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:
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:
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:
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?