The peak for an NBA player is right around when your typical rock star dies. In other words, age 27 (see: Hendrix, Jimi; Cobain, Kurt; Morrison, Jim; Joplin, Janis, etc.). Their prime begins around age 25, when their athletic talent is still in its full flower and the rigors of constant competition and a peripatetic life are not yet a drain, but rather, an education. They’ve learned how to pace themselves, both on and off the court. By the tail end of their early thirties, though, the physical demands become too much and their bodies betray them. It is no small coincidence that Michael Jordan’s string of championships with the Bulls began when he was 27 and ended at 34 – probably a year or two beyond the horizon of his true prime.
What, then, are we to make of a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have eight players who are 25 and under – including four who are 20 or younger – and four players aged 32 or older? The three players who fall squarely into what should be their primes are Damjan Rudez (29 and with one year of NBA experience), Nemanja Bjelica (27 and a rookie) and Nikola Pekovic (29 and saddled with chronic pain that could chase him from the league sooner rather than later), none of whom are likely to experience a true NBA prime.
In Kevin Love’s last season with the team, they went 40-42 and were better than that record indicated. Their expected W-L based on points scored versus points allowed was 48-34, which would have put them only a game behind the 8th seeded Dallas Mavericks that year. Last season, they lost three of their five starters within the first ten games of the season and slouched to a 16-66 record when it became apparent that losing with a young lineup was going to do more good than winning.
To develop a team with two Number One picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns – plus more young talent on the roster in Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and others – head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders put together this primeless roster. After trading for Kevin Garnett toward the end of last season and then adding the 39-year-old Andre Miller and the 35-year-old Tayshaun Prince in the offseason, Saunders appeared to have what he wanted: a trio of vets at different positions to shepherd the younger players into contention.
But Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma over the summer and what initially looked like a manageable illness has turned potentially life-threatening. The question of whether the Wolves take a step forward or keep running in place now largely depends on how the team and coaching staff adapt to Saunders’ absence.
With assistant coach Sam Mitchell acting as interim head coach, the team hit the right notes – at least at first. At the press conference where it was announced that Saunders would be stepping aside, Mitchell said, “I am confident that I can continue to build the foundation that Flip has established,” emphasizing that his role would be as steward, not interloper.
At media day, he doubled down, recognizing that players like Miller, Prince and Garnett were not the future of the team on the floor.
“Kevin’s not going to be here three years from now, Andre’s not going to be here,” he said. “I gotta make sure that I do right by the organization first, and doing right by them is making sure these young guys get to play.”
General Manager Milt Newton echoed this, saying, “Sometimes winners have to be a little bit selfless, and they know there are times when they’re going to play a lot and times when they’re not going to play as much. The important thing is that they know they’re here not so much for what they can give us on the floor but what they can give us off the floor.”
But read between the lines of Mitchell and Newton’s statements about player development, and you discover a disconnect between their approach and Saunders’.
“I was under the impression that Flip wanted to win,” says David Thorpe, an ESPN analyst and coach who has worked with NBA players for years. “It didn’t make sense to bring in longer term guys who were a little bit younger who would suck up all the minutes from their very, very talented group of extremely young players. What made some sense is to bring in guys who know how to play and have had success.”
In his experience, Thorpe says you’re only going to be able to truly assess a player’s potential when you put him alongside experienced players who can open up the game and make it easier. “The game is played by younger players – it’s read by older players,” he says. “Their brains are a big part of their talent.”
What this all drives toward is that player development is not a simple recipe – the understanding and assessment of it is as difficult as it is with any kind of education. The Spurs got a single rough diamond in Kawhi Leonard at the 15th spot in the draft and then meticulously carved him into a Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. The Sixers are constantly churning their roster with young assets and D-League players while being an absolute garbage fire as they wait for the moment to cash it all in on the player or players who rise to the top.
The distance that could be revealing itself between Saunders and Mitchell is more subtle – but no less important.
“In Flip’s world, in my opinion, he was going to have a flexible variety in terms of what he was offering.” Thorpe says. “He might have Andre [Miller] with Zach [LaVine] on the court, KG with [Karl-Anthony] Towns, you could have put [Tayshaun] Prince with Shabazz [Muhammad]. What I think the plan was – and should be still – is to sprinkle lineups with young guys and veterans so that you can really fully evaluate your young players.”
But Mitchell, under the umbrella of development, has said, “There is no shortcut for the young guys to get better. They gotta be on the floor and play.” Answering a question about LaVine’s playing time on the first day of training camp, he said, “Time will tell, but we’re going to give Zach every opportunity to be out there. He’s gotta earn it but he’s doing a good job thus far. And [Kevin Martin]’s doing a good job helping him and teaching him.”
Then yesterday, Mitchell told Sirius XM Radio that LaVine would be the starting shooting guard on Day One, supplanting 11-year vet Martin, who made it clear on media day that he viewed his role as a starting one. As such, it won’t be surprising if Martin is moved sooner rather than later. Like Mitchell said, “The only way they’re going to learn is when we’re in those situations the fourth quarter,” but anyone who watched the Wolves last season saw players developing individually, not as a team.
Mitchell is a disciplinarian, an old school guy who believes there’s a right way and a wrong way. On the first day of training camp, NBA TV’s cameras showed him explaining that he wanted guys on the perimeter to square up their mark on defense, an approach that fewer and fewer teams are taking as the trend in the league moves toward forcing the ball where you want it rather than trying to stop it cold. Of course, Mitchell was also the coach who wouldn’t double team Kobe Bryant when the Mamba hung 81 on his Toronto Raptors in 2006.
There’s no doubt that teams need discipline. In training camp, Mitchell hammered the importance of moving the ball, and that’s good. But a team full of young players and helmed by a few veterans is going to need more than dogmatic principles. They’re going to need flexibility, adaptability and understanding. That means keeping at least two of their older veterans on the floor and not just hoping for them to teach in practice, in the locker room and on the bus.
There’s no question that the youth movement is tantalizing, with Wiggins and Towns looking like potential franchise cornerstones in the mold of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. If Dieng can be their Serge Ibaka, or LaVine or Muhammad their James Harden, their future is bright indeed.
But if – as moving LaVine into the starting lineup seems to indicate – the plan is to let those under-25 players pound the ball into the ground while more experienced players like Martin, Miller, Garnett and others ride the pine, Thorpe is only optimistic about one thing the team could achieve.
“They literally might end up being the worst team in the history of the league, if they go that route.”