More than anything, this is just a name to watch. In December, Yahoo Sports reported that teams were intrigued by Muhammad, but Minnesota was unwilling to move him.
While it seems unlikely Muhammad is moved, he seems to be drawing more interest than Martin, and for good reason. Muhammad has a very team-friendly contract and is among the best bench scorers in the league when he’s going well. Of course in December Muhammad was not being used very much, at 17.4 minutes per game, so it makes sense teams were calling. Since then, Muhammad has played a much larger role, with 26.4 minutes per game in January.
Realistically, Pekovic isn’t going anywhere. After years of declining durability, Pekovic had foot surgery this summer and missed the first 35 games of the season. Since returning, Pekovic has yet to play more than 20 minutes and struggled in his 12 games played this season. Pekovic’s 38-percent mark from the field is easily the worst of his career, and his 1.8 rebounds per game are lower than the last time he played 13 minutes per game (his rookie year).
While you have to feel for the guy, Pekovic is now 30 and it seems unlikely he’ll ever return to pre-injury form. Pekovic is still owed $23.7 million for the next two years, which makes him even less desirable on the trade market.
Honestly, it really doesn’t matter. The Timberwolves could buy him out, but Glen Taylor has never been fond of paying players much money not to play for him, and it’s also not necessary. While there are potential insurance ways out of the contract, with the salary cap projected to rise to $90 million next season, the Timberwolves project to have some $20 million dollars in cap space. In the last year of his deal, the cap is projected to jump towards $100 million.
Since the Timberwolves don’t figure to be players in free agency, and extensions for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins not being due until the 2020’s, Pekovic’s deal is hardly a huge burden.
On a team bereft of shooting like the Timberwolves, it’s odd that Rudez doesn’t see more time. Yes, he’s 29 years old, but could enhance the team’s dismal spacing despite not bringing much else to the floor. Regardless, Rudez is shooting more than 40 percent on 3-pointers and is even making more than 70 percent of his 2-pointers. It’s evident that he has a veritable NBA skill that isn’t being used here and could likely be had by someone else for cheap.
Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller
This season isn’t exactly what Prince and Miller were brought in for. Yes, they’re still playing the role of mentors, but initially they were acquired to work with their former coach, Flip Saunders.
Both have played the role admirably on and off the court, but it’s hard to see either having much value elsewhere. Prince can still help a team defensively, but brings little on offense. Miller has still proven to be a serviceable point guard in his limited action, too. Yet, the things they offer may not be enough to bring back very much, if anything at all, in a trade.
With both players on one-year deals, these are contracts that would seem more likely to be bought out rather than traded if either player wanted another shot at a championship on another team.
Wolves Press Clippings
Author: Todd Barin
Rudez Making Most Of Every Opportunity
In his first year with the Timberwolves, Damjan Rudez is making the most of his time on the court.
When he is given the chance to play, the second-year player from Croatia has been able to impact games in a positive manner.
Rudez has only seen the court for 12 or more minutes in five games this season. One reason that 6’10" small forward hasn’t had a lot of playing time this season is due to the veteran presence on the team. Rudez has been able to exhibit his skillset, however, when KevinGarnett, Nikola Pekovic or Nemanja Bjelica need rest.
The Timberwolves are 3-2 in the five games Rudez has played substantial minutes and he has recorded a positive plus/minus rating four out of those five games.
“Our team chemistry and camaraderie have been there all year, but people don’t understand it takes character when you’re building a team and you have young guys out there playing,” Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell said after Monday night’s victory against the Clippers. “Our young guys are going to make some mistakes and lose some games that veteran teams might win, but our veteran guys and our coaching staff believe in our young guys.”
Although Rudez is 29-years-old, he is still young when it comes to NBA experience. In his first year, Rudez played 68 games for the Indiana Pacers last season and did a nice job of shooting efficiently and taking care of the basketball.
