The Isolation Blues

William Bohl —  February 17, 2014 — 14 Comments

BAREA ALONE

There are many reasons why the Minnesota Timberwolves have underachieved thus far, leaving them mired six games out of the West’s final playoff spot, sporting a 25-28 record that doesn’t jive with their solid point differential. Some of the problems were expected – the Wolves struggle to generate stops late in close games, but they weren’t built to be a defensive juggernaut in the first place. Health has been a problem for both Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic – but a perusal of their injury histories indicates such a thing was likely to happen at some point in the season.

Some of Minnesota’s problems are complete surprises. The healthy returns of Kevin Love and Chase Budinger, as well as the free agent acquisition of Kevin Martin, led many observers to predict a dramatic improvement on both the Wolves’ 3 point and effective field goal percentages; instead, the team’s 3 point success rate has only improved from dead last in 2012-13 to 25th this season, and their eFG% is just .006 higher than it was last year, despite vastly improved personnel. Though the point’s been thoroughly discussed (and enumerated, nicely, by our own Zach Harper) I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the Timberwolves’ 1-12 record in games decided by 4 points or fewer – a factoid that will encapsulate the enduring legacy of this team, unless they drastically reverse course down the stretch.

For many forlorn fans, hope of witnessing a postseason berth for the first time in a decade is flickering in the wind. The brunt of their displeasure, if social media is any indication, is borne by J.J. Barea. Signed to a 4 year, $19 million deal during the 2011 post-lockout free agent frenzy, the Timberwolves’ brass hoped the diminutive Puerto Rican could be an energy guy off the bench, as well as (somewhat of a) culture-changer. Having played a role in Dallas’ title run, Barea brought instant ring credibility to a locker room full of guys who hadn’t experienced much winning at the NBA level. In a moment of refreshing candor, he spelled out the Wolves’ problems at the end of his first season with the team.¬†Whether his comments were a diagnosis or common knowledge, wholesale changes were made that summer.

Fast forward to now, and any goodwill Barea engendered early appears to have evaporated. Looking strictly at the numbers, it’s difficult to pinpoint why; his per-36 minute statistics are right on par with his career averages. It’s all about the eye test with Barea – he runs the point for the Wolves’ second unit, and for the first unit when Ricky Rubio finds himself in early foul trouble (which happens more often than you’d think). Since he’s a streaky shooter (and decision-maker), Rick Adelman is often tempted to leave Barea in games far longer than he probably should, when things are going well. His hot streaks can carry the entire team’s offense, but his cold streaks are painful to watch, a litany of ill-advised kamikaze missions to the rim, circular dribbling, and isolation jumpers.

Nowhere are Barea’s faults highlighted more vividly than at the ends of quarters. When the Wolves gain possession with fewer than 35 seconds left in a quarter, it’s a safe bet that they’ll hold for one attempt at the end of the shot clock – common practice in the NBA. The strategy is sound – the Wolves’ transition defense leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s better to leave the opponent with little or no time to hustle down the floor for a quick bucket. The problem, of course, is execution.

The video above is indicative of how Timberwolves possessions typically go when Barea initiates a half-court set at the end of a quarter. Since Christmas, there have been 16 such occurrences, and Minnesota has scored a total of zero (0) points on them. On those possessions, Barea himself is 0-for-9 from the field, with 0 assists and 3 turnovers. If you watched the video above, you probably have some clues as to why Minnesota’s end-of-quarter execution is so putrid.

For starters, there’s rarely any movement, save for the pick and roll, which generally begins with 8-to-10 seconds left in the shot clock or quarter. As a group, Minnesota ball handlers rank 27th in the NBA, scoring 0.71 points per possession as pick and roll ball handlers – and they only hit the roll man approximately 15% of the time (per Synergy). Granted, a lot of what weighs that statistic down is Rubio struggling to finish at the rim, but while Barea is better, he isn’t much better. Why do the Wolves rely on this play, then? Is it just because it’s the easiest thing to call?

