The Minnesota Timberwolves got off to exactly the start for which their fans hoped. Sitting at 7-4, the Wolves were in good shape.
Then their .521 opponents' winning percentage started to catch up to them. But such is life in the Western Conference, where all but two teams have a good enough record to make the playoffs in the East.
The Wolves have lost five of their past six games and have fallen to 8-9 on the season, but really, that's not the worst thing in the world. There are positives to draw from Minnesota's start to the year.
Kevin Love is looking healthy and is playing as well as ever. Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic seem like solid players with which the franchise can move forward. Meanwhile, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer have been two of the best value free-agent signings of the summer.
The problem comes when you get to the bench. The starters have been great. Minnesota tends to get off to quick starts, dominating in first quarters, but once the bench comes in, competition starts to neutralize.
J.J. Barea hasn't had a great season. Neither has Dante Cunningham. Neither has Robbie Hummel. Or Alexey Shved. Or, clearly, Derrick Williams.
It's still early, but through 17 games, here are individual grades for each of the Timberwolves' best 10 players so far this season:
Talk about regression.
This is sad. Basketball junkies who watched enough Olympic basketball over the summer of 2012 may have started to fall for Shved. He was quick, smart, and he seemed like someone who could legitimately contribute to an offense.
At the beginning of last season this trend continued. With Ricky Rubio out to start the year, Shved ended up coming off the bench and doing a decent amount of ball handling for an injury-riddled Timberwolves squad. With his strong play early on, Shved's playing time started to spike up—and so did his volume.
Through January 3 of last season, Shved was playing more than 28 minutes a night and posted averages of 11.1 points and 4.6 assists while shooting 40.7 percent from the field and 32.9 percent from three.
Those aren't dominant numbers. They're not particularly efficient numbers. But for a 23-year-old rookie learning how to play in the NBA, he gave a sense that he belonged. A career as a valuable rotation player looked certain.
Then, Shved just stopped being productive. His minutes fell with the return of Rubio and he shot only 34.5 percent from the field and 26.4 percent from the three for the rest of the season. He looked lost, overmatched playing off the ball more than he had during the start of the year.
Shved's second half last season probably would have earned him a D grade. He didn't give the Wolves much, but at least there was some hope for this season. After 29 games of quality play, Shved may have just hit the rookie wall.
Well, now Shved is hitting the wall, backing up, and continuing to concuss himself, running into it time and time again.
You might want to cover your eyes for his 2013-14 numbers: 5.5 PER, 35.7 true shooting percentage, 9.3 points per 36 minutes, and he's doing all of this in only nine minutes a game.
Maybe Shved is one of those guys who plays better when he gets more minutes. Maybe he's one of those guys who needs to ball in his hands to be more successful. But the question to ask at this point is, is it worth putting the ball in Shved's hands with how much he's struggled so far this year?
As of now, Rick Adelman thinks it's not, which is pretty reasonable considering how poorly Shved has started off this season.
Derrick Williams is gone so let's make this a two-for-the-price-of-one slide.
Williams was in the midst of his worst season ever. He's not physical enough to play the 4, not quick enough to play the 3, and he has Kevin Love blocking his minutes no end.
Sometimes, how a player's career turns out is less on the player and more on the team. For now, we don't know which category Williams' career falls in, but isn't it possible that his development (or lack thereof) falls more on the Wolves than on him? There is such a thing as being drafted by the wrong team.
Look at some players who haven't gotten off to good starts to their careers because of roster redundancy. Just this year, we've seen Anthony Bennett struggle to get off the bench in the Cleveland Cavaliers' crowded frontcourt. But this isn't new.
Maybe the best example is Tyreke Evans, someone whose career looked like it was about to take off after winning Rookie of the Year. But Evans didn't continue to get better in an offense with almost no ball movement. His development stalled.
That could be on coaching. It could be on management. It could be on roster composition and team environment. Likely, it's some mix of all three of those elements.
