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Wolves suffering from the absence of Adelman the taskmaster

Wolves suffering from the absence of Adelman the taskmaster
Wolves suffering from the absence of Adelman the taskmaster
It has now been exactly three weeks since Rick Adelman stepped away from practices and games with his team to attend to his ailing wife.

What a dreadful time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to embark upon their longest home stand of the season.

On Friday, the Wolves were torched for 114 points by a Washington Wizards team that ranks dead last in offensive efficiency. On Saturday, they blew an 18-point lead to a Charlotte Bobcats team that had lost 16 straight home games and was begging to be put out of its misery for most of the contest.

After weeks of playing with grit and coherence in the face of mounting injuries, the roster has been overwhelmed. What was once resourceful pluck is now chaotic dysfunction. Minnesota has lost nine of its last 11, and 11of its last 14. They are closer to the cellar than to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Now they arrive home for six straight games at Target Center. Their next road tilt is not until Feb. 10 in Memphis. Let’s fervently hope that coach Rick Adelman is able to accompany them.

Still missing Adelman: The discipline edition

It has now been exactly three weeks since Adelman stepped away from practices and games with his team to attend to his ailing wife. That absence has been more harmful to the Wolves than many people realize. In the long, highly competitive hit parade of damaging mishaps that have befallen the franchise thus far this season, Mary Kay Adelman (illness), probably ranks a close third on the list behind Kevin Love (hand) and Chase Budinger (knee).

Part of last week’s column dealt with how much the Wolves missed Adelman’s in-game adjustments in terms of matchups and strategy. But the absence of Adelman the taskmaster is also becoming increasingly apparent and detrimental to the team’s ability to get the most out of its already diminished potential.

Most obviously, on two different occasions in Saturday’s one-point loss, a Wolves player attempted an inexplicably foolish behind-the-back pass that resulted in a turnover. These were a step beyond unforced errors, into the realm of heedless playground shenanigans. It’s telling that the Wolves enjoyed a comfortable lead both times they occurred, and that one of those passes was by Andrei Kirilenko, currently the team’s best and most mature player.

Showboating on the court is a sign of mental laxity and poor coaching. It is disheartening to watch from this current crew, because it betrays a lack of self-awareness and core discipline, which are absolutely vital virtues for a relatively untalented and outmanned squad to possess if they hope to snatch a rare winnable game or two when it comes along.

Silly turnovers are also symptomatic of the less blatant but equally crippling ways the Wolves’ discipline has wavered under Porter in recent weeks. The team’s defensive rotations are lackluster at best, their ball-sharing often ends at the makeable, instead of optimal, shot attempt, and their resolve is flaccid enough to cede 18-point leads twice in the past week.

Yes, it is difficult to know how much of this is mental fatigue, owing to the Wolves’ inferior talent now that injuries have so thoroughly strip-mined the roster. No one can blame Luke Ridnour for failing to contain Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson, given that Johnson is five inches taller and 65 pounds heavier. Some may blame him for failing to stay in front of Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, Ramon Sessions, and Ben Gordon Saturday night, but when Nikola Pekovic was healthy, Ridnour had a big man who reliably rotated into the path of that dribble penetration — he’s never been a shut-down on-ball defender.

This is how dysfunction gets compounded by plausible deniability. Ridnour and J.J. Barea can rightfully point out that the rotations from the big men were late, or that, until Porter substituted in a smaller lineup to better match up with Charlotte’s, they lacked the proper personnel to execute the defense properly.

Or, to choose an even nobler example, Kirilenko has been increasingly forcing the action on offense. One would argue that given his gaudy shooting percentage, base talent level and position of prominence on the team, it is not only appropriate but necessary that he push his game beyond his comfort zone, for the overall good of the ballclub.

It is at precisely these times that you need a master arbiter, a person of unquestionable authority and judgment who can pinpoint when it makes sense for Kirilenko to drive to the hoop more often, instead of getting his shots at the rim through back-cuts along the baseline, and when going beyond his comfort zone is actually hurting the team. But when it gets to the point where A.K. is going behind his back for no good reason, or launching a three-pointer with more than 10 seconds on the clock and his team down two in crunch time, you know his judgmental compass is faulty and the arbiter is absent.

