Let me start with a caveat, because that's always a fantastic way to draw in readers: The Wolves have only played four games so far this season, and it's far too early to make any hard and fast judgments.
Now that's out of the way.
One of the givens about the Wolves last season and this has been that "development" is more important than winning. This idea seems to be central to both the organization and coaching staff as well as most of the remaining serious fans of the team.
And it might be the right idea. The Wolves, for better or worse, have a roster full of inexperienced players. Nine of the 15 players on the roster are in their first, second, or third years in the league. Of the six remaining, one is out injured and seems a dubious proposition to ever play a significant role again (Nikola Pekovic), three are here for hybrid playing "mentoring" reasons (Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and Andre Miller) and are clearly on their last legs as players, one seems as likely as not to be gone by the trade deadline (Kevin Martin), and one is their best player, Ricky Rubio.
So yes, the Wolves have a lot of guys to develop.
Which raises the question: What is the best way to go about doing that?
One of the advantages to an organization saying they are focused on development is that it creates much hazier bases on which to judge their performance. When the goal is to win, to put the best team on the floor, well, that's easy. What's your record? What's your point differential? What are your offensive and defensive ratings? We have numerous, generally accurate, ways to determine how well a team is playing.
Development is a much thornier issue. Development means mistakes. Development means playing certain players more or less than optimal if your goal is to win, but how much more or less?
Development raises questions. Is playing time necessary? Always? Some of the time?
Is all playing time created equal? Is development affected by who you share the court with? By how well or badly the team plays while you're out there? By the style of basketball that you and your teammates play?
Does quality development happen when you are clearly over-matched and getting blown out every night, as we saw regularly last season?
Most importantly, how do the people in charge view the development process?
This stuff has been going around in my head for a while, but I was spurred to start writing by this exchange of tweets, so let's start here:
Mitchell praised ball movement when Miller entered. Asked him if he considered putting him in earlier. No. Wants young guys to learn.— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) November 6, 2015
Thinking about this. Not saying yet, but how long does ZL have before he needs to show progress? https://t.co/D20j9NKGfk— David Naylor (@ProfCedar) November 6, 2015
@ProfCedar Sam appears to be in this for the long haul with Zach. Wants him to work through it. Says you can't speed up getting experience— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) November 6, 2015
So let's see if we can trace the development of Zach LaVine. LaVine was thrust into the point guard role last year far earlier than was intended when Ricky Rubio got hurt in the fifth game of the season. He wound up playing 1900 minutes, almost all of which was at point guard, for the worst team in the league. He was awful, yes, but in theory he was getting valuable experience. But how valuable was this experience?
The Wolves last season were a train wreck on both sides of the ball. They gave up easy shots and points in bunches, took terrible shots themselves, took the fewest percentage of threes in the league and one of the highest percentages of long two point attempts. Much of this was "orchestrated" by Zach LaVine. I'm not blaming LaVine; he did the best he could, but it clearly wasn't very good.
The question is whether it helped him prepare for this season and future seasons, indeed a difficult question to answer.
When training camp commenced, Sam Mitchell announced that LaVine was his starting shooting guard. Two preseason games later, despite plenty of other things to worry about, and without the benefit of playing next to starting point guard Ricky Rubio, that experiment came to an abrupt end. It remains unclear what led the coaching staff to this decision; there was some vague talk about them deciding LaVine "needs the ball in his hands," which among other issues is contrary to all publicly available data, but at any rate, he was back to being the back up point guard, a role he has filled almost exclusively so far this regular season.
And...it hasn't looked good. LaVine is shooting even worse than he did last year, he's getting to the rim less and shooting fewer threes, and his turnover rate is up (though so is his assist rate). More to the point, he doesn't appear any more capable or ready to initiate an offense than he was a year ago, and while the unit he's mostly been playing with probably isn't doing him any favors, it also seems clear that point guard is anything but a natural position for him.
So why do they continue running him out at the lead guard? Why the Mitchell quote above? I don't know, but I can't help but think that everyone, including LaVine, would be better off if he were getting his minutes off ball, next to either Rubio or Andre Miller, focusing on his catch-and-shoot game, using his athleticism to get out in transition and punish aggressive close outs, while avoiding the number of ball screens he has to negotiate on defense when he's defending point guards who run the pick and roll.
He's clearly overwhelmed, and I have trouble believing that's the best learning environment for him. Wouldn't it be better to concentrate less on trying to orchestrate an entire offense and more on what he can do from the wing spot?
I don't really understand why the coaching staff has not come to this conclusion. It seems to me that LaVine is playing point guard because the coaching staff prefers playing Tayshaun Prince (a wing guy) rather than Miller (or Tyus Jones). This means the only minutes available for LaVine are at the point, but if the immediate goal is development, shouldn't getting Zach into a spot where he's more likely to flourish be more important than which nearly finished veteran is in the regular rotation?
