Was defense the culprit for Karl-Anthony Towns, other All-Star ‘snubs’?

Karl-Anthony Towns, coming off of two consecutive All-Star appearances, is averaging a career-best 26.9 points per game this season. His 4.2 assists per game are a career-high, as are efficiency numbers such as effective field goal percentage (.604, thanks in large part to 41.2% three-point shooting on an easily career-high 8.2 attempts per game).

He’s become a nearly fully realized best version of his offensive self in the Wolves’ new offensive system.

So naturally, when Western Conference All-Star reserves were announced Thursday, Towns … didn’t make the cut.

What gives?

Well, probably a few factors. But here’s one theory: Reserves are picked by coaches, and those coaches are increasingly paying attention to a player’s contributions on both ends of the court.

Towns, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal are the only players averaging 25 points or more per game who weren’t selected as All-Stars and showed up prominently on a lot of lists, long and short, of all-star snubs.

It’s more nuanced than just saying “defense cost them,” since all four also play for teams not currently occupying a top-8 playoff spot in their respective conferences.

And Towns in particular was certainly impacted by missing 17 of the Wolves’ 47 games so far this season.

But it’s still fair to wonder how much of a role defensive acumen, or a lack thereof, cost them.

It used to be harder to quantify defensive contributions, but now a number of different metrics at least attempt to do so. And one particularly damning one for all four of those players – particularly Towns and Beal – is defensive real plus-minus, defined via ESPN.com as a “player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.”

All four players are on the minus side of the ledger, dragging down their overall plus-minus stats that are propped up by strong offensive numbers.

Towns has the wildest splits. Among 65 centers, he is a clear-cut No. 1 in offensive real plus-minus (4.76, with the next-highest player not even above 2). But he is dead last on the defensive side (minus-3.02).

In making the all-star team each of the previous two seasons, Towns wasn’t a great defensive player. But he at least finished each season with a positive defensive RPM even if he ranked in the bottom third of centers both years.

The two true centers picked as West reserves, by the way, rank No. 1 (Rudy Gobert) and No. 6 (Nikola Jokic) in defensive RPM.

Booker ranks No. 107 out of 124 shooting guards, but that’s actually good compared to Beal. His mark of minus-4.47 is dead last among shooting guards.

Maybe Beal’s agent forgot about that when he blasted Eastern Conference coaches for leaving Beal off the team.

LaVine is a below-average No. 53 out of 86 point guards at minus-0.4, and his defensive reputation is even worse.

Defense can be a hard thing to isolate, and it’s fair to note that Towns has been learning a new system this season alongside his teammates. But in the 15 consecutive games he missed recently, the Wolves had the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. And Towns has the worst defensive rating (individual efficiency rating related to points allowed per 100 possessions) among Wolves regulars.

It’s fair to say that until he consistently shores up that part of his game – at least pushing into a territory that’s adequate alongside his otherworldly offensive gifts – Towns might be viewed a certain way around the league.

One-dimensional might have been good enough to be an All-Star in the past, but in many cases it wasn’t this year.

Biggest critique of this year’s Wolves: Inadequate plan at point guard

If two constant themes have emerged from the Timberwolves during Gersson Rosas’ first year as President, they are these: 1) The Wolves intend to be patient with their top-down and then bottom-up makeover, eschewing shortcuts or Band-aids to solve problems; 2) Among the biggest goals in Year 1 is to implement a new system and style of play so that as the team acquires more talent to fit that system, the centerpieces already here will be well-versed in playing that way.

Both of these seem like reasonable ideas that are in harmony with each other, but I would offer one philosophical caveat:

Sometimes a short-term answer can be a critical step to solving a long-term question. Good is not always the enemy of great.

And it’s within this idea that my biggest critique of this year’s Wolves emerges. I don’t think they went into the season with a good enough plan at point guard. And by failing to address that problem, even in the short term, they have proven vulnerable to this question: Can you adequately implement a system and evaluate how it’s working when you don’t have the point guard — or at least 48 minutes worth of them — to run it the way you want to?

The main issue, of course, was that their most experienced, expensive and credible option to start the year was Jeff Teague, who seemed an unlikely fit to play the way the Wolves wanted to play –“we need our lead guard to be a guy who pushes tempo, is more of a creator than a scorer,” is how Rosas described it after Teague was finally traded.

But they spent half a year letting it play out, when it was obvious after a small fraction of those games and likely when zero games had been played.

