One of the most encouraging things about the recent stretch of play -- a bunch of games I hope I never look back on as our new "January" -- is the degree to which I feel that I am observing lessons being learned by a number of parties in the Timberwolves organization. We all know where the team sits: near the bottom of a very talented league, with a number of unproven (or previously failed) components, a bit undersized and/or slow at a few positions, and run by a man with a few notable hiccups in his implementation of a vision that still remains to be seen in full. But I feel that -- I hope that -- I am seeing progress being made; perhaps I am even seeing answers to some of the most pressing questions that I had going into this season. And so I am encouraged. Not overly elated, hopefully not unrealistic, but just encouraged.
Nothing has been more depressing than watching the organization cook with the recipe and expect the food to improve, except perhaps the occasional tendency of some of their guests to pronounce that the food still tastes terrible before they've even lifted their fork. I want to talk changes, (provisionally) answered questions, and questions moving forward.
Before I go on I want to note that, although I have a background in science, I don't crunch and crunch advanced stats like some of the CH faithful and I didn't for this post. I believe these numbers are incredibly insightful when managed well, and I love those in the CH community who have the time and the gusto to contribute in that way. Fire away if the numbers disagree!
1. Michael Beasley looks like an absolute, unqualified steal for the organization. David Kahn, who should be locked up for highway robbery if this play continues, deserves much more praise than he is getting on this, both on the national level and from the CH community. Those among us who might retort that everyone knew Beasley was worth two second-round picks still must account for the fact that our sometimes-bumbling POBO got it done while others didn't. Imagine the incessant drool rolling off ESPN's chin if Presti had added Beasley for two second-rounders and received this sort of prompt return on his investment. For a number of reasons, Beasley is already my favorite Timberwolf. His recovery from depression is admittedly a large part of why I pull so hard for him -- it's maybe the one part of his storyline with which I myself can identify. But it is his on-court presence and production that leaves me most encouraged as of late. He has shown that he is willing and able to carry the squad offensively when he is asked. More than anyone on the squad, he shows a real sense of the moment. I have seen him repeatedly defer to teammates in these last games, especially to Kevin Love, and that respect is tastefully echoed in his media presence. There is, however, no Mike Miller in Beasley's deference: there have been several times in our competitive stretch where I noted out-loud that his decision, whether to take or to pass to another Wolf, was the right one given the raised stakes of heated moments in close battles. The kid plays hard, he seems to give a sh*t on the defensive end, he can play two positions well (even if not equally well), and he seems to be good to teammates and coaches. And, most importantly for us fans, he is an emerging alpha wolf. As we often lament here, teams generally have to luck into these components or lure them with sun and cash. In getting Michael Beasley for a pittance, David Kahn may have beaten the system. And that deserves some credit.
2. Kurt Rambis may just learn to manage rotations yet. Sure, there remain moments where I am left scratching my head and dumbfounded, but this is nothing like last year. I think the shortened rotations have helped massively, both with the competitiveness of the squad generally and the development of our most important individual components. Since Rambis is on the hook for a long while here, it's nice to see. Next to the pleasant surprise that is Michael Beasley, the shortened rotations have been my favorite development as of late (as I already knew Kevin Love was a great rebounder). Speaking of Love...
3. Kevin Love seems to be improving and seems to like playing with Michael Beasley. It may be my eyes deceiving me, but it seems like Love is playing harder for longer stretches, improving his defense a bit (even a handful of impressive blocks as of late, right?), and responding well to the increase in his minutes. I don't know how to measure that, but that's my impression. I have also seen a few hints of respectable post moves starting to emerge, including one on the right block that made its way through double-coverage late in last night's game. He doesn't need to become a go-to force down there, but he does need to develop a few stop-gap measures. His sense of the moment also seems to be developing nicely. So far we know that there are some scenarios where Beasley and Love at the three and four, respectively, will work just fine; we also know that there are some scenarios where sticking them at the four and five, respectively, works even better (and allows Wes to slide in at the three). It is not clear to me which of those two options covers the greatest number of scenarios, although I suspect it's the former. (I know at least one poster will disagree with me here.) But we can take away at least this: Kevin Love and Michael Beasley can fit together in at least two lineups if the opposing match-ups are favorable, that they seem to like each other and have a nice chemistry in the locker room, that they don't weaken the other's strengths but instead recognize that they genuinely need them. I hope we have both pieces here for a long time.
