Charming ruins: David Kahn and Kurt Rambis in Springtime
I’ve written before about my distaste for the idea of winning as the only and essential arbiter of NBA success. To me, the game is a far richer, more complex phenomenon if we explore the full spectrum of basketball experience, if we look deeper than simple wins and losses. There’s compelling, powerful stuff produced all the time in the service of losses; every year myriad fascinating players and teams end the season without a ring.
I still believe all of this. But a season spent with the Wolves, observing the effects (on myself, the fans, the team) of constant, terminal losing can really make a guy rethink some things. Even though we may (although I’m fairly sure I don’t speak for Myles on this one) view winning, in and of itself, as less of an ultimate prize than does the culture at large, we still hold a deep desire for good basketball. We want very much to see the game played well; we want to watch players and teams perform the game with style and skill and grace–and we definitely wouldn’t mind having a team to cheer for in the playoffs either. And by any of these standards, the 2010/2011 Minnesota Timberwolves were an abject failure.
About that plain fact there is little dispute. The discourse that has emerged from the team as the season wound down has been one of assigning blame for the fiasco. Of the two leading candidates for the honor, David Kahn and Kurt Rambis (with the players themselves coming in a pretty close third), Rambis appears to have come out on the losing end. (There are clearly machinations and complex inter-organization power dynamics at work here, and probably have been all year, about which I will not speculate here. Suffice it to say that Rambis seems to have found himself on the outside of a Kahn/Glen Taylor alliance looking in.)
Without a doubt, there are elements of Rambis’ performance worth critiquing. First and foremost is the truly awful defense the Wolves played all season. At the press conference following that final, sad loss to the Rockets, Rambis admitted that defense was “clearly […] not at the level it needs to be at.” But he also claimed also that “since training camp and where we are now, we’ve made improvements as a defensive team in terms of our guys understanding what they have to do to defend the myriad offensive situations that they have to be able to defend in this league.”
This is probably true; the Wolves’ understanding of their own defensive schemes and responsibilities did appear to improve as the season wore on. And from training camp until the season’s final game, Rambis patiently repeated the mantra that with young teams (and the Wolves are very, very young) defense is often the last skill to develop, that it can take players “sometimes weeks, months to pick up things. And with young players in the league, sometimes its gonna take them years.” But these improvements seem pretty insignificant relative to the massive defensive problems the Wolves had all year.
They struggled to contain dribble penetration and they struggled to defend the three point line. They guarded the pick-and-roll really poorly. Their help defense and rotations were consistently slow. I could go on; the fact is that for the entire season the Wolves were among the five least efficient defensive teams in the league. (They finished 27th, with a rating of 108.3 points allowed/100 possessions, just ahead of Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto, hopeless cases all of them.) One got the sense that after the All-Star break, notwithstanding Rambis’ claims to the contrary, this team was simply not getting better. And Rambis never really seemed to take responsibility for this, never seemed to want to admit (publicly at least) that his team’s struggles reflected poorly on him or his coaching methods.
Perhaps its true that Rambis asks his young players to absorb more–and more complex–information than his peers. For this reason, the thinking goes, the learning curve for the Wolves will naturally be steeper than for other teams, the improvement less immediately observable. But might that also mean that Rambis’ coaching style is more appropriate for veterans than for this crew of NBA naifs? (After all, Phil Jackson never had to coach a bunch of 21-year-olds.) Might it mean that Rambis is just not the right coach for this team?
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It was taken as an article of faith before this season began (and repeated here) that the Wolves were “more talented” than in years past. This is undoubtedly true. It’s clear that Michael Beasley and Darko and Anthony Randolph–and to a lesser extent Wes Johnson and Martell Webster–have a kind of dynamic talent and athleticism that has been extremely rare for our Wolves.
But, in the NBA, talent just gets you in the door. Talent, no matter how profound, accompanied by the kind of un-intuitiveness, emotional instability and lack of self-awareness that we saw this year from the likes of Jonny Flynn, Beasley, Darko and Randolph guarantees nothing. Rashad McCants, Gerald Green and countless others will tell you as much.
Taking this into consideration, and even keeping in mind that I still have hope for Johnson, Webster and, of course, Kevin Love, it’s hard for me to see how this team that David Kahn has assembled, without major changes (which Kahn has seemed to say are not forthcoming) will ever become truly, consistently competitive in the NBA. Think of Kahn’s big moves on the job: drafting Flynn, Ricky Rubio and Johnson; trading for Beasley; signing Darko and Pek; trading for Martell Webster. Can any of these currently be called an unambiguous success? (I’m thinking not.) I realize that Rambis had a part in nearly all of these personnel decisions, but doesn’t the President of Basketball Operations need to take some responsibility for the composition of his roster?
If Rambis really is being pushed out the door, as it looks like he is, my sense is that the wrong guy is taking the fall. Rambis may be far from the perfect coach, but it seems to me that between him and Kahn, Rambis is the one with the authentic knowledge of the game and with the respect of his peers and his players. The Wolves’ situation is grim. I worry that its about to get worse.