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Who’s better: Phoenix Suns or Minnesota Timberwolves

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Next up in the season preview series, we compare the Suns to the Wolves with the help of CanisHoopus.com

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s continue our season preview series for the 2019-20 Phoenix Suns!

This series will explore how the Suns are seen by their Western Conference (possibly lottery bound) counterparts. I know Suns fans are all over the board on how the team matches up to the rest of the West — some of you are real high on the team, and some are real low.

So, let’s see how the Suns are seen by bloggers who don’t follow them, but are huge NBA fans in their own way.

It’s the Wolves!

Today, we exchange thoughts with Eric in Madison of our SB Nation team site CanisHoopus.com.

So, let’s do this! We compare our teams in terms of playmakers, wings and bigs.

To be fair, I always list Booker in both the wing and playmaker categories because he IS both to the Suns. I share the opposing team comps with the other blog, and allow them to make adjustments as well.

PLAYMAKERS

  • Suns: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Tyler Johnson, Ty Jerome (R), Elie Okobo, Jevon Carter
  • Wolves: Jeff Teague, Shabazz Napier, Jarrett Culver (R), Karl-Anthony Towns

First, Eric’s turn:

Well, I certainly would give the Suns the edge here, because, well, Ricky Rubio. Much of the Wolves fan base still pines for Rubio, including me. He just makes you better, even as you get frustrated with his shooting. He wasn’t as dynamic in Utah as he was with the Wolves, largely because of the system the Jazz play — they don’t rely on one guy to distribute. He’ll be a great leader and presence for the Suns.

Jeff Teague is a decent NBA point guard, but his body started breaking down last season (only 42 games) after being largely healthy throughout his career. Whether this continues is a major storyline for the Wolves, who need everyone to stay healthy if they want to compete in the West. Behind him, Shabazz Napier is looking like the back up, which is... OK. There is not a lot of dynamism among the Wolves play makers, unless rookie Jarrett Culver, who showed good play making ability at Texas Tech, is really ready to positively contribute as a rook, which you can’t count on.

ADVANTAGE: SUNS

Interesting that Eric didn’t even mention Devin Booker here among playmakers, but I guess that’s because he thinks Rubio is better than anyone they’ve got anyway.

It was in Minnesota that Rubio grew from a phenom into something replaceable by an impatient front office. When Tom Thibodeau took over the Wolves, Rubio averaged 11 points and 9 assists with 21-year old running mates Towns, LaVine and Wiggins. Remember the nation’s excitement over that trio? Towns is great, but he was only 21 and the other two have since been relative disappointments as pros. That’s not Rubio’s fault, but he was the one traded that next summer for a future first round pick because Thibs wanted... Jeff Teague? Thibs also brought in Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson from his Bulls days to spur a 47-win season, but quickly flamed out after that. Meanwhile, Rubio spent the next two years in the playoffs with the Jazz.

I agree with Eric here, that the Suns have the edge at playmaking. Even without having to mention the Suns 1B playmaker this year will be Devin Booker, whose 22% assist rate outpaces anyone else on the Wolves roster.

The Wolves next best playmaker might just be Karl-Anthony Towns, who posted 3.4 assists per game last year and might be even more of an offensive focal point this coming season.

ADVANTAGE: SUNS


WINGS

  • Suns: Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson (R)
  • Wolves: Robert Covington, Andrew Wiggins, Jarrett Culver (R), Josh Okogie, Jake Layman, Keita Bates-Diop, Treveon Graham, Tyrone Wallace

A healthy Robert Covington is the best player listed for either team in this section. (Yes, he is.) A tremendous defensive player with three point shooting chops, he made a massive difference for the Wolves when he was on the floor. Their defense went from abysmal to actually pretty good with him out there. The problem is: How many minutes/games can he play? If he is relatively healthy and plays 70+ games at 30+ minutes per, the Wolves likely have the edge here. Josh Okogie showed some things last season on defense, and we’re hoping his shooting improves from horrific to playable. Obviously we’re looking forward to our prize rookie getting on the court, but who knows what he’ll look like.

There is pretty good depth with Jake Layman and Keita Bates-Diop probably NBA level players who can play either forward spot. Not clear whether Tyrone Wallace (more of a point guard) or Treveon Graham will make the team.

...And then there is Andrew Wiggins, the source of massive frustration. From afar, I see significant similarities between Wiggins and Devin Booker, though I don’t sense the same level of frustration among the Suns fan base with Booker (I’d be interested to know if I’m right, and if so why.) Both of them have put up some impressive surface-level scoring stats, but so far it has not amounted to either of them being, you know, good NBA players. Wiggins has had an extra year of not goodness, and at this point, it’s not feeling like it’s ever going to happen for him. There are still believers, though, and I hope they are right, because he’s swallowing up a massive amount of cap space and minutes.

ADVANTAGE: WOLVES

Here is where Eric goes off the rails.

