Timberwolves 93, Spurs 108: Rime of the Ancient Timberwolf

The-Rime-of-The-Ancient-M-001

This is my third year covering the Timberwolves as a credentialed media member and in that time (and in the year when I was still a season ticket holder writing on my own blog and, come to think of it, in most every year since Kevin Garnett left) the texture of a Timberwolves season has never wavered. Here it is: preseason hope and promise – whether for the playoffs or simply not being abjectly terrible at basketball – gives way to a swoon due to a.) injury b.) an intractable problem borne of i.) personnel or ii.) scheme or iii.) both and then there’s this stretch of nothingness, the horse latitudes, the doldrums, a bardo region, the heat death of anything interesting to talk or think about with regard to this team.

That’s where we are right now.

You want some stuff? The Wolves went 26-26 from the free throw line in their loss to the Spurs, shattering their previous single game record of 25-25. Gorgui Dieng continued to show a sneakily surprising amount of growth, racking up 18 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks. He had this really nice play early in the first quarter:

DiengLayup

It’s particularly encouraging because one of the Wolves’ major problems is that neither Dieng nor Thad Young are very good in the pick and roll on offense. Neither can set hard screens, but here it works for Dieng because he slows Parker down enough to get things rolling. He then nicely slows up a step before diving down into the paint to allow Parker to finish committing to Williams. When he catches the ball, he uses a great upfake — which has been improving this season — to get an easy layup. It’s exactly the kind of straightforward, easy play that the Wolves have generally been lacking this season and Dieng is just the kind of solid, all-around center who will quietly get his and do a bunch of dirty work for a good team – hopefully the Wolves if they become good.

Andrew Wiggins snapped his streak of 20+ point games with 18 points but still: that’s pretty damn good. He got them in what’s become the usual way: getting up for dunks, occasionally fading away and spinning into the lane for pretty finger rolls like this one:

WigginsLayup

This blazing spin into the paint for a soft layup is becoming something of a signature for him, and I like it. As fun as the dunks can be, these kind of moves have a balletic kind of grace that in some ways seems more in line with Wiggins’ even-keeled demeanor. He didn’t take any 3-pointers, but he also didn’t miss any free throws – something that’s been difficult for him so far.

In all, Wiggins continues to improve individually, Dieng continues to improve individually, new addition Miroslav Radulijca absolutely leveled Tony Parker once, Robbie Hummel had a tip slam (“If I’m going to dunk,” he said afterwards, “that’s how I’m going to do it”) but the team as a whole just goes nowhere, caught in a GIF-esque loop of defensive breakdowns and terrible spacing on offense.

For his part, Dieng called out the effort overall without naming names. “I would trade in anything for the win,” he said after the game. “It’s time we all realize we need to take this very personal. We need to play harder to win games.”

But on the other side, Gregg Popovich said, “The thing is, Flip has them playing hard. They come out every night. Losing has an effect on you, but you look at those guys and you watch them play and they’re still banging and they’re aggressive.”

So who’s right here? With apologies to Dieng and to any fan sick of feeling like the Wolves just aren’t TRYING, I think Popovich is more correct here. While the Wolves have stretches where they settle for bad shots (Thad Young’s elbow jumpers and Mo Williams pull-up jumpers in transition, I’m looking at you), it’s not really effort that’s bringing them down so much as understanding and execution.

A few weeks ago, Saunders said they were only using five percent of the playbook and then last night he said they were simplifying things. So what are we down to, one percent? As I said before, neither Dieng nor Young can really set screens to free up ball handlers in the pick and roll, and the pick and roll is basically all you have when you have nothing in basketball. On the other side of the ball, neither Mo Williams nor Zach LaVine can even begin to defend the pick and roll, which means the opposing team doesn’t have to work very hard to start opening up cracks. You could see this time and again last night when the Spurs seemed to get five or six decent looks before finally taking a good shot. The Wolves, meanwhile, struggle to generate even one on most possessions.

They’re just a.) too depleted and b.) too young to gain much ground as a team from game to game, and that extends to the defensive end of the ball where this travesty happened last night:

DiawOpen

Now, this is actually on the veterans as it’s Williams (who doesn’t have a defensive bone in his body) and Young (who’s having a rotten season) who muck this up. It’s a failure of communication, yes, but in sort of the same way it goes with effort, if there’s no underlying understanding of scheme, communication and effort can only do so much.

