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?