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The Middle Path: A Timberwolves Story

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As we all know navigating the choppy waters of Timberwolves fandom can sometimes be a dangerous undertaking. Seemingly every positive comes with a built in concern and every step forward turns it's ankle. Still we persevere. I am going to attempt in this article to shed some light on the path I use as I personally travel down this well worn road. I will also take a look at some of the current issues in the world of the Minnesota Timberwolves through the lens of what I hope is a balanced approach to these frequently unbalanced issues. As always, you the reader are free to agree, disagree or, most likely, pick and choose depending on your own personal beliefs. Let's take a walk down the middle, shall we?

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Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few years I have somehow managed to post just over 15,000 comments here at Canis Hoopus. Now, I'm not entirely certain if this is something that I should be ashamed of or proud of but that's a question for another day. The reason I bring it up is this: any of you who have had the misfortune of reading most or, god help you, all of these comments, are aware that I seldom take a hard stand in my basketball related opinions. My reasons for this are twofold. First I respect the vast diversity of knowledge within this basketball community and I do not purport myself as a basketball expert within this context ( I do know more about NBA basketball than my six year old daughter and my mother so I guess there is that). The second reason I seldom take a hard stance, and the reason that is more germane to this article, is that I frequently see some merit in both sides of any given debate. Take for example my recently expressed twitpinion regarding the ongoing debate over analytics:

This isn't just an approach to basketball analysis but it's also a life view. I find myself most comfortable on the middle path in regards to most things. Life is complex, we are all engaged in our own struggle, there are circumstances that are unknown, yadda, yadda, yadda... derive enjoyment and comfort when you can, something something, brutish and short. Now this world view has it's advantages and disadvantages I'm sure. It's instrumental actually in my real life work but I also know it can sometime make me no fun as a fan and other times make me come off as if I have no opinions at all. As with all things, it's a balance that is more successful sometimes and less successful other times. It's the middle path.

Music Break. This here is one of my (many) favorite songs:

Well that was a helpful break, don't you think?

First a Story of Sorts

Before I proceed about basketball I want to take a brief detour into something I probably know even less about than I do about basketball- evolutionary biology. To make this situation even worse I am going to be specifically be discussing neurobiological development across human history. I promise not to spend too much time on this detour as I have little business writing about this in a public setting, but I do have an actual point I want to make.

This concept is stolen from psychologist Rick Hanson. I picked it up mostly from youtube videos, seeing him present in person, and reading his excellent bock Buddha's Brain. Among the concepts posited by Dr. Hanson is the idea that our brains are evolutionarily wired to latch onto negativity and gloss over positivity. His phrasing for this is that we have what he calls a "teflon" brain when it comes to recognizing positive experiences while we have a "velcro" brain in relation to negative experiences. Hanson goes on to argue that this is actually beneficial from a evolutionary standpoint because a propensity to sense threat when there may not be an actual threat may be a protective factor with little consequence whereas the opposite (not noticing an actual threat) could lead to harm. The problem with this is that always being on the lookout for threats both real and imaginary can have lasting health consequences due to the continued secretion of cortisol- otherwise known as the stress hormone. Now this wasn't a problem during our early evolutionary stages because our life expectancy was short regardless. It is, however, a problem now that science, nutrition, and lifestyle has extended most of our lives by quite a few years. Read the book if you want some helpful strategies to combat this phenomena.  Resiliency and oxytocin for the win!

And now for a wildly indefensible misappropriation of Hanson's point: I wonder if the exact opposite of the above concept is sometimes true for sports fan consumption. Ot maybe it's another version of the same thing. Most of us have, at some point, allowed ourselves to engage in mental the gymnastics needed to enjoy an exciting highlight from a player who additionally produced 25 minutes of lowlights to go along with it. It's frequently the highlight that sticks. How many Monday morning conversations are there detailing the multitude of one and two yard runs it took for the team's top running back to finally spring free for that one 60 yard touchdown? Not many in my experience. Some of us us however do tend to put that 60 yard success in the context of the multitude of failures that came before it.* Perhaps this is an evolutionary protective trait? Perhaps not. Maybe some will argue here, based on my loosely told story, that those who focus primarily on that one highlight are further evolved. Long time fans of the Timberwolves might argue that such interpretations leave a person vulnerable to extinction before they have the opportunity to contribute to the gene pool. Almost all will agree that I have become a little lost in my own analogy. Regardless it's fun to think about but perhaps this is a good time to get back to talking about the current state of the Wolves and the middle path.

*I was forced to use a football example here because in my experience there are never discussion about basketball around the Monday morning water cooler. Thank goodness for Canis Hoopus!

The Middle Path

As alluded to above, the middle path, as it is related to basketball fandom, has to do with recognizing and honoring all sides of a given argument. The middle, all fifty shades of it, is a squishy place that is frequently no fun an seldom easy to fully defend. Still, this is often where I find myself. Please allow me to demonstrate this on a few Wolves related topics.

Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins is probably the most interesting issue facing the Wolves this season. As much as most of us love Ricky Rubio it seems fairly clear that Ricky is going to be best utilized in the context of a robust team surrounded by other excellent players. Every move that Wiggins has made, or failed to make, this season has been put under intense scrutiny and subjected to thousands of words and/or close statistical analysis. This is exactly as it should be. The question of whether or not young Andrew will be come the team's next "super star" is an important one that is worthy of much ongoing discussion. Here is what I have decided after two thirds of a season: he might.

There are plenty of things to admire in Wiggins' game. He has shot better than I expected, had some fine defensive moments, displayed jaw dropping athleticism and, probably most impressively, shown an ability to finish at the rim through contact. The primary reason for concern here is actually quite simple: most players do not become superstars. Plenty of rookies have shown promise and then gone on to have perfectly good yet sub superstar careers. This is nothing to be ashamed about of course but it also makes sense that we wolves fans would be somewhat disappointed to see our highest profile rookie ever fail to make the kinds of improvements necessary to become a transcendent NBA star. Please feel free to be hopeful about his potential or to worry about his possible shortcomings, both of these are perfectly valid approaches at this point.

Quick sidebar regarding the James Posey controversy. I don't recall where exactly this comparison came from but I do recall that it was met with some predictable backlash. Our individual response to this probably has much to do with how we remember Posey but also some with how willing we are to temper expectations. Certainly a Poseyesque career for Wiggins would be a disappointment for anyone expecting him to someday have his name thrown around with the likes of Jordan, James, Bird, and Erving. Contrast this with the viewpoint of a fan who fondly remembers James Posey's solid career and who also entered this season worried that Andrew Wiggins can't dribble at an NBA level and might lack the shooting and/or passion necessary to succeed in a meaningful way. In short: the Posey comparison need not be taken as a full scale attack on the future potential of Andrew Wiggins but I can see why it would be.

Zach Lavine

I did not want the Minnesota Timberwolves to take Zach Lavine in last June's NBA draft. I really didn't. I always have concerns about young players who gain notoriety due to extreme bounciness rather than by displaying a variety of specific basketball skills such as dribbling, passing, or shooting. I am especially concerned when, despite the athleticism, a particular player appears undersized in the strength department and is not especially tall by NBA standards. No, I really did not want my favorite team to draft this player. That said, I have not entirely hated Zach Lavine this season. Certainly he has looked lost at times. Sometimes embarrassingly so, especially when he is being asked to play point guard  (something I have to admit I still don't quite understand). He fades to the side on his jump shot (extreme eye test alert) and takes far too many of these at inopportune times.However, he has also shown some things I did not necessarily expect. It's exciting when he gets to the basket, and not just because of the dunks. Zach has a pretty exciting first step which he has used to impressive visual effect a number of times this season, his defense seems much better than I expected it to be, and I get the impression that he is actively trying to improve his game.

There has been some discussion around these parts about Zach Lavine being the worst player in the NBA. I believe this is probably an overblown discussion topic in general. He has been pretty terrible much of the time and certainly any advanced metric is going to bear this out. He is also like 14 years old and has not, in my opinion, been put into a position to succeed by his coach. Maybe this is by design, as some have suggested, so as to give him the kinds of lead guard skills that can only serve as a helpful adjunct after he hits the weight room and moves into his rightful place on the wing, maybe this is by necessity due to an weirdly unbalance roster, or maybe it is due to wishful thinking on the part of the coaching staff. Whatever it is, Zach Lavine has been asked to do things on the basketball court that he is not ready to do and, taken in that context, has actually done fairly ok. As far as his being the worst player in the league this year, that isn't something that I personally am very concerned with. A better question, especially for a team fighting for the worst record in the NBA, might be if he has been the worst prospect in the league and my sense is that the answer to this is that he has not been. Again, and for the record, I did not want the Timberwolves to draft Zach Lavine, but the weird reality is that I kind of like having him on the team. I'm rooting for you Zach so don't let me down.

Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, and the 2013 NBA draft

One Thursday in June of 2013 I was at the snap fitness riding an elliptical machine and watching a weird mix of people in suits talking and NCAA highlight videos. I was listening to music. Every six minutes or so an old looking man in a suit would come to the podium to make a special announcement after which they would immediately switch the camera feed to a very young person in a fancier suit who had the same look on his face that Charlie had when he found that he had purchased a chocolate bar with the golden ticket. By now you have probably figured out that I was watching the NBA draft and also correctly guessed that this night was significant in that it marked by far the most consecutive minutes I have ever spent on an elliptical machine.

Now this draft was pretty much going as I expected until the Detroit Pistons rudely drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. How rude! This led to a series of events in which the Timberwolves ended up with Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Now I'm not interested in spending too much time on the particulars of this result other than to say that at the time I was disappointed overall although I was kind of excited about Dieng as a prospect. The only reason I'm bringing this up here is because I sometimes hear the argument that this draft is proof that Flip Saunders is a master of talent evaluation and that he won that draft night. In response I want to say this: maybe... but probably not.

