Charming ruins: David Kahn and Kurt Rambis in Springtime

Benjamin Polk —  April 19, 2011 — 23 Comments

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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?

*                     *                      *

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.

Benjamin Polk

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23 responses to Charming ruins: David Kahn and Kurt Rambis in Springtime

  1. Where would we place the odds that we can nab Rick Adelman? 1 in 100? 1 in a million? If there is any legitimate chance of him on the TWolves sideline, I would gladly kick Rambis to the curb (even though I agree that David Kahn, in particular, has really blown Rambis’ role in this whole mess out of proportion). I’m sure that such an accomplished coach will want to head to a contender, though. Not even David Kahn could delude himself to such an extent as to call the Wolves a contender. Sigh.

    If we don’t end up with Kyrie Irving in this draft, I will cry. Having a good decision-maker with the ball and a vocal leader at the point would make a huge difference for us. Now that Barnes has pulled out of the draft, Irving is the only guy at the top of the draft who fits in this squad. I’m going to be twitching until the lottery is over.

  2. You agreed that the Wolves were “more talented” this year than last. Yet, you go on to bash Kahn about needing to take responsibility for the players he has contracted. So he’s responsible for improving the roster and talent on this team. Then you say that Rambis may be taking his fall. So Rambis is taking Kahn’s fall for the improved talent on the roster this year? Rambis is taking the fall because it appears as though he did very little over the course of the season to further improve the basketball skills and abilities of these players who were at least somewhat talented.
    Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan and regular reader. You appear to have contradicted yourself a little bit, and I disagree with your last paragraph.

  3. @Ryan : I think the point is that there is more to assembling a good team that just getting the most talent possible.

  4. *than just getting

  5. Ryan, I can see how my point was a little vague. Brian is right; the team is more talented, but much of that talent doesn’t seem to be paired with the kind of focus and awareness that one finds in good NBA players. Clearly, there is more than enough blame to be passed around here. It just seems a bit dishonest and unwise to claim that because the talent level is so much higher, the team’s lack of success must stem from the coach. Of all of the people involved, Rambis (and also maybe Tony Ronzone) strikes me as the one who really knows the game best. The question–one that is far from answered definitively–is whether his style and system are appropriate for a very young team.

  6. Im one of the biggest wolves fans there is and i think kahn has done a great job to stock-pile talent on this team and even taking a chance by signing darko who could have easily led the league in block shots just needs to work on his low post game ball handling who thought he would have been as good as he was this year if darko would have stayed
    we might have won at least 10 more games. But besides that we have a playoff team primed and ready to show the world next year were just in need of a few players such as a pass first shoot last point guard that can score when needed also able to slow the game down and control the ball when we have a lead with great hands as well we could have been close to a playoff team this year if we had someone like that and maybe one more vet on the squad someone to teach our timber puppies not to get down on themselves when they loose a lead keep fighting back keep ur heads up. Now back to the main issue david kahn is not the problem it is Kurt Rambis i understand u wanna win and be a great coach but u cannot teach a baby to run before it learns how to walk case in point u cant teach these youngster how to run the triangle offense with out teaching them ball control offense first cause if u wanna be the Bulls of old and the Lakers u cannot turn the ball over and u need the right guy at point the knows his role is to run this machine but this wolves team is not built for the triangle were r a run and gun team more like the golden state warriors when they had Baron Davis we have an something the just a few teams have and thats youth and speed. So i say trade Flynn to the suns for Nash bring in Rubio to lean the NBA game form and his rolee with this team and what he needs to do to be a great point guard in this league. Nash would be perfect because he can control the ball not turn it over and he is the master of the run and gun offense just throw it up there and we have the youngsters to bring it down.

  7. sorry forgot to spell check but u get what im talking about

  8. To answer this question from your article, “Can any of these currently be called an unambiguous success? (I’m thinking not.) “: Yes!!! We got Beasley for a 2nd round pick!! He scored over 20 ppg in 4 out of 7 months of the season. He is a solid, bordering on very good, young player that needs work on defense and consistent effort.

  9. 20 points per game is pretty dismal if it takes you 19 possessions per game to do it, as it did for Beaz this year. His 51% True Shooting is more than two points under the league average. When a guy that inefficient is using nearly a third of your team’s possessions, you’re going to have some problems. Add his vacant defense to the equation and you’ve got a talented, but not really very good player on your hands. I’m not saying that Beasley, as talented as he is, for a 2nd wasn’t worth the risk–I’m just saying it hasn’t really panned out.

  10. I like @thebouncer’s suggestion – “trade Flynn to the Suns for Nash” – As long as were doing that, let’s trade Darko to the Magic for Dwight Howard too. And let’s see, how about Wes Johnson for Rudy Gay? Might as well. This GM thing is easy.

