There’s an old maxim that says when infidelity becomes an issue in a relationship, it’s not actually the problem — it’s just a symptom of a more fundamental flaw. Don’t worry: The Timberwolves aren’t cheating, although at this point I think a good chunk of the fanbase would be all right with them giving that a shot. But what that adage gets at is how difficult it can be to tell what needs fixing when things aren’t right. Fix the symptom and it goes away, but the underlying problem remains. But how do you tell which is which?
Are the Wolves’ problems — and boy, do they have problems — mechanical? Does it really just come down to execution in close games? If they move the ball more crisply and often, if they take good shots, will they win these games? And not just win any given game, but create a deep-seated sense that they can control any given game? Anyone can see that in a game like last night’s loss to the Kings (which will get shuttled into that category of losses by four points or less, bringing their record in such games to 0-11) the team was completely flat and listless for nearly the entire game. So is it the energy? If they bring the energy, will it fix the execution? Or will good execution get their energy up?
After committing five of Minnesota’s 12 turnovers, Ricky Rubio said, “I couldn’t find my rhythm, couldn’t find my teammates either. Too many turnovers. That wasn’t me tonight,” then added, “I’m working to try to find myself again.” The signature thing that Rubio brought to the Wolves in his rookie season was that energy, that infectious joy that seemed inspiring to his teammates. It was like the way he dealt the ball around the court made players want to step up and make the most of it. Everyone remembers the 3-pointer that Love hit to sink the Clippers in Los Angeles in 2012, but Rubio also hit an important three late in that game after he had struggled early. At the time, it seemed like a sign that he was always going to keep coming, that he was unafraid of stepping up in a big moment, even if the role of clutch shooter was not one we associate with him.
That energy is completely gone. Any flash of his passing brilliance — a nutmeg between a defender’s legs, a deft and hard spinning entry pass off the tips of his fingers from the top of the arc — feels like lip service, like a well-worn inside joke deployed in the vain hope of kindling just a little of that feeling. It’s all well and good to hash out the numbers, to look at his shooting percentage and say he needs to get up above 40% from the field, or improve his finishing at the rim to at least a league average. We can look at red-, yellow- and green-tinted overlays of the court and weigh his yeoman’s work from beyond the arc against his finishing. But beyond (or maybe before) all that, it just doesn’t look like he — or anyone on the Wolves, really — is having any FUN out there.
Right from jump, coming off of two days rest and against a Sacramento Kings team that had lost to a very tough Pacers team the night before in Indianapolis, the Wolves looked like a compilation of Arrested Development’s “Charlie Brown” moments.
And what responsibility does Adelman bear for this? It sounds like he’s at the end of his rope. “I think when you get in the game you have to play physically and mentally,” he said after the game. “And we didn’t do that tonight. The ball has to move and you have to make the right play. Not everyone will make the home run pass and that’s what we were trying to do: the home run play and the home run pass. We have to make them defend us and we didn’t do that.”
He even addressed the team’s reluctance to commit fouls, a tendency that is often presented in a positive light — the Wolves get to the foul line a lot and don’t put the other team there. “We have to force the issue,” he said. “We are so hands-off defensively it almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody. You have to go after people in this league.”
But my first thought when he said “physically and mentally” was, “What about emotionally?” If the only emotions Adelman can tap into are frustration and exasperation — the two emotions that are most clearly on display while he’s on the sidelines and in postgame press conferences — I don’t know if that’s enough.
Obviously a big headline going into this game was the return of Derrick Williams to the Target Center for the first time. When he was subbed into the game with 4:19 to go in the first it was to a smattering of applause. Clearly intent on taking it to the Wolves, he did everything he seemed rarely to have been able to do as a Timberwolf: deftly Eurostepping to the rim and actually making a layup, spinning decisively into the lane on Alexey Shved for an emphatic dunk, catching an alley-oop from Jimmer Fredette and slamming it home authoritatively. (He did still manage to miss a free throw after an and-one, so not everything is different.)
Williams finished with 16 points on 7-11 shooting and it felt like an indictment of Adelman. After all, the express reason for moving Williams was that Adelman couldn’t find space for him in the rotation. At the time, it seemed like even though Mbah a Moute did not have as much raw talent as Williams, he would fit better into the rotation as a defensive-minded stopper off the bench. But last night, in a game where the Kings shot 55%, Mbah a Moute didn’t get a minute of playing time.
I can’t tell you how Adelman should be running this team, nor would I presume to. But it’s not working. Against a Sacramento team that’s a jumble of talent and headcases, at once astounding in their potential, yet hardly built to contend or with any semblance of a clear plan for how they’re put together, this carefully orchestrated team that’s supposed to beautifully interlock Rubio’s passing with Love’s shooting and rebounding with Pekovic’s post play with Martin’s scoring with Brewer’s defense and speed looked like a pile of Legos dumped on the floor. Do they need to play better to feel better to play better? Or do they need to feel better to play better to feel better?
I’m genuinely sorry this post can’t offer more insights. I’m sorry that it doesn’t have more clips of plays demonstrating where things are going wrong or how they could improve. Your frustration, my frustration: they don’t mean anything. I don’t even know if the Wolves’ frustration means anything. Standing in the locker room as assorted media attempted to figure out new ways to ask the players what’s wrong, I couldn’t figure out what the point was. As the press crushed around Corey Brewer and one writer asked, “Can you put your finger on what you need to do to turn this around?”, Pekovic — who was sitting opposite and putting his shoes on — chuffed and said wearily, “Win games.”
It’s as simple and stupid and impossible as that.