Meanwhile, there are less subtle symbols that “the substitute teacher syndrome” has affected the Wolves under Porter. Take Derrick Williams, for example.

First, let’s gleefully acknowledge that D-Will has dramatically improved his court awareness and shot selection in recent months. Now that his preference for an “outside-in” approach to his offense -- setting up drives to the hoop by first launching from the perimeter -- has been granted and proven relatively successful, he is engaging the greater possibilities of ball movement.

But Williams’ defense under Porter has been abysmal. Again, he has plausible excuses — the absence of Pekovic beside him in the paint, the tough decisions that challenge his inexperience when the depleted, exhausted cadre of guards consistently get beaten off the dribble — but the energy level and commitment to getting defensive stops is noticeably less forthcoming than the joyful vigor with which D-Will hunts for touches and buckets on offense. That’s one reason why Adelman has been so tough on him — and why Williams and the Wolves are diminished in Adelman’s absence.

Clouding the big picture

With Love, Budinger and a raft of other key components missing in action, even a top-notch courtside coaching performance from an Adelman freed from family concerns wouldn’t net the Wolves enough victories to make the playoffs. No, his absence becomes most acute when you realize that he is more than the coach — he’s the personnel guru and one charting the course of the franchise for the next two or three years.

By now it is well documented -- via my interviews with Wolves’ owner Glen Taylor, other media sources, and the common-sense conclusions you can make by how the Wolves’ front office has behaved — that the franchise abruptly changed its philosophy when they hired Adelman in September of 2011. Most significantly, the notion of building the team slowly and inexpensively through the draft and relatively low-cost gambles was supplanted by more of a win-now attitude.

Furthermore, Adelman was the architect and director of this new philosophy. Within minimal constraints, the roster would be tailored according Adelman’s specifications. Gone were beguiling athletes who were clueless about how to play the game; replaced by players with specific complementary skill sets that would foster ball movement, player movement without the ball, and a more versatile and active defense.

This required Wolves’ GM David Kahn to excise most of his high-profile draft choices and veteran player acquisitions — you know the list. Almost all of them are already chained to the bench of their new teams or out of the league altogether. Give Kahn credit for sucking it up and staining his already suspect reputation for personnel evaluation in order to provide Adelman with a roster more simpatico with his style of play.

We now know that Kahn was mostly meant to be the numbers guy all along, the person who could massage a mismanaged salary cap situation into financial stability. Kahn’s detractors will point out that his personnel mistakes were financially injurious in their own right — high draft picks like Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson should be playing like $10 million veterans now at a fraction of that cost. But the fact remains that Kahn’s ability to whack payroll made Taylor more comfortable about offering large deals to the likes of Nicholas Batum and Kirilenko.

The bottom line, however, is that Adelman calls the shots on most personnel issues. Unfortunately, it stands to reason that he will have less ability and less authority to make those decisions the longer he is away from the team.

This most immediately affects how the Wolves operate in the 24 days before the Feb. 21 trading deadline. The team has a couple of promising but still limited role players in center-forward Chris Johnson and swingman Mickael Gelabale. Adelman had Johnson in preseason training camp but has never coached either one in a regular season NBA game and thus lacks that intimate knowledge of what they can do and how they fit, psychologically and intellectually as well as physically, into his system.

The Wolves also have Brandon Roy and his $5 million expiring contract (he hasn’t played enough games to qualify for the second season of his original two-year deal) to dangle in front of teams. And, if you are looking for potentially momentous personnel decisions, the trading deadline is one juncture where the front office can signal whether or not they can afford to extend Kirilenko’s contract beyond next season and still resign Pekovic for what will almost certainly be $10-$12 million per season for three or four years.

If they can’t, trading Kirilenko at near-peak value is an option. But what do you want and ask for in return? Or, again assuming the team decides it can’t afford both AK and Pek, do they want a few months for a potential sign-and-trade with Pekovic, or can they package his current deal with someone like Roy or Williams (or Ridnour or Barea) and get someone talented enough and compatible enough with Adelman’s sets to mitigate the loss of those players?