  11. @Matt – the point i was trying to make is that the triangle will not work here with the players we have on this team why not use our strengths to make us better our youth and speed and add a player can control a speed – open type of offense thats were Nash comes in and if we want the chosen one Rubio to be any part of this team that is what we have to do the Suns will take a younger Flynn for Nash and just having the former 2 – time mvp in the same locker room as these young guys will make this team alot better trust that

  12. Bring Back Kevin Mchale. He is a good coach who believes in keeping things simple

  13. “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.”

    “Brian is right; the team is more talented, but much of that talent doesn’t seem to be paired with the kind of focus and awareness that one finds in good NBA players. Clearly, there is more than enough blame to be passed around here. It just seems a bit dishonest and unwise to claim that because the talent level is so much higher, the team’s lack of success must stem from the coach.”

    If I were to read between the lines of this Wolves mess, looking at all levels of this organization (FO/personnel, coaching, players), the reason Rambis is getting pushed out is because the coaching simply has never been were it’s needed to be. I am making one big assumption about how Glen views Kahn here, and that is as an executive first and foremost, basketball man second.

    If that assumption is true, Ronzone’s role as primary personnel guy seems to match what we’ve all suspected anyways (that is, Ronzone’s actually the primary personnel guy, well, him and Rambis/the HC). Kahn’s resume for understanding the legal nuances and business side of the organization are far, far stronger than his resume for identifying players. When taken in context of McHale, one might argue that Taylor’s selection of Kahn as GM was as much about finding a guy to do exactly what has been done – trim costs while accumulating/poaching as much cheap talent as possible. If we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose cheaply and with interesting potential with our players. In that kind of light I can understand why Glen would ‘side’ with Kahn. Doesn’t make him a great GM, but it arguably does make him the best executive or administrator this team has ever had at the top. Case in point – if Rambis is a bad fit for a young team and Jonny Flynn was a mistake, what is the appropriate action to take? You fire Rambis and hire a better fitting coach, you get rid of Jonny AND hire a personnel guy to make sure you don’t whiff again.

    The players performance, outside of Love, certainly sucked this year. No doubt about it. However, the talent is there. The size, the length, the skills. I’m not arguing that this could have been a playoff bunch, but certainly a pesky 30 win team if properly managed and motivated. That is coaching, in my book. Too often we saw maddening substitutions, maddening offensive ‘sets’, a complete inability to coach defense, and more to the point an utter reluctance on the part of the coaching to deviate from preconceived notions.

    I was going to compare this team and Rambis to Tom Kelly’s Twins the last year Kelly managed them (a young group either there or coming up soon and TK choosing to retire because he and the Twins knew that he was a manager for vets, not kids), but the MN coach that Rambis is probably closest to is Brad Childress. Both come from solid coaching backgrounds, both are smart and detailed in their knowledge of the game, and both are convinced that their offensive systems work extremely well ‘if only the players do it the way they’re supposed to.’ Bud Grant had a saying that coaches don’t win championships, players do. The question is, who’s responsibility is it to put the players in the best position to succeed?

    Rambis, despite the rings, the experience, the overwhelmingly superior basketball qualifications (especially compared to Kahn), is perhaps rightly due to fall on his own sword. At the end of two seasons can we definitively find any evidence that Rambis showed the ability to put his players in a position to win? Or perform better at all – play to their strengths or minimize their weaknesses? Is Jonny Flynn really that terrible of a PG? Ramon Sessions? Love’s game certainly looks like it is what it is no matter who’s coaching. How about Darko, Rambis’ own pet project? Watching the Wolves has been like watching Chilly’s Vikings (especially pre-Favre), where you’re constantly wondering why they’re trying to do something so complicated with players who don’t fit the system when if they simply played to the existing players strengths they’d do much better.

    I like Rambis, and I think he deserves a shot with a veteran team before the book is closed on him. However, for this team, he is not the answer. Kahn may or may not be the answer at GM, but I think (honestly) his track record is stronger than Rambis thus far in terms of what he’s been asked to do.

  14. Another solid piece, thank you Ben. I know it’s tough to keep writing about this team throughout yet another purely crap season, but you guys here are fantastic.

    Someone over at our site (TWolvesBlog.com) responded/elaborated in depth to your piece. It can be found here. Just thought I’d let you know:

    http://twolvesblog.com/201104203247/minnesota-timberwolves/articles/my-response-to-ben-polks-qcharming-ruinsq.html

  15. thebouncer- You are an idiot. What matt was saying is that there is no way a Flynn/Nash trade would ever happen becaus Flynn sucks. Nobody wants him. Now I’m not saying the Nash trade is a bad Idea. It’s a great, great idea. The problem is, we couldn’t trade Flynn for the backup in Cleveland. We would need a better player or a better package.

