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WOLVES STILL WAITING IN THE COLD

Adam’s Angle – Losers of 15 straight, is there any positive end in sight for the Minnesota Timberwolves?

 Most of the Western Conference is gearing up for playoff season. In the last week, three teams have made meaningful moves to bolster their squads (Memphis, Phoenix, and the LAC), and it seems like the entire conference is contending for the postseason. There are 10 teams with a legitimate shot at the playoffs in the West, maybe a dozen depending how you feel about the Nuggets and Kings.

That leaves just three teams, the Jazz, Lakers, and Timberwolves, as the default doormats of the West, the only members of the conference who aren’t vying for a playoff spot in earnest, or even fooling themselves into thinking they are. While Utah fosters its fresh young core and Los Angeles staggers through the Kobe twilight years, Minnesota is recovering from trading away its franchise star, Kevin Love, just last summer, and it shows. The team has lost 15 games in-a-row and fallen to the very bottom of the conference at 5-31, challenging only the Knicks for the worst record in the NBA.

The main reason for the Wolves’ slide from mediocre to brutal has been injuries. With five important young players under the age of 25 getting major minutes, the team’s struggles are predictable, but this wasn’t the plan. Minnesota has been without important veterans Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, and Ricky Rubio for extended periods of time, upsetting coach/GM Flip Saunders’ plans of being a semi-competitive team in a tough conference that relied on its veterans and brought its young players along slowly. Losing key contributors like that usually spells disaster, at least in the loss column, for a team this young, and that’s been the case in Minnesota.

So, the Wolves have had to shift their line of thinking a bit, and find ways to make the best of things for guys like Zach LaVine or Gorgui Dieng, young players who have been thrust into featured roles where they might not yet be comfortable. For each one, the results have been different.

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A shining light in a sorry season.

The first guy anyone talks about with the Timberwolves is Andrew Wiggins, and rightfully so. The first-overall pick from last year’s draft was the crown jewel of Minnesota’s Kevin Love trade, so the microscope has been heavily sitting on the young man all season long. He’s had some tepid reviews, with FiveThirtyEight, a site that basically should skip sports altogether at this point, being his harshest critic and predicting his career as the next James Posey. This after just 30 games played.

Based on Wiggins’ last 10 games, its safe to say that was a hasty assessment. In that span, he’s averaged more than 20 points per game on 48% shooting, 41% from three. His usage percentage has risen to 23 during that time as he’s learning to improve his ball handling and distribution skills, which are far and away his weakest areas as a player. Over at Canis Hoops, Key Dae has a tremendous breakdown of not only Wiggins’ performance after 36 games, but also why 538’s evaluation of him after 30 was deeply flawed in its James Posey conclusion.

The whole article is worth a read, but it crucially points out that Wiggins is just 19 years old and learning new things every game.

He is, by all accounts, a smart kid and willing learner who can only get better the more he plays. He’s not LeBron––he doesn’t have the same natural passing or ballhandling skills. But he is his own player, one who can shoot the ball and play great defense, but who is a bit loose with the ball and not yet a natural playmaker. These comparisons have been made before, but he’s more like a Paul George type of player in that sense, and that’s okay.

It’s a promising development path, and Wiggins might have the highest ceiling of anyone who’s come in the league recently. That’s a good place to be.

Among the Wolves’ other youngsters––LaVine, Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and Anthony Bennett––Muhammad has been the other most promising development, sort of a stunning development for a player the team had seemed to all but give up on just a year ago. Muhammad is a unique player, a big shooting guard who mostly thrives in back-to-the-basket situations, overpowering his smaller counterparts and finishing with a soft touch around the rim. He had also flashed a strong motor and sudden three-point stroke before he recently strained his abdomen, an injury that will sideline him for a couple weeks. Still, between he and Wiggins, the Wolves look to have a couple strong wings that they can potentially build around.

As LaVine and Dieng play out of position at point guard and center, respectively, each one has had growing pains learning the nuances of the NBA game. LaVine has had to grow more comfortable playing with the ball in his hands, for instance, while Dieng has had to learn how to use his body more while playing defense, now that he’s playing more back-to-the-basket players than face-up power forwards. Bennett, meanwhile, has struggled after a strong start to the season, and his confidence issues are persisting. Flip Saunders developed a young Keving Garnett during his early days in Minnesota, so the franchise is hoping he can deliver again with their current core. Overall, the Wolves have demonstrated that they have a promising young core, despite their current losing streak.

Saunders has to keep molding his club in a positive direction.

Saunders has to keep molding his club in a positive direction.

Minnesota will be happy to get Martin and Pekovic back and be able to return their depth chart to normal. Ideally the front office would have liked to cycle some of their rawer young players, like LaVine or second-round pick Glenn Robinson III, back and forth between the D-league so they could receive more minutes. Depth and injury issues have prevented that, so the return of some veterans from prolonged absences would allow the Wolves to get back to their ideal developmental schedule for these young players.

While things might be bleak for Minnesota right now, but they’re in as good a position as many could hope. The Rubio contract is controversial, but he’s a great defensive player, and if the Wolves’ promising offensive talent develops around him, the deal might be worth it, assuming Rubio himself returns at full health. They’ve also signed Pekovic to a big contract that runs for four more seasons, but neither is a cap killer or cap-dependent max, which means, between several cheap rookie contracts and the expected cap jump after next season, the Wolves could have some money to spend as well.

That doesn’t always mean success for a small-market team, but the Wolves have the trump card: control of a potential superstar player in Wiggins. They’ll also have another good draft choice this season, which gives them two strong rotation players, five more promising young players, and another high draft choice to build around. That’s pretty ideal for a tiny team in the Western Conference.

It’s always tough to rise in the Western Conference, but look at how it typically happens: the Warriors, the best team out West this season, hit on a couple drafts in a row, addressed needs via trade or free agency only when necessary, and develop a consistent core. The Thunder did it before them, and the Wolves are hoping to do it after them.

Now it’s just a question of whether their talent can live up to its promise.

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