The point is, on personnel matters large and small, Adelman lacks the contextual expertise that comes from immersion in how players on his team and players who oppose him are performing. He also lacks the unwavering focus on those matters while the health of his wife appropriately remains his top priority.

Who and what — if anybody or anything — fills that void? Does this strengthen Kahn’s hand when it comes to personnel decisions? In his recent interview with Charlie Walters of the Pioneer Press, Taylor went out of his way to praise Kahn for acquiring Johnson and Gelabale, and the owner has obviously been pleased with the way Kahn has reduced worries about the team’s salary structure. For that matter, the chronic injuries Love has endured this season makes Kahn look smarter for not locking Love up for five full years.

The adage that may apply here is “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Through absolutely no fault of his own, Adelman hasn’t been showing up these past three weeks. The longer the situation drags on, the less clout he will wield — either in judgment and/or authority--when decisions need to be made.

Put that on the pile of woe that has been the Timberwolves season in 2012-13.

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Comments (11)

The Wolves

I can not recall any professional sports team that I've held interest in that has been crippled by such misfortune. I will remember fondly this team arcing to the top of its game earlier this season. It was a dance of great, competitive beauty.

Amen

I can not recall a professional sports team I was more excited to cover at the beginning of the season that has turned into a reliably dreadful duty of figuring out original things to say that don't ultimately boil down to, "because of injuries, they don't have a chance."

Apparently Coach Adelman,

Apparently Coach Adelman, Alexey Shved, and Nikola Pekovic all returned to practice today. (Per various Timberwolves-reporter Twitter accounts.) I wonder if that wave of needed returnees might mean the end of the Johnson & Gelabale Era? A part of me would like those two to replace the Stiemsma minutes and some of the undersized shooting guard minutes. But that could just be frustration and kneejerk reaction talking.

Regarding personnel matters, R.J. Adelman is (according to the team website) the Director of Player Personnel, and an overseer of scouting and statistical analysis. I don't know -- or need to know -- whether he has continued to work during recent weeks, but if he has, perhaps Rick is up to speed on things such as trade targets and whether they should keep Chris Johnson beyond his 10 days.

It would surprise me if Andrei Kirilenko were moved. Not only because he's played so well but also because of the Shved situation and how Kirilenko helps there. I'd be less surprised, but at least as disappointed, if Pekovic is moved. To me, that would signal an unwillingness to flirt with the luxury tax line and not anything basketball related.

Good news

Heard about the Adelman return about 90 minutes after I posted. Which is actually okay, because it should be big news for a franchise that sorely needs it to draw squat on this home stand, and with Pek and Shved joining him, it will definitely help.

Who would you rather have Andy, Johnson and Gelabale or Amundson and Roy? I understand they won't waive Roy because he is at least trade bait in three weeks, but waiving Amundson would get them away from the necessary exception and then they could give both another 10-day before making a decision.

Was going to write this before settling on Adelman, but Amundson is suddenly a poor fit for the team now. He was brought in as Pek insurance in case Stiemsma's off-season injuries didn't heal, but brought in mostly as a defensive guy who could muck it up--who knew back then that the Wolves' biggest difficultly this season would be putting the ball in the hole? Johnson can do that, Amundson mostly can't, but he would certainly be picked up if waived, little by a team that is both a better fit and has a better W-L record.

Yes it would surprise me if AK were dealt. But it is exactly the kind of deal a proactive club like OKC would swing--much to everybody's chagrin at first, of course, but there is logic to it down the road if they sincerely want to keep Pek and shy away from heavy salary woes. The truth is they need both--AK as a wing stopper on D and compatible cog in the offense, Pek as a floor-spreading low post stalwart who meshes well with Love and Rubio if and when everybody gets a chance to prove it.

I'd prefer Johnson and

I'd prefer Johnson and Gelabale to Amundson and Roy. Roy can't play anymore, it seems, and Amundson is shooting 30 percent from the field and 22 percent from the foul line. His offense is so non-existent that it's a problem beyond the typical no-skills big man.

