Over the past two weeks, Eric and I have been working on our season preview in the form of an email exchange. Our questions are listed in bold. We hope you enjoy reading and find our conversation to be a brief escape from the deeply saddening news of Flip Saunders' death, which sent shock waves both across the state and nationally, as he left a lasting impact on and off the hardwood.
EIM: Obviously when a team has as many young and inexperienced players as the Wolves, there are a ton of questions and stories to follow, and we can hit a bunch of them. The one at the top of the list for me right now is Andrew Wiggins: can he be an impact guy when he isn't being force fed and told to score at any cost?
This isn't a new question, and of course a few preseason games don't mean much if anything, but I was reminded of the issue while following the Thunder game. He was pretty invisible, though of course it's possible the Wolves were concentrating on other things. Still, the team needs Wiggins to be a star in order to move forward, and there remain questions about how that happens.
You've been around the team and at the games: what's the path for Wiggins now? Are you concerned that there is a natural passivity that was only overcome last season by force? How are things going to look for him this season and going forward?
Meyer: I wouldn't be too worried about preseason results for Wiggins. Working Towns into the offense has been priority number one. Letting LaVine get reps at shooting guard has been a primary focus as well, and Wiggins has taken a back seat letting his teammates go to work. I don't imagine that's going to be the case once real games start. Wiggins has been passive, that's true, and whenever he disappears for long stretches it's easy to point to his passive nature as a concern. There's no question the team needs him to be a star to make the jump in the West, as you said.
What's the path for Wiggins? Developing his three-ball is paramount. He already has a nastiness about him when he sets his eyes on the basket (watch his dunks over Rudy Gobert). Last season we saw Flip consistently run post-ups for Wiggins to get him involved in the offense in an attempt to force him to be aggressive. Eventually we saw a much more aggressive player. Wiggins averaged 10.4 free throw attempts per game over eight games last April. He was attacking the basket all the time. Referees started giving him star treatment. Calls after calls after calls. He scored 23.3 ppg in April. The Wolves might have lost every game, but this was the Wiggins we want to see every night.
One look at his box scores from last January, along with watching the games, proved he's a capable shooter (which coincided with Kevin Martin's injury and Shabazz Muhammad's jump into the starting lineup next to Wiggins on the wing). He also has a beautiful step-back jumper that can be automatic at times. It's one of his go-to moves, the other being his one-dribble spin move that defenders know is coming but can do nothing to stop it from happening.
The path Wiggins currently walks is the right one. He has signature moves, he can create his own shot, he understands how to work his way to the free throw line, and he's developed a taste for blood above the rim. It's fairly easy to imagine Pekovic collecting the skulls of Wiggins' victims after destroying those that attempt to contest his dunks. Many new posters will be made in 2015-16 at Target Center. So, I guess my answer is no, I'm not concerned about his natural passivity.
I've always seen Wiggins as a quiet killer. He's shy, no doubt. And he's often sleepy, per the nickname his teammates have bestowed upon him. He's also shown a tendency to disappear for stretches, but after the all-star break we started to see the killer come out. We're not going to see as many post-ups run for him now that Towns is in the fold, which hopefully leads to a huge increase in three's and backdoor cuts for monster slams on unprepared bigs and less wear and tear in the mid-post isolation.
The organization needs to keep pushing him to be the guy on both ends, every single night of the week. Feed him the ball and continue forcing him to go to work. Ask him to create for himself and for teammates. Tell him to attack the defensive glass. Push him to be the defensive stopper on the wing he desperately needs to be. When he's not scoring, he needs to find ways to change the game. That's the path for Wiggins. Using his talent to help the Wolves in other ways outside of scoring. When Harden comes into town, make him earn everything he gets. I want to see The Beard complaining after every possession because he's so damn frustrated by Wiggins' length. Every game he plays well in typically coincides with ton of free throw attempts. Keep getting to line at all costs.
This is the path for him. Expanding his game to have a more consistent impact throughout the game, in all sorts of ways.
We're going to see a much more advanced Wiggins this season; a player who added new wrinkles to his game. With Rubio and Towns in the mix, I imagine off-ball-Wiggins and transition-Wiggins are going to be far more advanced versions than we saw in year 1. He has all of the tools you look for in a star wing and the organization will continue pushing him to be the star while working Towns into everything. Having better teammates might not put the pressure on him to score all night long but that's going to help his efficiency and we'll see less of the one-dimensional approach to getting buckets on the offensive end.
