Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Wolves vs. Blazers

The Flip Saunders stuff before the game was obviously the big story in Monday but the game itself was interesting in its own right. Both teams have some talent and are capable of competing on a nightly basis but they are both still in the stage of the rebuilding process where it's more important to develop younger players than go all out towards winning. What this season is going to come down to for both Portland and Minnesota is what they can figure out about the young players on their roster and what they will know coming into the off-season about the pieces they have on hand and the best way to build for the future.
  • The one thing that jumped out to me about the starters in Minnesota is that they should be able to play pretty good defense, which is something you don't see all that often from a basement-dwelling team. Ricky Rubio is one of the best defensive PG's in the NBA, Karl Towns and Andrew Wiggins are two of the rare young players who came into the league ready to play defense and what Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince lack in athleticism they make up for in length and veteran savvy. Garnett and Towns are both mobile enough to defend on the perimeter and they can both protect the rim while Rubio, Wiggins and Prince are one of the longest perimeter trios in the league.
  • The problem on offense is that Minnesota is going to be the king of the long 2's this season - Prince and Garnett, in particular, both love stepping in and launching jumpers from 20+ feet, which is one of the more unfortunate legacies of Flip's basketball philosophy. Neither one of those guys has much left in their legs and it's unclear how much, if anything, they will be able to contribute on offense. To make matters worse, Rubio, Towns and Wiggins were all launching from long 2 range as well. Rubio's jumper is getting better but I don't know if I want him taking 5+ shots a game from that range in the pick-and-roll and not probing and looking to get everyone else involved.
  • The guy who needed the ball more is Towns. He was dominating Mason Plumlee in the post where he has the size to establish deep post position, the length to shoot over the top of smaller defenders and the soft touch to finish from multiple angles around the rim. He can just do everything so well and it is incredible to watch. He's a five-tool player who can shoot, pass, rebound, defend and score at a high level and there are very few things on a basketball court that he cannot excel at. I love watching complete big men and Towns was probably my favorite player to ever watch at the NCAA level. The more minutes, the more touches and the more shots that he gets, the more good things are going to happen for the Wolves.
  • Minnesota got seduced a bit by the size mismatch between Andrew Wiggins and CJ McCollum and they repeatedly tried to pound the ball into Wiggins on the block. They were able to do that because Towns and Garnett's shooting ability allows them to invert the offense but the results weren't all that impressive. The difference between the way Wiggins plays on the block and the way Towns does is what people mean when they talk about "polish" and "feel for the game". Towns is never in a hurry and he plays the game at his own pace while Wiggins is always trying to play 100 miles an hour and rush up shots. In terms of shot distribution, I would much rather have Towns taking 17 shots and Wiggins taking 9 than the other way around.
  • Wiggins can struggle to score in the half-court because he isn't a great jump-shooter or ball-handler. At this point in his career, he's better off as a finisher than a creator and I think you want to have him cutting to the rim, crashing the offensive glass and getting ou and running in transition. There are a lot of ways to leverage a size mismatch besides isolating out at 15+ feet and trying to bully your way to the rim. I think you gradually want to grow him in a bigger role on offense ala what the Spurs did with Kawhi Leonard. Minnesota doesn't have that type of talent but Towns and Rubio are going to distribute the ball and make the right play so Wiggins should be able to thrive using his athleticism to play off them and generate points without having a ton of offense run through him.
  • The one thing that the Wolves need to figure out is the role distribution on this team because there are so many guys capable of creating their own shot. You have Wiggins, Towns and Rubio in the starters and then just about everyone on the 2nd unit - Zach LaVine, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng - is more comfortable with the ball in their hands. They almost have too much young talent for their own good at times. I think I would try to have it as run everything through Rubio and run everything with Towns and I would want to have more staggering of minutes so that the first team and the second team aren't self-contained units, which they mostly were on Monday.
  • You got a taste of the good and the bad with the Zach LaVine experience against Portland. He was so bad in the first half it's hard to put into words. He was very tentative when it came to running the offense and the 2nd team punted away most of the lead the starters had opened up the game with. It took them forever to get into sets and it felt like a miracle when he just got the ball to someone else with time left on the clock for them to do something. In the second half you saw some of the flashes - he's crazy fast and he can create a ton of separation when he elevates for his jumper. When he's attacking the rim, he can make the right play and hit the open man on the move. 
    • I would definitely want to play LaVine some with Rubio just to give him some time off from the mental burden of running the offense and let him attack in space and do what he does best. As is, he's going to have some absolutely brutal on/off numbers if he's Rubio's primary backup all season. This is a good example of what a rebuilding team does - the Wolves would probably be better off with either Andre Miller or Ty Jones running the backup point but they believe in LaVine's potential and they want to find minutes for him in the rotation so that he can continue to grow.
  • You are probably better off playing LaVine on the wings but there aren't a lot of minutes there if you are committed to Wiggins and Shabazz and then you have Prince and Kevin Martin playing huge chunks of the game. Martin still does what he does best off the bench - hoist up a lot of shots, draw fouls through veteran trickeration and generally score the ball without doing much to make everyone better. He'll keep them in a lot of games this season but I don't know how much value he really adds to a rebuilding team if he's taking away shots from all of the younger players that need them. While he would theoretically be good trade bait for a contending team, the Wolves don't even really need any more young assets and he's so bad at defense it's hard to say how much he would really help a team trying to win.
