2012-13 Season

Timberwolves 107, Clippers 109: 99 Problems, Of Which The Bench Is One (And Probably The Biggest)

Over the years, most Timberwolves fans have had their share of moral victories, and most have likely grown sick of them. If you’ve been a fan for more than this season, you know what I’m talking about: although the team loses, they keep it close, or maybe at least show some teeth somewhere in there. But any long-suffering fan is ready for moral victories to be replaced by actual ones, and now that the team is actually winning games they’re supposed to win and looking pretty damn strong — both on offense, where they’re second in pace, and defense, with the league’s sixth best defensive rating at 98.1 — maybe we can begin to accept that there are ways to be successful without necessarily winning, and not feel like we’re just trying to talk ourselves into it.

Last night’s close loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, which came down to three opportunities to score on the final possession and a Kevin Love tip-in that came up just short, showed us a lot. On a basic level, it reinforced something we already know: the Timberwolves bench is in trouble. But even this is interesting because the bench seems to be poorly understood by a lot of people. Almost by definition, your bench is going to be flawed in some ways — if the players there were closer to flawless, they’d likely be starting.

But take Dante Cunningham: last season, he provided great energy off the bench, did sterling work on the glass, and could hit that elbow jumper at a pretty decent clip (he shot 47%, to be precise). This season, he’s only shooting 38%, and that’s enough to turn him from bench gold into bench garbage in the eyes of some. Likewise, J.J. Barea has drawn a lot of fire for looking overmatched and frenetic in that second unit, but the way he’s struggling is intimately connected to Alexey Shved’s complete lack of anything resembling reasonable basketball ability right now. Without another creator/facilitator on the floor, teams are free to focus most of their energy on shutting down a guy who’s already at a distinct physical disadvantage. Derrick Williams is the other lost cause out there, and not because he’s an awful basketball player, but just because he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do most of the time. He’s still showing that hesitancy when he catches and too rarely makes the hard cuts that Adelman demands of players in his offense.

One of the beauties of a well-balanced starting unit is how they can pick up each other’s slack. Nikola Pekovic is beginning to show flashes of the form that got him a big contract in the offseason, but while he’s been struggling, Love has looked like a world destroyer. In spite of his triple double against the Lakers, Ricky Rubio has looked off a lot so far this season, not only with his shooting, but with passes that have been just off enough to become turnovers. But Kevin Martin has made the offense look easy (he’s shooting a frankly obscene 58% from 3-point range). In essence, a good unit like the one the Wolves are starting gives you a margin, a little buffer to allow for out-of-control Corey Brewer lay-in attempts and Pekovic missing dinkers around the hoop.

The bench has no such margin right now and it showed last night. Individual game plus/minus is a notoriously touchy stat, but when all your starters are positive and all your bench players are negative, that’s a problem. Against the Lakers the night before, Adelman never ran out his entire second unit, instead opting to put Barea out there with Cunningham and three of the starters for 14 minutes while the starters played 24 minutes together. Adelman had been trying this out for a couple of games, but against the Clippers he went with the entire bench unit and the results were disastrous. The Barea / Shved / Williams / Cunningham / Gorgui Dieng unit was -64.5 in net rating during their four minutes on the floor, and although that’s only four minutes, you could see it when they came on.

Cunningham came in for Love at the 4:22 mark of the first when the score was 22-17 in favor of the Wolves. As the bench rotated in, the tide turned. When Love came back in for Dieng at the 8:26 mark of the second quarter — the first starter to return — the score was 34-32 in favor of the Clippers. By the time Rubio came back in for Barea, completing the return of the starting lineup with 5:41 left in the half, the score was 42-37 Clippers. By halftime, the Wolves starters had battled back to 59-58.

The bench acquitted themselves better in the third and start of the fourth, but when the starters came back with 7:02 left in the fourth, the story shifted again. It was clear by this point that the cost of not putting the Lakers away early the night before was going to be a supremely tired starting unit as the lead swelled from 6 to 11 over the next few minutes. This, however, was where it actually got kind of encouraging.

Over the next couple of minutes, Martin’s 3-point shooting and some hard work by Rubio on the defensive end and Love on the offensive end brought them to within 4 and kept them there through to the very end, when Love couldn’t quite tip in a last second shot to send it to overtime. And that’s when something striking occurred: Love smiled.


Now, you could cry about how superstars lead their teams and he needs to take this seriously and whatever other tired tropes of sports and heroism and masculinity you want to trot out. But dammit, people: this is a GAME. To be that close in a game on the second night of a back-to-back against a stronger opponent after getting off the shnide with the Lakers, to miss a chance at free basketball by just not tipping that ball up a LITTLE harder, that’s exactly the part where you say, “My bad” and smile. Yes, it was cute when Rubio told Shved to change his face and smile. But it’s actually important. If anything, this team has been overly serious, has taken things way too hard because of being snakebitten by injuries last season. It was a terrific game of basketball and I think the Wolves knew that, and that’s good.

