Heat 96, Wolves 84: The Trial Phase
Coming into this season, expectations weren’t high for the Wolves in terms of wins. Even after a pair of wins on the road to open the season, few expected anything more than a win total somewhere in the 20s this season. And as the Wolves start coming down to earth, the fall is going to be rocky here and there.
Tonight’s game against Miami was the first example this season.
It was an ugly game for Minnesota by just about every measure. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, who got plenty of looks, did not play well tonight, shooting a combined 8-31 from the floor, Wiggins only getting to the line once (and Towns not at all). Wiggins, while more aggressive tonight, is still missing shots, and would probably benefit from taking more shots near the rim. Towns looked overmatched against a rising interior protector in Hasaan Whiteside.
But as usual – especially tonight, the loss was very much a collective effort.
Zach LaVine, while never letting the game slip away from the Wolves (he had a team-best -4 on the night for players who got over 20 minutes), continued to show his ineffectiveness running the point. Nemanja Bjelica had his second straight rough night, eventually getting pulled for Adreian Payne. The list goes on.
On the other end, Dwyane Wade had spurts of greatness, and is looking much stronger and healthier than he did a year ago. Chris Bosh had a double double, and Hassan Whiteside did a great job making the paint unscorable for the Wolves. Also, Goran Dragic reminded me why he’s one of my favorite players.
While most acknowledge individual (lack of) performance as the main issue, complaints of certain minute allocations from coach Sam Mitchell have become a strong topic of conversation as of late. Ricky Rubio only played 22 minutes tonight (for this one, Mitchell simply said “I’m not gonna leave my starting point guard out there when we’re down 19 points”). Same number for Towns. And same for Shabazz Muhammad, who was Minnesota’s most efficient scorer on the night. Andre Miller, while finally seeing the floor in garbage time, continues to sit in key minutes.
Of course, it’s fair to examine and question what Mitchell is doing. Questioning moves, subs and rotations should and will be examined. As well as Muhammad did tonight, he rarely scored points on passes in a halfcourt set. A big part of that has to do with those rotations, mainly being partnered in the backcourt with scorers LaVine and Martin. One might think that having a guy like Andre Miller in the backcourt could help things. Or maybe it wouldn’t. That’s what trial and error is about.
But take a deep breath. We’re 4 games in, and this is still the trial phase.
Sure, maybe the “Zach LaVine: point guard” experiment is past the trial phase, especially after messing with it (out of necessity) last year. And seeing a facilitator like Miller out there to give Shabazz more looks, and get Martin and LaVine good shots is appealing. Very appealing. But if you want Andre Miller in the game, whose minutes do you cut? Keep in mind all the guys that played fewer minutes than preferred, even with the rotations as they are.
Do you take Tayshaun Prince from the rotation, even though the Wolves’ starting 5 has been, by far, the best unit on the floor early this season? Do you cut minutes from Kevin Martin, the team’s one consistent three-point threat? Do you cut LaVine’s minutes, despite the “development over win-now” mentality?
As many questions as many of us have for what Sam Mitchell is doing, it’s all too likely that these rotations will mold into something more concrete as the season goes on. Odds are it’ll lend itself to what the fans are thinking. But this early in the season, with this young a roster, some experimentation with different groups isn’t entirely a bad thing. Are some of the lineups going to look awful? Of course. But odds are few would have guessed, before the season started, that a lineup involving Tayshaun Prince was going to be the team’s steadiest right away.
There’s no easy answer or quick fix to this, and no matter what adjustments Mitchell makes, the end result isn’t guaranteed to bring great results. For now, the mixing and matching is going to be frustrating, and maybe could use some altering, but it also isn’t terribly surprising.
And what happened tonight wasn’t all that surprising either. The Wolves played poorly, and lost to a good team that played well. Go-to guys like Towns and Wiggins need to play better in the minutes they’re given to set the tone for those bench guys, who have also struggled to find an identity. The hope is unquestionably strong in Minnesota, and while the short-term struggles are going to be hard to swallow, especially when coaching decisions aren’t always unanimously approved by the fanbase. But the talent pool is there. This is where they learn.