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Today, the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Andrei Kirilenko to a two-year, $20 million dollar contract and thus achieved what many had long seen coming: one of the absolute whitest lineups in the NBA in a long, long time. Sure, last season their three best players were white guys (Ricky Rubio (who counts—come on, now), Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic), but they also had Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster, and Anthony Randolph. With signs pointing to them being more or less done dealing now, they’ve exchanged those players (plus Brad Miller, Darko Milicic, and the 18th pick in this past draft) for Chase Budinger, Greg Stiemsma, Brandon Roy, Dante Cunningham, Andrei Kirilenko, and Alexey Shved.

Now before you jump down my throat, I don’t mean they traded them straight up. There were lots of steps that brought the Timberwolves to this roster, but basically, they’ve exchanged the production of the outgoing players for the production of the incoming players. And yes, they got a whole lot whiter. But here’s the thing: they also got a whole lot better, and at each stage of this offseason, they always made the smart basketball move based on what was available.

Let’s start at the beginning. The moves a team makes can’t be considered in a vacuum, but must rather take into account what the team needs and the Wolves’ two greatest needs were on the wing and at the center position. The production from the rotation of Johnson/Ellington/Webster/Beasley at the 2 and 3 was so generally awful that when Rubio was healthy, Adelman started point guard Luke Ridnour at shooting guard. And with the emergence of Nikola Pekovic as a legitimate starting center and the consigning of Darko Milicic to the shadows, it was clear that the team was going to need more size up front.

The first move came when the 18th pick in the draft was traded to Houston for Chase Budinger. This ended up being Terrence Jones. At the time, there had been talk about Kevin Martin coming from the Rockets, and it seemed initially like Budinger was a big step down from Martin, but in hindsight, it’s a solid move. Thanks to Eric Maroun and his analysis of draft picks we can see that the average expected win shares per 48 for an 18th pick in the draft is .062. For his career, Budinger is averaging .101 WS/48. Is it possible Jones (or someone else who was available at 18) becomes a great player? Completely. But Budinger addresses the Wolves’ woeful three-point shooting on the perimeter (a career .363 3-point shooter, plus shot .402 last season) and, moreover, he’s a known quantity: a solid player off the bench who’s played for Adelman before.

The next move was signing Brandon Roy to a two-year, $10 million contract. Clearly, there are more question marks on Roy than the Riddler, but the contract is insured in case Roy’s knees really aren’t up to snuff. If they’re not, the Wolves can get out of it and if he’s simply not good, the contract is over in a short time. But if Roy can provide half of what he was capable of in his prime, that’s a value-add for the Wolves simply because of how atrocious their production was from the 2 last season.

Alexey Shved is also something of an unknown quantity, but again, his ceiling seems high while his floor seems low. His biggest problem appears to be his slight frame and the fact that he hasn’t played in the NBA yet. If he plays up to expectations, he will work fantastically well next to Rubio and if not, could he be any worse than bringing Wayne Ellington off the bench?

Speaking of Ellington, the signings of Roy and Shved made him redundant, and so he was shipped off to Memphis in exchange for power forward Dante Cunningham, who gives them another big body off the bench. And speaking of big bodies, they lured Greg Stiemsma away from the Celtics to back up Pekovic at the center position. Between him and the other option they pursued, Jordan Hill, it’s pretty much a toss-up. Hill comes off better offensively (13.2 pts per 36 versus 7.6 points per 36 for Stiemsma), but Stiemsma was much better defensively, posting a fantastic defensive rating of 90. If Milicic did anything, it was block shots, which Stiemsma is also good at (4.0 blocks per 36). Pekovic is great offensively and great on the offensive boards, so a big thing the Wolves needed was defense in the middle and Stiemsma addresses that issue.

And so we come to the Kirilenko signing. The Wolves lost out in their pursuit of Portland’s Nicolas Batum. Simply put, the Blazers had complete control over whether Batum was leaving or not and they kept him. In the meantime, the Timberwolves forced them to pay him a lot of money based on the hope that he develops into something like an All-Star. By the time Portland matched, it was a win-win for the Wolves: they either got their guy or made another team in their division shell out for him. With Courtney Lee off the table to the Celtics and Ronnie Brewer gone to the Knicks, the Timberwolves’ options were dwindling. But with Kirilenko they get a player who was once a borderline All-Star and who has been tremendously consistent throughout his career (he only once had a PER below 15—the league average—once in his career). He’s also a jack-of-all-trades player who can defend, shoot, and block on a team that has a lot of specialists—Rubio passes incredibly but shoots below average; Love shoots the three well and rebounds, but doesn’t defend very well.

The move for Kirilenko is also good because of the deal itself. Giving a two-year deal with a player option for the second year means that if things don’t work out, Kirilenko either walks or becomes a valuable trade asset as an expiring deal in the $10 million range. The alternative would have meant trying to get a younger, lesser player like Brandon Rush or Dominic McGuire for less money but perhaps more years, making the contract itself less valuable as a chip.

