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Timberwolves off to a scrappy, successful start

Coach Rick Adelman
REUTERS/Mike Stone
Much of the credit for the team’s 2-1 start goes to Adelman, who has been juggling the rotation of his lineups like a caffeinated mad scientist.

Less than three minutes into the third quarter Monday night in Brooklyn, the notion of the Minnesota Timberwolves being competitive without injured stars Kevin Love and Rickey Rubio was being dismantled almost play by play. Minnesota was down 22 to the Nets at 71-49 just a night after being pasted by the Raptors in Toronto, 105-89. The non-quality win in Minnesota’s season opener — gift-wrapped to the Wolves via a horrific performance by the Sacramento Kings — suddenly seemed as if it would have to suffice as solace for the optimists.

If the preseason showed us anything, it is that, without Love and Rubio, Minnesota craves rhythm and flow at both ends of the floor if it is going to compete. Halting, tentative play had unleashed a rash of turnovers and produced shoddy perimeter defense in Toronto, and now poor spacing on offense and more shoddy perimeter defense was betraying them in Brooklyn.

Then the Nets got overconfident, the Wolves kept grinding, and coach Rick Adelman finally found players who could spread the floor and snap passes to each other on offense, and cluster and rotate in a rhythm born of universal trust and effort on defense.

Most of the time it was a generally small lineup — the constants were 6-8 forward Dante Cunningham, 6-7 swingman Chase Budinger and tiny dynamo J.J. Barea, who is generously listed as 6 feet tall, with the Russians Andrei Kirilenko (6-9) and Alexie Shved (6-6) also making key contributions. They locked into a frenetic pace that was just short of desperation, their spirits and sense of teamwork soon boosted by the realization that they were clearly outhustling the more talented Nets.

As often happens, their boomlet of energy became a team-wide contagion, and the Wolves went on a 58-25 tear in the final 21 minutes to win going away, 107-96.

For a team that turned over more than half its roster from a year ago and is currently trying to create a positive but temporary identity and pecking order while its stars are on the mend, Monday’s second-half eruption in Brooklyn was crucial for its attitude and momentum. It provided the franchise with a quality win on the road and sent them over .500 as they moved a week closer to Love’s and then Rubio’s return.

Concern about the starting lineup

For all those reasons, there will be no shortage of media extolling the Wolves’ virtues. I’ll close out with some brief huzzahs of my own, but first I want to focus on an area of concern that needs to be remedied or better accommodated if this goodwill is to continue.

It is no coincidence that the best stretches of Wolves basketball thus far this season have occurred when most of the starting lineup is on the bench. Right now, Brandon Roy, Derrick Williams and Luke Ridnour are hurting this team more than they are helping it.

We begin with Roy, because among the three he is at once the most physically fragile and the most integral to the team’s playoff chances this season.  Most of the negative buzz surrounding his play thus far has focused on his poor shooting (currently 29.2 percent, which includes an 0-for-8 performance from three-point range) and the five ugly turnovers he committed in the first half against Toronto. But Roy is easily capable of regaining his shooting rhythm, and his ball-handling is actually a strength — many of his 13 assists are of the gilded variety that lead to layups or otherwise hit the shooter right in stride, and he only has one other turnover in the entire season aside from that spate of miscues early versus the Raptors.

No, the real problem is that Roy no longer can move well enough to be even an adequate defender. The first play run by the Nets to start both halves Monday night was designed to have Roy’s man, Keith Bogans, shoot a corner three-pointer. Both times Bogans had all day to set up and successfully sink the shot.

On the evidence of the first three games, the flat fact is that Roy lacks the lateral quickness to both offer some resistance against dribble penetration up the middle and scamper over to the corner to defend the three-pointer — but both are fundamental responsibilities for any wing defender. Even with Andrei Kirilenko taking the more prolific scorer among the off guard and small forward — as he did Monday by guarding Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson — Roy is too often the weak link in the team defense.