  16. And get rid of beasley. I just don’t like him.

  17. pagingstanleyroberts April 21, 2011 at 1:53 am

    In the past two years, I’ve thought that it was more important that the team be competitive than it was that they won because wins matter mainly when fighting for the playoffs or actually playing in them, and they weren’t getting there. I generally don’t buy into the idea that losing breeds bad habits; these guys have been playing (and probably winning) for long enough that they’d be able to figure it out better when the time comes. Starting 3-29 a couple of seasons ago didn’t seem to negatively affect Russ Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Also, it seemed like not always playing to player strengths can serve an important function: showing those players that their games aren’t going to be good enough to beat the best on a consistent basis.

    With that said, when a team has a chance to win, they need to go for that win, and it just seemed like that focus wasn’t there. Also, teams need to seize every chance they have at winning, and there were too many winnable games where they came out too flat and were outplayed. The strangest thing about the season is that when the rotations were shortened due to injury, they won almost as many as they did at full strength. That to me indicates that playing 10-11 guys most games is not a good strategy.

    The biggest problem I have with Taylor hiring Kahn is that they never really hired a GM, which is stupid (considering that guys like Stack, Sichting, and Cooper were basically scouts during the last year of their contracts) and cheap (since they never really replaced Hoiberg or brought in someone to handle the talent side/PR side). It’s so clear that this guy was hired on the cheap to slash payroll and has masqueraded as the face of the front office. They need someone with experience to work with Ronzone (who’s probably better off as an high-end assistant/uberscout) and whoever the coach is to set forth a vision.

  18. thebouncer – is that you David Kahn?

  19. Biggity, this is a really thought-provoking comment. This is the first interpretation of the Kahn hire that I’ve read that really makes sense to me. Why would Glen Taylor hire a GM with so little player personnel experience? Because he was hired to trim the fat, get the books in order and be the face of the front office, not for his basketball acumen.

    And I certainly agree with the position that Rambis deserves a large share of the heat for the Wolves’ season. Your criticisms, while probably worded a bit more strongly than I would have done, are all apt: unstable substitution patterns, poor defense, inflexibility. I would add, too, that the discouraged, hapless way they closed the season was among Rambis’ bigger failings.

    But at the same time–and this was the main, though unfortunately buried, point of my post–it became clearer all the time that this roster was seriously flawed. This is not something that Kahn has admitted–and I actually think its unfair to Rambis, and awfully convenient for the team, to locate such a great share of the blame on his shoulders when there was so much wrong at every level.

  20. Im very glad to hear that I am not the only one in Minnesota calling for Kahn’s firing. I really believe (and this could just be because losing and all, I cannot get enough Minnesota Timberwolves) that he is much smarter than everyone gives him credit for and he has a master plan here, something that hes got cooked up in that brain of his and hasnt given away his final moves. He has done a great job getting the talent here, and although hes had a couple of hiccups along the way, I think whatever plan he has is still on track. I may be off in saying this, but I dont think Im the only one who would agree that the T-Wolves are just a few pieces away from being at the very least a decent team. Whether you want to say its a veteran, a PG, a center, whatever those pieces are, I think Kahn is on the hunt for that perfect piece, and I think he knows exactly what he wants that piece to be. Look at what Golden State did with David Lee last summer, thinking he was the last piece to their puzzle, they went out and signed him to a max deal. David Lee is an above average center at best, and I think hes being grossly overpaid by Golden State, especially when they were a 39 win team. There was talk last summer of him coming to Minnesota, and Rudy Gay as well, but I think Kahn is waiting for the one perfect player. I have no idea who that perfect player is, but I would really like to see David Kahn’s master plan have the opportunity to be played out.

  21. well im not david kahn but u cant fire him yet if u remember what he said he has a 3 year plan to turn this team around so after this year if anything doesnt change ill jump on the band wagon with u guy’s and to answer the comment about trading Flynn it wouldnt be Flynn alone it would involve Flynn-Hayward-2nd round pick to Utah for Devon Harris and telfair-tolliver to the Suns for gortat help our low post defense and have an allstar at point

  22. nice lineup Harris – Webster – Beasley – Love – Milicic
    second team Ridnour – Ellington – Johnson – Randolph – Gortat
    and still have Biyombo and Pekovic and the all important question who will be the coach next year if not Rambis
    Rick Adelman now thats what i call a team a playoff contender in my book

  23. Dear @thebouncer:
    If things don’t work out with us and Kahn, please give me a call, b/c you have some great ideas and clearly you have some real in-depth knowledge of the league. Yours Truly, Glen Taylor.

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