The Isolation Blues
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.