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The Shved Army


A Russian expatriate is becoming a Minnesota fan favorite
@BreakTheHuddle

Shved
This past offseason was one of tremendous upheaval in the offices at the Target Center. Malcontents and inconsistent buffoons were jettisoned in favor of long, athletic and intelligent wing players. Out went Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Martell Webster, Anthony Randolph, Wayne Ellington and Wes Johnson; in came Andrei Kirilenko, Greg Stiemsma, Dante Cunningham,  and Chase Budinger. Brandon Roy, sans knee cartilage and all, was also signed to (hopefully) fill the void at shooting guard, the caveat being – “if he can stay healthy.”

The Roy experiment lasted five games before knee pain, and another surgery, sidelined him indefinitely. The risk was well worth it: the dearth of talent at shooting guard has made it a premium position in the NBA. If Roy could have managed to be 75% of his former self, for 24-28 minutes per night, his $5 million salary would’ve actually been a bargain.

The answer to the Wolves’ shooting guard deficiency, or at least part of the answer, came in the form of their least heralded offseason pickup: Russian guard Alexey Shved. Lured away from his Euroleague club, CSKA Moscow, Shved was an unproven commodity. A combo-guard with good length, he was seen in the Olympics playing for the bronze-winning Russian national team along with fellow Wolves’ newcomer Andrei Kirilenko.

It isn’t often that impact foreign players go completely undrafted – usually, someone will take a second-round flier on an international guy just in case he develops into a back-of-the-rotation contributor – so what happened with Shved? How come he was an international free agent, ripe for the plucking?

Shved 2

Also a problem: the hair, which he has since fixed.

Shved was draft eligible in 2010, at the age of 21. According to scouting reports from around that time,[i] concerns about his wiry frame, as well as his perimeter shooting, held him back. According to Wolves’ beat writer Jerry Zgoda, there were also some doubts about his maturity.[ii] Oddly enough, it seems as though his game wasn’t suited for the Russian leagues in which he played, which are known for their slow-it-down, half-court style of play. Shved is more of a slasher, which is possibly attributable to his time with American players such as Trajan Langdon, a former Duke star who wound up with CSKA Moscow after his college days were over.[iii]

All that was enough for Alexey to slip through the cracks – that is, until his 2011-12 Euroleague and club season, in which he broke out in a big way. In 21 Euroleague games (Europe’s highest level of competition) he averaged a 10.6/2.6/3.6 line on 49%/50%/81% shooting splits. In club games, he went for 11.6/2.9/3.3 on 46%/39%/78% shooting. Two years older, and having addressed his perimeter shooting woes, Shved was now a free agent, thanks to the fact he’d gone undrafted in 2010. It was a blessing in disguise.

To be fair, the Wolves weren’t the only team who approached Alexey with a contract offer – Memphis and Cleveland were also in the mix – but he chose to come to Minnesota, and it’s difficult to believe Andrei Kirilenko didn’t have something to do with it. The two came as something of a package deal – 3 years, $9-$10 million for Shved, and 2 years, $20 million for Kirilenko, with both deals signed within two days of each other at the end of July.

Andrei Kirilenko has arguably been the Wolves’ most important player to this point, but Shved’s contributions to the back court cannot be understated. Though he has yet to start a game, Shved has played more minutes than the nominal “starting” shooting guard in 11 of the team’s 18 games, including the last 7 in a row. The Wolves are 6-5 in such games, and 3-4 in the rest.

Shved’s non-starting irks some Wolves fans who’d like to see him on the floor at the opening tip – but Adelman’s handling of his backcourt rotation is anything but conventional. Most teams start their best players and rest them from the 3:00 mark of the 1st and 3rd quarters to the 10:00 mark of the 2nd and 4th quarters. Adelman, however, starts Malcolm Lee at the 2-guard, plays him until there’s about 3:00 left in the 1st and 3rd quarters… then Alexey Shved comes in, and rarely leaves the court afterward. Shved ends halves and games on the floor – a sign that the coaching staff trusts him a great deal.[iv]

The trust in Shved makes sense – he’s hardly your typical rookie. He’s been playing professionally since he was 17 years old. This season, he’s averaging 10.6/2.7/3.6 on 40%/33%/79% shooting splits – remarkably similar to his production with CSKA Moscow last season. While a 33% mark from the perimeter is nothing to write home about, he’s had to become more of a gunner with the absence of Chase Budinger (out with a knee injury) and the struggles of Kevin Love (22% from 3-point range).

