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Feeling Minnesota: Why the Timberwolves Are Far From the Worst Team in the NBA

The Largely Unknown Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves Photo Credit: Icon SMI

“You got to build and you got to start from nothing. But I feel in a couple of years, we’re going to be there. We’re going to be one of the top teams in the West, too. We coming — most definitely.” – Al Jefferson

“You got to build and you got to start from nothing. But I feel in a couple of years, we’re going to be there. We’re going to be one of the top teams in the West, too. We coming — most definitely.” – Al Jefferson

The Minnesota Timberwolves currently have the second-worst record in the NBA at 15-50. They’re on pace for 18 wins this season, the lowest total since the emergence of Kevin Garnett as franchise savior. Without a recognizable superstar like Miami’s Dwyane Wade or Seattle’s Kevin Durant and with a clown like Kevin McHale running the show it would be easy to think that Minnesota is the worst franchise in the NBA. They’re not. Far from it. The Wolves are a team in flux to be sure, one that won’t be competing for an NBA title for several years, but they have an impressive core of young players and are poised to break out as a legit playoff team in the next three seasons.

The franchise is currently defined by the epic move that sent Kevin Garnett, the best player in team history, to Boston for a gaggle of youngters. Garnett was shipped to Bean Town for the services of the relatively unknown Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair as well as a 2009 first round draft pick and the return of Minnesota’s first round draft pick from the Ricky Davis-Wally Szczerbiak trade. Gerald Green and Theo Ratliff are already gone. Still, it was a solid move for Minnesota. It had become increasingly clear that the Wolves would not be title contenders with Garnett and his massive contract that was inked before the current collective bargaining agreement. They needed to start over with a fresh crop of youngsters, and this was as big of a return as could be expected under the circumstances.

Instead of a moribund franchise that was doing little more than treading water and weighing down class act Kevin Garnett’s career, Minnesota has been reborn as a talented young group of athletes that actually has a future.

Make no mistake, Minnesota is clearly a rebuilding team. But that’s not the worst place to be in the West. It’s better to be a rebuilding team if you can’t vie for a title right now. Competing with the Lakers, Suns, Mavs and Spurs is a fools errand for a young team, but as their veteran leaders age all of them figure to fall off after about two years, which is when a squad like Minnesota can expect to get into the mix again. Strategically, truly rebuilding is a better position to be in than the middle of the pack.

Coming into the season this team was built around the inside-outside duo of 23-year-old power forward Al Jefferson and last year’s first-round pick, 24-year-old guard Randy Foye. Unfortunately, Foye went down with a stress reaction in his knee late in the preseason. We didn’t really have a handle on where this group of kids could be as a result, and it wasn’t fair to judge the team until Randy Foye returned to action. Now that he’s been back for over 20 games, ETB checks in on the status of this work in progress.
Backcourt:

Keepers: Randy Foye, Rashad McCants, Sebastian Telfair
Expendable: Greg Buckner, Marko Jaric, Kirk Snyder

Minnesota drafted Brandon Roy with the 6th pick in the 2006 draft, then flipped him to Portland him for Randy Foye, a player they fully expect to be the leader of their backcourt during this rebuilding process. The big question with Foye is figuring out if he’s more comfortable playing a point-guard or a combo-guard role in the NBA. He has fostered ball movement, but he’s also shown a propensity for scoring that lends itself to more of a two-guard role. I see him as a combo guard who would benefit from a pairing with a true point.

Either way, Foye is a potential beast in the backcourt who has a knack for clutch play. And the Roy trade looks bad on the surface, but if you look at their per minute averages from last season, Foye posted nearly identical stats to ROY Brandon Roy (per 48 minutes: 21.3 points, 1.7 threes, 5.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals for Foye; 22.7 points, 1.3 threes, 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.6 steals for Roy). Foye is a strong defender, a passionate player, a strong rebounder and a decent outside shooter who can also take the ball to the basket. He just needs to figure out if he’s a point guard or a shooting guard. I still fully expect him to be an impact player though.