Gelabale has length and quickness to defend legitimate wing scorers, and seems to have a professional jump shot too. Maybe he'll stick around the NBA the way fellow Euro-journeyman Alan Anderson is doing in Toronto. Or not -- but given the Wolves situation with Ridnour and Barea trying to defend shooting guards, and Roy on the shelf, I'm a Gelabale supporter.

Johnson provides that pick-and-roll lob option which wasn't there before. He makes about 70 percent of foul shots (and field goals!). He blocks shots and rebounds at a decent level. The skeptic wonders why he's been released from NBA teams before, but that could have been asked about Jeremy Lin too. Sometimes when the sample size is so small, some more playing experience and a new opportunity can reveal a functional player.

(As an aside, the relative confidence and savvy that these two "experienced" guys show makes me wonder if Derrick Williams would improve more from a full season in the D-League than in these jerked-around stints he gets on his NBA team. I realize this is not realistic.)

Obviously neither player is going to be the key to a major turnaround, but if we're talking about how to backup the Shved/Barea and Pekovic minutes, I'd like to see the new guys stick around for a while.

Regarding OKC trading Harden (I assume that's what you're referring to in your final paragraph) I still think that trade is going to look terrible in a few years, if not months. OKC did well for the time being, going the cheap route. But Harden made for an embarrassment of riches that, in ideal circumstances, gave the Thunder a totally-unfair advantage in 2nd Quarters. In the event of an injury to Westbrook or Durant, they'd have a fringe MVP candidate to plug in and continue en route to deep playoff runs. Right now they might look proactive, but in time might look more like Robert Sarver's Suns teams that cheap-skated their way to a nice string of 2nd and 3rd Round playoff appearances that should have--but didn't--include a title. Just my two cents. As a Wolves fan, I'm happy that Harden is no longer a Thunder. (Or what do we call those players?)

in agreement

Andy

Couldn't agree more about Harden. In ESPN's top 25 under 25, Harden was 4th and Durant (1), Westbrook (2) and Ibaka (7) rounded out what would have been an amazing, if very very expensive, young core.

That said, the guys who liked the trade have the upper hand on us right now. The Thunder are rolling with the cheaper personnel and one of the players I dislike most in this league, Kevin Martin, is having a wonderful season. If we ever get to say I told you so, it won't be in the regular season this year.

Thanks for continuing to cover this team

These past few weeks have been trying for fans - between the injuries and the Adelman situation, this is the epitome of powerlessness. The only story here begins with "The best-laid plans of mice and men..." At least when we were losing with guys like Beas and Wes, we could think of the future roster upgrades - the addition-by-subtraction and the "we just need a perimeter defender and a ballhandling SG" was my hope last offseason...now that we have those, and we have compiled the second-most talented Wolves team in our short franchise history, there is very little to show for it. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little hurt by my high expectations for this team - I remember reading national media saying this was a borderline playoff team, and I was thinking we were even better than that, and that by the end of the season, we would be a well-oiled machine, and a team no one would want to draw in the first round...

Anyway, assuming Adelman will stick around for a couple more years, I would be most happy if we were to talk AK into an extension beyond the next year, even if that means giving up Pek. Maybe I'm undervaluing Pek's skill and impact in other areas of the game, but I'd love to see this offense with a big man who can pass and create some high-low offense with Love. Obviously it's not easy to find bigs with that skill, but I'm sure Oliver Miller is out there looking for work right now!

Also, I'm reading a few reports that suggest Adelman will return to the sideline this week...hope he's doing well.

Relief.

For all of the recent concern about Adelman's handling of Williams and any concern about some of the flat performances during the holiday break, he's undoubtedly one of their bigger game by game assets. It's not that Porter is a bad head coach by NBA standards; it's more that Adelman is a step above 2/3 of NBA coaches and gave the team a needed advantage on most nights. When I saw Jon Krawczynski's tweet, I literally took a sigh of relief.

