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Wolves in swoon: inept and exhausted

If you watched more than a half of any of the four double-digit losses on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ horrendous road trip over the past six days, you saw a team bone-tired of being insufficient — a roll call of fading figures who are physically, emotionally and psychologically spent.

 The Wolves are now in the throes of the downward spiral, where rationalizations and recriminations beckon like drugs, where acknowledging reality is defeatist behavior but rallying battle cries emerge as either kabuki theater for the mindless media maw or, if sincere, annoying flares of naiveté.

 If you’re not exasperated, you’re not paying attention.

After a red-assed spanking at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night, Wolves veteran guard Luke Ridnour was exasperated. When a reporter proffered the hardly novel notion that too many injuries have robbed the team of the requisite resources to be competitive, Ridnour barked, “You know what, I’m tired of hearing that. Guys are out, so what? Everybody’s got guys out. We’ve got to find a way to win games. Whether guys are in or out, we still have to play 48 minutes. We’re all professionals. We have to find a way to get a win.”

OK, let’s take the bait. Luke Ridnour is the starting point guard. He actually had some flashes of solid performance on this road trip, which probably provided him with the internal standing and impetus to sound off. As kabuki for the maw, his timing and passion, dare I even say sincerity, were well delivered. It’s the kind of stuff that will linger in the lizard brain of pundits and accrue to his reputation as a “veteran locker room leader” months, even years, down the twilight trail of his career.

But if we seriously embrace the contextual framework posited by Ridnour in his outburst, the man is a laggard and a charlatan, unprofessional to the core. The four starting point guards who opposed him on this road trip absolutely ran roughshod over his miserable pretense at defense.

Averaging just 30:13 minutes per game during this road trip (blowout wins reduce playing time), the quartet of Russell Westbrook, Greivis Vasquez, Tony Parker and Darren Collison shot 55.4 percent from the field (31-for-56), 54.5 percent on three-pointers (6-for-11) and collectively averaged 21 points, 9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4-to-1.

For his part, Ridnour averaged a mere 28:31 minutes (blowout losses reduce playing time) and shot 46.3 from the field (19-for-41), 30.8 percent on three-pointers (4-for-13) and collectively averaged 12.8 points, 4.5 assists and 2 rebounds per game, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.57-to-1. More importantly, he and the other professionals in the Wolves locker room didn’t find a way to win a single game.

Reality bites

Why pick on Ridnour? Because his comments play into a corrosive dynamic that assumes those of us who know and follow the game of basketball can be lied to in order to assuage the fairy-tale fantasies gripped tightly by those who prefer that a pat, inaccurate catechism about character, morality and competition trump a clear-headed appreciation of the actual blood, sweat, tears, sinew, savvy and strategy on display in every contest.

If Ridnour had merely been honest and copped to the fact that he wouldn’t even be starting if Ricky Rubio and Chase Budinger possessed four healthy knees, and that not all teams are blessed or cursed by the same significance and severity of injuries, and that no matter how hard you try, it is really difficult to win games when you are suddenly bereft of the best power forward in the NBA; then the yahoos would come roaring out of the woodwork, indignantly pointing to the millions in salary Luke collects each year and casting his losing, quitter’s attitude.

I’d like to think that what Ridnour is really tired of is having to engage in and further this kabuki sham. But maybe I’m giving him too much credit.

Luke Ridnour
REUTERS/Mike CasseseLuke Ridnour grabbing a rebound.

Could the Wolves have maybe stolen a game somewhere on this trip if substitute coach Terry Porter had given more minutes to his top scoring threat, Nikola Pekovic? Has the fitful but tangible growth in the game of Derrick Williams reached the risk/reward ratio where it makes sense to give him more minutes at the expense of the reliable but limited Dante Cunningham? Has Alexey Shved hit the rookie wall? Will Ricky Rubio ever learn to shoot accurately?

These are all viable questions worthy of discussion. But at the moment they miss the forest for the trees. The current circumstances are dramatic enough to warrant a more big-picture view.