The rest of Minnesota’s backcourt, Al Jefferson, and a Timberwolves checklist after the jump…

Sebastian Telfair has been playing the point in the Twin Cities for a bulk of the season. His decision making still makes you want to tear your hair out at times, but Bassy has proved capable of being a serviceable backup point in this league when he focuses on distributing as his 5.9 assists to just 1.9 TOs per game show. He has a strong handle and a flare for the dramatic pass, which is sometimes needed in the morgue-like Target Center. Telfair needs to learn that he’s not a scorer at this level though, and that he probably never will be. That means better shot selection from a guy who shoots a paltry 40.1% FGs, 74.3% FTs and 28.1% on three-pointers.

Rashad McCants has been known to be a head case from his days at North Carolina and during his breif stint in the NBA, but this season has been a dramatic step forward for the 6-4 shooting guard and 2005 14th pick. He’s embraced his role coming off the bench and has played the part of the pure scorer the Wolves drafted him to be. Despite his strong play McCants is still better coming off the bench and providing a scoring punch for the second unit, and considering his liabilities outside of offense it’s probably better for Minnesota if he continues to grow into that reserve role. That doesn’t mean he can’t be useful though. He’s the team’s best outside shooter, hitting an impressive 41.1% of his 4.5 three-point attempts per game. He’s also scoring a strong 14.6 points on 45.4% FGs and 77.4% FTs in 27 minutes of action.

The defensive-minded Kirk Snyder was acquired for Gerald Green before the trade deadline. He’s a player who could occupy the end of the bench on most teams because of the natural skills and work ethic and could stay as he’s just 24-years-old, but isn’t a building block by any means. Marko Jaric is still under contract for the next three years at over $22 million, but at 29 years of age his mediocre all-around game doesn’t figure into this team’s future plans. He’s a prime candidate to be bought out in the near future.
Frontcourt:

Keepers: Al Jefferson, Craig Smith, Ryan Gomes
Expendable: Antoine Walker, Mark Madsen

Al Jefferson

Any discussion of the state of the franchise begins and ends with Al Jefferson. He is perhaps the best power forward in the NBA on the offensive end of the floor — and still a significant liability on the defensive end. Jefferson was the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade this summer, and he officially became the face of the franchise when he inked a five-year, $65 million extension that keeps him in town through 2013. It was a refreshing contract negotiation as Jefferson accepted less than market value just to get the deal done so he could focus on basketball, saying it was, “something I don’t really worry about” and that he “didn’t deserve” a max-level extension. That kind of workmanlike attitude has been the norm with Al Jeff since. Jefferson is now the only Timberwolf other than Jaric under team contract past the 2009-10 season.

Big Al was perhaps the most promising power forward in basketball after the All-Star break last season. During the stretch run he put up an exceptional line: 19.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 1.1 steals, 55.4% FGs and (most importantly for the foul-prone youngster) just 3.0 fouls per game. He finally came into his own in his third year after being the 15th overall pick out of Prentiss High School in Mississippi. Coming out of high school, he was a 2004 McDonald’s All American and averaged an incredible 42 points, 16 rebounds and 9 blocks during his senior season. Make no mistake about it, Jefferson will be an All-Star in this league more than once in the next decade.

Al Jefferson Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Fulfilling that promise from a year ago, Big Al has been nothing short of amazing on the offensive end of the floor this season. He displays a polished set of post moves that are only rivaled by perhaps Tim Duncan and Garnett. There is no finer power forward in the NBA in terms of low-post footwork and splitting a double team. And Jefferson is second in the league with 4.0 offensive rebounds per game, which is only a part of his stellar line of 21.3 points, 11.6 boards, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals on 49.9% FGs. Despite that production he needs to become at least a passable passer. Jefferson gets double-teamed nearly every posession and yet averages a meager 1.5 assists.

He also needs to improve his defense, where Big Al has been below average this season. He has the athelticism, foot speed and hands to be a decent defender, but his instincts and timing are poor right now. Jefferson’s development on the defensive end is going to be pivotal for Minnesota. Having a franchise cornerstone who can play both offense and defense down low is crucial to playoff success. There’s a reason that Shaq, Tim Duncan and Rasheed Wallace have won all of the last nine NBA titles between them.