Ricky brings the best out of guys. We've seen him make really suspect players look pretty good. I remember one night at Target Center years ago he made Anthony Randolph look amazing against the Bulls in a huge comeback that ultimately fell short. When I think about what Rubio can do with guys that have the talent of Wiggins or Towns, I'm not concerned with passiveness. Having a real point guard is going to help even more than we can already imagine.
I'm predicting a monster sophomore season from Wiggins, with improvements across the board, do you see that coming to fruition?
EIM: I'm not sure. Here's what I loved about Wiggins as a rookie: his ability to get to the free throw line. That is such a huge part of being a great scorer with efficiency, and rookies are rarely as proficient at it as Wiggins was – both because they have to learn and because it's rare that officials give rooks a ton of calls.
In the history of the NBA, there are only 63 rookies age 21 or younger who averaged 5+ FTAs/36 while playing at least 1000 minutes – Wiggins was at 5.7. The list is overwhelmingly good or great players. Of course there are few who didn't make it, but mostly it's stars or near stars, which is very encouraging.
What I didn't love about Wiggins was the lack of other stuff. He struggled to rebound, he didn't show great passing chops, and his defense was not really as advertised, though rookies rarely play good defense. The point is this: I completely agree with you that the 3-point shot is a big part of his development going forward, but in order to be a true superstar, he's going to have to get better at the non-scoring stuff.
I think it's possible – we've seen some drive-and-kicks from him this preseason that I'd like to see more of when he's on the floor with shooters. I'm looking forward to seeing some bigger lineups with Wiggins at the shooting guard – Mitchell has gone to that look a bit over the last couple of games, and having guys like Bjelica and Rudez out there opens up the floor.
One final comment on what you wrote – I don't like the step-back. The fact that he can sometimes make it means it's useful as a bailout late shot when their action hasn't produced anything better, but it's not something I want him looking for. My expectation is that he does show improvement this year. There's no reason not to expect that from a second year guy. Whether he makes that leap this season or not remains to be seen.
Among the nine guys who are 1st, 2nd, or 3rd year players, which are seen as part of the core (in a wider sense) at the end of the year, and in what roles? Are there any who you think we will be ready to move on from by the end of the season? It's a lot of young guys.
Meyer: The three cornerstones are obvious – Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns – though the national media still somehow has questions about Rubio, "because he can't shoot or score." The truth is, that's the easiest way to tell who really watches the Wolves and who doesn't. The rest of the core is: Nemanja Bjelica (borderline starting PF/good backup immediately), Zach LaVine (perhaps the starting SG of the future, but his role is unclear), Shabazz Muhammad (sixth man/potential starter on the wing next to Wiggins), Gorgui Dieng (sixth/seventh man fully capable of spot starts at center) and Tyus Jones (backup PG).
You'll notice Adreian Payne is the only player not listed, though the question whether or not the organization will accept their mistake on him and treat him like a sunk cost remains – that means declining his team option next season, as they would've done with Bennett if the buyout opportunity didn't present itself.
Payne would have to seriously surprise this season to change the overwhelmingly negative opinion of his game. If preseason is evidence, than we shouldn't expect to see Payne on the floor much this season, and that's the right move until he develops some sort of consistency on the court.
Everybody else seems safe to me at the moment, but it's hard to predict these things. Maybe Shabazz becomes disgruntled with his role, perhaps playing off the bench pisses him off. Who really knows. From the team's perspective, I don't see them being ready to move on any player besides Payne (potentially). The Wolves want to use this season as a developmental year for all nine players we're talking about.
Which young guy that isn't considered a cornerstone do you feel best about moving forward and which one do you feel the worst about?
EiM: Well, assuming Wiggins, Towns, and Rubio (who is still young but has more experience), are the cornerstones, I think the guy outside that group I feel best about is probably Gorgui Dieng.
But let me back up a minute and respond to what you wrote: I agree that what you describe is the ideal scenario – everyone improves, everyone finds a role that fits them, but that strikes me as not too likely. Of course, I'm the more pessimistic of the two of us, but still. I don't think it's likely that all of these guys succeed to a degree where they are all rotation guys on what we hope is soon a good team.
I guess I would say Dieng is the guy I feel best about, in that I see a clear, useful role for him that I'm confident he can fill. I think he's destined to be a good back up center. That's pretty valuable, and I think he's shown that it's something he can probably do. The other answer is Bjelica, who has really looked smart and ready this preseason, but it's a little too soon on him.