For the majority of this season to date, the Wolves have played valiant, unselfish, synergistic basketball, overachieving on wins given the composite talent they were able to put on the court. But on this recent road trip, the toll from a relentless barrage of injuries reached the breaking point, driving the team into an ugly tailspin from exhaustion.

Let’s get specific. Quality basketball teams are assembled with complementary but well-defined roles for players whose value is slotted into a generally unspoken but usually unmistakable pecking order. Injuries simultaneously alter the roles and the pecking order placement of the remaining healthy players. A small or even moderate level of injuries can be fascinating for the way coaches and healthy players respond to this more fluid and challenging scenario. This is where some meaningful insight into character, attitude and motivation can be gleaned.

But if the changes in roles and pecking orders become too chronic and/or severe for the team to absorb, challenge yields to dysfunction, and dysfunction soon maxes out the already depleting reservoir of physical, mental and psychological energy a team can invest in a game. Then the team collapses.

That’s where the Wolves currently exist, in a state of collapse.

The airtight fundamentals of Andrei Kirilenko are not meant to be extended into him becoming a primary scorer or playmaker on this team for a lengthy period. As AK’s offensive game has become aggressive, his glue-guy defensive versatility has suffered. Shved is not meant to be a starting NBA shooting guard at this early stage of his career. He is being physically manhandled at both ends of the court, and the fatigue has caused him to gamble more on defense, shoot more awkwardly, delay the timing on his passes and not see the court as comprehensively as he did when less beleaguered. And so on down the roster.

The loss of Kevin Love is a terrible blow to this team in many ways. Most obviously, Love sits at the top of the Wolves’ pecking order. If he gets 19 points and 14 rebounds, his per-game averages this season, he still encounters legitimate questions about his commitment to defense and his inaccurate field goal percentage. On the court and in the media, the scrutiny he draws reduces the pressure on his teammates. He commands a double-team in the low post and must be accounted for out at the three-point line, spacing the floor for the playmaking guards and drawing opposing rebounders away from the hoop.

Then there are the less obvious advantages created by Love’s skill set. He notoriously complains to officials while his teammates race down the court to defend, so why are the Wolves suddenly yielding so many fast break points in his absence? (They were outscored 95-to-38 in that realm during the four games on the road.)

Most probably it is because of Love’s prowess as an offensive rebounder, which not only reduces the amount of times an opponent can initiate a fast break, but keeps their swingmen down near the hoop to contest the caroms and prevents their guards from leaking out too soon and too rapidly, lest Love grab the rebound and the Wolves suddenly have a 5-on-4 advantage in the half-court.

Another factor is the fatigue of the Wolves’ guards, who no longer operate in the greater spacing provided by Love’s presence, and no longer can “take a play off” by simply dishing it to their star and letting him go to work. Instead, they have to expend more energy in less space, siphoning energy on a group already compromised by a lack of height, or muscle, or two healthy knees — and further compromised by the losing and dysfunction that is now feeding on itself.

And so it goes. Teams collapse like a lung, when they are finally forced to exhale, when they are gasping from the exertion of added responsibility and then the overall level of dysfunction finally knocks the rest of the wind right out of them. It remains to be seen if the Wolves are ready yet to gather new breath, to respire with a second wind that will enable them to adjust to the new roles and challenges. It is a situation made more difficult by the knowledge that they are no longer plucky overachievers in the playoff chase.

They are still professionals who have to play for 48 minutes and find a way to win. And it is exasperating when they are not successful. But let’s not ignore the reality of this injury-ravaged season when assessing how things have gone so wrong.

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Comments (15)

Fitting to focus on Luke.

For some reason it feels completely appropriate to begin this piece with Luke Ridnour. He's a solid player and professional, and rarely ever "the problem" on recent Timberwolves teams that struggled.

But when the "exhaustion" feeling comes around--even for us fans watching--it seems best symbolized by a possession that has Ridnour dribbling away the shot clock with nowhere good to turn. Or Ridnour defending Russell Westbrook (!) on the block. It's an outmatched struggle.

