Archives For Season Preview

img_1853I’ll admit, I went into Media Day completely green this year. Mostly I observed, trying to catch the tenor of the team overall, and it probably comes as no surprise that right now, the Timberwolves sound pretty upbeat. That’s not unusual for any team coming into the season. After all, it’s a brand new day, right? Even dealing with a significant injury to one of their most important players, there’s a feeling that things are going to make a little more sense this season than last, and there are really two big things that kept coming up as to why.

ADELMAN’S SYSTEM
It seemed like we were constantly being reminded how little time the team had to put in Adelman’s system last year. As a new coach of a young team who had to deal with the way the lockout prevented the team from practicing before the season, then prevented all but the most basic practices during the season, Adelman didn’t get to put much of his imprimatur on the playbook.

“We went to so much pick and roll because that was the only way that we were going to win,” he said. “We learned really quick why the year before they were 30th in the league in turnovers.” The pick and roll is one of the absolute foundations of the game, and when you’ve got Rubio running it, why not go to it a lot? With Love picking and popping and Pek picking and rolling, there was little profit in trying to fancy things up. Plus, since they ended up running a lot with two point guards, Adelman said, “We kind of developed a system where we could run a pick and roll here, we don’t have something there, you kick and you run another one.”

But this season, there’s not only more time to implement more play variations, there’s personnel better suited to running the kinds of plays Adelman likes. As Kirilenko pointed out, “”Adelman’s system is very good for me.” Adelman maintains that although it was a blessing to have passing big men like Webber and Divac in Sacramento (“Everybody talks about my system. My system was Vlade Divac and Chis Webber,” he said), he noted, “If you really make hard cuts, it’s just like getting an open shot for somebody. Watching Andrei in the Olympics, he’s always cutting, and he knows when to cut.”

Time and again he mentioned ball handling problems last year, bringing back memories of Wes Johnson’s feeble attempts at dribbling. But now he has players like Roy and Shved who can definitely handle the ball as guards/wings, plus bigger players like Budinger and Kirilenko who can handle the ball as wings/forwards.

Partly due to the condensed season and partly due to personnel, the Wolves last year were essentially a one move team when it came to the half-court: pick and roll all day. But any basketball coach or trainer will tell you you need more than one go-to move; you need moves and then counters to go to when the first option gets taken away. With new players and added prep time this year, it seems reasonable to expect the Wolves’ uneven offensive execution to improve.

Not that Adelman isn’t concerned about defense. Although the frontcourt is a bit thin and they perhaps lack a definitive lockdown defender, Adelman maintained they could become good defenders as a team. It’s not like they were even horrible on D prior to Rubio’s injury. As Love pointed out, “We were one of the best fourth quarter defensive teams at the start of last season. We just need to buy in.” Consistency is the watchword, it would appear, and in some ways, Rubio’s absence at the start of the season might help that development. Without him to push the offense or bail out the defense, the team will have to work together if they want to succeed.

NEW FACES, NEW CULTURE
The other overarching theme that kept coming up, sometimes more bluntly than others, was how much the Wolves sought to change the culture of the locker room with their roster moves this offseason. Kahn played it off, as he is wont to do, saying, “I don’t think that was a motivating factor at all, the so-called chemistry. I think that as much as it’s easy to say, people forget that until Ricky went down we were having a decent little season.”

Nonetheless, success can paper over a lot of problems, and it’s possible that the breakdown the team suffered after Rubio’s injury revealed some things that needed fixing. As Love pointed out about last year’s team, “Some guys they had a date circled on their calendar. It wasn’t the one that said this is going to be our first day of the playoffs—it was this is the day I get to go home.”

Adelman touched on it as well, saying “Too many times last year, when we lost a game, it didn’t hurt enough.” Of course, it can be hard to judge exactly how resilient players are going to be before they get into the thick of the season, but there’s an unmistakable sense of well-placed confidence among the players. It reminds me a little of the episode of Band of Brothers called “Replacements” where new troops are brought in to fill in for casualties in Easy Company, but in reverse. In the episode, the veterans are suspicious of the raw recruits straight out of training until they prove themselves, at which point they’re afforded a measure of respect. With the Wolves, though, some of the more raw or inefficient players have moved on and been replaced by more experienced and confident veterans.

