The hangover: more thoughts on Timberwolves/Bobcats

Benjamin Polk —  January 7, 2011 — 10 Comments

"The Nightmare" by Henry Fuesslie

Judging from my own reactions and those of my (many) correspondents, this latest Wolves debacle has given us all that awful feeling of waking up from those really significant nightmares. I’m talking about those dreams that leave little remnants of dread shimmering around in your body all through the next day. This game was like that.

For me, it wasn’t just that the Wolves lost another late lead, or that they played so very badly for so much of the game, or that they lost to such a rotten team (although it’s all of those things too). There was something really unsettling about the way the team related to itself at the end of the game. I’ll start with an observation.

With 1:23 remaining in the fourth quarter, Wes Johnson held the ball on the left elbow extended. He ought to have moved the ball, maintaining the offense’s rhythm. But by that point the Wolves were already inching into panic mode and Johnson was indecisive. He hesitantly tried to put the ball on the floor and lost it out of bounds in the process. In the ensuing timeout, a fuming, red-faced Rambis stormed off the bench and screamed some indecipherable mixture of obscenity and admonishment just as Johnson passed by.

This actually isn’t such an uncommon occurence (for Rambis or for basketball coaches in general, it should be said), although the intensity of Rambis’ outburst was was fairly unprecedented. So here’s the problem. It’s clear that with a team this young and inexperienced, the coaching staff’s most important mandate is to teach the game. And as every good teacher knows, negative reinforcement (that is, punishing undesired behavior rather than rewarding desired behavior) only works when used smartly and very sparingly. Uncontrolled, indiscriminate negative reinforcement generally results in a student (or player) who is more concerned with avoiding punishment–detention, getting yelled at, getting benched–than in actually performing well.

Now, in many ways the Wolves seem to have a positive relationship with their coaches. They seem committed to learning the game; they’re willing to accept coaching; they almost always play hard. But late in games–especially late in Wednesday’s game–the Wolves often look suspicially to me like a team that is more worried about avoiding mistakes (and an earful from Rambis) than in playing basketball. They glance at the bench after turnovers. They hang their heads. They sink into their own trembling, private worlds.

I’d like to stress that it’s very difficult to know whether this is the result of some problem in the Wolves’ coaching culture or simply, as the players and coaches all contend, a transient symptom of inexperience. But Rambis’ outburst begins to seem less controlled, less discriminate when you consider that when Johnson was asked after the game why he got so viciously chewed, he simply responded, “there ain’t no telling. Couldn’t tell you.”

Consider also Johnson is a rookie mired in a poor shooting outing (and still learning to play his position, mind you) playing in the tensest moments of a very tense game. If it was mistake-free basketball during crunch time Rambis wanted, he could have easily replaced Wes with the vastly more seasoned Martell Webster. But if Rambis simply wanted to give Johnson experience in end-game situations, aren’t moments of terrible indecision simply part of the rookie bargain?

Benjamin Polk

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10 responses to The hangover: more thoughts on Timberwolves/Bobcats

  1. Let me just say that I am a huge fan of the quasi-random pictures that this blog tends to feature.

  2. The vastly more seasoned Martell Webster isn’t providing much mistake-free basketball either.

  3. I partially think we are babying Johnson a tad bit…sure he’s just a rookie but he is 23 years old. He’s like the 4th oldest player on the team. The big upside to drafting him is he was supposedly NBA ready, his overall potential isn’t as high as a Xavier Henry or a Paul George (the two swing men I preferred) yet at least in Henry’s case, he seems to have developed the NBA savvy before Johnson.

    I am firmly sticking to my need to have better guards if we want to win close games stance….its simple basketbal

  4. I have a trade to pose for Wolves fans: Since Love wants to be a thunder so badly, would you guys do Serge Ibaka, James Harden and a pick for Love? I might

  5. Wolves’ fans finally have an opportunity to react to positive expectations. Once step forward (Love, Beas), one step backwards (guard play), one step sideways (Darko) makes for an interesting reason to click on the TV or flock down to 1st Avenue. I’m excited to see how Rambis leads the boys over the next weeks. Does he rise up like a disciple of Phil or strike out like Childress? Can the players realize they are as talented as their opponents where then wins become more of a product of smart basketball versus being lucky? Does Kahn have the patience to let these answers reveal themselves, or does he feel the need to rock the boat?

    Great article to read. Fun pictures. Good comments.

  6. I think the guard play definitely sticks out all year. When Ridnour and Johnsonhave great games, sometimes we win. When they are not playing great, we lose to anyone and everyone. If Brewer or if Webster can contribute meaningfully, it helps too but neither of them have been consistent. Is there another team in the league with a worse back court? I am struggling to think of one team who have a back court that I wouldn’t rather have over the wolves. Even Cleveland (who I think is the least interesting team going in the league) has a better back court because of Mo. It’s nice we have good back ups but you can only play five people at a time regardless.

    Is there any doubt that Flynn was the wrong pick anymore? What do people see his potential as at this point?

  7. I really think if Flynn where to get a fresh start he could be a starter

  8. Much agree with Brian, the pics are always great. Justin, you’d seriously trade away Love? I’m an unabashed Lakers fan and I’d definitely do some trading – who do you want besides Kobe and Pau?

  9. michael storbakken January 8, 2011 at 4:28 am

    From what Flynn has shown so far, I think you could pick a guard from the d league and do just as well . He can’t make even the simplest of plays on this team. Now that is it obvious that Flynn will not be a player in this league, I think Kahn needs to be put in place and told to listen to his scouting department when making draft picks.. He has let down the state of Minnesota and diehard t-wolves fans everywhere. He completely overthought the pick when he could have had a dynamic player like Curry who has a game that translates to the NBA. Kahn has lost all credibility with evaluating talent and should be fired immediately and replaced with someone who knows the game.

  10. Like the post. I recognise the merits of positive reinforcement..the “catch them being good” scenario…..I think it really works….I’ve used it for years…..in class.
    I noticed recently Rambis saying that he enjoyed “teaching” basketball…well, if he sees himself as a teacher and his pupils respect him, they will play for him…they will listen to what he says and replicate it on the court because they want to please him…..it ain’t happening.
    So, alternatively he may have to draw up some sort of rewards programme for Wes, Darko and Jonny because as far as self esteem goes they are rock bottom….you know the kind of thing….a merit sticker for every pass completed, a gold star for every defensive rebound….build them up brick by brick….tell them how much they are loved and valued?

    or..

    they could just start earning their salaries, do their jobs and get down to some hard graft?

    tough call…..we’re having a joke here but I’m conflicted on this…..honestly.

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