Mitchell argues that you can't speed up getting experience, but LaVine has now played 2000 minutes of NBA basketball, almost all of it at a position for which he seems ill-suited. Have all of those minutes helped, and if so how? Is he more ready to play a positive role on a winning team now than he was a year ago? Perhaps he is, but wouldn't everyone involved be better off if more of those minutes were employed in learning a job for which he appears to have more aptitude?
The other high profile example I want to discuss is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, last season's Rookie of the Year, played an enormous number of minutes in his first NBA campaign, especially for a teenager. He spent much of the first half of the season floating, having the occasional big game but generally not being overwhelmingly impressive. In the second half of the season, the Wolves changed their approach with Wiggins, and started force-feeding him the ball in the mid-post area, and telling him to go score.
Which, to his credit, he did. There was tons of talk about how much he developed over the course of the season, and certainly he deserves credit for much of what he accomplished as a rookie.
That said, I was never a huge fan of this development process, and the reason why is what we are seeing so far this season. That style of offense was never going to be sustainable and everyone knew this. The idea, I think, was to get Wiggins into a more aggressive mindset. But now that they have largely gone away from posting Wiggins again and again and again, we can see that the other parts of his game were neglected. He doesn't seem comfortable shooting threes, his ball handling, which was masked by asking him to do no more than make one-dribble moves in the post last season remains weak and thus he appears unable to make multiple dribble moves to beat his man now, and the non-scoring aspects of his game, particularly his rebounding and passing, have made little progress.
If last season was for development, I would have liked to see him more involved in pick and rolls, challenged to be more productive on the glass, encouraged to find his teammates even if he was usually the best option.
The point being the team has now changed course and is asking Wiggins to continue to be productive but in ways he hasn't been asked to before. So it raises the question of how much last season's methods actually helped expand his game to the point where he can help a better team. In truth, I expect Wiggins to start playing better soon, but he does look undoubtedly tentative on offense despite getting up plenty of shots.
It sometimes appears that the Wolves just don't know what else to do with Wiggins. They clearly don't want to base their entire offense around his mid-post game like they did for long stretches last season, which is the right decision, and yet when they sense he's struggling, they go back to it for a possession or two like it's a crutch (h/t to the dailywolf). The problem is this is doing little to expand his game and take advantage of his gifts. On the contrary, last year's development process for Wiggins seems to have narrowed his options.
Of course with all players this young, there is still plenty of time, and progress is not always linear. We may see huge jumps in short periods at any time. The intention of this article isn't to argue that the Wolves have ruined the future of these young players. The point I'm trying to make is that claiming "development" should not be a shield from the tough questions. Development can be successful or not successful, and while much of it falls on the individual, their talent and desire to improve, how the team fosters that development is fair game for questioning.
We might also consider the case of Shabazz Muhammad, who appeared to take several major steps forward last season, which was his second in the league. He got in much better physical shape, and when he got the chance to show what he could do, he revealed a relentlessness in getting touches, shots, and baskets that was unique on the Wolves. He was a monster on the offensive glass, could score inside very well for someone of his size, and hit just enough threes to be a threat from distance in the catch-and-shoot. There were, of course, weaknesses, including defensive awareness and moving the ball.
This season, he's fourth in the wing pecking order behind Prince, Wiggins, and Kevin Martin. He frankly didn't look good over the first three games of the season before looking more like himself against the Heat, and getting a few more minutes as a result.
On one hand, Muhammad and LaVine have played exactly the same number of minutes so far this season. On the other hand, over the past two seasons, despite Muhammad at least showing some average or better NBA skills which probably can't be said about LaVine, the coaching staff seems more reluctant to carve out a regular and meaningful role for Muhammad to develop in, while they have consistently been willing to throw LaVine out there, even in a position for which he seems poorly equipped.
This isn't to say that all players should be treated the same in their development. They shouldn't. But I admit that the apparent patience with which they approach LaVine compared to what seems like a shorter leash with Muhammad is something that I would like to hear explained, because it makes little sense to me. I was never a huge fan of Muhammad, and remain somewhat skeptical that he's going to be a good player, but at least there are visible building blocks for him. He has achieved some progress and should have the opportunity for more, and yet the coaching staff seems intent on parceling out playing time to him as conservatively as they possibly can.
Meanwhile, the Wolves brought in veterans Garnett, Miller, and Prince to help foster development among these players. And yet Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns spend game time on the court with Garnett and Prince as well as Rubio, while LaVine and Muhammad are not afforded that luxury. Muhammad would benefit from having someone who can get him the ball in scoring positions, but plays with two guards who lack that skill.
In the end, announcing that you are in the development business, then throwing guys out there (or not, as the case may be), is not enough. There has to be a coherent plan to get players headed in the direction of becoming useful parts of a successful whole. Part of that is having some success, and hopefully the 2-2 start to this year develops into something closer to a .500 season than last season's 16 win disaster. Part of that is also having a clear and detailed plan for each of the young players.
Last season, injuries made everything difficult, including development. This year, the Wolves have to show they know how to get guys on the right track. It's incredibly early, but not too early to start paying attention and asking the difficult questions.