Despite the low Field Goal and 3-point percentages, he’s still an efficient player, with a 14.3 PER.[v] For some reason, he’s labeled as a point guard in all the NBA statistical databases, which is odd, because he’s rarely the primary ballhandler on the floor; almost all his minutes come with Barea or Ridnour on the court with him. If he were labeled as a shooting guard, that 14.3 PER would be good for 23rd in the league, ahead of big money guys like Joe Johnson ($19.7 million salary) and Andre Iguodala ($14.7 million). He’s about on par with J.J. Redick ($6 million) and Jason Terry ($5 million) in that category.

I’m not saying he’s as good as those four guys, but if he’s in the conversation with them, and for half the cost, it’s pretty clear the Wolves found a diamond in the rough when they snagged him out of Mother Russia. If you insist on calling him a point guard, his efficiency looks a little worse, but is still higher than Ty Lawson, Devin Harris and some guy named Jeremy Lin – and again, Shved makes significantly less money than all of them.

What remains to be seen is how Shved meshes with Ricky Rubio when he returns. Malcolm Lee has abysmal as the starting shooting guard, and should see a significant decline in minutes once the Spanish prodigy is cleared to play. But time will tell how Adelman distributes the minutes in a crowded backcourt, with Shved, Barea and Ridnour all viable options at the guard spots.

The potential lineup that really excites many Wolves fans – most of all, me – is Rubio, Shved, Kirilenko, Love and Nikola Pekovic. It would be fun to see players with the passing skill sets they possess take the floor at the same time – the unselfish ball movement, playing within Adelman’s offensive system, would be a sight to behold.

Will Adelman agree with our premise? Would that lineup even be successful? Hopefully, we start to get some answers on Wednesday night.

Rubio

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!


[ii] Personal correspondence via Twitter. Jerry Zgoda is a must-follow for Wolves fans – he’s engaging, pleasant and sticks strictly to Wolves-related business.

[iii] Also in the Draft Express article referenced in footnote 1.

[iv] As of December 3rd, Shved had played in 86% of the team’s 4th quarter minutes, per 82games.com.

[v] PER stands for “Player Efficiency Rating”, a statistic developed by ESPN’s John Hollinger that is a little like WAR in baseball. There’s an explanation here: http://insider.espn.go.com/nba/hollinger/statistics

Diversity Quotient


Is the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Roster “Too White”?

@BreakTheHuddle

Russians Andrei Kirilenko (left) and Alexey Shved are newcomers to the Wolves, but instead of thinking of them as diverse assets to the team, some would like you to look at them and see nothing but two more white boys. Personally, all I see are two guys with above-average hair.

The Sunday morning sports section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune featured a report about the state of the Minnesota Timberwolves roster. It didn’t suggest the team make a trade, nor did it cite the team’s failure to land a marquee shooting guard in the offseason, and it didn’t once mention Ricky Rubio’s rehabilitation from a torn ACL last March. Sure, those might seem like pertinent storylines, but this article was following something else: the whiteness of Minnesota’s NBA team.

The article stated that the current incarnation of the Timberwolves’ franchise is the NBA’s “whitest” since the Celtics of the 1980s. Only 33% of Minnesota’s roster is black, which pales (PUN!) in comparison to 78%, which was the percentage of African-American athletes in the NBA in 2011-12.[i]

While those figures are interesting on a purely superficial level, and fair game for light-hearted wise cracks, no one actually thinks there’s something racist going on in the Wolves’ front offices, right? Rick Adelman, who makes most of the personnel decisions these days, is entering his 22nd season as an NBA head coach; you think if he had an issue with black players, it would’ve surfaced by now. Team president David Kahn, also part of the Wolves’ brain trust, is in the last year of his contract, and needs desperately to produce a winner this season in order to continue his employment. Can anyone possibly believe a man in his business, and in his position, would jeopardize his future over race?

Apparently, some people do. The authors of newspaper story, Jerry Zgoda and Dennis Brackin, interviewed two Twin Cities “black leaders” (their words, not mine) on the subject. Here is part of what they had to say:

“I think, personally, that it was calculated. Is this an attempt to get fans back in the stands? Minnesota, after all, is a pretty white state…” (The white-dominated roster is a) “nullification of diversity and a reversal of history.” – Ron Edwards, Minneapolis civil rights advocate

“How did we get a roster that resembles the 1955 Lakers? I think everything is a strategy. Nothing happens by happenstance.” – Tyrone Terrell, President, St. Paul African-American Leadership Council

Oy, vey.

Apparently, those of us who took diversity to mean “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements… The inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization” were all wrong, according to Edwards and Terrell. Diversity is a black and white topic – so a roster featuring two Russians (Alexey Shved, Andrei Kirilenko), a Puerto Rican (J.J. Barea), a Spaniard (Ricky Rubio) and a dude from Montenegro (Nikoa Pekovic) – as well as five American-born black players – doesn’t qualify as being ‘diverse’.

Kevin Love,  a white superstar, is a rarity in the NBA. If he were black, would we be having this discussion?

