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Wolves redux: Adelman, Williams and the absence of common ground

A second fracturing in the right hand of Minnesota Timberwolves star power forward Kevin Love has re-exposed another stubborn schism that needs mending on this team: the relationship between coach Rick Adelman and forward Derrick Williams.

Love’s injury wasn’t the only event that seemed to conspire for a re-dramatization of the dysfunction that exists between an aging, powerful coach bent on gaining a championship before he retires and a second-year player who hasn’t come close to delivering on the promise embedded in being the highest draft choice in Timberwolves history.

In a game played just hours after Love’s injury was reclassified from a sprained finger to a fractured bone, Williams, after logging only 5:36 of playing time through the first three quarters, exploded for 18 points in the final period. The surge led the Wolves to within one point of Portland after they had earlier trailed by as many as 22, but couldn’t prevent an eventual 102-97 defeat.

After the game, Adelman castigated his troops for failing to compete in the first three quarters and being disconsolate in the wake of news about Love’s injury. Asked specifically if he felt Williams was among those ready to step up, Adelman replied, “He better be. He better be. The opportunity is there. Like I said, we have to compete … Everybody has to step up, Derrick, D.C. [Dante Cunningham], everybody.”

It was a churlish, defensive reaction that dishonored Adelman’s reputation as a player’s coach and, more importantly, a smart tactician. Let’s recap the context.

When Love was out the first nine games of the season, Williams replaced him as the starting power forward. But against Portland, as happened in mid-December when Love missed a game against Dallas after being poked in the eye, Cunningham got the starting nod. Williams was inserted at the start of the second quarter as part of the worst collective quintet of players the Wolves have put on the floor thus far this season: Greg Stiemsma, Lou Amundson and Williams on the front line, with Lazar Hayward and J.J. Barea in the backcourt. The unit was predictably outscored by nine in their 5:36 of action.

After that thankless stint, Williams didn’t see the court until the start of the final period. Playing on a small, quick, frontcourt triad with Cunningham and Andrei Kirilenko, he did a wealth of good things. He shot well from the outside (2 of 3 from three-point range) but was still aggressive going to the hoop (4 of 6 from within two feet of the basket while earning five foul shots, of which he converted four). He also grabbed four rebounds and had two steals to balance off his two turnovers.

After the game, his coach lambastes the team in general for its poor performance. When specifically given a chance to laud Williams for precisely the kind of buoyant, energetic play he says he wants and needs, the coach instead warns Williams that he “better be” prepared, and lumps him back with the others on the roster he just criticized.

This was blatantly counterproductive. It represents a missed opportunity to give Williams a boost at a time when he deserved it and when the team, with Love out indefinitely, will be sorely in need of a talented, self-confident reserve coming into the game neither peeved at nor cowed by the judgments of his coach.

A unique situation

So this doesn’t turn into a novel-sized column, what follows are some freestanding points on what I believe are the salient aspects of this uneasy pairing of coach and player.

It is a rare dynamic. It is not very often that a coach can wield such an autonomous upper hand in denying minutes to a player valued highly enough to be taken with the second overall pick in the draft. That’s because franchises in a position to choose second overall are almost always emerging from a horrendous season and are looking for that draft pick to become a cornerstone, if not a savior.

One can cite Darko Milicic with Detroit in 2003, or, for a closer comparison, Hasheem Thabeet in Memphis in 2009. But Detroit was the defending NBA Champion in Darko’s rookie season and the 7-3 Thabeet was, most optimistically, a long-term project who was stuck behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on an emerging Grizzlies front line. By contrast, Williams was deemed NBA ready coming out of college and has demonstrated more prowess in 92 games than Darko and Thabeet have mounted in their combined pro careers.

No, the crucial difference is that Adelman is not only the coach, but regarded as more of a savior and cornerstone than Williams on this Wolves franchise. The 66-year old veteran is the third leg of the theoretically top-notch triumvirate with Love and Ricky Rubio that has energized the fan base and brought respectability to the won-lost column. Williams’ exalted draft status enabled him to be the sole holdover among a group of players Adelman had preferred to be gone from the roster this season, a pyrrhic triumph for the 21-year old forward.

It is a bad match at an unfortunate crossroads in their respective careers. Anyone who has followed teams coached by Adelman knows that two hallmarks of his offensive system are having a critical mass of players who can handle the ball and developing a cultural mindset up and down the roster of sharing the ball.

