Archives For Kurt Rambis

My interview with Kevin Love was another treasure trove that I couldn’t really find a place for. Picture: an insanely cold day. Me drinking tea at the Starbucks across from the Target Center. A very tall man sitting across from me at an embarrassingly small table answering my questions–about his role on the team, his relationship with Kurt Rambis and the entire controversy over his minutes–with candor and good humor. I appreciate that.

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In another addition of the “stuff I didn’t use for the Truehoop story” series,  here’s my mildly edited interview with Kurt Rambis. I had been told that Rambis was so furious about the proposed content of my story that he nearly refused to talk to me. So by the time I got into his office, I was, just like the pro journalist I am, excruciatingly nervous. The barely-concealed irritation on his face as I entered certainly didn’t help matters. Don’t worry, it got easier.

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photo by carol_cacau

It goes without saying that this team doesn’t enjoy much positive attention. So when the national spotlight turned to our neck of the woods last month, it was a time to bask in hopes of a bright future. For one glorious night, we’d let the numbers speak for themselves.

But now comes the responsibility to state things more plainly. 31 rebounds was a feat in itself, even for such a prodigy. Those 31 points however, well…they were the ugliest 31 points I’d seen in quite some time.

Which makes Kevin Love’s performance tonight even more satisfying.

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Photo by K Hardy

This year’s Golden State Warriors are no longer be the spectral vision of chaos that once troubled the sleep of the NBA’s elite. The days of Baron Davis, Captain Jack, 6’7″ centers, wantonly careless defense and constant, brazen shooting may be over. But this team, with their skinny, pale duo of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry can still cause deep panic in a defense, particularly one as inexperienced and undisciplined as our Wolves.

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Photo by Laser Burners

In the past three years, the Wolves haven’t had many opportunities to win basketball games of any kind. Thrilling endings and clutch buzzer-beaters have mostly been some enviable luxury, like when the rich kids at school used to show off their Girbauds and Valterra skateboards. My memory of potential game-winning shots includes: Randy Foye getting a three blocked by Dwyane Wade; lots of hurried, un-lovely, poorly executed plays; Damian Wilkins’ blind luck.

In any case, it’s been a really long time since we’ve seen any T-Wolf with the ability to do what Michael Beasley did in the Timberwolves’ Wednesday night 113-111 win against the Clippers. There he was, with the game tied and time running down, isolated against Ryan Gomes at the top of the key. He took two hard dribbles to his right, pulled up at the elbow, elevated over the double-team and hit the game winner. For the past week at least, and for the first time in years, the Wolves have had somebody who can salvage a bucket when the offense fails to produce an open look (which is often), who can create for himself when the wheels fall off the machine, who actually can hit a game-winner over a double-team. Its a strange feeling.

And it’s a good thing, too, because the Wolves went to extraordinary lengths to lose this game. Their previous seven possessions had been a carnival of horrors: hurried execution, careless passes, poorly chosen jumpers, missed layups. Only Corey Brewer’s utterly ridiculous flailing bank-shot to tie the game at 111 with 1:14 remaining salvaged this hideous stretch of play. The shot was vintage Brewer in that it was almost more troubling than heartening. It had no conceivable reason to go in the basket; it was a sign of an offense entirely out-of-sync.

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Photo by Kevin Dooley

Over the past week, the T-Wolves have been tremendously bad, probably the worst team in the NBA. They can’t hit a shot. They can’t prevent opponents from doing same. They’ve been outscored by 130 points over five games. Luckily (?) for us, this punishing awfulness has not gone unnoticed.

So what’s Milicic done so far this season? Basically, he’s been the league’s worst rotation player. Although Sunday night’s seven-point, three-rebound “outburst” kept his PER above zero, his defense has been as bad his offense, and only two players have played at least 100 minutes with a worse PER.

