With only 25 wins and the All-Star Break in-bound, it’s time to start looking at the players on the roster who are 25-or-younger… and the draft. It’s Monday, let’s get it.
When Robert Covington’s knee started acting up in early December, Dario Saric entered a two-month funk. The former Sixers came out firing in their first 11 games in a new jersey; the Wolves won eight of those games and the Covington-Saric duo was outscoring opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor. But without Covington, Saric became a definitive minus.
Prior to dropping 16 points in the first half against Memphis on Tuesday, Saric had only scored more than 15 points in one of those 27 post-boomlet games. The player who had been billed as a stretchy big that would impact both sides of the floor was doing neither. Though Saric made threes at about a league average rate over the downturn (36 percent), the Wolves offense was scoring less with him on the floor than when he was off. And the defense had been awful — surrendering 9.3 additional points per 100 possessions with Saric on the floor versus when he was off, per Second Spectrum’s tracking data.
It’s only been three games, starting with arguably his best performance of the season against Memphis, but Saric has averaged 16 points, six rebounds and just over two assists during his most recent run. Weaponized as a scorer from all 3 levels of the floor, Saric made 57 percent of his 3s over the stretch and the Wolves outscored their opponent by 21.3 points per 100 possessions when Saric was on the floor — which is saying something in what ended up being three consecutive losses.
“I need some time in my situation to figure out how to play with KAT, how to play with G, how to play with Derrick — when he’s playing,” said Saric at practice Sunday afternoon. “I wasn’t aggressive enough [early on]. It was one part my problem. I really would wait for somebody to make a play for me. And now I figured it out the last couple games.”
While Saric does deserve a good deal of the credit for the recent success, his teammates and the system are putting him in optimal situations. Ryan Saunders said the offense’s focus has shifted to getting Saric a touch earlier in the possession. When he’s engaged, the coaching staff and his teammates revel over Saric’s cerebral game. Taj Gibson said, “people don’t understand he’s real high IQ, real high skill level.” However, it does seem that an early touch, an acknowledgment that he is there is a requirement to activate that brain.
So the Wolves have done that. The frequency of high screens Saric has begun to set at the outset of possessions are way up. From there, Saric can pop open for a 3 or distribute out of the action — as he does here with a drop off to Gorgui Dieng.
The Wolves are more frequently drawing up plays specifically for Saric, like Brett Brown used to do for him back in Philly. This screen-for-the-screener action with Saric and Karl-Anthony Towns is reminiscent of actions the Sixers would run with Saric and Joel Embiid as raised up bigs.
“If you have the ball and make the plays and shoot the ball, of course, you play great, feel great,” Saric said with a laugh after practice. And for the Wolves, a team who needs to zoom out and think more big picture with a 25-30 record, making Saric smile should be a major focus going forward. The Homie, as he was referred to as in Philadelphia, doesn’t turn 25 until April — making him the only player on the roster (other than the rookies) who really fit Towns and Andrew Wiggins’s age window.
Part of finding Saric’s fit will come from learning not only where to place him in the offense but who to play him with. Since he came to Minnesota, Saric has split his time — almost exactly even — alongside Towns or Dieng. That probably needs to change. Not only is it likely that the future of the Wolves’ frontcourt is KAT and Dario, but the time Saric plays without Towns has also been awful. In the past 30 games, the Wolves have been outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions when Saric shares the floor with Dieng and has outscored opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions when he is in with Towns, per Second Spectrum.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations,” Saunders said of Saric’s up and down existence in Minnesota. “But he’s done a good job of being aggressive when he’s gotten in. We’ve seen that. Like in Memphis, he really helped keep us in the game.”
Tyus Jones’ ankle injury, suffered 11 minutes into the 42-point loss in Philadelphia on January 15th, marks a pivot point in the Wolves season. Of course, plenty has happened since around Christmas — from a coach firing to an indefinite injury to the team’s best defensive player — but Jones’ injury is also part of the negative correlation.
The Wolves have only won four of the eleven games Jones has missed — two of which were against the Suns, one versus a LeBron-less Lakers team and a fourth that required an overtime buzzer-beater against the definitively average-at-best Grizzlies. But prior to this recent dismal stretch and Jones’ injury, the Wolves had won seven of their previous 11.
Jones has always turned in rating numbers that make even his greatest truthers question their relevancy. Namely, there were the 261 minutes Jones played in Jeff Teague’s spot with 2017-18 starters. In that time, the Wolves outscored opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions. There’s something undeniable here.