The guy I feel worst about? Well, Adreian Payne. That trade was bad from the outset, and it doesn't look any better now. That's sort of a boring answer though, so I'll offer up Zach LaVine. I know you are a believer, but I just have trouble seeing it. I can see Muhammad being an effective bench scorer easier than I can see LaVine really helping consistently; he strikes me as too mistake prone and unaware to ever be much more than an athletic oddity.
Sell me on LaVine. He's probably the most divisive guy among Wolves fans – plenty of people are believers, plenty aren't.
Meyer: I agree with you, it's not likely everyone of the guys listed is going to be a good rotation player for the Wolves, but more than likely – given the contracts and the way the team is currently constructed – these roles seem realistic for next season. I'll leave you with this quote before moving on to your question:
Sam Mitchell on Zach LaVine over Kevin Martin: "It's not necessarily about earning, it's about where you are as an organization and where you're trying to go. I'm not saying Kevin has to accept it with a smile on his face, but it's just where we are as an organization."
OK, here's my best attempt at selling you on LaVine...
If you're going to get into an argument on the internet about LaVine and want to defend his honor you'll want to hit your opponent(s) with the following:
1) The Catch-and-shoot
Zach shot 40.2% in catch-and-shoot situations during his rookie season. He will see most of his minutes at the two-guard in his sophomore season, instead of point guard (Eds Note: Wishful thinking, eh?) where he played approximately 94% of his 1902 minutes. That's positive. Can you imagine how much better he will look off-ball next to the finest passer in the game, Sir Rubio of Barcelona? Gone are the days of ugly post-entry passes and grotesque pick-and-roll play. Say hello to the new dynamic, up-tempo, run-and-gun backcourt duo gracing the hardwood in Minneapolis. Too strong?
Next to Rubio, I think we're about to see a much more effective and efficient LaVine who will be in a far better position to maximize his NBA-ready skills: dunking and catch-and-shoot three's. I can already see the pair giving opponents nightmares in transition. One of LaVine bests qualities is his speed. He's incredibly fast up and down the court. I have a feeling we're going to see a lot more leak outs a la Corey Brewer from LaVine this season. Rubio/Towns will be switching off as QB to deliver the touchdown passes.
Quick stats to consider...
Zero dribbles 3PT% = 39.8
1 dribble 3PT%: 25.9
2 dribbles: 14.3%
3-6 dribbles: 22.7%
Catch-&-shoot 3PT%: 40.2%
...and 26.9 percent on those pull-up jumpers off the dribble, which he so dearly loves.
I imagine LaVine is going to service as the primary floor spacer on the starting unit if he holds the job (Eds Note: he didn't hold the job) and his main task will be to launch open three's from deep. I believe Rubio will find him wide-open quite often and give him excellent catch-and-shoot three-point looks. Yes, he had the worst RPM among 83 point guards that qualified last season and his defense was a mess, though he shows fantastic lateral quickness, but the hope is he's not going play point guard in year 2. Shot selection is still a problem and something he needs to fix. That shouldn't be as difficult as some may make it to be. Three's, dunks, layups, and get to the free throw line. Since those fit his skills it shouldn't be impossible if the coaching staff hold him accountable this season and pulls him out of the game the second he launches one of those difficult 20-footers, to curb this behavior.
2) The Confidence of Kobe
It's no wonder Zach's so confident in his abilities, his favorite player happens to be Kobe Bryant. But, one aspect I've always loved about LaVine, and it's one of the biggest reasons I personally believe in him long-term, is the belief he has in himself. He consistently talks about being great, going down as one of the best to ever come from the Seattle area. His self-confidence is remarkable, there's nothing he doesn't feel capable of, which always reminds me of the old catchphrase "fake it 'til you make it." You are what you think you are, and LaVine thinks he's going to be great. Of course, Rashad McCants thought he was MJ and just because Player X believes in himself doesn't mean he will be great, or even good, but LaVine doesn't have that type of ego. When looking back at some of the busts over the years – Wes Johnson, Derek Williams, Johnny Flynn – I never remembered these guys having super confident personalities. Anthony Bennett was another guy that didn't seem to believe in himself. He struck me as someone with low self-esteem. I guess it's one attribute that really makes me a LaV-iever, especially when you combine it with his work ethic. Plenty of people have talked about how the team had to force him out of the gym on multiple occasions during his rookie season to keep his legs fresh enough for games.
