Britt Robson's 2009-10 Timberwolves Thumbnail Season Preview

This is the first post at Canis Hoopus by one of the best NBA writers in the nation, and hands down the best in Minnesota. Since we hope it won't be his last, please welcome Britt Robson with open arms and thoughtful comments. Or else!

First of all, my apologies to readers who wondered what happened to my Wolves writing. This summer I was approached by sportsillustrated.com regarding a regular column about the NBA in general. Since my last half-dozen items for Secrets of the City had been done gratis (through no fault of the site’s owners; it is a brutal economy and they carried me through the end of last season), this was a perfectly timed opportunity.

With a bird in the hand I went off looking for a place to post my Wolves stuff on a regular basis. Without boring you with the details, the rotten economy and the current low interest in the Wolves combined to make it extremely difficult to write about this team for even my relatively low wage (and yes, I understand many quality bloggers don’t get paid at all). The alternative is to set up my own site and ask all of you to chip in while soliciting corporate sponsors. But I’m lousy at that kind of thing, and frankly I’m so busy with other sports, music and politics assignments right now that not having the obligation of constantly doing the Wolves beat is a temporary blessing.

That said, I’ve been on this beat since 1991—coach Jimmy Rodgers was making his Wolves debut and the Twins were headed to the World Series when my first City Pages cover story on the team was published—and I want to keep it going in some way shape or form. Where, specifically, I still don’t know. But since I’ve always admired the guys and commenters at Canis, I decided this would be a good place to put up a necessarily quick and dirty Wolves preview. I’ve got a podcast today at si.com and when they asked me who else I wrote for, I impulsively said canishoopus.com. I guess I better get something up!

So, that’s three paragraphs about myself (now four) and nothing thus far about the Wolves. That’s what happens when you hit the big time.

The team you will see tonight is a disrupted work in progress. There are injuries large and small, roster imbalances, stylistic incompatibilities, and the abiding issue that the front office doesn’t even try to hide, which is that winning games is a distant third on the priority list, behind developing talent and securing future pieces (like a choice lottery pick). It is frequently going to be ugly.

In that sense, the preseason was predictably discouraging. The two best backcourt players by a wide margin—Ramon Sessions and Jonny Flynn--are very similar, and apparently too small to play together very often. The two best frontcourt players by a wide margin—Al Jefferson and Kevin Love—are likewise similar and undersized as a tandem, with the added detriment of, respectively, recovering from injury and being injured. A fifth player, Ryan Gomes, is a quality glue guy, a coach’s dream, who would be a valuable complement for any team in the NBA.

With the possible exception of Brian Cardinal, none of the players on the rest of the roster would make the nine-man rotation on a quality contender.

I understand that this noticeably excludes Corey Brewer, who after a woeful start shooting the ball, has had a fine preseason. I admit that a lot of my bias against Brewer is visual—he may be the skinniest NBA player I’ve ever seen, a virtual pencil from his neck to the ankles. It is great to see him begin to play with more confidence—his insecurity vied with his fundamentals as the main saboteur of his offense in previous years—but I don’t think he gets the call on those kamikaze drives to the hoop during the regular season, and I think as the regular rotation guys now hog the minutes, he is going to wear down and become less effective. That said, on this team he probably has an upside of 15-22 minutes as an energy boost and defensive irritant, so long as he cuts waaay back on his shots and exercises better judgment at the offensive end.

I also understand that I am dismissing some players for whom the jury should still be out, particularly seven-footers Ryan Hollins and Oleksiy Pecherov. While Kevin Love’s broken hand was extremely discouraging for Wolves fans—the fourth year in a row the first-round pick has been waylaid; Flynn and Rubio out to bubble wrap themselves throughout the next autumn—it does have the benefit of showcasing these big men for the next 6 weeks or so, and perhaps even allowing the slimmed-down Al Jefferson to play where he belongs. Of the two, Hollins seems to have the far greater upside—he actually wants to play the pivot rather than off-guard-- but even he lacks court vision seems surprised and mentally ambushed by the traffic whizzing and bashing by in the paint. Pecherov is a Euro big man, which is to say he can shoot far better than he can defend and seems more comfortable in general the further he gets from the hoop.