Second, Barea generally shares the floor with players who’d be classified as “defense-first” – Dante Cunningham, Ronny Turiaf, Gorgui Dieng, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute – and is tasked with creating offense “on his own.” But, as Steve McPherson pointed out recently, shouldn’t such a lineup utilize more movement, rather than less, in hopes of manufacturing a favorable look at the basket? Is it possible that Barea relishes the opportunity to take the final shot, and doesn’t look to pass the ball when he probably should?

Third, teams know exactly what’s coming, because the Timberwolves rarely veer from the norm in this situation. Barea began the season by shooting 4-of-6 with 3 assists in the Wolves first 12 end-of-quarter possessions with him running the show – which likely contributed to its inclusion in future gameplans. Minnesota scored 16 points on those 12 possessions; they’ve scored 14 points on 30 possessions since (an average of 0.47), but insist on continuing to run the same, simple pick and roll at the ends of quarters anyway.

What’s to be done, then? What can the Timberwolves do to fix it? Alexey Shved hasn’t had much success initiating offensive sets this season, and A.J. Price probably isn’t the answer, either. It’d be nice to see a bit more creativity and movement out of the second unit, and less Barea half-court freestyling, whether it’s an end-of-quarter possession or not. I also question whether it’s worth running down clock, sacrificing a “normal” half-court set in the process. Does Adelman really distrust his transition defense so much that he’s willing to give up the chance at generating a good look on offense?

Barea’s not as terrible as some would like to believe – but it’s apparent he isn’t meant to run a second unit offense, either. He’s out of his element – an energy guy who’s been charged with more complex responsibilities, and doesn’t seem to be up to the task. J.J.’s no longer a mix-and-match guard who can be brought in for short spurts. The Wolves felt Barea’s presence made Luke Ridnour expendable – it’s now fair to question that line of thinking.

It isn’t the worst roster calculation a team can make, and Barea’s poor play isn’t one of the main reasons the Wolves are in their current predicament. Since Barea is a unique player, and since he handles the ball, he draws a lot of attention (and scorn), fair or unfair. If Minnesota’s going to make a push, a lot has to go right down the stretch – including Barea getting better, and more creativity for the second-unit offense. Because plays like this are getting old.

William Bohl

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14 responses to The Isolation Blues

  1. Great post. The second unit is hurting big time. As Barea is supposed to be the floor leader of the second unit, I agree that a lot if it falls on him. Last year he and Shved just jacked up random long jumpers. This year it seems like Barea is picking up where he left off. He is pretty much a one on one guy which is awesome when he is hitting shots. But this team needs a second point guard that can facilitate like Rubio. Otherwise what is the point of trying to get a deep roster? An energy guy like Barea flourishes as a change of pace that presents matchup problems. But as a main fixture it is tough because him being hot or cold has a huge impact. I actually like him as a player and how intense he can be, but I agree that he kind if stagnates things right now. Hopefully that changes.

  2. Woj on Yahoo! Sports is reporting that Wolves are considering trading Budinger and Barea for Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince. I hope this is one of those BS trades that is floated by one team or agent hoping to give a rumor some traction because Flip cannot be dumb enough to be seriously discussing this . . . it is a no-lose trade for the Grizz because they dump salary and aging veterans they don’t really need (Courtney Lee is a fine replacement for Allen and Prince is worthless) and they get a useful bench player for them in Barea and a still interesting prospect who can shoot the 3 in Budinger. The Wolves get possibly a little better in the short term, but equally as likely will get worse (who is their backup PG? How can a team that can’t shoot divest itself of all its bench shooting??), almost certainly hurt themselves both talent and cap-wise in the medium term, and who knows if there is a long term. Good lord, could you imagine a second unit of Prince, Allen, Rubio, Dieng and Mbah a Moute? Even if they played Pacers-level defense how would they score?

  3. Mac,I agree. I winced reading the Budinger/Barea trade rumor. It can’t be real.

  4. Proposed Trade. Could help with end of game stops. Team as you know is1 – 12 with games decided by 4 points. Did this without Chase as he was hurt. Andre better creator than JJ. Prince replaces Luc. This team can score when healthy, just can’t slow down teams in the fourth quarter. This team has to get better defensively.