It's possible Williams falls into that Evans category.
Now, for as much flak as Evans gets, Williams clearly isn't on the same level as him. He's been far worse than Evans ever was in Sacramento.
Williams is a forward who is shooting 35.2 percent from the field. In 162 minutes played this year, the list of teams against which he has tallied an assist is more inappropriately short than an episode of Futurama:
2. Actually, that's it.
Williams had just one assist in that Celtics game. He has one assist on the season. And realistically, that assist wasn't even an assist. In garbage time of an 18-point game, Williams swung the ball around the perimeter to a guarded A.J. Price, who held the ball, jab stepped, pulled back, and then hit a step-back jumper.
Ultimately, the Williams-for-Luc Richard Mbah a Moute deal will probably be a good one for the Wolves, whose bench has been a serious problem all year long. Mbah a Moute is a defender, who won't mind coming off the bench and getting limited minutes. He's a decent rebounder and isn't awful from midrange. Ultimately, he and Chase Budinger, who has been injured all season but is set to return soon, can help the bench attack, which needs to see vast improvements for the Wolves to hit their ceiling.
Hummel wasn't really supposed to contribute this year. That wasn't part of the plan, but when Chase Budinger went down, the Wolves needed to find a replacement for him in their rotation. Cue: Hummel.
Everyone associates Hummel with his college days at Purdue. Everyone. I mean everyone. Yes, I'm talking to you.
He was America's collegiate darling, hitting clutch threes and then going down with constant depressing knee injuries. When the Wolves selected him late in the second round of the NBA Draft a couple years back, it seemed like all college basketball fans were ecstatic. Everyone (and again, I do mean everyone) roots for Robbie Hummel.
Hummel, though, has been placed in a position in which he's not likely to succeed. For all the adoration he may have gotten when he was in West Lafayette, In., he's likely not an NBA rotation player. At least, he isn't a rotation player right now.
In limited minutes, Hummel has been a three-point specialist. The problem is, though he's a quality shooter on the perimeter, he hasn't hit his threes.
The Wolves are sending the rookie to the corners and letting him camp out there. 28 of his 43 field-goal attempts on the season have been three-point shots. Meanwhile, 15 of those 28 threes have come from the corner, a distinctly high ratio of corner threes to non-corner threes.
Hummel's shot selection has been good. He's taking open looks. He just isn't hitting them. 4-for-15 on those corner threes isn't going to cut it, but we're talking about a pretty small sample size here.
That said, he may not get all the chances in the world to turn his season around. Budinger is slowly making his way back, and once he returns, he is slotted to become the Wolves' best bench player. Unfortunately, that likely means a heavy playing-time decrease for Hummel.
The Wolves need Barea to produce. He might just be one of the most important players on the roster.
With Budinger out, Barea is supposed to the best scorer Minnesota has coming off the bench. He's supposed to be the instant offense. So far this year, that hasn't happened.
Barea has had his moments, but he's shooting under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from three. But he has to keep playing because really, Minnesota has no one else.
A.J. Price is not going to surpass Barea as the Wolves' primary backup point guard. That means Barea has to start becoming more efficient for the Wolves to win games.
He's given instant offense; he just hasn't done it consistently. And since Barea is the type of undersized point guard whom defenses love to shoot over, he needs to provide some sort of consistency on the other end of the court in order to stay a contributor on a night-in, night-out basis.
To find the value in Cunningham, you have to look past the inefficiency posed in his numbers. You have to see beyond the 44.6 percent true shooting percentage, beyond the 12.4 PER and the almost nonexistent free-throw rate.
The fact is that Cunningham has flaws, but he has value, as well. He is a strong defender who can help body guys down low. As a somewhat unathletic, 6-foot-8 power forward, he's not going to be a rim protector, but he will help at least some with low-post defense.
