Wolves/Bucks redux: on backcourts
On Friday night, I made passing reference both to the Wolves’ anemic third quarter and to J.J. Barea’s tendency toward overdribbling and playing too fast. Barea tends to play a more even-keeled game when the offense is functioning well, as it was in the first half on Friday; he played within the context of the offense, scored 11 points on seven shots and dropped five dimes. But when the Wolves bog down offensively, Barea tends toward those bad habits. A perfect case in point is that third quarter, in which the Wolves scored 11 points on 19% shooting, committed five turnovers and had four of their shots blocked. It was pretty ugly and Barea was at the center of the ugliness. Two plays illustrate my point.
The first came at the 2:32 mark of that rotten quarter. Barea, as he does, was probing the perimeter, using multiple screens and eating shot clock in an attempt to find a driving lane. Finally, a little out of control and seemingly without a plan, he drove into the teeth of the Bucks’ defense. Seeing his path cut off in the paint, he jumped to shoot, changed his mind and shoveled the ball to Dante Cunningham at the elbow.
Barea’s wanderings had created poor spacing and pulled the offense out of its rhythm. Because of that spacing and because J.J.’s hurried pass had caught Cunningham wrong-footed and a bit closer to the hoop than he is comfortable, Cunningham’s defender was able to close the gap and force him to put the ball on the floor. This, needless to say, is not Dante’s game; he drove directly into the Ekpe Udoh/Larry Sanders buzzsaw and had his shot blocked. (Sanders’ 10 block performance is unquestionably amazing, but it was aided by the Wolves’ decision to continue taking the ball directly at him.) The Bucks were off and running in the other direction. So, Barea’s hurried pace and unpredictability put his teammate in an uncomfortable spot, out of the flow of the offense, forced to make a play he is not accustomed to making. This scene was replayed–with Love and Pekovic and Cunningham–throughout the quarter and is a hallmark of Barea at his worst.
Now, contrast this play to one that occurred with 5:30 left in the fourth. This time, Shved was running the show. Shved dribbled right, using a high Pekovic screen. Shved turned the corner decisively and threw a perfect skip pass to Cunningham, whose man had left him to help on the rolling Pekovic. Cunningham was perfectly balanced, wide open and at his favorite spot on the floor: at the elbow, 17 feet from the hoop. If you’ve watched the Wolves much this year you’ll know that this is DC’s shot. He nailed a smooth, perfectly in-rhythm jumper.
Now, Shved and Barea are both inveterate gunners and players who like to probe the outer reaches of what is possible. But, in the second half on Friday at least, Shved was the player who seemed poised and comfortable within the offense, who played deliberately and put his teammates in positions to succeed.
* * *
Finally, in response to our ongoing comments section conversation (which I love–keep ’em coming), a note on Luke Ridnour. Before I go on I should say that I have a lot of admiration for Ridnour as a player. He began last season playing out of position, competing relentlessly on defense despite facing some truly unfair mismatches. Later, he ran the show with a game professionalism even as the team crumbled around him. And he did it all despite playing through injuries and an awful family crisis. If you ask me, it was a pretty courageous showing.
That said, I think we’re due for a clear-eyed appraisal of what he’s done this season. It is true that Ridnour does certain things that no other Wolves’ player can do consistently, that is, hit midrange jumpers, both spotting up and off the dribble. Despite his midrange proficiency, his overall shooting efficiency has been just average–.531 true shooting percentage, 31.8% from three, which is not very good. Still, on a team that has struggled so mightily to hit shots, I think that we can say that average outside shooting is more than welcome.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that our eyes have told us, and the stats seem to back it up, that of the Wolves’ three backcourt regulars–Shved, Barea and Ridnour–Ridnour has been the least capable of offensive creativity. His assist ratio is lower than both Barea’s and Shved’s; according to 82games.com, the Wolves perform six points per 100 possessions worse offensively with him on the floor than with Barea and about one point per 100 worse than with Shved.
Here’s some worse news. Ridnour is visibly less dynamic offensively than his backcourt mates, but the real issue is defense. Ridnour has never been a great defender, but things have taken a real turn for the worse this year. As I mentioned on Friday, its been rumored that his back has been bothering him; watching how he labors to move laterally, how he struggles to contest shots and fight around screens, we can only conclude that the rumors are true. 82games estimates that Ridnour’s opponent has compiled a PER of 26.0 this year, a number roughly equivalent to Chris Paul’s (and nearly twice Ridnour’s PER of 13.4). Now, estimates like that are far from an exact science, but in this case it bears out the observation that Ridnour has been getting shredded by opposing guards this year. And at no point (except perhaps in his matchup with the actual Chris Paul) was that shredding worse than in the first half against Milwaukee.