2009 Season Preview

Team Name: Minnesota Timberwolves

Last Year's Record: 24-58

Key Losses Additions By Subtraction: Calvin Booth, Bobby Brown, Rodney Carney, Jason Collins, Randy Foye, Mark Madsen, Rashad McCants, Mike Miller, Kevin Ollie, Craig Smith, Sebastian Telfair, Shelden Williams, Kevin McHale.

Honorary Member of the Addition By Subtraction club: Mark Blount.

Key Additions: Wayne Ellington, Jonny Flynn, Ryan Hollins, Sasha Pavlovic, Oleksiy Pecherov, Jared Reiner, Ramon Sessions, Damien Wilkins, Kurt Rambis, Bill Laimbeer, Reggie Theus, Dave Wohl.

 


1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

 

Grab a chair folks, this could take a while.

I think the best way to illustrate just how much has happened here in Wolves Land is to take a look at last year's opening day starting line up:

  1. Randy Foye
  2. Mike Miller
  3. Corey Brewer
  4. Ryan Gomes
  5. Al Jefferson

...add in the key reserves:

  1. Kevin Ollie
  2. Rashad McCants
  3. Rodney Carney
  4. Craig Smith
  5. Kevin Love

...compare them to the line up and reserves from the last game of the 08/09 season (and yes, Kevin McHale thought it would be a good idea to give the paying customers at the Target Center their own special version of a Seniors Night):

  1. Kevin Ollie/Sebastian Telfair/Bobby Brown
  2. Mike Miller/Rodney Carney
  3. Brian Cardinal/Ryan Gomes
  4. Mark Madsen/Kevin Love/Craig Smith
  5. Jason Collins/Shelden Williams

...before finally taking a peak at the rotation in the team's first 2009/10 preseason game against Milwaukee:

  1. Jonny Flynn/Ramon Sessions/Mustafa Shakur
  2. Corey Brewer/Sasha Pavlovic/Wayne Ellington
  3. Ryan Gomes/Damien Wilkins
  4. Kevin Love/Brian Cardinal
  5. Al Jefferson/Ryan Hollins/Jared Reiner

Let's take a quick peak at those starting/closing day lineups with the dearly departed x'd out of existence:

  1. Randy Foye/Kevin Ollie
  2. Mike Miller/Rashad McCants
  3. Corey Brewer/Rodney Carney
  4. Ryan Gomes/Craig Smith
  5. Al Jefferson/Kevin Love
  1. Kevin Ollie/Sebastian Telfair/Bobby Brown
  2. Mike Miller/Rodney Carney
  3. Brian Cardinal/Ryan Gomes
  4. Mark Madsen/Kevin Love/Craig Smith
  5. Jason Collins/Shelden Williams

And no, I do not believe there is another team in the league with only three remaining players from the rotation of their final 08/09 game.  Only the Raptors come close.

What did the Wolves lose?

Net Production by Position

Position
FGA
eFG%
FTA
iFG
Reb
Ast
T/O
Blk
PF
Pts
PER*
PG
-0.5   -.061   -1.5   0%  -1.9   -0.7   -0.2   -0.0   -1.1   -3.8   -7.0  
SG
0.1   -.034   -0.1   4%  0.1   -0.3   -0.2   -0.0   -0.3   -1.1   -2.4  
SF
-3.5   +.001   -2.5   -1%  0.9   0.5   -0.5   0.1   -0.8   -5.5   -4.2  
PF
0.3   -.016   -0.3   8%  -0.2   0.3   -0.6   -0.9   -0.3   -0.5   -2.3  
C
6.1   -.057   2.1   4%  1.8   -0.9   0.2   -1.1   0.8   6.0   +2.4  

 

They gave up a whole lot of nothing at the point, a Randy-Foye-January-fueled-it-was-really-worse-than-the-final-numbers-suggest basket of crap at the off-guard, a bowl of ineptitude at the 3, some holy-crap-there-is-nobody-behind-Love at the 4, and Al Jefferson and Kevin Love at the 5. 

Enter David Kahn.

While I think it is safe to say that most Wolves fans who were paying attention at the time of his hiring (all 1,700 of us) were upset that the team seemed to have bumbled its way through its most important new addition in years (Kahn seemed to be a secondary choice and candidates from the Blazers and Spurs appear to have walked away from the position), The Demolition Man quickly and confidently made a series of moves that have placed the Wolves in a position to win. 

  1. He turned Kevin McHale, Jerry Sichting, and Dean Cooper into Kurt Rambis, Reggie Theus, Bill Laimbeer, and Dave Wohl.
  2. He turned two moderate-sized expiring contracts into Ricky Rubio.
  3. He turned a Sebastian Telfair/Kevin Ollie point guard rotation into a Jonny Flynn/Ramon Sessions one.
  4. He picked up an athletic big who can play the reserve 4/5.
  5. He drafted the 2nd best shooter in the draft late in the 1st round.
  6. He cleared (probably) between $13-15 milion in 2010 cap space.
  7. He picked up another 2010 first round pick. 

