Blazers 103, Wolves 95: We need to talk about things
All of the talk and panic about this team last night seemed to be two-fold:
1) The team is 0-2 since Kevin Love surprised us with an early comeback. Is he hurting their chances of winning?
2) Derrick Williams has had two straight DNP-CDs. HIS CAREER IS OVER.
I feel like this is easily explained, or at least it should be pretty easy. In regards to Love, I really think fantasy basketball and basketball video games have skewed how we judge performance on the court. Numbers and stats mean the world and they exist in a vacuum. Kevin Love had 34 and 14 in his first game back. He had 24 and 13 in the loss to the Blazers last night. Those are good stat lines for any player, so he must have had an enormous impact on the game. And if he didn’t, why can’t he make this team much better when he comes back.
In the first game of his return, Love had a huge impact on the Wolves… in the first half. At halftime, he was a +22 for the game and yet the Wolves were up just 14 points after two quarters. 14 points sounds like a lot and it’s certainly a nice lead, but there was a weakness in the bench execution on both ends screaming at us in the face, even when the score looked like the Wolves were in control. Because the bench couldn’t maintain or build on the lead, it allowed Denver to hang around. You can’t let good teams hang around. Hell, you can’t let anybody hang around as the Blazers showed us last night.
Love wasn’t able to capitalize on his hot start in the second half of the Denver game. He still put up numbers, but the sudden implementation of him into the Wolves lineup left a lot of people standing around and a stagnation that couldn’t be solved. In the Blazers game, it felt like a lot of the same things. Thee Wolves found something that worked in the first half. They pounded the ball inside and left Portland looking meager in a “man’s game.” The problem was the Wolves didn’t back up their play on the defensive side of the ball. They allowed the Blazers to hang around by giving up 3-point shots and all sorts of creations by the Portland backcourt.
Does this mean Love can’t positively impact a game even if he’s putting up stats? No, that would be a stupid assessment. Nobody thought that about Love in the first 40 games of last season. He was being touted as a MVP candidate because the upstart Wolves were nipping at the playoff heels in the Western Conference. The reason the Wolves haven’t won since Love returned Wednesday evening is they’ve only played three good quarters of basketball in their last eight. You can’t do that and win in the NBA.
The collective is an issue right now because things are a little awkward. The numbers Love is putting up are fantastic. But they’re just numbers. If the collective doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, it becomes fantasy fodder and talk radio blabber. You can’t just plug someone into a lineup after weeks of injury and have that guy seamlessly take effect. If you’re playing Association Mode in NBA 2K13 and Love is out for two weeks, you can either have the computer adjust your minutes in the rotation or adjust them yourselves. When he’s healthy again, the computer asks if you want to tweak the lineup or have them do it for you.
What they never ask you is if you think the rest of the team will adjust to him right away. Kevin Love’s presence in the offense is a big deal. It changes a lot, especially when the team can’t run their typical system because of injuries. The injury to Love wasn’t what has kept them from being able to run more motion offense than pick-and-roll. It’s been the injuries to Love, Brandon Roy, Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, JJ Barea, and Nikola Pekovic. Adding Love to the lineup gives the Wolves a safety valve. And sometimes when you have a safety valve, you rely on that without finishing your end of the bargain.
I’m not saying this is Love’s teammates’ fault and he’s absolved. I’m saying there is a certain chemistry to be established and it has to happen within the parameters of the team construct. It hasn’t happened yet because that stuff is hard to establish on the fly. It will be difficult when Rubio comes back too. It will probably be easier because the Wolves will have had more time together and Ricky is such an unselfish player and not a focus of the scoring components of this system. But there will still be a level of awkwardness involved.
There is a chemistry rating in video games but it doesn’t truly affect your team if you play the games yourself. You just plug away, run a pick-and-pop, and let pixel Love do his thing. In the NBA, it takes a little more work than that. And it takes time as well.
As for D Dub, Rick Adelman said before the Blazers game that he wanted to find Williams minutes but also noted Dante Cunningham has been better, which he has. Adelman isn’t in the business of worrying about developing players. He was brought in to win games and you typically go with the guys who are playing better to accomplish that. Williams isn’t in the doghouse. If he were, Adelman wouldn’t say he’s trying to get him minutes. There just happens to be only so many minutes available with Pek, Love and Kirilenko all commanding a lot of minutes. With Cunningham playing well, that’s a lot of the backup minutes as well.
There’s a logjam of talent and production inside right now and it might take longer than this road trip for Adelman to see what he has, figure out where to go with it, and then allocate the minutes properly. There will be games when Williams is trusted and there will be games in which he never takes off his warm-up suit. In the short-term, it might mean something but in the long-term, it means next to nothing. I’ve already gone through my spiel about Derrick and I still stand by everything I said then. There isn’t much need to rehash it.
I’m still willing to be patient with Williams and hope by halfway through his third season, he’s a regular contributor to the greater good of this team. Right now, I’m not concerned with Williams and his playing time at all. I’m not concerned with how the Wolves treat the number two pick in the 2011 Draft because those just sound like numbers within a vacuum to me.
What I am concerned with is how this team is shooting the ball. Minnesota went 3-of-16 last night from 3-point range and 28-of-37 from the free throw line. The free throw line performance was just above the league average percentage of 75.3% but they still missed nine free throws in an eight-point loss. On the season, the Wolves are the 25th best or sixth worst free throw shooting team. Spin it however best works for you.
The 3-point shooting performance dropped them to 29.0% on the season — that’s 28th best in the league or third worst. This is the biggest problem I see with the team. Because they can’t run as much of their normal stuff, we’re seeing a lot of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. This is leading to bad-to-mediocre shooters tossing up relatively contested 3-point shots. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.
They’re not making 3s right now and instead of adjusting and pounding the ball inside with one of the best frontcourts in basketball, they’re just settling for shots. Chase Budinger isn’t walking through that door right now and until he is, the Wolves don’t really have a great shooter. People will complain about Luke Ridnour’s play, but considering he’s been the only “healthy” point guard the Wolves have had all season (other than Barea’s first few games), I’m willing to give Luke a pass. He’s playing with a bad back and trudging through it. He’s not missing games because the Wolves can’t afford for him to miss games. And he’s the one guy on the current active roster, outside of Love, who I want taking long-range shots.
Shved can take a few here and there, but I’d rather he’s attacking the paint and making plays inside. The Wolves can’t continue to settle for these shots because they haven’t proven they can make them. Things will eventually round into shape once the roster gets healthier. Remember, this was only the second game back for Love, Pek, and Barea after a long layoff for both. Much like kids at an eighth grade dance, awkwardness is bound to happen while everyone figures out where to put their hands and how to move their feet in rhythm with their partners.
I just don’t feel the need to panic. The Wolves might be bad on this road trip because they won’t have much time or practice to adjust to their “new” pieces. This team hasn’t been healthy since February and early March of this year. I’m just confident that in two months, we’ll be laughing about paranoia and knee-jerk reactions of the early part of this season. And in four months, we’ll be backtracking and saying we never truly thought certain players didn’t belong in the rotation.