The numbers here tell a story that’s all too familiar: The Wolves shot 21% from three while the Wizards more than doubled that, shooting 47% from the arc and 58% overall. The Wolves put in a strong effort on the offensive boards, putting up 25 second chance points to the Wizards’ 11, but their defense was lackluster, their free throw shooting a woeful 61%. That really stings when they got to the line 33 times to Washington’s 17.
That lumpiness to the stats (great offensive rebounding coupled with subpar defense, getting to the line a lot while not making your free throws) would be easy to chalk up to injury, and it would be easy because it’s right. And this where we have to talk about the difference between “reasons” and “excuses.” This is something that’s come up time and again in talking about the Wolves and it’s not something that’s going to stop coming up. The players and coaches can say whatever they want about having to play for each other and play hard and finish games and not use injuries as an excuse. That’s because they’re in a position to directly affect the outcome of the game. When fans or the media talk about the injuries and their effect on the team, they’re talking about reasons, not excuses, because they cannot affect the outcome of the game. The law of gravity is not an excuse for not being able to fly, it’s the reason. And you or I can’t any more do anything about the law of gravity than we can about the Timberwolves’ injuries.
Furthermore, the players and the rest of the team say all that stuff about being aggressive and continuing to work for a whole host of reasons other than basketball reason, as David Stern might say. When Rubio says (as he did after their loss to the Nets), “We just have to want to win. Sometimes it seems like we don’t want to win,” we need to keep in mind that this is a 22 year old who’s been steeped in the culture of sports dealing with a plethora of issues and concerns. It’s easy to hear that and think it’s simply a matter of every guy down the roster wanting it 15% more and then everything will be all right. But Greg Stiemsma wanting to hit a 20-foot jumper isn’t going to make it happen. Rubio wanting his legs to be stronger isn’t going to make it happen. It’s not just some romantic failure of heart. Whether the team wants to acknowledge it or not, this team, with the players they’ve got available right now under Terry Porter until Adelman comes back, have problems that are more arithmetic that arrhythmical.
Looking at this game against the Wizards specifically, the Timberwolves are simply unable to disrupt another team’s defense. It’s common to hear the reverse of this—about how a team’s defense disrupts another team’s offense—but it’s just as important for a team’s offense to dent and misshape the other team’s defense, and not just on a possession by possession basis, but in a way that builds and builds in a chain reaction.
In a TrueHoop TV interview, David Thorpe related a story about Hubie Brown from when he was a coach. At a practice, he asked his players what the purpose of setting a screen was, and they gave all kinds of answers before Brown said simply, “To make the defense think.” When you’ve got different kinds of offensive threats, you’re making the defense choose every time you run plays. And every time you get them wrongfooted, you can take advantage—and not just on that play, but on the next play and the next.
Consider an optimal kind of Wolves lineup that would involve Rubio, Alexey Shved, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. For the purposes of this example, they are all healthy (I know: hard to imagine). If Pekovic sets a screen for Rubio at the top of the key, they’re instantly forcing the defense to decide how to react. If Pekovic gets a step as he rolls, the defenders have to make a decision about helping off of Love, who can hit the three, or Kirilenko, who’s always a threat to sneak in along the baseline. In this scenario, Shved is also waiting on the perimeter to either shoot the three or even set up a secondary pick-and-pop with Love. As these options play out, the defense has to keep making decisions, and every time they make a decision, they could be wrong.
This kind of thing just isn’t happening for the Wolves right now on offense. Their opponents’ defenders simply have to play reasonable man defense. They don’t have to close out hard on the perimeter because the Wolves are shooting abysmally, nor do they have to collapse the paint because there’s no one to make them pay down low. You can see this in a couple early possessions from the game last night. Here’s the Wolves’ first offensive possession:
It begins semi-interestingly with the two guards (Rubio and Ridnour) heading into the post while Williams and Stiemsma set up on the wings and Kirilenko controls the ball up top. This is a basic floppy set with the wrinkle that Kirilenko is playing the role of the point guard.
