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Questions and stories begin to take shape

First of all, let's begin with the obvious: Even though it is early in the season, this team is much, much, much more exciting to watch than what was put out on the floor last season.  The excitement works on many levels.  First, the new up-tempo style means more scoring opportunities that exist outside of the walk-the-ball-up-and-enter-it-into-the-post and NBA-standard pick-and-roll game that we have become so used to seeing.  For better or worse, guys like Corey Brewer, Ramon Sessions, and Jonny Flynn are going to get the ball in situations where they are headed towards the rim at full speed.  As we have already seen with Brewer on numerous occasions, this sort of setting can make even the misses more entertaining than last year's makes. 

Second, the Wolves now have the personnel to trot out reasonable-sized lineups.  While they are not world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination, having two 7-footers on the squad can do wonders on both sides of the ball.  Tonight the Wolves started the White Hole, Oleksiy Pecherov, at the 4 and moved Ryan Gomes over to his more natural position, the 3.  Gomes spent the offseason working on his shot and his dribble drive game and his move away from the paint (to say nothing of the Suns' up-tempo style of play) did wonders for his game, as he ended the contest with 23 points on 10-13 shooting in situations that were more tailored for his style of play. 

Third, the Wolves can run out an athletic lineup.  I cannot tell you how many times last year the team was simply out-athleticized by the other squad.  This year, they can run out Flynn or Sessions at the point, Brewer at the 2, Sasha Pavlovic at the 3, and Hollins in the frontcourt and actually hold their own--if not do some out-athleticizing of their own--in the athleticism department.  It is amazing what a bit of size, length, and athleticism can do for a roster.  Granted, it's not all at the starting spots, and they're still a bit iffy at the 4, but it's a start.  If they could bring in the dynamic wing we've been clamoring for for about 3 years, they'd really be onto something.  Speaking of our campaign to bring in an athletic 3, we've moved from hoping for Josh Smith to Trevor Ariza to Rudy Gay.  Anyone else out there you think we should be keeping an eye on?

Up-tempo, real size, and athleticism: three things that will make for more entertaining viewing no matter how bad the record is.  Here's hoping they can maintain the effort we've seen for three games throughout the long season. 

Getting around to the title of this post, in just three short games we have seen the birth of two of the biggest questions facing the franchise this season.  1: How do you give your best guard Kevin Ollie's minutes? I understand that Jonny Flynn was taken with the 6th pick and that he is viewed as a tremendous asset, but Ramon Sessions is the best guard on this team by a long shot.  How long can Kurt Rambis continue to give Flynn the 30+ mpg while Sessions remains in sub-20 territory?  Last night we saw our first role reversal.  It was aided along by 2 quick fouls from Flynn, but it was a role reversal nonetheless.  If these two guards cannot co-exist, how long will Flynn continue to get the minutes that Sessions deserves and has thus far earned?

Question/story line #2 is the progress of Al Jefferson.  While no one on the team has really grasped the new offense on a level that you can be really excited about (Brewer shows flashes), Jefferson is the one player who you look at and wonder if he's a fit at all.  Forget about the injury.  Big Al has a long injury-free history of showing the world that he is not a very capable low post passer, that the offense has a tendency to grind to a halt when he gets his big mitts on the ball, and that he cannot create a shot on his own.  All three of these things are already known knowns.  It's pretty obvious that Big Al is not running at 100% right now, but it is equally obvious that the Wolves have two different styles of play and pace when Al is on and off the court.  How much of this duality is the result of his injury? How long do you stick with a new system when your best player hasn't even begun to show signs of being able to thrive in it?  Right now, I think Big Al should be viewed through the injury glasses.  He's still the best active player on this team and I am in no way suggesting that the team give up on him.  What I am suggesting is that it's pretty glaring that his style of play, and his history of play, doesn't exactly look like it's a solid fit for the direction the team is trying to go.  The up-tempo, motion-based offense the Wolves are attempting to install depends on having bigs that can pass and run action off the weak side post.  It depends on having a big who can take the hand-off or pass at the key, turn, survey the action and make the appropriate pass or shot.  It's not something where a guard walks the ball up and dumps it into the low block or runs a low pick and roll.  It's not something that will go well when 4 guys are moving and cutting while the big fella has the ball and backs his guy down for a not-so-quick jump hook.  Right now we're grading Big Al on an injury curve but there will come a time where he has to show some greater flexibility or else be viewed as something of a stumbling block rather than a building one. 

As for the game itself, the Wolves played well in the loss.  Let's take a quick look at the Four Factors:

Pace Eff eFG FT/FG OREB% TOr
Minnesota 98.0 114.3 49.0% 17.5 34.8 10.2
Phoenix 122.4 58.5% 29.3 28.6 16.3


Those are some pretty lopsided numbers.  The Wolves did well in the turnover and offensive rebounding department, but they were taken apart at the line (to the tune of a -7 FTA) and with eFG (highlighted by the Suns going 14-26 from 3 compared to the Wolves' 5-11).  It's pretty hard to win the shooting battle when your opponent shoots 54% from 3 with that many attempts.  Even with +6 in turnovers and +4 in OReb, that's a lot to make up for, especially when you're not getting to the line. 

All of that being said, the Wolves played a fairly efficient offensive game.  If they can hit roughly 47% of their two point shots on any given night with a nice pace and a low number of turnovers, I think you'd take that number.  The problem the Wolves are going to continue to have in the shooting department are a) Corey Brewer and a hurt Al Jefferson take a lot of shots (i.e. guys who aren't expected to make a ton of shots are getting a lot of attempts) and b) when Jonny Flynn isn't getting to the line, this team has a massive shortage of guys who can get their own.  This is especially problematic when no one seems to be able to get more than 4 assists/game.  The Wolves actually spread the ball around fairly well last night, ending with a season-high 24 assists, but they are still way behind what you would like to see from a motion-based offense (they are currently 29th in the league with only 16 apg...and yes, I know there have been only 3 games; it's still poor enough for a -6/game mark...which isn't very good anyway you look at it and no matter how small the sample size). 

Going forward, here are some things I think we need to pay attention to:

  1. Flynn's minutes vs. Sessions' minutes.  Who gets the starting share if they are unable to play together? Which lineups and situations are more favorable for each guard?  What are the +/- numbers for their individual lineups?  What are their on/off numbers?
  2. Once Big Al gets back up above 90%, what is the team's OE/DE ratio when he is on the court compared to when he is off?  How well does he move the ball out of the post?  How many times does he miss a cutting Brewer or a wide-open Ellington?  Last night he brought the Wolves' offense to a grinding halt on numerous occasions while missing wide open teammates who were doing exactly what they should have been doing.  That's not a good thing for a team leader to be doing, no matter how much he's getting paid.  Again, we're grading him on an injury curve right now, but sooner or later that curve goes away.
  3. Team assists.  I don't think we're going to see anyone on this squad average 6-8 apg, but we could see several games with a bunch of guys getting 3-5 a night.  Against the Suns, the Wolves had 4 players with 4 assists.  That's acceptable as long as they're getting open looks and the OE is at a respectable level.  If not....well, it could get ugly. 

That about does it for the wrap up.  What caught your eye in the game? 

Until later.