Williams possesses a style and skill-set that torpedoes those hallmarks. He is an unreliable dribbler with, at best, mediocre hands for catching the ball. His court vision and instinct on where and when to dish the ball to a teammate have been stunted by both a lack of natural ability and a dearth of practice and experience.

Consequently, Williams frequently regards a shot as his best option. Only Love, Barea and (barely) Nikola Pekovic shoot more frequently per-minute, and only the plodding backup centers, Stiemsma and Amundson, deliver fewer assists per-minute. As Williams shooting accuracy has improved in recent weeks, his disinclination to pass — especially intelligently — has become more acute. He has dealt out just two assists (versus 11 turnovers) in the past 14 games.

Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, the only thing missing from Adelman’s glittering Hall of Fame resume is a championship, and there is a decent chance the Wolves are his last shot at controlling his destiny enough to capture a ring on his own terms. He, perhaps more than anyone else, knows how much experience Williams requires to fulfill his potential. But it makes sense why he would feel he has neither the time nor the inclination to indulge this development. Teaching Williams to play in his system promotes too many trials-and-errors to keep the system healthy. And exploiting Williams’ natural skill-set erodes the ball-sharing culture he needs to retain.

Coach Rick Adelman
MinnPost photo by Craig LassigCoach Rick Adelman was right to decry his team's lack of effort and intensity against Portland.

The value of Williams is being shortchanged. It is easy, and perhaps even logical, to discount Williams when Love is healthy and Cunningham is cast in his ideal role as an energy guy off the bench. Yes, you’re hindering the development of a high draft pick, but the team is more than eight years removed from its last playoff berth and needs that tangible achievement to ratify what Adelman is preaching and expand the size and loyalty of the fan base.

But Love hasn’t been, and now won’t be, healthy for weeks. And, as we are all too well aware, that’s just the start of the Wolves’ injury woes. The team has been damaged in the front court, decimated on the wing, and thus far robbed of its primary playmaker in the back court. Most consequently, this has enervated an offense that currently ranks 21st in efficiency (points scored per possession) and is dead last — and historically terrible — in three-point accuracy.

In this current scenario, there is great potential and opportunity for Williams to shore up these weaknesses and help the ballclub. A coach with Adelman’s gaudy track record and estimable savvy should be able to figure out how to make that happen while mitigating the downsides of D-Will’s game. At the very least, the Wolves’ fans and front office have a right to expect a good faith effort in that direction.

Begin with three-point shooting. During the off-season, Williams was instructed to lose weight and enhance his agility and quickness so he could broaden his utility as a combo power forward and small forward. But Adelman also wanted him to stop settling for long-range shots and attack the basket. Williams did what he was told, showing up for training camp hardened and svelte and fitfully vacating his stylistic comfort zone by bulldozing his way inside, with often tragicomical results.

The enforced makeover was unproductive enough that Adelman began to wince and sigh less often as D-Will inexorably reverted to more of an outside-in approach to his offense, featuring more three-point shots instead of the clumsy layup tries of the inside-out offensive emphasis. And lo and behold, for some time now, those three-point attempts have been dropping in at a much higher rate than those launched by any of his teammates.

Over the last 10 games, Williams has made 42.1 percent of his threes (in the 14 games since the end of November it is 42.3). Over that same span, Alexey Shved has converted 30.2 percent, Kirilenko 25 percent, Love 23.5, and Luke Ridnour 21.2 percent. Only Barea, the player Adelman tacitly allows to disrupt his system with crunch-time hero ball, is remotely close to D-Will’s accuracy at 39.5 percent.

Adelman was right to decry his team’s lack of effort and intensity against Portland. But the most glaring disparity between the two teams in last Saturday’s game was that Portland shot 12-for-19 from three-point territory in the first three quarters while the Wolves were 1-for-9. It that situation it might have been nice to have your best long-range shooter get more than 5:36 worth of burn, especially since, as he showed in the fourth quarter, he is also going to the rim more aggressively and defending more successfully than he did in his rookie season.

There is a negative fallout from shortchanging Williams. For a variety of reasons, it may be that Williams and Adelman are simply too oil-and-water to productively coexist on this team. If so, it is unfortunate that the Wolves have allowed the rest of the NBA to discover their incompatibility. Because he was such a high draft pick, Williams commands a large salary relative to his short time in the league — he’ll earn $5 million next year and $6.3 million in 2014-15 if the Wolves or another team that owns his contract decides to pick up the option for that season. With his talent and potential, Minnesota could trade him for a valuable role player without disturbing its salary cap situation. But that trade value declines the more prospective trade partners perceive the Wolves are anxious to unload him.