The players were, understandably, loathe to throw anyone under the bus, but anyone who watched last season can well remember the body language of players like Johnson, Beasley, Randolph and, especially, Darko Milicic—a player whose name seemed to hang on the lips of every player asked a question about chemistry last year. Watching Pekovic attempt to navigate his feelings about Darko’s departure was about as touching as watching a 6’11”, 290 lb man speak can be.

“I mean, he’s a good friend and for sure I will miss him,” he said. “I visit him all the time when I’m home. It was tough, you know. There were some tough moments, you know, with him. And I just try to be a good teammate, you know, but it’s tough when you’ve got all these … things. I mean … it’s just … I don’t want to say … it’s tough.”

This was another thing I learned at Media Day: watching for those human moments. Pekovic struggled with the language, yes, but he was also struggling to not throw a good friend under the bus. And who among us has not worked with someone you like, who you get along with, with whom you share interests or an upbringing, but whom you know just isn’t very good at their job? I gained a little respect for Pekovic right there, actually, recognizing how hard it can be to try and say the right things for the team, for himself, and for his friend all at the same time.

The season stretches out before us and, as there almost always is, there’s a restrained air of optimism around the Timberwolves. A million things could go wrong, sure. But couldn’t they always? I’m just looking forward now to this team taking the floor and for us all to get to see how they work together. They’ve built the Hot Wheels set and now the little car awaits, carefully placed in the garage that’s going to blast it down the track.

EMINEMLet’s take a trip back to the late-winter of 1999. I had moved to New York City just before New Year’s and started an internship at 3-2-1 Records, an independent hip-hop label, in late January. At the time, it seemed all anyone was talking about in independent hip-hop (at least in New York) was Rawkus Records, but 3-2-1 had a solid roster of established talent and up-and-comers that we thought could make some noise. Blackalicious was on the label, as were Bigg Jus from Company Flow, the Micranots (from Minneapolis and featuring current Rhymesayers mainstay I Self Devine), Chicago’s sorely underrated Rubberoom, and a production duo from Long Island called Skeme Team.

At that time, there was also, of course, a rapper by the name of Eminem getting ready to take the airwaves by storm (we still had airwaves back then) coming from what I viewed as the opposite side of the spectrum from what 3-2-1 Records represented: the mainstream. Sure, The Slim Shady LP came out on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, but it was part of Interscope, which was part of UMG, which was huge. I’d seen the video for “My Name Is” on MTV (which still actually played the occasional video back then) and thought it clever and often hilarious, but I didn’t take it seriously. Here was another white guy rapping, seemingly with more cred than Vanilla Ice, but the tone of the song made me think he was more Weird Al than Kool Keith. (By the way, in the words of G.O.B. Bluth, “I’m white.”) It seemed like a novelty to me compared to the artists I was most into at the time: Mos Def, Outkast, The Roots, etc.

But then this funny thing happened. In the second week of February, I got tasked with driving one of the vans for a short Atlantic seaboard tour by Skeme Team and a bunch of rappers: Pumpkinhead, Thirstin Howl III, and a few others, possibly Non Phixion and the Arsonists. We were going to head up through Rhode Island, stop for an in-store in Providence before proceeding to a radio appearance in Boston and a show at the Western Front, then down to Philadelphia the next day for Bahamadia’s radio show and another in-store, then back to New York. I was 22 and completely out of my depth, and the whole thing is smeared into a blur of snowy driving, frequent stops for malt liquor and cigarettes, and losing my ATM card in a machine in Philly. What I remember most clearly (other than the guy we found passed out in his car at a green light near the 103.9 FM studios at three in the morning) is the music they listened to in the van. It consisted more or less of only two things: their own beats and an advance cassette copy of The Slim Shady LP, which wouldn’t be released for another week. The whole tour they kept goofing on the “Hi! My name is” hook of the lead single. “Chikka chikka twin babies,” they’d joke. “Chikka chikka gin gravy.”

