With a week to go until training camp starts for the Timberwolves and the rest of the NBA, what are the five pressing questions the Wolves face as they prepare to embark on a new season with a lot of new faces?
1. What are President Flip Saunders' and Coach Flip Saunders' main priorities this season? Assuming they are in concert with each other, something that isn't always true of coaches and general managers, will development of young players take precedence or will winning games be the primary focus?
This will obviously have a major impact on playing time decisions, as the Wolves currently have seven players under contract with one or less years of NBA experience. While playing time does not always equal development, in general if a guy is going to be able to have a career, he likely is able to play right away, even if he doesn't play all that well. And that's the question: how many of these young guys can fit into the rotation, and what price is the coach and/or president willing to pay to get them on the floor?
It seems almost certain that Andrew Wiggins will get playing time; the same is true with Gorgui Dieng, who showed promise last season as a rookie and is slated to back up Nikola Pekovic, a player for whom the Wolves would like to limit minutes. Beyond that, it isn't clear how much the rest of the young brigade will play: Will Flip force Zach LaVine onto the floor whether he's ready or not (and if his season at UCLA is any indication, "not" is probably the right answer to that question). Is Anthony Bennett handed the backup power forward role? (It isn't clear that there is another option). Does Shabazz Muhammad get rotation minutes ahead of the more veteran wings on the roster (Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer), despite almost certainly not being better than them?
I joked above about Sanders' dual role in this organization, but to the extent that they are willing to forgo wins this year, having a guy on the sidelines who has no pressure on him to win makes sense. Not to say that they are going that route, and not to say that I think Flip is the right guy, but at least if the president wants to run the young guys out there, the coach will be willing to do so without fearing the consequences to his job.
2. Which leads us to the next question: What tactics will Coach Flip Saunders employ? While he won games both in his first stint in Minnesota, and his subsequent run in Detroit before the Capital Catastrophe (hey, I just made that up), he's always had his critics. His teams have never sustained good free throw rates or a high number of three point attempts, two essential ingredients in modern basketball. Whether he understands the benefits of those outcomes, and whether he has the ability to help generate them even if he does is open to question.
There is no doubt that the Wolves are set up to be a high pace team, but there are problems there as well. Generally if you lack talent, playing fast, and therefore with more possessions per game, is not to your advantage if you actually want to win. Furthermore, while the Wolves have the runners to play fast, it's not clear that they will be able to do the things that will allow them to thrive in transition. While they should generate a fair number of turnovers, they are likely to struggle badly on the defensive boards, which could stymie their transition game.
Saunders has mentioned playing some zone defense, and one gets the sense that he sees himself as a bit of a tactical genius; he's been famous for his massive play book in past years. How much of that actually works is open to question, as is how much he can successfully implement given the youth on his roster.
3. Will Ricky Rubio improve and how will his game change? This is a vital question for the Wolves, especially if they fail to sign Rubio to a contract extension prior to the season. His play this year will inform the kind of contract he winds up getting, from the Wolves or from some other team.
One hallmark of Rubio's game has always been his intelligence. He gets it. He can't always execute, but he almost always knows why he's doing something. His usage rates over his 3 years in the league: 18.7%, 21.2%, 16.4%. It spiked the year Kevin Love was out most of the season, as he was much more aggressive offensively (highest FT rate of his career) and even on the boards. We saw it a bit last season when he took on more scoring responsibility in a few games Love missed.
The Wolves will need that from Rubio this year, but it has to be combined with increased efficiency. Tom Ziller wrote an article this morning for SB Nation comparing Rubio after three years to Rajon Rondo. There are many similarities, but the big difference between the players is that Rondo was a much better finisher at the rim, which helped him maintain at least reasonable efficiency. Whether Rubio is able to improve that part of his game will go a long way toward determining his value to the Wolves.
4. Will the Wolves be able to rebound? This is one of the biggest team-related on the floor questions as we head into the new season. Obviously losing Kevin Love is a huge blow on the boards, especially on the defensive end. His presumed replacement, Thad Young, has never been a strong rebounder for a power forward.
Perhaps just as important is how many minutes Nikola Pekovic is able to play. As we've discussed before, he makes a huge difference in team rebounding. Last season, the Wolves defensive rebounding percentage was over 5 points higher with Pek on the court, their offensive rebounding 2.6 points higher. Unless Gorgui Dieng gets much better at helping the team rebounding, they are likely to struggle very badly on the boards when Pek is out. Of course, Pek has struggled with injuries throughout his career, and the Wolves have discussed plans to limit his minutes in an attempt to keep him healthy. But either way, every minute without Pek on the floor is likely to hurt the rebounding significantly.
5. What should our expectations be for the Wolves? On the one hand, there is clearly something of a rebuilding project going on here. On the other hand, statistical measures suggest a team that should be in the mid-30s for wins this season. The Wolves made it a point to get a quality veteran (Thad Young) in addition to the youngsters in the Love trade. But, as covered, it's still an incredibly young team (would the Wolves win an under-25 tournament? They could fill every position at least, and even have a 6th man (poor Shabazz, can't even crack the starting lineup of the Wolves U25s)).
There is a segment of the fan base that would have preferred NOT acquiring Young, but instead to go full on with the young players and embark on a 76ers-like project. I'm not among them. I always want to try to win as much as is practicable. It appears that Saunders is going to try to do both things this year, and as discussed above, it remains to be seen what takes precedence.
So should we have an expectation for wins that will disappoint us if it isn't met? Should we measure success on individual and team development? What should we look for from the Wolves this year?
For me, 30 wins would be a good result on that front. In addition, the things I think are most important going forward are measurable improvement from Rubio and any legitimate signs that Andrew Wiggins is going to be a star. Because if he isn't, all of a sudden the Love trade is not looking very good, and the Wolves have slipped even further back down the mountain. Beyond that, any positive signs from the other young players on the roster will of course be more than welcome. But so much hinges on Wiggins. He's unlikely to help this year; rookies rarely do. But hopefully there will be enough signs that we can be optimistic about his future.
Bonus Question: Who is going to win the Wolves Dunks After Dark dunk contest in Mankato next Monday night? I'll take Hummel. Who ya got?