The main appeal of Teague this year as an asset was his $19 million expiring contract, which the Wolves understandably didn’t want to deal away for a more onerous contract with longer terms. But a deal like the one they finally made for Allen Crabbe’s nearly identical contract seems like it could have been made at any time. Had it been sooner rather than later, maybe the Wolves could have started the year with two point guards of the Shabazz Napier type — inexpensive but established veterans who have a track record to prove their fit in this system.

Napier himself has been a worthy addition and a good move by Rosas; in 20 games as a starter, he’s averaging 11.2 points, 6.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds with a dead even plus-minus — all while making less than $2 million in the last year of his contract.

But he’s probably best suited for a 15-20 minute backup role, which he had at the start of the year while Teague dribbled away and made his floaters.

Jordan McLaughlin has had some encouraging moments while getting more playing time after the Teague trade, and he plays more how Rosas wants to play, but he’s probably a No. 3 point guard — adequate in a pinch of one of your top two goes down.

Are those really the two guys you want handling the bulk of the point guard duties — save for a few minutes here or there where Ryan Saunders might turn those duties over to Jarrett Culver or Andrew Wiggins — for an important final 35 games of this season? Especially when you’re already in the midst of your second double-digit losing streak of the season and your franchise cornerstone went the entire months of December and January without participating in a victory?

Maybe the answer is yes, but at this point that answer would probably be by default because as Chris Hine and I discussed on the latest Timberwolves Talk podcast I’m not sure what the Wolves could do — outside of a blockbuster D’Angelo Russell trade deadline deal — to make themselves better at that spot between now and the end of the season.

Perhaps there’s another move to be made, and it would be applauded if it happened. (But if you’re holding out hope that the Wolves’ rumored interest in Dennis Smith Jr. might result in a low-level trade with the Knicks before the deadline, I might point out that Smith is dead last out of 69 point guards in player efficiency rating this year. If real plus-minus is your preferred advanced stat, he’s dead last there, too, among 86 point guards).

The best time to do it, for the sake of starting to build this system, was several months ago. That the Wolves couldn’t finesse a better plan after swinging and missing on Russell in early July is their biggest shortcoming and the most significant critique of the Rosas master plan to date.

Breakdown of Astros cheating shows who benefited most, how it hurt Twins

I don’t personally know a self-identified Astros fan named Tony Adams, nor can I specifically vouch for the research he has done regarding the scandal that has rocked his favorite team.

What I do know is that he seems to have painstakingly given us the most comprehensive look at how the Astros’ sign-stealing methods played out in 2017, the year they won the World Series.

To recap the scandal: The Astros, according to MLB’s investigation, used a center field camera during home games to figure out what pitches an opposing catcher was telling an opposing pitcher to throw. A couple months into the season, per the report, the Astros figured out a rather low-tech method for relaying that information to batters: banging on a trash can. The banging (once or twice) usually meant a breaking ball or changeup, while no banging meant it was a fastball.

That sounds really bad when you hear it. It’s even worse when someone like Adams painstakingly proves it by logging every possible opposing pitch during an Astros home game from the 2017 regular season. His method, per his web site that lays out the data he collected:

I wrote an application that downloaded the pitch data from MLB’s Statcast. This data has a timestamp for every pitch. I then downloaded the videos from YouTube and, using the timestamp, created a spectrogram for every pitch. A spectrogram is a visual representation of the spectrum of frequencies in an audio file. I could then playback the video of the pitches and, helped by the visual of the spectrogram, determine if there was any banging before the pitch.

Adams notes that he thought it would be a quick assignment. Turns out, he had to log 8,274 pitches — and found a banging noise before 1,143 of them. The sample is 58 games, since he only used the ones that had video, but that’s still a very large slice. And it’s important to note that it doesn’t mean the Astros “only” cheated on those 1,143 pitches since the absence of a bang often meant a fastball was coming.

His evidence supports MLB’s conclusion that the banging started a couple months into the season. There were no more than six bangs in any home game, per Adams, until May 28 — when it jumped up to 28 of them in an 8-4 win over Baltimore.

To see how it impacted a specific game, look no further than a very real instance against the Twins.

Adams’ research finds 48 instances of banging — second most of any of the 58 logged games — during a July 14 game against the Twins, a 10-5 Houston win in which the Astros chased Jose Berrios with an eight-run second inning. (AP file photo above is of Berrios leaving that game dejectedly).