That something has never been fully-acknowledged by any of Jones’ coaches nor a front office that has consistently sought out to bring in lead ball-handlers — from Teague to Jamal Crawford to Derrick Rose — who would subtract from Jones’ run. Really, the greatest hat tip Jones has received, from a roster construction standpoint, given Jones’ contract status (expiring), came when the Wolves didn’t trade him at the deadline.
The 22-year-old Minnesota native, who recently bought a home in the area, is a free agent at season’s end. Jones’ restricted free agency will come about in July because he was not offered a rookie contract extension this past summer when members of his draft class, such as Justise Winslow (3 years, $39 million) and Larry Nance (4 years, $45 million), were given long term stamps of approval by their franchises.
“I know obviously it’s a contract year for me, but I’ve been trying not to think about that,” Jones responded when I asked him if he feels there is an additional motivation to return after the All-Star break and show his worth. “[I] just play my game and help the team win. That’s what I’ve done my first three years in the league and going to continue to do now. I feel like it’s paid off for me approaching it that way. It’s tough not think of it like that, but at the same time, I’m just trying to keep things how I’ve been doing them.”
For the advanced stats darling who has only played over 30 minutes in a game 16 times in his career, an opportunity could come calling in free agency. If Jones wants to start, he would be a theoretical fit in Phoenix alongside Devin Booker or next to Victor Oladipo in Indiana with Darren Collison’s contract expiring at the end of the season. But he could also be a candidate for the starting job right here, at home, in Minnesota.
Derrick Rose is an unrestricted free agent come July; and even if Rose were to re-sign in Minnesota, he has shown starters minutes don’t really work for him. It is Teague and his $19 million player option that serves as the real blockade to Jones having a shot at the starting gig. The motivations of Rose and Teague are only known by those two, but the Wolves may need to consider — given their serious financial pinch — forcing those two veterans out the door if their price tags feel too high in July.
One way of getting out ahead of things is simply handing the starting role over to Jones after the All-Star break, in what could Saunders’ first real flex as the head coach. But Saunders may not have the autonomy to do that. Any sort of real manipulation may need to come from the top. If the front office knows they can lock Jones into an affordable contract — say, $6 million annually for four years — they could shift the situation by trading Teague. Just as it would be with Jones, Phoenix and Indiana could conceivably be interested in Teague’s services. The $19 million fee may require the Wolves attaching some penance but both the Suns and the Pacers will have the cap space this summer to absorb Teague’s salary without sending back any money. Teague is also a native of Indianapolis.
“I’ve always been about the team, always been about trying to help the team in any way that I can,” said Jones “But at the same time, you’re always going to worry about yourself, put your health first.”
Entering play on Monday, the Wolves sit five games below the Los Angeles Clippers (Monday’s opponent) for the 8th seed in the West. On the other side of the standings — the “tank” side — the Wolves are only one game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans for the 8th-worst record in the league.
The final 27 games of the season will propose the always befuddling question of How worth it is it to improve ones pick? Currently, with the 10th-worst record in the NBA, the Wolves hold a 13.9 percent chance of moving into the top-4 of the 2019 NBA Draft and have a 3 percent chance of landing the number one pick.
If the Wolves fall to the 8th-worst record, their odds of moving to the top-4 boost up to 23.5 percent and a 5.3 percent chance of number one. Make a playoff push and come up one slot short(14th-worst) and those odds fall to 2.4 percent of the top-4 and .5 percent of number one.
There’s a way of going about a palatable tank. Saunders could get frisky with new lineup combinations (perhaps starting lineups) and also schematic shifts. This could build a new set of information to glean from — that maybe works and you win more. Or, it could serve as a trial run that gathers information while also improving the team’s lottery odds.
The tricky part, however, is that Saunders may be motivated to simply put forth a coaching strategy of least resistance, one that is safe and leads to the largest sum of expected victories. He’s coaching for a job. The whole “helped the team tank for a better pick” bit likely won’t shimmer on his résumé. And therein lies the rock and hard place of this whole post-Thibodeau strategy; it is one that neither greatly benefits the present or the future.
In a vacuum, the tank strategy makes a lot of sense. For those so inclined, there is a nugget of tank-tastic hope: The schedule in March is brutal. The Wolves have the second-toughest strength of schedule the rest of the way, per Tankathon.com, including nine games against Golden State, Denver, Milwaukee, Houston, Philadelphia and Toronto — five of which occur from March 12th to March 30th.
Yes, the whole tanking conversation is an all too familiar chat in Timberwolves parts. Still, baked in the disappointment of a season that did not meet expectations is an opportunity. Tanking only burns until it works out. If the Wolves capitalize on this draft — sure, a big if — it could be a game-changer for a franchise that either needs a second star or an asset that could be used to clear cap space for one of those stars to eventually sign in Minnesota.