What you can see first of all is that Young and Williams are misaligned on their men as the ball crosses halfcourt. Once they get themselves in order, there’s clearly a misunderstanding about how to treat the pick and roll. They appear to be trying to ice the ballhandler — that is, send Danny Green toward the baseline, but Young doesn’t drop down to seal the penetration off. This results in two guys chasing the ballhandler all the way down while Diaw is left completely open. Dieng is closest to him, but he can’t reasonably leave Tim Duncan wide open in the lane with a passer as good as Diaw holding the ball. Neither Young nor Williams actually recovers from chasing Green, with both of them floating around near the baseline.

So yes, the Spurs are an exemplary offensive team that can whip the ball around the perimeter in the blink of an eye and create looks in all kinds of inventive ways, but why bother when the simplest plays can open up looks like this?

In summary, there’s little hope for the Wolves to get better as a team in the short term. Individual players will continue to show improvement, but as a unit, there’s just precious little time in an NBA season to install systems and get them to work. Saunders has to hope that cutting back further and further eventually results in coming to some basic place of mutual understanding that can eke them out a win against a team worse than the Spurs.

Otherwise, we’re just waiting for the return of Rubio et al, weathering what isn’t so much a storm as a stretch of completely calm ocean where nothing seems to change. Is that an albatross I see?

 

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14 Responsesso far.

  1. Luke says:

    Do we have a timetable on any of the injured Wolves yet? If I remember correctly this is around the time Rubio and Martin were supposed to return. Getting Rubio back will be like a godsend to this team.

  2. Pyrrol says:

    Gotta listen to Pop.

  3. gjk says:

    I put more blame offensively with the pick and roll on the PGs. Mo has never been good at hitting the roll man, and LaVine doesn’t understand how to set up his defender or time the pass to the roll man. Rubio always found the roll man despite defenses begging him to shoot, even playing with Dieng or Young.

  4. Mac says:

    I’ve seen this movie before (year eight of the rebuild, and already fast forwarding into year nine). I don’t want to hear any more facile excuses about how this is a process, which I heard all throughout the Kevin Love Era until there was no Kevin Love Era, or any more excuses about being “overmatched” because we don’t have Rubio, Martin and Pek. The Wolves were overmatched by the Spurs only from a coaching perspective. Austin Daye smoking your team is not a talent or effort issue, it just shows how Pop is playing chess while Flip is playing Candy Land. There is no excuse for losing nine straight games to bad teams unless you are a truly bad team with lousy coaching. The veterans will not rescue this team because the veterans on this team have never rescued anybody. Dieng starting doesn’t make that much of a difference from playing Pek at this point in time. Martin is fine but realistically he has never moved the needle for a winner and we don’t want him taking time from Bazz and LaVine anyway. Rubio is the team leader and yes, the team basketball IQ on the floor will improve when he returns but anyone who thinks the team will go from 5-31 to .500 because of Rubio are insane. There is no actual evidence that he is that much of a difference maker at any point of his career anywhere. Boston was terrible with Rajon Rondo once they didn’t have KG, Pierce and Ray Allen, the middle class man’s Rajon Rondo is not capable to taking this island of misfit toys and turning them into a contender. A top pick in the next draft will help, as will another year of development for Wiggins, but anyone who thinks there are not fundamental problems with this organization and this roster are kidding themselves. The problem is not injuries or bad luck or time. The problem is that the organization lacks brainpower and imagination at its core and is not competitive with what the NBA has become in 2015.

  5. Shlabotnik says:

    In retrospect, Flip should have found a way to bring in a veteran PG. Rubio’s injury has stretched out longer than predicted (although that’s not surprising for those ankle injuries. And Lavine (and Flip) have learned about as much as they can from the Zach-at-PG experiment. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Zach at the 2.

    Meanwhile, we are stuck in an awful limbo until Ricky comes back. With Mo’s health sketchy, Lavine a liability at PG at both ends of the floor, and both of them awful defensively. As important as PG play is in this league, and 4 road games coming up, we may not win another game until after Ricky comes back. Isn’t that a big blunder by Flip the GM?

  6. Pyrrol says:

    Mac, I feel your anger and your cynicism might be more correct than people following this team want to admit or imagine.

    –I’m questioning Flip’s coaching at this point, although he’s OK and at least looks like he wants to be at games (ahem, Adleman…). He’s improved our direction as GM. I still think this team needs to look hard at better scouts, a better coaching staff, and find a coach soon that is better than Flip. It’s like magic having a really good coach.