Ten of those “bangs” came in the second inning, all on breaking pitches, including:

*One bang during a Carlos Beltran at bat, where he laid off the 1-0 breaking ball and eventually walked to get the inning going.

*Bangs on successive curve balls after Yuli Gurriel fell behind 0-2. He laid off both pitches and eventually reached on an error.

*One bang on a 3-1 curve ball that George Springer fouled off before eventually singling on a no-bang fastball.

*Bangs on two different curve balls during a Carlos Correa at bat — one which he took for a ball to get ahead in the count, and a 1-2 pitch on which he hit an RBI single.

*(With Phil Hughes now pitching): Two bangs for a breaking ball that Beltran, up for a second time in the inning, took for a ball one pitch before hitting a no-bang double.

Just like that, Houston is on its way to a blowout win.

Interestingly, Adams also breaks down the information by individual player to see who had the most “bangs” during their at bats. Checking in with a team-high 147, according to Adams, is current Twin Marwin Gonzalez — who enjoyed a robust 2017 season, particularly at home and particularly in relation to the rest of his career).

The Astros didn’t use the banging on every pitch, nor did it always work. But then again, their scheme wasn’t limited to banging. As Adams notes, the banging was merely the most provable offense: “The commissioner’s statement specifically mentioned the trash can banging, and we have undeniable evidence in the videos of the games. The commissioner also stated they used clapping, whistling, and yelling early in the season before settling on the trash can banging. Due to the crowd noise and announcers on the broadcast, these signals are difficult — if not impossible — to detect consistently.”

And knowing what pitch was coming in key moments is a massive advantage in a sport that requires such quick reaction times — one reason hitters often “guess” what pitch they are going to get, in order to be best prepared to drive a ball.

But knowing and guessing are two very different things. And “they didn’t benefit (enough) from the cheating makes it not so bad” is the absolute worst defense for any of this.

I mean, they kept doing it in the postseason and won the World Series — and so far at least, for some reason, they get to keep it.

Are Twins shedding ‘cheap’ label, becoming attractive in free agency?

When it comes to perceptions about the Twins and how they operate in free agency, there are two narratives that sometimes compete with each other and sometime seem intertwined.

First, there is the idea that the Twins won’t spend big. Second, there is the idea that big-time free agents don’t want to sign here because they prefer larger markets and/or warmer year-round climates.

There is merit to both notions, frankly. Exactly a year ago, as luck would have it, I wrote extensively about the Twins payroll as a percentage of revenue, how it has fallen short of their stated goals during this decade and how while that’s a baseball-wide problem it doesn’t absolve the Twins.

The second point is harder to quantify, but the number of stories we’ve heard over the years of “the Twins were in on Player X but he signed with Team Y” lends credence to it.

The truly savvy fan, of course, will use such stories to lament that the “Cheap Pohlads” who own the team won’t go above and beyond to woo those players turned off by our sunless January skies.

At the intersection of both notions, though, is the Twins’ recent signing of Josh Donaldson for $21 million a year for the next four years plus a guaranteed $8 million more in a buyout. The $92 million overall commitment dwarfs the four year, $55 million deal given to Ervin Santana in 2015 as the largest contract for an outside free agent in Twins history. (Joe Mauer got exactly twice as much over exactly twice as much time, but that was an extension).

My initial thought was that the Donaldson signing might quiet the Cheap Pohlad crowd a bit, but I think we’re at least one starting pitcher away from dimming that bulb. And to be fair: The Twins payroll, while projected at a team-record $137 million, would only match the 2019 MLB average at that amount. Even after a busy offseason with Donaldson as a centerpiece, the Twins are financially prudent.

But maybe we are ready to shift the other part of the narrative: that free agents don’t want to come here. Last year’s notables included Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathan Schoop and Martin Perez – a group that helped produce 101 wins and paved the way, Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey might argue, for Rich Hill, Alex Avila, Tyler Clippard and Homer Bailey to join Donaldson as outside free agents signing with the Twins already this offseason.

“We heard a lot through this offseason, watching the team play last year how much fun the guys were having, how loose it was, the environment. Players like that. We knew that we were an attractive destination,” Falvey told reporters recently. “Certainly there are things that players factor in in their decision — geography, finances, whatever. You know those are going to play a role at the end of the day, but I felt like we were going to be an attractive destination for people.”

