Until Jacob has a chance to write the recap:
The Suns and Timberwolves are two of the better offensive teams in the league and both are fun to watch, and ESPN has realized that and opted to show tonight's game on national television. Let's preview the match-up.
I could have done a standard preview for this game and given you my thoughts and opinions about the Wolves. Instead, I decided to take advantage of my Timberwolves Twitter connections and started talking about the match-up with Zachary Bennett, who covers the T-Wolves for Timberpups.com and also writes for Hickory-High.com.
That discussion turned into a full-blown question and answer session as you can see below. My questions and comments are in bold, while the rest of it is all Zachary. Educate yourself on the state of the Wolves and get ready for a fun game tonight.
1) First and foremost, Kevin Love is the hottest name on the trade market and every fan base - including and perhaps especially Suns fans - wants him. People assume he is just going to not re-sign with Minnesota and that they are going to trade him sooner rather than later. You're a bit closer to the situation than most Suns fans are. What is your read on it?
Well, that didn't take long -- the first question is somewhat of a forbidden topic in Minnesota. Love very well could leave at the end of next season. The front office budgeted to pay two players a max contract at the end of next season, the second being Rubio. It was believed that Love, a power forward, would be incapable of carrying a team to a championship on his own -- even Batman needed help from Robin. Budgeting for a second "superstar" put Love out of another year and $20 million dollars, and if the Wolves qualify for the postseason -- it could be argued that he's the league MVP, but it's a tough sell. He's really playing as well as anybody. The Wolves need to make a deep run, either this season or the next, to show Love can win here.
It's not that he's mad about the money as much as he is about how David Kahn and the others went about doing things -- he's mad about the process of the entire transaction. Love has certainly boosted his stock, and teams are going to want to pay him, making it seem as if he'll leave. Why would he stay in Minnesota?
Flip Saunders, hired as the new President of Basketball Operations during the offseason, is a trustworthy name from back in his days as the Wolves' head coach during the Kevin Garnett era. Saunders knows what losing a supreme all-NBA talent can do to a franchise; maybe he clean up the mess Kahn left behind him by budgeting in Love's favor when it's time to pay the piper. Or maybe he'll sell the most valuable asset for value paid by the highest bidder. It's likely he'll leave, though it wouldn't surprise me if he stays.
Sorry, I had to ask. I figured I'd go the rip-the-band-aid-off method and get it out of the way quickly. With Kahn out of the way, I do think Minnesota has a better chance to keep him. But it is likely going to take a healthy and successful season.
2) The Timberwolves are hanging around .500 at the moment and are currently on the outside looking it in the playoff picture. It looks like the Suns (perhaps the best bet of the group), Mavericks, Timberwolves, Nuggets, Pelicans and Grizzlies are the teams competing for the 7th and 8th seeds in the West (the equivalent of the 3rd and 4th seeds in the East). Call your shot right now and tell me which two will make the postseason (Suns fans are obviously rooting for the Wolves to make it with a draft pick on the line).
Now that you bring up Suns fans, I'd like to admit I sort of am one. I was born - and went to high school - in Phoenix and my first jersey as a child was the Suns '90s home whites (Kevin Johnson). I would love nothing more than to see both make the playoffs, but as far as the pick is concerned -- Phoenix took Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson off the Wolves' hands. We're pretty square, and this is a season Minnesota must make the playoffs (See: Love's Future Q #1).
I don't think it's the Nuggets or Pelicans, and don't see the Grizzlies making noise again, so we're left with the Mavericks, Suns and the Wolves. There's no way both of the teams that I grew up supporting make the post-season, so I'll just leave my answer at that.
For everyone's sake, I'm going to just say I hope both of your teams DO make it. As far as Dallas goes, I just can't buy into the Mavericks with Monta Ellis having it all, but they're going to be hanging around all season with Dirk and Marion doing their thing. Memphis has been pretty unimpressive, but I just can't help but think if they can get Marc Gasol healthy they'll have a shot to stay relevant; I think Courtney Lee was a good pick-up. The Pelicans have Anthony Davis who is already one of my favorite players in the League, so I won't count them out either. Can't we just steal playoff spots from the East? It doesn't need them anyway.
3) The Timberwolves are a tough team to figure out. They are in the top third of the NBA in free throw shooting, rebounds, assists, steals, points, ball security, forcing turnovers and not fouling. However, they are in the bottom third in 2-point, 3-point and overall field goal percentage as well as blocks. All that results in a .500 record. Make some sense of these numbers for me; what kind of team is Minnesota?
One of my favorite shows is HBO's "The Newsroom," and it's a scene from the pilot episode of the series that describes the Wolves best. "They're not a playoff team in the Western Conference, but they can be."