He's definitely gained weight over the offseason. LaVine's noticeably stronger and his arms in particular are more defined in person (that feels weird to type but yeah, you can tell he hit the weights hard this offseason, which he's never done before this summer). The hope is that LaVine will improve his finishing at the rim as he bulks up and figures out how to deal with contact; learning how to use his speed and explosiveness to draw more fouls.
4) Improved supporting cast
This one is simple: last year's team was a mess and Flip asked Wiggins and LaVine to do way too much. Wiggins looked pretty good under the circumstances, while LaVine did not. That GSW game was sick though! 37 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Tell me his play over the last 18 games didn't give you some hope...
You buying any of the LaVine stock I'm currently selling?
EiM: Well, not really. But a little of it. I have remarked before that there might be a decent catch-and-shoot guy in there, and I suppose I still do, but man, watching him in these preseason games after last year...it's not what he's doing. As for the confidence, I think that's a mixed bag. Self-belief is terrific, self-delusion...
Still, you make a compelling argument. I certainly would be happily surprised if he becomes a positive as a starting shooting guard. The other issue is how much patience Mitchell will have for him when the rubber meets the road. I wouldn't say that his preseason lineup choices are meaningful in any major way, but it is interesting that after announcing LaVine as the starting SG, three games later he stuck Tayshaun Prince in there. I don't think it means much, but I'm also not sure it's all that easy to leave guys in there when they are playing poorly no matter how much you want to develop them.
Look, LaVine turning into a good player would be a huge thing for the Wolves. It would mean real talent at more or less all five positions, something they haven't had in a long time. So I'm gonna hope it happens, though I'm nowhere near as confident as you are.
I want to get to some more team-wide questions soon, but first let's discuss Karl-Anthony Towns, who is such a big key to whether the Wolves core can turn into one that is actually a championship contender someday. I've been impressed with what we've seen in preseason from him, though he's certainly going to struggle at times this year with fouls and getting pushed around some defensively.
Where do you see Towns' game as we head into his rookie year?
Meyer: Towns brings so much to the table already it still hasn't fully hit me that he's on the Wolves. You're right, he's likely going to experience foul trouble early in his career. He tries to block everything, which is cool to have on a team that hasn't had an elite rim protector forever, but there will be plenty of times when he allows the opposition to grab offensive rebounds and score easy buckets around the rim because he's gunning for weak side blocks and single-handedly trying to stifle offenses. I imagine his performances will start fairly uneven with awesome flashes and a fair share of rookie mistakes (par for the course).
I do think Towns is going to surprise, from the standpoint that (I bet) there are plenty of nights when he looks like the best player on the floor for the Wolves and carries the team for stretches. He's that good.
I'd say he's way ahead offensively at this point, which might surprise some who think of him as a superior defensive player. We'll see tons of 15-20 footers by him, some very smooth passing out of the post, fadeaways, the occasional 3-pointer as he gets used to the NBA line, putback dunks, skyhooks, and whatever else you can think of. I'm hoping Towns makes getting the free throw a high-priority early in the year. That will help his game when shots aren't falling. If it were me, I'd run the pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop with him and Rubio almost every play in halfcourt sets. Wiggins, Muhammad, and LaVine can space the floor in the corners, and slots, and catch defenders ball watching with lethal backdoor cuts where they can catch the ball, gather, and finish with authority.
In a nutshell, I expect to see the Big KAT flash a variety of skills. He's going to play tons of minutes and compete for the ROY. That's why he was the No. 1 pick, he's ready to make an impact right now. From what I've seen in the preseason I think expectations should be sky-high. He's ready to perform at a high-level. Of course, with any rookie, his play is going to be turbulent, up one night and down the next. The hope is that he doesn't get overly frustrated by foul trouble and ultimately the losing streaks that are sure to come. He can't allow frustration to negatively affect his play.
What area do you think Towns will make the biggest impact in right off the bat, and do you think he's going to win rookie of the year? What's your biggest fear with him during his rookie year?
EiM: I'm in total agreement with your assessment of Towns. So impressive this early. Yeah, there will be the usual rookie big problems – fouls, and I'm sure there will be plenty of nights when he gets taken to school a bit by more experienced big guys, but I'm convinced we'll see consistent effort on the defensive end, and eventually he'll emerge as a good defensive player.
His offense seems way ahead of where I thought it would be. The shooting touch, that running hook shot, he's got some game at that end. And you make a great point – can't wait to see him in the pick and roll with Rubio. I think that's going to be a very effective action for them as early as this year.
