8' 10"..... 8' 11"..... 9' 0"..... 9' 1"....
7' 1"..... 7' 0.25"..... 7' 1.5"..... 7' 3".....
37"..... 35"..... 34.5"..... 35".....
Four guys with 7' wingspans, with nearly 3' vertical leaps, and only one basketball.
Welcome to your new Minnesota Timberwolves.
[author's note - this is a long post, with some videos. I highly recommend you watch them, as they illustrate what it is, I think, the FO sees in this group and what they hope these guys will play like next year.]
I've been thinking about this team for quite some time now, wondering about it's direction, it's players, and how it all might work...or not work. Assuming Rambis truly is on the way out, these players might just have a chance.
There is going to be an awful lot of conversation over the coming months about whether a team can be successful with 18 PFs and SFs on its roster, and that's all fine for a good laugh now and then, but don't for a second let yourself be fooled into thinking that such a superficial comment in any way describes what this team could be. The following is a polemic attempting to describe what the 'could' could be.
...and trust me, I get it that this team could stay fractured, disjointed, almost good but never putting it together. It's a very possible outcome...
In short, I think we are on the cusp of seeing something completely different and truly unique -- a fully 2011 era NBA team unencumbered by visions of late 90's KG basketball, or 2000's TD Spurs ball, or even Showtime ball. What these guys will become is up to them. What they can become is up to the coach (at least in the short term). How they will do it starts with Ricky Rubio...
Ricky Rubio is a unique player. A tremendous playmaker without scoring, a ball thief and turnover specialist (that last one is not a compliment), a guy who actually does see things on the court before anyone else. "Experts" will debate over the next number of months whether he's good enough to play in the NBA or not, and that's fine. What Ricky is is a very good basketball player. He's very similar to Kevin Love in that regard - another guy who came in with legit questions about his ability to be productive at the NBA level, or Steph Curry, or if you want to jump sports, a guy like Percy Harvin. All of these players simply get the game, even if they don't match up with the 'prototype' description of what a high quality player should look like, or jump like, or shoot like, or whatever. They are all the kind of players that HOF coaches say that they want on their teams because players like that make everything easier for everyone else.
In terms of Ricky playing against NBA caliber players, he's going to be fine.
RUBIO MIX Highlights 2010 Team USA vs. Spain 08-22-2010 (via loconono1)
This video of Rubio's 2010 performance against Team USA illustrates the good and the bad that Ricky will bring to the table. He's going to be fine defensively in the NBA. He's going to spend awhile making passes he probably shouldn't while he adjusts to the length and speed of NBA players. And he's also going to shift and bounce around, setting and resetting defenses until he finds an open seam for a pass to a cutting player.
What is also very clear is that the open space of the NBA is going to help Ricky perform at a high level. He's going to be one of the best transition PGs in the NBA from day 1, and being surrounded by players with 7' wingspans and 3' verticals who play and finish above the rim is only going to reveal the true extent to which a non-scoring PG with ridiculous court vision can impact the game.
One of the primary criticisms/concerns with Rubio is his ability to finish at the rim, or even get to the basket. From what I've seen of him playing against Team USA, Ricky is not going to have a problem finding seams to drive into. The nature of his game is more crafty than athletic - he wiggles and shifts, changes angles of potential attack constantly and quickly. One might argue that his entire offensive game is built around his court vision - his constant testing of defenses to see how they are going to react to this little stutter step, this misdirection...until it's actually not a misdirection at all. He uses all of this to keep the defense moving, to draw help defenders in to open up a shooter or cutter. The more I watch of him the more I realize that quite possibly he will never need to score that much in order to be highly effective because his effectiveness doesn't rely on scoring, or really even the threat of scoring. Ya, he gets some layups and occasional jump shots because teams sag off of him, but it's really kind of bizarre because it almost appears to me that teams get caught in trying to defend him by trying to defend the potential passing lanes. They all know he's going to pass it, and try to take it away, and yet Ricky's court vision is such that he still sees what they don't.
That is Ricky Rubio, the first piece of the puzzle.
The second piece of the puzzle are the four guys who started off this post.
There are some videos of each of the guys I'd like you to watch (the SBNation FanPost editor has crapped out due to the intense awesomeness of this post. Click the links to watch. Also, it's not lost on me that the videos are made by the same person, but they all nicely illustrate my points so congrats to their creator!):
This isn't about whether these guys are going to be stars, or superstars, or even whether or not they're all going to have a 'position'. They don't need one. What they need is an offensive system that allows them to be what they are - a system that opens up seams for cuts to the basket, a system that generates open looks, a system that loves running and transition basketball, and most importantly, a system that is not iso-heavy but constantly in motion. These guys can all finish, can all shoot, and very importantly can all clean up scraps (missed shots). In case you haven't put it together, Ricky's natural way of playing perfectly matches what these guys can all do.
