Timberwolves 101, Clippers 127: A Toddler in Wolf's Clothing

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Taken as a whole, basketball teams can be viewed as their own living organism. People are, after all, not just one thing either, but instead made up of crisscrossing and often conflicting wants, needs, impulses, understandings and judgments. A person who can keep all these things in balance, who can understand that it’s less important to label impulses as good or bad and more important to understand where they come from and how to limit them or let them flourish, is said to be well-adjusted. At the height of their powers, people can harness their understandings — both intuitive and consciously learned — alongside both natural and hard-earned talents to create wonderful things and live happy lives.

Basketball teams aren’t so different. The Spurs are the Spurs not because of Tim Duncan, not even because of Gregg Popovich, but because they’ve developed an understanding of how the whole can be greater than the sum of their parts. They get the players they need and leverage their skillsets in ways that maximize their contribution to the whole. And they do it patiently, putting the bench players on the floor regularly and often in high-pressure situations so that over time their interactions with the other players on the floor become a seamless dance. The timings become precise, nearly instinctual; the spacing is balanced unless they want to unbalance it and tilt the floor. This idea of the team as a single larger organism is what allows us to say a team has an identity and, top to bottom, the Spurs are as close to a hive-mind as you’re going to find in today’s NBA.

The Los Angeles Clippers — who soundly thrashed the Minnesota Timberwolves last night 127-101 — are not there yet. If the Spurs as a whole are a mature organism, operating at or near the height of its powers, the Clippers remain a capable but occasionally impulsive young adult. After an inconsistent start to the season, they’ve now rattled off five consecutive wins and won seven of their last eight. Against the Wolves, things started to hum in the second quarter as plays unfolded beautifully and Chris Paul picked apart a Minnesota defense that lacked Ricky Rubio. As it was against the Trail Blazers the night before, Zach LaVine’s arrival in the game heralded the collapse of the defense as pick and roll after pick and roll freed up the ballhandler, allowing him space to dish to the diving big man or kick the ball out to the perimeter for a 3-pointer, where Los Angeles took 34 to Minnesota’s 12, making them at a 44% clip to Minnesota’s ghastly 17%.

Against the Wolves, the Clippers looked — if not exactly Spurs-ian — then at least comfortable in their element, running plays that cascaded into secondary action and got them the looks they wanted, even when they didn’t fall. Sure, the Clippers’ roster has some questionable pieces like Glen Davis, but even he managed to make a positive impact in the game by being a giant body against a Wolves team lacking in size.

As for the Wolves, well, let me talk about another organism: my nearly 3-year-old daughter.

She wakes up happy most mornings, and stays that way for at least thirty seconds before the first suggestion about getting up or getting dressed or basically doing anything is made. Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to do it. She is a.) still sleepy and/or tired and b.) hungry. But she doesn’t know these things. She just knows she doesn’t want to do whatever you’d like for her to do. She doesn’t want to take her jammies off, but if they’re coming off, she wants to do it herself.

And yet she won’t do it herself. You leave her sitting on the floor of her room for thirty minutes and when you come back she will have looked at every book on the shelf and still have her jammies on. If you offer to help, she doesn’t want it. If you simply hold one side of the jammies so that she can effectively pull down the zipper, she will begin crying and say that she didn’t do it.

Provided she has not descended into the dreaded flat spin of crying about crying (which totally happens to toddlers), though, by the time she gets downstairs, she will be happy. And when she’s happy, she likes to talk and will often say charmingly adult things. When I told her she should eat the skin of her apple because that’s where the vitamins are, she said, “Vitamins go into the blood.” She peppers the beginning of her offhand observations with words like “actually” and “well” as in: “Well, actually, Elsa and Anna is in the other Frozen.” Never mind that the back half of that sentence doesn’t make any sense: the first part makes it sound like she’s about to make a cogent point. When I’m going to a Wolves game, she asks, “Are you going to the basketball?”

In essence, her existence as a social being in the world is part adorable con, part exasperating trial by fire and nearly all id, but with the expectation that each and every day she’s learning and growing, hopefully into a well-rounded human being.

