Fantasy land. To be a Timberwolves fan is to be comfortable in fantasyland. "Manna", a good smile and a firm handshake, and 'long and athletic' are words and phrases that led us to fantasyland, but they are not the end of the story, and at this point we should no longer care whether they are even the beginning of the story.
We are embarking on a new era of Timberwolves basketball, and whose plan it was (or wasn't) doesn't matter. Who drafted (or was drafted) - or wasn't - doesn't matter. You roll with who you got, not who you could've had or should've had or would've had.
We are the island of misfit toys...and we should embrace that identity whole heartedly for everything it's worth. If we had an official band for this team I think we should nominate the Flaming Lips - weird, talented, doin' their own thing, and oh, creators of some absolutely fantastic music and shows. They've done it all, they've been successful, and they did it by being themselves.
We are not Ken and Barbie in a perfect little house with perfect little outfits living in a world where everything goes together perfectly and every player's skills matches the prototypes. We are the misfits, and we will either succeed or fail, depending on whether we role with it or not.It all begins with Adelman.
Rick Adelman has won a lot of games because he happens to be very good at two things - getting the most out of his players, and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of NBA offensive and defensive schemes. Combine, mix, and repeat and you have a guy who can win with teams centered around Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter to Webber and Divac to Yao and TMac to Lowry and Scola. Traditional roles? Not important if limits a players' ability to contribute. What has always defined Adelman's career, besides winning, is that he gets the most out of his players. And he does it because he lets them be who the are and crafts a scheme to make whichever five are playing as good as can be. He is a basketball chef of the best quality, skilled in combining flavors into delicious dishes, regardless of what those flavors may be.
And so we get to Senor Rubio. Adelman has a long history with PGs, and it is strong one. From Porter to Williams to Bibby to Brooks to Lowry, this dude knows how to maximize his PG's abilities.
"I'm different from some other coaches," Adelman said. "They believe you have to be harder on them and demand certain things. I feel the opposite. I think you have to give them rope and let them find their way a little bit. They're all different and they all have different strengths. I don't think you can say, 'This is how you have to play.' I usually give them a lot of freedom and I see this situation as being the same thing."
There is a point guard renaissance occurring in the NBA right now, and Ricky Rubio is the outlier dot. He is the ugly duckling of a group that includes John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, CP3, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Ty Lawson, Russell Westbrook. With the one notable exception of Rajon Rondo, Rubio is unlike any other player in the NBA, and he doesn't even compare very well with Rondo. He can't shoot and he can't finish. His strength is suspect. His speed is suspect.
To which I say, "who cares?" Abandon, for a moment, your notions about prototypical players and prototypical team constructions and instead grab your mad scientist hat. Believe in the idea that a mismatch goes both ways. Just because Kevin Durant is a great player doesn't mean that there aren't ways to beat him and his team.
For all the ways that Rubio doesn't match up well against other PGs, his particular talents cause an equal mismatch for his opponents. The question is not who scores the most points individually from the PG position, but who wins in the end. Is Rubio more of net positive for his team, or more of a net negative. At every stop in his career Rubio has thus far proven to be not only a net positive, but arguably one of the best never-shows-up-in-the-statsheet difference makers.
At the heart of his game is his vision, his anticipation, and his ability to change speeds. Rubio is neither especially strong or fast. What he is is crafty, and when craftiness is combined with once in a generation court vision, strength and speed don't matter nearly as much. For example, guys like Derrick Rose or Russel Westbrook rely on their physical superiority to overwhelm opponents. Guys simply can't stay with them when they drive to the hoop. Every team is going to struggle with this. Rubio takes a different approach - he changes speeds to keep guys off balance. He works the court like a moving chess board, setting up angles and teammates for easy open looks while keeping the defense a fraction of a second behind.
Obviously being a playmaker and creating opportunities for his teammates is one of Rubio’s biggest strengths and it really stands out in the pick and roll. Of all the ball screens used by Rubio, he makes the pass to his teammate 57.5% of the time, resulting in a PPP of 1.090 (which lands him in the top 40% of all international players) on 45.3% shooting.
Rubio also does a good job of hitting cutters off of the ball as he comes off screens. Rubio is always keeping his head up and is always looking for an open teammate, so when a defender loses sight of his man allowing a cut to the rim, Rubio is usually able to find him. In addition, his ball handling ability allows him to explore and probe the defense, waiting for a teammate to come open (which is what happens on during the second clip after a double behind the back crossover).
And he's no slouch defensively:
Rubio isn’t just a ball hawk though, as the numbers show he is a very good on the ball defender as well. Teams have tried to use pick and rolls to get an advantage on Rubio, running him off of ball screens 48.9% of the time, but Rubio has done a good job defending off of screens. Rubio’s opponents coming off of ball screens shoot 36.9% from the field while posting a PPP of just 0.683 (top 31 percentile) while forcing turnovers 25.4% of the time.
Maybe it is the team strategy, but Rubio doesn’t allow himself to get stuck on ball screens. He does a fantastic job of slipping off of them while fighting over the screens, allowing him to stay with the ball handler. In the first clip, that allows him to contest the jumper off of the dribble. In the second clip, this allows Rubio to stay on the ball handlers hip as he attacks the rim, so when he tries to pass it out, Rubio is able to get his hands on the basketball.
In isolation situations, Rubio is an even better defender, holding opponents to a PPP of 0.634 on 29.6% shooting.