On to Williams, whose role as the starter at power forward in Love’s absence was something of a surprise, given Adelman’s clear and warranted preference for Cunningham at that position. But like most everything Adelman does, the move is rooted in sound logic.

Starting Williams avoids the added controversy that would be generated if the second overall pick in last year’s draft couldn’t crack the lineup even with Love out. It gives Williams the support of playing beside an ace defender and unselfish ball-mover like Kirilenko, and a center like Nikola Pekovic, who often commands a double-team, freeing up room for D-Will. And it allows the coach to bring Cunningham’s superior energy and maturity off the bench and leave him in for crunch time.

Williams is trying mightily to fulfill his end of the equation. He has attempted only three shots from beyond the three-point arc, is constantly crashing the boards at both ends of the court, and seems to have dramatically improved his on-ball defense and slightly upgraded his awareness and facility on rotations and pick-and-roll defense. His play in the third-period against Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani Sunday evening was probably the best sustained stretch of defense thus far in his fledgling NBA career. 

But even without the three-pointers, Williams’ shot-selection is dicey and his efficiency is terrible. He leads the team in the frequency of shots-per-minutes-played yet is making only 29 percent of them. One problem is that he is trying to satisfy the coaches’ demand to drive to the hoop and draw more fouls and is thus going up with more aggression and less finesse than is natural for him, resulting in a slew of point-blank misses. (Thus far, D-Will clanging shots hard off the backboard and rim and Roy futilely trying to close out on jump shooters are the two most recurrent signs of Wolves futility this season.)

I am going to assume Ridnour is still bothered by a bulging disc in his back. That’s the best explanation for why a player who last year battled larger and bulkier off-guards to a surprisingly successful degree is suddenly getting so easily frustrated and jostled off his game by point guards who are closer to his own size. Along with what seems to be his ginger physique, he hasn’t displayed enough quickness and maneuverability off the dribble to clear sight-lines for productive passes, furthering hindering his (and the team’s) ball movement.

Put bluntly, over half of the Wolves’ current starting lineup is either disadvantaged physically (Roy and Ridnour) or still learning to play the game (Williams). The situation would be even worse were it not for the sublime all-around performance of Kirilenko, the team’s obvious MVP thus far — he leads the Wolves in rebounds, assists, blocks (tied with Greg Stiemsma), minutes, field goal percentage and three-point percentage, as well as being the team’s best and most versatile defender.

Much of the credit for the team’s 2-1 start goes to Adelman, who has been juggling the rotation of his lineups like a caffeinated mad scientist. Television commentator Jim Petersen perceptively noted how Adelman reoriented his pick-and-roll plays to take advantage of matchups with the existing personnel on the floor during the second half of the Brooklyn game.

But it may be that he has to tinker with his standard rotations and not wait for the Wolves to fall behind (as happened in both of their wins) to respond. One option would be to slide Chase Budinger down to the off-guard and play Alexey Shved more at point guard. Both have excellent size at those positions, and the moves would lessen the burden on both Roy and Ridnour without having to start J.J. Barea, who, even more than Cunningham, is a welcome burst of energy off the bench thus far.

There are plenty of nice things to say about a lot of these Wolves — we haven’t given Pekovic, Budinger and, to a lesser extent, Shved the credit they deserve. That will have to come with Friday’s column, where we’ll review Wednesday’s Magic game and preview the upcoming weekend tilts. Meanwhile, please feel free to keep the conversation going in the comments section. It drives traffic for the MinnPost folks and makes me think more intelligently about the team.

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Comments (18)

Wolves

Appreciate your insight, Britt. I'm not too concerned with Roy yet. Need to give him 15 games to get his game legs back. Best thing so far is not seeing Wes, Darko, and Beasley wasting minutes. We actually have professionals on the roster who know how to play the game.

