Jim Mone, Associated Press
Tonight the Cleveland Cavaliers (4-15, 13th in the East) travel to Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves (8-9, 11th in the West). Once again this is another battle of two teams without their starting PGs. This is getting to be a theme for this season with the Cavaliers recently playing Memphis without Mike Conley and Chicago without Derrick Rose. Tonight they take on Minnesota without Ricky Rubio while Kyrie Irving remains out for the Cavaliers. Dion Waiters did not travel with the team and will also miss this game.
For this preview, we’re going to do something a little different. We were approached by John Flesta of the Wolves blog TimberPups.com to do a collaborative Q&A. John and Big Al from TimberPups answered 3 questions about the Wolves that I submitted and I answered 3 questions about the Cavaliers from John. Hope you enjoy the insight from some guys who follow the Wolves on a daily basis.
Cavs Question #1 for Andrew:
Since Kyrie Irving’s injury, the Cavs have been in just about every game despite not picking up a lot of W’s. Is there a silver lining here that fans can hang on to that might suggest the Cavs could stick around and grab a low playoff seed if they can get healthy?
I don’t think the playoffs were ever more than a mere pipe dream for the Cavaliers this season. Their starting lineup is actually solid. When fully healthy, the starting lineup of Kyrie, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, and Anderson Varejao had the highest +/- of any 5 man unit in the NBA.
The problem with the Cavaliers is twofold: defense and depth. The bench unit in the beginning of the season was atrocious. I guess if there’s a silver lining to the injuries the Cavaliers have faced, it’s that it has forced some of the bench guys to step up their game. Jeremy Pargo has really seized his opportunity and is playing with more confidence and aggressiveness than we saw early in the season. This should serve him well when Kyrie returns, and it will be a boost to the team to have someone in the bench unit that started a number of games, played some real meaningful minutes and played fairly well in those minutes. Pargo’s confidence has never been higher.
The defense has been slightly better without Kyrie. That’s probably not a coincidence. For all the things Kyrie does well, he is still really struggling with his defense. But it’s not just Kyrie. The team’s defensive principles seem to be lost on the Cavaliers. Anderson Varejao and Alonzo Gee are good individual defenders, but with so many breakdowns in team defense, it’s too much for those guys to make up for. Until the Cavaliers can figure out how to get stops in key moments down the stretch, any playoff talk is probably a little premature for this team.
Pups Question #1 for John and Big Al:
Two years ago when the Cavaliers had the #1 pick, the battle for the top pick was between Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams. There were a lot of people in Cleveland who thought the Cavaliers should take Williams instead of Kyrie. So I’ve always kept an eye on Williams from a distance to see how he develops. The start to his career has been a bit of a mixed bag. What do you make of his development so far? He seems to primarily play PF. Is that the best position for him? Where do you see his ceiling?
There are two very different perspectives here. From a Twolves perspective, I understood the selection of Derrick Williams but didn’t necessarily like it. I can only assume that David Kahn didn’t have a good enough option on the table to move this pick for a more complementary piece to the roster. Williams is a tweener but can’t guard SF’s on the defensive end, which really makes him undesired and unneeded in Minnesota. He was a good insurance policy for the Pups if Kevin Love didn’t sign his contract extension (no matter what your thoughts are on the contract itself and the number of years, it is done and he’s locked up). When Love signed his extension, Williams should have been moved because he is clearly much better off at the PF position.
From a pure basketball perspective, and when thinking about any number of other teams in the NBA, I think Williams can be a decent pro. He has a lot of room for improvement, but he shows signs when given extended minutes. Unfortunately, those minutes aren’t going to come in Minnesota when we have the best PF in the league right now in Love. He’ll get spot minutes in relief and maybe a few more if Adelman wants to play small and move Love to Center. However, the coach has had Derrick on a short leash this season and pulls him after making a mental error and/or defensive lapse. He’s lost his spot in the regular rotation to Dante Cunningham, who has definitively outplayed him thus far.
My biggest fear is that we are decreasing whatever trade value is left for him at this point. I see Derrick as a solid contributor in the NBA for the next 5-7 years, but I don’t think he has All-Star potential and he certainly won’t be getting anywhere near that level in Minnesota. It would probably be best for David Kahn to move Williams and find a complementary wing player to help this team make and advance in the playoffs. DWill is probably the most polarizing player on the roster right now, so we’ve dreamt up a number of scenarios in the past. I just want to see one of them come to fruition.
