Bad enough to have surgery this morning apparently, says a Wolves’ press release. The surgery is called a microdiscectomy. This means it is a small discectomy (never even been to medical school!) The release goes on to tell us that “no timetable for Webster’s return has been established, but the typical recovery time for this procedure is 4-6 weeks.” This is kind of a bummer, by the way.
Well maybe you can’t call 31 foul, 43% shooting night an “explosion.” As Andrew Bogut remarked, “it was pretty boring.” But the Wolves did beat the Bucks in their final preseason game, 119-118 and raise their exhibition record to a sparkling 6-2. Light them fireworks.
Highlights and box score of the whole torrid affair are here. I like the fact that a highlight clip of a Wolves overtime win includes two clips of Bogut absolutely demolishing Wayne Ellington.
I bet you’re wondering, as we have been, just what meaning this fine record holds for the regular season. Well, Ethan and Beckley at Hoopspeak rapped about just that topic (or, more accurately, the media discourse surrounding that topic) in a recent episode of their transcendent “Mama There Goes That Meme” series. I am not too proud to admit that I am jealous of nearly every element of this idea; that title is so good it makes me want to cry. Here’s the snippet of their conversation that aligns most closely with my own personal opinion on the matter. There’s also a line about “the sound and fury of this ‘Emo-Gil as a SG’ meta-narrative” which is really great and I wish I had written:
Former child star and TruthAboutIt.net head honcho Kyle Weidie told me the he watches the preseason carefully, but never consults the scoreboard to see how the Wizards are whirring. His theory is that the results of preseason play are meaningless, but to the trained eye, the content of each game is rife with significance.
And if you were interested in some actual data that might shed some light on the subject, we’ve got some of that for you too. 48 Minutes of Hell recently examined some studies on just this topic and left us with this:
The preseason is a significant factor for predicting regular season success. In fact, preseason performance is comparable to regular season performance for predicting future wins and losses. After accounting for the number of starter minutes played, the difference becomes even smaller.
I have no doubt about the accuracy of this conclusion in general, but in the case of our Wolves I’m gonna have to file this in the “isn’t it pretty to think so” drawer. I think this calls for a mood of cautious optimism.
Speaking of which, here is our friend Britt Robson’s Northwest Division preview at SI.com. Yes, he picks our Wolves to finish fifth in the division. That’s because its close to an inescapable fact and he would probably never get to write about basketball again if he did anything different. But he still has some nice things to say:
This year’s roster is longer, quicker and much more to coach Kurt Rambis’ liking than the 15-win squad of a year ago. Stealing Michael Beasley from Miami, drafting silky scorer Wes Johnson and belatedly giving Kevin Love the minutes and respect he deserves are on-the-court positives. Now if only Darko Milicic, Love and Serbian rookie big man Nikola Pekovic can offer up a semblance of resistance when defending the paint.
I’d say we’re agreed on all counts.
Aw dang, here’s a nasty little word for MN sports fans. David Stern recently floated the idea that contraction is a possible result of the NBA’s next collective bargaining agreement. No names were named, but I distinctly heard the city of Memphis shifting awkwardly in its chair. Strangely, though, the commish all but admitted that talk of contraction was little more than a negotiating ploy. “It’s a good word to use,” said the little man, “especially in collective bargaining”.
If the Wolves do not become the world champions of the NBA pre-season, they will have the Indiana Pacers–who just dropped our Pups for the second time this exhibition year–to blame. And by “the Indiana Pacers” I, of course, mean some maundering, semi-NBA-ish group that does not include Danny Granger or Dahntay Jones, and that allowed Josh McRoberts and Solomon Jones onto the floor for a combined 42:41. Its a damn shame too; I was really looking forward to that parade.
Last week we wondered aloud whether and how Michael Beasley’s goofy temperament would affect his play–specifically, whether the young fella’s sweet, almost child-like nature would lead to, let’s say, unwise shot selection. Now, things are clearly too fresh and new to know anything definitive, but I’d say the early signs are a little troubling.
Beasley started the game cold, missing a couple of jumpers and getting hit with an offensive foul. And this is obviously fine, except that Beasley’s way of understanding this problem was not to focus on defense, move the ball, play with maximum effort, let the offense come to him, maybe try to get to the line a little. What he did instead was to take ever more contested, ever more wrong-footed, ever more ball-stopping jumpers. He finished with 14 scuffling points on 16 shots, which–I don’t have my calculator handy or anything but–is bad.