    –Some time before Love left, I realized that the ‘Love era’ narrative was a mirage. In a way so was the KG era. Things are hard for small market teams in the NBA. The narrative was we were just a few pieces short with KG teams, but we just couldn’t make it, so we let Garnett go free to get his championship. The reality was he was a 3rd option on a champ team. We only came near the ballpark with one ‘all in’ season with Cassell and Sprewell. But, at least KG was a winner and made wining seasons out of some pretty milquetoast teams and really good on D. Love, he’s not a winner. The national critique that he’s a ‘numbers guy’ has a lot of validity. He’s a 3rd option too, maybe more of a volume scorer than KG, but his D and leadership really leave a hole in a team, good or bad. The idea of building around him to make playoff teams was a misnomer. We’ll see how he pans out as an add on rather than build around piece. Either way, there’s a good chance he’s not championship material in very favorable circumstances. I feel like he also added to the negativity of a franchise already up to their eyes in negativity. It was a relief when Love left, for me. If you would have told me that would be the case 2-3 years before I would have been surprised. I feel now as though we got a huge steal by getting Wiggins for Love. The riddle remains–how does a small market team with a bad reputation and little history or blueprint for success proceed toward competitiveness and relevance? You got me. Wiggins is a good start. I’m tired of being at the starting line or not even at the race.

  7. Mac says:

    Pyrrol, sorry I didn’t mean to go off. I understand my brand of angry fandom is not for everyone and it probably is more fun to be optimistic than to be a grump like me. I have been appreciating your balanced, reasoned analysis and appreciate you giving my rant a fair shake.

    But no doubt, I am tired of pollyannish prognostications based on zero evidence where the logic is something as ephemeral as “it will get better because it has to get better” and “Ricky’s so awesome”. As the top teams in the league becomes smarter and more analytical while huge national TV contracts mean teams make cash hand over fist even if they suck, like America itself the 1% and 99% will continue to separate themselves in this league. And the Wolves are in the low end of the 99% as an NBA organization. I do agree Flip has done a good job with the draft and with moving Love, although unique circumstances mean it is not entirely clear how much getting Wiggins had to do with Flip, and how much it had to do with LeBron the GM.

    I have been a cynical SOB because 25 years of following this team has shown me that most of the time whatever your modest expectations are, the result will be a little worse than that (the Darko Era might best sum up this experience in a neat, 4 year $20 million nutshell). I hope Wiggins is the Blake Griffin-like force that turns this sad sack franchise around the way he did with the Clippers, but that required wholesale change at every level of the franchise administration, not a “process” coloring around the edges. As LeBron in the first go around, and seemingly the second go around so far, has proved, even the greatest player in the world can only do so much when the coach and owner aren’t championship caliber.

    I don’t have any solutions (well yes I do — Glen Taylor, sell the team to Mark Zuckerberg), but as they say in AA the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and “yay Wiggins is so neat, we’d be much better if we had Pek, K-Mart and Rubio” (“much better” than the worst team in the league means what, being 11-26?) is not that admission.

  8. Pyrrol says:

    Mac, haha I can’t argue. I wish there was more constructive cynicism out there. It’s either dismissal, laughter and total apathy, or it is bleary-eyed hope that this time the rebuild is for real and good basketball is just on the horizon. In other words, I wish people appreciated the fact we have pro basketball in the state, and I wish that the passionate fans as well as people in the Wolves organization where a little more aware and objective about what is going on. Like you say, some hard truths need to be faced for this to be a real rebuild this time… either that or we need a lightning bolt of luck.

    One rare shot of luck was getting Wiggins for Love, who was leaving anyway soon for nothing. Maybe it’s part of the springboard that will get us relevant. I think one thing that frequently relevant teams have beyond good players, good organization and good coaching is luck. And the Wolves have not had enough luck to get them relevant in almost any circumstances involving the other factors.

    A last word I forgot to mention. I think Rubio is a very special player. Him coming back won’t save this team or make them relevant. But if you judge players on how much better they make those around them, you must hold Ricky in high regard. He is out of style—the in thing today is scoreguards, little guys too small to play any other position who are usually ball hogs and score a lot playing the point–and Rubio is an old-fashioned true point. I think teams are making a mistake, heck basketball culture in general, buy not valuing and working on real point guard skills: Leadership, passing, running offense, making others their best, and Defense, and lastly, scoring. That makes Rubio a potential secret weapon as passing point guards of his ability are almost extinct. The rub is, it really doesn’t matter that much unless Rubio is surrounded by talent. He’s not going to turn the team into a threat by himself. But with the right good players, I feel like Rubio is a major piece. Being optimistic, that puts us at two pieces with some other usable nubs mixed in. As sad as that seems, we’ve not had that kind of chance to pull out of our sad-sack freeze as a franchise in a long time. The chances might not be good, but we have something useful in building.