As far as the financial piece, it surely helps that none of the deals outside of Donaldson’s were for more than two years or even a quarter of his guaranteed money. But it sounds as though the Twins’ spending reputation wasn’t a hindrance.

“It’s a narrative that’s out there because it’s just what’s happened. It’s fact. It transpired,” Falvey told Miller. “I think current players, my experience with this and maybe you guys need to ask current players more, is that current players, they look at the team. Do they want to be a part of that? And if the financial part of that lines up, great, they’ll move forward. I don’t think we ever ran into a perception issue when we talked to other players or other agents about it.”

But that narrative, as already noted, won’t be eradicated easily (and, some can justifiably argue, for good reason). The other one, though, about players not wanting to come here?

I’m ready to buy that the Twins’ approach and success in 2019 is altering it.

8,378 and 1: How the Wolves’ season spiraled into the wrong side of history

In a roller-coaster season for a franchise that has seen more downs than ups in its history, this question still needs to be asked: Have the Timberwolves reached a new low?

That’s probably a subjective question with an impossible answer, but we do know some pretty compelling evidence emerged from Monday’s loss to the Kings.

First, point guard Shabazz Napier used these exact words – “As low as you can get. This is it.” – to describe a 133-129 overtime loss to the Kings in which the Wolves somehow found a way to lose despite leading 115-100 with 2:05 to play in regulation.

But Napier likely meant the specific feeling about that specific game, and at most how he felt about it in the context of the season. Is this, though, a broader low?

I mean, it was the Wolves’ 10th consecutive loss, but that isn’t even their longest losing streak of the season. That honor goes to the 11-game skid in December, a plummet the Wolves ended finally by winning at Sacramento. The Kings looked to be playing the role of streak-buster again Monday … until they weren’t.

This is the 31st year of Wolves basketball. They have lost at least 50 games in half (15 of 30) of the completed seasons in their history, and 60 or more games in nine of them.

But in looking back at those mostly lean years, I found this: Never before had the Wolves had two different double-digit losing streaks in the first 50 games of a season – until this year.

Maybe that 50-game marker seems like a very specific cut-off point cherry-picked to make this year look really bad. I see it this way: Most teams, even those who eventually become non-competitive, can maintain interest for about that long into a year. Then things fall apart as the finish line of a lost season grows closer, the playoffs become out of the question entirely and/or good players are dealt away before the trade deadline to start a rebuild.

Many of the Wolves’ worst teams of the past have followed that pattern, being better at the start than at the end while closing with seemingly interminable stretches of losing. But this year’s team actually started out 10-8 and – even with all the talk of culture and systems – never gave the impression that it was actively going to “tank” for a high draft pick. Even if the process is more important than individual 48-minute results this season, two losing streaks of this length, this soon, represents a certain nadir.

We’re past the point of blaming injuries because the Wolves at this point are mostly healthy compared to what they have been and compared to other NBA teams. In fact, the most jarring stat of all might be this: Minnesota has now lost the last 14 games in which Karl-Anthony Towns played. He played in the first seven games of the 11-game losing streak and he’s played in the last seven games of the current 10-game losing streak. In between, he missed 15 games (in which the Wolves went 5-10, showing improved defensive acumen but far diminished offensive output).

Then there’s the other bit of inglorious history the Wolves made Monday. It’s been oft-repeated by now, but per ESPN Stats & Info: “The Kings trailed the Timberwolves by 17 points with 2:49 left in the 4th quarter. Since 1996-97, the first year of play-by-play data, NBA teams entered the day 0-8,378 when trailing by 17 or more in the final 3 minutes of the 4th quarter or overtime. The Kings won, 133-129.”

That stat tells you that the Kings’ comeback was next to impossible. How did it happen?

In short:

*Buddy Hield caught fire, scoring 12 points in the final 2:05 (including three three-pointers).

*It’s tempting to blame Ryan Saunders for emptying his bench too early, but honestly a lineup of mostly reserves should still be able to dribble out a 12-point lead with 1:39 to play. Still, if the young coach waits another 30-40 seconds of game time before deploying Kelan Martin, Jordan McLaughlin and Naz Reid, we’re probably not having this conversation today. By the time a lot of regulars checked back in, it was just a six-point game with 37 seconds left.

*De’Aaron Fox made a brilliant individual play to intentionally miss a free throw – fired hard off the rim – and score on the rebound to tie the game late.

