Timberwolves’ offense has taken off with LaVine at shooting guard

lavinerubioThe Timberwolves’ best consistently used lineup this season remains the starting five often seen early in the season consisting of Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince. Wiggins and Towns provided the offense. Rubio provided defense and passing. The two veterans provided defense. It worked out to a net-rating of plus-9.1 points per 100 possessions in the 275 minutes when those five were on the court at the same time.

But one could also make the argument that the current starting five — Rubio, Towns, Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng — is the team’s best offensive lineup. Those five have played the most minutes together — 356 — of any five-man group for the Wolves this season. Their net-rating is a plus-2, which might not sound that great until you consider two things: 1) the team average is a minus-4, so that’s 6 points better. 2) It’s a lineup consisting of a 20-year-old, two players who just turned 21 and nobody who has played more than 270 career NBA games. They’re often going against the best players from other teams, many of them seasoned stars, and more than holding their own.

The bulk of this lineup’s action has come in the second half of the season, and some numbers provided by Wolves stat guru Paul Swanson show some interesting things both about those five and the Wolves’ offense starting at the midpoint and going forward:

*In Games 42-67 (the 26 games in the second half of the season so far), the Wolves are third in the NBA in both field goal percentage (.483) and true shooting percentage (.569, a stat that takes into account three-pointers and free throws). Much of that time coincides with LaVine’s move from combination guard (splitting time at shooting guard and point guard) to being almost exclusively a shooting guard in the starting lineup. He’s played 80 percent of his minutes at shooting guard in the second half of the season, including 97 percent in the past 17 games.

The flip side of that is that this isn’t nearly as good of a defensive lineup as the Wolves had with Prince and Garnett in the mix. Interim coach Sam Mitchell specifically has implored LaVine to play better D. So far, though, teams have been feasting on the Wolves in the second half of the season to the tune of a .572 true shooting percentage — making the Wolves the third-worst in that category. So in spite of being third-best on the offensive side, the gains in the win-loss column haven’t been dramatic. The Wolves have only kept one opponent under 100 points in the last 18 games, going 7-11 in that span.

*Within those improved offensive numbers, we see explanations. The two most interesting numbers show the Wolves are shooting higher-percentage shots and making more of them — a good combination for an efficient offense.

wolvesatrimIn the first half of the season, the Wolves as a team shot 60.3 percent on attempts from the “restricted area” (3 feet or less, essentially), and they attempted 25.6 such shots per game. In the 26 games since the start of the second half, they’ve made 66.5 percent of those shots and are attempting 27.9 such shots per game. Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins, in particular, have improved greatly in that stretch.

wolvesoutofpaintOn the flip side, the Wolves are settling for fewer of the dreaded “long 2s,” defined by Swanson as two-pointers from outside the paint. In the first half, the Wolves shot 37.7 percent on those attempts and tried 28.4 of those shots per game. From Game 42 on, they’ve boosted the percentage to 39.8 and dropped the number of attempts to 25.3.

Some of that could be a product of improved chemistry or a shift in offensive philosophy. Some of it could be directly attributable to LaVine playing less point guard — which often resulted in a stagnant offense that relied on jump shots — and playing more shooting guard, where he gets better looks on jumpers (as you can see by his improved long 2 percentage) and attacks the basket with more success (as you can see by his improved numbers in the paint).

Again, though, opponents have also increased their offensive efficiency in that span (those numbers in the red for opponents in the above charts are second-half gains for opponents, net losses for the Wolves). In the same time frame, too, the Wolves’ bench has been perilously thin — often giving away leads the starters have helped build early on, a recurring theme for the season.

If this starting five continues to not only add onto a very good offensive foundation but also nudges up its defense a notch or two … while the organization builds a more functional second unit … that could be the recipe, finally, for some sustained organizational success.

What is minimum requirement for Wild to keep Torchetti, Fletcher?

The Wild is in the familiar position of chasing one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference — essentially, this year, a two-team race between Minnesota and Colorado for the very last spot. The Wild has been one of the two lowest seeds each of the past three seasons while making the playoffs each time — scoring a first-round upset each of the last two seasons.

