Under the Paving Stones, the Beach!
If you’re reading this, you probably already know: for Timberwolves fans, last year was a crusher. You may remember the brief moments of first quarter hope, when the Wolves would manage to resemble a competent, competitive NBA team. Or maybe that hope would sprout late in a game, when the Wolves, trailing by some unholy number, would miraculously discover the zeal and cohesion to cobble together a comeback. But you probably remember even more clearly that hope’s sickening fizzle: those murderous second quarters, in which the Wolves’ opponent would throw down endless, effortless runs, would cause our boys to unravel and hang their heads. Or, just following the great comeback, the total loss of composure–the ridiculous turnover, the blown rebound, the defensive bungle, the dribbled-out shot-clock–that would sign the game away.
You might also recall the team’s grievous lack of leadership, in both basketball and spiritual senses. You probably remember their wayward, turnover-prone rookie point guard and their physically hampered, intermittently energetic putative star. You might remember their awful, awful defense and their lack of both size and athleticism. Tepid three-point shooting, careless possessions, thousand-yard stares; we had it all.
But despite everything, all that despair did enfold a seed of legitimate hope. This was: Kurt Rambis’s philosophy of open-floor offense, coupled with the famous half-court Triangle. Given enough time and practice, we imagined, the Wolves could be as exhilaratingly fast as D’Antoni-era Phoenix, could hum like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. Yes, there were individual players who, from time to time, made things seem a little sunnier: Corey Brewer with his wild energy and new-found jumper; Kevin Love’s (usually) feverish rebounding; Big Al’s bursts of low-post scoring. But the real magic seemed to lie in the hope that the Wolves would one day “get it” and achieve an almost utopian dream: spiritually attuned ball-movement; perfectly balanced scoring; the dissolving of the boundary between individual and group consciousness.
In the Triangle’s web of reads, reactions and improvisations lies an acknowledgement of openness and possibility, and a promise of the freedom to simply play basketball. This freedom is probably only possible at the game’s highest levels; and its one that most coaches–a hyper-controlling, structure-loving bunch if there ever was one–would never dream of allowing their players.
But the irony is that, on the path to this ideal, the Triangle imposes a discipline nearly as constraining as the most tightly structured Big Ten system. Players are asked to re-orient the instincts that most of them, as the most athletic, wildly talented players in the country, have relied upon their entire lives. They’re asked to make decisions and sacrifices that they’ve never before been asked to make, to follow a set of guidelines that seem foreign and unintuitive. And so the story of this past Timberwolves’ season was not about the Triangle’s freedom and beauty. Instead, it was about the Wolves’ most talented players–Al Jefferson and Jonny Flynn in particular, but also Kevin Love and Ramon Sessions–struggling, and usually failing, to adapt themselves to these constraints.
In many ways, Rambis’s offense has actually made Flynn’s and Jefferson’s weaknesses more stark. Apart from his radiant smile and charisma, Flynn’s greatest obvious gifts are his one-on-one skills. His responsibilities in college were limited to, in his words, “making plays,” running isolations and pick-and-rolls. The added responsibility of organizing the Triangle has exposed his poor decision making and shot selection (although he hasn’t exactly flourished in pick-and-roll and one-on-one situations either…).
As for Jefferson, his struggles this past year with his healing knee, and with various personal issues were well-documented. Perhaps most important for his future with the Timberwolves, however, was his struggle to adapt his game to Rambis’s expectations. Al has never been an exceptional passer, but the demands of the Triangle–the constant reads, the need to work quickly, to move the ball along the path of least resistance–left him looking lost whenever one-on-one opportunities were unavailable. He simply never looked as comfortable at the triangle’s apex as does, say, Pau Gasol, whose decisiveness and vision allow the Lakers to threaten defenses from all points on the floor when he has the ball. But that’s not the worst of it. Here’s what I wrote about Big Al back in April, over at our fine City Pages (yes I am quoting myself, yes it feels weird):
“Al is known as one of the league’s few remaining classic back-to-the-basket scorers, owner of sublime low-post skills. If his defense is erratic, if his passing leaves something to be desired, the thinking goes, he makes up for it in sheer scoring prowess. But here’s the thing: for a big guy, Al is actually not that efficient a scorer. He tends to use his skills to avoid, rather than draw, contact. And he settles far too often for jumpers, which he hits at only a 39% clip.
Even in ’08-’09, before his knee injury, his true-shooting percentage was just 53.2%. Among centers and power-forward who used at least 20% of their team’s possessions (Al’s own usage rate was 28.9%), a full 14 players scored more efficiently. This includes obvious players like Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire, but also folks like Kevin Garnett and Andrea Bargnani, who play mainly from the outside in (Kevin Love and, adding insult to injury, Craig Smith also clocked in above Big Al).”
Which raises the question: how viable is Jefferson as the star (or even as a member) of this team? Can he, at this stage of his career, not just improve his efficiency at his supposed greatest strength, but also reconfigure his entire approach to the game in order to mesh with an up-tempo, ball-sharing offense (his erratic defense is another troubling matter)? These questions pain me; watching Al operate has been the chief pleasure I’ve taken in the nearly 200 Wolves games I’ve watched in the past three years. But there’s a very real possibility that, for all of these reasons, Al has already played his last game as a Wolf.
Like all utopias, this one is tempered and complicated by the facts on the ground. The lovely thought that one day these players will somehow perfectly actualize this system and enter into some yearlong trance of freedom is a delusion. It doesn’t happen like that, not even for the Lakers. And if you thought it was just a matter of youth and inexperience, you were wrong; just glance over at those dynamic OKC Thunder, a team even younger than our Wolves. The unpleasant reality is that, at this moment, the Timberwolves’ players are simply not good enough. Their best players are not as good as other teams’ best players. Their young, developing players still have years of improvement ahead of them. Their worst players are not fit for the league.
Our great hope must be that last season was Year Zero, that we are at least a decade from yet another resetting of history. For this to be the case, Rambis and David Kahn have some serious work to do in the coming weeks and months. Multiple draft picks and ample salary-cap room present the Wolves, at this moment, with as great an opportunity to improve as they will probably ever have. If they fail to seize it, Rambis’s ambitious experiment probably amount to little more than an historical afterthought, and we’ll never get to see even a fraction of what’s possible.