But the two biggest collapses for the Wolves this season could have been footnotes if they had merely made one play at the free throw line: If Towns would have successfully MISSED a free throw during the infamous Chris Paul jersey tuck game, the Wolves would have won by a point. And if the Wolves had been aware enough to prevent Fox from grabbing his miss, they likely would have won Monday.

Both situations are examples of the Wolves reacting negatively to adversity – a theme for a team with two very long losing streaks they couldn’t stop earlier.

And that to me is the most troubling thing about what Saunders, Towns and the rest of the Wolves have accomplished through 47 games this year.

At 15-32, the Wolves’ overall record doesn’t put them anywhere near a pace to be among the franchise’s worst teams. But that doesn’t mean Monday didn’t feel like a low point.

Kobe Bryant and every parent’s nightmare

Nothing anyone can tell you will fully prepare you to be a parent.

I received that message often 6 years ago as my wife and I anticipated the impending birth of our first child. And I’ve dispensed that advice plenty of times since to soon-to-be-parents as I am now a grizzled veteran dad with three kids.

The context of that advice, though, tends to deal with practical things.

Nothing can prepare you, for instance, for the level of sleep deprivation you experience as a new parent. You will never be more tired, and there’s just no way of knowing it.

Nothing, too, can make you fully comprehend the lifestyle change you are about to encounter. Many basic freedoms you once took for granted – like going to a movie or even showering pretty much whenever – are transformed into logistical battles.

Schedules now revolve around naps, feedings and the general well-being of a tiny human for whom you are majorly responsible – which is probably why I also tell people that the biggest adjustment is going from 0 to 1 kids and might be the reason (other than the fact that they’re awesome and you’ll never experience a type of love like this) we now have three.

What we seldom talk about, though, in the “you can’t be prepared” discussion is this: worries and fears.

And this is the point where the tragedy of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna (AP photo of the two from a Lakers game last month) and seven other people who died in Sunday’s helicopter crash intersects with my life – any parent’s life – and burrows in so deep that it can’t help but force something else out.

Tears.

To be a parent means to worry about your kids, to be constantly reminded of their strength but also their frailty. Bringing in a new life make you profoundly aware of death, and you will never make yourself sadder than to think about the unthinkable happening to your child.

So you worry – not all the time, not even most of the time or even some of the time. But you also become a sort of amateur actuary, assessing risk and trying to diminish it without spoiling the business of being a child. I’ll find myself walking through the living room and almost instinctively nudging a toy from the middle of the floor to the side to decrease the likelihood of a tripping hazard.

If you’re going to jump off the couch, at least use more pillows. Hold my hand when you cross the street. Sure, you can ride that ride – just not that big one. You can become convinced that the most mundane things could end in danger.

Your fear is tied to your love, and both are limitless.

This nonstop battle between vigilance and letting go? There’s no way to prepare for that. No way.

The Bryant news, then … there’s no way to describe it other than a nightmare.

Using a helicopter as transportation? It sounds dangerous but is generally very safe – the kind of thing a parent would worry about, usually for no good reason other than it comes with the job.

But then it crashes, and it pierces the bubble. Bad things happen, even if you know they don’t happen often. You can’t always protect them. You can only do your best and hope.

I’ve been trying to think about Bryant – the all-time great basketball player, the flawed man who once stood accused of sexual assault – in every possible context. The complete and complex picture of Kobe is important, and there are a lot of ways to process this news.

But all I can think about is a dad who flew in helicopters to beat traffic and preserve his family time, who died with his daughter, what those final seconds might have been like, why it happened, and how Vanessa Bryant, suddenly a 37-year-old widowed mother of three, feels right now.

And the truth, as always, is that nothing can ever prepare you for this.

St. Olaf AD says officials apologized for wrong call on tip-in

The conclusion of the St. Olaf vs. Augsburg men’s basketball game Wednesday became a bit of an internet sensation, with almost everyone who watched the video of the ending coming to the conclusion that a game-winning tip-in by St. Olaf should have counted.

Instead, the basket — which came on a perfectly executed out-of-bounds tip play starting with 0.2 seconds left — was waved off by officials. Instead of securing a 76-75 victory, St. Olaf was a stunned 75-74 loser against Augsburg — with the viral outcry reaching SportsCenter.

On Friday, we got as close to official word as we’ve had regarding the play — and why it was waved off.