Lots of questions

Roy certainly is concerning. Some of that is bound to be rust, but defensively, you're right. He knows where he needs to be and wants to be but can't seem to get there. Going into this, I think anyone that's paid attention knows there's no way he'll end up being the same explosive player he was before his injuries. That being said, he's still really effective as a passer and I think his shooting will come around. His defense will likely improve as well (but he'll never be a great one-on-one defender) when Rubio comes back, simply because Ricki is so active. And, he'll get a lot more open looks and have to rely less on his diminished ability to create his own shot, as well.

In terms of Shved, we're going to see up and down performances as he gets used to the league. So, for every game like this, they'll be a couple where he just won't be effective offensively. That being said, if he can hustle on D like he did last night, he'll be an incredibly important component even if he's airballing them in from the 3 point like (like game 1).

I also agree that Ridnour has to be hurt a bit. He just looks off.

Budinger is every bit the player he was in Houston and will be incredibly valuable in replacing Wes Johnson's minutes. Even when he's not hot at the arc, he's still able to drive to the basket and play decent one-on-one D (something Wes never figured out).

I thought I was being realistic (if not a bit optimistic) when I was thinking the Wolves could stay around .400-.500 in this stretch without Love. I think the West is going to beat up on each other and, unlike a lot of folks who say the 8th seed with need 48+ wins to get in, that 7th or 8th seed may be gettable with 43-45 or so. So, even if we end up with a few weeks of .400-.500 ball, we're still going to be in it. Once Rubio gets back (and if he doesn't take a long time getting the rust off), I think the team is very capable of knocking out a 12 of 15 win streak or so in February/March.

The Russians (and Montenegrin)

Kirilenko is extremely fun to watch. He is so engaged and always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

Shved looked completely lost throughout games 1 and 2. I was beginning to wonder why he was getting so much burn. After last night's performance it makes more sense. Here's hoping he continues to acclimate to the NBA pace and has more stretches where he's moving the ball and taking good shots, and fewer where he's dribbling into traffic and throwing errantly across his body.

Beyond simply point total (21) it seemed to me that Pek's contribution last night, at least on offense, was pretty big. He may not have been on the court for most of the big run, but he seemed to score at will even when the rest of the squad couldn't get anything done. If not for his performance, the Nets' lead might have been insurmountable. I'm surprised how effective Pek is with what appears to be no hops whatsoever. His dunks are few and far between for a 6-11 guy.

Roy, Kidd

An interesting slow, shooting guard example in this year's NBA is Jason Kidd--who is starting next to Ray Felton in New York. Kidd, for whatever reason, can defend shooting guards at almost 40 years old. He's not quick anymore. Is that instincts, positioning, the Tyson Chandler safety net behind him, or maybe a combination of the three?

I agree about Roy struggling on that end. I'm just wondering if it's something that can be adjusted without magical German procedures, or if he's reached a point on the athletic timeline that is even beyond an "old man" like Jason Kidd. I should point out that Kidd played some effective defense in the Mavs' title run in 2011, so this isn't a three-game sample size issue, I don't think.

Very, very fun game last night. Nice to see Shved break out in a big moment.

Readiness

Glad to see game-specific Wolves coverage again from you, Britt, even though I had to shed my old username (PSR) to comment.

Though I watched little of last night's game and most of the first two, I get what you're seeing with which guys seem to be hitting the ground running. AK47, Barea, Budinger, Cunningham, Pekovic, and Stiemsma all seem there at this point, while the others might round into form by the time Love returns. Budinger impresses me so much as an offensive player; he's much more offensively than a shooter. Folks were concerned that he lost his starting spot to Chandler Parsons last year, but it's clear that McHale's offense is algebra compared to Adelman's calculus. He's not a "just stand there and wait for the ballhandler to pass it" guy.