I can’t possibly contest any of these points. Darko is shooting 23% from the field. His defense has, indeed “been as bad as his offense”. He’s played with absurdly low energy. He has been really terrible. Right now, those four years (to be fair: three, plus an option year) are looking like a really bad deal. Still, Darko’s game has been so off that it can only seem like some strange aberration. I mean, he can’t possibly shoot 23% all year, right? I’m not saying he’s going to prove to be a steal, but I’m also not ready to call a move un-defensible after just seven games.

  • Dave Berri is tremendously confident in his own ability to understand professional basketball using math. That he seems to believe that the value of his metrics are self-evident (“as you can plainly see from so-and-so’s WinsProduced/48, so-and-so is bad at basketball” is a favored rhetorical device) and that he has a particularly clinical and bloodless view of the game  should not blind us to the essential truth that he’s helped uncover: basketball players tend to be judged mostly on the volume of points they pour in, but it’s things like rebounding, turnovers, shooting efficiency that actually produce wins (defense is notably absent from the discussion). So its interesting to note Berri’s take on the Kevin Love/Kurt Rambis soap opera. Berri observes (with many a chart and some cheap pop-psychology) that in his level of production, Love bears a striking resemblance to one Kurt Rambis, circa 1982. And most interestingly, that Rambis  seems to undervalue Love for the same reasons that Rambis himself was undervalued as a player:

Rambis, though, was a very productive non-scorer. And when we look at Kevin Love, we see a somewhat similar story. Love does take many more shots than Rambis. But Love’s low level of shooting efficiency means that few people are going to confuse Love with some of the game’s most productive scorers. Despite this inability to be an outstanding scorer, Love still produces wins because he is an amazing rebounder. Yes, much like his head coach – who also was a very good rebounder – Love can produce wins without being a prolific scorer.

Yup that is interesting (although, again, defense is not factored into the analysis). Here’s what I have to say right now about this fiasco.

First: I agree that Kevin Love is currently the Wolves best player and should be playing more (though he is currently tied for the team lead in minutes played). And that nurturing Love into a confident, committed pro should be among the team’s primary goals.

Second: the Wolves lost to Miami by 32. They lost to Orlando by 42 (million). Memphis by 20. Houston by 26. Would playing Kevin Love an extra five minutes a game really have altered any of these outcomes?

Third: Love got benched in the third quarter of the Atlanta game because he was playing listless, self-pitying basketball. He does that sometimes.

  • On the surface, this last thing has very little to do with the Timberwolves. But its some utterly righteous writing and has to do with Randy Moss and so should interest us. David Roth, a friend of this blog, writes about the professional football for the Awl. And when I say “writes about the professional football” I mean: embarks on dazzling, tangential voyages of cultural/political consciousness that end in fairly inaccurate NFL game predictions. Example: “the desperate narcissism and self-defeating vainglory that has degraded Moss from one of the NFL’s supreme talents into one of the NFL’s most toxic assets reflects the same anxiety that leads some Gadsden-Flag goof to slap a Hitler mustachio on a picture of Nancy Pelosi.” Right!? Here’s David this week (and you should really read this whole thing), on the strange tension between fabulous individual expression and communal self-sacrifice that make the NFL really compelling (this, by the way, has everything to do with the NBA):

What succeeding under these circumstances requires, finally, is less virtuosity than the humility and patience and, one more time, grace to trust in others and then the generosity to make one’s own brilliance more broadly valuable. Randy Moss, since he was very young, has been the fastest and most physically graceful human on the football field—it’s saying something about how fast and graceful he is that the statement is still true at age 33, after 13 seasons in the NFL. The problem—the thing that has made him this beautiful and despised vagabond, that has him heading to his fourth team in five years in something like disgrace—is partly that he seemingly cannot or will not trust in others, and mostly that he seemingly cannot fully comprehend the importance of a cause greater than himself.