Yes, Rudez is only averaging 2.9 points per game, but he is shooting the ball better than last season at 48.7 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from 3-point range.
In his last two games, Rudez has taken Bjelica's role in the rotation and averaged seven points while playing more than 14 minutes in each contest. In Wednesday's win over the Clippers, Rudez finished 2-for-2 from the 3-point line.
Taking into account all of the young players that need to see court time in order to improve their development, Rudez is growing into a nice role player for the Wolves and someone who has proven to be able to hit the open shot.
Wolves Press Clippings
Author: Kyle Ratke
A Great 48 Hours For Andrew Wiggins
After going through somewhat of a slump (20 combined points in two games), Andrew Wiggins busted out of it in Los Angeles on Tuesday and Wednesday night, respectively. On night one, Wiggins went toe-to-toe with future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, finishing with 30 points, five rebounds, two blocks, one assist and one steal. He shot 13-for-20 from the field. And something that should excited Wolves fans moving forward, is that Bryant seemed to give the young Wiggins his endorsement after the 20-year-old pulled off a move we’ve seen a time or two before. Bryant finished with 38 points to lead the Lakers to a four-point win. But Bryant came away impressed on what he continues to see develop in the former Kansas star.
“I was very impressed with his turnaround in the post. His first year he came in the league, he was off balance with it, exposing the ball too much,” Bryant said. “Now that one, it was textbook. Textbook. Hid the ball well, elevated well, faded well. I was impressed.” The Wolves played again the very next night against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team who advanced to the Western Conference Finals last season. For sure loss, right?
Not so fast. On less than a day of rest, Wiggins came back and did it again. He took over the game, finishing with 31 points, four rebounds, three assists and two blocks while shooting an efficient 12-for-21 from the field, 3-for-5 from the 3-point line and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line. “I am very confident in my game, whether I’m shooting, driving or creating for my teammates,” Wiggins said. “I am feeling really comfortable on the court right now.”
You don’t say… “He had it every way he wanted early,” Clippers sharpshooter Jamal Crawford said. “He was hitting the three-ball, he got to the free-throw line and he was getting layups and midranges. Obviously he had our attention before the game and was still able to get 21 before the half.”
Wiggins has taken leaps in his second season and these last two games are the proof in the performance. His 20.8 points per game is nearly a four-point increase from last season. He’s also shooting 44.8 percent from the field, up a full percentage point from last season. What’s probably most impressive out of Wiggins, though, is how he’s scoring. He isn’t being force-fed like he was last season. He’s running and creating his own shots within the offense. Although his assists numbers don't suggest it, he's also moving the ball much better.
In 50 games this season, Wiggins has scored more than 20 points in 21 games and more than 30 in seven. His points per game average ranks 17th in the league ahead of guys like John Wall, Brook Lopez and Kemba Walker. The scary thing for opponents is that Wiggins is going to continue to get better. He’ll continue to have his ups-and-downs because he’s 20 and that’s what happens. But when he plays like he did on Tuesday and Wednesday night, it certainly excites you for what the future holds for him.
Wolves Press Clippings
Author: Britt Robson
A pillar among pups: Andrew Wiggins is the most important player on the Timberwolves right now
Who is the most important player on the Minnesota Timberwolves?
If you are measuring that question on the basis of positive impact out on the court, the answer would be either power forward Kevin Garnett or point guard Ricky Rubio. The Wolves outscore their opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when KG is exhibiting his mastery of the pick-and-roll play at both ends of the court. (Even if he can no longer finish as the roll man on offense, those picks remain devastating in freeing up shooters. And his current defensive prowess remains phenomenal.)
But KG only plays 23 percent of the team’s minutes — less than one full quarter per game — in the sunset of his career. Rubio is the only Timberwolf who plays a majority of the team’s minutes who still produces a positive net point rating when he’s out on the court.