On the other end, he does provide some stretch. Actually, he might be a little too comfortable in providing that stretch, considering his atrocious free-throw rate. Seriously, we're talking as bad as it gets.
On 100 field-goal attempts, and in 325 total minutes played this season, Cunningham has attempted just one more free throw than Derrick Williams has assists.
He is 0-of-2 from the charity stripe this season. Zero made free throws. In 325 minutes. We can probably go out on the limb and say there are better free-throw rates out there. But Cunningham keeps living and dying with that mid-range shot.
It's not like Cunningham is bad from mid-range. Actually, quite the opposite. He has made 39.4 percent of his mid-range shots this season, according to NBA.com, but amazingly, 71 of Cunningham's 100 field-goal attempts have been classified as mid-range shots. That's an exorbitant percentage of shots away from the rim, especially considering that Cunningham is a 6-foot-8 forward.
Lineups that have J.J. Barea and Cunningham in them are scoring only 96.3 points per 100 possessions on the season, according to NBA.com. They're also getting outscored by 7.5 points per 100 possessions. But those are the Wolves' two most-played bench contributors.
The offense in those lineups has to get better. Some of that falls on Barea's inefficiency, but some of it is due to Cunningham's inability to get to the rim—and the line as well. If the Wolves' bench wants to improve as the season chugs along, those numbers have to change.
So this is what happens when you pair the best outlet passer in the NBA with a guy who leaks out more than a broken sink.
Brewer is a premier transition player, both as a finisher around the rim and as a runner in the open space. Kevin Love, meanwhile, chucks all kinds of outlet passes all over the court. Seriously, he'll throw them anywhere.
Brewer is the perfect fit stylistically for the Wolves. He can run, he's athletic, and he can defend on the perimeter. The big problem with him, as it usually is, is that he can't shoot. Seriously, he just doesn't put the ball in the rim from distance.
Honestly, that would be fine in most other scenarios. A small forward who doesn't shoot threes, but affects the game on the defensive end and still finds a way to contribute in transition and with his off-ball cutting can be more than just valuable. He can be essential, but the way Brewer doesn't make threes is concerning.
Brewer has always been a high-volume three-point shooter, and it's never made much sense as to why. This season, he is averaging 4.1 three-point attempts per 36 minutes, but he's hitting only 29.9 percent of his shots from distance, right in line with his career percentage from three. Stop taking so many threes, Corey. Just stop.
It's always been a problem. Last year in Denver, Brewer took 5.5 threes per 36 minutes en route to a 29.6 percent three-point percentage. Again, stop taking so many threes, Corey.
The Wolves don't have many shooters. This year, they find themselves 26th in the NBA in three-point percentage, which is actually an improvement from last year, when they finished dead last in the league. But Brewer is one of the main culprits hurting that number.
It's not like Minnesota needs him to continue to chuck up threes. The team is 12th in three-point rate (percentage of field-goal attempts that are threes). The Wolves are getting their threes up, they just happen not to go in.
Kevin Martin can stroke it from three. So can Kevin Love. Robbie Hummel will continue to shoot, as will J.J. Barea. Even Ricky Rubio is starting to become more effective from three in a low-volume sample size.
The Wolves' shooters actually might not be as bad as the numbers say they are and there are enough shots to go around that Brewer doesn't need to continue to throw up bad threes just to create spacing, especially considering how clear it is becoming that he struggles shooting on the right side of the court, which is where he needs to play often considering both Love and Martin are left-side dominant players.
Rubio doesn't get enough credit for just how good his defense has been over the first few years of his career. He's feisty on the ball, aggressive off it, and always has his feet moving.
It's not just about the steals with Rubio. Tallying up a bunch of steals or blocks does not automatically make someone a good defender. Last time I checked, Allen Iverson led the NBA in steals per game three times and we can pretty surely say that no one ever called him a great defender.
