Last night Zach LaVine, point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, played 2 and half quarters while the Indiana Pacers built a 27 point lead. It was a particularly poor team performance, and LaVine's defense and inability to run offensive sets efficiently was a major contributor.
In the 4th quarter, Zach LaVine, shooting guard, got hot, and helped lead a comeback that eventually got the Wolves within one point before they fell short in a 107-103 loss.
When I conceived of this article, that was not how I planned to start it. But last night was such a stark example of the Wolves point guard problem that it serves to perfectly frame my points.
The purpose of this article is not bash Zach LaVine, who I think should have every opportunity to compete for minutes at the off-guard spot where he has a better chance to be successful. Rather the purpose is twofold:
a. To argue that the Wolves have a fixable problem at the back up point guard spot, and
b. That fixing it in the service of winning ball games is more important now than whatever minimal costs it creates in development.
The Wolves are 4-2 in games started (and played in) by Ricky Rubio, 0-3 when he doesn't play. That reveals both how important Rubio's unique and valuable skills are to the Wolves, and also how inadequate their alternatives are when he is unable to play or resting on the bench.
Of course any team missing one of their top players is likely to suffer, but there are ways to mitigate such losses. The Wolves have, thus far, chosen not to mitigate Rubio's absence, but rather play someone who is clearly struggling badly at the position in the name of development.
So far this season, when Zach LaVine is on the floor, the Wolves are roughly 9 points/100 possessions worse than when he's not. This is not entirely on him, of course, but it's a baseline for the following information: in the few minutes he's been on the floor along with Ricky Rubio, the Wolves are +88/100 (in just over 9 minutes). Last night was the first time LaVine shared extended minutes on the court with Andre Miller, checking into the game with three minutes left in the third quarter. The two of them shared the court for the final 15 minutes of the game, and were +16 points over that time.
In other words, in the roughly 10% of his minutes this season that LaVine has shared the court with a point guard, hence occupying the shooting guard position, he's been a part of successful lineups; in the vast majority of his minutes when he's been asked to play the point guard position, the team has been badly outplayed.
Meanwhile, Andre Miller, the veteran point guard they brought in this off-season, was a DNP for the first several games, and has only played minutes since Rubio has been out with his hamstring strain. In that short time, it appears that he can still function as an NBA point guard, but the question is, at 39 years old, how much can he give you on a nightly basis? If the answer is that he's still capable of playing a full load of back up minutes and even start occasionally when Rubio misses time, then perhaps the solution is already in house.
I'm dubious, however, that he's capable of that big a minutes contribution over the course of the season, and thus I would be actively looking for the opportunity to acquire a somewhat younger alternative. In the meantime, it seems clear that Miller at the point guard--either backing up Rubio or in place of him when necessary, is how the Wolves should proceed.
Can the Wolves make the playoffs this year? My guess is that they cannot. I would have bet more heavily on that proposition before the season started and Karl-Anthony Towns showed that he can make a positive contribution as a rookie, and Ricky Rubio reminded us just how much of a difference maker he is, but still, it seems far-fetched.
In my view though, that's not the point. The point is that it isn't last year. I'm not sure last season did anyone a ton of good in terms of development--It's not clear to me that just being out there, while getting spanked every night, is particularly helpful, but last year is gone.
The Wolves now have building blocks for the future, who have shown they can compete in the present, and it's time to emphasize winning as the most important thing on a nightly basis. That doesn't mean the end to development--in fact I think it's good for development. Earn your minutes in the cauldron of competition. This is what's happening for the most part, except at the point.
Karl-Anthony Towns has shown he's the best center on the team--so he plays. Andrew Wiggins is clearly one of the top wings on the team--so he plays. Nemanja Bjelica is better than Adreian Payne--so he plays.
Meanwhile, Payne has not shown he can outplay the other options, so he sits. Tyus Jones has shown he's not ready, so he sits.
The one exception to this is Zach LaVine, and I fail to understand why, especially when I believe, given the opportunity, he could earn minutes as one of the top two off-guards on the team. At least he should have that opportunity. I understand the argument that the Wolves are overloaded on the wings with veterans like Prince and Kevin Martin, along with Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad, but I don't agree that the solution to that issue is to force LaVine into an unnatural position that is costing the team.
Rather he should compete for minutes at the spot where he can do the team the most good. Isn't that how it's supposed to work? Handing him minutes at a position he clearly is not capable of playing at an acceptable level right now has got to stop. It isn't fair to fans or to the team, which has an opportunity to be pretty successful.
Looking this over, I hope it doesn't read too much like LaVine bashing, because that is not the intention. It's not his fault that he's being asked to do something that appears beyond his capabilities, especially when there are signs that there are things on an NBA court that are within his capabilities.
Regardless, the Wolves should be focused now on competing. That doesn't mean development stops, but it does mean that players should be competing for minutes on their play, not being handed them because they are young. It also means that when there is a glaring problem like back up point guard, the team should address it, and deal with whatever "developmental' fallout that addressing such problems might bring.