One of the things I take umbrage with is the idea that they don't have a chance most nights. I know the injuries and other issues have been discouraging, but every NBA team has a chance most nights, and during games when they're competitive, a loss can't be chalked up to, "Well, they don't have enough talent." No one on Washington or Charlotte overwhelmed the Wolves because of their talent. There will be some nights that they lose decisively; that's based on lack of talent combining with psychological fatigue. Beyond that, though, this is more an issue of players expecting to carry an extra load for the beginning of the season, being asked to shoulder even more of a burden, adjusting to the return of injured players, and then facing an second, unexpected, extended burden. With all of that said, they should be kicking themselves that they didn't win 2-3 more of the closer games (Clippers, Hawks, Nets, Bobcats, Hornets) because they had enough chances to do so.

As for the long-term decisions? First, the best move for them with Pek is to attempt to sign him at a discount before he visits other teams, match any offer sheets if they can't, and then keep their options open with trading him like Denver did with Nene. If they don't want to do that, they need to move him before the deadline. That's more along the lines of what OKC would do; with AK, they'd try to extend him to a team-friendly deal that improves their cap room. In this comparison, AK is Nick Collison, and Pek is Jeff Green or James Harden. They might also consider moving Cunningham while his value is high; he has another year on his deal, and maybe a contender needs a mobile big. Roy's only appealing to teams who are trying to reduce their tax bill or open up cap space this summer. Beyond that, the leverage is such that the Wolves might need to throw in a 2nd to get someone to take him for nothing. Whoever they get for him will need to be rotation-worthy since he'll probably make more than Roy and/or have a deal that goes into next season. Darren Wolfson is saying that they might be able to trade Amundson for a 2nd, which surprises me, but he is a cheap big with playoff experience.

Long-term, it seems like Taylor and Kahn prohibited any Williams trade last summer; they might still have some boundaries for Adelman. Williams might be one, and what they do with their 1st rounder could be another. Setting aside the unlikely chance that the pick ends up in the top 3, I assume it will be selected for another team and then traded for a veteran. I don't know if I agree with that since quality can be found in the late lottery, but I'm okay with it happening. With him as coach, they're best off avoiding first rounders unless it's a guy he's convinced can play for him; other than that, finding low-risk investments is probably the best way to approach the draft.

Johnson

I think the main reason he hasn't stuck is his lack of strength. Maybe that's not enough justification, but most teams have their athletes on the perimeter or at the 4, and Johnson's a 5. He gets bent to a 90 degree angle every time someone sticks a forearm into him. At some point, a team probably has to determine if he's like Corey Brewer in his ability to add muscle, only it's a much bigger problem for Johnson if he can't.

The weird sidenote in all of this: Johnson and Anthony Randolph were teammates during Randolph's one college season, and in a lot of ways, Johnson is this year what I hoped Randolph could be. Johnson may have been overshadowed because Randolph and 2 of his other teammates (Garrett Temple and Marcus Thornton) are NBA players. He didn't really emerge until his junior season, averaged under 7 rebounds a game in his last 2 years, and only shot 45% as a senior. Weirdly enough, he attempted 2 3s per game his junior year.

Listed at 210!

Chris Johnson is listed at 6-11, 210. That's incredibly slight for an NBA big man and it means that Johnson will have a very difficult time bodying up against opposing classic centers.
For example, Wednesday night, the Clippers come to town with DeAndre Jordan (6-11, 250) and Ronny Turiaf (6-10, 249) at center, the uber athletic Blake Griffin (6-10, 251) at power forward and five other players who weigh more than 210, including Odom, Barnes, Hill, Butler and Hollins.
With eight guys who outweighh him and likely matchups against three guys who outweight him by 40 pounds, Johnson will obviously have to be quick and savvy.
As you say, PSR, he can't joust because they break him in half with a forearm. Brewer is a good comp, better than Randolph who was and remains utterly clueless. Johnson clearly knows what he is doing out there. I especially like his second jump, the way he can go back up after being faked into the air once.

Glad that Pek is back though.

How many players currently on the Wolves

were playing in the NBA at the start of the season?
I don't think that Red Aurbach could have won with the players currently on the Wolves' active roster.