  • The obvious way to ease up on some of the numbers crunch is to play smaller at the PF position with either Shabazz or Wiggins. They are both really strong players who should be capable of handling that load, especially against 2nd units. More importantly, I would rather they use their speed against bigger players in a spread floor than spend all night trying to pound smaller players in the post in tight spaces. Bjelica is a decent stretch 4 but you can replicate a lot of the spacing while adding speed and defense by playing a 3 as a 4, which is the way the league is going these days.
    • Basically, I'd want to see a lot more line-ups like this: Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Shabazz, Towns. Get out and play fast, run pick-and-rolls with Rubio and Towns and have your younger guys shooting 3's and exploiting driving lanes to attack the rim.
  • The one thing I do like is the C rotation of Dieng and Towns. That's two young big men who can score the ball in the post, defend the rim, step out and shoot jumpers and distribute the ball out of the high post. That's one of the better two-man C rotations in the league already and I'm really not sure they need Nik Pekovic even when he comes back.
Portland was pretty much a two-man team all night with Lillard and McCollum doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to the offense and everyone else being asked to just do their part when it comes to spacing and defending. The key for them this season is figuring out what they can get from their young frontcourt players as well as whether the two PG duo will be able to survive on defense against bigger teams.
  • I'm really skeptical of starting two undersized guards together in Lillard and McCollum but I can't deny that it worked pretty well on Monday. As I talked about earlier, Minnesota spent most of the game trying to isolate Wiggins on McCollum and it didn't work all that well while Portland was able to take advantage the other way by running much more efficient two-man offense and having two guys capable of scoring from all over the floor playing off of each other.
    • Nevertheless, the bottom line for me is that I don't think that's going to work in a playoff series where you have to defend two high-level perimeter scorers. I feel like there's a real ceiling on a team which starts two guys who can only defend the PG position and neither of them can even do that all that well. I guess they will cross that bridge when they get to it tough because obviously Portland is a long way away from having to worry about how they match-up with teams in the playoffs.
  • This is a perfect spot for Al-Farouq Aminu as he gets to play in tons of space next to McCollum, Lillard and all of their stretch big men while his length, defensive versatility and ability to crash the boards are perfect next to two undersized guards. He went 2-5 from 3 last night, which really hurts my heart as a Mavs fan, and as long as he can knock down long-range shots he's going to be a very valuable player in the modern NBA. They went to a 4-out line-up with AFA at the 4 at the end of the game and I wonder if that is where he would be most valuable - he can switch pick-and-rolls and compete on the glass like a much bigger player and a team with him at the 4 next to three shooters is going to really spread the floor and play really fast.
  • That type of line-up would really help Meyers Leonard, who had a very forgettable game playing as a 4, where he mostly just stood around the perimeter and launched jumpers without making a huge impact on the game. He's an athletic 7'0 who can play above the rim and knock down jumpers - you want to play him at the 5 and use him in the two-man game. He can space as a 4 but he's not taking guys off the dribble and he's not posting anyone up either. 
  • It was the same story for Ed Davis, who really didn't do much as the backup 4. He can't shoot the ball and he can't score against smaller players so it's hard to see how much value he brings to the floor in the modern NBA. He's long and athletic and he gets a lot of boards but he's not a great rim protector to where you want him as a 5 and he's not perimeter-oriented enough to where he can thrive as a 4 and there are going to be less and less spots for tweener big men as the game continues to evolve. 
  • The No. 1 question for Portland this season is what do they have with Noah Vonleh. He's a complete mystery box - he has a fascinating collection of tools but he didn't play all that much as a freshman on a bad Indiana team and he was stuck to the end of the bench in Charlotte as a rookie. What can he do and what are the strengths of his game? Can he consistently shoot the ball? Can he score out of the post? Can he be a threat as a driver? Does he know how to pass? The intriguing thing is what he can do on the defensive end of the floor - he is very fast for a guy with his size and frame. The Blazers need to find some way to get offense from their 3-4-5 positions and Vonleh is the one guy in their young core who may have the ability to do that. It's just hard to say right now. The more he plays, the more intriguing Portland becomes.
  • Allen Crabbe is an interesting wing player and he's the guy who would benefit the most from AFA playing more as a 4. Him and Mo Harkless are in direct competition for minutes and Crabbe is a much better three-point shooter. Even though he's much less experienced, he played much better on defense on Monday on Kevin Martin than Harkless, who repeatedly got caught with his hand in the cookie jar and ended up picking a lot of silly fouls on Martin. Crabbe's a shooter with length and athleticism - if he can play good defense and diversify his offensive game to where he's a consistent threat when attacking a close-out, he could turn out to be a really good player for them.
What Portland and Minnesota seem to share is they both have really good scouting departments. For teams that were competing for playoff spots only 2 seasons ago, they both have a ton of young talent on hand which could accelerate the rebuilding process. Rubio and Lillard are great places to start a rebuilding effort and they should be able to make the guys around them better, whether it's Vonleh, Crabbe, Leonard and McCollum in Portland or Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, Shabazz and Dieng in Minnesota. The more their teams can figure out what they have in those guys, the better off they will be going into the future.


  1. Why oh why is Prince starting or even still playing in the league. He has been useless for 3 years now. This is another example of poor coaching, relying on the 'veteran presence' of a guy like Prince. This is not a team battling fo a top 4 seed. Those minutes need to go to their young guys. There's a reason Sam Mitchell has bounced around the league.

  2. Yeah. I've never been a big believer in having veterans around if they can no longer play. It's important to have a model for professionalism in the locker room but the best way that a vet can help a young guy is to make his life on the court easier and that's something Tayshaun can't do anymore. If anything, he's making everyone on the court's life more difficult.

  3. Free Shabazz!!!

    Coaches who were ex NBA players tend to be more sympathetic towards the "veteran presence," probably because that was once their role...