Wolves opener: A victory for Flip, a victory for patience

rickykgThe Twins started 2015 with a season-opening six-game road trip that caused me to muse that this incarnation of the team could be even worse than the sorry 2011-14 groups and could, in fact, easily lose 100 games. I wasn’t alone, which meant I wasn’t alone in being terribly wrong when the Twins rallied and went 82-73 after a 1-6 start.

The Vikings started 2015 with an awful performance in San Francisco. I was at a bar watching with friends, and my disgust level, as measured with drinks on the horizontal axis and Vikings blunders on the vertical access, was an exponential growth curve. One game in, all the positive offseason stories were under suspicion. And now the Vikings are 4-2, having played a relatively soft schedule, yes, but having looked very much like the team we all expected.

The Wild started the 2015 season with two dreadful periods in Colorado. An unnamed coworker who bailed on watching the game on TV when it was 4-1, came into the office the next morning and said, “Is it time to start the ‘Fire Yeo’ chants already?” He was unaware that the Wild had rallied to win 5-4, launching a 6-2-1 start to the season that has included some spotty play but has overall been effective.

The Wolves started the 2015 season last night, and my first tweet about this year’s team was to note, “I can’t think of 5 players less suited to play together than the 5 on the floor for the right now” in regards to their second unit of Nemanja Bjelica, Kevin Martin, Zach Lavine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. It was the hottest of hot takes, lacking perspective and so many other things. Luckily, I had a chance to eat those words later when that very group helped spark a rally and an eventual one-point victory. (And luckily, as I had done with Wild, I had just enough faith to stick with the game through the end).

All four teams started on the road. All four looked like garbage for a VERY small sample size of their overall seasons. Three of them, so far, have proved that their very early sample was not a good predictor of things to come.

It’s impossible to know what is yet to come for the Wolves for the rest of this season, but this much is true: Wednesday night was another victory for the notion of having a little patience, and it was certainly a victory in honor of Flip Saunders.

Ricky Rubio (AP photo with KG above), who had his best game in as long as I can remember with 28 points, 14 assists and a startling command of both jump shots and drives, summed it up perfectly afterward: “We had a little help today. It’s been a tough week. It’s hard to explain. Everybody go through a lot of pain, but we came here to fight, compete and try to win the game…Even though he’s gone, he will stay with us forever.”

Flip’s invisible hand from beyond did not steer the last-second shot from going in. That’s not what Rubio is getting at here (at least that’s how I interpret the quote). The “help” from Flip came in the form of the lessons he taught the Wolves and their desire to honor his legacy — which perhaps caused players to give an extra ounce of effort on the key plays that determine most games, including the final play against the Lakers.

For a night, anyway, the Wolves were able to channel their energy from a nightmarish week into something positive. I won’t dare say how that translates to the next 81, but I will say being more patient and forgiving in Game 2 and beyond is something for which I will strive.

‘Young’ Timberwolves are actually older than most NBA teams

kgmillerThe Timberwolves are slated to start their season at 9:30 p.m. (local time) in Los Angeles against the Lakers. The stunning death of coach/President Flip Saunders has rightfully taken much of the recent focus off of basketball; that will start to shift in the coming days, bringing at least a partial focus back on the roster at hand and the building process that the Wolves are attempting.

As such, two things from a recent Rukkus NBA infographic caught my eye as they relate to the roster that was very much assembled by Flip.

1) In terms of average age per player, the Wolves, at 27.52 years old, are actually not young. The narrative is that they’re young, but it doesn’t match the reality. The average age of an NBA player this season is 26.92 years. And only 9 teams have an older average age than the Timberwolves. Much of that, of course, is a result of having two 39-year-olds (KG and Andre Miller) as well as a 35-year-old (Tayshaun Prince) to go with a ton of recent draft picks, including four guys who still can’t legally buy a drink in the United States (Tyus Jones, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach Lavine and Andrew Wiggins). This speaks to the interesting mix of old and young on the team — a move made by design by Saunders, who recruited those veterans to mentor the young guys.

