Timberwolves 81, Bulls 92: the centre cannot hold
I’ve made the case before that Derrick Williams’ development–either in becoming a consistent three or being traded for one–is essential to the Wolves’ coherence. With a consistent, dynamic wing scorer, the Wolves’ newly acquired white boy stew actually makes sense; without it, the team still feels to me haphazard and misshapen, an oblong collection of Stiemsmas and Shveds and Budingers and Kirilenkos.
I still hold to that notion, but if you want a genuine picture of incoherence, you should try that same collection of players without Kevin Love at its center. Because the Wolves’ lineup that showed up in Chicago on Friday night was about as wayward and rudderless as a team could be. Of course, in terms of sheer gloomy apathy this crew doesn’t hold a candle to last season’s daydreamy Wes Johnson/bored Anthony Randolph nadir. But when it comes to not-an-actual-NBA-team lineup collage, its pretty hard to beat the Wolves’ Barea/Roy/Kirilenko/Cunningham/Stiemsma starting five. Or how about this one: Conroy/Shved/Budinger/Williams/Amundson? I don’t even know what those words mean but those dudes did actually share the floor during Friday night’s third quarter. Anyway.
Let’s Talk Offense
Aka: way number 1 that Love’s absence kills the Wolves. I realize that both Luke Ridnour and Nikola Pekovic were held out of the lineup on Friday and that lack of continuity surely hurt the team. But JJ Barea, who ostensibly knows something about Rick Adelman’s offense, was running the show for much of the night and the Wolves’ offensive execution and intuition were still every bit as awful as you might expect from a group that has barely played together.
They struggled just to initiate their sets; they struggled to move the ball; even that vaunted Barea-Cunningham pick-and-roll failed to generate scoring chances. Most Wolves’ possessions resolved into late-clock one-on-one battles and even when the Wolves did manage to penetrate the paint, Chicago’s aggressive help and rotation, coupled with the Wolves’ very tentative off-the-ball movement, prevented them from establishing any continuity. Countless possessions ended the way possessions tend to end when playing a very good defensive team: a long, tentative, somewhat open jumper by a big man with the shot clock running down.
JJ Barea was doing that thing where he practices his crossover dribble for the possession’s first 20 seconds. Greg Stiemsma was looking puzzled about where to stand. Andrei Kirilenko was handling the ball very much; Andrei Kirilenko was shooting threes. The Wolves looked just exactly like what they were: a team suddenly lacking the player through whom their entire offense runs.
Let’s Talk Boards
Don’t let the final box score fool you: the Wolves got hammered on the glass. After three quarters, they were being out-rebounded 36-27 and 11-4 on the offensive glass. (The final quarter was every bit the sloppy, pre-season miasma that you might expect, and the Wolves managed to scrape together some garbage timey boards. Now, I’ve got love for garbage time, even in the preseason, but I’m not crazy about its predictive power.) You might remark here that lacking Pekovic distorts the data, but I’d remind you that Big Pek, bless his heart, is actually a pretty below-average defensive rebounder for his position.
In other words, while its probably no surprise that a frontcourt of Dante Cunnigham, AK and Lou Amundson might not rebound the ball so well, I’m afraid we can expect that trend to continue even with the big man back in the lineup.
Wolves’ (terrible) color commentator Stacey King kept reminding us that, lacking knee cartilage as he does, Brandon Roy had “lost that first step” that once made him so fearsome a penetrator. But I actually felt that Roy’s first step was the least of his worries. In fact, with his still-elite footwork and ballhandling, he was the only Wolf who was consistently able to create space for himself off the dribble. What’s more, he showed a nice ability to rise up for his smooth midrange jumper.
The problems came when he actually got to the basket. Now, the Bulls are known as a team that collapses in the paint with a vengeance, but Roy was distinctly unable to attack the rim with any force. The second problem area was, no surprise, defense. Roy was defending out-of-position, against the longer Luol Deng, but was still unable to keep the ball in front of him or to keep up with Deng off the ball. My guess is that this will be a matchup headache for the Wolves all season.
The Golden Child
Finally, back to Derrick Williams. Here are some highlights from DW’s game on Friday: an alarmingly long and wide airballed three on his first shot of the game; another hard-to-watch three, this one embedded in the backboard about two feet wide of the hoop; a travel; a charge; a crushing rejection at the hands of Taj Gibson. Like I said, it sure would be great if Williams could become a consistent scorer but this is exactly the kind of game–tentative, riddled with awkward ball-handling and ill-selected shots–we saw far too much of last season.