Not only are those quotes ignorant of the meaning of the word ‘diversity’, they’re also ignorant of Minnesota basketball history, as well as insulting towards the people of this state. The Wolves were never more popular than they were in 2003-04, when they advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals. The nucleus of that team? Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell – all black dudes, and none of us backwoods hillbillies cared, because they were good.

I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist, nor am I saying that civil rights advocates and African-American leadership groups aren’t important – but I am saying that these two gentlemen are ignorant of reality. Ignorance offends me just as much as racism itself – and their assumption that I, as a Minnesotan, would be more likely to root for a white basketball team just because I am white is a racist thing to assume.

Know what I want to root for? A winner – just like everybody else in Minnesota! Know who the guys on the roster want to play with? Other guys who can play! And as far as the diversity thing is concerned – let’s say someone hears Nikola Pekovic is from Montenegro, gets curious, looks it up on the internet, and accidentally learns a thing or two about Balkan politics, the dissolution of Soviet Union and the rich basketball history of that country. What more can you hope for from diversity besides that?

As Dante Cunningham was quoted as saying near the end of the article:

“There’s just as many athletic white guys on this team as there are black guys who are athletic. It’s no big deal. We’re here to play ball, so regardless of whether we’re white or black or yellow or purple, we’re going to go out and play.”

Veteran newcomer Brandon Roy had this to say:

“It’s just basketball. I never really had to feel like I’m the only black guy out here. I’ve played on teams that maybe had all black guys and the feeling is just the same when I’m out there on the floor playing with these guys.”

If the players on floor don’t seem to mind the racial element, and are committed to each other and providing us a winner, why should we, the fans, care what they look like? Fact is, most of us don’t. We just want a playoff basketball team, no matter how it appears.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

 


[i] That terrible “pale” pun was also the basis of the article’s headline. It was an embarrassment for the paper, as well as one of my favorite writers, Jerry Zgoda. You can read it for yourself here: http://m.startribune.com/?id=176071391

Timberwolves Summer Synthesis


Trying to piece together this puzzling Timberwolves offseason.

The Timberwolves still have these two guys, so they’re still in pretty good shape.

@BreakTheHuddle

Last summer, the lockout loomed, players fled for Europe or Asia in search of temporary employment, and Minnesota General Manager David Kahn took his sweet time before firing coach Kurt Rambis. The entire offseason was a bizarre anomaly – player movement paralyzed, front offices unsure of how to proceed in the face of the new rules to come in the collective bargaining agreement. In the foggy malaise, the Timberwolves hired veteran (borderline Hall of Fame) coach Rick Adelman, instantly bringing credibility and pedigree to an organization which had possessed neither in nearly a decade.

Any notion that Adelman would teach the talented but inconsistent Wolves roster the “right” way to play, slowly molding them into a winner, has been kicked to the curb. He wants to win, and win now… or at least, that’s the narrative being put forth. Kahn is nearing the end of his deal and needs concrete, on-court success in order to get an extension. Majority owner Glen Taylor gave an interview with Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press after the conclusion of last season, essentially saying that he wants a winning product to drive up the value of the franchise so he can cash out his interest while the going is good.

The priority of the current offseason seems to be upgrading the roster at all costs – to build around the core of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. The pressure to win, and win this season, pushes down on the franchise from all sides. Calling it a “perfect storm” probably conjures the wrong connotation – but the metaphor isn’t far off. Timberwolves fans would be justified to feel a bit uneasy, knowing Kahn is still the person calling the shots. For all of Kahn’s tomfoolery his first few years on the job, he’s purchased some political capital with the fans now that we see how brilliant the Ricky Rubio pick turned out to be.

Still, it’s fair to question whether the Wolves’ brain trust is making decisions that will hamper the future of the franchise, sacrificing assets for a shot to win this season. Here are the moves the team has made since the offseason began:

Bad news: Martell Webster, and his hair, are out of here. Good news: Andrei Kirilenko is coming to town.

-They got rid of one eccentric scorer (Michael Beasley, who wound up in Phoenix for 3 years at $18 million) and brought in another eccentric scorer, one who hasn’t played in the NBA in over a year (Andrei Kirilenko) for more money (2 years, $20 million – though only the first is guaranteed).

-The Wolves jettisoned one inconsistent, three point shooting wing (Martell Webster) and replaced him with another – Chase Budinger, who cost the team their 1st round pick in this year’s draft.

-Since Adelman doesn’t seem to have the time or patience for “projects”, the team had no place for the disappointing Wes Johnson, who they shipped to the Phoenix Suns to clear room for Kirilenko’s contract. They replaced him with another Russian, the unknown Alexey Shved… who will undoubtedly be somewhat of a “project” in the NBA.