If you are measuring importance by future value and potential upside, it is hard to argue against center Karl-Anthony Towns. In terms of the polished abundance of comprehensive skills, KAT is the most complete rookie big man to enter the NBA since Tim Duncan in 1997 — and Duncan spent four years in college at Wake Forest (versus Towns’ one year at Kentucky) and has gone on to become one of the ten best players ever to perform in the NBA. While it would be foolhardy to project similar heights for Towns — circumstantial serendipity is an enormous X factor — he would probably be the top player chosen today if the goal was winning a championship in 2023.
But if you are measuring importance by the burden endured — the foundational pillar that supports your structure — the most important player on the Timberwolves is Andrew Wiggins.
Start with the raw numbers. Wiggins has played 1,761 minutes thus far in the 2015-16 season, eighth-most in the NBA and 240 minutes ahead of anyone else on the team through the first 51 games. He has attempted 177 more field goals and 177 more free throws than any of his teammates.
Since he entered the NBA at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, only one player, James Harden of Houston, has logged more playing time than Wiggins. That’s a heavy load for someone who is listed at less than 200 pounds and has yet to celebrate his 21st birthday (which will come on February 23).
Tax and spend
Earlier this season, Coach Sam Mitchell justified frequently limiting the playing time for Towns by noting that Towns is only 20 years old and that he wanted to ensure that the wunderkind would still be producing into his mid-30s. Obviously, this reasoning doesn’t square with the coach’s heavy reliance on Wiggins.
In his defense, Mitchell also had a couple of caveats: First, that the Wolves had a suitable replacement for Towns in Gorgui Dieng; and second, that the center position, along with point guard, is the most difficult to master in the NBA. Mitchell has also more frequently deployed Wiggins at shooting guard instead of small forward in an attempt to reduce the physical pounding Wiggins receives from opposing forwards.
But the role Wiggins plays in the Wolves offense levies an added tax on the minutes he logs. Dedicated watchers of this team know that the overwhelming majority of the time Wiggins will be the one taking the shot at the start of games and quarters, in plays called out of timeouts, and most especially in crunch time.
Adding to this load is the fact that Wiggins uses grit more than silk to rack up points. He is a subpar jump shooter whose accuracy falls further beneath the NBA average the farther his attempts occur away from the basket.
Consequently, the pith of his offense amounts to kamikaze missions through a maze of opponents standing between him and the hoop. He takes the ninth-most shots in the NBA less than five feet from the basket — and second-most among back court personnel, eclipsed only by Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City.
Further complicating this already daunting state of affairs is the fact that the Wolves rely on Wiggins’ dribble-penetration without him having become a reliable dribbler. It is almost literally like he is operating under the penalty of having one hand tied behind his back.
So how does Wiggins shoot 64.2 percent on shots at the rim, versus the NBA average of 61.7 percent? With astounding athleticism and copious willpower.
His lightning speed helps him break out and score in transition, but in truth that remains an underutilized part of his and the team’s offense. No, his calling cards are quickness and toughness in the paint.
Begin with a spin move that he patented midway through his rookie year and further refined this season; the dervish whirl that makes him suddenly disappear in front of defenders and accounts for his gaudy ranking in the 83rd percentile in terms of points generated per each post-up opportunity.
Continue with a leaping ability that gets him higher, and in the air longer, than even NBA defenders expect. Then there is the footwork — the side “Eurostep” that he has weaponized in lieu of a crossover dribble — and his amazing “second jump,” which enables him to relaunch and grab his own miss for a put-back while opponents are still replanting themselves to go back up.
The numbers bear all this out. In terms of points generated per type of play, Wiggins ranks in the 62nd percentile on attempted put-backs; the 76th percentile as the roll man on the pick-and-roll; the 61st percentile on cuts to the hoop; and the 64th percentile on hand-offs.
By contrast, Wiggins is down in the 30th percentile both on “off-screen” plays and on “spot ups,” both of which generally call for a jumper. And he is in the 54th percentile on isolation plays.