A couple sidenotes on the game:

  • A lot of people are likely to talk about how the end of the third quarter and Jamal Crawford’s ludicrous ¾ court bank shot was a huge swing in the game, but I don’t buy it. It’s true: what could have been an 82-82 game if Cunningham had put back a missed Martin 3-pointer turned into an 85-80 game because of that heave, but if that’s what you’re going to pin winning on, you may as well start divining the future with bird entrails.

  • Another play people are going to point to as a turning point is Chris Paul’s steal on Corey Brewer driving to the hoop late in the fourth. I saw a lot of Minnesota fans cry foul on Twitter over that one, but I will say I don’t think it’s cut and dried. To my mind, in that moment it’s a 50/50 call and that’s a good time to decide on a jump ball, but hey, that’s just me.

  • The above dovetails into the entire issue of officiating, which is something you’re not supposed to blame a game on. And I fundamentally agree with that. The officiating is part of the environment of the game, just like fatigue or untied shoes or people with giant pictures of cat heads in the stands. It’s going to change and for fans, it’s usually going to feel inadequate if it feels any way at all. You won’t often catch casual fans applauding the officiating. For the players, they just have to put their heads down and keep playing, hard as that may be. Kevin Love is never going to stop squawking about calls, but so far this season I think he’s been comparatively restrained, which is a good thing.

  • Doc Rivers walking onto the court at the end of the fourth to call a timeout should have been a technical foul, though. No question.

  • Last note on the bench: It’s so Minnesota to be extra-concerned about the Wolves bench now that the starters are so good. You didn’t hear a lot about the bench last year because most of them were starters at one point or another. You know why the Lakers’ bench has looked so good? At least partly because their starters are atrocious. The Wolves’ starters have played the most minutes together of any lineup in the NBA right now (191 in eight games). You know who played the most minutes together last season? The Thunder’s starters. Second most? The Pacers’ starters. Those are two teams that made the conference semifinals and the conference finals, respectively. I believe the Timberwolves coaches need to be concerned about the bench production, and need to be assessing how best to get Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf back into the lineup and effective once they’re ready, but fans being overly concerned about it right now is just sowing worry and reaping nothing.

Statistical support by NBA.com.

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0 thoughts on “Timberwolves 107, Clippers 109: 99 Problems, Of Which The Bench Is One (And Probably The Biggest)

  1. I can agree that we should enjoy the awesome starting 5 and worry less about the bench, but the Barea stuff is not new. He has been a devisive character since he joined the team. I can remember a few articles last year from this site defending Barea, and it always turned into an argument in the comments.

    I personally find his game to be offensive, but I don’t care for Nick Young or Marshon Brooks either. I am all for a high volume shooter being the 6th man, I just would rather it be almost anybody else.

  2. Curious of what you though of Ricky’s foul on Chris Paul. I think it was in the fourth, it was the one that sent Paul to the floor. In my mind it was a Flop, and it seemed quite obvious. I am hoping for Paul to at least get a warning…but maybe thats just so I feel better.

  3. Barea could be better, no doubt, but what the hell is going on with Shved? He’s a complete liability on both ends of the floor right now, and looks like he’s taken a huge step backwards this year. And that’s in addition to looking like he’s going to burst into tears at any moment while he’s on the floor–seriously, I’ve never seen someone look more unhappy to be playing in the NBA.
    And hell yes that should have been a technical on Doc.

  4. I have to disagree with you on a few things.

    1. That crawford 3/4th bank three vs put back 5 point swing was huge. The toughest opponent in basketball is momentum and the clippers had a bunch of it in the 4th due to that 3 rather than the wolves perhaps taking the lead and keeping the Staples Center on edge.

    2. The CP3 steal was a foul. I agree that it was a 50/50 call for the ref. But on replay he fouled him three times. At least call it what it is; a foul. It was a superstar no-call. If Darren Collison is the one making the steal, that whistle would have blown.

    3. Officiating was bad. Not that the wolves lost cause of it but it sucks having to deal with crawfords horrible calls.

    4. Derrick Williams does not suck. He has been a contributor for this team this season so far. He didn’t play much this weekend due to some type of injury but I like the contributions he’s been making so far.

    5. Bench:…..

  5. Travis: Having watched it a couple times, I think Rubio puts himself into a position to get called for it by being overeager on defense and with his positioning. He’s done the same thing to other players (as has Barea, obviously). Basically, Paul was selling it (unless he did get tagged in the face, which is hard to see on the replay), but the ref is only buying because of a.) Rubio falling for it and b.) Paul’s superstar status.