  9. Mac says:

    No, I agree Wiggins and Rubio are fantastic building blocks. Trading Love couldn’t have worked out better, so there is that. Plus I am having a ball hate watching the Cavs right now, so I can’t say there is no joy (Mac joy= outflowing of hate, yeah I am not sure how that works either) in my basketball fandom.

  10. Ivan says:

    The best part of the Kevin Love trade is watching the Cavs get blown out without LeBron. It so shows how overrated Love is. He’s s role player and nothing more. His head is too big for his own good as well.

    I think Mac got it right when he mentioned Flip being outcoached. I know he won with Detroit, but aside from that, he’s not that good of a coach. He got replaced by Wittman in Washington. Wittman! He can’t coach defense. The only reason we got as far as we did when KG was here was because of how hard KG played on D and he’s the one that pulled the rest of the players along. Defense is not something we do very well here so that part doesn’t surprise me at all.

    Rubio will be good to have back. He can run the offense and find guys much better than Williams and LaVine, and he does play D. Pek will be good to get back because he has respect from the opposing players and is much stronger than Dieng. Martin I’m not sure if I want back. He’ll just take PT away from our young guys. Right now we only have NY behind us so we don’t need to talk about starting to tank. It would be nice to get a couple wins here and there, but I don’t see how that will happen to be honest.

  11. Uglyfunk says:

    Having Rubio back will help a lot I believe. Not only is he a floor general the current roster being thrown out there lacks but he would be a fresh positive influence on the team to maybe get this monkey off the teams back regardingj the losing streak. I would like to see Pek return soon but that’s probably a pipe dream. Martin would be nice to have back but I’m sort of with Ivan in that I’d rather see those minutes go towards the younger players at this point.

  12. Booch Paradise says:

    I think that to say that we are having a bad year is severely short sighted. If Gregg Popovich was our coach, no one got injured, and we got lucky, the best we could realistically hope for would be a low seed in the playoffs and getting knocked out in the first round. Our team is just too young, and too new to each other to expect much out of them.

    So instead of that, we’ve had a season where our young players have gotten more development time that anyone could have hoped for. Individual improvements on 3 of them have been tremendous, and we are basically guaranteed a high draft pick. So next year we will come back with vastly improved chemistry, experience, and development, at least one new piece that has a high chance of being good, the missing leadership that Rubio provides, and a massive chip on our shoulders. There are worse places to be. I’ll take our lot over the Lakers any day.

    And to Mac who claims that we lost to last years champions because we were out coached, there is a line between cynical and insane, a line you most certainly have crossed. Though I will concede that we were out coached (as is every coach in the league when facing Pop), that was hardly the deciding factor.

  13. Mac says:

    Booch, as someone who has 25 years of Wolves fandom under his belt, I don’t deny that the line between cynical and insane is pretty blurred for me.

    You can talk about “last years champions” all you want, the Spurs are a collection of players, not a brand. They didn’t have Kawhi nor Manu, their starters hardly broke 20 minutes and they smoked the Wolves. The 6-12 guys on the Spurs played most of the game and they easily, easily beat the Wolves. I’m not saying the Wolves can compete with the Spurs full strength, but they can’t compete with anyone equal strength which is why they are 5-31. You will have to excuse me if I think somebody should be held accountable for not being able to play superficially competent basketball and given the youth of the team, it’s hard to blame anyone other than the coach.

  14. Big Mike says:

    I like Steve McPherson when he doesn’t write about pop culture for the whole blog post like whoever wrote that horrible Micky Rourke post on here. This is what editors are for, to tell you when you are writing crap and should not publish it for both your own sake and to spare the audience. But reading the comments is just as much fun or more than the article sometimes. Wolves fans include some smart cats who can turn a phrase occasionally as well. Thanks Steve then thanks Mac and Pyrrll and Ivan and Bootch too.

    I do think they’ll need a better coach, but for this year, Flip is more than okay. He’s got the right temperament and doesn’t get too crazy negative. What they really need is one guy with nearly hothead fire, like one of the Morris twins for Phoenix. When we almost beat them a few weeks ago the reason we didn’t was exactly because they had a guy like that and we didn’t. Dude took the coach to task, which can be trouble ala Spreewell, but the big dude WANTED it. That was some serious intent and pride in the lane. If Bennett ever shows half of that fire, we could be good fast. I have hope.

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