You could call it my first experience of “game recognize game.” I wrote off Eminem on first listen because he was a.) funny and b.) white, although not necessarily in that order. Ever since rap became part of the pop culture lingua franca in the early ‘90s, I’d watched commercials and movies and various sadsack acts appropriate rap and fail. But here were guys firmly planted in their own musical world—so firmly planted in Brooklyn, in fact, that they dismissed my attempt to play Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night by saying, “They’re from the Bronx”—taking notice of this skinny blond kid from Michigan.

Which brings me to your 2012-13 Minnesota Timberwolves. As Ben Polk already expertly pointed out, this year’s squad is going to be a much pastier proposition than in years past, but it’s not at all clear what this is going to mean. “The facts on the ground cut against the grain of our inherited assumptions, perhaps beyond the point of recognition,” Ben wrote. The team encompasses playstyles from flashy to crafty to bruising to smooth, plus presents so many new options that it’s difficult to tell exactly what kind of team is going to emerge as the season progresses. If they’re successful (especially if they’re successful), plenty of stories will focus on the team’s complexion, just as plenty of stories about Eminem focused on his. But what I found out on that tour in the van was that whatever the public thought of Marshall Mathers, he’d already earned the respect of his peers. They were already past it, already focused on him as a fellow artist, in some ways a model and in some ways competition. The biggest story about Eminem ended up being how little of a story race was. When it comes down to what happens on the court, maybe the same will be true of the Timberwolves.

It begins

Benjamin Polk —  April 10, 2012 — 5 Comments

Looking ahead to next season while the current season is still underway is almost a Spring ritual of Timberwolves fandom. It looked for all the world like we might actually be able to think about things like whether Kevin Love ever deserved to be mentioned as an MVP candidate or whether the Wolves could conceivably win a playoff game against the Thunder…but at this point those long-ago thoughts seem a little quaint.

So, given the horror of the Wolves’ last few performances, its only fitting that some of us should begin detailing the necessary off-season overhauls. Speculating as to which baroque maneuvers the Taylor/Kahn administration might conceive of has always given me night terrors; I always end up so exceptionally, bewilderingly wrong when I try. But luckily, our friend Stop-n-Pop over at Canis is both braver and more well-versed in the nuances of the salary cap than I.

Here are SnP’s most fundamental recommendations:

  • Avoid multi-year 4-for-4 Kahntracts for bench players.
  • Only splurge on your own draft picks (the good ones–cut bait as quickly as possible on the bad ones) and on players whose Bird Rights you have acquired via trade.
  • Fill out the sub 20 mpg part of the roster with foreign players, D-Leaguers, and 2nd round picks–preferably on 1 year contracts.
  • Derrick Williams and the Utah and/or Memphis picks are the best assets you have to make a move for a 2013 RFA with Bird Rights. Ideally this move would have been made this season (Batum or McGee) but that ship has sailed. In the meantime, the 2/3 should be addressed by targeting Green, Meeks, Lee, Hill (or similar .100wp48+ esque player) + some flier/filler: Evans or someone like Joe Alexander. The other wing spot will hopefully be filled via the Williams RFA trade.
  • Dump as many resources as possible into developing/maintaining a state of the art draft operation. I.e. go over to the U and find some PhD candidates who play pick up ball, count cards, and know how to use excel. This is, never has been, and never will be rocket science.

As SnP admits, this entire endeavor is dreadfully speculative and freighted with unknowns and moving parts; still his piece is quite detailed and very much worth reading.

 

Friends, the longest night of the year has come and gone. The lockout is now, miraculously, a bitter memory. Ricky Rubio, Rick Adelman, Derrick Williams, the svelte, newly athletic Kevin Love and all of the rest of your Wolves will soon take the floor for an actual, certified NBA game. So how’s this gonna go? This year’s Wolves are a strange amalgamation of moving parts and oddly shaped puzzle pieces.  Although we’re hopeful that something new and great is about to begin, there are still scads of unanswered questions hanging in the air. Zach, Myles and I have no better idea than the rest of you how this will all play out, but here’s our best shot untangling some of the riddles that will inform the Wolves’ season. All that’s left to do is play basketball. Read on…

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Photo by Ian Munroe

Death and decay are two inexorable facts of life. Everything gets old; everything wilts and fades; everything dies. We’ve been dealing with this for quite a while now.  We U.S. Americans, though, are becoming practiced in the art of forgetting these facts. We’re smitten with newness and youth.  This is maybe the great appeal of sports. When we watch, we get to forget about dying and our own aging bodies. We get to feast our eyes on the powerful, fluent movements of the young and in so doing, briefly make their bodies our own.