Focus and discipline are obviously important for any team, but especially this crew because they have less margin for error and a lot of vets who know what they need to bring on every night. Many of their deficiencies are such that they can be minimized if the team is prepared to keep them minimized. More than anything, they need to keep the water out of the boat while Love is out. Their main strength this season will be dominating the FT differential, and they have enough guys to emphasize that without Love.

Responses to the responses

First of all, thanks for the input. It really helps keep me humming.

TJ is right about the addition by subtraction. Nice not to have Beas, Wes and Darko to kick around.
But TJ, just the way Roy walks and trots on the court when he isn't at full speed leads me to believe this isn't something that will work itself out, like kinks or even somnambulant muscles. As E Steen says, he knows where he needs to be--getting there is the problem.

Andy, your comments about Kidd actually gave me some hope for a Roy resurgence. Remember when Kidd was first traded to Dallas from New Jersey? Opponents were lighting him up on a regular basis--it was brutal. I honestly thought Kidd was finished as a serviceable player. But now, as you say, he can provide good, capable minutes, albeit at the off guard. Ideally, the role Kidd has with the Knicks seems like a good fit for Roy here. I haven't seen the Knicks enough to know this, but I bet he isn't chasing down corner three-pointers. I suspect the Wolves will have to make some adjustments in those corners.

E Steen, I agree with all your specific points about players, but disagree with both a lower standard for seeds 7 and 8 in the West and the Wolves being good enough to rise beyond 8. Personally, I don't worry about Golden State, but Utah to me is a given to finish ahead, and Houston and Dallas are both on a par and will be very tough.

Erick--Totally agree with the Pek comments. He was an unsung hero in crunch time (well, at least unsung in my column), with a couple of big blocks as well as his steadfast offensive threat. And I too am happy to see Shved go off and think he'll be inconsistent most of the season. On the other hand, with Luke dinged (I assume) and JJ undersized and better off the bench anyway, I'll co-opt some of Andy's Shved fandom in favor of a little more burn at point guard.

Minnesota really is getting a break on the schedule, or so it seems. Orlando, despite being 2-0, should be the underdog at Target Center, and after that are currently underachieving Indiana and Chicago teams.

Lower standard

I don't think the teams will be worse, I think there are so many good teams in the West their records are going to even out. It's going to be tough to win 49 games. In the East, it's going to be pretty easy for the elite teams to hit that high-40's mark (and Miami will easily hit the high 50's barring injuries). In the West, you're going to have to fight for every single game. I don't think the Lakers or the Thunder are going to run away with their divisions, and early on the Nuggets (who arguably are the most all-around talented team in the West) are showing the growing pains of the changes they've made (Faried is a great bench energy guy, but him starting would have me worried were I a Nuggets fan).

Really the only "gimme" games (good teams will go at least 3-1 against them) for most teams are the Hornets and the Blazers. Sure, Dallas without Dirk, Houston unless Harden earns his paycheck (and who knows if Lin was simply a flash-in-the-pan), and Sacramento (because they have the talent but can't seem to figure it out), aren't great teams, but they certainly could be troublesome matchups for certain teams. I guess what I'm saying is I see a lot of series splits between playoff contenders, leading me to think that the overall records of the teams won't be as stellar, even if many of them go 1-2 or 2-2 against most of the East.

Understand

I understand better what you meant now, but still think middle of the pack West teams will make up some of it against middle of the pack East teams.

One of the biggest surprises of the NBA season for me thus far is how badly Faried is faring on defense. That falls some on Kosta Koufus and JaVale McGee, but Faried can't continue to be so ineffectual at straight-up bodying his man.

Continuing the Roy/Old Point Guard comparisons...

Offensively, it seems that Roy is more comfortable in the post, where his superior technique and strong hands are put to better use than on the perimeter, where speed kills. I'm watching Andre Miller do work on the block for the Nuggets right now. I don't know if Adelman would ever allow a "bang it down low while everyone stands" offense (Britt, I listened to you on Reusse's show describe the difference between McMillan and Adelman, and this touches on that) but Roy sure seems to want the ball on the block, like Miller.