2) Wolves players have the highest average draft position of any team in the league. That isn’t surprising, again, with so many high picks on the roster (though it is impressive since they jettisoned former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett this offseason). The talent is there; we’ll see how it all fits together starting tonight.

The most heartbreaking things Jerry Kill said today

killThe news conference Wednesday morning at which Jerry Kill announced he was retiring as Gophers football coach because of health concerns was one of the rawest, most emotional displays I have ever seen from a public sports figure. Red-eyed throughout, Kill laid himself bare. Here were the five things he said that I found particularly heartbreaking:

*”People are going to ask, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I don’t know. I’ve never done anything else.” That came early on in his opening remarks, and it underscored his long battle to stay in the game in spite of multiple health problems — most notably at Minnesota in his fight with epilepsy. He’s been a football coach for more than three decades. When that’s all you know, you do whatever it takes to keep doing it. When it’s suddenly gone, it’s painfully hard to imagine life without it.

*”Last night, when I walked off the practice field … I feel like a part of me died.” Again, a sense of just what the game means to him.

*”Some stuff I had to take, I took myself off of, because I couldn’t think the way I wanted to think.” Here, Kill was talking about medication he was on to treat his epilepsy and that he felt was detracting from his ability to coach — underscoring the awful choice he was left with between being healthy and living a fuller long-term life or having the job he loved.

You’d be lying to say if you didn’t think about that.” Kill, 54, was talking here about Flip Saunders, who died Sunday at the age of 60. As Kill’s own health declined (he said he went to practice Tuesday after having had two recent seizures), life-and-death issues came into sharper focus.

That ain’t no way to live.” Perhaps the defining quote of the day. Kill here was breaking down while talking about how he hasn’t slept more than three hours any night in the past three weeks and how his wife, Rebecca, stays up watching him.

I could probably pick out 20 more. It was just that kind of morning and it’s been that kind of week. While it doesn’t bring the same level of sadness as the death of Saunders, in some ways it felt eerily like watching a man speak at his own funeral. The positive is I’m sure there will be better days ahead for Kill. Today was not one of them, even if he handled it all the best he could.

The most heartbreaking things Jerry Kill said today

killThe news conference Wednesday morning at which Jerry Kill announced he was retiring as Gophers football coach because of health concerns was one of the rawest, most emotional displays I have ever seen from a public sports figure. Red-eyed throughout, Kill laid himself bare. Here were the five things he said that I found particularly heartbreaking:

*”People are going to ask, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I don’t know. I’ve never done anything else.” That came early on in his opening remarks, and it underscored his long battle to stay in the game in spite of multiple health problems — most notably at Minnesota in his fight with epilepsy. He’s been a football coach for more than three decades. When that’s all you know, you do whatever it takes to keep doing it. When it’s suddenly gone, it’s painfully hard to imagine life without it.

*”Last night, when I walked off the practice field … I feel like a part of me died.” Again, a sense of just what the game means to him.

*”Some stuff I had to take, I took myself off of, because I couldn’t think the way I wanted to think.” Here, Kill was talking about medication he was on to treat his epilepsy and that he felt was detracting from his ability to coach — underscoring the awful choice he was left with between being healthy and living a fuller long-term life or having the job he loved.

You’d be lying to say if you didn’t think about that.” Kill, 54, was talking here about Flip Saunders, who died Sunday at the age of 60. As Kill’s own health declined (he said he went to practice Tuesday after having had two recent seizures), life-and-death issues came into sharper focus.

That ain’t no way to live.” Perhaps the defining quote of the day. Kill here was breaking down while talking about how he hasn’t slept more than three hours any night in the past three weeks and how his wife, Rebecca, stays up watching him.

