Fiestas and fiascos: a year in Timberwolves

Benjamin Polk —  May 3, 2012 — 2 Comments

Minnesota sports fandom entails a kind of perpetual anxiety. We worry that the rest of the country will see us as quaint or provincial, not to be taken seriously. We lost the Lakers and the Stars to more temperate climes. Our football and baseball teams, both collegiate and professional, toiled away for decades in a concrete, plastic and teflon model home, a cut-rate interpretation of some Carter-era child’s sci-fi fantasies. Gopher football has been an en-domed joke, prey to decades of charlatans, incompetents and opportunists. The Twins are called the Twins. None of this helps.

The Wolves have been the worst, though, wandering through most of their existence in a state of dorky, benighted ineptitude. Consider: their expansionary brothers, the Orlando Magic, made their first Finals before the Wolves could boast of even one All-Star; the Wolves forfeited years of draft picks in a harebrained scheme to sign Joe Smith; in order to salvage a draft pick they lost in their undying quest for Marko Jaric, they tanked a game in the most horrifically obvious way possible; you don’t really need me to go on do you?

But in the years since the Kevin Garnett trade (oh sorry, there’s another one), this anxiety congealed into something more existentially dreadful.  These Wolves’ rosters were so haphazard, their coaching so misguided, their play so callow and inelegant and futile–they were, in short, so embarrassingly bad–that we wondered whether what we were watching was actual NBA basketball at all. The anger that we have all often expressed at Kevin McHale, David Kahn, Glen Taylor and Kurt Rambis is, if you ask me, actually an expression of a deep fear, the fear that we might have invested ourselves in a doomed enterprise.

Rick Adelman and Ricky Rubio’s greatest gift to their fans may have been simply restoring a sense of competitiveness and seriousness, of basic competence, to the proceedings; the fans responded to these gifts with fairly undiluted euphoria.  All of which made the team’s catastrophic unraveling at season’s end even more disheartening.

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The beginning of the season found Adelman reckoning with the lockout’s realities. He was attempting to acquaint a himself and his system to a still-inexperienced team. He was attempting to introduce a young,  but preternaturally gifted, point guard to the NBA game. He was attempting to ferment a culture of defense in one of the league’s worst defensive teams. And he was forced to do these things without much training camp or in-season practice time to speak of.

And so Adelman kept things simple during the season’s first weeks. He gave his point guards the ball, ordered a hearty helping of pick-and-rolls and looked on as Rubio reminded us all of the myriad sublime things that can flow from game’s most basic play. Ironically, these early games revivified the Wolves offense and instilled principles of ball-movement and offensive flow in ways that the complex Triangle–which claims those things as its guiding principles–never managed to do.

As the year progressed, Adelman slowly began to integrate elements of the high-post motion offense that helped make his Sacramento and Houston teams such joys to watch. Simultaneously, fostered both by their own growth and the new culture blossoming around them, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic began, in their own unique ways, to develop into genuinely dangerous NBA scorers. Things were just in their nascent stages but we could see something on the horizon: an offense predicated both on creative perimeter play and fluid off-the-ball movement, on improvisation and choreography; an offense equally capable of pounding the ball and raining threes. In terms of raw offensive efficiency, this year’s Wolves never surpassed their Rambis-era performance–there were too many possessions wasted by turnovers and too many wide-open jumpers bricked–but something special was happening.

But as we all know, it didn’t last. After Ricky Rubio was punched in the nuts by Kobe Bryant tore his ACL on the most unfortunate double-team of the year, everything changed. When it came to shepherding the offense, Luke Ridnour was a capable, if less transcendent, Rubio stand-in, but the focus of Adelman’s offense shifted away from the perimeter and toward creating touches for Kevin Love. Especially as Pekovic nursed his bad ankle, giving Love opportunities to score became the object of the Wolves’ offensive schemes.

And then, of course, it got worse. Ridnour sprained his ankle. Love took a JaVale McGee elbow to the temple. One again, the Wolves ran their offense through an energetic young point guard. Once again, Adelman pared the offense to its barest bones: pic-and-roll and very little else.  But this was borne of a different kind of necessity than Adelman’s early-season strategy. Pekovic and J.J. Barea were almost literally the team’s only consistent playmakers left standing; it made a kind of grim sense that they should see the ball on nearly every possession.

History had repeated itself, this time as farce. Once opponents figured out how to reign in Barea, the Wolves essentially collapsed. Whereas Rubio’s emergence had made us all aware of the multitude of possibilities within the game, the late Wolves were remarkable for their profound lack of options. Where, early in the season the team had demonstrated a newfound seriousness and sense of purpose, they were now once again beholden to the almost capricious inconsistency of players like Anthony Randolph, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson.

Defensively, the Wolves’ season traced an even more defined trajectory. Rubio’s  length, his instinct and his hunger had revived the Wolves’ defensive culture. He created turnovers; he bought time for help and rotations; he contested shots. His example spurred the Wolves to a newfound commitment and tenacity. In his absence, no one was capable of contributing in the same way. The Wolves simply could not defend the ball. Opposing guards penetrated the paint with impunity or found themselves with open jumper after open jumper. Help defense arrived a step late. And worse: the Wolves stopped trusting one another; their effort flagged. Speaking of farce. The team’s late-season defensive efforts–sluggish, inconsistent, laughably unintuitive–was like a parody of their former selves.

Thankfully, there were even greater fiascoes on display in this weird season: the Warriors tanked egregiously; the Bobcats made their case for worst-team-ever status; the Kings were their kingly selves. The Wolves’ precipitous fall from contender to embarrassment slipped by mostly under the league’s radar. Nevertheless, for a (hopefully brief) moment, the Wolves became the disaster we always feared they could be.

Now, the silver lining. People like J.J. Barea and Rick Adelman? They’re not used to this. The more I think about Barea’s post-game harangue  and Adelman’s only slightly less sharply pointed laments over his team’s effort, the more refreshing it seems. In Adelman’s words and actions–his unwillingness to play Darko despite the team’s many injuries, his insistence on having a voice in personnel decisions–in Barea’s calling his teammates to account, and in Rubio’s remarkable dedication and radiant positivity we have evidence that the Wolves’ cultural tide may be turning. That’s our best hope yet for emerging from this awful recurring dream.

Benjamin Polk

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2 responses to Fiestas and fiascos: a year in Timberwolves

  1. Great synopsis and I agree wholeheartedly about the culture changing. Hopefully the experiments that failed will be replaced with at least competent pieces that carry that winning culture. We have someone special in K Love and Rubio has a year’s worth of experience (1/2 year at least) to find out what the NBA is about and how to prepare for seasons going forward.

  2. Great synopsis, Ben. I found it interesting that you did not mention Derrick Williams — the #2 draft pick — in your season summary. Probably appropriate given the for the most part lackluster season he had, but it also signals the relative disappointment he has been. Let’s hope that a full offseason of training will allow him to live up to his potential (and that that potential is as a small forward).

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