Best of all, Kahn has made the Wolves interesting again.  The process has been full of goofy quotes, funny interviews, nearly weekly roster moves, and the entire Ricky Rubio saga, but the bottom line for Kahn and the Wolves is the results:

  1. Their core is good and tremendously young.
  2. They have drafted the 2 best Euros in the past 2 drafts and stashed them overseas.
  3. They have 3 likely 1st round picks in the 2010 draft.
  4. They will have in the neighborhood of $15 million below the cap in 2010 free agency.
  5. Chances are, they now have a functional point guard on their roster.

This thing is clearly still a work in progress (the team needs help on the wing and the Rubio situation still needs to be resolved one way or another) but it is also clearly pointed in the right direction. 

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

Rebounding.  Rebounding.  Rebounding, and more rebounding. Kevin Love is one of the league's top 3 rebounders, Al Jefferson's game is built to be close to the bucket and he collects a net positive on the offensive boards, and Corey Brewer can hold his own at either the 2 or 3.  If there is a player from last year's squad to get a little chippy about his departure, it is Mike Miller.  Despite not shooting the damn ball, Miller was a very solid defensive rebounder and it will take a well above average effort from Pavlovic, Brewer, and Gomes to match Miller's efforts on the glass at the 2/3.  Miller was the team's 3rd best rebounder and he did so from the wing.  That's going to be harder to make up than what I think most people first realize, especially with the crew of Pavlovic, Brewer, Gomes, and Ellington trying to make up the difference.  Ramon Sessions should make up for some of the lost rebounding production vis-a-vis Sebastian Telfair, but Miller's loss probably will have some effect on the glass.  How much is something that remains to be seen. 

In theory, the Wolves should also be a very good free throw shooting team this season.  Last year Ramon Sessions had the 25th best FT/FG rate in the league at 36. Kevin Love was 18th at 39.  Big Al was all the way down at 154 with 19.  By all accounts in college, summer league, and his small sample of preseason games, Jonny Flynn has all the makings of a high-contact guard who will draw a lot of fouls in an up-tempo system.  Last year the Wolves had one fairly legit threat of getting to the line at a high rate: Kevin Love.  This year they have 3 players who should draw a ton of contact with one guy (Jefferson) who will have a modest rate but a high volume due to his number of touches. 

It's pretty hard for me to overstate just how big of a deal improved free throw shooting will be for the Wolves.  Last year the Wolves averaged 2.3 fewer FTAs than their opponents. The year before that they were a league-worst -6.9 in that category (which should give you an idea of the relative merits between Kevin Love and Craig Smith).  For a team with a -4.9 point differential these are points that simply cannot be left on the board. With the addition of Sessions and Flynn, and with the continued development of Love, the Wolves appear to have addressed one of their biggest weaknesses of the past 2-3 years and turned it, hopefully, into a positive.  For those readers who are just casual fans of the game, I cannot stress enough how important the free throw differential is to the bottom line.  I also cannot stress enough just how bad the Wolves have been on this front over the past several years.

The final thing the Wolves are going to be good at is physicality.  This is something that will be pretty hard to define over the course of the year but I have a pretty good feeling that they are going to be scrappy.  One of the most striking things about their play in camp was they way in which guys like Love, Brewer, Sessions, and Ryan Hollins were getting after it.  This has a chance of positively impacting the play on the end of the court they need help with the most.  I'm not saying that they are going to be a defensive dynamo, but this year's squad has the opportunity to run out a rotation of Sessions, Brewer, Pavlovic, Jefferson/Love, and Ryan Hollins, which is a fairly significant defensive upgrade over anything they were able to offer up in the 08/09 campaign.  This especially becomes the case if Brewer develops into the plus-defender we all hope he can morph in to.  Sessions/Brewer/Pavlovic has the potential to turn the epic defensive weakness of Telfair/Foye/Miller into a positive for this club.  It's probably not a lineup you'd run out there for long stretches of time, but it is something that this club did not have at its disposal under McHale. All three of those players held their 08/09 opponents to below their average production.  The same could not be said for Telfair (-0.009% of opponents' average), Foye (whose opponents went 10.8% over their average production against the former Villanova star), and Miller (a mere 5.6% over average production).  If you throw Ryan Hollins into the mix, the Wolves may have something approaching an effective defensive unit that they could trot out on the floor for 4-8 minutes per night.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Defense, wing play, turnovers, and outside shooting.  I don't really know if there is a good way to break this down in much greater detail but the Wolves are still going to have problems on defense; their 2 and 3 will be manned by a rotation of Corey Brewer, Wayne Ellington, Sasha Pavlovic, and Ryan Gomes, and their backcourt will be led by 2 point guards who will be in their first year with the team.  David Kahn has been pretty frontal in his assessment that Gomes and Brewer are both in put up or shut up years.  Pavlovic is on a 1-year contract.  Nothing is promised or owed to any of these players and if they can't figure it out this year, I think it is becoming more and more obvious that when the Wolves do cash in their draft/free agency chips, it will be for a wing player.  At media day and during camp both Gomes and Brewer said enough to make everyone well aware of the fact that they too know the score.  As you can see from the positional chart listed above, the score on the wing isn't exactly in the Wolves' favor to begin with. 

