Over the next month, Blazer's Edge will be rolling out season previews for all 30 NBA teams. Continuing this feature, we discuss the Minnesota Timberwolves with Bryan Anderson and Eric Goldman of Canis Hoopus. (Yesterday's preview: Miami Heat)
Minnesota Timberwolves 2014-15 Season Preview
2013-14 Record: 40-42, No. 3 in Northwest Division, No. 10 in Western Conference
Roster additions: Anthony Bennett, Kyrylo Fesenko, Brady Heslip (rookie, undrafted), Zach LaVine (rookie, No. 13), Glenn Robinson III (rookie, No. 40), Andrew Wiggins (rookie, No. 1), Mo Williams, Thaddeus Young
Roster subtractions: Dante Cunningham, Othyus Jeffers, Kevin Love, Luc Mbah a Moute, Alexey Shved
SB Nation affiliate: Canis Hoopus
Blazer's Edge: Do you feel like the Timberwolves got fair market value for Kevin Love this past summer?
Bryan Anderson: This is an interesting question because the answer is both yes and no, depending on what you consider 'fair'.
In a straight sense, no, the Wolves go nowhere near fair value. Love is a top 10 player in the NBA, and the best 'real' player the Wolves got in return was Thaddeus Young. Who is a solid pro for sure, but no one would put him in a franchise player role. The Wolves get off easy in this regard because of Love's relative obscurity. If the Clippers trade Griffin for, say, Tiago Splitter....well, you get the idea.
That said, the Wolves at the same time got far more than they had any right to. If you do find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being forced to trade an All Star, what you want to get is younger, cheaper, and someone with All Star potential down the line. To grab the #1 pick in the draft for Love, much less a second #1 and Thad as well, is an absolute haul. Remember, this is a league where guys like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul get traded for Eric Gordon and Mo Harkless. Granted, a lot of it was LeBron being a backseat GM, but credit Saunders for waiting the Cavs out, as well as targetting Hinke's tank machine.
Eric Goldman: At this moment, yes. The Wolves were backed into a corner (of their own making) with Love; we've seen this before with other superstars. Obviously it's never a great thing to trade an all-NBA player, but given the circumstances, Flip Saunders did well. He didn't panic and make a trade prior to the draft, he waited and wound up getting as good a deal as he could have. Of course, now Andrew Wiggins has to become a star. There are a lot of eggs in that basket, and if he doesn't achieve stardom, the trade looks a lot worse.
BE: Ricky Rubio led the league in steals last year and was second in total assists, though he struggles to finish at the rim and isn't a good jump-shooter. What's his value in Minnesota? Is he worth the type of contract extension he's seeking?
BA: We often describe Rubio in cliches like "the engine that makes the car run" or "the straw that stirs the drink", and it's mainly because his value is kind of a weird one. In an era where teams build their success around fast, scoring guards, the Wolves have staked their fortunes on a cerebral, pass-first one.
In every way that NBA players can get an overall grade, Rubio is solidly a net positive. He plays tough defense and his playmaking is genuinely spectacular. But yes, the shooting. It's a serious issue. I generally subscribe to the Doc Rivers/Rajon Rondo model: he doesn't have to make threes, but he has to make layups and free throws. So far, the layups thing is not working out real well.
The hope is that Flip will run a focused pick-and-roll offense this season, as opposed to Adelman's corner system, which will maximize Ricky's facilitating and minimize his shooting woes. In a fast system with athletes on the wings and the freedom to take some absurd risks every now and then, Rubio can easily lead the league in assists. Guys who can drive an offense at that magnitude generally have standout value, even with shortcomings in other areas.
As for monetary value, he's not worth the max deal his agent wants. Nor do I think he really expects to get it; negotiator 101 says start high and go from there. Saunders has a habit of playing the waiting game whenever possible, so expect him to let most...if not all...of the season play out before making an offer. As things stand, something in the $12 million per year range (Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson) is reasonable.
EG: Well, I wouldn't be eager to give him a max deal, but he's a very good player as is. Big positive effect on the team. Very good defensively. When he's playing well, he controls the game at both ends. The finishing is a huge problem, and it's no given that he improves in that area. I would be more than willing to go to $12-$13M a year with him on a four year extension, especially given the rising salary cap. We'll see if that gets it done.
BE: With Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Glenn Robinson III, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine, this 'Wolves roster is loaded with young talent. How do you see things working out this year with the young players? What are your realistic expectations for them?
BA: This year specifically is going to probably disappoint a lot of the causal fans. For one, the Wolves are going to run with a starting likeup of 4....maybe even 5....veterans, depending on whether Saunders goes with Brewer or Wiggins at that small forward spot. And either way, the team isn't likely to be very good anyway, at least in a playoff sense.
Last season the Wolves were a 10th seed, and their competition for those last couple spots only got tougher. The Grizzlies added Vince Carter. The Suns added Isaiah Thomas. The Mavericks reloaded with Tyson Chandler Parsons. Meanwhile the Wolves lost a top 10 player.
The overall talent level of this team isn't much higher than the Kings or Jazz, and both of those teams's talent is much more NBA ready. Wiggins and LaVine are distant future bets, to say the least. Andrew has a couple glaring flaws that will prevent him from creating good offense early on. Zach simply needs to improve his basketball IQ. Anthony Bennett had a miserable year last season, to the point that this might as well be his rookie year.