To his credit, once Beasley came out of the game for a long second-half rest, he manfully played the supportive teammate, shouting advice and encouragement from his perch on an end-of-the-bench exercise ball. From what I could hear, the content of his patter wasn’t exactly earth-shattering but, y’know, positive jams are positive jams.
Except that when he finally returned to the court in the fourth quarter he looked as lost as a baby deer. First airballing a contested jumper, then losing Mike Dunleavy on a back-cut and finally, allowing Roy Hibbert of all people to walk past him to the hoop like he (Beaz) was suddenly in ponderous thought about the sad fate of the cap-and-trade bill–this was not what you might call an inspiring performance. Did I mention that he hit five of his 16 shots?
Kurt Rambis has said that the Wolves’ offense is not yet where he’d like it to be; this was evident in the second-half on Tuesday, when things became terribly stagnant. It would be wrong to blame Beasley for all of this, although his off-balance performance certainly disrupted the continuity something awful. In fact, Wes Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Sebastian Telfair, Anthony Tolliver and even Kevin Love all took turns forcing shots in the second half. And Bassie was certainly reminiscent of his very own self of two seasons ago with his macho overdribbling and pristinely confident gunning (can he possibly not know that he shoots only 37% from the floor for his career?)
But the offensive problems seemed to stem, not from any one player, but from simple unfamiliarity and indecision. Especially without Luke Ridnour and Martell Webster on the floor, the Wolves looked tentative in executing the complex matrix of reads, reactions, cuts and passes required by Rambis’ offense. It’s plain that these young players still don’t really know each other, don’t yet really understand themselves and their places within the team.
St. Vitus’ Dance
I’m loving me some Nikola Pekovic. I realize he fouled out of this game with seven points and two rebounds after just 12 minutes and 37 seconds. But this guy is battling for boards with a righteous fervor (this is where he picked up most of those fouls); he’s showing like a maniac on pick-and-roll; he’s straight crushing people at both ends of the court. Poor, skinny Solomon Jones; all he ever wanted to do was jump really high and play basketball. Now he has to deal with a mouthful of this swarthy hunk of man:
And on top of that, after receiving his sixth foul, Pekovic returned to the bench, walked up to Darko Milicic, extended his ample rear end, flexed his arms, thrust his hips and smilingly performed an instantly recognizable “they did me in the butt” pantomime. I wonder when he’ll figure out that there are TV cameras at NBA games.
Finally, Big Pek has some truly astounding tattoos. On his shoulder is a caped, spear-and-shield wielding medieval warrior standing on…a pile of skulls! Spanning his back is the scene of, like, an ancient burning church with the superimposed face of a bearded wise man. Is Pek a member of a black metal band that I’m not aware of? Is this some epic Vidovdan homage? I’ve got to figure this out.
Friends, the Wolves are 5-1. Attempts to plumb the depths of this strange statistic for hidden meanings and portents will probably be futile. When we look back on this season in June, after the Wolves have either won 45 games or 14, have either blossomed with promise or collapsed into a quivering husk, we’ll say we knew which way the wind was blowing back in October. But that will be a lie: at this moment, we have no idea what this means. Best to simply, calmly inhale, exhale and accept it. Onward:
Here is a recap of the Wolves’ 99-88 comeback win over the Prince/Wallace/McGrady/Hamilton-less Pistons in Syracuse. Love that low angle:
And here are some equally cinema verite highlights of their 114-109 win over the Bucks in South Dakota. Check Darko’s dream-shake early in the clip:
In case you hadn’t noticed, in his past 53 minutes of play, Kevin Love has hit 21 of his 29 shots and pulled down 23 rebounds. That mythic 20/20 game is on the horizon.
Here in the Strib, Kurt Rambis reinforces our thought that depth and interchangeability in the lineup were major goals this past off-season:
“One of the things we wanted to have is a deep roster and the ability to change things around,” Rambis said. “I think we have enough flexibility with this team. With as many young players as we have, I don’t feel like I’ve got to lock myself into something, particularly at this stage of who we are as a ballclub.”