I could probably pick out 20 more. It was just that kind of morning and it’s been that kind of week. While it doesn’t bring the same level of sadness as the death of Saunders, in some ways it felt eerily like watching a man speak at his own funeral. The positive is I’m sure there will be better days ahead for Kill. Today was not one of them, even if he handled it all the best he could.

The most heartbreaking things Gophers coach Jerry Kill said today

killThe news conference Wednesday morning at which Jerry Kill announced he was retiring as Gophers football coach because of health concerns was one of the rawest, most emotional displays I have ever seen from a public sports figure. Red-eyed throughout, Kill laid himself bare. Here were the five things he said that I found particularly heartbreaking: *”People are going to ask, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I don’t know. I’ve never done anything else.” That came early on in his opening remarks, and it underscored his long battle to stay in the game in spite of multiple health problems — most notably at Minnesota in his fight with epilepsy. He’s been a football coach for more than three decades. When that’s all you know, you do whatever it takes to keep doing it. When it’s suddenly gone, it’s painfully hard to imagine life without it. *”Last night, when I walked off the practice field … I feel like a part of me died.” Again, a sense of just what the game means to him. *”Some stuff I had to take, I took myself off of, because I couldn’t think the way I wanted to think.” Here, Kill was talking about medication he was on to treat his epilepsy and that he felt was detracting from his ability to coach — underscoring the awful choice he was left with between being healthy and living a fuller long-term life or having the job he loved. You’d be lying to say if you didn’t think about that.” Kill, 54, was talking here about Flip Saunders, who died Sunday at the age of 60. As Kill’s own health declined (he said he went to practice Tuesday after having had two recent seizures), life-and-death issues came into sharper focus. That ain’t no way to live.” Perhaps the defining quote of the day. Kill here was breaking down while talking about how he hasn’t slept more than three hours any night in the past three weeks and how his wife, Rebecca, stays up watching him. I could probably pick out 20 more. It was just that kind of morning and it’s been that kind of week. While it doesn’t bring the same level of sadness as the death of Saunders, in some ways it felt eerily like watching a man speak at his own funeral. The positive is I’m sure there will be better days ahead for Kill. Today was not one of them, even if he handled it all the best he could.

Paul Molitor named AL Manager of the Year by other managers

molitorSporting News doesn’t have the “official” vote for American League Manager of the Year, but the methodology and results from their vote, which came out today, is interesting nonetheless.

The award is given out by a panel of 27 MLB managers, which is almost a complete sampling and reflects, of course, a “jury of your peers” type of approach as opposed to the official award which is given out by baseball writers. And the winner of the Sporting News award was Twins rookie manager Paul Molitor.

A.J. Hinch, who took the Astros from woeful to the playoffs, came in second in the AL — interestingly taking a back seat to Molitor, who helped the Twins improve 13 games this season over last but couldn’t quite get them into the playoffs.

It should be noted, too, that the man Molitor replaced as Twins manager, Ron Gardenhire, won the Sporting News award twice — once in 2004 and again in 2010.

Adrian Peterson, explosive plays and negative plays: a deeper look

petersonAdrian Peterson has always been an explosive running back with the potential to break off a big run every time he touches the ball. The trade-off with that is that sometimes he’s going to try to do too much and get fewer yards than he could by just plowing forward.

It’s a delicate dance for a number of reasons. The eye test tells me he’s been trying to do a little too much a little too frequently lately. There are some numbers that back that up, but there is also plenty of nuance within those numbers. Let’s take a look, then, at Peterson within the context of explosive plays, negative plays and the overall scope of the Vikings’ offense:

Peterson’s last two games, in particular, made me wonder if he is trying to do too much. I went back and looked at the numbers: he’s had 45 carries the past two weeks combined. On 29 of those plays, he’s been stopped for 2 yards or fewer. Now: plenty of that has to do with subpar run blocking. Per ESPN.com, Peterson was hit within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage on 15 of his 19 carries Sunday against Detroit — a game in which he ran for 98 yards thanks to a 75-yard burst but also gained 2 or fewer on 14 of his carries.