And yes, St. Olaf athletic director Ryan Bowles said, the basket should have counted. He said in a statement:

“At the conclusion of Wednesday night’s men’s basketball game, the officials informed us that a tip-in with less than 0.4 seconds left is only permissible if tipped with one hand. Since then, the officials and Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) have recognized the mistake in the application and interpretation of the rule and have apologized for the error.”

The apology might soothe feelings, but it doesn’t change the outcome, Bowles’ statement said.

“We have explored options and there is not an avenue in NCAA basketball to appeal results once a game has concluded. While the result of the game is not what we believe is correct, we also realize that human error is a part of athletics and officiating is a difficult task,” the statement reads. “This situation is an opportunity for our men’s basketball coaches and student-athletes to apply the life lessons taught through sport, perseverance, and to respond by putting this loss behind them and prepare for our next opponent.”

St. Olaf’s next game is Saturday against St. Mary’s.

Wolves at critical point in season with Karl Anthony Towns’ clock ticking

Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders had a lot to say to his team at halftime of Wednesday’s loss at Chicago, and he had plenty more to say after the game was over to reporters.

There was unvarnished truth in plenty of what he said about Andrew Wiggins and the state of the team in general, but the highlight of his candor was probably the most basic thing he said: “We’re not a very good basketball team right now.”

That has been confirmed by the eye test several times in the last two months, with the first half in Chicago representing at least an aesthetic and effort-based low of lows.

Basic numbers bear out that the Wolves aren’t just a bad basketball team right now. They’re the worst basketball team in the NBA — at least since Dec. 1, when their 5-21 record between then and now is the worst in the league.

It feels like a long time ago that the Wolves started 10-8, leading to a lot of early national (and local) chatter that they might be a sneaky contender for a playoff spot in the West. Even a 5-3 stretch sandwiched between an 11-game losing streak and their current seven-game skid feels far more like a mirage than something that could be replicated anytime soon.

In a way, the Wolves are maybe victims of their relative early success since their current overall record of 15-29 pretty well matches preseason expectations.

But when the losing involves inconsistent effort and the all-too-familiar problems of sixth-year max player Andrew Wiggins disappearing for stretches and fifth-year max player Karl-Anthony Towns failing to add defensive acumen to his considerable offensive gifts … well, then there’s a problem.

Even if the roster around those two core players is subpar, and even if this year is more about developing a system than it is about winning, basic improvement is a pretty low bar to clear — and something Towns and Wiggins have only done in stretches.

Whether it’s because of the time he’s missed, the Wolves’ slide in the standings or the stalling of his overall game, Towns — an All-Star the last two years — finished 13th among Western Conference frontcourt players in the vote of his fellow players for this year’s game in Chicago.

As Saunders said postgame Wednesday: I’m honest when I tell you guys, I don’t look at losing streaks. I look at did we get better today?”

And as he said Thursday before practice: “You can always control your focus, control the type of maximum effort you give, no matter when it is.”

The Wolves are not a playoff team this year, but that doesn’t mean the final 38 games are without meaning. Minnesota can ill-afford to give away development time and start playing the season at 80% speed, which is what it seemed like was happening in the first half at Chicago.

In the big picture of the franchise’s potential arc, the clock is ticking. By Year 3 of this Gersson Rosas-led rebuild, which also coincides with Year 3 of Towns’ five-year max deal, the Wolves need to be an actual playoff contender.

Every minute they play like they did in Wednesday’s first half pushes that timeline for possible success further into the future. What we see from them in a pair of back-to-back games at Target Center on Friday against Houston and Saturday against Oklahoma City will tell us a lot about how the Wolves intend to respond at this critical juncture of their season.

Five Twins players potentially impacted by Astros’ sign-stealing scandal

We might not ever know all the details of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme, which cost them multiple draft picks, their manager and GM plus $5 million as punishment from Major League Baseball and led the Los Angeles City Council to draft a resolution to strip Houston (2017) and Boston (2018) of their World Series titles while awarding them to the Dodgers.

This scandal is messy — still open to speculation and possibilities. Did the Astros benefit only at home or on the road, too? Was their method of transmitting information limited to the low-fidelity banging of trash cans, or did players wear buzzers?

The scope of the scheme potentially has broad-reaching ramifications — including many beyond the obvious such as “how much it benefited the Astros in winning the 2017 World Series.” To illustrate that, I dug back the last three seasons, 2017-19, to find five Twins players (current or former) potentially impacted by the chain reaction of the Astros’ cheating.

