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Will the Timberwolves Actually be Fun?

Flip Saunders might be putting together an entertaining, albeit expensive, Wolves team for the first time in many years.


Here's what I think after yesterday's goings on:

Basketball is entertainment.

Ultimately, what we want from our games is to be excited by them. After the decidedly grim and painful grind of the last few seasons, (to be fair, last season due mostly to injury), Wolves fans can legitimately look forward to an entertaining product on the floor. This team is going to score points. It is going to score points from behind the arc, and in the post. It is going to score points in transition and with beautiful passing. It will score points here and there, it will score points everywhere.

As our own Ratty Ratzinger tweeted last night:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>New Wolves: well oiled machine on offense, non-assembled machine on defense.</p>&mdash; Wrath of Zod (@raftsandmonkeys) <a href="">July 3, 2013</a></blockquote>

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How much can this team win, you ask? I don't know. The summer isn't over and the roster isn't set, but with the addition of a defender or two (and the necessary re-signing of Nikola Pekovic), I think the Wolves will be in the playoff mix. It is not a championship caliber roster, but after the last decade, I'm not expecting that. Baby steps. If and when this team gets to 50 wins and the playoffs, I'll start worrying about next steps. Right now I want quality, entertaining basketball. I will never tire of gallows humor, but I wouldn't mind a break.

The Timberwolves agreed to terms with shooting guard Kevin Martin yesterday. Martin, as we know, is a scorer. He's an offense first player who scores both from distance and at the line. (Aside: The Wolves are going to shoot a ton of free throws this season. They were 6th in the league in FTA's last season despite Kevin Love missing most of the year. A healthy Love and the addition of Martin...they could lead the league).

Kevin Martin is an entertaining player. There are even highlight videos to prove it!

As I wrote yesterday, at one time, Kevin Martin was the Platonic Ideal of a wing scorer. Efficient and voluminous, he made threes and free throws at a prodigious rate. While not quite the same player anymore, he still finished 8th in the league last season in True Shooting % in over 2000 minutes, beating his career TS% which itself is 5th among active players (Behind Tyson Chandler, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Amar'e Stoudemire). So he has things going for him.

Along with corner shooter Chase Budinger, the inside-outside game of Kevin Love, the post and roll behemoth Nikola Pekovic, and orchestrated by the preternatural passing and vision of Ricky Rubio, Martin completes a unit that looks very hard to stop. Unlike last season, double-teams will be punished. Helping on pick and rolls will leave shooters open. This should be a top offense that also rebounds the ball very well at both ends.

On the other hand, perhaps the less said about the defense the better.

Remember: entertainment!

In the meantime, there are two criticisms leveled at this move, and both of them are legitimate:

First, the Wolves would have been better off keeping Andrei Kirilenko at the same salary per year that Martin got, and signing/acquiring a cheaper shooter, say Carlos Delfino.

I think this is true. What is also true is that Andrei Kirilenko himself is a hugely entertaining player who has a very unusual set of skills. At times appearing to be all arms, Kirilenko is a do a bit of everything kind of player who fills the box score. I will miss him; he was consistently the Wolves best performer last year.

The question is: how much of a downgrade is it from Kirilenko to Martin?

Let's start here:

Kevin Martin RAPM:

2011: 1.5 (80 games)
2012: 0 (40 out of 66 games)
2013 1.7 (77 games)

Andrei Kirilenko

2011: 2.7 (64 games)
2012: N/A (Europe)
2013: -2.2 (64 games)

AK's negative RAPM last season is probably informed by an unfair prior because he didn't play in the NBA in 2011-12, but still, there is evidence that he was not a great player.

Their WS/48 were very similar last season, with Martin having a slight edge. On the other hand, while Martin had a fine season as measured by WP/48, Kirilenko was one of the best players in the league by that metric.

Martin is a better shooter and scorer, and turns the ball over less with a higher usage. Kirilenko is better at everything else: a better rebounder, passer and defender. I think it's fair to say that the weight of the evidence shows that AK is a better per minute player. How much better? I don't have the wherewithal to answer that question, but my sense is only a little better. There is not a massive gulf in quality between these players.

So it comes down to durability. Both players have missed significant time due to injury. Martin is two years younger and has played full seasons more recently than Kirilenko, who hasn't played in 70+ games since 2007-2008. On the other hand, Kirilenko has been more consistent year to year in terms of games played. He's gonna miss 20 games and that's that. Martin has missed bigger chunks at times in his career.

I don't know how to parse expectations for injury. However, I do think the relative quality of the two players at this point is close enough so that if Martin plays 12-15 more games then AK, he recoups whatever extra value Kirilenko brings on a per game basis.

As I said yesterday, I would have preferred to keep AK. But I don't think the Wolves lose too much in the exchange.

The second criticism of yesterday's moves is that they are too expensive. The Wolves are putting together an interesting and entertaining roster, but it is far from a championship caliber team, and it's going to exceed $65 million in salary this year.

This is a fair criticism, but it's certainly nothing new. There are two issues that inform this problem:

First, the Wolves are in an unappealing market and are a bad team, and thus they have to pay the small market/crappy team tax when it comes to free agents. They don't get Mike Dunleavy at 2 years, $6M.

Second, and more important, they are required to pay top dollar for their players (and Kirilenko last season is an example of this as well), because they have consistently failed to find quality performers late in the draft and as UDFAs that they could lock up at low prices. This was certainly true in the Kahn era (see the 2011 Rambathon draft night sell-off), and it appears to still be true under Saunders, as evidenced by his draft night performance.

It can't be that they don't understand the value of this. Any mildly engaged fan understands that having good players on rookie/minimum contracts is hugely valuable. Danny Green. Chandler Parsons. The Wolves simply do not unearth these sorts of players. Who was the last post-lottery draft pick other then Pekovic that became a solid, regular member of their rotation? I'm really asking.

At heart, this is the problem with yesterday's moves, and what hamstrings the Wolves roster building. The Rockets get three cheap years from Budinger and pass him on; the Wolves pay Budinger $5 million a year.

That doesn't make signing Budinger and Martin bad moves, it just makes the team more expensive then it needs to be, and that limits their future flexibility.

But you know what?

Basketball is entertainment, and for the first time in a while, I'm pretty confident that I'm going to be entertained this season.

I hope you are too.