This year, though, is different. The Wild arrived at this point carrying not only the burden of expectations but also a mid-year firing of head coach Mike Yeo. As such, the question posed to readers on Twitter and Facebook today was simple:

What’s the minimum the Wild needs to accomplish this season for you to want to see John Torchetti hired full time and Chuck Fletcher kept as GM? I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say a trip to the Western Conference Finals is the minimum requirement, but here’s what readers had to say — with varying degrees of optimism and seriousness.

Redskins’ proposed stadium includes a beach, surfing, rappelling

skinsstadiumU.S. Bank Stadium has its share of architectural critics, but designers and everyone associated with the Vikings should be pretty excited that the heat can now officially be turned off.

When it comes to designs, the proposal put forth by the Washington Redskins for their new stadium — unveiled last night by CBS on 60 Minutes and now all over the Internet — is now the beginning and end point when talking about wackiness.

The rendering of the stadium itself is a strange bowl-shaped structure, which is fine one supposes … until you find out that a channel of water encircles the entire place like some sort of moat.

Sort of a variation on an old joke: Two-thirds of the stadium is covered by water; the other third is covered by Fred Smoot.

And in this water people will apparently be surfing! And there will be a beach for all of those perfect late fall/early winter East Coast beach days! And you can rappel on the side of the stadium!

And you can Rollerblade! (Wait, you can do that at the Vikings’ stadium, too. Really, this is something I support).

Most people I know who would get to a game early enough to enjoy some time around the stadium would primarily be focused on consuming grilled meats, tossing bean bags and drinking.

The idea of high-activity sports, many of them in the water … let’s just say I’m not sure that fits the football vibe.

Vikings appear to be putting a lot of faith in new OL coach Tony Sparano

sparanoThe Vikings have made a lot of moves this offseason relating to their woeful offensive line. What’s become apparent, though — even after the signing of Alex Boone to a significant contract and the decisions to bring back/retain Mike Harris, Phil Loadholt, Matt Kalil and Carter Bykowski — is that the Vikings believe their most significant offseason move when it comes to the offensive line doesn’t involve a player.

Rather, it was the hiring of Tony Sparano to replace Jeff Davidson as offensive line coach.

The moves they have made personnel-wise — at least for now, pending the signing of a significant free agent tackle like Andre Smith, who reportedly visited Sunday, or the use of a high draft pick on a player expected to start right away — do not have the feel of an overhaul. Rather, they have the distinct feel of creating competitions with mostly known commodities, many of whom will be in the final year of their contracts in 2016.

The competition factor and the short-term nature of many of those deals strike me as approaches designed to see how much Sparano can improve a unit that allowed the most pressure on Teddy Bridgewater of any QB in the league last year (per Pro Football Focus).

If it works, and Sparano can upgrade a weakness into a line that is more solid, the Vikings can attempt to retain the pieces they want going forward while also knowing that a plug-and-play approach might work as long as Sparano is here. If the line falters, the likes of Loadholt, Harris, Kalil, Joe Berger, Zac Kerin and Jeremiah Sirles — all of whom are in the final years of deals in 2016 — can be easily dispatched while a true overhaul takes place in 2017.

The risk in this, of course, is obvious: the Vikings are loaded up to be competitive in 2016 at virtually every other position — good enough, in the eyes of the organization, to make a legitimate run at making the Super Bowl.

But Adrian Peterson turns 31 next week. And Bridgewater needs to take a step forward in 2016. This might be the one season when both of those key offensive players are somewhere near peak performance at the same time. And the Vikings, unless there are more moves to be made to significantly upgrade the O-line in 2016, are taking a chance on that line’s production in 2016 – production that will be critical to the success of Peterson and particularly Bridgewater.

Remember, even when Loadholt and John Sullivan were healthy in 2014, the line graded out as No. 21 in the league per PFF.  Some of that was attributable to a terrible year from Kalil, who was better in 2015. Still, simply signing Boone, potentially getting guys back healthy and having more depth made primarily of holdovers … well, that offers far less than a guarantee that the line will be greatly improved in 2016.

That’s why I’d love to see at least one more significant addition (and maybe even two: one each from free agency and the first two days of the draft) before the dust settles. If not, the Vikings will be putting an awful lot on Sparano’s shoulders.

That’s not to say he isn’t up to the challenge. It is to say it’s still a risk.

Goose vs. Bryce: Old-school vs. new school fight rages on

gooseGoose Gossage let fly with some takes even hotter than his high fastball Thursday in an interview with ESPN.com, going on a get-off-my-lawn-esque rant about bat flipping and advanced stats.

It was tinged with some uncomfortable racial connotations, as he blasted Jose Bautista and Yoenis Cespedes for their showmanship, saying of Bautista specifically that he’s an “embarrassment to all the Latin players.” Singling out a specific ethnicity with an element of patronizing “stay in your place” rhetoric is not my favorite thing, but let’s set that aside for another day and focus here on the generational conflict that runs through many sports — and baseball in particular.

Gossage’s words came on the same day that a story about Bryce Harper was published. Harper, the reigning National League MVP, has quite a different take on the National Pastime.

Said Harper: “Baseball’s tired. It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun. … If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.’ That’s what makes the game fun.”

You couldn’t get two more diametrically opposed positions, but again that’s not a surprise. Gossage is 64. Harper is 23. There’s a generation between them, and it’s my generation.

I’m old enough to remember Gossage’s playing days and young enough to appreciate Harper. I grew up with “respect for the game” and “unwritten rules” being nearly as ironclad as 90 feet between bases. I’ve gradually warmed to the idea that fun, however, is also a good idea — and that these young players flipping their bats aren’t show-off jerks but rather part of a generation that isn’t afraid to express itself and doesn’t care what others think about that.

Gossage also espoused the notion that baseball has become a “joke because of the nerds who are running it,” which again we can tie back to a generational conflict and can even draw upon Harper as an example.

Harper would have excelled in any era with the type of year he had in 2015 (42 homers and a .330 batting average would have played in 1965 as well as 2015), but his “advanced” stats also reflect a hitting approach that is popular with those who prefer deeper dives into numbers when deriving true player value.

In Gossage’s heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, striking out 100 times was a badge of failure. Harper struck out 131 times last season. But he also walked 124 times and had an obscene (.460) OBP to go with massive power. Whereas 50 years ago he might have been criticized for “only” having 99 RBI with all those homers, these days he’s a runaway MVP.

Strangely enough, I’ve come to think of advanced stats in much the same way I think about multiple sclerosis, which some of you know I was diagnosed with a couple years back.

With MS, there are a lot of little things you can do to improve your odds, even just a little, of continuing to live a normal or at least near-normal life. When I was diagnosed, I threw myself into a lot of those things — a new diet, continued exercise, supplements including vitamin D, meditation/relaxation techniques and more — in addition to starting to take medication prescribed by my MS doctor.

By themselves, each of those little things isn’t necessarily doing much. The benefit of some might be negligible. But the sum total of all those things, if anecdotal evidence and some emerging research are correct, adds up to a far greater impact than just taking medication.

Advanced stats function in quite the same way. If you can cull data and come up with a series of small advantages, they add up to make a significant difference — which is more or less the premise of Jonah Keri’s book, The Extra 2%, about the 2008 Rays.

If you can identify advantages, no matter how small, why wouldn’t you want to accumulate as many as possible?

But here’s where Gossage’s mindset, I would imagine, comes into play. And again, as I relate it to MS, he’s not “wrong.”

When you know exactly what is best for you, it can reduce life — or a game — to a series of probabilities that greatly influences decisions and inhibits freedom.  A pure pitcher vs. hitter matchup, fastball against swing, is inherently more fun when there aren’t components attached of what *should* happen based on probability.

And that’s the version of baseball fun that Gossage and many of his generation enjoy.

Harper’s generation is full of crunched numbers and bat flips.

If you’re stuck in the middle like me, you get to decide what parts of both worlds you want to live in.

In Zimmer they trust — and other Vikings free agency observations

zimmerThree observations from the edges of the fray of NFL free agency:

1) The Vikings have been more active than I expected, though they’ve maintained the same free agency philosophy as in recent years.

As an organization, the Vikings have come to espouse a prudent draft-and-develop model when it comes to assembling a roster.

This came after a period in the mid-to-late-2000s when the Vikings were very active in free agency, often using it as a means to make splashes rather than just fill holes. It almost worked when Brett Favre, Pat Williams, Steve Hutchinson, Antoine Winfield, Visanthe Shiancoe, Ryan Longwell — all significant free agents — nearly led the Vikings to the Super Bowl in 2009.

The reckoning came a year later, when the roster quickly got old and expensive. A bottoming out followed, and building through the draft become natural. Minnesota has added some supplemental pieces from the free agent market through the years, but mostly they’ve been modest deals for proven but not spectacular players (at the time of signing) such as Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn.

Wednesday’s flurry of opening day activity — it was hard to catch your breath before the next Vikings move was announced — was perhaps surprising in volume, but all the players added fit the model of modest signings who could nonetheless have an impact.

2 It’s interesting to hear and read the reactions of fans (and even players themselves) when it comes to the Vikings’ new additions on defense.

Michael Griffin, the 31-year-old safety signed away from the Titans, received very low marks from Pro Football Focus two years ago and slightly below average marks from PFF last season.

Yet the instinct from many is to say some variation of, “Yeah, but he wasn’t playing in Mike Zimmer’s system. Zimmer can make him productive.” That’s the level of respect Zimmer commands from many years of stout defenses and two years of improvement with the Vikings.

Emmanuel Lamur, the linebacker the Vikings signed away from the Bengals, said Thursday that Zimmer’s presence was the primary reason he decided to come to Minnesota.

3) This free agent period underscores that it’s a very good time to have a promising quarterback locked up on a team-friendly contract.

That sentiment holds true at other positions as well, but when you look at some of the ridiculous money being tossed around and the desperation that is setting in with teams that lack an established quarterback, it’s quite clearly a player’s market.

When Brock Osweiler, who has half a season as an NFL starter on his resume, gets a four-year contract worth $72 million (more than half of which is reportedly guaranteed), you know the QB market has spun off its axis.

It also reinforces that Teddy Bridgewater — under contract for 2016 and 2017 at roughly $2 million per year — is a monumental bargain who adds greatly to the Vikings’ ability to win now.

That’s why they’re willing and able to spend money on free agents – albeit prudently, as they should.

Hughes, Mauer, Dozier, Plouffe … at an Elton John concert

The Twins played a day game in Ft. Myers on Wednesday against the Phillies. They lost 4-2, but that’s not really important. What is important is that the game happened at home during the day, which allowed Twins pitcher Phil Hughes and his teammates to get to a very important event in Ft. Myers later that night:

An Elton John concert.

Hughes burned up Twitter last night with his photos and reviews of the show. Here are a few key samples, including a shot of Hughes, Joe Mauer, Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier with the music legend:

And perhaps most importantly:

Mike Wallace and the Vikings: What went wrong?

wallacevikingsExactly one year ago from this coming Sunday, news broke that the Vikings had traded for wide receiver Mike Wallace. Minnesota sent a fifth-rounder to the Dolphins in exchange. They got back a seventh-rounder and a receiver in Wallace who carried a hefty salary to go with some pretty nice credentials.

The Vikings soon cut veteran Greg Jennings to make room for Wallace. The hope was that Wallace would inject life into the Vikings’ passing game, particularly as a deep threat. That never materialized.

And as a result, after a lackluster season in which Wallace caught just 39 passes and saw his role diminish as the year went on, the Vikings for the second consecutive offseason cut a veteran receiver who didn’t make the as-advertised impact. The Vikings saved $11.5 million on the salary cap, money they are starting to invest in outside free agents like guard Alex Boone of the 49ers.

Before we get too far into the future, though, let’s take one final look at the past and why things didn’t work out with Wallace in purple — not merely as a means of rehashing the 2015 season but to assess what might/should happen going forward.