Anyway, just something that came to mind. I want Roy to work out here, in some capacity, because I'd guess he has professional habits that could wear off on young teammates, even if his on-court impact is modest in a Sam Mitchell sorta way.

Roy on the block

I agree that Roy at the elbow is by far the best use of his talents, especially now that his lift is suspicious. If he first receives the ball 10-13 feet from the hoop, he's always been able to create space for himself and should be a force. Although I do think his signature move--the dribble-drive and short pull-up jumper--will have to be re-established via success, and I'm not positive he has the quickness or the strength to sell it like he did in his prime.
If Stiemsma can continue hitting wide-open midrange j's as at Brooklyn, and Barea continues his heightened caliber of play (hardly a sure thing), then I think Roy would be excellent with a second unit that includes Cunningham and Stiemsma and Barea and Shved. The problem, once again, is his defense. I do think a starting five that includes him alongside both Kirilenko and Rubio has enough defensive chops to compensate for his lack of mobility.
Couldn't agree more on wanting Roy to work out, both on the court and in the locker room. I know I've been pretty critical and suspicious, but that's mostly to balance this wave of positive enthusiasm from fans who don't realize how compromised Roy has become, and also to point out that becoming a role player after being "the man" is much tougher than it seems.

Guards

I think "critical and suspicious" perfectly sums up my assessment of Roy so far, too. And agree all-around with both Britt and Andy G about hoping he finds a fit. Regardless, I'm starting to wonder if there might be a way, upon Rubio's return, to rotate five guards (Rubio, Roy, Barea, Ridnour and Shved) and NOT trade either Luke or JJ. It would mean sacrificing numbers/minutes from all but probably Ricky ... but could work, depending on matchups and who's got the hot hand on any given night. Or am I crazy to think it's possible to successfully use a 10- or 11-player rotation with highly variable minutes for all but the starters? Conventional wisdom seems to be that at some point in the season, it's important to whittle down to a 9-player rotation, right?

Also: Perhaps my affection for Barea's grit and competitiveness is blinding me from his faults, but I am not surprised by his caliber of play at all. It seems to me that when he's on the court, this (what we've seen so far this season) is what can be expected. The issue is whether or not he can stay healthy.

big rotations

Erick--

I understand the impulse and I think Adelman is pretty much going 9-10 now. The problem with going with both Luke and JJ after Rubio returns is that most of those minutes would be at the 2. Frankly I'd rather give them to the current crew and get something back in a deal.

Of course I don't appreciate Barea's game as much as you do. If he keeps thriving enough to warrant good minutes at both backcourt slots, your logic makes more sense

Putting up with the Name specificity for comments

PSR--

I remember you well and thank you for coming on regardless of having a new moniker required.

Let me say at this point that I get where Minnpost is coming from--they are a news site predominantly and want to promote civility--so I didn't raise a fuss over the sign in requirments even though I knew it would discourage some long-time communicators from the past.

I thus especially appreciate you guys coming aboard anyway to talk hoops. There are so many good Wolves-related sites out there, including Andy's Punch-Drunk Wolves, Canis Hoopus with the great StopnPop, and ESPN's True Hoop site, A Wolf Among Wolves, which boasts an embarrassment of riches for writing, including Ben Polk, Zach Harper and Steve McPherson (all well-known names in the hoops blogosphere). That you spend part of your time improving this place with your insights is gratifying. It was long said of the old sites of mine that the comments section was as or more informative than the original posts. I regard that as a compliment and wish to emulate it.

Meanwhile, back on topic, I too have really liked Bud's game, both this season and in his previous two years at Houston. He had a rough time trying to contain former hometown hero Alan Anderson on Sunday, but otherwise he has generally been solid at both ends. You're not going to win a championship with him in your starting lineup, but for where the Wolves are now, what they need and what he can provide, they're a great fit.

