The time is now for Zach LaVine to start at shooting guard next to Ricky Rubio.
The sample size is small, but the juice appears to be worth the squeeze. In 47 minutes on the floor together, the Rubio/LaVine backcourt is posting a net rating of +42.8 per 100 possessions. That's the best net rating of any two man lineup on the team, directly supporting the eye test that LaVine looks best when paired with Rubio instead of navigating his way through the chaos brought about as the teams backup point guard.
"It is beyond dumb that Rubio and LaVine have played just 10 minutes together all season, even given Rubio's knee issues." said Zach Lowe in his recent ESPN article "Hope burns bright in Minnesota."
Minnesota is 5-2 this season in games Mitchell unleashes the dynamic, up-tempo, run-and-gun duo. Now, to be fair, Rubio is part of the six best two man lineups. It's certainly not rocket science, every player on the squad looks better from an analytics standpoint with the guiding influence of Rubio.
But LaVine is perhaps the most critical player to put next to the Wolves' floor general, even if the divisive 20-year-old sophomore guard has improved in almost every statistical category while playing a majority of his minutes at point guard in year two.
The move, at least supported by a small sample, should help LaVine maximize his catch-and-shoot ability and create additional chances for him to use his incredible speed in transition. It should also limit the opportunities opposing teams can wreck him with screens, which he's proven incapable of consistently dealing with through more than 2000 minutes of game time. He's light years behind most NBA point guards logging the kind of minutes he does in this regard.
"I think I can really help him playing the two, getting him in the open court, and he can help me handling the ball and with a lot of things," Rubio said earlier in the season. "I think that's a good backcourt. I hope we can see more in the future."
Moving LaVine into the starting lineup should also help minimize the current issues hindering the second unit. It's become an isolation-fest led by LaVine, and the bench could seriously benefit from Andre Miller's calm and steady influence. Stints where the Wolves don't start an offensive possession until the shot clock ticks down to 10 seconds are indicative of poor point guard skills, giving credence to the notion that he's merely the quasi-backup point guard to begin with.
He brings the ball up the court, pounds a hole into the hardwood at the top of the arc looking for easy dribble handoffs, or runs pick-and-rolls with Gorgui Dieng which often ends up as a game of hot potato between the two. LaVine typically launches a pull-up jumper off the dribble or drives to the hoop attempting to initiate contact if he uses the possession himself. Otherwise, we see long twos by Dieng or isolation offense late in the clock out of Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, and Kevin Martin.
The times the Wolves get easy offense and uncontested looks are an absolute rarity with LaVine running the point. It's time to flush those long stretches of failure to launch offense down the drain. It's time to embrace the future right now. There's real value in seeing how Rubio and LaVine fair in big minutes together. If the results remain overwhelmingly positive over larger samples, the organization can shift their attention and assets to finding the perfect power forward compliment next to budding young superstars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Maybe that guy is already in the fold in Bjelica, but the point is this: the next set of moves by the franchise become far easier if Rubio and LaVine prove to be the long-term solution in the backcourt. The quickest route to figuring that out is putting it into action for as many minutes as possible.
The need for change
As noted in my recap of last Friday's loss to Detroit, moving LaVine into the starting lineup could serve as the antidote to cure the issues currently holding the Wolves back from playing respectable basketball on a nightly basis. Before Sam Mitchell inserted Kevin Martin into the starting lineup three days ago, it had become apparent a move was in order.
"It's not our defense, we can't score," Mitchell said after the sixth straight home loss to Detroit. "We've got to score better. It's the NBA, you're not going to hold teams to 37 percent every night. We've got to get better at scoring. We've got young players, they've got to understand that when we run our offense, the ball's got to go from strong side to weak side. We've got to set better screens, we've got to move the ball better."
Prince and Garnett played 98 minutes with the cornerstones -- Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns -- before Mitchell shifted Martin into the starting unit.
With these five sharing the court, the Wolves have a +12 net rating per 100 possessions (an offensive rating of 95.3 points and an extremely stout defensive rating of 83.3) but the two veterans were also bringing zero scoring punch to the starting unit. Garnett (9.7 percent) and Prince (7.4 percent) both have single-digit usage rates, meaning the other three Wolves' starters were using over 80 percent of the offensive possessions.
The spacing was becoming more wretched by the game as defenses began collapsing on Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns, basically begging the two unselfish veterans to shoot (but they deferred almost every time).
Martin will certainly help as the prominent floor spacer with the starters, but, again, moving LaVine next to Rubio seemed to be the best of both worlds; winning in the present with the five man lineups that make the most sense, and acting with the future in mind during a season that's been labeled as a developmental year (also known as the perfect time to figure out what works and what needs fixing).
One look at LaVine's advanced shot dashboard provides even more evidence that he should be logging a majority of his minutes at shooting guard, rather than 78% of them at point guard. He's seriously effective in catch-and-shoot situations along with possessions when he uses zero dribbles. His effective field goal percentage explodes.
|Catch and Shoot||13||9||12.1%||0.6||1.4||44.4||66.7|
|Less then 10 ft.||13||13||36.2%||2.5||4.2||61.1||61.1|
*Data through 13 games. Source: NBA.com/stats
Adding fuel to the fire
Ten days ago, after the Wolves loss to the Memphis Grizzlies during a matinee home game, it was surprising when LaVine talked about preparing for the season by working on his two-guard skills, and not preparing to play point guard.
"Going almost the whole offseason, you know, working on the two-guard spot, it's almost like you have to restart the point guard spark again," LaVine said. "I didn't work on the point all offseason, so getting put back in that role, you just go each game and learn something different."
LaVine's words were surprising to hear seeing as he's never expressed anything besides complete confidence in his abilities at either guard spot. Last season he often talked about being able to play both positions equally well, but that evening was different. I heard a player that wants to play shooting guard.
Will Mitchell make the move?
Rubio and LaVine were supposed to share the backcourt when Mitchell declared LaVine his starting shooting guard during training camp. "It's not necessarily about earning, it's about where you are as an organization and where you're trying to go," Mitchell said in response to going with LaVine over Martin.
"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."
That experiment was extremely short-lived, as Mitchell began playing LaVine at backup point guard again after three poor preseason showings at his natural two-guard spot. But Rubio didn't play in those games while nursing a quad strain. The team's final cut, Lorenzo Brown, and little used Andre Miller did. Something happened in that time frame that caused the coaching staff to do an instant 180-degree turn.
In any case, it seems highly unlikely that Mitchell will shift LaVine into the starting lineup in the immediate future, no matter what the evidence suggests. Mitchell decided Martin was the best bet to ignite the sputtering offense and doesn't come off as a coach that will shake things up quickly again, but the Wolves would be wise to make another adjustment to the starting lineup sooner rather than later to truly see what they have on their hands.
The harsh reality is we might not see that until Martin is either traded or the team hits a poor stretch of play only vindicated by another lineup change. But it's never to soon to breathe life into a new experiment.