On some of those runs, he had no chance. Other times, quite possibly because he was frustrated by his lack of running lanes, he did a whole bunch of lateral running and fancy cutting, giving up some straight ahead yards and winding up with nothing or worse.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer talked about this push-pull on Monday:  “I think he gets frustrated at times,” Zimmer said of Peterson. “Part of it is making sure that we don’t allow people to run through and then part of it is, if it’s not there let’s take what we can get, but let’s not lose. And he does get frustrated at times, I see him on the sideline and talk to him a little bit, I said, ‘just stick with it, you’re going to pop one here.’ … You have to be determined and that’s something that Norv [Turner] does very well, mixing the play-actions with it. We have to eliminate the negative runs; we’ve got to get rid of those, but I’m pretty stubborn and we’re pretty stubborn about that.”

Speaking of play action, that ESPN link also notes how well Teddy Bridgewater fared in those situations Sunday, completing 8 of 9 passes for 142 yards against the Lions. Peterson’s big-play ability is credited for sucking in defenses, which is true. The flip side of that, though, is that when Peterson has plays in which he eschews a simple 3 or 4 yard gain in search of more and ends up getting 0, particularly on first down, it often puts the Vikings in obvious passing situations. In that case, play-action is far less effective and Bridgewater, playing behind a shaky line, is more vulnerable to an opponent’s pass rush.

In 2014 and 2015 combined, Peterson has gained 3 or more yards on just 70 of his 141 carries (slightly less than half, at 49.6 percent). By contrast, fellow RBs Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon have gained at least 3 yards on 62.4 percent of their carries in the same span. This season, running behind the same iffy offensive line as Peterson, they have done so on 24 of 34 carries (70.6 percent). There are plenty of nuances within those numbers, since defenses certainly pay more attention to Peterson than they do those other two runners and because they often get to run with more of an element of surprise.

There is also this: McKinnon and Asiata have combined for 311 carries the past two seasons. They have popped a run of 20 yards or more just four times (all from McKinnon). Peterson has 6 such runs, all of them in his 120 carries this season.

The thing is, Peterson in previous seasons has had explosive runs without as many negative runs. In his 2012 MVP year, he gained at least 3 yards on 57.5 percent of his carries and had a whopping 27 runs (7.8 percent) go for at least 20 yards. In 2013, he had 8 runs of at least 20 yards and a 54.5 percent rate of gaining at least 3 yards.

So what’s better: a running back who is a little more likely to consistently get at least 3 yards or a running back who gives you a better chance at breaking a big one? I’d argue it depends on the situation, but on balance what Peterson brings to the offense is considerably more valuable.

That said — and like Zimmer noted Monday — Peterson ideally would be doing a better job of realizing when the safe modest gain is the right way to go and when the opportunity for a big play is truly presenting itself. In the Vikings’ offense, the difference between 2nd-and-6 and 2nd-and-9 is huge. If Peterson (with help from his blockers) can become more consistent between the tackles while still maintaining his ability to be a home run threat, the Vikings’ offense could really take off.

The last time I talked to Flip Saunders

flipThe last time I saw Flip Saunders was the night of this year’s NBA Draft, June 25, four months before he died Sunday.

We did not know it at the time, but he was already undergoing treatment four months ago for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Nobody would have had reason to believe he was sick that night when he barreled into the 508 Bar and Restaurant with other Wolves brass to greet the young point guard he had just drafted, Tyus Jones.

Saunders was his usual vibrant self that night, energized by an evening that included not just the No. 1 overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, but also the landing of a hometown hero Saunders had been watching for many years. As he grabbed Tyus and told him, in colorful language, that he had better work extra hard because of all the work Saunders did to trade to get him, Flip looked and sounded very much like the man in the middle of a long-term plan that he very much believed he would see through to its conclusion.