Yes, the 6’9”, 225-pound Robert Covington is a very good player when healthy. He can hit a lot of threes (career average is 36% on 6.5 attempts per game) and plays defense across four different positions on the floor. He’s bigger and stronger than either of the Suns’ Oubre and Bridges. The Wolves can spot him offensively anywhere along the wing or at power forward, where he’ll likely spend most of his time in 2019-20.

But better than Devin Booker as a wing? I can’t get there. They are completely different players in that Covington’s contributions are more balanced between O and D, but his net BPM and VORP are roughly the same as Booker and he’s well into his prime while Booker is just approaching his. I can see why Eric loves him some RoCo, but sheesh. Booker is better.

And then Eric doubles down and goes so far as to compare Devin Booker to Andrew Wiggins...

Let’s take a closer look and give Eric the benefit of the doubt. I compared each of them through their first four years in the NBA in which they were both in the 19-22 age range. Here’s the per-36, per-100 and advanced stats.

They are about even on rebounds, steals, blocks, getting to the line and Win Shares Per 48. Neither plays a lick of defense, often finger-pointed as a big reason their team’s defensive numbers are so poor.

And they are both very productive scorers. Before Booker set all those under-20 and then under-21 and under-22 scoring records, it was Andrew Wiggins who quietly got there first. Wiggins has been a natural scorer since joining the league, but hasn’t done much of anything else. Which is the argument that people across the nation have about Booker who don’t watch much of him. So I don’t blame Eric for this take, even if he’s wrong.

But Booker is a much better and more diverse scorer, resulting in higher advanced numbers on offense and making a bigger difference on that end. (I won’t even compare their playmaking, since this is the “wings” section). While Wiggins has been productive on offense, it’s been Booker who continues to get better and better at it.

I don’t know what else to say here on the Booker/Wiggins debate. You guys have at it, in the comments.

The Wolves potentially have a dynamic wing defense this year with Covington, Okogie and the rookie Jarrett Culver all flying around in support of Towns down low. It’s the offense that might struggle, especially if they squeeze Wiggins out of playing time. I’m highly curious how the Wolves fare this year on the wing.

I think this might overall be a toss-up this year on the wing, if I’m being generous.

ADVANTAGE: TOSS UP


BIGS

  • Suns: Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky, Cheick Diallo
  • Wolves: Karl-Anthony Towns, Robert Covington (he will play lots of PF), Noah Vonleh, Gorgui Dieng, Jordan Bell

Hopefully you enjoy Dario Saric, who has his weaknesses but knows how to play. I didn’t love that trade as I thought it was selling a bit low on him, but obviously if Culver works out, it will have been worth it.

This is clearly the Wolves strong point, because Karl-Anthony Towns is by far the best player on either of these teams. He’s the best scoring big man in the NBA right now, and will be featured even more now that Tom Thibodeau is no longer around.

Covington will play a lot of power forward probably, and we might see Layman and even Bates-Diop there. The Wolves signed Vonleh and Bell to one year deals, and they should both help the defense up front. Gorgui Dieng will likely be little more than an expensive fifth big, which is unfair to his talent but also the way the NBA is going these days. (He’s an amazing human being whose philanthropy in his native Senegal deserves mention as frequently as possible).

For the Wolves, the major questions are: Can they find enough three-point shooting to keep up with the league, and can they improve on what has been a very poor defense in recent years. (Robert Covington is a huge part of the answers to both of these questions, as it happens.) I’m by no means convinced they can, but if they can cobble together something resembling a league average defense, they might have enough offense to actually sneak into the playoffs. Realistically, I expect both our teams to return to the familiar environs of the lottery. Vegas has the Wolves finishing about 6 games ahead of the Suns, which sounds reasonable, though a bit of good/bad luck for either could change things significantly. I like the additions of Rubio and Saric as veterans who know how to play, but they aren’t enough to really push things forward.

Cheers to a great season.

ADVANTAGE: WOLVES

Thanks for those closing thoughts, Eric! Yes, I don’t think these teams are that far off — it’s going to be about growth in a new system for each side, and about whichever team stays the healthiest.

Eric is right that the Wolves win this round simply because of Towns, who just might be the ceiling that the Suns’ Deandre Ayton could possibly reach if everything goes well in his career.

As 20-year old rookies, Towns was better than Ayton in most every category. but Ayton fared well in his own right. Both are incredible athletes filled with crazy potential, and who — even at their best — might never reach their ultimate ceiling but will go down as some of the best to play the game.

It’s unlikely that Ayton ever reaches KAT’s level, but he should come relatively close.

This year, it’s not even worth looking at the other players before calling a victor, though I’d go so far as to say a HEALTHY Covington is better than anyone the Suns have at power forward.

ADVANTAGE: WOLVES


Did you like this preview from both teams’ points of view? Check out the others in the series:


What do you think, Suns fans? Who’s the better overall team?

And, is Devin Booker closer to Andrew Wiggins than we might want to believe?