In retrospect it's true that things may have turned out well for the Minnesota Timberwolves that heart healthy night. I think the world was more or less in agreement that Dieng was going to be a serviceable back up center who is good enough to start in a pinch -which is what I believe he is and will likely remain. This outcome, by the way, should be considered nothing short of fantastic given the draft slot in which Dieng was taken. Shabazz Muhammad, on the other hand, was a little more enigmatic as he entered the NBA. You will recall that his reputation had fallen on hard times over the course of his freshman year at UCLA and that many NBA fans wanted nothing to do with him simply from a personality standpoint. Couple this with the fact that he looked bad by both the eye test and analytics and it is difficult to see what possessed the Timberwolves to draft him.

Since this night Shabazz Muhammad's NBA story has been far more ladders than chutes. He got off to a rocky start at the rookie orientation but then proceeded to do everything asked of him and necessary in order to improve as an NBA player. His hustle was apparent from day one, although we should remember that he was pretty raw for most of his rookie campaign. This past summer Muhammad dedicated himself to conditioning in a way that seemed to pay immediate dividends on the basketball court. His trademark hustle was still intact but he had added a respectable jump shot and an uncanny ability to attack the rim as if his life depended on it.

Unfortunately injuries have cut short Shabazz Muhammad's season so we fans will have to wait until next year to find out if these improvements are permanent. If he is in fact able to remain a high energy spark off the bench, with the ability to start as needed, he will indeed be considered a draft night gem. Still, his apparent work ethic, as well as the kinds of gains in basketball skill he has shown, seem difficult to predict for any player. We may never know exactly what happened that night or why Muhammed ended up a Timberwolf, and the question of whether or not Flip Saunders outsmarted the field or simply got lucky may haunt us forever. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. As for me, I'm not going to worry about it. It's nice to have Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammed on my favorite team and I wish them both long and prosperous NBA careers.

Kevin Garnett

By now we have all read about 30,000 words about the trade that brought Kevin Garnett back the the Minnesota Timberwolves so I'm not going to spend much time on it. I do, however, feel obligated to weigh in considering that this move is quite possibly the most middle of the road response ready move in the history of sports. At least it is for me. It's painfully simple to see this as a very typical Wolvesy (Minnesotay actually) trade in which the heart trumps the head and fans are asked to get excited for reasons of nostalgia and familiarity rather than good competitive sense. Regardless of what we think about Thad Young and/or what else he might have fetched on the open market, it's hard to imagine that Kevin Garnett, at this point in his career, was the most useful return from a basketball X's and O's perspective. On the other hand.... KEVIN GARNETT!!!!!

A lot of hyperbolic words have been written and said in the last week about issues such as leadership, mentorship, and competitive juices. Maybe Garnett will help with these things or maybe he will clash with some of the younger players in a way that creates the wrong kind of culture in the locker room. I have no way of knowing and look forward to hearing what some of the Canis Hoopus beat reporters  have to say after witnessing it first hand. Kevin Garnett Jr's tenure with the Timberwolves undoubtedly earned Kevin Garnett Sr. this high level of excitement and, regardless of any results, it will most certainly be interesting to see number 21 back on the floor in a Wolves jersey. Personally I'm not really ready to fully dissect my thoughts about the idea of Garnett becoming a primary owner of the team but suffice it to sat that pretty much everything I have just written applies equally to the basketball court and the executive office. It is all very interesting and a good reminder that:

Some Final Thoughts

It seems I have written a lot of words and said very little. So it sometimes goes. Before I end this I do want to address a misconception that I fear this article may have created. Despite being a perpetual walker down the middle path, I do enjoy and encourage arguing about sports. Why else are we even here?  Sports is a wonderful hobby and there are a good many ways to enjoy it and, of course, arguing the finer points is one of them. I might even suggest that arguing about sports is a hobby in and of itself. Many of us love to argue about the nuance of sports and what a joyful reality that we have found each other. Most of the people I know in real life do not want to argue about basketball and, even if they do, they are probably the kind of person who thinks Kobe is as good as Michael Jordan and thus not worth arguing with anyway. People are passionate and have spent hours watching and studying the game. Some people have put hard work and specialized knowledge into creating and understanding advanced statistical models. Of course we should expect people to dig in a defend their position.

Here is what I don't understand: why the occasional vitriol? I'm not directing this at anyone in particular or trying to inject too much overt judgment into future discussions. Argue away, point out the flaws in the reasoning of your opponent. That's what good arguing is and it can help up strengthen our own viewpoints as well as learn new ways of thinking. I would just ask us to remember this: that person you are arguing with, even the one with the terrible hot take about how Kobe carried Shaq to three championships, they are one of the few people around you who share your same passion. Embrace them, welcome them, share a recipe with them, and then point out how wrong they are because they probably need the help.

Here is another song I like: