Time to stat up another Jazz Jam Session. Today we're jamming with Canis Hoopus' main man, Eric in Madison. We talk about tonight's Utah Jazz game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Jazz vs Timberwolves coverage ) It's a fun time, and I think it's important to check up on our division rivals like this. After all, we face the Wolves again on Tuesday.
1. Shabazz Muhammad set the NBA DL on fire, and clearly proved that he can be a scorer, and an efficient scorer at that. Is this a product of the level he was playing against, or a right sign of something he could be able to do at the NBA Level? (I am obligated to ask about Shabazz because he was my first serious interview back at the combine)
Eric: Certainly the D-League stint was promising for Muhammad; he really dominated. He was a force on the offensive glass, did work around the basket, and had a few impressive finishes in transition. However, the problems apparent in his game as a collegian still remain: He lacks the ball handling/driving skills for the wing, he has questionable quickness which affects him on both ends, and his perimeter shot is still a work in progress. In truth, we were not fans of that draft pick, (especially when we could have had Burke or C.J. McCollum with the pick we traded to you guys). He's sort of has the game and numbers of a project power forward in the body of a wing player. It's tough to succeed in the NBA that way. Hopefully, the D-League stint helped him and his confidence, given that he had hardly played at all in Minnesota. If his 3 point shot becomes consistent at some point, he may have a useful career as a sort of hybrid forward/small ball four.
2. On paper Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are almost without flaw, and without peer. How well do they mix strengths on the court, and how good could they be together as a front court tandem?
Eric: They are fantastic, really. Love is a spectacular player, one of the best in the league, and we love Nikola Pekovic. He just punishes people in the post and on the offensive glass, and is playing fantastic basketball. The Wolves are a very good team when they are both on the court. The problem, however, is that neither of them defends the rim very well. As a result, when opponents are able to get the ball close to the basket, they make shots at one of the highest percentages in the league. The Love-Pek tandem is incredibly fun and effective, and certainly far, far down the list of the Wolves problems, but it isn't perfect. There has been occasional rumblings that they would be better off swapping out Pekovic for a player like Omer Asik who would provide better rim protection, but overall it's a great combination.
3. With a Rick Adelman coached squad I'm not surprised that the Wolves are #2 in PPG and #6 on Off RTG. What I am impressed by is that Minny is #9 in Def RTG this season as well. Over the last few seasons the defense has been getting better and better. What has been the key?
Eric: The Wolves give up high shooting percentages to their opponents; they simply don't have the personnel to effectively take away every good look like, say, the Pacers can with their crazy long armed, athletic perimeter guys backed by Roy Hibbert. Instead, the Wolves manage to hang in there defensively by doing everything else: defensive rebounding (8th in the league), generating turnovers (2nd in opponent TO%, much thanks to Ricky Rubio, a tremendous defensive player who generates steals and deflections at a phenomenal rate), and not fouling (First in the league in opponent FT/FGA ratio). That last might be the biggest key: they just don't foul, and so opponents don't generate easy points at the free throw line. It's not a classic good defense, but it's the way they have to succeed with their personnel.
4. Today (Friday afternoon) you stand 11th in the Western Conference. A few seasons ago Utah was #12 in February and still made the playoffs. Are the playoffs still an attainable goal for this season? If so, what needs to happen to make it so? If not, what are the obstacles?
Eric: We hope so; that was the goal for us heading into the season. Wednesday's loss to Sacramento has generated a lot of hair pulling as you might imagine, given the Wolves were at home and the Kings were on the 2nd night of a back to back. The biggest issue, by far, is that the Wolves are 0-11 in games decided by four points or less. They are 18-20 with the point differential of a team 24-14. It's incredible, and obviously incredibly frustrating for everyone. We finally have a team that can play terrific basketball, as evidenced by that point differential, and the fact that the Wolves lead the league in 20+ point wins (shocking for a team under .500), but we can't get out of our own way in close games.
I still think they are good enough if they don't get too discouraged, but of course the Western Conference is so, so tough, and they have ground to make up. They have to figure out this close game problem. I have spent most of the season figuring that it's just variance, but even I am starting to waver as the close losses mount. It's impossible to put your finger on any one thing in these close games: they've missed shots, executed poorly, had inopportune turnovers, missed free throws, had shots made against them, you name it, it's happened late in a Wolves game at some point, and it's all gone the wrong way.
5. I think Ricky Rubio is getting a little overlooked. He's more than just his numbers. He is regarded appropriately, or somewhat under the radar because he's not a shoot first point guard?
Eric: Well, there are a few questions here. First, the terrible shooting is a problem. Second, he seems to have lost some of his joie de vivre this season. Third, he doesn't get enough credit for how good he is on defense, largely because there are still people out there who see a European guard and assume he can't defend. In fact he's an incredibly active, smart, long-armed defender who disrupts opponents' offenses as well as just about anyone from the point guard position.
He's also a magnificent passer and, for someone who is so reluctant to take it himself, a terrific pick and roll orchestrator. The Wolves are running somewhat less pick and roll this year, though, as they are working more high-post actions instead. Still, he's a net positive and we love having him on the team. He's a joy to watch. If he could just make shots around the basket more often...
Thanks again Eric in Madison for doing this. I hope we have a good game, and Jazz fans, remember you can catch my replies over at Canis Hoopus. Eric is the man and please follow what they are doing at their site and on twitter @CanisHoopus.