I’ll admit, I went into Media Day completely green this year. Mostly I observed, trying to catch the tenor of the team overall, and it probably comes as no surprise that right now, the Timberwolves sound pretty upbeat. That’s not unusual for any team coming into the season. After all, it’s a brand new day, right? Even dealing with a significant injury to one of their most important players, there’s a feeling that things are going to make a little more sense this season than last, and there are really two big things that kept coming up as to why.
It seemed like we were constantly being reminded how little time the team had to put in Adelman’s system last year. As a new coach of a young team who had to deal with the way the lockout prevented the team from practicing before the season, then prevented all but the most basic practices during the season, Adelman didn’t get to put much of his imprimatur on the playbook.
“We went to so much pick and roll because that was the only way that we were going to win,” he said. “We learned really quick why the year before they were 30th in the league in turnovers.” The pick and roll is one of the absolute foundations of the game, and when you’ve got Rubio running it, why not go to it a lot? With Love picking and popping and Pek picking and rolling, there was little profit in trying to fancy things up. Plus, since they ended up running a lot with two point guards, Adelman said, “We kind of developed a system where we could run a pick and roll here, we don’t have something there, you kick and you run another one.”
But this season, there’s not only more time to implement more play variations, there’s personnel better suited to running the kinds of plays Adelman likes. As Kirilenko pointed out, “”Adelman’s system is very good for me.” Adelman maintains that although it was a blessing to have passing big men like Webber and Divac in Sacramento (“Everybody talks about my system. My system was Vlade Divac and Chis Webber,” he said), he noted, “If you really make hard cuts, it’s just like getting an open shot for somebody. Watching Andrei in the Olympics, he’s always cutting, and he knows when to cut.”
Time and again he mentioned ball handling problems last year, bringing back memories of Wes Johnson’s feeble attempts at dribbling. But now he has players like Roy and Shved who can definitely handle the ball as guards/wings, plus bigger players like Budinger and Kirilenko who can handle the ball as wings/forwards.
Partly due to the condensed season and partly due to personnel, the Wolves last year were essentially a one move team when it came to the half-court: pick and roll all day. But any basketball coach or trainer will tell you you need more than one go-to move; you need moves and then counters to go to when the first option gets taken away. With new players and added prep time this year, it seems reasonable to expect the Wolves’ uneven offensive execution to improve.
Not that Adelman isn’t concerned about defense. Although the frontcourt is a bit thin and they perhaps lack a definitive lockdown defender, Adelman maintained they could become good defenders as a team. It’s not like they were even horrible on D prior to Rubio’s injury. As Love pointed out, “We were one of the best fourth quarter defensive teams at the start of last season. We just need to buy in.” Consistency is the watchword, it would appear, and in some ways, Rubio’s absence at the start of the season might help that development. Without him to push the offense or bail out the defense, the team will have to work together if they want to succeed.
NEW FACES, NEW CULTURE
The other overarching theme that kept coming up, sometimes more bluntly than others, was how much the Wolves sought to change the culture of the locker room with their roster moves this offseason. Kahn played it off, as he is wont to do, saying, “I don’t think that was a motivating factor at all, the so-called chemistry. I think that as much as it’s easy to say, people forget that until Ricky went down we were having a decent little season.”
Nonetheless, success can paper over a lot of problems, and it’s possible that the breakdown the team suffered after Rubio’s injury revealed some things that needed fixing. As Love pointed out about last year’s team, “Some guys they had a date circled on their calendar. It wasn’t the one that said this is going to be our first day of the playoffs—it was this is the day I get to go home.”
Adelman touched on it as well, saying “Too many times last year, when we lost a game, it didn’t hurt enough.” Of course, it can be hard to judge exactly how resilient players are going to be before they get into the thick of the season, but there’s an unmistakable sense of well-placed confidence among the players. It reminds me a little of the episode of Band of Brothers called “Replacements” where new troops are brought in to fill in for casualties in Easy Company, but in reverse. In the episode, the veterans are suspicious of the raw recruits straight out of training until they prove themselves, at which point they’re afforded a measure of respect. With the Wolves, though, some of the more raw or inefficient players have moved on and been replaced by more experienced and confident veterans.
The players were, understandably, loathe to throw anyone under the bus, but anyone who watched last season can well remember the body language of players like Johnson, Beasley, Randolph and, especially, Darko Milicic—a player whose name seemed to hang on the lips of every player asked a question about chemistry last year. Watching Pekovic attempt to navigate his feelings about Darko’s departure was about as touching as watching a 6’11”, 290 lb man speak can be.
“I mean, he’s a good friend and for sure I will miss him,” he said. “I visit him all the time when I’m home. It was tough, you know. There were some tough moments, you know, with him. And I just try to be a good teammate, you know, but it’s tough when you’ve got all these … things. I mean … it’s just … I don’t want to say … it’s tough.”
This was another thing I learned at Media Day: watching for those human moments. Pekovic struggled with the language, yes, but he was also struggling to not throw a good friend under the bus. And who among us has not worked with someone you like, who you get along with, with whom you share interests or an upbringing, but whom you know just isn’t very good at their job? I gained a little respect for Pekovic right there, actually, recognizing how hard it can be to try and say the right things for the team, for himself, and for his friend all at the same time.
The season stretches out before us and, as there almost always is, there’s a restrained air of optimism around the Timberwolves. A million things could go wrong, sure. But couldn’t they always? I’m just looking forward now to this team taking the floor and for us all to get to see how they work together. They’ve built the Hot Wheels set and now the little car awaits, carefully placed in the garage that’s going to blast it down the track.