Football, after all, is a team sport. It often takes a lot of moving parts to succeed or fail. When we say “Mike Wallace had a disappointing season” we really mean a lot of things:

1) Teddy Bridgewater was not accurate on deep passes, nor did he throw a lot of them. Bridgewater is a very accurate short passer. But if Wallace was signed ostensibly to stretch the field, he was paired with a QB for whom that is not — at least not yet — a strong suit. Bridgewater attempted just 13 passes last season that traveled more than 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in the air. He completed just two of them. In his rookie season, Bridgewater was 2 for 22 on such passes. In the two seasons combined, he had two TD passes that traveled 30 yards or more.

In contrast, Wallace’s old QB Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh — where Wallace had his best seasons, a pair of back-to-back 1,000-yard efforts in 2010 and 2011 — attempted 33 such passes in 2015 and completed 13 of them. In 2010 and 2011 combined, Roethlisberger had 8 TD passes that went 30 yards or more in the air.

It’s hard to make plays if you can’t get the ball. Even Randy Moss in his prime might have struggled to make plays without a QB capable of getting him the ball. It’s a hole in Bridgewater’s game that will either need to evolve or need to be masked.

2) Poor offensive line play. Not all of that is on Bridgewater, of course. You could reasonably argue that offensive line play was a larger culprit in preventing the Vikings from attempting and completing deep passes.

Late in the season, Bridgewater topped all NFL QBs in the percentage of dropbacks on which he faced pressure — nearly half of them. You can’t throw deep if you don’t have time. This is one of the 823 reasons the Vikings must improve their offensive line dramatically this offseason. Signing Boone is a start, but more work remains.

3) The offensive philosophy shifted to a more conservative approach early in the year. Wallace, through four games, had 20 catches. He was on pace for 80 grabs and more than 900 yards. But somewhere around the bye week — which came after those four games — the Vikings’ offensive approach became even more conservative and run-oriented, with more snaps under center to better use Adrian Peterson. In the next seven games, Wallace had 8 catches combined, for fewer than 100 yards. The Vikings won six of those games, so the method was working. But it left Wallace with little to do.

4) The emergence of Stefon Diggs. Just as significant to the reduction in Wallace’s production as the shift in offensive philosophy was the emergence of rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Diggs was inactive for the first three weeks. Over his next four games, he averaged more than 100 yards receiving. There was really only room for one wideout to have big numbers, and Diggs started clicking with Bridgewater. Whether Diggs’ emergence or Wallace’s downfall precipitated that switch is unclear.

5) Wallace is possibly on the decline. Wide receivers are at their peak production when they are around 26-27 years old, according to this from Pro Football Focus. It’s possible that Wallace — who averaged more than 1,000 yards per season in his five years between the ages of 24 and 28 — started a period of decline last year at age 29, when he caught just 39 passes for 473 yards. A deep threat who loses even half a step suddenly isn’t as threatening (or potentially open) as he once was.

The complete answer as to why Wallace and the Vikings weren’t the right fit was probably a combination of a lot or even all of these things. A bigger receiver with a reputation in the red zone might be a better fit for the Vikings moving forward. Or perhaps a deep threat who is younger than Wallace might be a good fit in the offense still, if Bridgewater improves his accuracy and the offensive line improves. What we do know is that Wallace and the Vikings weren’t a good match in 2015, and it was probably best for both sides that they moved on from each other.

My friend’s Rubio/Flynn/Curry T-shirt went viral Tuesday night

sharkshirtWhen I saw my friend this past Friday — some of you might know him as “John Sharkman” on Twitter and Instagram — he was wearing a T-shirt that, the minute I saw it, I knew tons of people (including myself) would want.

In plain black, grey and white, it spells out the pain of the 2009 NBA draft for Timberwolves — and the gleeful lens from which Golden State fans view that draft, when Minnesota took Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn right before the Warriors took Stephen Curry. I took a picture of him and posted it on social media (the same picture that’s attached to this post). It caused a minor Internet brush fire, even though it was posted out of context late on a Friday.