So what about getting enough to shots to satisfy all these guys? We're not going to have three 20 ppg scorers on this team, but we might have 4 guys average 14 ppg or more next year. Running at a fast pace is key to this - we need as many possessions by whatever means necessary. Steals, rebounds, putbacks. Fortunately many of these guys are terrific at generating possessions (well, maybe not terrific, but the raw tools are there to create lots of incidental possessions). For example, Love's rebounding, or Rubio's steals (or AR's and Ridnour's). Putbacks and outlets on transition will go a long ways towards satisfying the need for touches for all these guys.
Last year the Wolves' pace was 96.5, the most possessions per48 of any team in the league. Typically what I expect to hear about running a fast pace is that it doesn't work - it's too inefficient, that it can be a sign of undisciplined basketball. And to an extent, that's true. What is also true is that, in recent NBA history, running at that pace can be incredibly successful. [Sidenote - this isn't about championships, not for me, but simply getting back into the playoffs. You want to debate the subtleties of assembling and coaching a championship team, go join a Heat site.]
What is most interesting is to look at the 10 teams that won 50+ games in a season since 2000 while running at a pace greater than 95, specifically the players who led those teams in WS. See for yourself:
wins, team - top four WS' PERs, (WS of fourth 'best' player)
62W, 04/05 PHO - 26.6, 21.7, 22.0, 15.1 (7.6)
61W, 06/07 PHO - 23.8, 20.8, 23.1, 18.4 (8.2)
61W, 01/02 SAC - 19.3, 15.2, 24.4, 17.0 (7.3)
59W, 02/03 SAC - 19.6, 15.0, 15.6, 20.9 (6.9)
57W, 07/08 LAL - 24.2, 16.9, 13.8, 22.6 (4.8)
55W, 07/08 PHO - 27.6, 21.1, 20.0, 15.7 (5.9)
54W, 05/06 PHO - 23.6, 23.3, 17.3, 12.9 (6.8)
54W, 09/10 PHO - 22.6, 21.6, 16.6, 15.0 (6.4)
50W, 07/08 DEN - 20.9, 17.2, 21.1, 14.7 (5.0)
50W, 10/11 DEN - 20.4, 17.9, 13.6, 18.6 (5.9)
I find this very interesting. You can win with three very dominant players (Phoenix with Nash, Marion, and Amare), you can win with one dominant player with some great (and not so great) role players (Lakers), and you can win with a bunch of pretty good players who all fit nicely together and know how to play together (Denver, Sacramento, later Suns).
For comparison, the Wolves will be relying on three guys who put up PERs of 24.3, 18.5, and 15.5 last year, as well as a couple of unknowns. It's not the talent that is keeping this team back per se, it's how they play together. Having said that, the talent we just picked up last night is going to help immensely in making all this work.
After I read that we drafted Derrick Williams last night (and kept him), I couldn't help but immediately smile because the image of DW playing with Rubio flashed through my mind. From DX:
Williams' versatility shines through in the rest of his game, as he did an excellent job scoring...[in] pick and roll finishes (1.37 PPP), and cuts (1.26).Williams appears to do a great job trusting Arizona's offense and waiting for good opportunities to come to him rather than hunting shots—something that his NBA coach will surely appreciate.
Williams may not shoot the most jumpers of this group—only 25% of his shots come in this form--but he makes more of the jumpers he does take (56%, or 1.6 points per shot) than anyone, and not by a small margin.
DW is thick and muscular, built to absorb contact and strong enough to finish anyways. He's got long arms and a proclivity towards dunking. In many ways he's Blake Griffin-lite (slightly shorter, slightly lighter, slightly less bounce, worse handles but a better shot). DW is not going to shoot 57% from three in the pros, but even a serviceable three point shot is going to keep the floor open for him to work.
Derrick Williams 2010 Highlights University of Arizona Basketball (via ArizonaAthletics)
A quick note - I'm intentionally using highlight videos because this post is a polemic for what should be with this team, about why these guys can work together, and thus I am most interested in illustrating the specific best parts of their games that they already bring to the table.
Derrick Williams is a bull - almost like a Kevin Love mixed with Michael Beasley's athleticism in how he bounces around in the scrum and rises above the rim to finish. In our catalogue of offensive players he fills a clear niche.
More to the point, he helps make all of this work. If you watched the highlight videos of Wes, Beasley, and AR linked above, you might have noticed something: these guys aren't really good iso scorers. They're awesome in transition, that's for sure. But there is one other thing I noticed - so many of these plays start from beyond the three point line. I think one area the Wolves really struggled with last year is that they had no one who could reliably bring the point of attack to within the three point line. The result is that more often than not we had a collection of non-iso (yet very talented) scorers attempting to do their thing with the defense always set in front of them.
