To say that the Minnesota Timberwolves' loss to the Milwaukee Bucks was not as close as the final score of 116-101 indicated would be a bit of an understatement. After a strong first quarter that saw Karl-Anthony Towns shoot a perfect 7/7 from the floor on his way to scoring 15 of the team's 35 points, the Wolves went on to be outscored over the final three quarters 87-66.
The Wolves tallied a season-high 25 turnovers tonight, with Ricky Rubio (6), Zach LaVine (5), and Towns (4) providing the vast majority. After a rough stretch during the second quarter that saw the Wolves lose their lead for good, the second unit, lead by Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, and LaVine, helped give the Wolves a glimmer of hope during the second half, bringing the game within seven at one point.
Sam Mitchell elected to stay with the second unit after they clawed back, instead of bringing in the calvary sitting on the bench, and ultimately they ran out of gas (Mitchell did say after the game that he was trying to send a message to the starters). LaVine, Dieng, Muhammad, and Jones all logged more minutes than Towns, Rubio, and Andrew Wiggins. Along with this, Mitchell sent out the lineup of Jones-LaVine-Muhammad-Payne-Gregg Smith on more than one occasion, leaving Wolves' fans scratching their collective heads.
For the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were unstoppable tonight. The Greek Freak posted a near triple-double (27 points, 9 boards, 12 assists) and was a constant thorn in the Wolves' side on both offense and defense. Antetokounmpo displayed many of the reasons that make him such a polarizing player; for example, he functioned as the Bucks point guard on offense (and laid waste to Rubio in the process) while also guarding Dieng on defense. His 6'11" frame and unique combination of guard and big man skills make him such a uncommon, high-ceiling commodity.
And for as prolific as Antetokounmpo was tonight, it wouldn't be crazy to say that Middleton played even better. Middleton reigned fire from the sky tonight, scoring 32 points on 11/16 from the field (and 8/9 from 3!), while also providing solid defense. However, the court wasn't the only place in which Middleton's name surfaced.
In his article about Ricky Rubio, ESPN's Zach Lowe addressed the Rubio for Middleton trade rumors that swirled around on Twitter near the trade deadline two weeks ago. Lowe reported that the Wolves required that Middleton be involved in any trade that would send Rubio to Milwaukee (which was known). Apparently, they were even willing to involve this year's first round pick after the Bucks declined.
I've said before that Rubio should not be untouchable and demanding Middleton be included in the trade was the correct call by general manager Milt Newton; Middleton is the prototypical three-and-D wing that is so valuable in the NBA of today. What makes Middleton even more valuable is that he is only 24-years-old and is on an extremely team-friendly contract ($15 million base salary that is on a decreasing scale over the next five seasons).
If it were up to me (and I am a big Rubio fan), I would probably take that deal. But there is a caveat: the Wolves would have had to already acquired, or be close to acquiring, a legitimate replacement. A quick look over the upcoming point guard free agent class provides only one possible name: Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies. Suffice it to say that I don't see Conley in a Wolves jersey next season. As for the draft, the only highly regarded point guard prospect is Kris Dunn of Providence. However, would the team really want a rookie point guard leading the team and potentially delaying the growth of both individual players and the team? Also, if the Wolves had to part ways with their draft pick in order to acquire Middleton, that leaves this thought totally moot.
This has lead many Wolves' faithful and writers to fear that the plan, had the Wolves acquired Middleton, was to transition LaVine into the point guard role permanently and, frankly, I don't blame them. As the great Britt Robson pointed out, you don't play LaVine at the point for 75% of his minutes on accident. If this actually was the plan (and, keep in mind, it is still essentially speculation), that would be extremely disappointing. LaVine has proven time and time again that he is more efficient and effective when logging minutes at the two, not at the point; seeing him as a point is like drinking from a mirage oasis in the desert. Sure, LaVine as a point guard looks appealing from a distance, but the closer you get to it, the more you realize it is nothing but a dream. Trading Rubio and putting faith in LaVine to manage the team at the point guard position would be a short-sighted and baffling attempt to become successful, and it would ultimately hurt both the team and LaVine.
This (again, speculated) plan is merely one example of why many people believe that Mitchell and Newton aren't right for this team long term. The fact of the matter remains that the Wolves are in a position to choose their direction going forward, and early in the season it seemed as if it would be impossible for the franchise to "mess up." While the higher-ups haven't made any moves to suggest otherwise, the evidence suggests that it is possible the Wolves will stand relatively pat this summer, specifically as it regards to the coaching staff. This would have both pros and cons, but ultimately it would convey a lack of willingness to take the necessary risks needed to best align the franchise for future success; basically, it would show an unwillingness to reach out of the franchise's comfort zone. This would truly be the only way that the Wolves' brass could mess up what the Wolves have going for them.