By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Dec 23 2011 9:20AM
In the furor over Chris Paul's near-trade to the Los Angeles Lakers and eventual transfer to their intra-arena rivals, the L.A. Clippers, the real mystery was that he didn't have to pass through Minnesota, at least for a layover.
Point guards do not pass "Go!" or collect $200 without spending some time with the Timberwolves, it seems. Since arriving in Minnesota in the spring of 2009, David Kahn, the Wolves' vice president of basketball operations, has been like some sort of Bond villain, maniacally abducting and collecting playmakers in his Upper Midwest lair. Y'know, the way Dr. Jerry Buss collects leggy brunettes.
From Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn on consecutive lottery picks in '09 to Ramon Sessions and Luke Ridnour as OCD free-agent acquisitions from Milwaukee a year apart, with Sebastian Telfair and Ty Lawson (and most recently, J.J. Barea) moving through (or to) the Wolves, Kahn has kept pushing a good-things-come-in-small-packages philosophy of NBA team building.
That didn't work so well when Kurt Rambis was the coach; Rambis favored a triangle-like offense that, as Phil Jackson demonstrated so successfully in Chicago and L.A., works best with bigger guards. But now Rick Adelman is in charge on the sideline, with a history of using not just one but often two traditional point guards at a time. He did it in Portland with Terry Porter and Danny Ainge, in Sacramento with Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson and in Houston with Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry.
Now he has Rubio, Barea and Ridnour at his disposal, without any obvious choice for starter's minutes among the shooting guards on his roster. "I've got three point guards who are really good," Adelman told Twin Cities reporters a week into practices. "I've got to find ways to use them."
The prize among them -- at least, he'd better be -- is Rubio, the tantalizing Spanish playmaker for whom the Wolves and a curious NBA have waited for more than two years. Finally, El Rubio Grande es en la casa, which gives Kahn and the Wolves basketball to sell again rather than just May lottery balls.
The early returns? Muy caliente!
After just a couple hours of pickup ball before camps even opened, Wolves big man Anthony Tolliver came away marveling at Rubio's grasp of the game and ability to deliver the ball.
"It's crazy. His regular passes are like, 'Wow,' " Tolliver told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He can see the floor about as good as anyone I've seen. Everyone has to have their hands up because otherwise the ball is going to hit you in the face. ... He got the ball exactly where it needed to be when it needed to be there. That's a special talent."
Said Minnesota power forward Kevin Love after some early camp work with Rubio: "He's kept up with the speed, he's been a great defender thus far, he's kept his hands in the passing lanes, been able to shoot it -- still needs to work on that a little bit. But the way he distributes, in this offense, he can have a lot of success.''
It might take some time for the "he" to blossom into "we" -- Love is a perfect example of a savant whose uncanny abilities didn't assure his team of victories. But if Rubio's ballhandling can add a brick to the team's structure the way Love's rebounding has, little by little good things might start to happen. Minnesota ranked No. 1 in the league in offensive boards and overall rebounding last season, thanks largely to Love. Rubio -- and Barea and Ridnour -- will get a chance to boost the Wolves from dead last in turnovers.
Adelman had one practice in his first Wolves' week in which he was stunned by his players' pinball ballhandling. But he believes he can trust the trio of point guards to do better, even as they create some matchup problems for longer backcourts.
Of his early impressions of Rubio, the veteran coach said: "'I heard all the talk but until you see him on the floor, you don't get a feel. He's a smart young guy on the court, very coachable, wants to be a player. People talked about his shooting -- he's worked on his shooting, obviously. He just has to learn how to take open shots.
"He always thinks pass first. Those are areas he's got to strengthen. But when young guys come into this league, they've got to have something they can rely on, and he has that. His passing ability, his ability to get in and find people is a unique strength.''
Rubio spent much of the summer training in Los Angeles, so he already has been on the court against NBA rivals. Besides Ridnour and Barea at his side, the Wolves have Porter and Adelman -- two former point guards themselves, in their past lives -- around as resources. Then there's the on-the-job training he will get from the likes of Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings, Jason Kidd, Tony Parker, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Paul and fellow rookie Kyrie Irving in the season's first month.
