Pelicans 117, Timberwolves 96: Brow Beaten and Learning the Process

Via Getty

Via Getty

During the usual Minnesota Timberwolves fan hand-wringing in my mentions Wednesday night after the Wolves got blitzed on national television by the New Orleans Pelicans, someone brought up the disappointment the team is bringing them after the end to last season. As you might remember, the Wolves from February 1st through the end of the 2015-16 season were frisky as hell, an offensive juggernaut (108.6 points per 100 possessions, 7th during that stretch), and capable of trying to ruin the Golden State Warriors’ pursuit of regular season history.

The Wolves went 15-18 over their final 33 games of the season after they allowed David Adelman to streamline the offense, get things moving faster, and allow the players to stretch their legs of potential on that end of the court. We ate it up too. It was fun. The Wolves weren’t the sad mess we saw in December and January. They were a team that could overwhelm defenses, and even though it was the last half of a dead season when opponents may not take you seriously, you saw life with the young core we felt excitement about. Again, it was fun.

The one problem with this stretch (other than not knowing if any of it was real) was the defense. While the offense was incendiary, the defense was a red carpet to the bucket. The Wolves gave up 109.7 points per 100 possessions over the final 33 games of the season. That was tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for third worst in the NBA during that stretch. The idea seemed to be more “let them play and figure it out” and again, it was fun. But the defense was hemorrhaging points left and right like a Saw victim.

What does any of this have to do with this season and the loss to the Pelicans? The hand-wringing over the third quarter struggles, what the 10th ranked offense is doing, and everything in between lacks perspective, in my opinion. The short-term is never as important as the long-term in sports, and the Wolves have to have a long view of their situation that goes beyond them losing games. It’s all about what they try to build in order to win in a sustained manner for years. That’s not satisfying to fans hungry for immediate results with Tom Thibodeau at the start of this season and those results have been fleeting at best through 14 games.

When I look at this Wolves team on defense in the first month of the season, it looks a lot like a bad shooter working on his jumper. Sometimes it just needs a tweak to the release or the base. Other times, it needs a complete reconstruction and that reconstruction almost never comes in a short amount of time. You have to get muscle memory into the base of the shot form. You have to build the gather into the shooting motion. You have to build the arm motion and the release of the shot into being mindlessly repetitive under any conditions.

That’s what Thibodeau seems to have to do with this team and it makes me wonder how much of the final 2.5 months of last season factor into this. When Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince were resting their old muscles on the sidelines, this team was a mess defensively last season. And they punted (directly or indirectly) on defense at the end of last season, which does throw basic development as a team and individuals into a bit of a pickle.

Team defense is one of the hardest things to build on a basketball court. Simply trying and giving effort isn’t enough anymore like it was 20-40 years ago. With today’s defensive rules, preparation and anticipation within a possession matter as much as putting forth quality and consistent effort. In Thibodeau’s system, that’s the crux of the principles and staples of a good defensive unit. In Chicago, the Bulls had Joakim Noah directing everybody and players taking that direction with the understanding of what to do and the prescient knowledge of what comes next.

So far with the Wolves in most situations this season, they seem to be catching up to the opportunities in front of them rather than dictating what happens on that end of the floor. While the speed of the game on offense appears to be within their control for most of the game (third quarters not included), the speed of the game on defense appears to have this young group of developing stars and role players thrust into the wrong end of a Mr. Krabs meme.

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This doesn’t absolve the teaching of Thibodeau and his staff, and it certainly doesn’t absolve the Wolves’ players of grasping the system better than they have so far, but I do believe the lack of disciplined shown and emphasized on defense at the end of last season was detrimental to this team’s understanding of what it takes to be a good defensive team. Last year was chaos for a lot of reasons. Some of them fair. Some of them unfair. But all of it connected.

I believe the Wolves are better offensively so far this season because of what they were allowed to experiment with in the final 2.5 months of last season. Zach LaVine took a step forward and that step forward appears to be legitimate and relatively sustainable right away. Karl-Anthony Towns kept getting to explore his unlimited abilities as an offensive player in those final 2.5 months. Andrew Wiggins made real steps forward and those have been built upon with an offseason of intelligent skill work.

At the same time, the defense is far behind and that’s what happens when you’re not constantly building those core values and disciplines. Does that mean Sam Mitchell is to blame for the Wolves’ defense this season? No. That would be scapegoating and lazy. It would absolve the poor decisions as a team on the court. But like every success and failure in the NBA with any player or team, the buildup to this point matters and young guys simply can’t be that bad on defense one year and then asked to understand and embrace the most disciplined defensive system in the NBA a few months later.