Saunders still sounded that way on Aug. 3, the last time I talked to him. He was deep into cancer treatment by then, though we were still a week away from the announcement. On that day, I wrote a lengthy blog post about how Saunders was back on Twitter for the first time in 16 months, and that the occasion he chose was to defend his approach to three-point shooting.

Later that afternoon, I got a call at work. Confession: for the first 30 seconds, I had no idea who was on the other line. The conversation was one-sided and it was about the blog post, but it sounded like a reader who wasn’t exactly angry but was speaking with such a familiarity that I was caught off-guard. Finally I pieced it together in my thick skull: oh, this is Flip. Of course, it all makes sense now.

I don’t profess to know him anywhere near as well many others who have covered him or worked with him, but that phone call — 20 minutes of basketball philosophy, setting the record straight and, in his more colorful language again, giving me a hard time — made me fully appreciate just how much Saunders cared about his team and the sport of basketball.

I worked some of his comments into a follow-up piece, believing that while this was not the first time I had talked to Saunders about basketball, we had established something that day that would ensure it certainly would not be the last.

All of this, then, is a long windup to what many others are feeling: shock that Saunders, such a figure in this community, not only died but went so quickly. First it was treatable and optimistic. Then he was hospitalized. Then there were whispers that he had taken a bad turn. And then Sunday came.

You need no more reminders of the cruelty of life than to think about the family and friends he leaves behind and the basketball team he built, just days away from the start of an important season, that he will not get to see through to its conclusion. Nobody could have seen this coming, least of all the man who had to endure it.

One of the greatest poems I have ever read, and certainly the greatest tribute I know, is W.H. Auden’s poem “In memory of W.B. Yeats.” A few passages of it feel particularly apt right now, particularly when one can imagine substituting what Saunders meant to basketball in this state for what Yeats’ writing meant to Ireland.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

It’s heartbreaking and inspiring all at once to think of a legacy so powerful that it lives on after death. Saunders will have that here. He has earned it through years of tireless work, and that doesn’t change even now that he’s at rest.

How’s Teddy lookin’? Vikings’ Bridgewater has best game of the season

Sunday was the kind of game Vikings fans have been waiting for out of second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater — and the kind of game for which Vikings coaches kept telling everyone to be patient.

The Vikings came into their 28-19 win at Detroit ranked last in the NFL in passing yards at 180 per game. Most of Bridgewater’s individual numbers, not surprisingly, also lagged near the bottom. The notable exception was Total QBR; in that category, Bridgewater was 8th in the entire league heading into Sunday.

As such, Sunday’s game was finally an opportunity to see what some of the advanced metrics (and Vikings coaches) were trying to tell us: Bridgewater has been fine this season — far from the dreaded “sophomore slump,” with traditional stats that were more a function of game situations than poor play.

Still, it was nice for fans and coaches alike to see the kind of final line Bridgewater put up in the victory over the Lions: 25 of 35 for 316 yards, a pair of TDs and no interceptions. In terms of crispness, command and overall effectiveness, it was his best passing day of the season. And I imagine when Total QBR numbers are tabulated after the full week is done, Bridgewater will again fare quite well in that category as well.

He did so in spite of a running game that was mostly non-existent thanks to a combination of clogged running lanes and Adrian Peterson approaching the line of scrimmage as if he was on roller skates — out of control with his lateral movements and trying to do too much. Peterson’s final line of 19 carries for 98 yards was just fine, but 75 came on one carry while the other 18 carries netted just 23 yards. That put the onus on Bridgewater to make plays.

Bridgewater also put up those numbers in spite of getting sacked four times and being under duress several other times (though the pass blocking was at least adequate on the majority of plays and Bridgewater can take some blame, too, for holding the ball too long a few times).

If the simple question — one that has become a Twitter meme of its own this season — is “How’s Teddy lookin?” then the answer Sunday was, “As good as he’s looked all season,” which is greater praise than those who focus just on traditional stats might realize.