June 29, 2008
Photo Credit: Icon SMI
As a Minnesotan I was extremely apprehensive heading into this draft. Anybody who roots for the Timberwolves should be nervous about every draft headed by Kevin McHale. He has a history of botching these things and a stubborn refusal to simply take the best player available. It started back in 1996 when McHale swapped Ray Allen for Stephon Marbury and continued without fail into recent years with draft-night decisions like trading the rights to Brandon Roy for Randy Foye and selecting Rashad McCants over Danny Granger. Let’s not even get into the Joe Smith fiasco that cost them five first-round draft picks (even if two of the picks were ultimately returned).
In between those more publicized gaffes McFail has compiled a first-round resume that includes first-round busts Ndudi Ebi, William Avery, Radoslav Nesterovic and Paul Grant. In his inexplicably long tenure in the Wolves’ front office the former Celtic star has only made two great moves: drafting Kevin Garnett and trading Kevin Garnett.
The primary reason last summer’s trade of Garnett was a success is that Minnesota netted future All Star Al Jefferson. He will be the second superstar power forward in Timberwolves history, but it appears McHale is intent on misusing his talents as well by forcing Big Al to center and refusing to surround him with complementary talent.
There was little secret that Kevin Love was the apple of McHale’s eye heading into the draft, so I was shocked when Minnesota went ahead and passed on the big man out of UCLA. I was surprised that McHale actually did was he was supposed to do and didn’t try to get cute. I was relieved, to be honest. O.J. Mayo was the consensus third-best prospect in this draft and he fit a team need as a wing scorer.
Then just hours later McHale did get cute and traded for Kevin Love, a player who is by all accounts completely redundant with Al Jefferson. For those few hundred people out there who actually watched Wolves games religiously last year it was painfully obvious that Al Jefferson thrived as a power forward and struggled as a center.
This move will force Big Al into the middle, a position where he is both uncomfortable and significantly less effective.
After the jump: Why moving Al Jefferson to center is a crying shame…
Jefferson was perhaps the best offensive power forward in the NBA last season. His 21.1 points, 50% field-goal shooting and 3.8 offensive rebounds a game were elite. He displays a polished set of footwork and post moves that are only rivaled by perhaps Duncan and Garnett. There is no finer power forward in the NBA in terms of low-post footwork and splitting a double team.
Defensively Big Al struggled for most of the season, but it was most noticeable when he was asked to guard longer and stronger centers. He lacks lateral quickness, length, defensive footwork and the instincts to recover. The numbers back up that anecdotal assessment. While playing at power forward Jefferson’s PER was 29.3 while the opponent’s power forward had a PER of just 19.5. That +9.8 PER ratio is stellar. However, when Jefferson is moved to the middle his advantage quickly falls off. As a center his PER went down to 25.3 while the opposing center’s PER rose to 20.4, amounting to a mere +4.8 advantage. At least statistically, Al Jefferson was less than half as effective when asked to play center.
So, naturally, Kevin McHale went out of his way to force Jefferson into the middle.
Al Jefferson Photo Credit: Icon SMI
On the court Kevin Garnett and Al Jefferson are polar opposites. Defensively Garnett is a beast who is all about quickness, instincts, versatility, confidence and intensity. On the other end KG is a finesse player who is a great passer, but tentative, shies away from contact, refuses to consistently play in the paint and is comfortable going for long stretches without scoring.
Big Al is another story. On defense Jefferson looks slow, lacks instincts, struggles to adjust, plays nervous and often looks lost. However, on offense Big Al is an absolute bull who may not pass well, but he thrives around the hoop, loves contact, lives in the painted area and demands the ball on every possession.
Despite these differences on the court, there are two significant similarities off the court: they both have a tremendous blue-collar work ethic and they both have Kevin McHale completely incapable of understanding their needs and providing what they require to succeed.
It’s a crying shame.
Still, there are a few good things about this deal. The first is purging the albatross contract of Marko Jaric. Jaric was never able to fit in with the Wolves and he was owed over $21 million the next three seasons. Now Al Jefferson is their only guaranteed contract after the 2009-10 season. That should position the club to be major players in what is shaping up to be a very rich free-agent class of 2010.
Second, they acquired the services of sharp-shooting Mike Miller. After a promising start to his career, the former Rookie of the Year fell off the map for a few seasons. However, he has re-emerged as an elite offensive player over the last two campaigns and should be a major asset in Minnesota. The Wolves lacked a consistent outside scorer last season, which allowed teams to simply double-team Jefferson on nearly every play. As a guy who shot over 50% from the field and 43% from behind the arc last year, Miller should take a lot of that pressure off. Hopefully the 28-year-old still in his prime when the rest of the roster is mature enough to compete.
Finally, Kevin Love could very well be a good NBA player. The 6-9, 255 lbs. power has forward displayed a mix of finesse and physicality on offense that should play well in the NBA. He’s got great touch for a big man, and Love’s wide body will make him a strong rebounder. But Jefferson is the franchise cornerstone and he didn’t need too much help scoring or cleaning the glass up front. He needed help protecting the basket and manning up with the elite offensive post players of the West. Love doesn’t have the athleticism or defensive skills to provide that help. He’s a tad undersized and will have just as much trouble matching up as Jefferson due to a similar lack of lateral quickness. On paper, these two are completely redundant. They have the same strengths and will not make up for the other’s weaknesses.
I hope they can form a dynamic duo up front for the Wolves, but I’m less than optimistic.