Head coach Rick Adelman was more than a little disappointed with his team’s showing in a 104-97 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Saturday. It hardly seemed to matter that it was the preseason. “We just didn’t come with it,” he said. “I don’t understand. It’s like I told them afterwards: we played two home games here and we’re just going through the motions. We’re not the San Antonio Spurs, we’re not Miami. We act like we have plenty of time.”
Consistency might have been the watchword for the Wolves through training camp and these first four games of preseason, but urgency can’t come too far behind. Whatever the reason — maybe an unusual exhibition season schedule that had them playing four games in six nights, including a back-to-back, and then nothing for nearly a week before three away games had something to do with it — the team, especially the starters, have looked like they’re still waiting for someone else to arrive on the court.
Adelman pointed to stats in his postgame conference: over the last two games, the team was nearly even in assist to turnover ratio (31/32). That they had beaten the Bucks on Thursday hardly seemed to matter. The wins and the losses really don’t matter as much in the preseason as every other tangible or intangible thing that happens on the court and Adelman doesn’t like how his team has responded to adversity so far.
“They had the day off yesterday,” he said in response to a question about the flatness of the team’s play. “What’s the reason? You think you’re that good?”
And this is maybe the weird thing about this team right now. They’ve been a team in the process of becoming for almost two years now, and longer than that if you consider the idea of Ricky Rubio hovering above the Wolves while they awaited his arrival. It’s possible the team’s slackness in the preseason is a blip, a thing that evaporates once the games start in earnest. After all, it’s preferable for problems like this to rear up when the games don’t matter.
But if it’s not a blip, it’s possible it’s because anticipation has overwhelmed execution. Consider the way we often defer the rewards of a relationship because things get in the way. If you’ve ever had the experience of starting to date someone and then having life events crop up a month or two into the relationship, this is what I’m talking about. You want to see where things are going, and you think they’re going in a good direction. But then things get in the way: a work-related trip calls you away for a week, one of you gets sick for a while, a death in the family, etc. The whole time, you keep thinking about this relationship and how good it’s going to be when you can devote time to each other.
And when you get that time, that’s when the weird thing happens. Your sense of what the relationship was going to be actually gets in the way of what the relationship is. Maybe you move past it, maybe you don’t. But there’s often that odd time where you’re just not on the same page and waiting for the relationship you’ve each been thinking about to arrive.
I’m not saying this is what’s happening to the Wolves; I’m just saying that’s a little what it feels like watching the starters out on the court. It’s like the idea of what Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic together on the court would mean is getting in the way of them being on the court. I don’t think it’s that they don’t know each other or how to play with each other. It’s almost the opposite: they’ve planned for and projected what it would be like for so long that they’re not actually reaching out and grabbing it.
Whatever the reason behind the Wolves’ sluggish start, a lot of questions at the post-game press conference focused on what they were going to do about it. Adelman’s response was blunt in its acknowledgement of the limits of his own influence.
“They’ve got to figure out what they want to do as a team,” he said. “I’m sorry: you can’t get them by just talking to them. You can show them stuff. You can use every tool you want, whether it’s a Knute Rockne talk or whether it’s stats or whether it’s film or drills. Whatever it is, they’re all tools. Unless they react in the right way and understand that they’ve got a lot of work to do, it’s not going to hit home. What kind of year do you want? What kind of season do you want? It’s really up to us to make what we want.”
Yes, Adelman hit on all the things like intensity and consistency and concentration, but I found the way he talked about things like film and drills and stats as tools to be illuminating. I teach first-year composition, and one of the things I come back to all the time is that things like outlines and theses and even correct use of MLA style are just tools. You can have an essay that follows every rule, that has a sound and clear thesis, that is highly structured and it can still suck.
We, as followers of a sport, spend a lot of time looking at what happened and thinking about what’s going to happen. Stuff like film and stats are great for us, but it’s not at all clear to me that they’re inherently great for the players who have to go out and play the games. I’m not convinced that absolute lucidity is what’s best for them in terms of how they play. It’s at the root of our guffaws and chortles when some player says he’s a top five point guard (fine: it was Mario Chalmers) or when another player says he’s the best power forward (which Love has said) or as good as another player who’s clearly better than him, at least as far as we can see (Monta Ellis and Dwyane Wade, here). I’m not sure a realistic sense of one’s abilities and deficiencies is an unalloyed good for a player.
A lot of writers and plenty of fans believe in efficiency, and so we want players to do everything efficiently. But who ever said life was efficient? Another writer once told me that you have to be kind of stupid to write fiction, and he didn’t mean you were stupid for doing it. He meant that a significant part of writing fiction is banging your head against something until you break through it. If you can think your way around it, there’s no story.
I think that’s a little part of what Adelman was getting at. All these tools — from the motivational to the analytical — can help, at least theoretically. But if you’re not willing to bang your head against something for a little while, it’s never going to seep into your bones.
So maybe the Wolves need fewer tools, more time and a little less sense of what their team is supposed to be. Maybe then they can figure out what they actually are and what kind of season they want.