As the Minnesota Timberwolves wallow through the fourth season of a miasmic rebuilding process, this season is yet another one of talent evaluation geared towards a future that sits ever beyond the horizon.
Under that heading, let’s take a look at how the T-Wolves performed in a gutty 112-103 win over the New York Knicks to see if a promising future is anywhere in sight.
Kevin Love had a game for the history books: 31 points, 31 boards and five assists sprinkled in for good measure.
Love’s 31 rebounds were definitely aided to an extent by his propensity for missing close-range shots—eight in total. However, his low center of gravity makes him extremely difficult to root out of position; plus, he has immaculate timing of when to jump for loose balls, compensating for the fact that he has zero elevation.
The most important weapon in Love’s rebounding arsenal, though, is clearly his vacuum-like hands. No matter how hard, how soft, what angle and whether it was deflected or not, Love was able to suck in a wide variety of wild loose balls. The ones he couldn’t grab outright, he’d control with soft tips until he was able to pull them down.
Offensively, Love has only one post move he trusts, a mechanical right hook over his left shoulder he unleashes without any lift. Defended by wings in Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, Love was only 2-6 in the post.
Love also has no elevation at the basket, having to resort to pump fakes to clear space to finish. He had three layups blocked, and has one of the worst shots-blocked percentages in the game.
Love is a decent jump shooter, as he knocked down 3-8 attempts from outside the paint against the Knicks, but his three-point range is overrated. He only shot 1-4 from bonus land against New York (and was unguarded on his make) and is only a 32 percent career shooter from behind the arc.
None of Love’s five assists were particularly impressive—four of them were rudimentary passes to wide open players, though he did execute a nice pass to Darko Milicic curling out of the triangle for a layup.
Defensively, Love offered zero resistance to whoever he was guarding, and the T-Wolves had to offer significant help when Love was attacked. He’s not a shot blocker; he didn’t move his feet particularly well, and he was often late in his rotations.
Right now, Love is the Timberwolves’ best player, which makes it hard for Minnesota to win games since he’s essentially a glorified role player.
Minnesota’s best scorer is Michael Beasley. He can get to the rim in a straight line, has a feathery touch around the basket and is even showing signs of basketball intelligence and unselfishness—looking to re-feed the post after kick outs, not forcing the action one a one-on-one fast break, waiting for a trailer who drew a foul, reading the Knicks overplaying a screen and adjusting his route the other way to notch a jumper, and making several excellent defensive rotations.
Beasley’s go-to move is a right wing jab-step jumper that with his size and elevation is hard to contest. When the Knicks played up on him to put more pressure on his shot, he simply spun baseline late in the fourth, finishing with an assertive dunk.
Beasley is also playing with a freedom and an assertiveness he never showed in Miami’s rigid, no-mistakes system. With the T-Wolves not worried about a playoff berth any time soon, Beasley is allowed to make mistakes without repercussions. In Miami, those same mistakes would lead to lost games, which a playoff team like the Heat couldn’t afford.
On the minus side, Beasley forced more than a half-dozen shots, has tunnel vision and is totally soft, shying away from contact at all opportunities. This characteristic rings through statistically as well—29 shot attempts, two free throws. This softness will keep Beasley from being the dominant, alpha-male type scorer the Timberwolves will need to become a contender. However, should the T-Wolves get that scorer, then what exactly becomes Beasley’s role, since he offers little off the ball?
For a team starved for wing talent, though, Beasley is a shot in the arm—even if his best projected role is as a sixth-man designated scorer that won’t be a team’s primary offensive player.
As for the rest of the Wolves, Darko Milicic has poor court awareness and only wants to go left—on one occasion spinning to his left away from an open lane to the basket into two Knicks defenders. He, too, is defenseless, and while he’s a respectable passer, his decision making leaves much to be desired. He’s obviously not the center the T-Wolves need going forward.
Wesley Johnson didn’t try to do too much, though he made some mistakes in moving within the triangle (which is understandable for a young player). He made his open jumpers (6-9 FG 3-5 3FG 15 PTS) didn’t make too many bad decisions with the ball, and had several exemplary baseline rotations to protect the rim.
Sebastian Telfair can’t penetrate, can’t defend, can’t shoot (airballing a floater and a layup among his five attempts) and only had moderate success—eight assists, three turnovers—by giving the ball up and getting out of the way. There’s little Telfair offers to a winning team and his lack of upside offers even less to a losing one. Once Jonny Flynn and Luke Ridnour heal up, Telfair should find himself glued to the bench.
Corey Brewer still handles too high, still has a flawed jumper, still has no discipline on defense, still forces shots and drives and still is a terrific athlete. His lack of development is a major reason why the T-Wolves haven’t developed the past four years.
Anthony Tolliver is a small forward in a center’s body (1-7 FG 1-4 3FG 2-2 FT 1 REB 0 AST 2 TO 5 PTS). His only value is as a floor-stretching big.
Sundiata Gaines overhandles and can’t shoot, but he’s fine as a fourth-string point guard.
Kosta Koufos missed a right hook in his brief action.
It’s interesting that the T-Wolves ran their offense through the various motions of the triangle in the first half, but their second-half offense was almost exclusively Beasley isolations and Love post-ups. This is dangerous for several reasons.
One, the Triangle isn’t a "sometimes offense," but a full-fledged philosophy. Breaking the offense and breaking the philosophy from a coaching end indicates that the offense is flawed, and breaking it from a players end triumphs the self over the team.
By the T-Wolves running various isolations, they’re basically stating that one-on-one play trumps team play, especially as there are plenty of isolation opportunities run out of triangle continuity, anyway.
If the team has success outside of the triangle, the players will break it off more to run different plays. After all, if the team is having success with something easier, why run something harder?
Also, there’s a strong belief by basketball theorists that the triangle is the best offense in the game. Any deviation from it is a deviation towards something easier.
Of course on the other hand, the Wolves are a young team who need victories for self-confidence, and the triangle is definitely a long-term, not a short-term plan for a success, given how difficult it is to learn for young players and how radical it is for older players who are used to two-man offenses or stat-compiling game plans.
How often the T-Wolves run the triangle going forward is something to pay attention to.
What do the Timberwolves need going forward?
- An athletic and smart shot-blocking center to pair with Love, and not an Al Jefferson type who was lazy and missed assignments.
- An athletic scorer who can finish near the basket. This player can play any position, though a center would be preferred, with a shooting guard as the second best option. Said player must be willing to cut and pass as the triangle offense dictates, not stand around until the ball entered his hands, a la Jefferson.
- A competent point guard with shooting range. Neither Ridnour nor Flynn are adept three-point shooters.
- Defenders, defenders, defenders.
- A coach to deconstruct Brewer and rebuild him from the ground up.
- More athletes.
- A wing who can create his own shot.
Most importantly, the T-Wolves still need an influx of talent. While fans are in a state of amore over Beasley’s breakout games (against awful defensive teams) and Love’s 30-30 line, having those two as the T-Wolves best players (with their third-best player being…Johnson? Ridnour? Darko?) will only have Minnesota loving the lottery.