The regular season is just a tick over halfway done. Almost miraculously, your Timberwolves have won as many times in 33 games as they did all of last year. They have players that do incredible things, players that people enjoy watching. It seems possible that they may actually be competing for a playoff spot as the season winds down. The days of dreary, callow basketball, of loss after disheartening loss, seem to be over.
But the riddle is far from solved. The Wolves remain incomplete, full of gaps and shortcomings. And they face a punishing schedule, sure to deplete whatever reserves of energy they may have stowed away during their long weekend. So Zach, Myles and I will here attempt to tackle some of the big questions facing the Wolves as the season’s second half gets underway.
1) Over the past few seasons, the Wolves have been so bad that talking about their “style of play” was almost absurd. Have the Wolves developed a style this season? If so, what is it?
Ben: Right now, there is an unresolved tension at the heart of the Wolves’ style. They are developing a compelling formula: a blend of Ricky Rubio’s pick-and-roll and open-floor improvisations with Rick Adelman’s meticulously structured motion offense. This has been no less true defensively where, at times, we’ve seen a combination of freestyling disruption and attention to detail unheard of since the KG era. There have been moments this season–parts of the most recent Houston game, or in their home win against the Spurs–where the Wolves have competently executed Adelman’s choreography while also playing with a high level of individual expression. This could get really good.
But there are a series of counter-forces tempering all of this good news. First, of course, are those existing within Rubio himself. We know that the passing is pure magic. But we’ve also seen the tentative, wrong-footed jumpers, the forced entry passes, the awkward, fading stabs at the rim. But these shortcomings are subsumed into an anti-stylistics of exhaustion performed by the entire team. Kevin Love, their best player is leading the league in minutes and has admitted to being utterly worn out. (If you don’t believe this matters, look at what he did in the few games after his two-game suspension, and then in his last three). You can see the fatigue in their grey faces and wobbly legs and in their stretches of leaden execution. They miss wide-open jumpers; they are careless and soft with the ball; they get beaten down the floor in transition and lose races to loose balls. This ragged, heavy-legged quality is as definitive of the Wolves’ style this season as are their stretches of brilliance; after all, although they are 16th in the league in offensive efficiency, they actually lag a point per 100 possessions behind where they were last season. Every team is coping with the relentless schedule; few teams both rely so heavily on the extreme energy of their best players and give those players such heavy minutes.
Zach: Is it possible for a style of play to be just gutting out victories almost haphazardly? Because this team is wonderfully and effectively chaotic. The team seems to be headed toward a pick-and-roll heavy existence that is fueled by the genius of Ricky Rubio’s vision/patience and the improved effectiveness and growth of Kevin Love’s offensive prowess. At the moment, they seem to be settling on this without the necessary shooting or perimeter attack this style would want. Guys are taking shots and just not making them. The Wolves make up for this with Pek and Love grinding out free throw trips in the post. Defensively, they’re more or less just mucking stuff up and getting in the way, more than they’re stifling opposing teams with an intricate system of rotations. And really, that’s a good thing for them to learn as they move toward being a defensive-elite team.
The framework for getting this team to the next tier of the NBA is definitely in place. Assuming Pek can keep up even 75% of his current production, they have two imposing and physical presences inside. They have the ignition with Rubio to start this engine up each time down the floor. And then they have a lot of question marks on the roster that may or may not fit within in the future construct of this team. The good thing is it is up to these questions to figure out their own answers. The system is capable of allowing them to adapt if they want to. It isn’t exclusive to just a certain type of player. Those incapable of fitting the system will weed themselves out, and should give those in charge a clear answer of who belongs and who doesn’t.
Myles: It’s as hard to say our pups have developed a ‘style’ as it is to claim men with Gucci blazers and overalls have ‘style’. This is a top heavy and incomplete roster making due with what they’ve got. Our best player, an All Star, still carries a reputation of being unable to consistently create his own shot; the rest of the team struggles at times to score in the ‘ol proverbial empty gym. The Wolves once stellar three point reputation is now in the basement and without a genuine swingman to keep opposing defenses honest, they can’t afford much more than the threadbare assortment of pick n’ rolls we’ve witnessed. Granted, thanks to Rubio and Love, they’ve been working and much to our delight. But it’d be hasty to think they’ve carved out much of an identity.
JJ Barea is still finding his footing, wandering somewhere between what’s needed and what he’s actually capable of. Derrick Williams has yet to finish the training manual for his new job, comfortable with little more than flashing the lane and pull up jumpers. Michael Beasley’s dwindling minutes are seemingly to meditate on his lapses in effort and judgement, but they could just as well be an indication that his days are numbered. Honestly, all we really know is that this team likes to run and until the roster is settled it’s unclear how effectively they’ll do that. Will they ever regain their shooting touch? Can Beas find a balance? Will Pek’s dominance continue? Let’s just take it a game at a time.
2) What should the Wolves do at the trade deadline? What can they realistically accomplish?
Ben: The Wolves’ needs remain the same. Despite Big Pek’s incredibly endearing explosion, the Wolves could still use another big man to steal some minutes from him and Love, preferably one who is a) a solid, aware rim protector and b) not burdened with crippling insecurity. Adelman has become so disenchanted with Darko and Anthony Randolph (as have many coaches before him) that he would rather allow Love to wrestle with the opponent’s backup center for ten minute a game than give either of them any burn.