Here's where I sneak in a bit of self promotion. I wrote a quite lengthy ‘bit' on Adelman being a proverbial old dog that needs to use some new tricks. Hovering around .500 isn't where anyone wants to be at the end of the season. The Wolves bench - in the most kindest way - has been mediocre, rim protection is bad and Rubio's scoring are all considered the reasons the Wolves don't win more games. Ronny Turiaf is back, Chase Budinger's return is imminent -- maybe these make them the 6-7-8 seed team, theoretically, that they are.
4) Ricky Rubio has been pretty atrocious as a scorer, averaging just 9 points on 35.1 percent from the field, yet he is shooting 85.3 percent from the line. What the heck is going on with him? Is this just an extended slump or are you worried about him moving forward?
Hand placement when he shoots, no real ‘knack' or ‘go-to' place he looks for buckets, problems finishing around the rim -- he's frustrating to critique as a scorer. Rubio's passing accounts for 19.6 of Minnesota's 107.4 points per game, add the nine aforementioned points, mix in the defensive impact (three steals) he accounts for per game -- and you have a heckuva basketball ball player. Here are his shooting percentages sorted by area.
I'd like to see him score more. It could be his shooting or finishing around the rim, either place there's room for him to improve. The easiest way Rubio could boost his per game average, which commonly gets blown out of proportion, would be for him to begin finishing around the rim, right? I think his larger critics would be silenced if he is averaging 15 points at this time next season.
There's no doubting the impact he has on the team, but I just can't help but feel having a point guard who isn't a threat to even convert layups at a high rate just limits you so much. I had questions about Rubio's upside before he was drafted because of his lack of scoring; hopefully he can keep getting better because he's certainly fun to watch when things are going well.
5) The Wolves made some moves to upgrade the wings, something they desperately needed after last year. How are the Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer signings working out? What about the Derrick Williams for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute trade?
Martin is the shooting guard this team has been waiting on for the longest time. It's possible he's the best 2-guard in team history and he hasn't even played a full season. Martin is scoring almost 20 points per game and - on average - five of them come from the free-throw line. Aside from Love, he's been the most important player for the Wolves this season. Yes, even more so than Rubio.
Brewer's presence was huge early in the season when the Wolves scored a considerable amount of points on his leak-outs in transition; he led the league in transition points for a bit. When Love's outlet passing, which the Suns will see tonight if there are any lapses defensively, coincides with this advanced method of ‘cherry picking.' The duo makes opposing coaches furious -- teams game plan to stop this.
Offensively, he's frustrating at times. That's being nice. There are times he dribbles out of control, in the halfcourt and in transition, trying to do too much. Other than the outlet passes, he's not much of a scoring threat.
Brewer's role is somewhat to replace Andre Kirilenko defensively. Kirilenko signed with the Brooklyn Nets during the offseason, but hasn't played much because of injury, making Brewer's presence an overall net-positive. When Budinger returns, Adelman will be able to interchange these two -- making each player more valuable in their own way by consolidating the expectations for each.
So basically he's the same old Corey Brewer the Wolves drafted a handful of years ago? Perhaps absence made the heart grow fonder? I know he was far from beloved in his first Minnesota stint.
6) Eric Bledsoe has been fantastic and has gotten most of the publicity, but he is going to be missing his third straight game with a sprained knee. However, as good as Bledsoe has been it is Goran Dragic who is leading the team in scoring and assists and driving the team's success. What are your thoughts on Dragic's match-up with Rubio, who is one of the better defensive point guards in the league?
I watched Dragic (and his brother for that matter) play during EuroBasket over the summer and I love his game. These two are going to be fun. As I mentioned Rubio is a thief and his quickness and length make him one of the better defensive point guards -- a rare commodity in the NBA.
However, Dragic is the type of player that is up to the task no matter how tough the challenge. He's going to keep Rubio's hands full, and I think having the ball a majority of the game will help Dragic as the game goes on. He's the type of scorer that surveys his defender throughout the game, determines a weakness and how to best exploit it, and shoots, drives, and distributes as necessary -- he's a smart player.
I liked Goran last year but this year he has completely won me over. He's just been so darn good. People need to start taking notice.
7) Give me your key to the game and your prediction.
How can the Suns keep pace with the Wolves? I didn't even mention how well Nikola Pekovic is scoring. Combine the expected production of Pek, Love, and Martin and - generously - predict a solid outing from rotational players J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham and I think there's too much firepower for the Suns to handle without Bledsoe.
The Morris twins must play above average, Gerald Green needs to step up without Bledsoe and Channing Frye needs to match Love's effort behind the 3-point line in order to keep this close. If time is winding down and the game is within single-digits, Dragic and the Suns have every chance of winning this game. Can they contain the Wolves for the first three quarters? We'll see, but I think the Wolves are going to win this game. Although I shouldn't feel this confident about it at all.
