The secret is out, there will be no playoff games at Target Center for the 11th consecutive season come mid-April. Until then, the organization has 29 more games to evaluate a roster littered with rookies and sophomores (nine total) and figure out where everybody stands, including who should stay and who should go, heading into a pivotal offseason.
To break down the current state of the Wolves – aside from saying they're in the NBA's cellar with 11 wins, heading to the lottery yet again where they perennially fail to move up and inevitably screw up most of the time anyway – I organized the roster into five-tiers and will publish each tier separately in a five part series starting today.
The Wolves have been a flaming hot mess without Rubio on the court this season. After exiting the fifth game of the season with a high ankle sprain way back on November 7 – an injury that proved catastrophic to the on-court product – the team was forced to rely on scoring-guard Mo Williams, and "he's not a point guard but let's force him to be anyways" Zach LaVine, to run the offense. In 10 games this season the team is 4-6 with Rubio, making them a pitiful 7-36 without him.
Before going down, Rubio signed a 4-year extension worth $56 Million that will keep him running the show in Minnesota until 2019 (theoretically). Anybody that wants to argue that Rubio's not worth that kind of money, or that his shots broke, or that he can't finish at the rim, or that "his defense is a question mark," should go re-watch those unsightly 42 games without the Spanish Unicorn. That is, unless you want to save yourself a bunch of time; you can simply take my word for it.
In truth, Rubio is the single most influential basketball player in Minneapolis right now. He's the face of the franchise, along with Andrew Wiggins, and a true cornerstone no matter what the rest of the NBA community might say or believe. But if you don't watch the Wolves consistently it's fairly easy to dismiss how important Rubio actually is to the team's success. With him on the court, the squad looks reasonably credible. But without him they're truly a dumpster fire, unable to execute or defend pick and rolls, completely inept in transition offense or defense and stagnant beyond belief.
Take this for example: the offensive rating of opposing teams (ORtg: an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions) drops 10.1 points with Rubio on the court, from 112.7 to 102.6. Conversely, the Wolves ORtg jumps +4.9 with Rubio on the court (101.7 to 106.6). After beating the Miami Heat at Target Center 14 days ago, Kevin Martin sat in his locker stall shaking his head back and fourth in relief, grinning from ear to ear as media members asked him what it was like to have Rubio back in the lineup.
"He's a player that makes everyone around him better on both ends of the court," Martin said. "Having a guy like that back in our lineup, you can't even put it into words."
Not only is Rubio the most critical factor to the Wolves ending their decade long playoff drought, at least in my opinion, but the organization has greatly invested in him too. Add up everything, and it's rather clear that he's a franchise cornerstone (though most of the folks here at CH, God Bless you all, already knew that). Sadly, there are still tons of people out there that don't have the slightest clue of his value to this organization – skeptics that prefer to focus predominantly on his shortcomings (shooting and scoring) rather than highlighting any of his strengths.
Over the next 29 games, I'll be watching for a couple different things in Rubio's game. How does his right ankle hold up? Are there any noticeable, lingering effects? Did his training with shooting coach Mike Penberthy pay off? Can he continue to play with confidence offensively, looking for his shot and shooting with arc consistently? Can he continue to be the engine that makes the Wolves run? Will he finish at the rim when he gets there? Will he develop chemistry with Wiggins in transition, tossing up those Rubi-oops that fans love so dearly?
Let's take a quick look at his contract details before moving on to the next cornerstone...
There's really no question about it, Wiggins is going to win the Rookie of the Year Award. Some people call him Drew, his teammates call him "Sleepy" and his coach often refers to him as "Wigg." Whatever you want to call him, be it "Maple Jordan" or "Wiggy's World" or maybe just "Wiggins," everyone will be calling him the ROY when the season concludes. And that's a positive for the Wolves, even if awards don't guarantee future success.
The award says he was healthy enough, effective enough, and relied on greatly enough (13.1 shots per game in 34.5 minutes) – this rookie class has certainly not been, with significant injuries to Jabari Parker, the draft's No. 2 overall pick, No. 3 pick Joel Embiid, No. 4 pick Aaron Gordon and No. 7 pick Julius Randle – to be considered the best among his class during his first NBA season.
No matter how you feel about Wiggins – whether you believe he's destined to become a star and save the Wolves from the depths of irrelevancy, or think he's set become a good player that has a long, valuable career as an effective 3-and-D wing, or perhaps you believe he'll never get better than what he is today – you can't really argue with the fact that the Wolves need him to be a franchise cornerstone, and they most definitely view him as one. The organization's entire plan is centered around him becoming the next big star in the league.
Both Anthony Bennett and Thad Young, the other two parts of this past summers blockbuster trade that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland, could easily be out of the picture next season depending on what happens this summer. And things could be fairly the same without those players in the picture. But Wiggins not becoming a cornerstone more than likely means another decade of infinite sorrow for Wolves fans.