This is both magical and, like most of the best parts of our pop culture, also a huge problem.  Because in sports (particularly the NBA and the NFL), even the slightest sign of aging (remember: inexorable fact of life) is viewed as weakness. And weakness is intolerable to us. And so, in a world in which personal worth is assumed to be perfectly quantifiable–in dollars, wins, tails in seats–as a player begins to age, begins to enter into that phase of life known to us non-physical geniuses as adulthood, said aging is accompanied by rapidly diminishing value, until that fella is finally judged to be of no value at all.

This is disconcerting for a guy like me, 33 years old, really just now coming into bloom as a human. I’m not crazy about watching men younger than me casually discarded for their advancing age, for the grave sin of minutely diminishing lateral quickness. Just seems really cruel. (I would imagine, by the way, that this sense of unease at watching our heroes fade, and the way it turns us back toward our own creeping mortality, is fairly common. And I’m convinced that this is a huge part of the NFL’s great success. With players faceless under those masks and that gear, its easy to maintain that sense that they are interchangeable. When a player gets old or damaged, he’s easily replaced by someone younger and fitter who looks essentially the same. We get to remain comfortably enthralled by the dream of perpetual youth.)

Oh, did I not mention that this was a Timberwolves season preview? In the NBA, youth signifies vitality and hope. And right now energetically embodied, hysterically physical youth is what the Timberwolves have to offer us. This youth is presented to us in many forms. There’s Michael Beasley’s adolescent exuberance (genuinely charming), unavoidably accompanied by his equally adolescent decision making and penchant for indulgent heroism (not at all charming).

There’s Wesley Johnson, whose plainspoken, almost naive earnestness stands in stark contrast with his alarming quickness and leaping ability. And Kevin Love, still only 22 (!), cocky and self-assured in the way of people who have never really had anything bad happen to them. And Jonny Flynn (see Beasley, Michael); and the bruising, occasionally lewd and rude Nikola Pekovic; Corey Brewer and his ridiculously skinny legs; the shy, boyish Darko Milicic; and so many more.

You get the picture; overflows of energy and talent coupled with barely burgeoning maturity. Sports are already an inverted world. But when you consider that, at age 23 with five years of NBA experience, Martell Webster is the even-tempered veteran presence, suddenly gravity really does seem to be pulling us up.

So where does all this, plus the team’s startling 6-2 pre-season leave us? There are some things I think we can be pretty sure about already. The team will (thank goodness) defend with much more verve and awareness than they did last year. With any luck, they will run the floor with some seriousness of purpose (as opposed to last year’s haphazard, often turnover-friendly chaos). Their half-court offense will probably look a little stilted for a while as these young guys begin to scratch the surface of the reads and reactions necessary to run Kurt Rambis’ offense.

And there’s still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know whether Jonny Flynn will improve enough (or whether Luke Ridnour will get enough minutes) to keep this ship afloat. We don’t know whether Darko and Koufos and Pekovic will be able to protect the basket (or even whether Pek will be able to stay on the floor). We don’t know whether Beasley will ever become a viable, every-night NBA scorer.

But what is most important to me right now is that even one quick glance tells you how strikingly different this team is than last year’s. These Wolves communicate a kinetic energy, a sense of immediacy and motion that has been missing since KG left the building. It’s been this lack, more even than the innumerable losses, that have made the Wolves so miserable to watch over the past three years. Activity and abandon and potential and desire: these are youth’s essences. This extreme youth will probably cause the Timberwolves to lose a lot of games this year. And this team will certainly not challenge us to rethink our assumptions about the aging athlete. But at their best, they could also give us the opportunity to indulge in one of life’s sweetest, guiltiest illusions: the one that tells us that we just might live forever.