Derrick Williams has been a hot topic of discussion this year for Timberwolves fans and the consensus of fans simply do not know what to do with the former Arizona star. To begin any discussion concerning the tweener-forward, it is important to note that Derrick does not turn 22 until next May and is still early on in his development as a player. From everything I have learned about the player, and having spoken to students who currently attend Arizona and lived on his dormitory floor, I have only heard very strong praise for his character and work ethic. During the draft process, many people liked to compare Williams to Michael Beasley and believed the two players to be very similar in their skill sets. From a physical standpoint, I understand how this comparison makes sense. However, I strongly believe that Williams has a much higher mental capacity than that of Beasley’s, and he is not a risk for the off-the-court antics that Beasley has so often disappointed us with.
This season, he has had a very hard time getting into a rhythm offensively and many fans have grown extremely frustrated with the second-year player, almost accepting that he will end up as another Wesley Johnson or Jonny Flynn draft bust. The faith in Timberwolves brass is naturally very low for Minnesotans, and each failure with high draft selections only fuels Timberwolves fans towards believing that any selection by David Kahn is going to be a bad one. However, I can assure you that D-Will will never end up a Wes Johnson or a Jonny Flynn, for his struggles this season are not due to any specific flaw in his game.
The area where Williams has struggled the most this season has been around the hoop, where he is converting at one of the lowest rates in the NBA. He simply has not been able to finish in traffic, and is clearly thinking too much when given the spotty minutes he has been receiving. Defensively, it may come as a surprise to many that Williams currently ranks as a top-five defender in terms of opponents points per shot attempt. His improvement on the defensive side of the ball since last season is night and day, and he came into camp leaner and more cut and has been able to defend both SFs and PFs very well this season, although he is much more suited to guard the 4.
Because of the logjam at PF, it is unlikely that Williams will have a large role for the rest of the season. But I am not one who wishes to trade him. He is an extremely valuable asset for the long-term plans in Minnesota, and has only displayed so far to respond extremely well when faced with adversity. I have no doubts that he will continue to work as hard as he needs to in order to reach his potential, because the character and work ethic is all there.
Cavs Question #2 for Andrew:
How would you rate Dion Waiters’ performance through the first month or so of his NBA career? From a distance, he looks like an inefficient scorer. Is this the case or would you contribute some of his struggles to something else (adjusting to the NBA, missing Irving, etc.)?
Well, I would certainly agree that Dion has been an inefficient scorer so far, but I’m not surprised. Highly drafted SGs tend to develop slower than any other position. If you look at the last 10 drafts, only a couple SGs taken in the Top 5 have had an above average Efficiency Rating. There seems to be a bigger learning curve for SGs.
That probably makes sense in some ways, because if you’re a SG taken in the Top 5, you’re expected to make an impact. And by the very nature of playing SG, they tend to rely on their jumper a little too much. Learning to attack the rim and draw fouls usually comes a little later.
The encouraging thing about Dion is that he’s finding ways to score despite his shooting troubles. Sure, he takes some bad shots and probably shoots from the outside more than he should, but he’s averaging 15.2 points per game and the last rookie pure SG to average at least 15.2 was OJ Mayo. At Syracuse he liked driving into the lane, and I suspect as he adjusts to NBA defenses, he’ll find his niche. Before his ankle injury, he really looked like he was starting to adjust and attack more, and that was a good sign.
It’s possible he’ll never develop into anything more than a glorified Larry Hughes, but I’ve seen some encouraging signs in his game and I feel ok about his future. The key with rookie SG’s is to just be patient with them and watch how they develop. The good news for Dion is that his head coach was a pretty darn good SG in his own right and managed a successful career with a similar size to Dion.
Pups Question #2 for John and Big Al:
The Wolves are currently 7th in the West at the time of writing this. We talk of rebuilding a lot in Cleveland and we have a firm idea on how to navigate the road to the playoffs in the East. But making the playoffs in the West is a different animal. How do you feel about the Wolves’ growth as a team? Do you think they’re on the right path to becoming a factor in the West? Obviously when Rubio returns it will be a shot of adrenaline to the team as well. When he returns, how high do you think the Wolves can rise in the West?