This is a common enough thing. Trusting in and caring about other people is tough and scary and frankly weird given that we—Randy and the rest of us—are taught that it somehow makes you weak. But it is what being an adult demands, and the important thing is that you either do it or you don’t. You either believe in something bigger than yourself or you can’t.

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.”

[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.

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

ESPN’s panel of experts has been speaking for nearly two weeks now. So far, they think the Heat will win lots of basketball games, that Amare Stoudemire will be a disappointment and that Lebron James will be good. Nothing all that controversial there. Today, though, the panel pronounced that our Timberwolves would be the most tumultuous team in the NBA this year. The Pups narrowly beat out the Cavs and Hornets but still, I thought, our honor needed some defending. So over at the ESPN NBA page, I did just that. Here’s the nuts and bolts of the thing. As you can see, they caught me on an optimistic day:

I realize it seems questionable to brazenly flout the “best player available” maxim by drafting Wesley Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins, and then immediately duplicating Johnson’s skill set by trading the 16th pick for Martell Webster.

It’s strange to trade Al Jefferson, the team’s best player over the past three seasons, for two draft picks, and then bring in Michael Beasley to replace him as your go-to scorer. And even stranger to sign two Serbian centers for a grand total of $34 million over the next four seasons, especially when one of them is named Darko Milicic.

And maybe you’re also amused and/or exhausted by the knowledge that in the first year of Kahn’s tenure, the Wolves have acquired no fewer than seven point guards, some of them more than once (although, to his credit, not all at the same time).

And that teenage prodigy Ricky Rubio — the fifth pick in the ’09 draft and maybe the best player of all of those PGs — currently runs game in Barcelona with no guarantee of ever setting foot in Minnesota…

It’s fashionable at the moment to ridicule Kahn as an abrasive, unqualified hack. It’s clear the man has had some awfully low moments this summer and that he and Rambis haven’t yet found that transcendent player who will give meaning to their long-suffering franchise. And it’s equally clear that the Wolves are going to lose a lot of games this season.

But if you scan this lineup — Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Wes Johnson, Martell Webster, Corey Brewer, even Darko Milicic and Michael Beasley — you’ll find a lot of young, smart, athletic, hungry players. These are players who want to learn, who want to run, who want to move the ball and play defense. Aren’t these just the type of players who would seem to fit well into Rambis’ up-tempo-and-triangle offense? And when you consider the Wolves have roughly $10 million in cap space, doesn’t the picture look a lot less ridiculous than this chaotic offseason might have suggested?

Am I just being naïve? Is it wrong for Wolves fans to hold on to even these tiny shreds of optimism? Let me tell you a story.

For the three years beginning with their six-game Western Conference finals loss to the Lakers in 2004 and ending with the Kevin Garnett trade of 2007, the Wolves slowly melted down. With very few exceptions (KG among them), the team became a nightmare of ball-hogging, extravagant contract demands, intentionally careless defense and mediocre effort. As the front office hemorrhaged draft picks, this collection of aging jump-shooters and corrosive personalities contributed to the firing of both Flip Saunders and Dwane Casey and helped hasten the KG era’s sad, pathetic end. What I’m saying is: We’ve seen turmoil and this isn’t it.

Miles of Smiles

Benjamin Polk —  June 26, 2010 — 11 Comments

Photo by harold.lloyd

Here are a few clarifying, explanatory, provocative notes from Friday’s media sessions with the Wolves new draftees, Wes Johnson, Lazar Haywood and Namanja Bjelcia, plus David Kahn and Kurt Rambis.