4. I will not hate the Wesley Johnson pick. Even with the two blown FTs last night, this is more than I can say for many, if not most, of the draft picks in our recent memory. I loathed the selection initially, but Wes has contributed serious things to our squad and he seems like a piece that fits in a number of possible puzzles moving forward. I have learned a few things so far this season about Johnson: (a) going into the draft I had underestimated his potential as a defender and his readiness to defend at this level; (b) I had overestimated his handles. I am not sold on Johnson as a permanent fixture at the two, but I don't hate him there, either. He certainly hasn't been out-and-out abused in any of his match-ups, and while he doesn't provide the same what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next factor that Brewer brings on defense, but he also doesn't bring that on the offensive end. And for that I'm grateful. If he is paired with an elite point guard with airtight handles and a nose for the open man, he might just carve out a role splitting minutes between the two and the three. This brings me to my next point...
5. Ricky Rubio might fit better than I had expected (or, how Sebastian Telfair continues to surprise me). The importance of the recent, inspired contributions of league-renowned marksman Sebastian Telfair have convinced me that we shouldn't trade Rubio for the next draft-eligible member of Steve Kerr's family. I still have questions, even doubts -- valid ones, I think -- about whether this is where Rubio would best flourish. But I've been impressed by the degree to which a pass-first point like Telfair can raise the level of this team and its offense. I'm grateful for the downturn in the number of Telfair's mano-a-mano battles with opposing points and for the decreasing predictability of his low-percentage heat checks. (As an open question, I wonder if Beasley's emergence isn't at least partially due to the increased Telfair minutes. With no Luke Ridnour to take shots away from him more defensibly, more weight shifts naturally to his shoulders. I'll be curious to see what happens when he finds himself again paired with a point-guard less offensively hamstrung.) In short, if, even as a poor-shooting, pass-first PG, Rubio can elevate the squad like Telfair on steroids, I'll have to qualify my lament that Rambis' schemes are to Rubio as oil is to water, and I'll potentially have to extend further grace to Kahn for getting high-quality components on the cheap. But that's definitely getting ahead of what I feel like I've learned by watching, so maybe it's time to wrap up with some questions.
Questions for the next month or so:
1. What does Flynn's return mean for the distribution of minutes and scoring? I am eager to see if it leads to renewed rotational chaos and some churning in the pecking order,or, whether Flynn has learned from watching two superior floor generals raise the level of play on the court. I, for one, would love to see Flynn emerge from this experience closer than ever to a real PG. I would also love to see one of our PGs moved for another piece if he shows demonstrable progress as a floor-leader and as a defender in the coming months. More than anything, I hope that whatever gets churned settles very quickly. Relatedly...
2. What happens to Flynn's role, value, progress, and confidence if Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson defend and make shots? Wes is so freaking impossible to deny a perimeter jumper (unless he's the one who has to create it) and Beasley is shooting so well right now, that there is absolutely no reason why Flynn's creation-via-penetration skills aren't loads more valuable this year. With improved perimeter defense flanking him, and more reliable release valves lining the arc, the situation into which Flynn is walking should be a good one for him. In short, he's never had fewer reasons not to become a point guard.
3. Where, exactly, is Michael Beasley's ceiling? I watch, I'm grateful and impressed, I'm convinced there is more to be had. We'll see what happens. Again, I'm really pulling for the kid.
4. What happens when Kevin Love as a big "
Kick Shove Me" sign on his back? Larry Brown is savvy enough to realize that the only way to meet Love is by matching his physicality. I think last night was the first in a long stretch of games where Love gets shoved, held, and generally brutalized by teams under tough coaches. With 31-31 comes league-wide recognition. With league-wide recognition comes a desire to prove something against you. Again, we'll see what happens.
Ok, thanks for reading if you made it this far. Just a few of my random (and more positive) thoughts. I think we're headed upwards, folks. Maybe not at the steepest of angles, but we're headed upwards.