You’ll have to forgive me for jumping on the meme-wagon after just the first game. I certainly hesitate to add anything to the overheated squall this is likely to produce. But sometimes you just can’t pass it up. The barest facts: Kevin Love, the Wolves’ leading shooter, rebounder and best player by far in the preseason, exits the game with 8:39 remaining in the 4th quarter; the Wolves go on a small, but crucial 7-2 run to tie the game at 98; the run falters; Love does not return; the Wolves lose by one.
It had all the hallmarks of one of the more depressing stories of last season: Love (seemingly) inexplicably benched, sinking into a guilt/frustration cycle on his comfy seat, emotionally unable to cheer on his team as the Wolves get edged down the stretch and fans and media get apoplectic. I threw in that parenthetical “seemingly” because, despite the sheer stupefied disbelief of nearly everybody in attendance (myself included), there actually is a totally reasonable explanation for Love’s banishment. And it points to what I think is a really interesting clash of paradigms, of two different way of understanding the game.
Paradigm 1: Kevin Love is your best player. He has a gold medal that he can wear whenever he feels like it. He hit 14 of his 24 preseason threes and led the league in (at least one measure of) efficiency. He is one of the NBA’s finest, most ferocious rebounders. Ergo, he should play in the fourth quarter of a close game. This is the paradigm within which most of the discourse among fans, media and even coaches takes place.
Paradigm 2: For most of the game, the Wolves played defense more poorly than they had throughout the entire pre-season. They made mental errors; they rotated tepidly; they committed foolish fouls. Here’s Rambis on the team’s defensive failings:
The team defensive concepts weren’t there[…]Most of it had to do with our weakside defense not being in their proper help positions. Without boring you with all the details about where they’re supposed to be, but just our weakside, they weren’t active, they weren’t in their spots that they’re supposed to get based on where the ball is and what’s happening offensively. So we were very slow and indecisive in what we were doing there.
Oh, don’t worry Kurt, we’re not bored! When asked if defense was the cause of Anthony Tolliver snagging Love’s 4th quarter minutes, Rambis tersely replied, “Yes, I thought that he was moving his feet well. He challenged shots, he blocked shots. He did a good job defensively.”
This was true enough. During that key 4th quarter run, Tolliver was a model of defensive tenacity and awareness. First, he smartly trapped Donte Green in the quarter, entirely disrupting Sacramento’s offensive rhythm. Shortly thereafter, he was beaten on a basket cut by Carl Landry but quickly recovered for a majestic rejection at the rim (one of his four blocks on the game). On the next possession, Tolliver aggressively rotated to a driving Greene, forcing a pass to Jason Thompson, who missed jumper from far beyond his range.
When the point was raised that Love is “arguably the team’s best player overall” (this was Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, courageously voicing what we were all thinking and bringing Paradigm 1 squarely face-to-face with paradigm 2), Rambis interrupted, with a little edgily, “That’s your opinion…I thought Anthony Tolliver was doing the things defensively that we needed at that point and time in the ballgame.”
In other words, the team’s best player is whoever is playing the best on a given night, with defensive performance topping the list of criteria. Or, put more sharply: this is a 15-win team and 15-win teams have no “best player,” gold medals and preseason stats bedamned. This is really the essence of Paradigm 2: no matter who you are, you earn your minutes every night.
In this NBA, it takes some serious leather to bench your team’s most fan-favored, most media-gilded player simply because he didn’t play defense quite how you wanted him to. Now, I still think that Rambis ought to have reinserted Love once that Tolliver-fueled spurt had run its course. And because there is something chastening and amazing about the way he plays (not to mention that he really is the Wolves’ best player), I would ultimately like to see Love get more burn. But I must say that, despite myself, I find Rambis’ cussedly old-skool moral compass kind of charming. Very Dr. Jack; very Hubie.