More perniciously, there is a danger of Williams perceiving himself as a martyr in this situation. After all, he is a high draft pick who nevertheless altered his physique and has labored to fundamentally change his style at the behest of his coach. His payback for this flexibility has been spare encouragement, begrudging praise, and common snubs and downsizing in playing time. He has mostly kept his head down through this season, but on the occasions when he has a noteworthy game, he’ll quietly point out that more opportunities would yield more achievement.

Everyone who follows the NBA, or team sports in general, knows the drill: A high-profile player has difficulty with a coach. The player demonstrates enough prowess in limited exposure to get a segment of fans on his side and his posse in his ear, arguing that he is being mistreated. Left unattended, the situation engenders a corrosive chemistry, as the ability of the coach to wring the best out of the player disappears into passive-aggressive acrimony.

The stalemate needs to be broken. The only way Adelman can develop Williams into the kind of player he wants and needs is to encourage the successes as often as he notes the failures. Williams is a 21-year old kid with a ballyhooed, and overrated, reputation as a baller. The best route to circumscribing the negative aspects of his play is allowing him to discover they don’t work, and getting him to buy in to the remedies by fairly praising his virtues.

It’s painstaking work that is obviously not high on Adelman’s priority list right now. But circumstances have compelled the need for Adelman to try to wring the best out of Williams or otherwise risk a stubborn dynamic where the coach is, as the saying goes, cutting off the team’s nose to spite its face.

With the anticipated return of D-Will’s favorite teammate, Ricky Rubio, and a rough schedule on the horizon that the Wolves will have to navigate without their best player, it is time to ride the clear-cut pros and cons of developing Williams. If it doesn’t happen now, it isn’t ever going to happen.

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Comments (8)

Well done!

As usual, Britt shows just how far above the rest of the people who cover the Timberwolves he is.

This was an angle that BEGGED to be addressed after the performance the other night. There were questions that DEMANDED asking once Adelman started his usual act. But apparently there is this "though shalt not question Rick Adelman" among local scribes by way of a hard question.

Like Rambis, McHale, Casey etc., before him, Adelman needed someone to say "they wouldn't put out an effort? Isn't that partly on YOU?" But, of course, it was a question that went unasked.

Instead, we got the "Coach says his team put out a crappy effort" lede the next day, without any explanation of WHY if they were putting out a crappy effort, he didn't give Williams more time (note: Amundson got as much first quarter time as Williams got).

Not to mention questioning the "I didn't put Pekovic back in because we were losing by 20" answer to some question, as if they were losing by 20 from that moment to the end of the game (psst, Rick, it was a 1-point game).

I don't get it. I simply don't get it. But thank God MinnPost is letting Britt do his thing.

Would I have demanded?

For those who don't know, Bob operates the informative and thought-provoking News Cut blog over at MPR http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/columns/news_cut/ and is a steadfast sports fan, to the point of keeping a flame for the Cleveland Indians. He's a smart guy and an independent thinker and I'm flattered by his praise (although I guess this is the time to assuage all the nervous nellies that populate MPR and say that Bob's comments don't reflect the views of that publicly funded enterprise).
Problem is, I'm not convinced I deserve all his positive sentiment. Saturday was the first Wolves home game I've missed this season--I wanted to toggle back and forth on DVR games of the Wolves and Vikings until both became relatively early blowouts, leading me to stick with the Wolves--and so I conveniently wasn't there for the postgame press conference. And while I've been known to ask a tough question or two, it is usually spontaneous, a sense that the opening was ripe for it. Sitting at home, I questioned why D-Will didn't get more burn, but I can't say for sure I would have challenged Adelman there and then. Truth is, I'm among his biggest supporters.
Bob is right in his opinion that the Wolves fan base is more apt than I and the rest of the Wolves press corps to engage in the journalistically correct behavior of questioning authority from Adelman when circumstances imply it is misguided. Good for him for calling us out.

Love those assists

But Love doesn't produce a whole lot of them, and and least Williams tries on defense.
The real problem is the Adelman, like most coaches is a control freak, and likes players who kiss up to him.
And the Woofies right now are a .500 team at best. Adelman isn't going to have a chance for a championship unless he stays around another six years or so, when the current crop of early twenties players reach their peak.

