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Wolves in winter: Missing Adelman, waiting on Rubio

Wolves in winter: Missing Adelman, waiting on Rubio
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Rick Adelman is distracted from his duties to the point of absence — eight games and counting — by a chronic medical problem challenging his wife.

Since my last column a week ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves have mostly halted the negative momentum generated by their horrendous road trip — four double-digit shellackings — that has been the nadir of their season thus far.

This is not to say that the Wolves’ meager playoff hopes have improved, nor that they have many bankable assets upon which they can rely in the near future. They came home from the trip and lost to a lackluster Clippers team minus superstar Chris Paul; finally posted a victory by handing a floundering and weary Houston team its seventh straight loss a night after the Rockets were manhandled by the very physical Indiana Pacers; and yesterday blew an 18-point lead to an Atlanta team that had lost 8 of its previous ten games.

But in those three games, Minnesota has been outmanned more than dismantled, game to compete instead of keeling from psychological and physical exhaustion, betrayed by a lack of familiarity and star power as opposed to being simply embarrassed by blatant dysfunction and ineptitude. That’s cold comfort to those who want to hop on a playoff-bound bandwagon, but small, significant solace to those who lay claim to their love of NBA hoops through the vicissitudes of the local NBA franchise.

These die-hards are not making excuses if they regard the team’s current 17-21 record as close to the best that could be expected under the prevailing circumstances. Heading into the season, it was reasonable to expect that at some point before the all-star break, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio would be igniting an improved cast of supporting players under the shrewd guidance of future Hall of Fame coach Rick Adelman. Instead, Love is waylaid by a re-broken hand, Adelman is lost for an uncertain amount of time with a family emergency, and Rubio’s return to vintage form has been problematical.

Missing Adelman

The impact of not having Love has been fairly well-documented, and we’ll get to Rubio’s woes in a minute. Right now the Wolves are a team in dire need of a first-rate coach who can siphon the most synergy out of a roster stripped of its best player, made less robust by regular rotation players nursing recuperating joints and limbs, and overly reliant on the scratch-off lottery of fringe players on 10-day contracts.

Acting coach Terry Porter carries himself well as a figure of authority with an amiable mien, and has experience running an NBA team, having posted a 99-116 record in stints with Milwaukee and Phoenix. But that’s obviously not first-rate, and in any case, Porter finds himself in the thankless role of being a surrogate for Adelman, who is distracted from his duties to the point of absence — eight games and counting — by a chronic medical problem challenging his wife.

It is another circumstantial stain on what has become a hexed season. Porter is trying to blend the priorities of extensive daily phone briefings from Adelman with the complex, unpredictable, ever-shifting variables that inform much of the decision-making of an NBA game on the fly. It should be noted that Adelman is rightly regarded as one of the league’s best-ever coaches — with a current career record of 988-677 that includes the 2-6 mark Porter has compiled in his stead — in large measure because of the intuitive acumen of his in-game decisions and adjustments.

The downgrade from Adelman to Porter is not solely, and perhaps not even primarily, to blame for the second-half collapses that have come with alarming regularity over the past eight games. Certainly a lack of depth and familiarity, coupled with the absence of a reliable go-to guy in crunch time, are major factors.

But the fact remains that the Wolves have been outscored in every third quarter that Porter has run the team thus far, by a collective total of 47 points, or -5.9 points per game. They have been outscored by a collective 41 points in the fourth quarter of those eight games, for an average of -5.1 per game. Now consider that the Wolves currently rank dead last in the NBA in third-quarter differential at -2.5 per game over 37 games, and next-to-last in fourth-quarter differential at -1.8 points per game. Obviously, a disproportionate share of Minnesota’s NBA-worst second-half deficiency has come in the last eight games, when Adelman hasn’t been around to staunch the collapse with in-game adjustments.

Rubio the bricklayer, Barea the chucker

One aspect of Porter’s player rotations that seems sage is mostly splitting the point guard position between Rubio and J.J. Barea rather than having two players who both need the ball in their hands to be effective on the court at the same time.