So in this offseason the Wolves have generally gotten not just a good player, but a player that fits well with what they need. But of course, that’s just my opinion. Let’s look at the numbers for some support.


*To explain two anomalies here, I’ll point out that I’m using Brad Miller’s career WS/48 even though his WS/48 last year was just a little more than a third of that and he’s retiring because I’m also using Brandon Roy’s career WS/48 even though his was about half that his final season. Basically, if you eliminate them both completely from this calculation it’s a bigger hit on the incoming Timberwolves than the outgoing when it’s pretty clear that Roy will contribute more on the floor this year than Miller ever will again.

So if you take the average WS/48 of the outgoing players, you get .063. Do the same for the incoming players and you get .137. In a lot of ways, that’s really all she wrote. This team wasn’t designed to be white—it was designed to be better than last year’s team, plus more capable of becoming a better team going forward. Because three years out—coincidentally the time when Love will have to make a decision about staying or going—the Wolves are only committed to Love, Rubio, Williams, and Barea. The color of the players is secondary to the fact that judging by win shares, the Wolves just made their rotation roughly twice as good.

Steve McPherson

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If you’re a Timberwolves fan who spends time over at Canis Hoopus, you know who the Unicorn is. And if you’ve spent time at A Wolf Among Wolves you know about the rare blend of innocence and exuberance that Zach Harper has termed #puppybreathandcinnamon. But did you know that new Timberwolf Alexey Shved wore this shirt when he visited the Twin Cities? It has a panda doing a crossover on it! And what’s BangoTango? A first kiss, a power chord, a $10 bill on the ground. It’s all this and more.

In the era of the Internet meme, nicknames grow like weeds. Do they always make sense? Well, if we only like things that make sense, why are we following the Timberwolves?

You can get the T-shirts pictured above in a variety of colors and styles right here.

Derrick Williams is 1-12 from the arc over three games in the Las Vegas Summer League. That’s bad. And that’s playing against borderline NBA players. Granted: he’s also playing on a team of borderline NBA players. But 1-12? And he’s supposed to be the Timberwolves starting small forward?

Beckley Mason makes a great case here for the idea that players like Williams, Kenneth Faried and Paul Millsap—in other words, tweeners—should just be considered power fowards in today’s NBA. And Rob Mahoney makes a great case here for the idea that a leaguewide identity for positions is not functional—that each team runs its own system and has its own philosophy. Thus, it’s fine to have your tweeners play small forward so long as the plays you run and the ways you defend make sense with that.

The problem with the idea of Derrick Williams as a small forward on the Timberwolves is that it doesn’t work from either of these perspectives. He’s 6’8” and now down to 228 lbs, which makes him more or less exactly the same size as Kenneth Faried, a player who crashed the boards with energy and abandon for the Denver Nuggets last year as a power forward. But let’s look first at some measurements from their DraftExpress profiles. Granted, things like the bench press are not the end-all-be-all of strength measurement, but Faried, who’s lauded for his strength did 16 reps on the bench press versus the 19 Williams did. Williams has more than an inch on Faried’s wingspan, tested better in the ¾ court spring and lane agility tests, yet it’s Faried who’s known as defensively superior. Again, I don’t want to put too much stress on predraft workouts since it’s only a snapshot of physical fitness and not a game, but I think it points to the fact that Faried and Williams are at least physically pretty comparable.

Now look at their per-36-minute numbers from Basketball Reference:

Player FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB BLK PTS
Kenneth Faried 6.3 10.7 .586 0.0 0.0 3.8 5.7 .665 4.9 7.3 12.2 1.6 16.4
Derrick Williams 5.2 12.6 .412 0.9 3.5 .268 3.5 5.0 .697 2.0 5.9 7.9 0.8 14.8
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/20/2012.

I don’t know how much clearer it could be that part of the problem is how Williams is being used. He’s taking 3.5 3-pointers per-36 and hitting them at .268. His FG% of .412 is well below Faried’s .586, but if you take those 3.5 3-pointers and make them 2-pointers and then grant him making half of those, suddenly his FG% jumps to .555. The fact that he’s floating on offense and often taking longer range shots also would appear to crop up in offensive rebounding numbers, where he grabs only 2.0 per-36 to Faried’s 4.9.

The advanced stats tell a similar tale:

Player PER TS% eFG% ORB% DRB% TRB% BLK% USG% ORtg DRtg WS/48
Kenneth Faried 21.9 .618 .586 16.5 22.9 19.8 3.6 18.7 123 103 .212
Derrick Williams 12.9 .499 .449 6.0 18.4 12.2 1.6 20.7 100 106 .059
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/20/2012.

Higher PER, higher true shooting percentage, higher effective field goal percentage, higher total rebound percentage, higher block percentage and thus a much higher win share per 48 for Faried than Williams. None of this is exactly a revelation since Faried finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and Williams didn’t even register.