Coming into the regular season, I felt really good about the Twolves and their chances of making the playoffs. In fact, I believe I called it a “lock” that they would. Shortly thereafter, Kevin Love broke his hand doing knuckle pushups. So I’ve learned my lesson…
However, if you look at what Kahn did this offseason it is hard to find a negative in giving this franchise something to legitimately cheer about. The one signing that really stings right now is Brandon Roy. They took a chance on the guy and it doesn’t look like that will pan out. His contract isn’t guaranteed for next year if he misses a certain amount of time and that is pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point. The only name that I would have liked to have seen more linkage to this past offseason is OJ Mayo, who took a pretty reasonable deal with the Mavericks.
All other moves are or looked like they are paying dividends. After the Nicholas Batum saga, Kahn pulled off quite a coup by getting Andrei Kirilenko. There wasn’t a better complementary piece available as a short term answer for the team. Chase Budinger looked like a fantastic addition before he went down with his knee injury. Alexey Shved is paying huge dividends right now with his late game heroics. Dante Cunningham looks like an absolute steal from Memphis.
With all of that said, this team is clearly on the right path. With the owner looking to sell the team in the near future and a coach that is probably making his last coaching stop, I fully expect to see one or two short term moves that give this team at least a chance to contend with the Lakers and Thunder over the next couple of seasons. Over that same time period, they will also need to convince Love and Rubio to resign with the franchise, so that’s even more of a reason to put the foot on the throttle.
For this season, Rubio’s return – which should be coming any game now, and don’t rule this one out against the Cavs just yet – will provide a shot in the arm for the club and the franchise. However, with all the other injuries, I can’t see this year’s squad being more than the 7 seed in a stacked conference. I would say this is the year the team makes the playoffs and maybe surprises in the first round (depending on the match-up) but next year would be the year the team should look to be considered contenders. That includes moving Derrick Williams and a few small, tinkering moves here and there.
Forget about Love, forget about Rubio; the strides that this team has made in less than two years can greatly be attributed to the hiring of Rick Adelman. To put it simply, Adelman is a genius. He is able to quickly identify which types of players will work in his system, and which ones need to be sent packing. The corner offense has been a huge success so far in Minnesota, especially for a team that lacks three-point shooting. This offseason, Adelman played a key role in acquiring and signing high-character players that each possessed one or multiple skills needed for the offense. Once Adelman is given the proper tools, he is a master at squeezing out every ounce of these particular talents while instilling a tremendous defensive philosophy that has clearly inspired this team. Since hiring the future Hall of Fame coach, the Wolves have quickly gone from one of the worst defensive teams to one of the best, and it is mainly thanks to Rick.
Ricky Rubio remains without a timetable, but my best guess is that he should return in less than two weeks. With that being said, I believe that the Wolves are on the verge of legitimately competing for the 5th or 6th seed in the West, given that they do not endure any more significant injuries over the course of the season. Kevin Love is regaining strength in his right hand and is beginning to knock down threes, and Alexey Shved has exploded onto the scene and has been, in my opinion, one of the best closers in all of basketball. Shved’s virtually seamless transition to the NBA reminds me a lot of Rubio’s, and the two players play with a flair that seems to make everyone around them better. Shved is a combo guard, but has proven that he can thrive at either position. This has been a blessing, especially when considering the injuries to both Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger.
While I believe that Kevin Love is the best player on the Timberwolves, I remain adamant that Ricky Rubio has a bigger impact on winning games than Love. Rubio was top-three in steals last season and was one of the top perimeter defenders due to his high basketball IQ and freakish wingspan (6’9”). You simply cannot teach players how to anticipate defensive rotations and opposing player movements the way Ricky does, and he was a major part of transforming Minnesota’s defense from a weakness to a strength.
Cavs Question #3 for Andrew:
Anderson Varejao has been on fire this season. Would you expect him to be able to put up big numbers against the Wolves front line of Pekovic, Love, and company? Separately, do you expect him to be on the team by the time the trading deadline passes? If not, what scenarios are appealing in a trade to Cavs fans?