In short, I'm thrilled with him so far, and see no reason for him not to become a star. Which, as you know, is not something I say very often about very many guys.
Rookie of the year? I don't know. If you offered me him or the field, I'd probably take the field just based on numbers. He's got to be favorite, or maybe co-favorite with one of the guards/wings who are likely to score lots of points – Russell, maybe Stanley Johnson or Mudiay. But at the moment, it's going to take a lot for me to regret taking Towns over any of the other options. He looks really, really good.
So switching up at least for a minute, and this question will lead into another set of questions I already have in mind: What do you expect in terms of playing time and roles for the squadron of veterans the Wolves have brought on board? Specifically KG, Andre Miller, and Tayshaun Prince. What do their seasons look like in your mind's eye?
Meyer: Let's start with the Big Ticket because he's the easiest to talk about among the veterans when the conversation is about expectations. Garnett is going to start at power forward alongside Towns up front and bring a defensive mentality and skill level to the starting unit only rivaled by Rubio on the current roster. Even at age 39, Garnett can still defend at a high level. He finished 40th in DRPM last season (ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric) and we should expect him to have a positive impact on that end again in Year 21 of his historic, first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Of course, this is with the caveat: when he plays.
Nobody can reasonably expect Garnett to play 70 games. Even 60 seems improbable, though somewhere around there would be ideal given his age, the insane number of minutes he's already put on his knees, and the maintenance he will need during the season.
The Wolves play the fewest back-to-backs in the NBA (14) which is great news for the league's most injured organization over the last decade (I have no numbers to support this claim at the moment but feel comfortable enough to stand by it) and hopefully it means the team can squeeze a little more juice out of KG.
I'd be surprised if he plays in any of those back-to-backs. The team has mentioned their desire, to the shock of absolutely nobody, to keep him out of back-to-backs. We'll see Nemanja Bjelica a lot more often in those situations, which isn't a bad thing, you know, because he's the best power forward on the roster. So Professor Big Shots will get his fair shot in the starting lineup – he's going to log more minutes than KG this season in any case.
That leaves 68 possible games for KG to play in. In the last three season's he's played 47 games, 54 and 68. He hasn't played more than 71 games since leaving Minneapolis for Boston in '07-08. Over the last two seasons he's seen his minutes per game decline to 20. I assume that won't change much. We should get used to seeing him play the first seven minutes of the first and third quarters. If the game is close under five minutes of play the team will need defensive stops and that's where KG can log 4-5 more minutes. Anywhere between 16-20 mpg seems like a good bet for the season.
Aside from his role and playing time, I expect Garnett to teach Wiggins and Towns (to varying degrees) what it means to carry a city on their back, as he did for a decade. There's no way to quantify that but there's no better guy to play that role than the greatest player in franchise history – if he can rub off some of his competitive spirit on the two (I'm of the opinion that we did see this happen with Wiggins down the stretch if you go back and watch some of his reactions; the way he started talking to referees and showing emotion when he posterized guys).
Ultimately, I expect Garnett to build long-lasting relationships with everybody in the fold because he's going to own the team eventually and, well, that seems important.
In terms of Prince and Miller, it appears Prince (seemingly an unlikely result) is going to start at the three next to Wiggins. I bet he will play about 15 minutes per night and his role will likely shift throughout the season. He seems penciled into the starting lineup for now as Mitchell waits for LaVine and Shabazz to step it up on the defensive end, as well as demonstrate better ball movement and improve their overall decision making. While I'm not completely thrilled with the decision, it's not the worst choice of all time.
We've talked about this point before, but making guys earn their role and playing time is pretty crucial when you talk about team dynamics. We know it's important. It was hard to watch and understand years ago, but the pure idiocy of Rambis and Kahn, and their non-belief in the idea that Love could be a legitimate cornerstone, actually ended up playing a prominent role in the player he became. Love thrived off being told what he couldn't be. He earned everything.
LaVine hasn't "earned it" but starting him at the two-guard (because he's not a point guard, as discussed ad nauseam last season) and playing him alongside Rubio makes the most sense to me, even with more deserving players on the roster who should start. Rubio makes everyone way better, and LaVine wouldn't be asked to do as much with the starters besides space the defense, get out in transition, and try hard defensively. He's going to get minutes regardless. So, for now, you can ignore my previous point about players earning their role and playing time. In some rare scenarios, it makes sense to go the other way. I feel like this might be one of them.