As an organism, this is pretty much where the Minnesota Timberwolves are right now. Lacking the comparative veteran experience of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin — each of whom have their shortcomings but all of whom at least have played enough games of NBA basketball to adapt fluidly to different circumstances — the Wolves are left to approximate a system of basketball. The sets are straightforward, designed to get one look and that’s all. When they keep the ball moving as they did in the first quarter last night — where they had 12 assist — they can look decent. They finished the first up 34-31 on the Clippers and did it with balanced effort from the starters and subs Shabazz Muhammad and Anthony Bennett.

And then the wheels came entirely off. The ball stopped moving and they managed just two assists in the second while scoring just 16 points to Los Angeles’ 34. Jim Petersen made the cogent point that quick shots can be just as infectious as ball movement — that when the ball moves, everyone wants to move it but when the ball stops, the next guy figures he better get his because who knows when the ball will come to him again? As an organism, the Wolves lack impulse control and also the kind of sense of self that comes from experience.

I know it sounds like I’m slamming the Wolves by comparing them to a three year old, but let me explain: I love my daughter. There’s nothing she can do about how old she is. She is at a place in her life where she is learning and growing and experiencing both joy and pain in ways every adult has long forgotten. When she’s bouncing on the bed it’s THE BEST THING EVER and when you take her cereal bowl away before she’s gotten to drink the milk it’s THE WORST THING EVER. And that’s fine.

When certain individual pieces of this Wolves team are putting it together, or even when a couple of them do it at once, it’s going to approximate solid, professional basketball. LaVine pulled off a nice little floater in the lane after driving hard and then slowing down a bit. Wiggins has bottled up some great offensive players. Muhammad’s pet move of the half-spin lefty hook/push-shot is still working and looks smooth. What the Wolves lack and are going to lack for as long as they’re missing important veteran players is continuity and consistency, as well as an ability to adapt and improvise in smart ways when other teams push them out of their comfort zones.

But that’s just where they are right now. We can only hope they’re learning and growing, both when they’re bouncing on the bed and when they’re getting their cereal bowl taken away.

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14 Responsesso far.

  1. Jacob says:

    I missed this game unfortunately. I know it was just another blow out but i do enjoy watching this team. Great article and comparison Steve. And what you said is exactly why I like to watch even the blow outs. Because there will be times in every game where you see great things and moments of growth and learning. I can’t wait till 2 years from now when hopefully all those moments have translated into great games and not just spurts.

  2. Pooh Richardson says:

    This was a rough game to watch, but this analogy is perfect. Great work, Steve!

  3. tBroof says:

    WHEN WILL RUBIOOOOOOOOOOOOOO RETURN?

  4. Finchy74 says:

    A very apt analogy, Steve. Taken a step further, I’ve enjoyed watching this team go through the worst and the best the same way I enjoyed watching my son go through those years (Albeit a slightly less emotionally intense version with the Wolves).

    Obviously it’s difficult to watch this team lose (often in lopsided fashion) night after night, but at least for me, it’s been more than offset by those moments of growth we’ve seen in this still young NBA season.

  5. farnorth says:

    I made similar points this morning in the free Shabazz thread. We have got to find some continuity and consistency if we are ever going to get out of this rut we seem to be in year after year. That is going to have to start with finding core players that will be on the club for more than 1 or 2 seasons and getting a system everyone can buy into.

    What we have here is too much inexperience not only in terms of years in the NBA but also in time spent as a unit. Even our vets look like they’re in shock. Our best and only hope is for the team to be able to spend the second half of the season together relatively healthy so they can learn to lay as a team and build on that next year. But one thing I am tired of seeing is the constant wholesale changes to the roster year after year.

  6. farnorth says:

    * Play as a team.*

    Why can’t we edit!!!!

  7. Completely agree with farnorth. We’re getting some inconsistent efforts from players, but more importantly, they don’t really have the feeling of a unit. It almost seems like pickup basketball sometimes, instead of a bonded Thing. That can take time. I realize this. But that’s absolutely one of our biggest issues. Identity. Cohesion. That stuff.

  8. telecustom says:

    Well that’s an adorable comparison, but then you have to ask yourself: would you want your 3-year-old to be raised by Flip Saunders?
    If yes, I hope you love midrange jumpshots, because oh boy is your future 10-year-old gonna have one heck of a midrange game (which is probably the real-life equivalent to being really good at reading folding maps, but not knowing how to deal with google earth)

  9. Pyrrol says:

    I go between being shocked by this team’s continued tough circumstances making me surprised they are paying even this well, to thinking we should still be doing better despite the challenges. We throw so much away. You don’t have to be the Spurs to play a little bit like a professional.