That lack of discipline and preparation within defensive possessions are what have been magnified in the first 14 games of the season and they were pronounced during the Pelicans embarrassing them in the first few minutes of that game and the second half. Sure, part of that is Anthony Davis being an unreal scorer and being able to hit anything Wednesday night, but that doesn’t excuse poor rotations, the help not loading up in the first place, bad defensive stances, and defeated transition defense before it starts.

Thibodeau is reconstructing a broken jumper with this team’s defense. It’s not muscle memory quite yet. It’s not even close to that. It doesn’t mean it can’t start looking that way in a week, a month, or in the final 2.5 months of this season. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect it to get better. There are good elements to the defense this year. They’re pretty good at defending 3-point shots and they force turnovers. But the rim protection and the resistance to opponents getting into the paint are pathetic right now and the majority of that in today’s NBA is prevented through dictating what is allowed by their opponents.

That aspect of their defense needs a lot of reconstruction before we get the results we seek out of a process we find comfort in.

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    The problem is systemic.

    The argument here is basically, ‘we’re fine, because are D is basically the problem and team defense is the hardest thing to build.’ This argument ignores the fact that we are basically just as bad on defense this season as last, when there was little emphasis on it during the waning days of the season. It also ignores the fact that so far this season we’ve seen no overall improvement or even small bits of learning evidence on D at all. There’s no evidence of any progress on team D. That’s simply unacceptable. It also ignores the interrelation between offense and defense. Our D lags behind our O as far as player skills go. Yet, despite our offensive skill and talent, we are underachieving on that end. This puts pressure on our D, which we cannot expect to be as far along and pick of the slack. This happens in two ways–first, we often don’t even score 100 points, and that basically requires a strong defensive performance. Strategically, this puts all the pressure on our D, which is bound to fail such tests most nights. Second, bad offense begets bad D. Bad offensive possessions (esp. in clusters) that result in misses don’t allow our defense to get set and create an large number of fast break and easy points against a not set defense. For these reasons I’m actually a little more alarmed by our offensive struggles.

    Folks in the Wolves community are getting pretty angry. Frankly, Thibs is out of time to put a product this bad on the court with the fans giving him a break. Attendance and interest will now fade, and given our history this is a just another season the casual fan doesn’t see as worth following in a franchise deemed irrelevant. Antsy fans get down on the players. They frustrate me too, but I honestly think if this same roster was in a different situation—playing in a different place and with a different coaching staff and organization but with the same players we’d be a good team. Look at all the teams with less talent. The Pelicans are a good example. Uh, Davis an a bunch of guys just destroyed us? Why? Fans have gotten negative, with good cause. This bleeds into perception of players (Rubio –we can’t win without a scoring PG, Wiggins—he’s always going to come in below expectations, Towns–Why can’t he protect the rim or take over games when we need it? LaVine—Will he ever learn NBA level D?) But I don’t think that’s fair. Yes, it would be nice if Rubio scored more, if Wiggins was more consistent and did more than score, if Towns’ D was as far along as his O, if Zach were more consistent and aware. Our players have flaws. So do the players on other teams. It’s not our personnel, or our youth that is causing the majority of our problems. It’s systemic and probably comes all the way from Glen Taylor down. But let’s focus on coaching. The staff doesn’t seem to be teaching the players any better than Mitchell. Thibs’ offensive system is awful and not helping us win now or in the long view. What pathetic excuse for a system we have specifically does not play into our strengths as individuals or a team. On D we seem to have no real system or plan other than to switch a lot. And when something does not work we are sure to stick to it even as other teams adjust. This goes for in game as well as for the whole season. The Pelicans were the worst team in the league to begin the season and have adjusted an are now on a bit of a run. We have not evolved in any way. It’s dangerous to think what we are doing now is going to lead us anywhere. I think we need to admit our system and strategy need some tweaking. Otherwise, our underachieving may undermine this rebuild. It will destroy our players’ confidence and our confidence in our players (i.e. we will trade some of them because we blame them for systemic problems only to see them more successful away from MN).

  2. Tom says:

    Thibs patience with the lack of effort and smarts, by this team is amazing. Free runs to the basket by the Pelicans and no one gets taken out of the game. I hope that he was making them swallow that mess, versus having them sit and watch other players get some playing time. I was wishing that he sat them and made them watch and then held a scrimmage after everyone left to earn their starting positions. Every one of those players that played, should be embarrassed to take a paycheck for that game effort. Hopefully, this loss will finally be the wake up call they need to start playing like a team for 48 minutes. If you can’t get focused after that butt-kicking on National TV, you aren’t the players we thought you were.