Rubio is a high-risk guy, but someone you want defending opposing point guards with his 6-foot-4 height and longer-than-usual wingspan. And really, it's that defense that keeps Rubio's grade as high as it is right now.
Rubio should be on his way to the offensive promised land. He should be close to dominating the NBA by now. But he's not—and that's mainly because he still can't shoot.
Rubio has actually made his threes this year (41.4 percent from three on 29 attempts), but that's never really been the issue. Rubio has never been a three-point shooter, but at the same time, he has shot 33 percent from beyond the arc in his career. That number could be a lot worse.
The problem Rubio has always had is with his mid-range game. From about 16 feet out to the three-point line, he's the anti-Chris Paul.
At the moment, Rubio is shooting 23.1 percent from mid-range. 40 percent of his made field goals have come on drives to the basket. When he's not getting to the hoop, he's not acting as a very effective scorer.
In some ways, it's amazing that Rubio can be so good in the pick-and-pop and the pick-and-roll without having the jump shot as much of a threat.
Think about the best pick-and-roll point guards we've seen in recent years—Chris Paul, Steve Nash, etc. Those guys are all tremendous shooters with quick releases. Because of that, you can't go under screens against any of them unless you want to get burned by the jumper.
With Rubio running the pick-and-roll, defenders can—and should—go under screens all day. Force him the shoot the ball, lay off the ball handler, and try your best to cut off passing lanes. Of course, if you do, Rubio might just pass it through your legs anyway, but that's Ricky Rubio. He's such a good passer that his lack of shooting doesn't inhibit him as much as it should.
Imagine, though, if Rubio were to put together some semblance of a shot. For now, though, that seems a long way off so we just need to wait—and maybe continue to wish—for that to happen.
Pekovic is having a typical Pekovic season, but there is one question that continues to come up regarding a Pekovic-Love frontcourt in Minnesota: Can the Wolves win without any rim protectors?
We know the Wolves can compete with a Pek-Love frontcourt. Clearly, that is true. Even with an 8-9 record to start the year, this is a strong, well-coached team that has caught some bad breaks in its first 17 games. Really, Minnesota is one Love tap against the Los Angeles Clippers and one Love three against the Cleveland Cavaliers away from being 10-7, and no one would be complaining if the Wolves got off to that sort of start.
Once this team becomes a playoff team, though, and has to make the next step, how far can it go with Love and Pekovic in its frontcourt? We know those two provide loads of offense. We know they gobble up offensive rebounds better than any other starting frountcourt in the NBA. What we don't know is how they can defend against top-flight teams who love to go to the rim consistently.
Love is actually an underrated defender in some ways (more on that later), but Pekovic is someone who is a massive body and can bully just about anyone who's ever stepped on a basketball court, but he doesn't have the "verticality" that so many rim protectors boast.
This isn't about shot blocking. It's about contesting shots. There are plenty of centers out there who aren't majorly athletic and who aren't necessarily shot blockers, but who can defend the rim like Albert Brooks defending his life.
Marc Gasol is fresh off a Defensive Player of the Year award and no one has ever classified him as an athlete. Actually, he's closer to oafy than anything else, but Gasol blows up pick-and-rolls, has tremendous hands, knows how to alter shots without getting his fingers on them, and hasn't missed a defensive rotation since William the Conqueror stormed Normandy.
Pekovic doesn't fit that bill. If he starts to improve defensively, the Wolves' future will likely be set with him, but if he doesn't, then maybe we'll start to hear rumblings that Minnesota is trying to bring a rim protector into town at some point down the line.
Martin has become arguably the best jump shooter in the league from the left side of the floor. It's absolutely astonishing what he's been able to do this season, both off the dribble and in catch-and-shoots for this team.
The Wolves finished dead last in the NBA in three-point percentage last season. This year, they're not exactly doing well (26th in the NBA, as mentioned before), but at least there is the threat of the three. Kevin Love takes more than six threes a game and Martin, well, Martin is just dominant from downtown.