I love the Wolves’ frontcourt and I certainly think they will be a handful for Andy. However, Varejao recently took on the impressive Memphis frontcourt and he dominated Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the boards. I do think with the way Varejao is playing, he can go toe to toe with just about anyone. However, Kevin Love is a better rebounder than anyone Varejao has faced this year. I will be really interested to see how the rebound battle shapes up between those two. Varejao singlehandedly outrebounded Gasol and Z-Bo by a 22-14 margin. I don’t think he’ll repeat that against the Wolves. I expect Love to more than hold his own against Andy on the board.
As for trading him, that’s the million dollar question that is debated endlessly in Cleveland. I am firmly of the belief that Cleveland shouldn’t trade him because I don’t believe they can ever get enough value back to replace how much he means to the Cavaliers.
That’s just my opinion, though. Do I think the Cavaliers will trade him? I don’t. The team has never shown any real interest in actively trading him, and Andy has never expressed any discontent with being in Cleveland and he has never asked for a trade. I think the team enjoys having Andy for his veteran leadership and for the example he sets for his young teammates. He has a very team-friendly contract and the Cavaliers are expecting to be ready to compete for the playoffs next season. Injuries will always be a concern with Andy, but if he’s healthy, there’s no reason he can’t still be an important part of the Cavaliers when they return to the playoffs.
Pups Question #3 for John and Big Al:
If I’m being honest, I don’t see any glaring advantages for the Cavaliers in this matchup. The Wolves play tough defense and the Cavaliers offense is really struggling without Irving and Waiters. The Wolves’ offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut either, but the Cavaliers’ defense has been, well, awful this year. What would you say is the Wolves’ biggest flaw that maybe the Cavaliers can exploit if they’re going to be able to have success? And on the flip side, what is the Wolves’ biggest strength that you think the Cavaliers will have the biggest issue in overcoming?
The Wolves biggest flaw is clearly their defense at the PG position. Over the past two weeks, we’ve given up huge games to Jennings, Paul, Holiday, and Rondo and that has been a consistent theme all season long. Luke Ridnour and JJ Barea have a role on the team, or at least one of them will when Rubio returns, but they are being asked to make huge contributions. However, both are getting killed on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out. I would not be surprised to see Pargo or Gibson put up a season high in points and/or assists. That’s the biggest concern every night the Wolves play right now; can they give up a big night to a guard but contain said player just enough to win the game itself?
The Wolves strength is their frontcourt, particularly if AK47 is back on the court Friday night. When he is paired with Love, Pekovic, and the regulars off the bench, there really isn’t another team in the league I would trade places with in a five or six man rotation from top to bottom. They dominate on the boards and with AK47, play solid defense and move the ball around on offense. This team would be a League Pass ‘must watch’ if it was healthy. The Wolves fan base is just waiting impatiently for this to happen.
Honestly, I have a hard time seeing the Wolves lose this game as well. I don’t see a star in the Cavs backcourt that would light the team and lead the Cavs to a victory, particularly when I compare the frontcourts of both rosters. We should have a huge advantage in and around the paint and be able to get ourselves back to .500 and awaiting the return of our savior (Rubio). No pressure on the kid or anything…
I would have to say that the Wolves inconsistency shooting three-pointers has been a major issue for the team this year. Although Love won the three-point contest last year and Ridnour has traditionally been considered a very good shooter from long range, the shooting has been miserable this season, as they sit dead last in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage. Without the ability to knock down threes, defenses are able to sag off our perimeter players, taking away the effectiveness of penetrating the lane and getting to the hoop. Defenses are able to have a much easier time when focused on double-teaming Nikola Pekovic and Love in the paint and not having to worry about players being left open on the perimeter. If the Cavaliers do a good job closing out on the ball and consistently contesting shots, then it should really help their chances at going home with the W.
Clearly, the biggest flaw for the Cavaliers is their defense, and Adelman’s corner offense is designed to excel against teams that are not quick on their defensive rotations due to the quick ball movement and back-door cuts that the offense entails. Andrei Kirilenko has been a perfect fit in Minnesota, and he has done a tremendous job dissecting defenses with his passing. If the Wolves can limit turnovers and limit Cleveland’s transition opportunities, this game should be Minnesota’s to win.
We hope you enjoyed the preview for this Friday’s match-up between the Pups and Cavs. Again, you can read more from Andrew at WaitingForNextYear.com and/or follow him on Twitter. You can read more from John and Big Al on Timberpups.com and/or follow @Timberpupsblog and John on Twitter.