Not specifically Wolves-related, but over at Fanhouse, Shoals and Ziller spin what is, to my mind, the definitive genealogy of the new technical rule and David Stern’s politically savvy paternalism. References to Obama’s rhetoric of hope and red-state electoral strategy abound (via our friend David Roth at the WSJ’s Daily Fix):
[Stern] generally comes out on top, or at least brings the league through unscathed at the end of the day. (Donaghy? Who?) He does so by making extreme overtures and overreactions that seek to nip public opinion in the bud. But down the road, almost all of these lunges prove to be just that: stunts to keep the heat off of this most vulnerable of pro sports leagues…It’s a game, one where blowhards get the hot air they so badly want, and players know that in the end, everything will even out.
The Wolves’ 98-86 loss to the Pacers on Wednesday night was seen by almost nobody. Nonetheless, we know that the Wolves seemed to play solid defense but shot only 32% from the floor. Kurt Rambis wrote it off to “fatigue.” That’s gonna happen, I guess. All I know is I’m glad I didn’t have to see Kevin Love brick a dunk. Here’s some other stuff:
I’m surprised that this one was committed to video by anyone anywhere, but highlights do exist. They’re right here.
And a recap of the whole affair is here. After getting lit up for 30 points by Danny Granger, Michael Beasley gave us a taste of his defensive philosophy (via the Strib):
I love the challenge, I don’t like the matchup. I mean, a perfect world for me is to play all offense and no defense, but that’s every player. I love the head-to-head matchup. I’m a competitor, that’s what I do.
Really Mike? “Every player”?
Before his team fell to the Wolves on Tuesday, Denver coach George Karl opined that trading Al Jefferson was probably a good move (this from Ray Richardson and the Pioneer Press): “Most of us felt they got in the way of each other last year,” said Karl, “It will be interesting to see this season. Love’s a great offensive rebounder. He’s hard to keep off the boards.” Not exactly earth-shattering but good to hear nonetheless.
Ultimately, this policy is a good thing for the time being, but not because players shouldn’t be able to question the officiating. It’s a good thing because it forces us (and yes, this includes the NBA and David Stern as well) to discuss the state of officiating. Even if the players have to be mum on the subject, the subject is still out there to be debated. Just debate it in a calm and mature manner. Otherwise, you’ll probably be ejected.
I’d say I agree with Zach’s essential point that the policy is useful if it forces us to actually face up to the state of officiating, and the dark essential question: even if the NBA is really poorly officiated, is that simply because the pro game is just too fast and complex to actually officiate well? On the other hand, while there are quite a few NBA players who really seem to relish a really good toddler-esque tantrum, this policy does seem to smack of David Stern’s vaunted paternalism. This league seems to really like telling grown men how to dress, when and how to talk, just what variety of facial contortion is the appropriate kind.
Say these words out loud: “the Wolves are 3-0 in the preseason.” What enters your mind? Do you maybe sense a faint welling of hope in your heart? Do you give a weary little chuckle, telling yourself, “hey relax bro, I’ve heard that song before”? Are you perhaps reminded again of the inherent emptiness of all language? Coach Kurt Rambis, can you help us out?
“It means at some point it won’t mean anything.”
This isn’t working. Left to our own devices again. (That is an actual quote, by the way). Here are some things we can say:
Defend Brooklyn (Park, I mean Center)
It’s been observed by many that the Wolves are already more competitive defensively this pre-season than at any point last year. Many will tempt you to ascribe this to some kind of moral renewal, an inherent spiritual superiority over last year’s lackluster squad. I’m here to tell you not to give in to that temptation. Do you really think that Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Ramon Sessions, Damien Wilkins and the rest didn’t want to compete, that they just weren’t trying hard enough? Nope, not true. The difference is that these players are, as a group, simply quicker, more explosive, more energetic than last year’s crew.
Try this on. A Wolves second unit in the fall of ’09 may have looked something like this: Sessions, Wilkins, Ryan Hollins, Sasha Pavlovic, Kevin Love. On Tuesday it was more like: Luke Ridnour, Martell Webster, Wes Johnson, Nikola Pekovic, Anthony Tolliver. See, not everything is getting worse.