Ridnour runs along the baseline past a weak screen by Rubio and then curls out behind a Stiemsma screen. Rubio releases and runs out past Williams, where Kirilenko gets him the ball.
But of course the problem is that Bradley Beal (who’s switched onto Rubio) is more than happy to go under the screen because Rubio’s not a threat to even look at that midrange shot. Once Beal meets him on the other side, Rubio gives it up to Derrick Williams and this turns into a Williams iso on the wing, which doesn’t really scare anyone.
Rubio is the nearest pass to Williams and he’s not a long-range threat. When Williams actually breaks Nene down with the dribble, Beal is free to come help because of this. He’s more than welcome to leave all this space between him and Rubio.
Williams bobbles the ball and the result of the play is a Williams stepback three with every Wizard defender in good position against his man. But the crazy thing is that Stiemsma actually manages to get a hand on the rebound and tip it to Ridnour. Stiemsma immediately calls for the ball but doesn’t get it.
You think if that were Pek on John Wall he’d get the ball? Probably. Instead, Ridnour heads into the paint, which is clogged up with more Wizards than a Harry Potter convention, and gives it up to Williams, who also heads for the paint, which is still clogged. He drops it to Stiemsma in the corner. You think if that were Love he’d take that shot over Beal? Probably. Instead, he swings it to Kirilenko, who takes a long two, the least effective shot in the game. To Kirilenko’s credit, it’s an open shot and he makes it.
But what has that whole possession done to establish the offense for the Wolves? Williams took a bad stepback three that the Wizards will always live with, Washington’s attempt to start a fast break led to Stiemsma barely tipping the ball to Ridnour, and a jumbled possession led to a long, open two by Kirilenko that the Wizards would still live with.
Let’s look at another early offensive Wolves possession:
Once Rubio gets the ball on the wing, Stiemsma moves across the key to set a screen, which Rubio moves away from, whereupon he gets doubled by Okafor and Wall. This sets up Nene to have to defend the paint from two guys, Stiemsma and Williams.
Fortunately, for Nene, that’s not so tough. Stiemsma gets the ball at the elbow and is open. This is a shot he’s been taking, but it’s not a very good one. So Williams cuts across the paint, catches the pass from Stiemsma, and has his shot troubled by Nene, who has at least three inches on him. Sadly, Kirilenko is making a nice baseline cut while this is happening:
It’s easy enough to judge decision-making well after the fact, but it seems like if Williams had backed off instead of cutting into the paint this could have been a wide-open lay-in for Kirilenko. But that also misses a deeper point: it’s not that the Wolves couldn’t make better decisions on any given offensive possession. The first play above shows that they often can. But they could make every correct decision and it still wouldn’t be forcing the defense to adapt to their game. They just don’t have the personnel for it.
Stiemsma is not a threat to post-up as Pekovic would be, nor a threat to make a wide-open jumper, like Love would be. And even in the case of a guy like Cunningham who has been making wide-open jumpers, I think if you’re the opposing team, you’re fine with that. With no threat in the paint and no perimeter threat, what the Wolves kept getting were long twos from Ridnour and Cunningham. Their best offensive weapon right now, J.J. Barea, can get his own shot and even make the right pass when he sees it, but likewise, his approach to the game doesn’t open up the offense for other players. He plays that role of spark off the bench so well, but with the rest of the team so thin offensively, that spark rarely builds into a sustainable fire.
This inability to make the Wizards react to their offense in turn affects the Wolves on defense. Certainly, the overall effort on the defensive end seemed to be lacking, but the fact that the Wizards defense could more or less maintain their shape during Wolves’ possessions meant that it wasn’t hard for them to get back and set up their own offense.
It’s generally agreed that a strong defensive effort can form the foundation for a good offensive effort, but it can go the other way as well. The key is that these different elements need to feed into each other, need to develop, to move, to build in a series of reactions. That’s just not happening for the Wolves right now. They seem mired and static, unable to get going in any direction at all.
Wait, didn’t I write about this weeks ago when I talked about the horse latitudes? I guess that’s the thing about them: we’re still there. Let’s just cut to Seinfeld.