[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="297" caption="Pekovic's breakout season was a very rare "Spurs-like" moment for the Wolves franchise"][/caption]
If you were to look at the Spurs and the Timberwolves on paper, you probably wouldn't see a ton of similarities. Mainly the ages of the teams stand out, Spurs having six players over the age of 30 and the Wolves only having two. Then you dive into the success the two teams have had over their lifetimes and the comparison becomes laughable. I am not comparing the Wolves to the Spurs today, rather I am looking at the Spurs and thinking that the Wolves players and coaches need to take notes for the rest of the playoffs on how the Spurs conduct themselves. If the Pups can then mirror some of what the Spurs players, coaches and organization do, the Wolves could have some success next year the likes of which haven't been seen in Minneapolis for a long, long time.
#2 pencils ready? OK, here we go (all rights to the phrase, "here we go" belong to Bud Light, the beer that should be replaced by white out on every bar's taps list)...
Ricky Rubio/Tony Parker
Why didn't I do a Rubio/Parker rookie comparison? I did many others, but Parker would've made a lot of sense to compare. There are a lot of similarities with these two players. We'll maybe do one to start next season after Rubio takes my advice (yes, Rubio is a big reader of STOB...why are you surprised?).
Finish around the basket -
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Look who had the worst shooting percentage around the bucket this year..."][/caption]
Rubio struggled finishing his drives this year, as you can see from the graphic above. Nobody is better at the PG position finishing around the rim as Parker. Parker maybe quicker and more athletic, but Rubio has a size and length advantage that should help to make up for that. Parker didn't have the greatest field goal % either in his rookie season, shooting 41.9%. While 41% is much better than Rubio's 35.7%, the idea is the same. Parker didn't shoot the three as well as Rubio in his rookie season (Parker 32.3%, Rubio 34.0%), which shows that it isn't just Rubio's jumper holding down his FG%, but more so finishing around the basket and not getting a high shooting percentage there to boost up his overall FG%. Parker improved his FG% to 46.4% in his sophomore campaign and Rubio will need to do the same by boosting his FG% number by finishing efficiently inside.
Attached at the hip with the coach -
Rubio needs to continue to develop a relationship with Rick Adelman. There was no off-season in which Rubio and Adelman could develop their relationship last year and with that you can't expect them to be close to the Parker/Popovich relationship after one shortened year. Yet, the thing that Rubio needs to see is how Parker takes Popovich's vision and orchestrates it on the court.
Pick n' Roll Magic -
I am not overly concerned with Rubio's pick and roll work. The kid is already a wiz here, but still, learning from a veteran like Parker can't hurt.
Kevin Love/Tim Duncan
They don't play the game in the same way, there is no doubt. Also, they are on extreme opposite ends of their respective career's. Yet, Love (and really any other basketball player in the world) can still learn a ton from Tim Duncan.
Team is bigger than self -
Tim Duncan has been the exemplary team player since day one of his career. I haven't seen Kevin Love not be a team player at all in his career, but after a year of success like this past season, Love needs to keep Duncan's approach in mind moving forward.
Defense if key -
Duncan is a defensive stopper and a lot of that does comes from the fact his body is built better for the defensive side of the ball at PF/C than Love's. Kevin Love will never be able to duplicate the God-given gifts that Duncan has received, but he can take the mental side of the defense that Duncan shows. Being smart in positioning and giving 100% effort on the defensive side of the ball is something Duncan still does, even if his athletic skills are starting to limit his defensive impact. Kevin Love will never be a defensive player of the year, but if he can take what Duncan is doing in the twilight of his career in terms of effort and positioning, he will be a vastly improved defensive player.
Loyalty can pay off -
On the western conference side remaining the NBA playoffs there are two superstars that have shown loyalty to their franchises and stuck around in Duncan (yes Ginobili and Parker as well...but we are focusing on the really big guys) and Durant. On the eastern conference side, there are two as well in Wade and Pierce, but there is also Bosh, Allen, KG and Lebron that ruin it. The best example of team loyalty is Duncan out of that group, and what Ginobili, Parker and himself are showing is that staying with a franchise for the long haul can pay off. Kevin Love did sign his extension this past year, and of course if the Timberwolves continue to bumble and screw up roster moves, you can't blame him for leaving when his contract is up. Yet, if the Wolves build around the nucleus of Love and Rubio and turn this team into a contender, Love needs to look to Duncan as an example that continuing with that nucleus and adapting to new styles as time goes on, can pay off.