  • Its become clear that the Timberwolves have made re-signing Darko Milicic (and, to a lesser extent, Nikola Pecovic) a condition of trading Al Jefferson. “It’s the right time finally for us to explore this,” Kahn said. “I’ve met with Al and discussed this. If Darko comes back, there could be a need to create some playing time. We really need to get our front line settled.” This is slightly unsettling because it  suggests that Kahn and Rambis have calibrated their concept of “team need” around Darko’s presence. One wonders: did this factor into their decision to pass on Demarcus Cousins? I am now squirming in my chair.
  • Kahn predicted that sign-and-trades, rather than straight free-agent signings would dominate the landscape this summer. But, as Myles rightly points out, now that Rudy Gay seems to be off the table it’s not clear which free agents the Wolves might be pursuing. They could certainly attempt use Al to work a Chris Bosh sign-and-trade although I would think that Bosh’s first desire would be to just go wherever Lebron goes. After that, what’s left? Joe Johnson? Carlos Boozer? Amar’e Stoudemire? David Lee? Tyrus Thomas? Amir Johnson? Does any of this make sense?
  • Or might the Wolves simply save their cap room for next summer, when the Miamis, Chicagos and New Jerseys of the world have already chased their dreams and Carmelo, Joakim Noah, Kendrick Perkins, Al Horford and Nene can all become free agents? The mind boggles.
  • Kahn adamantly rejected the premise that the Wolves needed to make dramatic changes in order to attract Ricky Rubio. “He’d like us to improve, but we all would,” Kahn said. “I think that what’s important to him is that he feels that he’s ready to play. And he feels that in a year he’ll be more ready to play. Anything else is just fluff.” Ok, then.
  • This from Kurt Rambis (a sentiment later endorsed by Kahn): “Last year was just what we had to do, business-wise. Now we’re starting to build a team. I’ve always considered this our first year. Last year was just a business year.” I guess we all kind of knew that already. Not sure how much business got done but it sure wasn’t much fun.
  • Also from Rambis: “Smart players don’t have a problem picking up any offense.” That’s a bold statement. But I feel like it explains a lot of what the Wolves are doing here. They clearly have put a premium on athletic players, like Johnson and Martell Webster, who also happen to be pretty sharp fellas. They may not be the ultimate in terms of pure individual skill but, I’m guessing this thinking goes, they’ll be able to find roles within the offense. They’ll be willing  and able to move the ball and move without the ball, to be in position to make plays and then to actually make them.
  • But still, commenter Mac makes a great point. Last season, the Wolves suffered from a desperate lack of shooting, athleticism and creativity on the wing. Johnson and and Webster take care of the first two but not the third. The team still badly needs a perimeter player who can (intelligently) create his own shot.
  • I was totally charmed by Johnson’s and Haywood’s giddiness and earnest enthusiasm. They seem like good dudes. I really hope they’re good basketball players.
  • Bjelica does not speak English well at all. We can only imagine how arduous an entire day spent in the company of strangers, in a country you’ve never before visited, answering questions in a language you barely speak must have been–particularly if those foreign strangers are your future employers. The kid looked sad-eyed and shell-shocked.

Follow Your Bliss

Benjamin Polk —  June 6, 2010 — 1 Comment

Photo by KayVee.INC

Phil Miller of the Star-Tribune reports, right here, on David Kahn’s and Kurt Rambis’s attempts to sweet-talk Ricky Rubio and family in Barcelona. And although Rubio’s buyout and voyage to the NBA is still more than a year away, everybody is apparently  smitten:

“Rubio was impressed with Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis when they met for the first time last week, and the 19-year-old point guard told friends that ‘he can envision playing for Kurt’…Rubio, taken fifth overall in last June’s draft, had dinner with Rambis, Kahn and Rubio’s father, Esteve, in Barcelona late last week, and ‘Kurt and Ricky hit it off right away,’ Kahn said.”

Is anyone else feeling a “Millionaire Matchmaker” vibe? Here’s the best part:

“Asked to describe himself as a player, Rubio said, ‘A player who wants to make people happy with his play on the court … a colorful, attractive, spectacular basketball player.’”

Wow, that sounds great. When asked to describe myself as a blogger, I often think for a moment and then reply, “you know, I think of myself a colorful, attractive, spectacular blogger.” Just want to make people happy.