In many ways, Rubio and Barea are polar opposites. Rubio plays an old-fashioned ball-distributing style beloved by the purists of the game, dishing the rock in a manner that is at once fundamentally sound and artistically spectacular. Long, lithe and graceful, he just looks like a ballplayer.

Barea is a fire hydrant with sneakers on. The strength of his game is borne of a selfish but indomitable impulse to challenge and outmaneuver players invariably bigger than he and put the ball in the hoop. Where Rubio will shoot only as a last resort, Barea will pass only if he believes a teammate legitimately has a better chance of scoring than he does — and that happens less often than it should. For that reason, he is scorned by purists of the game.

And he welcomes our scorn — it’s more grist for motivation. Where Rubio defends by using his wingspan and moving his feet to cut off court vision and passing angles while poke-checking for steals with his hands, Barea defends by inflicting claustrophobia on his man, inserting his small, stocky frame between his man’s chest and the ball and then moving in semi-sync with him like an ungainly dance partner engaged in an awkward bump-and-grind.

Sooner or later, the man craves more room, and extends his arm against Barea to get it. It is the moment Barea has been craving since he first started counting the chest hairs on the man. He quickens or retards his synchronicity a split-second so as to accentuate the bump-and-grind right as his man is extending the arm. Then he slightly but significantly exaggerates his reaction to this contact, so that the fire hydrant seems jostled from its moorings in a fairly dramatic fashion. Because he engages in this practice as a player whose actual height is somewhere between 5-7 and 5-9 (he is officially listed as 6 feet tall), Barea frequently draws charging fouls, or blocking fouls on himself, by creating this contact with his face. This is a living definition of pugnacity.

On offense, it’s more of the same. Where Rubio dribbles the ball with the derring-do of a clown at a birthday party entertaining the kids with yo-yo tricks, Barea pounds the orb into the floor like a construction worker with a nail gun battening down the seams. Where Rubio glides away from defenders to better view the court, Barea pinballs into them, more comfortable in close quarters, where his abrupt quickness better mitigates his disadvantage in length — he’d rather feel his opponents than view the court, since his primary goal is to score on them himself.

Then, more often than not, Rubio makes the right pass — sometimes benign, sometimes a gorgeous assist. And, more often than not, Barea takes a shot, sometimes a pull-up three-pointer, sometimes a kamikaze drive to the hoop, sometimes a contorted turnaround fadeaway while moving laterally that would get hooted at on the most egotistical of playgrounds.

Regular readers know how much I enjoy Rubio’s game, and, conversely, how disdainful I typically am of the way Barea plays. But to have any credibility as an analyst, one needs to know when their bias doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And right now — and thus far this season — J.J. Barea has been better for the Timberwolves than Ricky Rubio.

Yes, Rubio is still recuperating from major knee surgery. We likely won’t see the resplendent form he flashed as a rookie before his injury until either very late this season or early next year. But it is more complicated than that. For one thing, Rubio can become a magician in every other aspect of play, but will not deliver on his considerable promise unless he can develop at least a mediocre scoring touch. For another, given the strengths and weaknesses of the skill set on this roster, Barea may be a better fit right now.

If Kevin Love and Chase Budinger were healthy, Rubio would flourish. Both are potent scorers who create space on the court, have good hands to catch passes on the move and in traffic, and can finish shots both at the rim and beyond the three-point arc. They are players who would be frustrated by Barea more frequently than they would be enabled by Barea. But they would remove the pressure on Rubio to get his own points and provide him with consistently changing options in the half court. Unfortunately for Rubio, neither player will rejoin the team until mid-March.

Without Love and Budinger — or Brandon Roy, who presumably can still create his own midrange jumper — the Wolves don’t have any scoring playmakers on the wing. If given a pick or an indifferent defender, Luke Ridnour can nail a jumper off the lateral dribble, but it isn’t inexorable enough to be a bread-and-butter option. Alexey Shved needs to prove he can handle the physical play and constant wear-and-tear of the NBA schedule, and his shot selection declines precipitously with fatigue.