He has a role in the NBA, and too often on the Wolves--whether it be due to injuries or simple roster mistakes (read: drafting Jonny Flynn)--he's forced to try to play beyond it.

I don't mind his quote so much, but I can understand how the feelings emanated from watching that road trip led you to write first about Luke Ridnour. It's frustrating and, even for a fan, exhausting.

Nothing against Luke

Thanks Andy.

I sincerely have nothing against Luke, either personally or as a player. But that quote was so in sync with this horrible dance that, as a longtime follower of the Wolves, I recognize all too well. It is the old--"no excuses" bromide that makes everybody feel good that their team isn't "giving up," and yet only the delusional can't recognize that as the energy steady drains from the remaining players without Love, or Budinger, or Roy, or full-blown Ricky, or Adelman most recently, this team has no prayer of rising up to quash New Orleans or Dallas, let alone OKC and San Antonio. And in that context, Ridnour's words are just so much BS.

To believe otherwise means you have to believe Ridnour simply didn't try hard enough, or wasn't sufficiently on his game, going up against the likes of Westbrook, Parker, Vasquez and even Collison.

As I specifically mentioned in the story, I would like to believe that what Luke is really weary of is being asked the same trap question, which if he answers honestly will get him branded a losing quitter, and if he answers the way he did makes him part of this tawdry little assuaging of the tender sensibilities of people who don't know basketball.

Dallas was losing a lot of

Dallas was losing a lot of games recently and had an interesting split of opinions as to why that was. Obviously, Dirk was out with an injury and the team has done a quasi-rebuild after letting Jason Terry and Tyson Chandler depart.

Carlisle was, by all accounts, going bananas about the losing, even threatening players with suspensions for poor play.

Dirk sounded infinitely more relaxed and realistic. He basically gave the honest answer that the team lacks talent compared to recent years. He wasn't complaining; just answering questions honestly.

Now Dirk is back and they're winning some. Just kind of an interesting parallel to the Ridnour quote. Dirk can get away with it. He's notoriously fun-loving, has MVP credentials, and is more the face of his franchise than Luke--or Carlisle, for that matter--will ever be.

Hard not to love Dirk

Great stuff as always Andy. Your descriptions of the parallels and the differences between Dirk and Luke in this instance seem dead-on.

Who's the greatest "foreign-born" NBA player? Off the top of my head, I'd put Dirk narrowly third, behind Hakeem and Steve Nash, in that order.

For Wolves fans who don't know, Andy has a highly readable and informative blog at punchdrunkwolves.com

Patrick Ewing, born in

Patrick Ewing, born in Jamaica, is probably near the top of the list. I'd rate him in the same tier as Nash and Dirk, but behind Hakeem. (He and Dream settled that on the court, which rarely happens so clearly.)

Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Peja Stojakovic, Pau Gasol, and Drazen Petrovic--or the player he appeared to be becoming when he died, at least--are probably the tier below that. I'm sure I'm forgetting somebody.

Hopefully some of these Wolves enter this discussion someday.

Arvydas Sabonis

Just to toss a wild card in here.
Sabonis was just a shadow of his former self (age and injuries) when he finally joined the NBA, but he was still a pro.
In his prime he was a strong, mobile 7-4 who knew how to play the game.
Remember what he did to David Robinson and the U.S. team in the 1988 Olympics.
I remember watching a film of him playing when he was in his teens. Watching him run you wouldn't know he was that big until you looked at all the midgets around him ;-).
If he had joined the NBA in his teens the way European players do now there's no telling how high he would rate.

picking on Luke ...

So Ridnour fed you a tired sports bromide and you viscerated him for it. Luke is continually picked on for not being adequate, yet he continues to start and to fight each night. Why? Because he is better than the alternative and because (as he indicates) it's his job.

I fail to see the point of listing his inadequacies. No one says he is the equal or Russell Westbrook. He's out there competing due to fate and the front office. It sounds like you would feel better if the Wolves players just resigned themselves to being overmatched losers. I don't see where that would get you.