Derrick Williams/Manu Ginobili
In no way are these two the same in their style of play. Yet, Derrick Williams has a few things he can take from Ginobili and work into his game, we'll just talk about one for now.
Coming off the bench can be just fine -
For the majority of Ginobili's career he has been a 6th man or player off the bench:
Derrick Williams may well have the same fate if he indeed stays with the Wolves for an extended period of time playing some of his time behind Kevin Love, and his rookie year mirrors Ginobili's in many ways:
If Williams does come off the bench, he can learn from Ginobili that just because you come off the bench, you can be just as big a part of the team's success and also still be considered a "star". Williams at times grumbled a bit about his role off the bench and limited minutes this past year. Like Ginobili, Williams needs to put on this big boy pants and put his ego to the side and do whats best for the team. If he does, like Ginobili, success will come to him as an individual and to the team.
Nikola Pekovic/Boris Diaw
Again, they don't play like each other, but the role that Diaw is playing in the playoffs with the Spurs, could be the same as what Pekovic will play moving forward with the Wolves after his breakout year.
Know your role -
Diaw's role is to stretch the court and knock down open shots, while also setting screens for Tony Parker and Ginobili. Pekovic will not be stretching the court for the Wolves from the outside, but from the inside. His role will be to get the easy buckets that the defense gives the Wolves when it focuses too much on Rubio off a pick and roll, or running out to defend Love's three point threat. Instead of hitting a three when the defense collapses on Duncan, Parker and Ginobili on drives and post ups, Pek will dominate his man one on one on the block when no help can collapse on him while defending Love and hopefully many other shooters to come for the Wolves.
Wes Johnson/Kawhi Leonard
I know I should give up on Wes Johnson. I know I shouldn't waste another day writing about him and what he "could" be. But, I can't stop. I still think he can be a productive player for the Wolves and watching what Kawhi Leonard is giving the Spurs in the playoffs, I see what Wes could give the Wolves next year if he is paying close attention.
Defense, Defense, Defense -
Offense is sexier and we know Wes was more heralded coming out of 'Cuse as a shooter and high flyer. It doesn't look like Wes will ever be a leading scorer for anyone after two NBA seasons, so it's time to re-focus. Kawhi Leonard is a bit heavier than Wes and better built, about 20 pounds heavier, but both are 6-7 and both are long and athletic. Wes may not be able to defend power forwards like Leonard, but he should be able to guard the PG, SG and SF. Wes needs to put all of his focus on becoming a shut down defender. He has the physical tools, it is all mental from here. Kawhi wants to be good defensively and uses his physical assets to achieve that goal. If Wes can get the "want" he too may be able to contribute to the Wolves on the defensive side of the ball night in and night out at multiple positions.
Hit the open shot -
Kawhi Leonard shot 29.1% from three in his final season at San Diego State. Wes Johnson shot 41.5% from three his final season at Syracuse. This past NBA season, Leonard just one year removed from shooting 29.1% in college, shot 37.6% from three in the regular season and is currently shooting 45.2% in the playoffs. Wes Johnson shot 31.4% from three this past season. Safe to say they are going opposite directions.
If Wes can shoot 41.5% from three in college, he can shoot just as good as a guy who shot 29.1% in college, in the NBA. There seems to me to be one thing different about the two, one went and improved on a weakness, the other got comfortable with a strength and didn't work at it at all. That needs to change for Wes, and this off-season has to be the catalyst or he won't wear a Timberwolves jersey again...he may not get this off-season for all we know.
Wes, like Leonard, isn't the focus of the opposing defense, because of this both gets wide open looks from three. Unlike Leonard, Wes isn't filling his role of spot up shooter/pressure release and is missing those shots far too often. For the Wolves offense to run smoothly, like the Spurs, the spot up shooters like Wes need to knock down the open shots from three that they are very capable of making.
Rick Adelman/Gregg Popovich
Rick Adelman has this "NBA coach" thing down for the most part. Yet, you can always learn, and who better to do that from than Pop?
Trust the role players -
Gregg Popovich has been blessed to coach Tim Duncan's entire career, there is no doubt that will make any coach look good. Yet, you have to admire the way that Popovich has used relatively unknown and unwanted players to surround Duncan, Parker and Ginobili and win.