He's performed far better as the dominant ball handler and offensive initiator for his team (Joventut vs. Barca). That will be his primary role on the Timberwolves. Rubio will function as an extension of Adelman on the court, initiate the offense, inject some energy and optimism and flair into the game, and most importantly will make everyone around him better. And how do I know this? Because a) his defensive abilities, even if just average, will represent a massive upgrade at the position and will greatly help balance our team defense. No longer will Brewer or Wes have to cover two guys, thereby covering no one.
And b) because Rubio is such a terrible shooter he needs to be surrounded by shooters and finishers. Fortunately he's going to a team that has five returning players who hit .397 or higher from three last year (min. 115 attempts), as well as having at least 4.5 guys (Wes, Williams, Randolph, Pekovic, Webster is half due to back issues) who are athletic, long, and have shown at some point in their careers to be strong and capable finishers (either in isolation or cutting to the basket).
12.3 percent of his offensive possessions were in isolation situations. Of players who had 50 isolation possessions on the season, Williams ranked third in the nation in efficiency, at 1.1299 points per possession...Williams is a 6-8 hybrid forward who could not be contained off the dribble. His ISOs resulted in free throws an amazing 29.9 percent of the time, which is by far the highest rate of any player who appeared in the top 50 in ISO efficiency.
Williams was a better spot-up shooter than any other major-conference forward, at 1.3731 PPP. He stretched defenses, and opened up his ISO game because his shot needed to be respected from anywhere on the floor.
He thrived as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations, too. They accounted for 11 percent of his offense, and he was more efficient than any other major-conference forward, at 1.3768 PPP.
Williams is just as comfortable in the low post, ranking fourth among major-conference forwards in post efficiency, at 1.0645 PPP...In post situations, Williams managed to draw fouls 37.1 percent of the time. In comparison, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, the other first-team All-America forward, drew fouls on 21.0 percent of his post possessions.
Derrick Williams - the Timberwolves top scorer of 2011-12 and beyond. Efficient, adaptable, and the exact type of player to make teams account for Rubio. And while they share a similar physical profile and both posted monster seasons in college, Williams and Beasley are really not that alike. Beasley averages something like 20 FGAs a game (when adjusted for pace and whatnot). Williams only 13. Beasley runs a points per possession of about 1.05; Williams is at 1.25. Beasley loves long two's, Derrick Williams plays an all around game.
Now some of the challenges Beasley has faced apply to Williams as well:
Williams may struggle, at least until Adelman gives him serious minutes against PFs where his shooting range, strength and athleticism will give him an advantage over most opposing players. It is my belief that Williams' efficient and capable scoring combined with Rubio's vision and passing is going to be what ignites our offense.
Even more concerning for the Heat is that Beasley is taking far more shots from the perimeter than in the post. Whereas last season post-up plays accounted for 33% of his shot-attempts, this year that percentage of attempts has fallen to just 15%. This lack of inside touches has taken away some of the things that made him such an efficient college player. The fact that his free throw attempts are down in a huge way (8.5 to 2.9 per game) and his offensive rebounding has fallen off a cliff (from 4.0 to 1.7 per game) are clearly indicative of the on-going changes Beasley is going to need to make to his game to transition to being a more effective NBA power forward as well as Miami’s need to utilize him in a more effective role.
This brings us to Kevin Love.
Dude was All-World last year, and is a PF who's going to end up play center this year, much like how KG was a PF who ended up playing a lot of center. Love is undersized, (used to be) slow, can't jump, suspect defensively (except when he's playing solid defense all the time). One would think that he is the centerpiece of this team, and in some ways he is and in many ways he's not.
Kevin Love will always do what he does, regardless of who he's playing with, regardless of whether or not he's featured, regardless even of coach (as the last two years have proved). If any man is a metaphorical island it is Love. Fortunately for us he is Manhattan to the rest of the teams greater NYC - an island, but an irreplaceable piece of the whole.
If he were 7' tall, Kevin Love would be in many ways the ideal guy to play next to Williams - he rebounds where Williams doesn't. He passes where Williams can't. He can shoot the three to open up Williams' inside game, and likewise Williams is a savvy enough player to damage other teams for doubling Love down low. That he's the same size as Williams is a problem, but not that big of one.
Love is known for his lower body strength and ability to fight for positioning against anybody - makes him good enough to guard most big guys. Pair him with Williams - a guy better suited to chasing around the LMAs and Blake Griffins of the world - and add a dose of actual defensive coaching and scheming, and you have the necessary ingredients for good enough. You still have Darko and Tolliver for specific matchups if needed, and on the whole the benefits of allowing Love and Williams to play off of each offensively outweighs/creates a bigger mismatch for the other team than the defensive limitations (and let's not forget, who's the best offensive rebounder in the NBA?). Add in a side of Wes Johnson or AR for weakside shot blocking and it just might work.
Like I said - embrace the misfits. These guys are all over the map, and yes, having a guy like Biyombo would look amazing on this team. But we don't. Instead we have three guys who all possess certain elite level skills and who, under Adelman, will find that their skills mesh in a very synergistic way. They will struggle against certain kinds of players as every team struggles against those players. The question, at the end of the day, still remains - together, will they create more issues for the other team than the other team creates for them? At the very least I think these three can hold their own with 90% of the league's teams out there (in terms of net +/-). Throw in some nice glue guys (Wes, Tolliver) and backup role players (Luke, Darko, Pek, Webster), and there you have it - positionless basketball that should be fun AND competitive.