Coaching is a dark art. I’ve long been wary of judging coaches based on what we can see of their job: how they are on the bench, how they use their timeouts, what plays they call out of timeouts and in late-game situations, who they play when. There’s just so much of the job that we have no access to, and even the stuff we can see is difficult to parse in the same manner as the advanced analytics we’ve come to expect for players. There are no on/off numbers for coaches. A head coach creates an entire environment for a team and everything that occurs for a team occurs within that environment. A head coach is the old fish swimming by asking, “How’s the water?” and we’re all the fish asking, “What’s water?”
With that said, I’ve begun to doubt Rick Adelman.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean I think he’s a bad coach. His record is, in fact, unimpeachable as one of only eight coaches in NBA history to reach 1000 wins. The corner offense he pioneered in Portland and just about perfected in Sacramento with Vlade Divac and Chris Webber has been imitated and tweaked throughout the NBA. When he was hired by David Kahn in 2011 it was a smart move — possibly the best of Kahn’s bespeckled career as Timberwolves GM. At the time, the Wolves were looking for someone to put together the IKEA furniture they’d been buying and storing in the extra bedroom for the last several years: a Løve, a Därko, a Rubïo, a Pëķōvîč. And when they’ve looked good, the team he’s produced — both through on-court work and through working with the front office to acquire pieces like Kevin Martin — has been successful in looking like a professional basketball team with playoff aspirations.
The problem has been when they haven’t looked good, as they didn’t in Los Angeles on Friday night. I should also say here that no one game should stand as an indictment of a coach; if any individual player’s performance is dictated by hundreds of variables, only some of which are under his control, a coach must somehow find a way to put all those players affected by all those variables into the right combinations on the night of a game.
But consider: Struggling defensively against a team with no true point guard and no true center, Adelman played down to the Lakers by running out Luc Mbah a Moute and Dante Cunningham off the bench and leaving Gorgui Dieng — the one rim protector the Wolves have — on the bench for all but eleven seconds of the game. While Corey Brewer dribbled haphazardly around the floor, Adelman left Robbie Hummel on the pine entirely. Hummel is a player who can make spot up shots and Adelman has frequently sung his praises before as a guy who just knows how to play basketball. So how come Alexey Shved (who’s looked better recently, but still not a go-to guy by any stretch) ate up 15 minutes against the Lakers while going 1-7?
Then there’s J.J. Barea, who has embodied the Wolves’ feast or famine fortunes when it comes to his performance. To his credit, he’s in three of the top four 3-man lineups for the Wolves in terms of net rating (that is, the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions). But he’s also in three of the four worst 3-man lineups by that same metric. Against the Lakers, Barea went 3-9 with 4 turnovers and ended up at -15 in the plus/minus column.
What all this is a small indicator of is the fact that Adelman is by nature a conservative coach during games. He wants to leave guys out there to figure it out and is loathe to go to younger or unproven guys when things aren’t working. He talks often of taking what the defense gives you, and that’s how he runs the game: he’s rarely going to make lineup decisions that force the other team to adapt to what the Wolves are doing, preferring instead to react to what the other team does. Thus, if a team goes small, so will he, often putting out Rubio, Barea and Shved or Martin together. Those lineups have often looked very good in those limited minutes, but Adelman seems to be reluctant to be proactive in getting those kind of lineups out there.
Or consider when Martin was ill and Adelman started Brewer at shooting guard and Robbie Hummel at small forward. Granted, it was against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but that 124-95 win was one of the Wolves’ most convincing of the season. We’ve seen the folly of Mike Woodson doggedly trying to stick to a traditional big lineup with the Knicks in the face of everything indicating that his two point-guard lineups have been more effective. And while Adelman has never been that dogmatic about his approach, his reticence with regard to forcing a matchup problem rather than responding to one has on occasion hurt the team.
None of this should be taken as me calling for Adelman’s head. But it does make me consider the ways in which Adelman might not be the ideal coach for this Wolves team at this moment, which makes me wonder what the plan is for the time when Adelman inevitably leaves the Wolves. He’s 67 years old and although we haven’t heard much about his wife’s health this season, it’s reasonable to take that into account when considering how much longer he wants to do this.
I also think it would be crazy to think that his age doesn’t at least in part play into that conservatism. He might have been brimming with revolutionary basketball ideas when he started in Portland, but he now has a sense of the way the game should be played, and he’s not about to change that. It’s borderline hilarious to me that much of the time, we look at the way a 22-year-old like Derrick Williams approaches the game and decide he can never change while looking at a 60+-year-old coach and expect them to upend their value system and the way they understand the game. Think of your parents or your grandparents if they are or have been in that age range and ask yourself how likely they are to change.
Sometimes, it just seems like Adelman is at the end of his rope when the team can’t seem to pull it together. “There’s only so much talking we can do,” he said after their loss to Denver at the end of November. “They have to hold each other responsible just like we do. It has to come from within. There is all this talk about what kind of team we can be and I told them at halftime that I don’t care about what people talk about or what it looks like in the paper. We haven’t done nothing.”
He’s not wrong about this; at some point it does have to fall on the players to pull it together. But he also can sound exhausted by it. He was brought in as a win-now coach for a group of guys who seemed to be on the precipice of pulling it together. But instead, serious injuries to Rubio and Love in his first two seasons pushed back the timetable and now he’s in a position where that initial vision of what the team could be might be pulling down the reality of what the team is.
Again, I’m not advocating a mid-season coaching change by any means. The team is at .500 and has dealt with a difficult schedule early. I expect them to improve, to find a better balance and more consistency going forward. They are still more likely than not to make the playoffs.
But what you saw in the Lakers on Friday night was a team with nothing to lose. With Kobe Bryant out for at least a month and nothing resembling a primary ballhandler — Nick Young played point guard for stretches (NICK YOUNG) — the Lakers just played. And they won. They don’t know who they’re “supposed” to be right now, so they just had to be who they were. Sometimes I think the Wolves could benefit from a little more of that shoot-from-the-hip mentality, that sense of being on the edge rather than trying to reach for some set of expectations. I guess I’m just not sure Adelman is the kind of coach to foster that, and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a problem.