    Erik: The biggest impediment to the Wolves moving those guys is that someone has to want them, and both Shved and Williams would have to be sold very low. Trades have to — in some sense — work for both sides and there aren’t a lot of suitors out there given that any of those pieces would be available in January or February. And FWIW, I still think Barea can be an effective player. It’s just that he’s having a bad spell and is surrounded by other guys having bad spells. He could break out of it at any time.

    Hakim: Here’s the problem I have with that argument about momentum: The first Clippers possession of the fourth ended with Barnes making 1-of-2 at the line, but after that, the next several possessions led to an 87-86 Wolves lead and a timeout. After the TO? Lead slipped and Clippers pushed it back to double digits. Crawford’s made shot contributed to the point total, but it seems to me like the Wolves scored fine in the immediate aftermath of the 3rd.

    On the CP3 play, it’s fine if you feel like it’s a foul. I think an argument can be made that it wasn’t. That’s why I ultimately feel like the smart thing to do is jump it up.

    On Derrick Williams, I never said he sucked. But per 36, his scoring and rebounding are both down from last year and he’s only made 1 of the 10 3-pointers he’s taken. I’m not prepared to write him off as a player, but I just can’t see him ever growing into a better player on this team with Kevin Love starting and Cunningham being that prototypical PF off the bench.

  6. Is there any news at all on Budinger’s progress? I know the team has hesitated to announce any timetable, but the general expectation was that his injury would put him out for 6-8 weeks. I think today is actually week six since his surgery took place?

  7. Snyder (Mark?): Last I heard from Adelman he hadn’t spoken to him and wasn’t sure of when he was coming back. Not that I believe any of that, because I think Adelman just knows better than to even hint at anything before he’s more than absolutely sure what’s going on. I haven’t seen Chase around, though, so my guess is he’s still rehabbing. Perhaps we see him at the Target Center in the next couple weeks? That’s my guess.

  8. Momentum: I understand your point. The wolves definitely fought that early 4th quarter momentum and had a 1 point lead for a minute or so. My view is that perhaps Wolves have the momentum at 82 up or even at 80-82 instead of the Clippers ( because only one team can have momentum right?) and that 1 point lead is perhaps 5 or 6 and thus really putting the staples center on edge. But I see what your saying in that its not like the Clippers went into the fourth and pushed the lead into double digits after that shot.

    Derrick Williams: I didn’t mean to quote you about him sucking. Just thought that you were a bit hard on him in the article. U did hit it on the head in your comment that he has a ceiling on this team being a reserve. This team is looking to Win this year and he needs to be that guy off the bench so he’s already at a disadvantage in terms of output.
    I just remember the Cleveland game where he brought a lot of defensive intensity and athleticism to help bring the Wolves back into that game. Adelman ended up riding him the whole 4th I believe. So that’s a sign of trust and improvement. We can concede that the Wolves aren’t very athletic with their starting 5. That’s a gap he can fill. In terms of his numbers, we shouldn’t expect consistent numbers but consistent contribution of some sort to win, since that’s the goal this season.

    Off the record, I think Adelman is kinda hating on him. I believe the kid can play.

    This is a great blog btw. Appreciate your posts on here and replies. And I always welcome basketball discussion.

  9. Thanks, Steve, for pointing out the problems with the bench, which have been evident from game 1. And to think we could have had Michael Carter Williams coming off the bench. True, he wouldn’t be putting up the kind of numbers he is now, but at the very least he’d be an improved version of Shved. I think Flip over-thought the draft after Kentavious Caldwell Pope went to Detroit. Sure we had Ridnour, but everyone knew he was going to be traded. So, we needed another guard, especially a combo guard. I guess the thinking was that Shved would improve, but no drafting MCW (or keeping Burke or drafting McCollum) in retrospect was clearly a mistake, especially since Muhammad seems so lost out there in the few minutes he has played.

  10. I don’t think it’s even close to clear that not drafting Burke/McCollum is clearly a mistake. Neither of them has played a minute of ball this year. I really think you have to take a look at a draft a couple years down the road to make that type of analysis. For example we can look at Derrick Williams at this stage and accurately say he’s not good enough to justify the number 2 pick overall or he was a bad draft choice for our particular team. But saying Shabazz/Dieng is a mistake this early is foolish.

    If you were the GM you would’ve traded Pek in his first year and argued that he wasn’t worth a first round pick. Now he has a multi-year deal and is an above average center. Patience is required with rookies.

  11. Budinger is going to make a big difference when he comes back. Shevd will stay on the bench and no longer play at that point. I like Budinger, Williams, Barea, and Cunningham and one starter. I think that they will end up with a 9 man rotation.

  12. Long time reader, first time poster.

    I agree that wen Bud comes back that should basically make our bench good enough for a deep playoff run (on paper at least). Nixing our worst bench player, Schved (wow, did the kid get dumped or what?) and adding a starting Bud into the mix is a huge upgrade. Then your first three reserves can be Brewer, DWill and Barea. I look for those three to get solid quality minutes down the stretch.