Andre Miller ... his role and playing time is heavily dependent on what happens with LaVine. For now it sounds like, for some odd reason, the team wants the ball in his hands and might have already shifted to using him back at point guard again this season. If that's the case, meaning LaVine is running the point off the bench, it's hard to envision how Miller fits in; his role will likely be sporadic and heavily reliant on the way LaVine is playing. Miller is going to get minutes. When he gets them isn't exactly clear at the moment. We know Tyus Jones won't play much if at all to being the season; numerous DNPs and a trip to the D-League is likely in his immediate future, unless the team flip-flops again and decides to have Zach play off-ball, like they should. That would mean more clear roles for both Miller and Jones.
To sum up the way I see these three players' seasons turning out...there's going to be constant change in playing time. If they're going to be the mentors the organization signed them to be they should be prepared to show the young guys how to deal with change.
Do you think the Wolves are making a mistake by giving Garnett, Prince, and Miller – guys who won't be here in two years – minutes over the young (though largely unproven) guys on the team that need to be assessed? We also didn't talk about Kevin Martin, who is 32 years old and remains the best shooter on the team... he's going to be gone near the trade deadline, right? One of the contenders could certainly use him. Any predictions?
EiM: Your question is perfect because it requires us to circle back a little which we needed to do given the happenings over the last 48 hours or so. (Readers: FYI, John and I have done this email exchange over the past couple of weeks, so things are shifting as we write).
Not really a mistake, no. It's a long season. As you wrote, KG isn't playing every night, and even when he does it's going to be limited minutes. The same can be said for the others. I'm fine with the vets playing some minutes reducing pressure on the younger guys and requiring that they really earn playing time/starting spots.
Bjelica is going to probably get the majority of minutes at the four even if KG is the nominal starter. Mitchell said something about having a 10 man rotation; that suggests that the nights KG plays, Payne won't, which I think we all agree is appropriate. The wing spots are interesting; who will come in for Prince? Martin or Muhammad? (Or even Rudez, I guess, though that seems unlikely). Muhammad looked great in Madison, but it hasn't seemed like Mitchell is super enamored of him. Both of them will probably be in the rotation to start.
Finally, the big question I have about youth vs. vets is the back up PG spot. I said earlier we have to circle back, and here it is. You made a huge argument for LaVine starting at the two spot, and all of a sudden that's not happening anymore. The whole saga of LaVine this month is giving me a bit of whiplash to be honest. Mitchell announces him as the starting two, tries it a couple of games in preseason (with no Rubio), then abandons it, and not only that, decides that LaVine really needs to be a point guard, something nobody seems to think is right.
As for Martin...yeah. We'll see how things go. A trade around the deadline would absolutely not be a surprise, as I think he could be useful to someone, and at some point they will figure out that if LaVine has a future it's at the two.
The question is this: How long will Mitchell stick with LaVine as back up point when he has Andre Miller (to say nothing of Tyus Jones) sitting there? I know he spoke about development, but then he decided Prince is his starting small forward. When the games count, coaches like to win. Asking LaVine to play the wrong position, I'm not sure how much patience Mitchell will have for him. It wouldn't shock me if he's really barely playing at Christmas time, which in some ways would be a shame.
That would be a major shame if we're talking development, though I bet LaVine's going to play pretty much regardless of the results. How long Mitchell stays with him at backup point guard, instead of moving him off-ball where his skills can work, that's really hard to say. Maybe he doesn't handle the ball as much as we think he might on the second unit. I was under the impression LaVine would be playing the two-guard during his sophomore season, but the coaching staff believe he needs the ball in his hands to thrive. I don't agree.
So I guess the question now is: What does this season look like? I won't ask for a wins prediction, though I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it. But it seems like we've gotten mixed messages on who will play how much. First it was we'll play the young guys even though the vets are better. But now the vets to an extent seem to be exerting their hold on some spots, anyway. So what is the shape of this season? Do you think it's important to at least win more than they did last year? Should we be expecting a big leap to playoff contention not this year but in 2016-17? If so, what has to happen this year to make that likely?
Meyer: I wish I could tell you exactly what the season is going to look like, but that's why they play the game – we have a basic idea how everything will go, though nobody really knows what we're about to get ourselves into. The whole "they may not be very good in the loaded West, but will still be exciting with their young core" mainstream narrative surrounding the team is certainly not what any astute viewer would say. It's going to be equally frustrating watching losing basketball as it is exciting.