This is why Rubio is so important. I've already discussed how he's constantly in motion, shimmy-ing and stuttering and shaking to keep the defense moving. (In fact, he looks most ineffective when he's just standing there waiting for something to happen. He's not a Dwayne Wade type player, or Derrick Rose type, who can just stand there and wait for the defense to get set before blowing by some guys to score. Ricky is the exact opposite - he excels in motion, in the scrum). What I haven't mentioned until now is that Rubio's supposed 'weakness' in finishing drives might actually be extremely beneficial to this team.
Why? Because he can reliably bring the point of attack inside the three point arc, thereby freeing up Beasley, DW, Wes, and AR to operate. Give any of those guys just a little breathing room - and a defense already in motion - 2 or 3 steps from the basket and they are far more efficient and effective. Rubio can find them, they can finish by dunk or by swish. And if they miss? All of them are outstanding at cleaning up slop, including the best of them all: Kevin Love.
I'm not sure what to make of Kevin Love. I definitely want him on this team for a long time, as you don't get rid of 22 year olds who produce 10+ WS with a PER of 24+. But after watching the highlights of DW, Wes, Beas, and AR, check out the highlights of Kevin Love.
Kevin Love 2010-11 Highlights (HD) (via jclillehei12)
Talk about playing under the rim! I don't know how he does it, and it doesn't really matter. What is interesting about him is that there seems to be a zone of chaos around him under the basket, defensively or offensively. Too many times you see bigs get boxed out, almost as if they're just going through the motions of trying to rebound or get a putback. With Love he's constantly pushing people, getting separation or changing angles. It's chaos...and it's effective.
If I didn't know any better I'd say that he plays like what I think a center should play like. He's clearly our best (and perhaps only) low post offensive presence despite his incredible three point shooting. What I do want to highlight, however, is his ability to see things as well. The trade for Brad Miller also ties into this, and that is that the dynamic that I've tried to illustrate for why Wes, Beas, AR, and DW are so highly valued for this team is supported by the play of the big men and ancillary shooters.
After Ridnour, the two best passers from last year were Beasley and Love (as determined by AST%). [BTW - After watching those highlights I was actually impressed by how many times Beasley showed up as the guy who made the pass. If that guy can ever mature into his talent, holy bejeebus could he be insanely good.] In fact, the next best passer was Wes. The point I'm trying to make (not very well as this post is too long and I just want to be done with it) is that if we buy into the FO's love for these players and look at who they brought in, and we factor in the highlights of how all these guys can play, then to me a clear dynamic emerges, and one not so dissimilar to what Rambis wanted: ball movement creating easy looks for athletic finishers and terrific outside shooters.
Rubio - outstanding passer
Ridnour - led the team in AST% (28.1) last year, quality backup PG
Brad Miller - had an insane AST% of 21.4 last year (5.1 assists per36)
- even as 'token' starter playing 15 mpg, he's an ideal situational passing big man to help get spacing going Love/Beas/Wes - surprisingly effective passers for their roles in the offense
Wes/Beas/DW/AR - terrific transition finishers, and highly effective against unset defenses
Luke - shot .440 from three last year
Love - shot .417 from three last year
Martell - shot .417 from three last year
Tolliver - shot .409 from three last year
Wayne - shot .397 from three last year
Williams - shot .6 bazillion from three last year
Love - great at spacing
Rubio - great at spacing
Miller - great at spacing
Martell - great at spacing
Tolliver - great at spacing
Wes - great at spacing
You see where this is going? You see why Kahn and Ronzone might just think that this roster only needs tweaking and not massive overhaul? I'm not completely delusional to think that this team is 100% going to be successful. What I am saying is that I believe that the pieces are, in fact, here for an imaginative coach to say, 'You know what? This team is idiosyncratic enough - and at a high level - that it just might work! What other team is going to be able to match up with the eclectic talent of this team?' If these guys play together, just doing what they do, they'll be competitive night in, night out.
Defensively, I will note, this team is going to struggle as they figure out how to play together. Darko is almost assuredly going to be asked to become a defensive stalwart. AR, Beasley, and Wes are all very competent shot blockers (I would expect DW to be as well). Shoot, even Pek is pretty good (had a higher block% than AR last year). For a team that will count as its six best players no one older than 24 next year, the defense will be maddening at times. Wes and Rubio on the perimeter are going to have to be pretty solid, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to hire a defensive assistant to coach these guys up in how to play together. However, with the length and athleticism all over the place on this team, the seeds are there for effective defense.
There is little reason to think, in my mind, that this team can't be a 50 win team in 3 years time if they stay together and they have a coach has lets 'em run and do what they do. We don't need three All-Stars to make it happen, just the sum to be greater than the parts. Rubio is the key to allowing everyone else to be that much more efficient, that much more effective. If DW turns out to be All-Awesome, then great. At the least he fills the need Beasley doesn't - an athletic inside banger/finisher. The pieces are there.
Welcome to your new Minnesota Timberwolves.