    These guys last year seemed to start seeing their roles and were starting to play together as a team. No defense, but the offense was pretty to watch. Our hope, as fans, was that Thibs would add the defense and we would be flying on both ends of the court. Playoffs here we come. Now we see that that was a mirage, and these players are showing that they probably won games from teams that looked past them. With every writer talking about how good these young guys are, I think they failed to realize that it is the cohesiveness of the team that needs to get better, more than adding a piece to their game. Making extra passes instead of shooting some dumb awkward shot that when you’re hot goes in, when you aren’t, looks like you don’t care about your teammates. Talking out loud on D and seeing the play before it gets into motion, so they aren’t standing flat-footed or late for rotating to the open man. Knowing how much time is on the clock before throwing the in-bounds pass, so you don’t make an extra pass and run out of time without getting a good shot.

    Outside of Kris Dunn, the rest of this team has been in the league at least a whole year. No more excuses for losing to inferior teams like the Pelicans. You need to be professional. Prepare and work as a team. Be students of the game and learn your opponents strengths and weaknesses. Or be prepared to be broken up. Fans fell in love with the potential, but if that is all there is, we have been there and done that forever. We are looking for smart players that know what is expected of them and get victories as a team.

  3. pyrrol says:

    The other aspect of the systemic problems is personnel aspects. Thibs is both the coach and president of operations. That’s maybe a conflict of interest. For instance, he’s been playing Dunn as backup PG even though Tyus has outplayed him whenever he gets an opportunity. Does this have something to do with the fact the Dunn is his pick, that Dunn not developing as expected or getting playing time will be egg on Thib’s face? This is at odds with Thibs’ traditional dislike of rookies. Another odd one is how Hill is the last big off the bench. Why? I think Thibs just doesn’t like him. But he’s a better basketball player than Payne and we desperately need veterans who can come into the lineup for a few minutes, settle the guys down, and show them how to play. This doesn’t really relate to the conflict of interest thing but is curious. Now there are rumors he wants to trade a young guy for a vet. In some ways that may help us. Our guys are all young and the coaching staff hasn’t been able to give them that example from the sidelines. But in another sense, this is what I’m talking about. If we trade a young star away it is very unlikely we’ll get true value back. And we are doing so, not because said young star didn’t work out (we won’t know for a while what the ceiling is for any of these guys) but because our system makes everyone look bad. It makes it look like we need to do ‘something’, maybe drastic. People spend a lot of time discussing our players’ weaknesses or how they match up together (is Wiggins a 2? Should LaVine be moved to the bench? Can Gorgui and KAT play together consistently seeing as how they are both centers? etc). While all these concerns are legit, as is the apparent lack of mental toughness we’ve displayed, I don’t think that’s why we are underachieving. We simply aren’t putting these guys in a good position to win.

    This basically goes back to the end of the KG days with this franchise… This idea that the buck stops with the players because in the end they are the ones out there on the court. We’ve had some horrible lineups and horrible coaches during this era. But the common thread is systemic–we often had horrible players because our system of acquiring and scouting talent sucked. We had bad coaches because we refused to spend the proper money on that for years, but also because we failed to analyze coach prospects well. We tried to save a buck by finding the next big coach (Rambis) and became laughingstocks. We went to something nostalgic but perhaps too old fashioned (Flip). We went with a big name (Adlemann) who ended up being someone who should have retired. We should have had a system in place to interview, vet and break down these candidates and see these faults ahead of time, instead of devoting years of going backward to them. Most teams don’t hit their head against the wall in quite this way so many times over and over. There are other cautionary tales since Flips first stint. Does Thibs actually fit this pattern? On the outside he looks like a no brainer. He was the most hyped available coach on the market in the offseason, he recently led a winning, playoff NBA team. He’s not another country club hire. He didn’t come cheap. He’s had a solid coaching career. But on closer inspection, he’s only been a head coach for 5 seasons with a single team. He inherited a decent team in the soft east, which allowed him to put up good records right away. Was he really better than Jeff VanGundy and homeless coaches like Scott Skiles? A lazy glance on paper says yes, but perhaps not. Perhaps Thibs isn’t as vetted as it seems, maybe he’s not the no brainer pick everyone thought he was. A hire like Walton in LA is looking much more impressive right now than what we did. Some of this is bad luck. If Thibs ends up being a bust, and we have no way of knowing that at this point, it is notable that he was the consensus #1 available coach in the off season. It’s sort of like when we picked Derrick Williams. We should have seen the bust coming, yes, but he was the consensus #2 pick that year. I guess in MN you just have to be a little more creative and visionary than ‘consensus’. And without a better decision making system, we are going to have problems that aren’t because of player effort.

    I’m not saying this is all true of the Thibs hire yet. But the early returns have disappointed even the most poker faced fans and followers. I’m now legitimately scared that Thibs will be a bust and that we’ve given him enough power to blow up our potential core in the process of scapegoating his failures. I’m hoping that we’ll figure some things out and this sort of paranoia will float away. But I’m not filled with confidence at the moment.

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