Side rant: I no longer understand what exciting means after reading seasons previews. I'm realizing how many individuals have some weird, delusional version of what exciting is. I suppose it's easy to look at the Wolves roster and describe the team as exciting because it's filled with fabulous young talent that won't win enough games to even sniff the playoffs. So... we get to read the term exciting quite often. People are so detached from the actual product, what fans sit and watch throughout the entire season. Good execution on both ends of the floor, playing a modern NBA style, being competitive – like, an actual threat to win any night of the week – and watching players show real discernible growth, and seeing the team chemistry come together ... that's exciting.
The reality is, the only certainty is tons of uncertainty surrounding roles, rotations, coaching, development and ultimately the direction of the franchise, which will continue taking shape. As you pointed out, there's already been mixed messages around roles and that worries me a bit.
The youth is going to play plenty no matter who starts or finishes and there's going to be breathtaking highs and soul-crushing lows. In an ideal world, where the Wolves exceed expectations, they'd make the jump to 30-35 wins, upsetting some outstanding teams along the way. And the entire league wouldn't have to squint so hard to see the team closing in on them in the distance. Ideally, and this is the hopeless optimist in me speaking, the league will be like "whoa, shit, the Wolves are going to be no joke over the next decade with Wiggins, Towns, Rubio and that supporting cast," similar to Marbury's rookie season.
I don't expect that to happen, but remain hopeful. ...Now to answer your question in a roundabout way, the Wolves need to get to 30 wins (or more) to prepare themselves for a playoff push in 2016-17. Teams don't simply make that jump to 50 wins out of nowhere. Making those those two giant leaps is a process. Do I think it's important to at least win more than last year? Yes, absolutely. Anybody with a stake in this should want to win twice as much as last season. We shouldn't be expecting a big leap to playoff contention, the Western Conference is too good, but the Wolves need to make the jump to the next level to set the table for next season, which I'm classifying as 30-35 wins this year. Right now, they're set at 26.5 wins in Vegas (I'm taking the over and will likely pay for it AGAIN) and nobody across the league expects the team to be very good, so 30 wins would qualify as a surprising, positive season to help get the organization back on track and headed in the right direction (i.e. playoffs in '16-17).
How do they make the jump?
We need to see Ricky Rubio play 80 games, or around there. We need to see Andrew Wiggins take the next step, consistently playing as he did in April to end his rookie campaign on a high-note. He needs to be a sophomore sensation. We need to see Karl-Anthony Towns' immense skills flash all over the court and feel strongly about his quest to be the next superstar big man after the season concludes. We need to rely on him in crucial situations and he needs to come through. We need to see a far more modern offense out of Sam Mitchell, one that doesn't ignore the three-point line for long stretches. We need to see a commitment to defense. We need to see the right rotations, based on a desire to win yet also develop the necessary players. We need to avoid long losing streaks and become a more tight-knit team; ideally one that doesn't feature a revolving locker stall next to Wiggins (last season) and a few new 10-day contract every month. And we need to stay healthy -- please, Arnie, help us stay on the court.
That's asking a lot.
Anyway, I predict 31 wins (15 more than last year). Rubio, Towns, Bjelica, Muhammad, Mitchell, and one big jump from AW have me highly optimistic about the season as compared to general consensus. Maybe it's my undying belief in Rubio, but I predict this is the year he opens up the nation's eyes. 15-16 will be the season of Rubio in Minneapolis.
You tend to me more realistic (some label it as pessimistic) in your expectations and writing, and you don't let your fandom or heart get in the way of predictions as I'm susceptible to doing ... what does this season look like in your eyes? What's important to you in terms of how the year takes shape and ultimately what happens with the team. What do you think is going to upset you? And do you envision 30 (or more) wins, or am I crazy like David Kahn?
EiM: I will co-sign much of what you wrote above, though I think I would take the under on 31 wins. I'm hoping for the over on the Vegas line; that would be something at least.
Let me say that I wholeheartedly endorse your rant about "exciting." Yes, guys like Rubio, Wiggins, hopefully Towns, will sometimes do something that is exciting, but watching a team lose night after night and often look inept doing so is not exciting, it's dispiriting. Occasionally something will happen that is exciting in a slightly more lasting way than a big dunk or Sports Center worthy pass--I still remember Wiggins turning his first corner last season in Cleveland. That was lasting, though of course not everything was sunshine and roses afterwards. But mostly, it's just bad watching. How many nights did you sit in Target Center, with these young "exciting" players, and think: good lord this is awful? Too many.
