There are lots of reasons why the Timberwolves are a poor fourth quarter team, why they’ve lost ten times (worst in the NBA) after carrying a lead into the final frame. Those oft-mentioned ‘intangibles’ are part of the problem: maintaining composure and focus when things get wild; summoning the energy and determination to make the essential plays. An example of the former might be Ricky Rubio spinning wildly through the lane before lobbing the ball over Nikola Pekovic’s head and out of bounds with 3:18 remaining and the score tied at 93. Or Derrick Williams turning down a wide-open midrange jumper in order to mow down the perfectly positioned Carl Landry. An example of the latter might be, for instance, failing to defensive rebound a missed free throw down by two with 38 seconds left.
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At the beginning of the season, as the Wolves added white dude after white dude to their roster, we discussed the team’s unprecedented racial makeup. We wondered about the potential interactions between these strikingly white Wolves and their mostly white fanbase. We discussed the Wolves’ potential as a kind of old school/new school hybrid, a stylistic melange that would incorporate and complicate nearly every archetype in the NBA pantheon.
More specifically, we wondered about Ricky Rubio’s recovery and whether his reunion with Kevin Love could possibly live up to our wild hopes. We wondered how Love would mold his newfound superstardom and how that stardom would interact with a new, suddenly competent, set of teammates and with a fuller expression of Rick Adelman’s offense. We wondered what moves Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved might bring to the dance. How would J.J. Barea’s antic freestyles play against Kirilenko’s humble, heavily structured game? What does a Shved/Rubio backcourt feel like? Does Brandon Roy even have knees? And what is a Shved anyway?
It’s strange to listen to coaches and players and announcers attempt to make sense of the Timberwolves’ current situation. Over and over we hear testaments to the team’s professionalism and resolve, evocations of the stoic warrior ethos: we keep playing; we play with who we have; we all sacrifice more; someone new has to step up. And from their perspectives, this makes sense. After all, even with a lineup as decimated as this, what else are you going to do? The games are on the schedule. You have to play them. The only alternative is a kind of numb, Anthony Randolphian apathy, which, while probably justified by the circumstances, only makes things more painful.
But the hard fact of the matter is that the Wolves–particularly now that they are without J.J. Barea and Andrei Kirilenko–are so undermanned, are stretched so thin at every position that their chances of beating competent NBA teams are awfully remote. Despite the stoic rhetoric, you could see the heft of this realization weighing on the players’ faces at the end of this game. Deep inside, they know: When they play their guts out against good teams, they lose by less than ten points. When they are truly mismatched, or when they are not quite at their best, they get hammered. At certain moments the absurdity of it all seeps through the cracks. What is happening here? Where is Kevin Love and why is Mickael Gelabale getting serious minutes for an NBA team? Why are we even doing this? That’s despair talking. And–get this–we’re not even to the All-Star break.
The Timberwolves’ free-throw shooting is occasionally mediocre and often terrible. Their three-point shooting, as has been well-documented in these very pages, is historically awful. So when you’re thinking about the team’s chances on a particular night it’s important to realize: the Wolves, in essence, begin nearly every game in a scoring hole. In order to have a chance to win, they have to make up for and exceed this almost pre-ordained deficit by surpassing their opponent in other phases of the game.
This, I think, is a useful way of analyzing Friday night’s loss to the Knicks. In a six-point loss, the Wolves made just one fewer field goal than New York. They grabbed two more offensive rebounds and went to the line seven more times, the latter of which suggests that despite the nearly identical field goal percentages, the Wolves actually did a better job of creating good scoring chances than did the Knicks. All of that looks pretty good, right? Well how about this: the Knicks made 16 of their twenty free-throws (80%) and the Wolves made 19 of their 27 (just 70.4%). And now the really bad news: the Knicks made a below-average eight out of their 26 threes. The Wolves? One for 13, which is 7.7% if you’re into math. The rough reality becomes apparent: when you shoot threes that badly, playing your opponent evenly is simply not good enough.
That the Lakers are the NBA’s most colossal, most fascinating bummer has been well-documented. In the past, they were un-lovable but majestic. You could hate Kobe’s post-dagger jawfaces, you could hate Phil Jackson’s finely tailored beard and bullying spiritualism, but you could also marvel at their success and be awed by the sight of basketball beautifully played.
Now, however, we’ve got the same sense of blithe, Californian entitlement, the same terrible fans, the same petulant Kobe (he’s the only player I can think of who could drop 14 assists as an act of contempt) only now without the beauty and without the winning. David Roth, writing at Vice, has the definitive account of their poisoned well of a season. He put it this way:
If a winning Lakers team evokes the smugness of a Magic of the Movies montage during an Oscars telecast, a losing one reflects a different and more forlorn LA—a million hideous publicist-planted upskirts and celebrity DUI mugshots and pill-powered Daniel Baldwin car chases, all narrated in the sneer-scream of a TMZ correspondent.
Not deliciously infuriating, then, just lonely and depressing. If the Lakers’ signature failing has been their caustic team culture, then a close second has been the awful, awful defense. Consider: their starting point guard is 38 years old and was, during his prime, among the league’s worst defenders; their two other veteran stars are playing the worst defense of their careers; their bench is populated by the Antawn Jamisons and Steve Blakes and Jodie Meekses of the world. Its easy to understand, then, just how badly the Lakers miss even a much-diminished Dwight Howard anchoring the middle.