That’s because he has already been isolated and game-planned against by opponents due to scouting reports — and common sense. You take away Wiggins and the Wolves offense is mired in misery. Everyone knows that, relatively speaking, he can’t shoot and he can’t dribble. So you invite the outside shot and attack the drive, or the post-up, or the roll, with gang coverage that sends defenders from different angles to deter the spin and walls up with big men 7-10 feet away from the hoop. And you pound that 199-pound body so he has a little less inclination to keep coming at you.
That’s where the grit is so vital. Rail-thin and still weeks away from “legal age,” Wiggins keeps coming at defenders even as his body is not yet fully mature enough to handle the punishment from their fouls, both whistled and ignored. He currently ranks 8th in the NBA in free throw attempts. Of the seven players ahead of him, two are “hacked” with deliberate, less physical grab fouls because they are such low-percentage free throw shooters. The other five are in their physical prime, between 25 and 27 years old. To find a player of an age and experience even remotely comparable to Wiggins who goes to the line a lot, you have to go down to 20th place among free throws attempted, and locate 22-year old Anthony Davis of New Orleans.
A surprising evolution
It is hard to remember that just 16 months ago, the book on Wiggins coming into the NBA was that his initial value would evince itself primarily as a lockdown defender on the wing. That was the glaring need on the Wolves 2014-15 roster, and the rationale for immediately inserting him into the starting lineup.
Then came the welter of early injuries to veteran mainstays of the team, and the decision to tank the season for a high draft pick while milking minutes and fast-forwarding the development of then-teenagers Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Then-coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders coveted Wiggins because he had the potential to score on his own — a genuine “go-to” guy on the wing, the likes of which the Wolves had never seen in the life of the franchise. (The best history can offer is Wally Szczerbiak and the good year of Latrell Sprewell.)
Wiggins wasn’t physically ready yet for this particular role, and Saunders’ offense, which neglected three-point shooting and thus encouraged opponents to pack the painted area, certainly didn’t help. To only a slightly lesser extent, the same is true this season. In light of initial assumptions about his virtues, it is ironic, although probably not purposeful, that Wiggins has compensated for his unfair workload on offense with lapses of intensity on defense. After Saunders’ tragic illness was disclosed and Mitchell took over he coaching reins, he made a huge deal of going back to the basics on defense, beginning with the proper stance required to best position yourself for coverage. More than anyone on the roster, Wiggins eschews this fundamental lesson, frequently encountering his man without the crouch and spread and squared-up positioning of a classic NBA defender.
Wiggins also is recalcitrant about hustling back on defense every now and then — at least once or twice every handful of games — and it directly costs the Wolves points, not to mention the indirect harm of disrupting the normal schemes as his teammates try to fill the open seam (or not). Coming into the NBA, Wiggins was also dogged by the reputation that he wasn’t “hungry” enough for greatness. Part of this is that pundits frequently draw too strong of a correlation between affect and effect; between the way a player “seems” to approach the challenges ahead and the way he is actually responding when the challenge is at hand.
Most likely for reasons of self-protection in this media-saturated, reality-show culture, Wiggins exudes a sleepy disdain for ersatz competitiveness. Although he has elongated his answers to the media from two or three words to an actual sentence or two, Wiggins still isn’t about to reveal the raw, motivational side that has helped put him in such rarified territory in competitive team sports. Are the lazy stance and occasional lack of hustle back in transition a sign of something more troubling? Watch the pounding he endures, check the minutes he plays, consider the size and age of his frame, and the ill-suited system in which he currently operates, and answer the question for yourself. Meanwhile, the month of February has arrived with back-to-back 30-point games from Wiggins, including the appearance of an accurate three-point shot. It is probably more of a blip than a harbinger in context, but make no mistake; when it comes to important levers on the fortunes of the Wolves, Rubio may be the present and Towns the future. But Andrew Wiggins is a constant, a sturdy pillar already more than holding his own.