I agree that they need to show tangible improvement in the wins column. You can't just keep losing like this, it isn't good for anyone involved. I already see the occasional comment that they should consider tanking for another high pick. Ugh. No. Approaching (another) season that way is terrible. We need to see something that gives us optimism going forward.
I think to get to your number or better, more has to go right than is probably realistic. Like I say, I am hoping for the over on the Vegas line, but if they can get to 30, I'll be very happy, especially if it happens behind good and improving play from the future cornerstones. Which it almost has to if it happens.
I've decided to just try to focus on this year and the players we've got for the time being. I do think that the ultimate ceiling for the franchise is limited by the decision makers involved (from ownership down), but I'm not going to spend a ton of time worrying about that right now; get better because of the coaching staff OR in spite of it, either way. There is talent here, lets see it get in position to get good, and worry about the other stuff when we have to.
Absolutely the keys for this team to get even to the Vegas line are Rubio's health and Wiggins taking a step forward into the "helps you win" category of player. I think both of those things could happen, and then of course you need some other stuff, but those are the two musts. I'll hold off expectations on Towns for this season until we get into the regular season, but as I wrote earlier in this piece, I think he's going to be a star. How much of that future we see this season is what I'm not sure of.
I'm writing this a couple of hours before the last preseason game against the Bucks at Target Center. I would really like to see some sharper play, especially from the starting unit tonight. Time to start looking like an NBA team, especially after the last few games. I would also like to get a glimpse at what the regular season rotations might look like, though I expect those to be pretty fluid with all the youth.
What's your sense around Target Center as the season approaches? Any feelings? Any sense of expectations? Anything happen tonight that surprised you?
The team seems eager to prove they aren't one of the worst teams in the NBA, and there seems to be a genuine confidence among the group that they can compete in the West. Guys are excited to get started. Down the line, there seems to be an urge to prove people wrong. Most of the guys seem to have a chip on their shoulder. My general sense is that we're going to see Wiggins take his game to the next level, and Towns is going to turn heads from the start, immediately proving his worth. It's not that other players don't seem this way, but Rubio and Muhammad have come off as laser focused, each prepared to have the best season of their young careers.
Nothing really surprised me during the preseason finale in particular (read my recap here), but I was incredibly pleased with the way the Wolves finished out the game with defense and great ball movement. The Rubio, Wiggins, Muhammad, Towns and Dieng lineup is probably the best five-man combination they can play – that was something that stuck out. I also noticed how engaged the veterans were on the bench. KG, Prince, and Miller were giving guys directions all game. They were the first ones to run over and help guys off the floor, they were extremely vocal all game, and they were the first ones off the bench (which became contagious) when something electrifying went down.
EiM: We should wrap this up with a few words on Flip. Much of this team is his work. He was hired as president at a somewhat awkward time for the team, with Kevin Love's contract running down, a coach who was clearly nearing the end of his tenure, and a group that just wasn't good enough.
He made an effort to surround Love with enough talent that first year to make a run to the playoffs, and despite the best season in 10 years, it wasn't quite good enough. He pivoted that summer, showed real patience in the trade market, dealt Love for Wiggins, and embarked on yet another rebuild. A year later, this is an incredibly young team with what we hope is significant talent, much of it acquired by Flip.
While nowhere near the saddest aspect of his passing, the fact that he will not be able to see how his vision comes to fruition is a disappointment. I had mixed feelings about him as a coach and executive, but without question he put his stamp on this organization for the foreseeable future.
I know he had good relationships with all of the Wolves players, not to mention the coaching staff, and I'm sure they will carry heavy hearts for quite some time. I hope being on the court brings them some solace. For his family, the success of the team is of course the least of their concerns, but hopefully the players he brought in and the organization he changed over the last couple of years makes them just a little bit prouder.
Meyer: I wish the best to the Saunders family. I know everybody here at Canis Hoopus will keep them in their prayers as we embark on a new season. Flip was kind-hearted and fun-loving in my experiences around him. His passion for the game was evident. He really cared, and I will miss him. I've followed the Wolves since my memory permits, and Flip has always been apart of that memory. I never knew him personally but always wanted to tell him how much the Wolves meant to to me and the impact they've had on my life. I've always felt a divine connection to the franchise. I wish I could go back in time to tell him he was doing an excellent job. He gave me hope. I wish I could tell him that in my heart, I felt like he saved the Wolves from another decade of irrelevancy. I believed in his vision for the franchise, even if the results are yet to be seen.
Team Flip, forever. 82-0.