So the youth movement is only going to be a part-time movement off the bench this season. Rubio, Martin, Young and Pekovic will play the lion's share of minutes, and the two youngsters likely to succeed them early on are Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad. The rookies aren't ready yet.
EG: Don't forget Gorgui Dieng, who is a little older but still only heading into his second year after a promising rookie effort.
Realistically, I think LaVine and Muhammad are going to struggle for playing time. I'm not a huge believer in either, to be honest, and it's pretty clear that LaVine isn't ready. I suspect if he plays this year, it's because Flip wants him in there to develop, not to help the team win, but in truth, I don't know that playing time this year is going to help him develop, because I think he's not ready to swim in the deep end of the pool.
I expect to see Dieng continue on his path to being a quality rotation center in the NBA. He already does some things very well, and he really just needs to add strength to defend the post in order to be starting caliber. He'll be the primary backup to Nikola Pekovic and get plenty of playing time.
I hope to see improvement from Bennett to the point where he doesn't hurt as a backup four. He's in visibly much better shape this season, so hopefully that will help. He'll have every chance at minutes behind Thad Young.
Andrew Wiggins. He's going to play a lot. The team has so much invested in him, and he was the #1 pick. I expect him to start at the 3, and put up decent numbers. Rookies, even ones who go on to terrific careers, rarely help you win as rookies. But my biggest hope is that we see evidence that there is a star in there. He won't dominate right away, but at the end of the season, I hope we can say with a straight face that stardom looks like it's coming.
BE: Nikola Pekovic is in the second year of a five-year deal that pays him $60 million...what are his strengths and weaknesses, and do you think he's worth that kind of money?
BA: In a vacuum, yes, Pekovic is worth his contract. The guy is a brute force scorer in the low post, and while he's clearly not a shotblocker, his defense is much better than he gets credit for. He's obviously nearly impossible to back down in man situations, and he defends the pick-and-roll quite effectively too.
The issue is there are no vacuums in the NBA. For one, Pek gets hurt a lot. Obnoxious, nagging injuries that keep him out 3-4 games at a time. $12 million is a lot to pay for a guy who only plays 60-some-odd games a year.
It's also a lot to pay anyone for a team that won't make the playoffs. Flip had to make that play to try and keep Love, but now that it didn't work, that contract becomes as much a burden as a value. Pekovic being a 30-something win team's highest paid player is not ideal.
EG: Ah, I just wrote Pek's player preview. It can be seen here.
In short, Pek is a monster offensively both in post-ups and as the roll man in pick and rolls, plus on the offensive boards.
Despite rebounding numbers that don't look great on first glance, he has a huge positive effect on team rebounding because he occupies opponents under the basket so well. He's strong as an ox, which helps him hold position defensively in the post.
He has had trouble staying healthy, and is not a good help defender or shot blocker; those are his major weaknesses. If he plays 70 games, he's well worth his contract. A fan favorite and an underrated player. Makes grown men cry.
BE: Mo Williams played with the Blazers last year and for better or worse, most fans in Portland have an opinion on him. What do you expect from him this year? With Rubio and J.J. Barea already in place, that's gotta be a tough point guard rotation to crack..
BA: I rather believe that JJ will be gone early in the season...if not before it even starts....but it is interesting you bring up Portland's reaction to Mo Williams because Barea generates much the same response for fans here.
The truth is JJ is a 5'10" shooting guard. That's just the reality of who he is. And through no fault of his own, he became a scape goat of sorts last season when Adelman made him play point guard. That's not JJ's game, and intellectually, I think fans here know that. But when things go bad, blame gets leveled. Both the Wolves and the Blazers fielded terrible benches last year, and the guys who were supposed to be captaining those benches made easy targets.
Looking things dead on, it would seem that Mo Williams is just being set up to take Barea's fall guy roll, but in truth, there's a couple specific reasons he's here that don't necessarily have to do with the team's overall strategy. One is Flip wants him to ease Zach LaVine into point guard play, with the intent that LaVine...not Williams...would be the primary point guard off the bench. And two, Williams wants to break into the coaching ranks, and Saunders likes to facilitate that sort of thing. So Williams is more here as a mentor than a point guard.
EG: My assumption was that Williams was brought in to replace Barea as the backup point guard and sometime off-guard. It's still possible that the Wolves will buyout Barea, but it's sounding like they won't at the moment. Which is confusing as to playing time. I expect Williams to play, at least as one of four guards (with Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Barea) in various combinations. They need the shooting, and they didn't bring him in to sit.
The Wolves might not be a good team, but there is a lot of competition for playing time.
BE: There's no way Zach LaVine doesn't win the Dunk Contest at the All-Star break this year, right??
BA: I'll just leave this riiighhhhtt here....
I mean, seriously. If LaVine ever does this in a dunk contest, it's Vince Carter over https://t.co/NHLFp5ioyQ— Key Sang (@Phantele_) October 1, 2014
EG: I'm looking forward to an all-Wolves showdown between LaVine and Wiggins. It might be the highlight of the season for Wolves fans. That's a pretty depressing thought.
Special thanks to Brian Anderson and Eric Goldman of Canis Hoopus for taking the time to discuss the Minnesota Timberwolves' upcoming season with Blazer's Edge. Brian can be found on twitter @Phantele_. Canis Hoopus has you covered for Timberwolves news and analysis.