In 2009, the band French Kicks released Swimming, and it was absolutely and without question one of the best EPs of the year. Leadoff track “Abandon” established the tone: taut guitar lines viewed through a smeared, blurry lens of towering echo; sleepy-eyed vocals nearly out of earshot in a nearby room; enveloping bass working its way through the floorboards. The next four tracks refracted and developed those elements, culminating in “Said So What,” a lo-fi pop masterpiece, plaintive and dreamy.
The only problem is that instead of being an EP, Swimming was an album, and there are seven more tracks after “Said So What.”
At this point in the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have settled into a starting rotation of Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns after starting the year with Tayshaun Prince in place of LaVine (and switching wing positions with Wiggins) and Kevin Garnett in place of Dieng. That lineup has now played 240 minutes together, third most of any 5-man lineup and just four minutes behind the Garnett-less version of the starting lineup at the beginning of the season. For the season, they look good, posting a 118.4 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) against a 114.2 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). Over their last ten games, they’re better: 119.5 ORtg vs. 111.2 DRtg. It feels like development, and that’s encouraging, given that four-fifths of that lineup is nearly a lock to be a major part of the Wolves’ future, and Dieng’s future with the team will be determined more by money than his own play.
The back end of the Wolves’ rotation, though, is in trouble, and it reared its ugly head against the Washington Wizards. Kevin Martin and Andre Miller — solid if underwhelming vets this season who each had their share of ups and downs but punched the clock with professionalism — are gone. It’s an open question whether Kevin Garnett will return to the floor at all this season, and it’s almost certain Nikola Pekovic won’t. Nemanja Bjelica has racked up six DNPs in a row and in any case hasn’t had a decent game since the end of January.
The net result is that Sam Mitchell is left with Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad, Tayshaun Prince, Damjan Rudez, Adreian Payne and the newly acquired Greg Smith to make a second unit out of. A few of those guys might one day be decent pieces off the bench for some team, but generally speaking, this is like a Top Chef challenge where you’re given a block of cheddar cheese, bean sprouts, miniature marshmallows, Old Bay seasoning and orange marmalade.
So take a look at the Popcorn Machine page from last night’s game.
If you’ve never looked at Popcorn Machine before, it can be a little overwhelming, so I’ve highlighted the important bit above.
What you can see immediately is how the Wolves jumped out to a big lead on a 21-9 run. The starters start to wear out a bit, the bench starts to come in, and Minnesota is -7 from when Rubio and Wiggins leave to when Towns comes back in. Even when the starters come back in, they can’t grab momentum back and the team overall endures runs of 14-5, 6-0, 6-0 and 11-2 from midway through the first quarter to the end of the first half. At the half, the score was 60-54 with the Wizards on top.
The Wolves chipped into the lead to start the second half with the starters going +6 and sparking a 6-0 run before LaVine leaves the floor. From when LaVine sits in the third to when Wiggins comes back on in the fourth, the Wolves were -11. Down the stretch, Mitchell finally decided to go small and kept Muhammad in in favor of Dieng and the team was +5, but it wasn’t enough.
The Wizards, of course, benefit from veteran depth, especially with Bradley Beal coming off the bench as he recovers from a broken nose. Beal scored 26 points on the night and the Wizards could call on vets like Ramon Sessions, Nene and Jared Dudley, all of whom have been starters at one time or another. Just put those benches next to each other and say who you would take: Sessions, Beal, Anderson, Dudley and Nene or Jones, Muhammad, Prince, Payne and Smith?
In some ways, it’s as simple as that and Mitchell said as much in his postgame availability. “They’ve got guys sitting on the bench who’ve played in playoff games and got 600-700 games under their belt,” he said. “They know how to play. We’re playing a bunch of young guys. Our young guys played hard, I thought our starters tonight were a plus. We’re not deep.”
But with Beal still coming off the bench, it’s not entirely clear whether the Wizards are an album with an amazing single (John Wall), some solid cuts (Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter), a weird experimental track you can’t make your mind up about (Markieff Morris) and then strong filler, or something more. With last night’s win, they’re just outside the playoffs, but are they just competing for the chance to get rolled by the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Between the injuries, the buyouts and the sense that now is the time for the young players to take on a greater load and see how they handle it, the Timberwolves are going to look more like French Kicks’ Swimming for the rest of the season: a great 5-song EP that slowly turns into a so-so album.