The 2015-2016 Minnesota Timberwolves may not always play the cleanest, crispest basketball.
Sunday night against the Phoenix Suns, for example, the T-Wolves coughed up an astonishing 24 turnovers, which led directly to 40 Sun points in the Wolves’ 108-101 loss.
(It also meant that every major Minnesota sports team but the Twins lost a game in the state of Arizona in the span of four days.)
Minnesota fans have also been subjected to the often baffling Sam Mitchell Coaching Experience, which features an antiquated offense stultified by long two-pointers — the Wolves are 29th in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted and made — and way too much Gorgui Dieng and not enough Karl-Anthony Towns late in games.
It’s hard to harp on Mitchell too much, of course. After all, he was not meant to be the Wolves’ head coach and had the job foisted upon him when Flip Saunders died earlier this year.
But for all their on-court difficulties, this year’s Timberwolves are 9-15, as of Wednesday, and more importantly, key young cogs like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Towns have all shown — to varying degrees — flashes of greatness and why they’re so prized by the organization.
And this story behind the scenes, the story of the development of the Timberwolves’ young players, has been arguably more compelling than the on-court action — and has provided an excellent case study in team-building in the modern NBA.
The “asset” game
As fantasy sports have exploded in popularity and Internet reportage has laid bare every arbitration negotiation, salary-cap tango and roster machination, regular sports fan have begun fancying themselves armchair general managers.
When we were children, we longed to throw the touchdown pass or sink the buzzer-beater.
Now, as adults whose verticals have shrunk to the height of a phone book and whose waistlines have added the width of a couple more, sports fans daydream about signing the next young superstar or executing the perfect trade to fleece a rival executive.
This shift to a front-office perspective is apparent even in how we speak and write about players and draft picks: they are now “assets,” and “asset-accumulation” is the name of the modern team-building game.
Thinking of players and people as assets affects how people construct teams: simply accrue enough assets — then cash some in, invest in others — and your winning percentage will rise.
I do think there’s some truth to this, particularly in a sport like baseball. This past year, the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs were instructive examples.
Both the Astros and the Cubs completely gutted their teams and bottomed out, piling up payroll space, prospects and high draft picks so that when assets like Carlos Correa, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Lance McCullers had matured they were ready to make the leap to championship contender.
In baseball, this strategy makes sense: sure, myriad, wildly divergent personalities and people populate a baseball clubhouse and they may clash or not cohere.
But on the field, baseball players are much more isolated from each other — nine discrete assets who affect each other far less than in any other major sport.
Particularly on offense, it is relatively easy to expect a good offensive player to perform well regardless of his teammates: who’s sitting in the dugout while you hit is far less meaningful than who’s blocking for you, or passing you the puck or setting a screen to spring you open.
In basketball, 12 players’ distinct styles and personalities must interact harmoniously with each other — and on a team hoarding assets with little regard for those personalities, the results can be disastrous.
Take, for example, the Philadelphia 76ers.
Youth in revolt
The Sixers are a logical counterpoint to the Timberwolves, as both teams have struggled mightily in recent years and have had to revamp their teams with an eye toward the future.
Sixers GM Sam Hinkie has taken a scorched-earth approach to team-building, torching Philadelphia’s roster down to a bunch of D-League castoffs and no-names as he began accumulating assets after his takeover.
From the start, Hinkie seemed entirely unconcerned with the team’s on-court ability — in fact, he needed the Sixers to be as poor as possible for his plan to work. It was basically the plot of “Major League.”
By eschewing on-court respectability for asset collection, Hinkie was equally unconcerned with the personalities that he was throwing into the mix — or how a team filled with 19- and 20-year-olds fresh out of college and left to their own devices would act with a few million dollars and no veteran leadership.
The answer, at least so far? Badly.
Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, has missed two seasons with a foot injury and his “recovery” involved far too many stories about the young man downing pitchers of Shirley Temples (!) to make anyone too comfortable with his progression.
This season’s main off-court saga has involved 2015 top pick Jahlil Okafor, who was recently suspended after video surfaced of him knocking out a Boston Celtics fan outside a club.
After the video was released, it became apparent that this was not Okafor’s first brush with the law — or fight outside a Boston bar — in his first few months as a professional.
It would appear the Sixers’ assets have turned toxic.
The Timberwolves, on the other hand, have taken a decidedly more touchy-feely approach than the 76ers.
The late Saunders brought in three NBA dinosaurs — Wolves legend Kevin Garnett, post-up point guard Andre Miller and string-bean lefty Tayshaun Prince — to help mentor the youngsters.
Neither of the three are particularly good anymore, and the tenets of asset-collection would suggest that those three roster spots are being wasted when they could be allocated to rookies in need of playing time.
But, in the game of basketball, attitude is infectious — and the wrong attitude can spoil an entire team.
Many an hour of open gym has been ruined by an aging has-been who thinks he’s Steph Curry. (Just ask anyone who’s played with me.)
A steady, veteran presence can mean everything: though it may not translate to wins, an old, battle-worn wolf passing on his wisdom can make all the difference for a young pup.