True story: I could find exactly ZERO pictures of Knicks-Wolves games that had any players who would actually be playing tonight. So you get Kevin Love and MWP.
With the Timberwolves set to square off against the visiting New York Knickerbockers tonight, I exchanged email questions with Knickerblogger‘s Robert Silverman so we could each learn a little more about one another. My responses to his questions are up on Knickerblogger right here, and his to mine are below.
For as long as I’ve been following them (which dates back to the late ’90s), the Knicks have always seemed to have a “we don’t rebuild, we reload” attitude that has resulted in a lot of hand-waving but not a lot beyond first round playoff exits. Is there some sense that with Phil Jackson the team is actually building something now instead of just paying it lip service, even if the early returns are not great?
So far, without a doubt. For the most part, fans are aware that this is going to be a transitional year, filled with nights where the team looks downright terrible. In a related story, as I’m writing this, the Milwaukee Bucks closed the second quarter on a 22-6 run, and the Knicks couldn’t stop anyone from getting to the rim, were absolutely walloped on the glass and got shredded from downtown by some dude from Jonathan Fire*Eater. Wait, that was Ilyasova? Lawdy. Anyhoo, yes, the pains from growing will be legion, but having faith that there’s an actual plan in place as is infinitely preferable to the world’s saddest free agency carousel, with the likes of Allan Houston, McDyess, Starbury, Steve Francis, Eddy Curry and STAT posited as franchise “saviors,” but instead just clogging the cap, glumly slumped on too-small plastic horses. Continue Reading…
You know things are really turning around at the Target Center when John Hollinger—who up to this point had been known to Wolves’ fans for serving up incredulous, though generally reasonable, critiques of the Kahn regime—is giving props. Hollinger points out a rather amazing element to the Wolves’ fortunes: drastically increasing a team’s win total from one season to the next is not unprecedented, but doing it with the same players is. Even more remarkable, the significant new faces that the Wolves have added—Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio—have actually made the team younger.
Some of the explanations Hollinger gives are familiar to us: the Wolves renewed competence and competitiveness on defense; the addition of Rubio as a decision-maker and perimeter defender; Love’s blossoming as a star. But another explanation is maybe so familiar that it was hiding in plain sight. Namely, that the Wolves have replaced minutes and shots for ineffective players with minutes and shots for effective ones:
The neon sign in this case [last season] was “go-to” post option Darko Milicic finishing with a higher usage rate than Ridnour, despite Milicic being one of the least efficient offensive players in basketball and Ridnour being well above average.
Darko wasn’t the only one, though; Michael Beasley also had one of the highest usage rates in basketball despite creating little for teammates and mostly long 2s for himself. It’s as though Rambis thought the contested 17-footer was the pinnacle of offensive achievement. Perhaps he’d just been around Kobe too long.
This season, things are different. You know who leads the Wolves in usage rate? Kevin Love! What a concept! And between Barea, Rubio and Ridnour, most of the touches that aren’t flowing through Love are going through a small, quick guard who can create for others. Beasley and Darko still shoot too much, but their roles and their minutes have been curtailed under Rick Adelman.
Agreed. This calls to mind one of the drawbacks to implementing the triangle offense with such a young and unevenly talented crew. When an offense is predicated so fundamentally on flow and reaction, it can be very difficult to control where the ball goes. The first aspect of this pretty elementary. The post feed is the triangle’s basic initiating action. When Darko Milicic is your starting center, on the receiving end of all of those post feeds, asked to create with his passing and back-to-the-basket skills, you’ll find him handling the ball much more than he ought to.
But the second element is probably even more essential. As we’ve seen with the Bulls and Lakers, when the triangle’s machinations are disrupted (by the defense or poor execution), the ball tends to flow into the hands of the highest usage players on the floor. Not such a bad thing when those players are Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, pretty bad when that player is Michael Beasley.
The Wolves’ inexperience exacerbated that problem. Last season, the Wolves were notorious in their inability to adapt and counter when the defense denied their first option. Far too many of their half-court sets devolved into continuity-deadening isolations for Beasley. They lacked the intuition–an intuition forged mainly by experience–to improvise their way into good shots when the offense broke down, which it very often did. Adelman has brought with him the novel idea that the offense ought to be structured, at least in part, around the principle of creating shots for the team’s best players.
I envy Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook. While I am hugely, dorkily fascinated by basketball strategy, he actually understands it and writes about it with knowledge and lucidity. He’s the kind of guy that can invent and draw up plays for NBA teams (or fictionalized, animated all-star teams) and then eloquently convince you that you should care. So when he turns his eyes toward our humble Wolves, it’s kind of a big deal.
That said, although the Timberwolves aren’t exactly media darlings (shoot, they’re not even always on TV) what they are trying to do strategically is actually a pretty significant story. And that is: implement the famous Triangle offense–an offense that relies improvised reads, reactions and ball-movement and that cuts against the NBA grain of isolations and pick-and-rolls–on a very young team and without the aid of a transcendent scorer.