1 Marwin Gonzalez: This one is the most obvious. Gonzalez was a key member of the 2017 Astros, hitting 23 homers with a .907 OPS (his next-best OPS season was .759) and delivering a key homer in the World Series. His production dipped somewhat in 2018, but he was still coveted enough as a free agent in 2019 that the Twins signed him last February to a two-year, $21 million deal.

Twins Daily had an interesting look at how Gonzalez’s plate discipline improved dramatically in 2017, though the piece also showed how Gonzalez was even better in some areas with the Twins in 2019. Gonzalez might have benefited in some way from the Astros’ scheme. He won’t bet at TwinsFest this weekend, so the first public comments from Gonzalez will probably have to wait until spring training next month.

2 Tyler Austin: The signing of Gonzalez didn’t necessarily have a direct 1 to 1 correlation with the Twins’ decision to designate Austin for assignment early last season, but without the late addition of Gonzalez it’s possible Austin — a utility player who played primarily first base and outfield along with a little third base in the minors — might have had a larger role last year after slugging .488 for the Twins in 2018. He bounced around the majors and minors last year and is now in Japan.

I really do wish that we had the opportunity and at-bats for Tyler because I believe in him,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said last April. “I believe in him as a person and as a player. He’s a quality, quality righthanded hitter who I think can clearly hit major league pitching and if we had the opportunity for him here in those at-bats, I think we would have seen that.

3-5 Drew Rucinski, Oliver Drake and Jason Wheeler: I’ve lumped these three together because their stories are similar. All three pitched briefly for the Twins, and all three were hit hard by the Astros — perhaps hastening their departure from the Twins’ roster.

Rucinski pitched twice for the Twins in 2017. The final outing was a one-inning, five-hit, three-run appearance against the Astros on May 29. Did they know what was coming? Would it have mattered against a journeyman? We don’t know, but what we do know is he never pitched for the Twins again.

Drake had an incredible and improbable 2018 season, pitching for FIVE different MLB teams including the Twins. And during three of those stops, he had to face the Astros. His ERA for the season was 5.29; but subtract his outings against Houston (5.1 innings, 7 earned runs) and it was a much more respectable 4.46.

Wheeler is the most interesting of all. He was an 8th-round pick of the Twins in 2011 and made his MLB debut in 2017 at age 26. He made two appearances for the Twins that season — both against the Astros, allowing five runs (three earned) in three combined innings. He has never pitched in the majors since then. Wheeler pitched in Korea for part of 2018 but was released in July of that year.

Was he an Astros victim? Would he have gained a foothold with a stronger start to his MLB career? We’ll probably never know.

Head coach Matt LaFleur questions Packers’ ‘effort’ in NFC title game loss

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur met with reporters Wednesday, three days after Green Bay’s season ended one game short of the Super Bowl with a lopsided 37-20 loss at San Francisco.

These season wrap-up news conferences don’t tend to be all that illuminating since coaches have had a chance to cool down and digest the big picture of a season.

But LaFleur? He had a lot to say in regard to the loss to the 49ers, particularly about the Packers’ energy level. When asked about the defense, which gave up 285 rushing yards Sunday, LaFleur didn’t mince words.

They definitely outcoached us,” LaFleur said. “I just didn’t feel like we played with the same urgency, the same tenacity, the same toughness. We didn’t set the edge the same as we had been earlier this season. It’s disappointing because it’s not like we didn’t know what they were going to try to do. We knew exactly what they were going to try to do. We knew they were going to run the football. … I just didn’t think we played with the same effort as what I had seen earlier in the season.”

The follow-up question to that asked how Green Bay could lack effort in a game with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s something that I’m still trying to figure out right now as we speak,” LaFleur said. “I mean, I don’t understand that, because you’re there. You have an opportunity to go to play in a Super Bowl and for that to happen, it’s extremely … it’s bothersome. We have to look at ourselves, everybody. I’m gonna look inside of myself and see why weren’t our players playing with their hair on fire. I think everybody in our organization has to do that.”

Those who follow the team far more closely than I do seemed surprised by LaFleur’s assessment, either because he hasn’t questioned effort previously or they didn’t necessarily agree.

There were plenty of positives LaFleur took from the 13-3 season that were sprinkled throughout his 30-minute session. But it will be interesting to see how the notion of a lack of effort plays in the Packers locker room.