Boris Diaw is cut from the worst team in the league and now starts in the playoffs for the best team in the league. Gary Neal had to play overseas before getting a chance, and now capably backs up Tony Parker in the western conference finals. Danny Green looks like a bum with the horrible Cleveland Cavaliers, and now is trusted with big shots. Kawhi Leonard comes into the league as a guy thought to not be able to shoot, and is currently letting it fly with regularity in the western conference finals and is shooting it at a 45% clip in the playoffs. There are more examples from other Spurs teams but the point is made.
Popovich will put you in a role, and trust you in it and it seems that with that trust, most players flourish. Now obviously, being on a team with Parker, Ginobili and Duncan will help make any player look better. Yet, some of these guys have played with good players elsewhere, Danny Green played with Lebron for example. Pop can be hard on players, but he also seems to instill a confidence in them that allows them to play better and so well within their role.
Adelman can do all of this as well, look at his Rockets team without Yao and McGrady for example. The key next year for the Wolves though, is getting Adelman to get "Popovich-like" results from the role players on this Wolves team. Wes Johnson, JJ Barea, Derrick Williams and whoever the hell else ends up being here around Rubio and Love. Rubio will make you look good if you fill your role on the court, but you can't fear a quick benching if you fail a time or two and need that confidence instilled in you from the coach, knowing that he trusts your ability to fill that role. If Adelman can do that, with the very capable players the Wolves have, then like Popovich he should have great success with this Wolves team.
David Kahn/R.C. Buford
Kahnsie, Kahnsie, Kahnsie...please don't f-up the start of something good that you've created...please!
Assemble a team that fits together -
This would seem so obvious wouldn't it? But, I guess it hasn't been for David Kahn during his time with the Wolves. Whether it is drafting one thousand point guards and then also signing free agent point guards every year. Or picking up more power forwards when you already have Kevin Love. Or not ever getting a true shooting guard the entire time you've been with the Wolves. Whatever the move, it seems Kahn doesn't think how the different players will mesh on the court, only that they are a player with talent, and we need talent regardless of position and role.
You look at the Spurs current line-up and it all works. You have the studs; a PG in Parker, a wing in Ginobili and a big in Duncan. All three work together perfectly and rarely if ever step on each other's toes when it comes to what they do on the court. Then the role players that surround them that make the studs job easier. Diaw, stretches the court for Duncan, Ginobili and Parker to drive, can play PF/C defensively depending on match ups. Kawhi Leonard, plays really good defense, rebounds and stretches the floor with three-point shooting. Danny Green, brings energy, stretches the floor with three-point shooting, to again, give space for Duncan, Ginobili and Parker to work in the lane. Off the bench, a change of pace in Gary Neal behind Parker, handles the ball well enough and unlike Parker can shoot the three lights out. Steven Jackson, streaky scorer that can make up for the starters being off the court with scoring punch, or when on the court with the starters again stretches the floor with shooting. Tiago Splitter, solid defensively, fills into Duncan's roles to a lesser extent but capably while Duncan rests, while also being able to play next to Duncan.
The list seems to never end for the Spurs, but the role players all seem to fit perfectly with the stars. The same cannot be said of the Wolves roster. Kahn needs to figure out if indeed Derrick Williams makes sense for this team, and can play SF next to Love. If not, move him. Can Wes Johnson play SG, if not, likely move him unless he'll start at SF. If Wes can't play SG, who can? Get a SG. If JJ Barea is supposed to be the veteran presence off the bench and a scoring punch, make sure he isn't then turning the ball over like a rookie and actually looking less like a veteran than the rookie starter. If you have a big man star like Love that can't be a defensive stopper, get one to play next to him. If defense has been proven to be important in the game of basketball (I think it has been proven), get someone who can play it. You get the point, the team doesn't fit or the players that are supposed to fill specific roles can't. Kahn and Adelman have their work cut out.
This is only part of what the Wolves could learn from the Spurs, but it'd be a huge start in turning the Wolves into a better squad if the Wolves players, coaches and general manager could just take half of these suggestions and make them reality next year on the court, sidelines and offices. The Wolves are on the right track, and I have more faith than ever they may make strides towards becoming more "Spurs-like", but there is no doubt they still have a long way to go.