    My buddy was royally pissed when Love smiled after missing that tip in, but I understood. That was a sign of a good player on a good team who knew he made a mistake, but that it wasn’t going to kill the season. If he’d gotten pissed and cursed himself out, then I’d be worried. The great ones can put it all out there and when they fall short find a way to put it behind them quickly. How many buzzer shots did MJ miss? Dozens?

  13. It is definitely clear that Dieng, Muhammed, Hummel and Price are not ready to play significant NBA minutes now, but I’m not ready to say with absolute certainty that they’ll never get there. I don’t think think the Wolves botched their draft this year given what was available to them especially since they didn’t know Chase would go down again and that JJ, Rubio, and Shved would all have rough patches at the exact same time. But I think Flip did misfire on Shabazz. At 14 he was a low-risk/high-reward for a guy who was touted as surefire top 5 pick since he’s been 16 (or 17 I guess now), but if Adelman finds it hard to throw DWill out there who is more athletically talented, harder working, and has a better attitude, you just knew that Shabazz would have turn a 180 to find time with Adelman.

    Last comment, does anyone else think that Shved’s decline may have something to do with being separated from his Russian compatriot? He always seemed to play the best when he was with AK last season. I also think both Barea and Shved are naturally more effective as a dribble-dominant PGs and Adelman’s system really de-emphasizes those skills.

  14. Dribble-dominant Shved? I don’t know about that–I thought his strength was supposed to be his shooting, but he just looks scared when he has the ball in his hands now and wants to dump it off as soon as possible.
    My biggest concern with the wolves right now is they have no one who consistently penetrates the lane and finishes, which given that their shooting has been great so far, hasn’t been a huge weakness so far, but will get worse as the season goes on. If Barea gets in the lane, it a circus shot and hope for a foul every time. If it’s Rubio, he never heads to the rim, goes baseline and tries to force a pass into Pek’s groin. Dwill usually settles for a jump shot, and we know how that usually ends.
    Granted, they’re putting a ton of points up, so this isn’t a crisis, but KMart’s not going to shoot 3’s at 60% all year, and the team is not getting to the foul line nearly as much as the other teams they’ll face in the playoffs will.
    They should package Dwill/Shved, and anyone else and try to pickup Luol Deng ASAP.

  15. Bench has been atrocious so far. I have never had confidence in Barrea. He’s like a pinball. Never knowing if he’ll score or simply go down the drain.
    Adelman has seemed to have it in for Williams since he got here. From what I have seen, Williams has a very difficult time getting into the game flow off the bench. I have seen way too much good play when he’s had sufficient time to let him go. Not sure if it’s really an option to make him a starter, but afraid another team will and he’ll start lighting it up.

  16. Matt J: I don’t think you move Brewer to the bench when Bud is healthy. Bench needs Budingers shooting, and the Love to Brewer outlet is to good to breakup.

  17. I don’t think there’s any question about our questionable bench play. Schved certainly looks like a home-sick kid, and I do feel for him being halfway around the world and AK-47 signs with Brooklyn. He was pretty lucky to have his first NBA season with Kirilenko, but now he must find as way for himself in the NBA. He was torching everyone in the Olympics, but he has since lost that mojo. I hope he can find his stroke again, because honestly, I think he has just as much ability as K-Mart, but his confidence has dropped significantly. Martin will knock down open looks, and I believe that if J.J. Barea knew how to pass the ball better, then Schved might be knocking down 3’s at much higher clip as well.

  18. Enough with the terribly misinformed and wrongheaded idea that Adelman has any animosity toward Derrick Williams. He’s had chance after chance to prove himself when Love was out, even starting over Cunningham though Cunningham is more consistently productive. His game has room for growth, and I think his slow start doesn’t indicate much about how he’ll play this season, but Rick Adelman has shown for decades that he’ll play young players if they’re a net plus for the team. When I watch the games, it’s not a mystery why he doesn’t play much: he doesn’t anticipate things quickly on either end, he’s an inconsistent shooter whose indecisiveness slows down an offense that wants to play fast, he’s not a good offensive rebounder and a mediocre defensive rebounder, he doesn’t create better looks for his teammates, and for an athletic guy, he doesn’t use that athleticism to create problems for his opponent. That last one is probably most crucial; young players can be undisciplined and underdeveloped if their athleticism causes problems for the opponent. Unless he has Rubio to spoonfeed him alleyoops, Williams doesn’t do that.

    As for Shved, the problems are simple: he hasn’t figured out how to be effective if he doesn’t have the ball for most of the shot clock, and he hasn’t been able to overcome physical defense. When he was paired with Ridnour and a bunch of guys who could play off of him, that was okay.

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