While I mentioned the possibility of a fairly solid perimeter defensive rotation with Sessions, Brewer, and Pavlovic, the fact remains that there is nothing on this team to suggest a significant overall improvement in defensive efficiency.  Until we see some improvement in action, it's hard to believe it in theory.  Ryan Hollins gives them a lengthy shot blocker but he fouls a ton.  Corey Brewer has the potential to be an A+ defender but he is coming back from injury and is close to completely ineffective on the offensive end of the court.  Ramon Sessions is a slightly above average defender at the point but he could end up with a lot of minutes at the 2.  The point here is that even with the defensive positives the Wolves have some issues when it comes to weighing their best overall lineups against their best defensive ones.  I'd be peachy keen with anything close to a neutral OE/DE ratio. 

It can also not be overstated just how bad of an outside shooting club the Wolves are going to be this year.  Wayne Ellington is probably their best shooter, their likely starting two guard (Brewer) has a career .250 three point average, their best point guard has 41 career three point attempts (with a .220 average), and Sasha Pavlovic's numbers from beyond the arc have seen a four-year fluctuation of .365, .405, .298, and .410.  Could Ryan Gomes be the team's best outside shooter?   If that's the case, then the Wolves are in for a long, long year from a perimeter shooting perspective.  It's already proving to be a big problem in their limited preseason action.

4. What are the goals for this team?

a- At least a neutral OE/DE rating.  Last year the Wolves had a -5.3 point gap per 100 possessions. While this was an improvement over the -7.4 point gap per 100 possessions from the year before, it still is a giant pile of suck.  With the addition of a real starting point guard, and the maturation of Kevin Love, here's hoping the Wolves can pick up 2-3 pp/100 poss on the offensive side of the ball and that the return of Brewer and the addition of Sessions and Pavlovic can gain a point or two on the defensive side of things. 

b- An increase in pace and shots within the first 10-15 seconds of the shot clock. If the Wolves' new offensive is going to pay dividends we should see an increased pace with more shots taken in transition.  36% of the Wolves' shots in 2008/09 were in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock and 26% came in the next 5.  If those numbers go up, it means the Wolves are running and getting opportunistic buckets.  Last year the Wolves finished 15th in the league with 91.6 possessions/game.  That number needs to go up.  

c- Free throw neutrality (or more).  As mentioned above, the Wolves should have an increase in free throw attempts this season.  I have been harping on this point for two years now: You can't win games while losing by a mile at the free throw line.  It can't be done.  Between Kevin Love, Ramon Sessions, and Jonny Flynn, the Wolves have three guys who can really draw contact and get to the charity stripe.  

d- Injury free.Will Kevin Love break the Wolves' 2nd year injury curse?  From Shaddy to Foye to Brewer, 2nd year draft Wovles draft picks have all suffered season-ending injuries in their 2nd campaign.  This is one curse that needs to be broken this year. (UPDATE: Of course, as this goes to post, Kevin Love breaks a bone in his left hand and will likely be out 6-8 weeks.)

 

 

5. Did David Kahn screw the pooch on draft night?

Let me begin by giving a simple yes or no: No.  However, the (excellent) addition of Ramon Sessions begs the question of whether or not the Wolves could have walked away from the Draft with Rubio and, say, Demar DeRozan instead of Jonny Flynn.  Sure, it would have been a big bet to wait out for Sessions, and who knows what would have happened with Sessions' negotiations if Rubio stayed in Europe and Flynn wasn't sitting there as a sure replacement, but..well, it's pretty hard to ignore the fact that the Wolves had two big first rounders and a free agent signing over the summer and they were all at the same position.  Yes, it's at a position that has killed the Wolves since the days of Sam Cassell but isn't there a nagging little thought in the back of your head that is whispering "it could have been done better?"  I think Kahn has done a terrific job but it will ultimately depend on which point guard(s) stick around in 2-3 years and how much he can get with the one (or two) that gets sent away.  Will that equation end up being more valuable than the previously mentioned Rubio/DeRozan/Sessions combo?  Who knows?

Projected Finish: 31-51

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