Jim Petersen addressed this on Twitter a while back

His comments were brief but indicated that the problem was also based on Williams' inability to follow the team's defensive rotations. Advanced metrics say Williams is an above-average defender, but that might be based more on 1v1 and PnR situations where his role is more defined. He's a better 1v1 postup defender than Cunningham (and probably should've been on Aldridge in the final minutes considering how far Aldridge backed DC down before shooting), and he's no worse than the backup 4s Adelman has had on playoff teams in the past (Lawrence Funderburke, Keon Clark, Carl Landry).

Adelman's as far from a control freak as any coach in the league. He's well known as a players' coach, and most games against one of his former players end with that player seeking him out for a hug afterward. A significant problem with Williams, I'm guessing, also has to do with being asked about him constantly, though Britt would know more about that. My hypothesis on this from Adelman's viewpoint: this is a guy who plays the same position as 2 of his top 7 players, so minutes will be hard to come by; it doesn't matter at all that he was the #2 pick in the draft. Maybe someone more in the know can clarify his attitude, but it does seem to stem at least partially from annoyance over the constant questions. After all, if Stiemsma doesn't play, no one's asking why afterward.

Adelman

I know what his reputation is; what I'm seeing here is not consistent with it.
He seems to favor limited journeymen who know their role.

Stiemsma is a never was, never will be, so no one questions the fact that he plays in selected spots.
Williams, on the other hand, is more the future of this team than Kevin Love.
He's raw and has weaknesses, but he's also shown a commitment to change. The more he plays, the quicker he'll learn.

No, he favors players that produce

The idea that "sucking up" to a coach would work in the NBA is absurd, and none of us would know who those players were if they did exist. There's no more egalitarian coach in the league than Adelman; if someone's effectively producing, they'll play.

We can question the way Adelman talks about Williams and/or treats him because there's something strange about it. Beyond that, though, this has nothing to do with him generally favoring journeymen and has everything to do with playing productive players and finding role players who make his good players better. The only "journeymen" currently on this roster are (maybe) Stiemsma, Amundson, and Hayward; one plays because he's the team's best shotblocker, and the other 2 only see the floor due to injuries or blowouts. Cunningham is good enough to be in any team's rotation because he knows where to be and makes plays on both ends.

I have no time for the opinion that Williams is "more the future of this team" than Love. Even if Love doesn't play here beyond his current contract, when healthy he's still going to factor significantly more in this team's success than Williams. Players make themselves part of the future by playing well and making their teammates better; that's why many consider Rubio and Shved part of that future but question Williams.

Let him [try to] produce.

They don't have any choice. If he sometimes stops the offense by holding the ball, and doesn't see an open cutter here, or spot-up shooter there, so be it. If he shuffles his feet the first couple of times he tries a one-on-one move, so be it. He's a scorer and they need one right now and for the next couple of months.

Dante Cunningham is one of my favorite players on this team for how he goes about his job, but it's a supporting role. A bench role. Williams may fail, but he needs to touch the ball early and often so he can, as you say, discover his own mistakes. I have to believe that top-tier power forwards take the first possessions (and quarters, even) to feel out their opponent's defensive tendencies and have ongoing chess matches of scoring moves and defensive counters. All of that is compromised for Williams when the coach is jerking him around.

There will be games--mostly against bad teams, I would guess--where Kirilenko back cuts his man enough times and Pek puts back enough misses for two points that the Wolves win despite not having anything of a go-to guy. There will also be a few nights, as we've seen, where J.J. Barea will step up and be one. But with Love and Budinger, the team's floor spacers, on the shelf, the idea of a drive-and-kick, pick-and-pop offense becomes much more questionable than we envisioned when the season began. If Derrick Williams can provide 20 points in not-terrible efficiency as a primary option, then the rest of what this team does well can possibly keep its head above water.

(Wow, that was the most excuse making that I've done for Williams in some time...)

Greg got it right above

Williams can play 1-on-1 defense, but when it comes to rotations, his offense is rarely worth the trade-off, especially with his inconsistency. It's my theory that poor defensive discipline is the main reason Williams is not getting more time on the court - not being where you're supposed to be or blowing an assignment is giving up easy points, and a cerebral defender like AK needs to know that his teammates are in position or he's less effective. Britt's last column went in-depth on the Wolves defensive rotations, so no need to rehash that here. But we're all aware of the Wolves three-point woes, so there's no question that there are situations where Williams can give us an advantage.

I'll also not be the first to point out that it's fairly well-known (at least by now) that the type of statistical categories that Williams crushed in college (shooting efficiency, primarily) rarely translate well to the pros. This doesn't say much by itself other than that we need to temper our expectations for the #2 pick in a still-unproven (though by most accounts, largely forgettable) 2011 lottery draft class.