Not surprisingly, Pruiti has his doubts. Here’s the essence of the argument (although if you have any interest in this at all, you should really read the whole thing–quality Luke Ridnour and Anthony Tolliver analysis doesn’t come along every day after all):
In conclusion, the Timberwolves’ Triangle could be much better than it has been in the past. A few things need to happen though. The first, and most important, being that the Timberwolves really need to commit to it. When watching their preseason games, the one thing that you noticed is that there was a lot of hesitation and confusion when they were cutting in and out of the Triangle. This is because they don’t run it every time down the court, and the players aren’t comfortable with it.
Two of Pruiti’s critiques are particularly salient, I think. The first is that if the Wolves don’t get the look they want after the initial Triangle action, rather than swinging the ball and resetting the Triangle on the other side of the floor as the Lakers do, they instead opt into a fairly traditional, not to mention predictable, weakside two-man game. Here’s what this looks like (apologies to Pruiti for pillaging his video):
As Pruiti points out, the Triangle is most effective and least predictable when it progresses to its second and third layers of reads and options. The Wolves rarely get there.
The second criticism is related. Because the Wolves also run lots of more conventional sets, their young players don’t have the opportunity to learn the offense through endless repetition. And this shows up on the court as hesitance, indecision and an insufficiently nuanced understanding of the offense.
Pruit argues, rather convincingly, that if the Wolves really want their young players to internalize the Triangle, they need to commit to it fully. But here’s the problem. Because the NBA game is so tilted toward individual matchups, and because the Triangle can become stagnant if all five players aren’t operating on the same frequency, it often becomes necessary in the course of a game to rely on some old standbys: pick-and-roll, isolations, set plays to create easy looks. Indeed, for these reasons, even the Lakers aren’t entirely wedded to the offense, often using Triangle action to set up isos for Kobe or Pau, or simply resorting to traditional pick-and-roll.
So this is a huge question. Is it feasible to adapt to the ebbs and flows of NBA games running only this offense? and if not, can the Wolves truly learn to run the Triangle without committing to it fully?
Here in Minnesota, we love ourselves some point guards. In the last two years, Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio, Nick Calathes, Ty Lawson, Mario Chalmers, Kevin Ollie, Sebastian Telfair, Randy Foye and Ramon Sessions have all, at least momentarily, sported the hometown blue-ish and green-ish (and black, plus a little silver).
And now, Luke Ridnour is officially a member of that distinguished group. Welcome, Luke. I recommend swimming in lakes for a third of the year and wearing long underwear for the rest. So what’s this all about? Are we moving Ramon Sessions as has been reported and widely assumed? Are we, uh, actually hanging on to all three of these guys? Here’s what Kent Youngblood has to say about it:
Jonny Flynn, last year’s starter as a rookie, has a sore left hip. David Kahn, the Wolves’ president of basketball operations, said it’s the same injury that kept Flynn out of last season’s regular-season finale and out of summer league ball. Kahn said the team will hold onto all its point guards until Flynn’s immediate future is clear.
“We have three point guards on our roster this season, and yet another one [Ricky Rubio] overseas,” Kahn said Wednesday. “It’s not my intent, in any way, shape or form, to have three healthy point guards on the roster this year. That wouldn’t be fair to any of them. … [But] I’m not certain, as we speak today, about Jonny’s condition.”
On a different, although somewhat related note, jianfu of Canis wonders aloud whether a mid-market team like the Wolves can afford the talent necessary to run the triangle offense:
It would appear that running this style of offense demands versatility out of all its players: your bigs need to be creative passers, your wings need to be versatile, do-it-all types. Is this sustainable for a smaller-market team wishing to avoid the luxury tax? Wouldn’t it seem, assuming you found enough players that could make this thing sing, this is a less-cost-efficient strategy given these players are skilled to the point that they’re going to be awfully expensive? The Lakers have Lamar Odom coming off the bench and he’s paid 3X the Wolves’ highest-paid player, after all. Is a Utah- or Phoenix-style offense–built almost entirely around a 2-man pick-and-roll game, supplemented with role players that are more specific (as opposed to diverse) in their skillsets a more viable alternative?
This is an interesting point, I think. My personal feeling is that you don’t necessarily need a team full of spectacularly talented players to make this offense work–although it would probably be helpful to have at least one guy of Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol or Kobe Bryant’s skill level. Rather, you need smart players who are willing and able to get open and move the ball. Its also nice if they can run the floor and shoot and feel like playing defense.
Utah doesn’t run the triangle, but Jerry Sloan’s offense relies on some similar skills: overall basketball knowledge; crafty passing; smart off-the-ball movement and screen setting. The Jazz’s great talent has been to surround their stars–Stockton and Malone, Williams and Boozer–with smart, willing, modestly paid role players; there’s no reason that the Wolves can’t do this too (and in some ways, they’re already on the right track). So when do we get our Deron Williams (or Kobe or Pau)…?