    As a wolves fan, certain patterns seem to cripple the experience–the wolves seem to be in perpetual rebuild, our guys tend to be either reaches talent-wise or talented guys who have a force field keeping them from reaching potential here. Development has not been our strong suit—bad for a team that needs to develop to compete (we can’t buy our way into relevance in this market). We always seem to be given bad schedules by the NBA—what schedule could have been worse for a young team trying to get confidence early than the schedule we were given? And then you look at teams like LAC an Golden State, teams that don’t really need a boost getting easy early momentum from very favorable schedules. It also seems like the Wolves are followed by a dark cloud of bad luck, one more dense than almost any other team has to deal with. It breeds superstition, among fans and players. It crushed fragile confidence. Basketball, like any sport, is surprisingly tied to confidence. If you are simply convinced your team is too good to lose they will win more than they probably deserve to, and if you can’t find any confidence, like the Wolves, you will lose games you shouldn’t, fall apart at the end of almost every game, and play with a distinct lack of cohesion, momentum and effort. That pretty much describes the wolves as a team for a long time. Lastly, teams and individuals just bring it to us as though we are defending champs. We rarely get teams on an off night. We get them when they are hot, or they hear they are playing us and make themselves hot. Look at the Pelicans—yeah we were overmatched playing them, but they were RED hot at the time and just went nuts. Now that they are no where near the Wolves they’ve cooled of considerably. And random/semi-obscure players love to come out of nowhere and have excellent to career games against us. Oh, yeah, also, somehow our coaching always seems to be inept, no matter if it is Rambis, Adleman, or between (Flip). The Wolves show no sign of shedding these characteristics.

    Also need to mention Rubio. I’ve always liked him, but man, this team can’t function without him. We can function without anyone else (Love included), but not without him. Forget the others out–Martin? Even Pec are flawed to the point that there are good things about them being out. If we had a capable shooter and a capable scoring center behind these guys and Rubio still in we’d look pretty darn good, maybe even better that with Rubio Martin and Pec. Rubio is amazing. I know that now.

  10. Fan says:

    Despite the result, Dieng dished 17 assists in last 3 games. As I cannot watch the game, is there any change in the offensive system?

  11. Alex Johnson says:

    After kevin love forced his way out of here I just don’t see the timberwolves functioning the same as last year. I just done see the tinberwolves ever making the playoffs untill they get that star. Which they will never get because who would want to come to Minnesota? We haven’t made the playoffs since the kevin garnet era and that’s sad.

  12. Tom says:

    They beat the Lakers, that’s important.

  13. biggity2bit says:

    Dieng is trying to learn the Vlade Divac school of defense (flopping) but has somehow only managed to pick up a better awareness of dishing.

  14. johnny small fry says:

    I enjoyed the article but the Wolves are worse than bad. There is a rotting smell about them that I don’t believe will improve over time. First off Flip Saunders is retarding the teams’ progress not helping it to improve. He is totally but totally clueless on how to get players to play better, to play as a team. Wiggins at this time Has No Game. He tries to stand as far away from the basketball activity as possible. I think he would be happier playing from the bleachers. He has no idea how to get to the basket, no idea on how to really defend. He shouldn’t even be in the NBA. I think Zack is in the same boat, he is clueless on how to defend anyone. Yet 1/4 of the season gone and no improvement. Flip appears determined to field the worst team in the NBA. He got fired from Washington for good reason. Yet that fool of an owner, Taylor, lets him have a percentage of ownership. It is unintentionally hilarious to listen to Flip’s comments after every loss duh game. He has used many excuses except himself of course. He has signed Pekovic to an outrageously high salary – this for at best a mediocre player who has trouble staying healthy and even when healthy has all the athletic prowess of a beluga whale. I am beginning to loathe the Timberwolves. They represent the worst of the NBA, a rotten franchise stuck forever in reverse. Flip has just traded one of his bertter players, Corey Brewer ,for another ‘project player. I can’t stand watching this team. I cannot stand Wiggins making a mockery of a #1 pick. Kawhi Leonard showed us how ineffective Wiggins really is. He easily without much sweat made Wiggins look like a kindergarten player. I think Wiggins got 3 points in that game. Let’s vote to kick the Timberwolves out of the NBA or force a change of ownership. Even no team is better than this sad sack bunch of losers.

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