After Wednesday night’s 117-110 loss to the Denver Nuggets at home, Corey Brewer said, “We’ve got to get some kind of swag, or energy. I was in Denver last year, and we thought we were the greatest team ever, even when we weren’t. We need to get an identity. We don’t have an identity yet.”
An identity can be hard to come by for any individual, much less an individual player defined largely by the thirty or so minutes he spends playing a game a couple nights a week. Multiply this by the nine or ten guys that get regular minutes on an NBA roster and the struggle for an identity becomes exponentially tougher. It took the Heat — a nearly overwhelming collection of talent — a season and a half to figure out how to define themselves on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
For the Wolves, the greatest impediment to self-definition might be how long they’ve been working towards that identity.
For the last two seasons, their failures have not been systemic, but rather happenstance. In 2011-12, it was the lockout and then Ricky Rubio’s torn ACL that robbed them of the playoff berth they were on pace for. Last year it was Kevin Love’s injury, mostly, but then also their weirdly awful 3-point shooting, which didn’t seem attributable strictly to things like not getting open looks or a lack of shooters. The result is a team beset by problems they couldn’t directly address, and so they instead focused on problems they couldn’t be sure were exactly problems.
Consider: Had Love not gone down last season, had the team been more or less healthy and had they still not made the playoffs, they would have had a clearer sense of where to go — stouter defenders, better slashers, better pedigreed shooters. But instead they were left to address poor shooting that might not have needed to be overhauled. They were, after all, missing two of their best 3-point options in Love and Chase Budinger for most of the season.
So when Brewer says they need an identity, he doesn’t mean they need to conceive of who they could be and change who they are to fit that. At least, I don’t think that’s what he means. What the team needs to do is understand what they have and forge an identity out of that. And last night’s win over the Mavericks gave a glimpse into what that might be, a team built on what I’m going to call flash-and-grind.
You’ve heard of grit-and-grind? It’s the principle the Memphis Grizzlies are built on and it’s fairly straightforward: everything is tough. You make the game as tough as possible on the other team with relentless, soul-sucking defense and then accept that you’re going to have to make your own points in the same tedious, clunky way.
Flash-and-grind means getting everything on offense to work as easily and seamlessly as possible and then accepting that it means spending a lot of time doing every small thing right on defense because athleticism is not going to save you. The Wolves are not athletic on either offense or defense. Corey Brewer has a bottomless reserve of energy, but he’s hardly what you would call physically imposing. And while Nikola Pekovic is physically imposing, he can barely get off the ground. Love, Rubio and Kevin Martin are more finesse players, with games predicated on timing, vision and positioning. On offense what this means is beating the other team with ball movement and in transition; the outlet pass is the most obvious emblem of this approach. This is the part that should come naturally to this Wolves team.
The hurdle seems to be that the same approach on defense means making the other team use as much of the shot clock as possible before forcing a bad shot. From time to time, a player like Rubio or Brewer is going to be able to force a quick turnover, but the overall defense has to frustrate, not demoralize, the opponent. This is the grind part.
The good news is that players like Love and Pek are already doing some of this work. Neither is a stopper on defense, nor will provide rim protection, but their rotations are solid and getting better, it seems. The addition of Mbah a Moute shores up this approach on the bench, where it’s already exemplified by Dante Cunningham.
Against the Mavericks, you could see it in the lineup of J.J. Barea, Brewer, Mbah a Moute, Cunningham and Love, which played the second-most minutes (which means six — we are, after all, talking about one game) behind the starters, who played 20. That lineup had a defensive rating (or points allowed per 100 possessions) of 57.6 while putting up an offensive rating of 152.6. That’s a net rating of 95, and that’s pretty good. In such a small sample, though, concrete examples might fare better than numbers. A pair of plays from Mbah a Moute should suffice:
In the first, you can see Mbah a Moute (#12, in case you didn’t) make a cut to the basket after Love vacates the paint to set a pick for Barea. That’s not only a good cut in and of itself, but it also pulls the defender off Brewer in his favorite spot for 3-pointers, the left corner. Barea doesn’t make the layup, but the foundation of smart off-the-ball movement is there.
On the flipside, watch Mbah a Moute play defense on Vince Carter. He fights over Blair’s screen and stays on his hip into the paint and Carter eventually takes a well-contested midrange jumper over two defenders since Brewer has let Jae Crowder go — wisely — in order to trouble Carter.
Neither of those plays were things that Derrick Williams could be relied on to do, and that kind of activity means that Mbah a Moute will likely do more to solidify the Wolves identity as a team than Williams ever could. That’s not a knock on Williams, who looked great in his debut for the Kings, but more a thing that points to how a successful team isn’t only everyone realizing their full potential, but everyone’s full potential fitting together into something cohesive.
The Wolves still have a good ways to go when it comes to maintaining this flash-and-grind identity night in and night out. These things don’t happen overnight. But when the foundation looks solid, as it did last night in Dallas, the margins on the game get softer, more flexible. Near the start of the fourth, Cunningham made two shot-clock beating shots on back-to-back offensive possessions. The first came out of a broken post play for Pek followed by a broken pick-and-roll by Barea and Cunningham. The second came out of near turnover on a dribble handoff and a messy drive-and-kick. Neither should have worked, nor should have a couple of last-second Kevin Martin shots. But last night they did. Any team needs a couple breaks to go there way, and no amount of planning can force those things to go your way. But a solid sense of who they are will give this Wolves team fatter margins for error and suddenly the lucky breaks look like talent and the bad ones won’t hurt as much.