The Preseason and the Task at Hand
People often have a hard time letting things they have no control over be what they are. Even when it comes to things we have an active role in we can’t help getting ahead of ourselves, but it’s almost always possible to come back to the here and now and focus on the next step instead of the one way down the line. But when we don’t have something to do with ourselves — when we’re spectators — it can be impossible to resist the pull of the present toward the future.
Take preseason basketball. A summer spent keeping track of free agency, watching Draft Express videos, wallowing in the crapulence (or is it corpulence?) of Summer League: all this has made us thirst desperately for legit NBA players in legit NBA uniforms, even if they’re playing in arenas where the only record of the game is a silent jumbotron feed. The Timberwolves have now played two preseason games and hardly anyone has gotten to see them. But eventually the Wolves will be back in Minneapolis and back on our televisions.
So what are we looking for and what do we see? Rusty veterans, underripe rookies, training camp invitees trying to show out without looking like they’re trying to show out. We see Andrew Wiggins go after a rebound or get out on the break with gusto and think maybe he’s turned a corner with his decisiveness. We see Nemanja Bjelica shoot without hesitation and hope he’s gotten his NBA legs under him at last. How is Brandon Rush fitting in? Can Cole Aldrich provide defensive oomph off the bench? We want to know. We want to know so badly.
But let’s think about this in terms of something other than a basketball game (and one that my 4-year-old daughter also complains about taking too long), cooking. If the beginning of the offseason is thumbing through recipes and the draft and free agency is shopping for ingredients, the preseason is prep. Everything is getting chopped up and put into bowls. You’re finding out some of the carrots look a little off, trimming a bit of fat off the meat here and there, discovering that some of the peppers have those weird baby peppers growing inside them. The coaching staff is getting into it, and a lot of what they’re doing isn’t trying to win these games so much as see what they’ve got.
Discussing the Wolves’ upcoming slate of games after practice last week, head coach Tom Thibodeau said it was going to tell them exactly where they are. Not where they’re going, but where they are, and that’s an important distinction. We can’t do anything about where the team is going, so we’re left to watch and wonder what it augurs. Thibodeau isn’t hamstrung in that way: when someone blows a defensive rotation, it becomes a thing on his to-do list, not a worrying sign of what’s to come.
During training camp, he shrugged off a question about whether the preseason was a chance to instill what it takes to win games, saying something about not getting ahead of themselves, about not forgetting it’s a process. And that’s kind of a weird thing, because in a way it means that you make sure to not forget the process by not looking at it directly — you look instead at the thing in front of you and focus on that.
Until their games start showing up on our televisions or at the Target Center, we’re stuck with these muted scoreboard feeds and — because of this — I watched the Wolves’ first preseason game without any overall sense of who was winning or losing, or even how much time was left in the quarter. It was oddly freeing: a chance to watch the game possession by possession with little sense of momentum, a sense that each possession would occur and then evaporate into a new one to be watched on its own merits, in the moment. Instead of judging where the team would end up, I was seeing where they were in the moment, starting to cook.
Thanks to Zach Harper, we have a feed of last night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. This time, it has sound, but that doesn’t change the plan: Line up the carrots. Get to work.