Ryan Gomes was an unheralded member of the KG trade this summer, but he’s quietly been one of Minnesota’s best players. Despite this being just his third season in the league, Gomes plays the role of veteran hustle player for this young squad. He’s disciplined and consistent on both ends of the floor. He’s active on both ends as well, playing solid man defense and keeping the ball moving on offense. If Gomes were on a playoff contender, he would surely be noticed as one of the stronger glue players in the NBA. His line this season is a modest 11.9 points, 5.6 boards and 1.5 assists on 44.8% FGs and a team-best 82.6% FTs, but that doesn’t begin to tell how important he has been. Minnsota would be wise to lock him up to a reasonable long-term deal.

Corey Brewer was the best defender in last season’s draft, but it’s been a learning process for Brewer this season. We knew it was going to take him a year or two to adjust to the physicality of the NBA game. He still needs to bulk up, but has the physical tools and defensive instincts and tenacity to be an impact two-way player. Minnesota fans have seen flashes from Brewer on both ends of the floor, but the rookie season has largely been a wash. Remember, though that Detroit’s Tayshaun Prince, whose career path Brewer would do well to take notice of, rode the pine and struggled his rookie year, too.

After Jefferson, Craig Smith is the other true power forward on the roster, and he’s an absolute bull. While “The Rhino” projects as a career reserve, he could be one of the best backup power forwards in the league. Smith could start for a lot of teams, but unfortunately his size (6-7 and 275 lbs) makes it impossible to play him alongside Jefferson without pushing Big Al to the five, and that’s not ideal. Smith manages to make good things happen on both ends of the floor when he’s on the court though. He’s an extremely efficient offensive player without the ball (57.7% FGs), and he’s always the strongest guy on the blocks.

Another interesting prospect up front for Minnesota is 2007 second-round pick Chris Richard. At 6-9 and 255 lbs. Richard plays tough defense in the post and hustles on the glass, but he is one of the most limited offensive players in the league (surpassed in offensive ineptitude on the roster only by professional spaz Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen). One of the things that makes Richard’s purely defensive game palatable is that he pairs favorably with the offensive-minded Al Jefferson. He’s not a factor just yet, but you see just enough from him on D to think he could be an asset.
What needs to be done:

“And nobody’s gonna give you nothing. If you wanna eat, you got to work for it.”
– Al Jefferson

Minnesota has played better than their poor record all season. That record is largely a product of the fact that they’ve been completely incapable of closing out games. And that’s been partially a result of lacking a veteran presence, partially from the absence of Randy Foye, and largely the result of Randy Wittman’s completely inept coaching in endgame situations (see the January 25th loss in Boston, when Minnesota was unable to execute a simple inbound play after three timeouts and lost 87-86 as a result). Minnesota has played like a 25- or 30-win team, and still boasts a resume with impressive wins over Utah, Golden State, New Orleans and Phoenix twice. There’s still a ton of work to be done though…

* Determine if Randy Foye is a point guard, and if he isn’t acquire a difference maker like Derrick Rose to run the offense

* Decide if Sebastian Telfair is worth keeping as a backup point and Rashad McCants is worth keeping as a backup G/F

* Find a real center who can guard opposing big men, clean the defensive glass and compensate for future All Star Al Jefferson’s deficiencies in those areas

* Evaluate the wispy Corey Brewer and determine if he projects as the starting small forward, and how long it will take him to assume that role

* Ensure that they make good use of their draft pick this year to acquire a player who can fill one of these needs

*Al Jefferson’s game needs to evolve in key areas (defense, defensive rebounding, passing) before he can rise to elite status

* Continue to free up cap space to make a run at free agents next summer

* Fire Randy Wittman and hire a real NBA coach who has a real plan

* Reader Recommendations: Fire Kevin McHale (which is without question long overdue) and have Glen Taylor sell the team to an owner who cares and will hold his personnel accountable – both things I couldn’t agree with more and that I should have mentioned

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