No matter the cause, against Denver there were long stretches of sustained, aware, active, NBA-ish defense. Big guys protected the rim. Players rotated to open shooters. They got their hands in passing lanes. They helped each other out. Did it help that for much of the game the Nugs trotted out Shelden Williams, Gary Powers and Eric Boateng? Yes it did.
While we’re discussing the topic of the newfound spring in the Wolves’ step, the team also looked much more comfortable and fluid in the open floor. Part of this has to do with the aforementioned influx of length and quickness. Part of this was that (tentatively, hopefully) revitalized defense. But part of this was also the presence of one Luke Ridnour.
Now, I remain skeptical of the de-facto exchange of Ridnour for Sessions. But Ridnour–who is very pale and very thin and yet has a lively little bounce to his step–seemed wholly fluent in the offense, comfortable and poised in the open court, willing to attack the defense as a means of opening up passing lanes (rather than, say, blindly and recklessly). Which reminds me: Jonny Flynn hasn’t even set foot on the court yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Against Denver, Beasley improved somewhat on his poor shooting night against New York, but a lot of that inconsistency was still in effect. He did manage to attack the basket from time to time, putting the defense on its heals and drawing contact. But he also spent some time eased back into the driveway mode that Pruiti leans on him for: the ball-stopping, contested flat-footed jumpers; the carelessness with the ball; the fading, off-balance shots.
Beasley, as has been oft-noted, is goofy. He likes a good laugh. He likes to shoot half-court shots during warm-ups. He likes to yell at the Gremlins on the rim when he misses. Does this mean that he’s destined to hoist up the occasional wrong-footed, floating behind the backboard jumper with 18 seconds left on the shot clock? I don’t know, it might.
Hey, Zach Harper, I think its time for a new bees-related Michael Beasley video. How about this one?
We may be through with ’80′s (and early-mid-’90′s) hip-hop, but it is not through with us.
It’s hard to take anything away from the first pre-season game of October.
Sure, we want to believe that a 19-point win over the Lakers is something to boast about but the game itself was so weird and out of the ordinary from pretty much everything we’ll see this season that it’s hard for this exhibition to hold any weight for the upcoming season. Wins and losses mean nothing in the pre-season. And even though the Wolves should still probably lose to a Lakers team that doesn’t give Kobe Bryant more than six minutes on the court before letting him ice his knees, what can you truly take out of a game that was a basketball anomaly?
I think the best way to look at this game is through quick little observations about how guys played and the decisions they made on the court. It’s senseless to come out of this game with an opinion on the team and its individual players one way or the other. The only thing we should do is pick out things that seemingly could matter in the future and tuck them away in our back pockets. This way we’ll have something to base future performances on and figure out if they’re just figments of our fandom imagination or if they’re a trend built on momentum.
Here is a player-by-player list of observations (I went a little overboard with analysis here but it feels good to write about actual basketball again):
Michael Beasley – 21 pts, 4 rebs, 3 stls, 1 blk, 6 tos, 8/10 FG, 1/1 3FG, 4/5 FT, +13 in 18 minutes - It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that Michael Beasley scored so well in this game. But the way he scored in this game confused me in regards to what we should expect from him this season. Beas missed just two shots in this game and they were both in the key. Of the eight shots he made seven of them were outside of the key. He was shooting jumpers and they were wet all game. But that doesn’t really sit well with me.
Beas was a steal regardless of how he performs this season because it required nothing of value in return to acquire him. And if he can knock down jumpers consistently all season long then it will open up his game dramatically. However, we didn’t get a glimpse of how he’ll adjust his game when the jumper isn’t falling. Maybe that’s not a fair criticism now because the jumpers fell against the Lakers but considering he shot just 36% on jumpers from 16 feet and beyond last season, I remain a little skeptical. Regardless, he’s really fun to watch when he’s knocking down those shots.
- Beas was pretty sloppy with the ball when trying to make plays. He seemed to rush a little bit and that might have to do with the carelessness he showed in handling the rock. Six turnovers in 18 minutes is probably not going to be the norm from him and he won’t be facing Odom and Artest every night. But taking care of the ball a bit more will be important for this team.
- I noticed that Mike broke off plays in the triangle quite often to find his own scoring chances. Not necessarily a problem when the shots are falling but you don’t want someone like Michael Beasley thinking he’s Kobe Bryant in that system.
