We Wolves followers–especially the optimists like me–have become experts in one particular facet of the basketball fan’s craft: allowing ourselves to become heartened and encouraged with very little prodding (there’s a cynical, dark underside to this too, but that’s for another day). Kevin Love is a rebounding colossus? Michael Beasley is averaging 27 points/game over a six game span? Darko looks like a real NBA player? The Wolves almost beat the Spurs?! Let’s ignore the fact that the team is 4-13 (make that 4-14) and just, y’know, get excited!
But then there are games like Wednesday’s pedestrian 100-86 road loss to the Mavericks. These games remind you of the yawning gulf that separates our Pups from the top teams in the association, of the oceans of experience and talent between the Wolves and basic competitiveness. These pills are especially bitter because they often closely resemble this Dallas game in one particular respect: the Wolves never really seemed particularly awful and the Mavs were never overwhelmingly great (Dirk Nowitzki barely got out of bed), but at no time did you really feel that the Wolves had even a remote chance at winning.
The Big O
One important fact about the Wolves is that while they now play at the league’s fastest pace, they also boast the league’s second-least efficient offense, at 98.7 points/100 possessions. Even more amazing, the other teams in the top ten in pace all score at least four more points per 100 than do the Wolves, and most of them outscore our boys by many more than that. (The Knicks, the league’s second fastest team, score 107.7 pts/100, for example.)
In other words, while most fast teams play fast because they’ve discovered hidden caches of easy points early in the shot clock, the Wolves do so…well, why do they do it? Because they’re excessively eager to run and yet lack the requisite skills to do so? Because they’re too undisciplined and inexperienced to play more slowly? Because they’re constantly turning the ball over (and thus sacrificing possessions early in the clock)? I’m thinking “all of the above”.
That first option was at play throughout the Dallas game, and was particularly concentrated on the Wolves point guards. Luke Ridnour and (particularly) Sebastian Telfair both displayed an impatience possibly borne of the understanding that the game always seemed on the verge of slipping away. Both pushed the tempo at inopportune times. And both turned the ball over attempting hopelessly difficult passes. (By the way, get ready for this not to change when Jonny Flynn returns).
I’m most interested, though, in a particular way in which I’ve noticed the Wolves struggling in the half-court. When an opposing defense thwarts the Wolves’ initial action (as most competent NBA defenses are able to do most of the time), the Wolves seem to lack the creativity or the wherewithal to progress to a next set of reads and options. A typical case in point came in the third quarter. The Wolves attempted to set up a two-man game with Darko in the left high post and Beasley at the elbow extended. The Mavs had the action covered the entire way and the Wolves were unable to generate an open look. But rather than flowing into the next option, they instead did this: Darko held the ball for a while, looking a little panicked. Finally he dumped it out to Beasley. Beasley held the ball for a while. Then he shot a long, contested jumper (which missed).
The Big D
As troubled as the Wolves have been on offense, they’ve been even worse defensively. This is showing up in more subtle ways then it did last year–we’re not seeing the catastrophic breakdowns of transition D, for instance–but it’s evident nonetheless. Over and over against Dallas, whether fighting around screens, defending the pick-and-roll, or just in simple isolations, Wolves defenders were repeatedly unable to cut down the space between themselves and the Dallas jumpshooters. And while it’s true that long jumpers are the lowest-percentage shot in the game, good NBA shooters will totally hit that shot if it isn’t staunchly contested.
This would have been okay, though, if the Wolves were giving the Mavs space to shoot in exchange for protecting the paint. But they weren’t. Here’s a typical sequence. Kidd initiates a 1-4 pick-and-roll with Nowitzki. Kevin Love shows on the screen but is just a hair too slow to cause Kidd to retreat. Luke Ridnour recovers to Kidd, but not quite quickly enough; he’s still a half-step behind Kidd as the old fellow slashes into the lane. Darko attempts to help on Kidd…but he can’t quite do it aggressively enough to deter him or soon enough to allow his teammates time to rotate. Kidd dishes the ball to a waiting Tyson Chandler on the baseline, suddenly open since Darko left him to half-heartedly challenge the drive. Chandler attacks the basket and Darko tries to recover…but he can’t quite get there in time. He fouls Chandler, barely preventing a crushing and-one. Another failure in increments for the Wolves’ D.
The reason for this is simple: they don’t have very many good defenders. The Wolves lineup, particularly their starting lineup, is filled with young players just learning the craft–Wes Johnson, Kevin Love–players adjusting to new positions and new roles–Michael Beasley–or veterans who’ve been, at best, only mediocre–Telfair, Darko, Ridnour. We can speculate about Kurt Rambis’ systems or his teaching methods, but this basic lack of talent and especially experience has been killing the Wolves every time.