    Trade:http://espn.go.com/nba/tradeMachine?tradeId=my54a4u

  5. Nice post. In my mind J.J. Barea is not a good enough player to be playing the type of game that he plays. He plays like Allen Iverson, but is not even remotely as good. Think about the old 76ers when they had Iverson, they had surrounded him with great defensive players who were winners and then told him to go to rim as much as he could. Iverson got fouled or made shots or even when he missed and did not get fouled his teammates crashed the boards. Then on the other end they all played great defense. J.J. is not that kind of player who can get to the rim like Iverson.

    I had some hope when Budinger came back that between Shevd and him and Daunte 15-18 footers they could play some team basketball and J.J. could play to that style, but that is not happening – it just is J.J. trying to play like he is Iverson. That proposed trade is a bad one. The Wolves are too far out to make the playoffs this year. Any trade they make should have next year in mind. Next year is their last year to make it with Kevin Love.

  6. To the knucklehead who wrote tis piece of trash.
    Stop blaming the little guy and state the real reason
    This team sucks. NO DEFENSE!!! This team couldn’t
    Defend their grandmother.
    The unit that plays with Barea, totally sucks.
    And is about time to stop the hype about Rubio, he is not that good!
    Fancy passes don’t win games!!
    Put Barea with the first unit and see what happens!!!

    Please, trade Barea. His biggest mistake was signing with this team.

  7. Couldn’t agree more. I like the idea of working the clock for a specific shot but if the “shot” never goes in, try something different. I never liked the trade of Ridnour over Barea. Barea always seemed like someone’s prized vehicle that only gets brought out on nice days with fair/nice weather. Ridnour, to me, seemed like a more logical piece to use as an everyday player. I don’t think too much about it since it’s a “coulda woulda shoulda” scenario but it sucks that my gut feeling seemed to be the right call.

  8. More than likely, the majority of the front office and coaching staff favored Ridnour; Barea’s not here because they think he’s a better player. Contract lengths matter.

    It’s not worth paying further attention to the “Leave JJ Alone!” hysterical rant that’s proven false by both the stats and the eye test.

  9. Serge, You are simply incorrect in your assessment that this team cannot play defense. While they are not world beaters, they rank 12th in defensive efficiency. Obviously not a team that “couldn’t defend their Grandmother”.

    While they don’t have a rim protector or a great lock down ball defenders, they know where to be and play good team defense.

    The problem with the second unit is that their scoring options are limited to a Cunningham/Budinger or a Barea drive. None of those options are very good. This means that the team really stagnates when the starters are off the floor.

    We can’t have this so the starters don’t get enough rest which is one of the reasons we are so bad in close games, in my opinion.

  10. Find a way to have Jarret Jack come to this team. Take him away from a horrible Cavs team and have him play starter’s minutes at the PG slot for the Wolves

  11. I agree with Serge that this team
    Is poor defensively although I refuse to take it to that extreme. They are mostly poor at getting stops when they need to (1-12 in close games.) But I don’t understand how you could rail against the defense and then turn around and rip the steals leader two seconds later…

  12. What a joke!! The stupid who wrote this article is a CLEAR JJ Barea hater!! JJ Barea is the best bench player on this team. He could be a starter in another team. At least he’s the only one trying to create situations in this team of losers!! I want to see Rubio’s “air balls” and missed OPEN layups, Martin’s and Love’s pathetic defensive possessions videos…..certainly would be the most painful ones to watch!!

  13. Andre Miller would be perfect for our 2nd unit and I really think with him the Wolves could make a run at the playoffs. Inconsistent play from the bench has been a huge issue this season, when they play decent the Wolves tend to win (and usually by a lot).

  14. I do not hold out a lot of hope for the playoffs anymore. Zach Lowe said they would have to go 22-7 the rest of the way to make t. just don’t see that dramatic of turn around. I think the wolves are in for an interesting off season. No room to add anyone outside of the draft, and teams won’t take contracts anymore without a pick added in.

    As I see it there are two paths, Use the pick on a lights out shooter(Hood, Harris, Lavine, or McDermott) and hope an offensive threat makes the second unit less of a liability. Or use Love to get a team to take other long term contracts and hit reset. I would prefer the first option, I think Rubio is close to turning the corner, and if he becomes even an average scoring option then his value is increased by a lot. Add in an improved bench and I think the team I sitting in a good spot.

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