Rick Adelman will be on the bench for the Wolves’ matchup with the Clippers on Wednesday–and not a moment too soon if you ask me. We don’t know much about Kay Adelman’s illness–which is as it should be–except that her health is evidently improving. We do know that the Wolves were 2-9 in Adelman’s absence. We also know that we are glad he is back.
Not being privy to the day-to-day interactions of coach and players, its hard to suss out precisely how the coach affects his team’s play. What’s more, Terry Porter’s brief run as Wolves’ head coach coincided neatly with this most recent plague of injuries–you know, that one that has observers unduly praising Mickael Gelabale. Its clearly unfair to judge Porter based on a record compiled with the sparse, overextended roster that he’s been saddled with. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the task of, for instance, defending Deron Williams and Joe Johnson with the J.J. Bareas and Luke Ridnour’s of the world.
That said, the Wolves did seem to be less well prepared and to play less creatively with Porter at the helm. And Adelman while has always been reflective and insightful regarding his team’s play, Porter, with his “everybody pull together/keep working hard” bromides has seemed less so. (Not that we should be judging anybody based on how they interact with the media, but Porter’s “going with the hot hand” defense of J.J Barea was a low point.) Again, its hard to fathom exactly how a coach’s presence influences a team’s play, particularly given a sample size as tiny and deformed by circumstance as this one. Nevertheless, like I said, we’re glad that Adelman is back.
Did you happen to catch the shot of Ahmad Rashad and Michael “Air” Jordan wallowing away in MJ’s shadowy luxury suite? Here were greatest basketball player ever, captain of dynasties, phantasmagorically wealthy man and his best cigar buddy surveying the team he (MJ) owns and the players he attempted to screw to the wall just over a year ago–in what appeared to be wordless, abject boredom. Is this a product of Jordan’s legendarily psychotic vainglory gone to seed? Maybe the resentment inherent to graceless old age, the misery of being forced to watch young fellas many times your inferior playing the game you once dominated? Or maybe that’s just what it feels like to be the ruthlessly competitive owner of the NBA’s worst squad.
Because that’s what these Bobcats are. Coming into tonight’s game against the Wolves, they had lost 16 consecutive home games. They barely edge out the Wizards for the NBA’s worst record (and unlike the Wizards, have not won seven of their last 10 games). They are third worst in the league in offensive efficiency and are tied for last in defensive efficiency. This is a very bad team.
Here’s a sight for you. If you had taken a peak down the Wolves’ bench in the fourth quarter of this rigorously un-lovely loss to the Clippers, you would have seen: Lou Amundson, Greg Stiemsma, Lazar Hayward, J.J. Barea, lots of empty seats. Larry Bird is not walking through that door.
Past Timberwolves teams have been dislike-able for a host of reasons. From last year’s grim-faced underachievers to the callow, talentless bunches of years past, there have always been reasons to distance your self from the awful things happening on the court. But, in their basic competence, in their plucky, Euro-inflected flair, and in their foreignness to the Wolves’ rancid culture, this team has been unprecedentedly appealing.
Which makes it all the more of a bummer to see them so completely threshed by misfortune that even home games against upper-echelon opponents have come to feel essentially un-winnable. Even before Nikola Pekovic and Alexey Shved hobbled off the floor, this game was pretty dark. Facing the single-minded, absurdly long Deandre Jordan, Pek was just 1-8 from the floor. Shved looked every bit the fatigued rookie, as he has for most of the past month. Dante Cunningham continued to awkwardly brick his signature jumper. Ricky Rubio continued to play as if he is recovering from a reconstructive knee surgery that kept him off the court for nearly a year. J.J. Barea continued to attempt yogic finger-rolls over multiple shot blockers. The Wolves hit 21.1% of their threes. They hit just 14 of their 35 shots in the paint (!!!). They whiffed on wide-open layups; they bricked dunks.
As observers of the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of our favorite idle activities is wondering about Derrick Williams. There are a lot of reasons for this, but principle among them is a) the fact that, after he devoured everybody during his sophomore year of college, the Wolves made him the second pick in the draft and b) the fact that he is frighteningly athletic and talented but has yet to come anywhere close to living up to either his potential or his draft position.
The combination of those two facts tend to distort our perception of Williams’ performance. To us, Derrick Williams may always be “extremely talented/second pick” rather than simply “young player learning the game.” Incidentally, Rick Adelman, who has been around too long to be unduly impressed by either high draft position or exceptional, but unrealized talent, clearly views Williams through that latter lens. More than once, he has seemed mildly perplexed by the fuss that we all make over Williams. To Adelman, D-Will is just another gifted young guy who may or may not become good enough to stick.
Now that we’re fully into the third wave of 2012/13 Wolves injuries, Malcolm Lee whose “hyperextended knee” is a relic of the second wave, already seems like a distant memory. But he played for the Wolves this year and had a moderately positive effect on the team’s defense when he was on the floor. He was still a newcomer to the nuances of NBA team-defense, but his length and athleticism would certainly have been of use against the likes of Greivis Vasquez and Eric Gordon. But anyway he’s not playing any more basketball this season. From the Wolves:
The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced that guard Malcolm Lee will undergo two surgeries next week. On Monday, January 14, Lee will undergo a right knee cartilage repair. The surgery will be performed by Dr. Jonathan Glashow at Midtown Surgical Center in New York. On Wednesday, January 16, Lee will undergo surgery on his right hip. The surgery will be performed by Dr. Bryan Kelly at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Lee is expected to miss the remainder of the 2012-13 NBA season.
So it looks like, in two years of NBA experience, Lee will have missed 113 out of 148 possible games because of injury. Thats a very tough start to a career.