The first-year Timberwolves' shooting guard is shooting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc on 5.5 attempts per game. But if you look at the way he's shot the ball, it's almost all come from the left side.
Martin is 6-for-13 from the left corner. Meanwhile, he's 23-for-50 on threes from above the break on the left side. 46 percent from that area is almost an unrealistically efficient number, especially considering that Martin is taking more than three shots a game from that spot on the left. But the numbers don't necessarily seem to be swollen, just effective.
Martin's game has always had a left-side dominant geometric component and he's always liked taking his threes from that area, but as he's gotten older and become less dependent on drives and going to the rim, he's become a better jump shooter.
It's really a chicken-or-the-egg type of question. Has Martin become a better jump shooter because he has lost some ability to go to the rim consistently or has be stopped going to the rim as much because he's become such a good jump shooter? Really, it's a question about basketball Darwinism, adapting to a change of style as the game evolves.
Right now, one could make a case that Martin was the best value signing for any NBA team over the summer. He is due to earn only $6.5 million this year and is making a serious case for becoming an All-Star out West with his 22.9 points per game and 19.8 PER.
He's not going to impact much on the defensive side of the ball, but if Martin keeps scoring at the rate he's been doing this season, the rest of the Western Conference is going to start taking note.
Isn't it so nice to have Kevin Love back?
It seems like so many people forgot about him last season, when we would hear debates about if Blake Griffin or LaMarcus Aldridge was the best power forward in the NBA. Now, that discussion doesn't even exist anymore.
Love has returned in brilliant fashion, averaging 24.3 points per game and leading the NBA in rebounding at 13.9 per game. After 18 injury-plagued games last season forced his true shooting down to 45.8 percent, he's spiked back up to his usual Love numbers. Basically, all we've seen from Kevin Love this season is that he's been Kevin Love.
Love is one of the best shooting power forwards in the NBA, he's the best outlet passer in the league, he's one of the best overall passing bigs in the league, he's the best offensive rebounder in the league, and he's carried this T'Wolves squad for long stretches throughout this season.
There's really only one criticism to make about Love's game: his defense. But Love's D may actually be overly criticized.
It's possible that Love isn't a poor defender and that he just doesn't have the right complementary big with which to play. It's basically the Zach Randolph principle.
Randolph was never a good defender until he went to Memphis. Granted, a large part of that had to do with the fact that he didn't show much effort on the defensive end, a problem which does not apply to Love. Stylistically, though, Randolph could be a nice defensive comp for how Love can develop.
Once Randolph started playing with Marc Gasol (and once he started trying) he became significantly more effective defensively. That's because he could use his strengths without having to worry about his weaknesses.
Practically, Love and Z-Bo have the same strengths defensively: mainly their strength is strength. Those guys are stronger than pretty much anyone that goes up against them on the low block. Because of that, opposing bigs can't really back either of them down in the post.
Once the Memphis bigs, Randolph and Gasol, developed the league's best chemistry among starting big men, Z-Bo began to use his strength even more as a post defender. He became one of the league's biggest bullies, roughing up anyone who would come near him and if a quicker player were to get by him, it wouldn't be as big of a deal as it was in the past because Gasol, one of the best help defenders in the NBA, could come over and pick up his scraps.
Right now, Love is capable of defending like Randolph. He's not going to be a rim protector with his ambiguous height and without much of a vertical, but he can be a bully with that incredible lower-body strength. The problem is that Nikola Pekovic isn't Gasol. There's no one to recover for Love when quicker players get past him and get into the paint. And therein lies the biggest problem with the Love-Pek frontcourt which so many people (myself included) adore so fondly.
As Love continues to develop, maybe his style changes. Maybe his game evolves differently, but for now, that's just a small nitpick of one of the NBA's 10 best players and definitely its best power forward.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
(Unless specified otherwise, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com and are valid as of November 29, 2013.)