And Rubio is a playmaker who can’t call his own number. He’s shooting 29 percent (4-for-14) in the restricted area closest to the hoop. He’s shooting 33 percent (8-for-24) on midrange jumpers. And he is shooting zero percent (0-for-14) from everywhere else. That’s a composite 23 percent, and a recipe for opponents daring him to score instead of allowing him to pass, regardless of where he is on the court.

By contrast, Barea is Minnesota’s only shoot-first playmaker out on the perimeter. All my previously stated reservations about his ridiculous narcissism with the ball still apply. The dude is still only shooting 40.5 percent, and 33.3 percent from three-point territory, both below the NBA average. He can hurt this team as easily as he can help it, as Wolves fans saw late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter of the win over Houston, when he became a chucking fool despite being engaged in a disadvantageous matchup against perimeter defensive specialist Toney Douglas.

But there have also been more times than anyone could have imagined in this injury-plagued season when the Wolves have needed someone to seize the reins of their offense and try and make something happen. For better and for worse, Barea is that guy. (When Nikola Pekovic went down with a thigh contusion against the Clippers, it was Barea who unilaterally took it upon himself to sub in Greg Stiemsma for Pek, and only then go and tell Porter, who was engaged with the referee at the time, what he had done.)

And the pockmarked beauty of it is, the spark Barea has provided more often than not has been good for Minnesota. At least three or four of their 17 wins are almost directly attributable to his crunchtime heroics.

As the season descends into smaller pleasures then, let’s have the purists among us learn to appreciate the creativity of a miniature pit bull in the china shop. Yes, that no-look Rubio feed between his opponent’s legs is a joy to behold. But so is that little hesitation Barea pulls when he is hell-bent for the basket, a split-second lag that causes the behemoth behind him to likewise pause, for fear that he’ll run up Barea’s back and commit the foul. Barea times that moment of stasis perfectly, putting on the final thrust of his drive so as to create that sliver of space where he can bank the ball off the glass.

Someday the J.J. Barea Show will be less vital to the Wolves chances of victory. But right now, be glad that he’s there whether you need him or not.

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Comments (7)

It's a clear sign of the

It's a clear sign of the team's misfortune that I'm about to say this, but I'd like to see Ricky paired with Gelabale for some extended minutes. In ridiculously-small sample size, the new forward has shot the ball efficiently and could have slightly better success as a catch-and-shooter than the tiny, easily-defended shooters that occupy most of those minutes right now.

Ricky's jumper needs a complete overhaul this summer. Not tinkering here or there, but they need to completely start from Step 1. I assume this will be Shawn Respert's job. Blasphemous as this may be, I think Ricky is about as bad of a shooter as an NBA guard could possibly be. That I still think he (when healthy) is a very good player is a testament to his plus defense and historically-great vision and physical ability to deliver every type of pass. He also has those "makes everyone play better" intangibles that cannot be measured, but are nevertheless acknowledged even by no-nonsense coach, Rick Adelman.

I'm not convinced that Barea is the currently better option--if anything, I'd like to see every player start shooting the ball when they catch it with an open opportunity. Even if that's not the instinct, I'd like to see repeatable action rather than gimmicky, short-term solutions. I think it's as likely that it'll work as the alternatives, and I think it lays better groundwork for improvement of the team with Ricky Rubio leading it.

Too many head fakes and recycled drives to the basket on this team. Kirilenko is probably the one whose success rate overwhelmingly points to sustainability. The others should led Ricky lead the way.

I'm not sure if any or all of that makes sense, but neither does this season. As always, I enjoyed your post. Perfect description of J.J. Barea's game.

Good stuff Andy

I know you are a stone Rubio fan and so I admire your relatively objective analysis here. I also would very much like to see him more with Gelabale--the guy defends better than Luke and might really benefit from the tandem.
Good points about the failure to shoot and the over-reliance on head fakes. The problem is that, as you say, there isn't a lot of size out there. I think given his height Luke does a good job of getting open and isn't that afraid to shoot. Cunningham won't shoot a contested jumper--it's in his contract. AK gets beaten up whenever he drives; I'd prefer he save that wear and tear for defensive switches. The guy who really needs to let fly on catch-and-shoots is Shved when he returns. We need to find out if he can be a spot-up shooter, because if he really has to wait two full seconds and then initiate his lateral dribble as the only means of getting into a shooting rhythm, his value declines--and really declines alongside Rubio. Again, this may be a place for Gelabale.

