When your three leading scorers are two second year players, and a rookie — that’s your second leading scorer — it just tells you where you are development-wise.
— Sam Mitchell pregame on Dec. 18, referring to Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine
Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves. That much has been established in the first quarter of the season. Both are No. 1 overall picks. Both have the potential to become franchise players. Both need a team around them to have any success here in Minnesota.
Kevin Love’s chief complaint when he vented to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski around this time three years ago was that the Wolves lacked any real plan. He was constantly playing with a rotating cast of misfit players — Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, etc. — and had no idea where the organization was going or how his team would ever reach the playoffs.
“Look at a San Antonio that continues to add talent around [Tim] Duncan and [Manu] Ginobili and [Tony] Parker. Look at what happens in Oklahoma City, the players they continue to add around their star players,” he said at the time. “Even the trade they had where they lost [James] Harden, they still added players that were going to fit well in their system. And speaking of small markets, look at a team like Memphis and all they’ve been able to accomplish. They’re getting the most out of their entire organization.”
The biggest thing the late Flip Saunders did when he returned to Minnesota was he brought stability. He brought a plan and a vision. It wasn’t just “draft high and see what happens.” He waited out the Cleveland Cavaliers, knowing that LeBron James had returned and they wanted Love to supplement him, until he got what he wanted — Wiggins. He realized that his injury-riddled team wasn’t going anywhere, produced a 16-win season that allowed the Wolves to pick first last year, and chose the right guy — Towns.
He also had good supplementary players surrounding them this year. Ricky Rubio, who when healthy improves the play of everyone around him. Young, talented players like Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine. And a mentor for each position: Andre Miller (guards), Tayshaun Prince (wings) and Kevin Garnett (forwards).
Still, this is an incomplete roster at this point. Minnesota needs a backup point guard it can rely on for large minutes over multiple games if Rubio gets hurt. The Wolves need a big man that can lock down the best forwards and centers in the league in the absence of Nikola Pekovic, who is still battling injury issues from last year. They need to explore the trade market for Kevin Martin, a veteran who has provided leadership and scoring this year, but at 32 is not in the team’s long-term plans.
Dealing Martin would open up more playing time off the bench for Muhammad, who is having a breakout year, and Nemanja Bjelica, a 27-year-old rookie from Serbia who brings ball movement and shooting off the bench. Dieng has played well enough to earn a spot in the rotation. After that, there is a lot of reconfiguring to do.
For starters, there is the issue of who plays at shooting guard. As interim head coach Sam Mitchell pointed out after the Sacramento game on Dec. 18, Wiggins plays his best at that position, but right now there is a logjam there. “His numbers wasn’t nearly as good when he was at the 3, and that’s just something that we had to find out the hard way,” he said of Wiggins. “It’s difficult to keep him at the 2 all the time because we got Kevin Martin and Zach, and those guys need to play. And we got Shabazz who can play the 2, also, so it is difficult to play him there. But we’re just a better basketball team when he [Wiggins] is there [at the 2].”
Trading Martin would open up some room there. Muhammad can play the 3 or the 4 in a small lineup. The real issue is that LaVine plays dramatically better beside Rubio at the 2 then he does at point guard. He has a score-first mentality and the skills to create his own shot or get to the rim, which is a misfit at point but an asset as a shooting guard.
LaVine could come off the bench at the 2, moving Wiggins to the 3 temporarily, and as long as the offensive production as a whole improves, as Wiggins’ individual production should matter less during that time period. The issue then becomes defense.
Mitchell admittedly has a difficult task this year. He has to develop young talent while also trying to keep the team competitive. The Western Conference hasn’t been as formidable as in years past, and the Wolves have been in just about every game this year. Playoff experience would do wonders for this young club, and would help create a winning culture that is vital to any player’s development.
In order to win, however, Garnett and Prince have to start. When things started to slip and Minnesota lost to the Denver Nuggets at home 112-100 on Dec. 15, only four days after taking the Nuggets to overtime on the road, Mitchell called the loss the most disappointing of the year, given that the Wolves typically are in every game they play, and it forced him to move to a more defensive lineup.
“Well guys, we changed our lineup,” he said after the game. “Remember, early in the year we were playing better defense, but we had Tay and KG out there, and we couldn’t score enough. Now, we add Kevin (Martin) into the lineup, I think he’s been in the lineup the last 10 games, 11 games, something like that, and now we’re not scoring, we’re not defending.”
The problem is that KG, Prince and Miller may not be on the team next year, given their age and where they are in their respective careers. Garnett and Miller are pushing 40; Prince is in his mid-30s. This means that the young core needs to learn to defend the best players in the league apace. They need the playing time, and this team also needs to win with them on the court.
Wiggins, Towns, LaVine and Co. also need to hit the three-point shot regularly. “I look at their team, they’ve got seven guys that you would say are a legitimate three-point shooter,” Mitchell said of Denver. “You look at our team, with Zach, and Kevin shooting under 30 percent. We got one guy, shooting three-point shots in the 30s.” The Wolves have since added a few more players to the 30 percent shooting ranks, but their long range inaccuracy continues to be an issue as they currently sit 26th in the NBA in three-point percentage.
Wiggins, Towns, Muhammad and LaVine only spent a year in college. There is not much time for practice in the NBA. They will likely want to represent their country overseas if given the opportunity. That leaves little time for them to improve their shooting.
There is also a danger in stunting a player’s growth if he falls in love with the three early in his career and doesn’t develop other attributes. Wiggins had to learn to be aggressive last year. Muhammad and LaVine are supposed to be slashers that can get to the basket. Towns needs to learn post moves and ways to score other than shooting.
“We’re not trying to make a habit out of Karl [shooting threes],” said Mitchell before the Sacramento game. “I want him to understand that he has the talent to score multiple ways. That three point line is hypnotic. You can just fall in love with it too much. I’ve seen too many players — I don’t want to say ruin their careers — but short change themselves, become one dimensional, because of the three-point line.”
Mitchell said in the beginning of the year that his players need to be in Minneapolis in the offseason in order to hit the gym to put on weight and improve their shots. This is where they get their paycheck, and they are professionals now. The best way to encourage them to do that is to show promise. They need to see improvement every year. They need to know that there is a vision, and they need to see the same faces, the same impact players, to know that the vision is becoming a reality.
Photo credit: Minnesota Timberwolves