But there is an enthusiasm in Rubio that, barring any huge on-court setback, should sustain not only the young point guard but his teammates and maybe even the folks in the Target Center stands for a while. "I'm going to try what I learned in Europe here to try to win more games," Rubio said.
If he's right, Kahn's days of collecting point guards soon might be over.
1. Work around Kevin Love. Love isn't a classic anything -- his game is a little bit of center, power forward and even small forward. He's extremely valuable without being an automatic all-NBA choice. But he's the best the Wolves have had since that other Kevin.
2. Get Derrick Williams minutes. The early returns were that Williams had his hands full playing power forward, never mind a transition to small forward. But he's the highest pick in Wolves' history, so he needs to play somewhere.
2. Trust Rick Adelman. Changing a team's "culture" is a lofty way of putting it, but Minnesota needs to conform to Adelman's style and success way more than he needs to coach to fit the Wolves. His 945 coaching victories were 240 more than Minnesota's franchise total after 22 seasons.
1. Michael Beasley, whose antics threatened to torpedo his career regardless of his talent, might have a shot at longevity and stability after all. Wolves boss David Kahn asked former NBA guard-turned-agent Norm Nixon to mentor the forward. "Michael is like my son now," the former Laker said.
2. For the first time in a while, the Wolves won't have anything to gain from late-season losses; their first-round pick belongs to New Orleans from the Chris Paul deal. (Twin Cites pessimists are convinced that, finally, Minnesota will move up in the lottery.)
3. Darko Milicic started 69 times last season but was promised nothing as camp was opened by Adelman, his eighth coach in nine seasons. If Adelman can't unlock this guy's game, it might never happen. In the States, anyway.
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LAST YEAR: 17-65, 5th in Northwest
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2010-11 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2010-11 Stats|
RICKY RUBIO, POINT GUARD
After two seasons of waiting, the No. 5 overall pick from 2009 arrives. What will Wolves fans see this season? The hype (and potential to rise or fall fast) is great for him.
WESLEY JOHNSON, SHOOTING GUARD
9.0 PPG | 3.0 RPG | 1.9 APG
The slender swingman from Syracuse started 63 games and was second among rookies with 103 made 3s. But his shooting overall (.397) was truly cringe-worthy.
MICHAEL BEASLEY, SMALL FORWARD
19.2 PPG | 5.6 RPG | 2.2 APG
Beasley delivered on his offensive promise last year with a career-high scoring mark. But rookie Derrick Williams could push the mercurial forward for playing time.
KEVIN LOVE, POWER FORWARD
20.2 PPG | 15.2 RPG | 2.5 APG
Love emerged as an All-Star, led the league in rebounding and earned Most Improved Player honors. He's the franchise and the Wolves will need his continued dominance.
DARKO MILICIC, CENTER
8.8 PPG | 5.2 RPG | 2.0 BPG
Rick Adelman's offense is based around a good passing big man, which means Love could start here. But if Milicic keeps the job, the Wolves' interior defense should be steady.
|J.J. Barea||6-0||175||G||Point guard may see more time at shooting guard.|
|Derrick Williams||6-8||240||F||Matter of time till he pushes into Beasley's spot?|
|Anthony Randolph||6-10||205||F||Nearly a 20-10 man in 23 games with Wolves ... and?|
ADDED: G Malcolm Lee, F Derrick Williams, G J.J. Barea, F Brad Miller, G-F Robert Vaden, G Bonzi Wells
LOST: G Sebastian Telfair, F Lazar Hayward
RICKY RUBIO, GUARD
Hopefully we're all done with the Pete Whatshisname comparisons. Rubio will rise or fall on his own merits, but patience is limited after the two-year wait and Minnesota's dire needs. He has a new team, a new league, a new offense and a new country to learn, while toting on his shoulders a franchise desperate for relevance.
|Faried Block and Slam|
Kenneth Faried blocks John Wall on the defensive end and throws down the hammer on the offensive end.
Mike Conley passes to Jerryd Bayless for the baseline slam.
Gerald Henderson drives to the basket and sinks a circus shot.
Chris Paul throws a wonderful lob to DeAndre Jordan, who finishes with a slam.
|Big Time Block|
Gerald Henderson blocks a shot off the backboard during the second quarter.