Over the next two months, Wiggins needs to figure out how to play within the flow of an NBA offense. While Rubio was out, Saunders decided that since he had no pure point guard to help run sets effectively he would force-feed Wiggins the ball in the mid-post instead, letting him try to score in isolation situations that didn't call for him to create off the dribble. On one hand, this helped him become more comfortable with the ball in his hands and gain confidence on the floor. The "trial-by-mid-post-iso-fire" was good for him, but on the other hand the team is healthy now and it's not something they're actively looking to run any longer. As a result, he's starting to disappear for long stretches more often as he adjusts to life on the perimeter with Nikola Pekovic clogging the lane.
Pek takes up the paint while Rubio dominates the ball, as he should, and Martin spaces the defense, acting as the main perimeter scoring threat. Thad Young also takes his fair share of possessions in post-ups and elbow touches. As a result, Wiggins has started to fade a bit in February. He's had to adjust to playing with a different starting lineup than he became accustomed to over the first three months. Saunders has also played him 39.4 minutes over the last 10 games and consistently talks about him being tired in postgame press conferences; the irony in this is almost too great to accept. Flip is the coach. He decides who plays. Yet, he consistently talks about Wiggins being gassed, or says that he "lacked energy" after the game.
Ideally, Wiggins won't be playing 40 minutes a night for the rest of the year because the Wolves are finally healthy. The hope is that he becomes more efficient in less minutes, and disappears less often due to exhaustion – he's asked to guard the best opposing wing every night he takes the court, and on top of that he's asked to play almost the entire game and be a consistent threat offensively. That's a ton of weight on his shoulders, but his capacity to hold it without crumbling, especially at the age of 19, is what makes me believe he'll become a star one day.
Here's what his rookie scale deal looks like:
*team options in the final two years
2015 Lottery Pick
The Wolves have the second worst record in the league as of today (11-42). Only the New York Knicks are worse (10-43), which gives Saunders and company the following odds in the draft lottery: 19.9 percent chance at scoring the number one overall pick, 18.8 percent at landing the second pick, 17.1 percent to get the third pick, 31.9 percent at getting the fourth pick and a 12.3 percent chance at the 5th pick.
Without getting too heavily into draft talk, the top 3 prospects appear to be Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell. The next three come down to personal preference, but I favor Emmanuel Mudiay (Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association), Myles Turner (Texas) and Kevon Looney (UCLA). Stanley Johnson (Arizona) is right there too.
In any case, the Wolves will probably land somewhere in the top 5, even if they finish out the season playing close to .500 ball, which would be an impressive and fairly unexpected accomplishment given their tough post All-Star break schedule. Only 11 of the 29 remaining games come against non-playoff teams and four of those games are against Oklahoma City and New Orleans, who currently sit in a tight race for the 8th seed in the Western Conference.
Whatever happens in the lottery (maybe this is finally the year the ping pong balls bounce in favor of the Wolves) the organization needs to find another franchise cornerstone with their pick if they want to expedite this re-re-re-(how many times have we done this again)build. Nabbing Russell is a dreamy scenario that would give the Wolves an insanely talented trio at the 1-2-3 spots. Towns is extremely impressive too and apparently can play power forward, which bodes well for the team because Okafor, while a beast offensively and seemingly the safe selection, is a true center.
The Wolves, however, aren't really in the market for a starting center that can score at will, but can also be suspect defensively, because they have Pekovic locked up for the next 3 years. That's what Pek does, and he's become untradeable this season due to chronic injuries and $35.8 million left on his deal. Not to mention, Gorgui Dieng has two years left on his favorable rookie scale contract. Drafting Okafor would effectively put Dieng's future with the team in jeopardy and probably decrease his value as an asset in the process, if Saunders was unable to unload him on draft day.
In other words, center is far from the biggest need. Finding a legitimate long-term solution at power forward, as well as another wing that can handle the ball, create off the dribble, space the defense, score, pass and defend (Russell in a nutshell) are much larger needs.
If Minnesota doesn't come away with one of the top 3 players, I'll probably look at this pick less as a "franchise cornerstone" but it definitely depends. Last year, there were plenty of onlookers that had Mudiay as a top player in the class of 2015. Since we can't watch him play nationally televised college basketball games his stock has dropped. I'd probably look at Mudiay as a cornerstone, but if they ended up with Turner, Looney or Johnson I'd be more inclined to call them part of the core, instead of cornerstones.
So there you have it. Rubio, Wiggins, and potentially the Wolves 2015 draft pick, are the cornerstones of the franchise. Tomorrow, Part II will bring an in-depth look at the veterans of the team: Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and
Thaddeus Young KEVIN GARNETT.