Let's sort out what type of knee-jerk reactions we can take after a single pre-season game below the fold, shall we?
- In the everything-is-going-to-be-a-ok category, Ricky Rubio looks like, at the very least, an average NBA point guard who knows where the ball needs to be/go at all times. The one thing that really impressed me about his game is that he is always doing something. His arms constantly wave on defense, his eyes are always scanning the floor; even in full motion, he seems to be shifting and spurting in several different directions all at once. This is something that I tell my 7 year old girls team: always keep moving. It's a good lesson in life, in a Y league, and in pro basketball.
- In other awesomeness news, the Wolves took 24 3 pointers. Last season the team attempted 24 or more 3s on 10 occasions, going 4-6 in those contests. They also attempted 34 free throws. Last year they had 8 games with 34 or more FTAs. They went 4-4 in those contests. Folks, this isn't complicated: Shots in the lane, free throws, and 3 pointers. These are the shots that win games.
- Our Beloved Puppies still took way too many shots from no-man's land. Mike Beasley was an acceptable 4-10 (right in line with last year's percentage) from 10-23; Luke Ridnour was 2-4; Wes Johnson was 0-5...well, take a look at JJ Barea's shot chart. Take a look at Kevin Love's shot chart. Part of playing winning basketball is getting your players to know their roles. Luke Ridnour and Michael Beasley are the only players on this team who can make the no-man's land shot over 40% and even they shouldn't be jacking up a ton of these shots every game.
The best thing about the first pre-season game was the simple fact that the Wolves' guards were driving the lane for close shot attempts or kicks out to shooters beyond the arc. This team isn't going to make 60% of their 3s for an entire season but they damn better be averaging close to 24 attempts/game (last year they averaged 19.1) while attacking the crap out of the lane with 2 guards who seem to be able to run the living hell out of the pick and roll. For all the talk about an increased commitment to defense, 3 pointers and free throws are going to be the thing that wins games for a team filled with bad defenders, point guards, and power forwards. This roster is still mismatched as all get-out and it still features far too many subpar performers with regular minutes.
The Wolves upgraded their Capable Perimeter Ball Handler Stable by 2 players and they now have a grand total of 3 players who can be trusted with the rock on 3/4 of the court. Before we continue, let's pour a shot for the dearly departed Bassy. I never got that jersey. I never got that signed ball.
How nice was it to see a coaching staff that was willing to put non-traditional lineups on the court and actually play to their strengths instead of cramming them in the Zen Apprentice Biangle Box? Very.
- On a quick side-note, I have seen the Zen Apprentice pop up a number of times on ESPN as their brand spanking new basketball analyst. Apparently Matt Millen is now hiring ESPN talking heads. Amazingly, Rambis is worse at talking than he is at coaching and I can think of no other reason for his hire than Mr. Millen...or a member of the Buss family calling in a favor in exchange for a guy who can deliver a few Kobe tips. Whatever the case, Rambis continues to show bench dwellers everywhere that a silly gimmick and some hustle can go a long way in life...even well past your talents.
- Most importantly, Kevin Love got better over the off-season. Last year he came in from the warmth with an improved 3-point shot. This year he's slimmed down to operate more efficiently in the pick-and-roll, better his defense, and to pop out beyond the arc for all of the kick-outs that will occur as the result of Ricky Rubio (and JJ Barea) getting into the lane. If there was any lingering doubt that this guy was worth a max deal it should be thrown out the window. What else do you want your best player to do? For the past 2 years he has bettered himself in the off-season. For the past 2 years he has focused on improving the parts of his game that need improvement. For the past 2 years he has been the best player on the team (by a rapidly increasing margin). The Wolves aren't going to be able to draft another guy like him for (hopefully) a long time. They're not getting something better back in a trade. Pay the man.
- Derrick Williams has a better chance at playing the 5 than he does the 3. He's enormous. Maybe he can take some off-season tips from #42 (the rebounding Jenny Craig), but it certainly isn't happening this year, especially on the defensive end against NBA 3s.
- Darko Milicic is still the starting center.
- Wes Johnson is still the starting 2 guard.
- Anthony Randolph's mind is still stuck in the head of Anthony Randolph's body.
The first quarter of this season will feature a heavy dose of ticket salesmanship from the Wolves' sales team. I'm happy that they actually have a non-Blueprint/Blueprint 2.0 wigit to hawk, but I have a bad feeling that they will try too hard to make up for lost time.
Fans who went to the free Monday scrimmage were told by the replacement hype man to get their butts up to Section 105 to talk to ticket reps (and then to boogie on over to Section 106 to get some signed Wolves dancer calendars--boobies + basketball; I'd like to think this sort of thing doesn't work, but...). Immediately following the first pre-season win, fans were reminded of all the wonderful ticket opportunities available this year. I have repeatedly said that nothing kills a bad product better than good marketing. On the flip side, nothing sells a good product better than a good product and loyal (and vocal) consumers. If the Wolves ticket/marketing team has anything at all going for them, it is that the only people left on the bandwagon have been waiting for years for good and exciting basketball, and they want, above everything else, to crow about it to their friends, family, acquaintances, random people on the street, etc. "Bring your friend/co-worker to the game" for season ticket holders or some sort of referral program with a series of web-based grassroots marketing tools (i.e. fancy customizable email templates) will go a lot further than telling a group of people who just dropped a ton of money to watch a .500+ team on the 3rd night of a back-to-back-to-back to spend more, more, more. Diehard fans want to talk about this team. A lot. With everybody they know. If you're going to take advantage of anything, take advantage of that.
All in all, the 1st pre-season game was a good example of what we should be looking for with this squad. Kevin Love + 2 average-to-above-average performers (performances on most nights) + good coaching = competitive pro basketball. Ricky Rubio, JJ Barea, and Luke Ridnour should produce 40+ minutes of solid guard play/night. The other big question is whether or not Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams, Anthony Randolph, and Wes Johnson can do the same at the 3/4. Kevin Love is going to give this team 35 mpg of well above average play at a single position. He needs help and he should get it on most nights from the guard trio (at the very least he should get it at 1 of the 2 guard positions for 40+ minutes/game). I have no idea if he'll get it on a consistent basis from the 3/4 grab bag. Everything else shouldn't really matter a whole lot in the long run. Darko could have a good night or two but he's still Darko. Pek is still a foul monster. Anthony Tolliver is a nice bench player. What will really matter is if the Wolves can get 35 (or more) minutes of average-to-above-average production at 2 other places on the floor on a nightly basis outside of Kevin Love. That's it. That's the gig.