-Minnesota swapped shooting guard Wayne Ellington with Memphis for backup power forward Dante Cunningham and signed Greg Stiemsma to shore up the center position behind Nikola Pekovic. Stiemsma came off the bench for Boston last season, and somewhat surprisingly turned in a solid campaign.

-The team also brought in a guy with no cartilage in his knees – Brandon Roy – on the hope he can be 60 or 70 or 80% of what he once was. His contract is 2 years at about $10 million, and hopefully includes some language about knee injuries voiding the second season. It could be a bargain, considering Roy was an All-Star a few seasons ago. It could also be a non-factor, considering, uh, the fact that he has no cartilage in his knees.

-Gone are a nutcase with some upside (Anthony Randolph), a nutcase with no upside (adieu, Darko Milicic, sent packing via the “amnesty” clause), an aging big man with a big contract (Brad Miller), and coach’s favorite Anthony Tolliver. (Side note: Tolliver seems like one of the real good guys in the NBA… but he won’t be missed. The minimal on-court contributions couldn’t warrant keeping him around.

-The exploit which attracted the most attention this summer never actually came to fruition – I’m talking, of course, about the Timberwolves’ offer sheet to Portland’s Nicolas Batum, which was matched by his original club. Attempts to work out a sign-and-trade with the Blazers failed as the two franchises reportedly descended into the kind of behind-the-scenes catfight only a teenage girl could really appreciate.

David Kahn. Some say he resembles ‘Timon’, the meerkat from “The Lion King”…

-The shameless, gory details of said catfight:

1. Since the Wolves signed Brandon Roy, a former Blazer, Portland will not be able to use insurance money to cover part of the mammoth salary still owed to him when he “retired” last year.

2. The Blazers were also mad that the Wolves gave Batum an offer sheet for much more than he was worth ($45 million over 4 years) thus putting them in the awkward position of overpaying Batum to keep him or letting him walk away to a division rival.

… I smell another Random Doppelganger coming.

3. Back in 2010, the Wolves traded starting forward Ryan Gomes and the team’s 16th pick in the 2010 Draft (Luke Babbit) to the Blazers for Martell Webster. Portland team doctors already knew that Webster needed back surgery that would hinder his 2010-11 campaign (turns out, it did). The Blazers organization didn’t disclose this to the Wolves before the deal was official, which is, uh, frowned upon around the league.

Throw in the fact that Kahn’s previous employer was – you guessed it – the Portland Trail Blazers, and you’ve got a good ol’ fashioned blood feud. Blazers owner Paul Allen is convinced Kahn is doing all this to try and make his life difficult, and Wolves fans are convinced Kahn is trying to make OUR lives difficult. The meerkat is doing a fantastic job on both fronts.

I digress. So where does all this movement left the roster? Does the prospective 2012 squad look that much better than the 2011 team? (Starters in bold, new arrivals in italics, departed players struck through.)

Position 2011 2012
Backcourt Rubio

Johnson

Ridnour

Barea

Lee

Ellington

Rubio

Roy

Ridnour

Barea

Lee

Shved

Wings Webster

Beasley

Kirilenko

Budinger

Frontcourt Love

Pekovic

Williams

Milicic

Randolph

Tolliver

Miller

Love

Pekovic

Williams

Cunningham

Stiemsma

If you had to pick one word to describe the 2012 versus 2011 versions of the Wolves roster, that word would probably be… different. And I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense, but the literal one – eight faces are gone, and six new ones have arrived (so far) to take their places. Barring an unexpected blockbuster trade, the team’s notable moves are over – it appears all they have left to do is bring in a couple more backup big men, or perhaps another wing and a big, to fill out the roster.

If the Timberwolves improve this coming season – if they are an above .500 team that makes it into the playoffs – the primary reasons won’t be Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved. It will be because Ricky Rubio returned from his ACL injury in a timely fashion, Kevin Love continues to be great (and plays a little more defense) and Nikola Pekovic follows up on a solid season with a breakout season. None of those things have anything to do with Kahn’s offseason maneuvering.

Rick Adelman’s window of opportunity to win before retiring is closing somewhat rapidly.

Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be nice if Brandon Roy is healthy, Andrei Kirilenko fits in at small forward and Chase Budinger contributes as a sixth man. The moves are okay, even though they are littered with questions. Can Roy survive an 82 game schedule? Can Kirilenko find his groove after a year abroad?

For all the fuss about Kahn and Adelman’s offseason project of improving the roster, what it really comes down to for Wolves fans are Kevin Love, Rubio’s knee and Pek’s presence in the middle. If it all comes together, we’ll see an up-tempo, unselfish and fun brand of basketball on display in Minneapolis – whether that’s because of David Kahn or in spite of him remains to be seen.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!