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.