- The thing I really did like about this performance was the fact that Beasley was so aggressive. Yes, he was out of control at times but it’s good to see the Wolves MIGHT have someone who can be a big-time scorer. Let’s not crown him the absolute go-to guy just yet. I know it’s easy to get sucked in by this performance but I liked the mentality overall.
- Put Beas in the open court and I like what he can do with the ball. His turnovers seemed to happen most when space around the move he was trying to make was taken away from him. But give him room to operate in the open floor and I doubt many players can stop him in that situation.
Kevin Love – 11 pts, 8 rebs, 6 asts, 1 blk, 1 to, 3/5 FG, 1/1 3FG, 4/4 FT, +18 in 26 minutes
- Something I love to see from Kevin? He still flies down the court and forces his man to hustle in transition. But the beautiful part is he gets in front of his man and immediately grabs offensive rebounding position. This allows his teammates to take quick jumpers when open. If they miss, no big deal – he’ll be there to clean it up.
- Oh by the way, Kevin Love still can’t really defend. He had a decent possession against Odom in which he challenged the shot well. He does challenge jumpers quite nicely. But when big, agile guys put the ball on the floor against him or just try to muscle him inside, he gets abused.
- If the jumpers are falling, I’m pretty sure Kevin Love can get at least four assists per game just from handoff passes to shooters.
- Once again, the outlet passing is still outstanding. He got Corey Brewer his only bucket of the game with a great lead pass that lead to a breakaway dunk.
- Love’s between the legs pass was pretty unnecessary and fantastic at the same time. Might as well give them a show, right?
- As much as I lament the future of this team’s interior defense with Love and Darko on the floor together, they work really well offensively. Darko gets into space around the basket perfectly and is always waiting for the pass from Love. Love is willing to drop it off with quick shuffle passes as soon as the defense gets sucked in. The high-low game between them looks good so far with their decision-making.
Darko Milicic – 8 pts, 6 rebs, 5 asts, 2 blks, 1 to, 4/5 FG, 0/2 FT, +14 in 25 minutes - Probably unfair to judge Darko going against Pau Gasol in the first action of the pre-season but I was disappointed in his interior defense. His help was late or unaware. He struggles against lengthy players. And the only time he looked real solid in the post was defending Derrick Caracter (who Darko has a few inches on). His timing on the block against Caracter’s shot in the paint was perfect but it helps having the height advantage.
- With that said, I don’t think you can take TOO much from this defensive performance. It’s nothing to be ashamed of when Pau is outplaying you.
- I loved how active Darko was on the glass. Tons of effort there and he was ready to give the good, quick outlet pass as soon as he secured the board.
- He’s also going to get some good assists off those handoff passes. He moves his body into the defender who is chasing the man without the ball around the screen. Darko always sets himself before the handoff to avoid the offensive foul.
- We also got to see how Darko operates in the high-low. Love was spectacular in it and Darko was great at making the right play, whether it led to a score or not. He’s still not one of the best passing big men in the league but he can do some things when the triangle is running crisply.
Luke Ridnour – 6 pts, 7 asts, 1 reb, 4 stls, 2 tos, 3/6 FG, +15 in 28 minutes - For the most part, I liked what I saw from Luke. He was unselfish with the ball and is so good at shooting that pull-up jumper in transition. Luke helped well on defense with the way he trapped down and knocked away loose balls.
- Have to respect a two-on-zero fastbreak that results in setting up your rookie for an off-the-backboard alley-oop.
- Man-to-man defense is not looking too hot. Shouldn’t be a problem when he’s the backup point guard, once Jonny Flynn is back.
- Ridnour already seems to have the triangle down cold. He did a great job of making sure everyone was in position and making the right reads.
Wesley Johnson – 9 pts, 1 blk, 2 tos, 4/6 FG, 1/1 3FG, +11 in 21 minutes - Loved the jumper and how smoothly he got it off.
- Did not love how easily you can take him out of the offense by pressuring him when he gets the ball. This won’t get fixed overnight and maybe it’s just adjusting to the speed of the NBA game. But he can’t really handle the ball yet.
- His length and athleticism on defense is pretty nice. He helped very well dropping down to harass the post player and he can still stay out and challenge jumpers.
- His transition defense was really nice too. He gets in position by hustling down the court and then lets the offensive player make the commitment before reacting and uses his reach to make it difficult to get a good look at the basket.