I'm generally okay with it;

I'm generally okay with it; it cuts back on the vitriol and swearing I sometimes do at CH, but that's probably an impulse better left unfed. Those 3-Pointers were great forums for discussion because they often avoided the tendency of commenters playing GM and rushing to judgment on players.

To elaborate more on Budinger, his defense will rarely be better than average. Adelman knows this as well as anyone; watching that game in Houston last year where he ran iso after iso for Beasley against Bud was the basketball equivalent of Saw. His efficiency stats say he's about as good as Martell Webster, but there's no question that he understands playing off the ball and when to go to the rim as well as anyone on the team.

"Saw"!

Wonderful pop culture analogy (one of Bill Simmons' great contributions to sports commentary is opening up the rich possibilities of linking pop culture and sports).

I also very much agree with your take on Budinger, although thought that his hustle and nose for the ball in the paint in Brooklyn were a little better than anything I'd seen from him in Houston.

Also love your comment about overboard snap judgments on players after small sample sizes. Another thing I love about my readers is they keep that stuff to a minimum.

great to have you back

Along with the lack of victories, another of the more disappointing aspects of the past 2 seasons has been the loss of your peerless analysis of this team, welcome back...we missed you.

I was lucky enough to be at last nights game and what a game it was. Offensive Flow has been sorely missed all season minus maybe the 1st Qtr of the Kings game, and to see last nights 4th Quarter in the beautiful and ominous Barclay Center was sweet sweet Shveddy joy. A befuddled fan base with literally zero history with the team seemed to be muttering to themselves in the same tones of dealing with a Bridge and Tunnel Crowd...the Bridge and Tunnel NJ Nets are going to go through some growing pains before the community makes them card carrying Brooklynites.

Late to the party

But it actually means I have one more game's worth of experience than the above comments! Unfortunately I don't have cable and wasn't able to attend the game last night (I do find it archaic that the only Wolves games I can watch through League Pass Broadband are those not on TV), so I'll have to glean info from y'all and some recaps/highlights.

I think we should remember that Brandon Roy was never really an above-average defender when he was healthy, and there's probably some kind of negative cognitive bias going on watching him share the floor with AK. The one thing I like the most about Roy so far is that he's erased my fears of him becoming a ball-stopper. I was especially worried because he never really relied on explosive athleticism, but more of a herky-jerky Manu-style keep-the-defender-off-balance attack. But it does look like that lateral quickness that helped him in that department is also gone, but I'm still of fan of his work ethic and I think he brings quite a bit to the table, despite his mediocre play up to this point. Moving a non-G (like Chase) to the 2 slot seems like a solution in search of a problem - we are going to have a weak link somewhere, and Roy and JJ have other qualities that make up for their defensive limitations.

And speaking of AK, are he and Dante (and JJ) pretty much the exact opposite of Wes, Beasley, and Darko? The contagious energy, the active hands/feet, the overall activity level - anyone else really glad we didn't end up with Nic Batum? While I think Nic is a great player, his style of play does not bring the type of energy to the entire team the way that AK's does.

Anyway, thanks to everyone for commenting, it's great to read opinions that are more than a sentence. (Also, there's an interesting, FreeDarko-esque piece on Pek on The Classical right now)

High praise

Haven't read it yet, but any piece described as "FreeDarko-esque" is highly sought after by me--those guys were (are?) always tremendous.

Agree about Roy never being a stopper; I just don't want him to be a liability. I still think minutes at the 2 for Chase is a good idea, if only as more insurance in case Roy's knees wipe him off the rotation. What he does at the 3 isn't that much different in Adelman's system as what he'd do at the 2.

Kirilenko is aces. He made three mistakes in a four-play stretch last night and it made me realize how few he's committed all season. As for AK v Batum, I still think AK for two years, Batum for four years. In other words, the Wolves management had it exactly right in their pursuit. (And how rarely I've ever been able to utter those words!)