High-flying aggressive play is at core of Wolves’ new identity

With high-flying athletes like Andrew Wiggings, the Timberwolves are forging a new team identity.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Albeit a loosely-defined term, organizational identity is hard to come by in the ever-fluid world of the NBA.

The Spurs have it — methodical massacre enhanced by continuity, synergy and player development. Traditional powers like the Lakers and Celtics have brand identity, regardless of their place in the standings in 2014 or 2010.

But with personnel, coaches, tactics and overarching philosophies changing hands at a feverish rate, a true, tested selfhood that permeates an entire franchise is hard to come by.

The Timberwolves, though, have one — just not the kind owners want to be known for or players want to be a part of. That’s what 17 out of 25 losing seasons, reaching the conference finals once and never advancing past them, and 10 straight missed playoffs will reap.

In the cost-opportunity analysis of Kevin Love’s departure, Flip Saunders saw an opportunity to change that.

"We had a vision of what we were trying to do," said Saunders, the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations who took the franchise reins last May.

Speed. Aggression. Defense. With high-flying athletes like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Thaddeus Young joining Ricky Rubio, Saunders’ mission has become to instill a doctrine of vigor.

"What I feel good about in the trade is that … as I was here over the last year, I didn’t know if the team had an identity," Saunders said. "I believe now that we have taken steps to have an identity of what this team is."


It starts with Wiggins, a 19-year-old phenom ballyhooed as one of the best prep prospects since LeBron James. A year at Kansas only further solidified his standing.

Wiggins can run. He can jump. And he can defend.

The three key components of Saunders’ plan.

"He has phenomenal ability," Saunders said of Wiggins. "He has a lot of work to do, but I know that he is a willing learner."

But Wiggins isn’t the only scorer who can get from baseline to baseline. LaVine, drafted 13th overall, rated as one of the fastest prospects in a deep 2014 draft class. Corey Brewer was the main reason Minnesota ranked seventh in fast-break points last season. Second-round pick Glenn Robinson III, though he has yet to sign, is another potentially lethal transition threat, as exhibited several times at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League. Saunders’ inaugural draft pick was Shabazz Muhammad because of his own sheer athleticism. Even Young — a 6-8, 220-pound veteran also acquired in the Love trade — can run a little.

They can all run. And they can all finish at the rim, generally with a crowd-wowing dunk.

And it’s all expected to be orchestrated by playmaker master Ricky Rubio, who himself is fast enough to run the break and aware enough to find teammates with deft passes.

The trick, Saunders said, is harnessing the abundance of quick-twitch muscles and speed into one, cohesive effort.

"We’re gonna have to try to let those guys know the difference between excitement and substance," Saunders said. "That’s gonna be part of our lessons to them."

So is defense.

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Last season, Minnesota opponents shot 47.1 percent from the floor, tied for second-worst in the league. The number hasn’t been better than 45.5 since 2005-06, when Garnett was still on the team.

By comparison, 12 teams defended better than that last year.

Part of what made Wiggins such an attractive get for Minnesota is his ability to buck that trend. With a 7-foot wing span, great side-to-side quickness and intense demeanor, he averaged 1.2 steals and one block per game at Kansas and is already considered an NBA-ready defender.

Young can wreak havoc on the other end, too. He averaged a career-high 2.1 steals per game last year.

Saunders also thinks LaVine and Robinson can be effective on defense, given their ability to match up athletically. 2013 first-rounder Gorgui Dieng has the makings of a terrific shot blocker (2.9 blocks per 48 minutes last season), while Rubio and Brewer — second and sixth, respectively, in steals per game last season — are both effective on the perimeter when they avoid gambling and losing.

The more turnovers Minnesota produces, the easier its transition game will come.

"We have radio hosts and everyone (else who) has talked about our inability to guard," Saunders said. "We really have four players …. coming that have potentially a very good two-way players."

It’s the way Flip plans to coach after deploying a successful run, gun and defend style during eight playoff runs with Garnett in the fold. There’s a reason Saunders came within a whisker of hiring Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger before the defensive authority decided last-minute to stay in Memphis.

Minnesota’s already selling the new culture, ramping up marketing efforts for season and half-season ticket packages. Wiggins, Young and fellow trade acquisition Anthony Bennett will be introduced Tuesday at the Minnesota State Fair, a further sign of the Wolves’ desire — this one on the public relations front — to avoid the conventional.

There’s a new, state-of-the-art practice facility being built across the street from the Target Center, too. And renovations to the old basketball barn set to be completed in the next year or two.

"To make our organization better is not to just compete, but to put together a team that can be a championship-caliber team," Saunders said. "You have to get talent with that, and not just one guy, but numerous guys. You have to make sure that talent can play together and have a culture of your team that is conducive to winning."

Activity in everything. Passivity in nothing.

But identities aren’t spoken into existence. They’re manufactured.

That stage of the process begins Oct. 1, when Wiggins, Young and the rest of the Wolves arrive at training camp.

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