What’s vexing is to see that Williams played 21% of the team’s total minutes at small forward and 33% of those minutes at power forward (as opposed to 40% for Faried between PF/C and zero at SF) last season—and failed to deliver SF-type production which also hurt his ability to deliver PF-type production—and yet he’s supposed to be a small forward this year.

And lest you think this is all stats-based, I watched a lot of Timberwolves games and you could see what Rick Adelman is talking about when he says that Williams “floated” on the floor. It seemed like he couldn’t tell where he was supposed to be and whether he was supposed to be getting to the hoop aggressively or shooting from range, whereas Faried was like a one-man wrecking crew on the court. In Summer League, Williams has gotten to the basket and to the line, shooting a staggering 40 free throws over three games, but that in itself might be a bit of a problem if he’s asked to do that while both Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are down low: there’s just less room down there. Just look at the problems the Knicks encountered with both Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler on the floor and look at how the offense suddenly opened up when Carmelo Anthony played the four. Based on Mason’s idea of these tweeners as actually fours given the way the NBA is going, it seems like Williams could become a truly deadly player in an offense that would allow him to be a fast, aggressive four.

But what of Mahoney’s contention that it’s more the system the player finds himself in than a leaguewide idea of roles that’s important? The problem is Rick Adelman more or less runs the Princeton offense, a system that is founded on a four out, one in configuration with the center in the high or low post and the rest of the players spread out at the three-point line. Now, Ricky Rubio often ran straight pick-and-rolls with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic that didn’t involve this offense, but as the video at the link demonstrates, it’s still there in the offense. This is great for Love, who’s completely comfortable shooting the three-pointer and also has the skill to rebound outside of his area and works tremendously hard for those boards. But the Princeton offense also calls for the shooting guard and small forward to be more or less interchangeable: both capable of hitting from distance and cutting into the lane.

Now, you can argue that Williams is somewhere between a small forward and a power forward, but no one is going to mistake him for a shooting guard. A player like the recently-acquired Chase Budinger makes a lot more sense in this system at the 3 than Williams. Wes Johnson—if he had turned out to be the kind of shooter and defender the Wolves thought they were getting—would also have worked well as an interchangeable SG and SF.

The thing is, at this point, it’s doing more of a disservice to Williams than the Timberwolves to try and fit him into the 3. I expect him to improve as a player this season and that will most likely mean he’ll be a serviceable small forward, but whether you look at him in comparison to other tweeners across the league or just in terms of how he fits into this specific team, it seems clear that he will only blossom as a player when he’s put into the kind of context that has been so productive for a player like Faried.

Steve McPherson

I’m not going to say our long, national nightmare is over, even if I’m talking just about Wolves Nation. I wouldn’t even say it’s the end of an era. But today, the Timberwolves officially amnestied Darko Milicic, agreeing to pay him $7 million of the $10 million remaining on his contract over the next two years but removing the salary from their cap, per Jerry Zgoda at the Star Tribune. This move frees up $5 million to work with, but the move is maybe more important in non-dollar terms because it removes from the team someone who just apparently doesn’t care about doing a good job.

Now, to make an important distinction, it’s possible to care a great deal about doing your job and just be straight bad at it. You don’t see it very often in professional sports. The pool of people who get to the NBA is so small that even the players fans deride as “bums” are usually in fact good at a specific something and generally way better than most people at basketball. But you probably see it all the time at work or in school: students or coworkers who put their all into what they do but still just come up short. That’s not Darko.

I’ve already explored what I think makes—or rather doesn’t make—Darko tick, but basically, he’s a tremendously large person with some basketball skills who can make millions of dollars a year without trying very hard. And while being able to make millions of dollars playing a game—and not even playing it particularly well or with a modicum of what one might construe as joy—seems like something to envy, it mostly just makes me sad. Once the amnesty goes through, teams that are under the salary cap will be able to start bidding on Darko. To offset the non-guaranteed portion of his salary, the bidding will have to begin at $2 million. Given the way the league works, with salary floors and max contracts undervaluing stars, there’s a team out there who’s probably going to pick him up. Milicic apparently wants to continue playing in the league, even though his last season with the Timberwolves began with him in the starting lineup and ended with a string of DNPs. Supposedly, they were for a hamstring injury, but Adelman admitted that “[Darko] hasn’t done anything to really give you a lot of faith that he’s going to go out and do the job.”

And faith is really what it comes down to, if you’re talking about fidelity and devotion. Milcic has shown neither when it comes to bettering himself as a player and yet he’s still been rewarded with contracts time and time again. I’m not going to mention the now infamous phrase Kahn invoked when signing Milicic, nor play on it by talking about what a Hell having Darko on the team has been, because if it’s been Hell, it hasn’t been pitchforks and fire and brimstone. No, it’s been more like Samuel Beckett’s idea of purgatory, stuck in stasis and hoping an actual basketball player would show up, waiting for what we hoped would be the real Darko.