As it turns out, the real blaze would come Tuesday.

Sharkman wore the T-shirt again, this time to the Wolves/Spurs game at Target Center. I wasn’t there, though I saw him afterward. By then, the shirt had essentially gone viral. Colleague Jim Souhan had tweeted a picture of it from the game. Bleacher Report had picked up on it.

And away it went.

Sharkman says he got the shirt from a limited edition run from a Bay Area vendor. Something tells me there might be a few more printing sessions in the future.

The Wolves host the Warriors on March 21, by the way.

The 10 best free agent signings in Vikings history

taylorfavrewinfieldConventional wisdom says the Vikings probably won’t make a huge splash in free agency when teams can begin signing outside players on Wednesday. They’ve become a draft-and-develop organization, using mid-level free agent signings to bolster rather than overhaul.

Throughout their history, though, the Vikings have signed some high-impact free agents. Not all of them were splashy moves, but many of them turned out to be good ones. Let’s take a look at the best of the best.

Note: Trades obviously don’t count (so no Jared Allen, Warren Moon or Mike Merriweather). Neither do undrafted free agents (like John Randle) who signed with the Vikings out of college. Cris Carter was a waiver claim. He’s out, too.

That leaves me with this list of the best 10, in descending order — most of whom were signed within the last dozen years. Thanks to all the Twitter folks for recommendations:

10) Visanthe Shiancoe: Signed a five-year contract worth roughly $18 million in 2007. While that was a somewhat hefty sum for an unproven player, Shiancoe proved to be a solid target. His best season was 2009, when he caught 56 passes for 566 yards and 11 TDs. The Vikings would take that kind of production from a tight end any year.

9) Randall Cunningham: He was signed off the street, essentially, prior to the 1997 season after being out of football in 1996. But there’s no denying Cunningham’s impact in 1998, when he threw 34 TD passes with just 10 INTs for the 15-1 Vikings.

8) Ryan Longwell: The kicker was signed away from the Packers prior to the 2006 season. He kicked for the Vikings for six seasons, making 86 percent of his field goals in that span and solidifying a position that had been unsteady for several years.

7) Jack Del Rio: Signed away from the Cowboys by the Vikings in 1992 as a Plan B free agent — the final year of that system of free agency before the modern system took over following a lawsuit. Del Rio, a linebacker, played his final four seasons with the Vikings. He topped 150 tackles twice and made it to the Pro Bowl in 1994.

6) Chester Taylor: The Vikings scooped him away from Baltimore in 2006 with a four-year deal worth about $14 million. In his first season with the Vikings, the running back rushed for more than 1,200 yards. In his final three seasons, he gave way to Adrian Peterson but functioned as an exceptional change of pace back, receiver and blocker. Taylor averaged 40 receptions a year in his four Vikings seasons.

5) Linval Joseph: Signed a five-year deal worth $31 million in 2014 ($12.5 million guaranteed) and has lived up to the deal by becoming a force in the middle of Mike Zimmer’s defense.

4) Steve Hutchinson: The Vikings paid big money for the guard in 2006, dishing out a seven-year, $49 million deal to get him away from Seattle. He ended up playing six very productive seasons here, anchoring the Vikings’ offensive line.

3) Pat Williams: Signed with the Vikings in 2005 and ended up being half of the Williams Wall for the next six seasons. He was a brilliant run-stuffer and made three Pro Bowls in his time here; the Vikings should hope Joseph’s career with Minnesota plays out much the same, production-wise, as Williams’ did.

2) Brett Favre: In terms of sheer impact — graded on a “wins over replacement” kind of curve – Favre in 2009 has to be considered one of the organization’s best free agent signings. Like Cunningham, he almost got the Vikings to the Super Bowl with his MVP-esque performance in 2009.

1) Antoine Winfield: Signed a six-year deal in 2004. The Vikings gave him a five-year extension in 2009 that included $16.1 in guarantees. Winfield ended up playing nine seasons in purple. He was popular. He was productive. People hated to see him go. He was everything you would want in a free agent.