But it isn’t just the inexperienced kids. Interior defense is going to be a horrible flaw for this ballclub all year long. Jefferson has shown very little inclination to improve that part of his game, so let’s get this out in the open right now. Whether it is Wittman, McHale, Kahn, or Rambis, the credibility really suffers when a stir is made about what Big Al "has to do" on the defensive end. No, he doesn’t. He can play half-assed defense and still be tops on the pecking order. And that is a fundamental reason why this team should be docked a notch when you’re looking at preparations and readiness for future improvement. Quality franchises commit to defense.

Then there is the issue of what to do with the triangle offense. It is a complex scheme that takes months to develop for even savvy veterans. The question remains whether the Wolves have the right personnel to implement it this year—outside shooters and deft-passing bigs are two key components to the system. Yeah, Kevin Love in the low block is a good fit in terms of ball movement, but I would imagine that Rambis is more interested in Jefferson as high post facilitator and Love as one of the orbiters cutting and spotting out at the corner baseline. Not only is Jefferson’s skill set much better suited to the two-man game and the clear-out isolations, but the clearcut strength of both Sessions and Flynn is in getting to the basket via penetration. So, it will be interesting to see going forward how much and how thoroughly the principles of the triangle are tried.

One thing I will credit Rambis and Kahn for is living up to their notion of a running game. The Wolves aren’t the Suns nor Warriors by any stretch, nor should be they be (both of those teams will be dreadful this season). But they raced for more than 16 fast break points per game in the preseason, after getting less than 11 last year. Running, even controlled running, is a way to get easy buckets or to draw the foul. Those whistles have thus far been the biggest upgrade in the regime switch from Wittman/McHale to Rambis/Kahn. Minnesota shot a whopping 62 more free throws—nearly 8 more per game—than their opponents this preseason. That, as much as anything, is why they were able to post a 3-5 record despite shooting just 41.9% from their field while allowing their opponents to nail 48.8% of their shots.

So, to recap, Love is hurt, Jefferson is dinged, Flynn may be felled with the flu tonight and a long season awaits. The squad has two quality point guards and no off guard; two quality power forwards and no center. They are thin, talent wise and physically. They have a tremendous amount to learn and many of the people learning it won’t be around in a year or two.

I’ve generally liked the whirlwind of change Kahn has wrought, but that stuff always looks better in the offseason than when the actual games are being played. The honeymoon for the new regime should probably still be in effect, but it will be a very very small gathering for most of the season, as casual fans decide they’ll check in when the wins start mounting, which is no time soon. Meanwhile, while replacing Kevin McHale was indeed the correct move and is endorsed by most of the fan base, die-hard and casual alike, the coterie of McHale loyalists aren’t without ammunition even this early in the year.

They are right to wonder, for example, how viciously McHale would have been roasted for dealing away Ty Lawson, who had a fabulous preseason and may end up being better than both Flynn and Ricky Rubio. Perhaps they watched the Wizards upset the Mavs last night in large part because of the play of Randy Foye off the bench, and the value of no-shoot Mike Miller on a squad that doesn’t have enough touches to go around. Or maybe they saw Bassy and the Rhino provide a non-embarrassing element to the Clippers’ bench depth in the loss to the Lakers.

Would the status quo under McHale won more games than the 20-25 the current configuration will probably register? Most likely, yes. Is the long-term future for this franchise brighter than it was a year ago? Slightly, yes. But only slightly, because throwing away the bad and setting the table for the good are important but relatively the easiest part of the rebuilding process. Getting the right, synergistic personnel—the top star or two, the vital secondary piece or two, and the appropriate glue around that core—that’s the hard part. And the work ahead.

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