They work in a field where there are certified 'winners' and 'losers' every day and they are judged accordingly. I am thankful I don't work in such a field. If that's your chosen profession, tired sports bromides become a necessary act of self-inoculation.

Yes, the Wolves are darn near unwatchable. They don't have the horses. Even when healthy, all the horses would have to be pulling together for them to win. Yes, they miss Love greatly. This team has not done due diligence to get a scorer to complement Love. They could have had Crawford or Mayo, but those were deemed too one-dimensional. Instead they have Budinger and Roy (neither contributing). That's not the fault of the remaining players.

There is the double-whammy of Adelman's absence. I don't feel Terry Porter has the acumen to lead here. He has twice been a head coach already, without distinction. Perhaps we would have still lost, but I doubt we would've been run out the building so often.

Mr. Gibson-- I would feel

Mr. Gibson--
I would feel better if athletes stopped spooling out "tired sports bromides," which itself is a polite way of saying they are BS. Believe it or not, there is some wiggle room between the bromides and a self-definition as an overmatched loser, and I suspect Ridnour is smart enough to find it. I wish he would, and wrote a column to express my frustration and help him along.

We have different tolerances for different things. I can watch endless hours of "unwatchable" basketball, but have no patience for tired sports bromides.

As for "viscerating" Luke, I held him to his self-proclaimed standard of being a professional who has to figure out a way to win the game. He's the one who barked that the Wolves are merely in the same boat as every other team when it comes to injuries. I gave credit to his flashes of inspired play. But you want me to give him credit, or at least a pass, for his faux-competitive self-inoculation. No thanks.

Reinforcements

Britt, what is your take on the seeming slowness of the FO to bring in some decent free agents to fill in for Love, Budinger, Lee and Roy? Lazar is okay as the cheapest of band-aids, and it looks like they had to wait for ten-day contracts to become an option and also for Gelabale to become available. But they are exhausting the few healthy and competent players on the squad when they can sign a Birdman or a D-League star, etc.

To save money? To see what they have before making another change? No one out there they rate better than their current bench?

By the way, "mindless media maw" is at least as memorable an alliterative phrase as "nattering nabobs of negativity." Well done.

Klawitter

The front office gambled that the team could hold the fort until Roy's situation became clear cut and Gelabale agreed to what they regard as reasonable terms. They gambled wrong.

I'm not much of a fan of quick fixes that represent a tiny upgrade and potentially bad value to your overall bottom line. But in this case, yes, I think you explain it well when you say they are exhausting competent players. They need a player who can hit a three-pointer and provide a semblance of wing defense. It is hard to imagine they can't get that with a 10-day minimum contract.

What you say makes sense

Along those lines, it's not clear that Kahn petitioned the NBA by yesterday's deadline for an injured player exception for Lee - I don't see any downside to doing so and it seems foolish not to have another roster spot open just in case. Foolish, or penny-pinching, that is.

Just to change the subject...

hey Minnpost, you should lobby the Powers That Be to see if they could bring an NHL franchise to Minnesota. Then you might have something other than the NBA to include in your "Sports?" section.

Obviously...

...no one is holding a gun to your head to stop by this site, and particularly the comments section of this column. Michael Russo at the Strib is one of the most highly regarded puck scribes in North America. I suggest you spend your time reading what he has to say rather than wasting your minutes, and mine, on snarky comments.

Columnist in Swoon: Inept and Exhausted

Robson -- why take cheap shots at a stand-up guy like Luke Ridnour? He plays his heart out, but you choose to misconstrue his sincerity about finding a way to win despite the injuries and without making excuses, then shame him for being insincere. This is pathetic, journalistic bullying. Find something insightful or interesting to say without unfairly cutting others down. Or are you too inept and exhausted to do it?

Late to the party

Mr. Barnhart--

If Ridnour was indeed sincere, then I pointed out how he was mistaken. If he wasn't sincere, I was pointing out how he was playing into this mindless game to satiate unthinking, round-the-clock media coverage.

Sorry you didn't get that.

As for my vigor, I always get energized when someone challenges me on something I've done which I believe is right. Thanks for the pick-me-up.