And even if they can’t land a bona fide wing-scorer (which they need very much to do), they certainly need to upgrade their outside shooting. The Wolves have reportedly been looking to move Michael Beasley to the Lakers but its hard to know what Laker, outside of Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum (who, obviously, aren’t getting traded for Michael Beasley), would genuinely improve the team. My guess is that we’re not going to see any significant roster improvements this year.
Zach: Call me overly patient, but I really don’t think anything is necessary at this time. I know we potentially don’t have a draft pick this year and therefore playoffs should be the absolute bottom hope for this team. Acquiring a wing scorer would potentially get this team to that bottom and provide even more hope for the future. But there is nothing about this team that isn’t malleable moving forward, even if the Wolves stand pat. Michael Beasley has done a nice job adjusting to the Sixth Man role bestowed upon him by Adelman, but if the Wolves could get a future first round pick for him now, I’d definitely want that deal done. There may be a team willing to take Anthony Randolph and Wes Johnson on the hopes of turning them around. Maybe we can turn Derrick Williams into a significant piece, but I feel like I discussed my feelings on this here.
But is Kevin Martin really the piece that puts this team over the top? Am I the only one that is consistently underwhelmed by OJ Mayo in his various roles with Memphis? Is there an actual wing player that is available who would quench our thirst for perimeter scoring, not just this year but for years to come at a realistic price tag? I’m just not so sure that rushing to a solution now is… well… the best solution. I’d like to know who is running this organization starting this offseason. If it’s David Kahn, I’m curious how he turns “assets” into something tangible. If it’s someone new, I’d like to see how he fits his philosophy with where Rick Adelman is taking this team. I’m just not concerned with being knee-jerk with my reaction here, but I also don’t know if that’s the best way to shape this roster moving forward. That was a long-winded way of saying, “I’m not sure.”
Myles: You’d think that in this shortened season, there’d be plenty of teams looking to capitalize on their best shot at a championship. That phones would be ringing off the hook and players would be shipped off before their bosses even hung up. Or that Dwight Howard’s impending free agency would set off a chain reaction that might even affect our neck of the woods. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see the trade deadline come and go without any changes around here.
Management passed on a shot at J.R. Smith, and with good reason. However he was clearly the best available wing on the market. Shiny a trinket as Pau Gasol still might be, let’s not think we’re doing anything other than window shopping there, either. A few of us may even want to solicit some offers for Derrick Williams, but what kind of return could we expect for a struggling rookie from teams in the midst of a playoff push? Better yet, what do teams out of contention have to offer? Let’s not discard Beasley’s expiring deal so hastily either. We found him in the bargain bin in the first place. Lest we forget, the clock is ticking for significant improvement and the last thing needed is another ‘project’ or crippling contract on the books. There’s likely nothing available now that won’t be this summer.
3) Can the Wolves actually contend for a playoff spot?
Ben: Considering that the current owner of the 8th spot sits only one game over .500, the answer is “yes, totally, but…” Here’s the but: the Wolves have expended enormous amounts of energy scrapping to their 17-17 record. Considering the shortness of their bench and the toll taken on their top players–plus the fact that 19 of their final 32 games are on the road–I have my doubts as to whether they can duplicate that in the season’s second half.
And while the very idea that they could actually be competing for the playoffs as the season winds down is pretty astounding and while the experience of that competition would surely be invaluable, part of me quietly wishes that they not quite make it this year. For us, right now, the Wolves are a precious, fragile thing. We’re thrilled by the newness and astonishment of actual basketball being played at the Target Center but we’re also well aware of the team’s many, many shortcomings. I don’t relish the idea of those shortcomings being ruthlessly exposed on national TV by the Thunder or whoever ends up at the top of the West this year.
Zach: Absolutely. I’m not sold on some of the current contenders for the playoffs, whether it’s due to injuries, overall talent or the injuries to the overall talent. The Wolves have showed they are capable of playing with anybody on any night in any arena. However, the upcoming month of March seems like a brutal stretch that will tell us everything we need to know about this team within the context of this season. Yes, the Wolves are 7-7 on the road this year, which is equal to their home winning percentage of 10-10. But that doesn’t mean they are just going to be awesome on the road. They have three games in three days on the road to start this week. They have seven straight on the road that will keep them away from home for two straight weeks. They have 13 of the next 18 on the road. In case, you haven’t done the math yet, there are a lot of games away from the Target Center.
For such a young team, this makes them prove themselves right away. If they win half or the majority of these upcoming games, they’re ready for the big time of challenging for a playoff spot. If they don’t find a way to remain to be successful, they just aren’t quite ready, which is fine considering they’ve had hardly any real time during this season to learn how to play with each other in practice. If I had to guess right now, I’d wager that the Wolves will miss the 8th seed by a few games. Then again, I didn’t think they’d be .500 at this point in the season either…
Myles: I’m not as concerned with the long trips away from Target Center as I am with the destinations. The Wolves are visiting teams jockeying for prime playoff positions and while this gruesome schedule could wear their opponents thin too, it’s doubtful our guys split those road games as they have so far this season. This only puts more pressure on them in winnable games, a few of which will also presumably slip through their grasp. Seeing as rest isn’t an option, this is going to take a lot of focused play and even more luck. It can be done, however we should wait until April before taking these talks too seriously.
Honestly though, it is exciting to even broach the subject. Think about the last four years of Wolves basketball; Wittman, Rambis, McHale, McCants, Marko, Flynn, Darko….Oh. Whoops. But doesn’t it feel like we’ve already won?