Anthony Tolliver – 10 pts, 6 rebs, 3 asts, 2 tos, 4/7 FG, 1/1 3FG, 1/2 FT, +5 in 22 minutes - Tolliver is like a really good version of Brian Cardinal. I mean that as a compliment.
- He’s a really good spot-up shooter and can easily be forgotten by the defense.
- He showed good hands and nice quick moves inside to get a good scoring opportunity. He attacks the length of the opposing defense really well.
Corey Brewer – 4 pts, 1 reb, 1 stl, 2 tos, 1/9 FG, 0/1 3FG, 2/4 FT, +7 in 23 minutes - Rough day for Corey but he did play pretty decent man-to-man defense. It still has the potential to be special someday if he can get stronger.
- Other than that, he had a truly horrible performance. He forced shots miserably all over the floor and his passing was way too chaotic. Instead of forcing up shots, it would be nice to see patience from him and have him move the ball.
Martell Webster – 24 pts, 2 rebs, 1 ast, 2 tos, 8/13 FG, 3/5 3FG, 5/7 FT, +6 in 30 minutes - Loved the way Martell played and thought he was the best player on the court throughout this game. His jumper was deadly and he was very concise with his movements when attacking the basket.
- He’s another guy like Beasley that you don’t want to just fall in love with the jumper. He’s so athletic and strong with the ball when he wants to be. You’d like to see him use that to get into the paint more.
- Even though it’s not totally fair to compare the three players at this point, you can see the difference between Webster on the floor and guys like Brewer and Wesley on the floor. Martell does a nice job of being a leader and steadying force. He and Ridnour will probably have a very positive influence on this young group.
- When he gets hot, he’ll be the main recipient of those handoff passes that create jumpers off the screen.
Wayne Ellington – 9 pts, 1 reb, 2 asts, 1 to, 4/10 FG, 1/2 3FG, +4 in 20 minutes - I don’t like Wayne Ellington playing the point. He didn’t do a poor job out there but he dribbles way too much. It’s probably just because he’s not used to playing the point and it can get better with experience. I just wasn’t comfortable with him running the offense.
- I do love when Wayne gets to be a scorer first and foremost. He’s so good at being aggressive and getting quick shots off. We saw a lot of that in the summer league when he was playing well. I think he can be a valuable scorer off the bench in that type of role.
Lazar Hayward – 2 pts, 0/1 FG, 2/2 FT, +1 in 4 minutes - Didn’t see much out of him but his move to the basket that resulted in his free throw attempts was a strong, concise move.
- He rocks a headband nicely.
Kosta Koufos – 0 pts, 5 rebs, 1 to, 0/1 FG, -2 in 11 minutes - Good work on the boards but overall, he’s just not very good.
- Should be in the D-League the entire season.
Nikola Pekovic – 7 pts, 3 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl, 1 to, 1/1 FG, 5/6 FT, +3 in 12 minutes - His only made shot was a very quick baseline hook shot that reminded me a little of what Pau Gasol does with his left hand so well. Would love to see more shots like that from Pek.
- It’s almost guaranteed when you throw a crosscourt pass, Pekovic will get completely lost defensively. I don’t know if he has trouble tracking the ball or just staying with his man but he’s sort of all over the place and not in the fun Josh Smith way.
- Very slow to the baseline, even in the post. He doesn’t do a great job of cutting off angles when guys make quick moves in the post.
- Establishes position so well on offense. It would be nice to see him hold that same position on defense.
- He’s pretty much going to be strong than everybody on the court at all times.
- I loved how aggressive he was in getting to the basket and then getting to the free throw line. This guy will put up points in any amount of minutes on the floor. He’s a flat-out scorer.
Is it just me or does he look like one of the guys from Superman 2? Can we start calling him “Non”?
Final Thoughts on the Game - The interior defense is still pretty bad. It can get better with experience but I don’t have much confidence in Darko, Love, Beas or Non being able to stop anybody consistently inside.
- Wolves help defense is good but they get lost in rotations easily. Once they get out of proper rotation, it’s a free-for-all.
- The high-low with the Wolves frontcourt is going to be a thing of beauty. All four of the main frontcourt players can be very effective in it.
- The triangle offense always looks smoother when jumpers are falling.