Pace is certainly something that is key for the Suns. They're scoring 20 points per game in transition and Goran Dragic is a one-man fast break. What hurts the Suns is that they are playing the second game of a back-to-back tonight. Stamina could be an issue in what should be a fast-paced, exciting game. However, with the Suns losing to a very short-handed Bulls team I think they come out ready to go. We're going to have to agree to disagree on the outcome of this one.
Thanks to Zachary for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly. Check out my answers to his questions over at Timberpups.
|Luc Mbah a Moute||24||19.2||1.6||3.4||46.3||0.1||0.3||25.0||0.9||1.6||57.9||1.2||2.1||3.3||1.0||0.8||0.8||0.3||1.2||4.2|
A long time tradition is back in the Valley - great shooting, passable defending, but woeful rebounding. And against Minnesota, one of the league's best rebounding teams, that flaw could be magnified.
A long franchise history of defensive rebounding woes - a byproduct of small, offense-first lineups - still resides in the scouting report when playing the Phoenix Suns.
First, let's put this into context. During the Suns' magical runs to the Conference Finals in the last decade, they often finished in the bottom five of defensive rebounding rate (% of time the Suns pulled down an opponent miss to take possession). This deficiency has been masked by shooting better than the opponent, and forcing just enough misses to eventually grab the ball.
In recent years, the Suns exacerbated the problem by allowing a higher shooting percentage to the opponent AND allowing them to rebound their own misses for putbacks, dropping the Suns into the bottom ten in just about every defensive category.
And then last year, they piled even more problems on top by missing more of their own shots than the opponent did.
Six months ago, fans and franchise stalwarts prayed that the Suns would some day approach the greatness of the past.
That the league's fourth-winningest franchise would go back to its roots and reclaim that spot as "fun if not flawed".
Dating back to when the Suns lost the coin toss for the first overall pick as a expansion team and missed out on Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the Suns have patented themselves on a blueprint: offensively pleasing, defensively scrappy, yet rebounding-challenged.
The 2013-14 Suns embody that profile.
When the Suns are shooting well, or even normally, the rebounding issues are overcome. In fact, even this year's Suns are 28th in defensive rebound percentage (ie. the % of opponent misses corralled by a Suns player), yet are one of the league's best stories because they shoot better than the opponent, thus negating any disadvantage from second-chance points.
I am not suggesting the Suns need to solve this problem. I'm just pointing out that when the Suns lose, its because this problem is even bigger than usual.
League average defensive rebound rate = 74.6%. The Suns currently at only 72.3% (28th overall), even though their overall defensive efficiency (points per opponent possession) is in the top third of the league thanks to forcing a lot of misses (11th in defensive field goal percentage, even factoring in those putbacks).
Putting all that together - good shooting + good field goal defense against bad rebounding - has the Suns at 20-13 overall. That's good. You don't throw away the formula because of a few losses.
However, its instructive to note that when the Suns lose, its because the opponent has magnified that difference on the boards to the point that the Suns cannot get enough stops to overcome a deficit.
After a drubbing at the hands of Memphis in early December, the Suns have reeled off 11 wins against only 4 losses to take a strong playoff position and raise expectations for the season.
In those 4 losses, the already-challenged Suns have only corralled 65% of available opponent misses while letting the opponent keep possession 35% of the time.
I'm not saying the Suns need to completely solve the defensive rebounding problem. I'm just saying "hey, maybe only grabbing 65% of the other team's misses is a problem".
When the Suns face Minnesota tonight, the rebounding issue could be a killer.
Minny ranks 2nd in the league in offensive rebounding (grabbing 29.9% of all their own misses). That's a terrible combo when paired with the Suns 72.3% of their misses this season (and just 65% in recent losses). So, you can expect the Wolves to get a lot more O-boards than you want them to get tonight.
Miles Plumlee has been the Suns' best rebounder this season (9.2 per game), but only ranks 81st in the league by grabbing 60.2% of all rebounding chances. P.J. Tucker rakes in 62.4% of his chances, while Channing Frye is close behind at 59.9% of chances.
By contrast, Minnesota's Kevin Love grabs 65% of his chances, good for 13.3 per game. Nikola Pekovic grabs just 56.2% of his chances (probably because Love takes a lot). He and Love combine for more than 30 chances a game between them (Frye and Plumlee only get about 25 chances a game combined), indicating that Minnesota likes to pack the paint to corral misses.
How is Minnesota only .500 on the season? By allowing the worst opponent shooting percentage in the league. Minny opponents shoot 47.5% every game.
By allowing a lot of makes but rebounding most of the misses, it appears that Minny's game plan is to let you shoot so they can rebound your misses while the Suns like to force a miss and take their chances on the boards.
If the Suns don't shoot well, it could be a Love/Pekovic mauling tonight. Unless the Suns flip the script and Plumlee, Frye and the Morrii come with their big boy pants to at least keep the rebounding deficit manageable.