Thanks for the kind words. It is a mutual admiration society. (Andy is at punchdrunkwolves.com, folks)

Good as usual, but...

I also think the games since the last post are worthy of more scrutiny. I'm as disheartened as anyone about their current situation; I seriously considered giving my individual game tickets away to charity until Pek and/or Adelman returned, and my thoughts on renewing season tickets have vacillated between renewing and giving up on the franchise completely to become a casual NBA fan like I was before KG and cable. Their chances of making the playoffs are low, but they're staying competitive with most teams, so the ways they win/lose individual games seems worthy of more discussion. With that said, so many short-term questions also come up about the games:

1) Wasn't Griffin's takedown of Pek a cheap shot worthy of some kind of call? Comparing that to what DC got a flagrant for yesterday makes me angry about the officiating.

2) The Clippers game was lost simply from missing layups, which is why it's been refreshing to have a guy who dunks the ball when he's open near the hoop. It also makes me wonder why they signed the redundant-in-every-way Lou Amundson instead of keeping Johnson as their 3rd big.

3) Transition defense and defensive rotations are things not based on talent that they have to stay focused on every game. It helped win them the Houston game and probably prevented the Hawks game from being winnable in the closing minutes, not to mention provided Ronny Turiaf with his likely season high in scoring on Thursday.

4) The importance of getting to the foul line showed up again in those 3 games. Watching them seal the Rockets game by putting Houston in the penalty and then racking up the fatigue fouls on them was a beauty to watch.

5) I think opponents are shooting upwards of 70% when the team goes zone. I don't know why Porter is using it.

6) I don't understand not boosting Barea's and Luke's minutes with Shved out. He should be back soon, and since they're not playing back-to-backs, it really hurts them when 1 guard is on the floor with Gelabale at the 2. I couldn't believe that they trotted out JJ/Gelabale/DC/Lou/Johnson to start the 2nd quarter; it didn't hurt them, luckily.

7) It will be strange if Adelman gets to 1,000 wins without being on the sidelines to experience it.

As for Barea and Rubio, it's my favorite backcourt pairing. Most probably wouldn't agree with that, but they're the ones most capable of running the high-speed dribble handoffs that require a lot of quick decisions defensively and can lead to a layup or a kickout for an open shot. This is probably not something backed up by statistics, but playing them with the right teammates (like Williams) often kicks those other teammates into gear on both ends. I think they coexist well together because they both need someone to share the ball with.

game breakdowns

PSR--

I fear you are in the minority vis a vis individual game scrutiny. That said, your own analysis is always first rate and gives me a lot to think about even when I disagree. So let's get to it...

1) Didn't think Griffin's takedown was that bad. Pek had been wincing like crazy over on the bench during the previous timeout, so I don't think this play is what did him in--more like the straw that broke the camel's back. Thought it could have been a PF but not a flagrant. OTOH, that Dante call yesterday was absurd--absolutely absurd, especially since they reviewed the thing!--and I fully expect it to be reversed. Because if that is a flagrant, there is no rim defense on the break.
2) I got to watch Johnson twice in Mankato at the end of practices and was impressed both times. My sense is that Stiemsma was still hurt from off-season surgery and they wanted to go with a more known commodity. I liked Amundson's ability to muck it up in Indiana--he and Hansbrough were a wrecking crew--but that stint yesterday was awful and if it wasn't about contracts, Johnson would get the nod moving forward.
3)Totally agree about transition D--floor spacing has been a problem for them all season, with Shved the worst offender, which is why it has generally been better with Shved out. Ditto rotations. D-Will still forgets when he's a 3 and when he's a 4--he and Dante ran at the same guy yesterday, leaving a man wide open for a dunk. My money is on Dante being the one who played it correctly and I'll apologize to Williams if I'm wrong.
4) Totally agree about FTs and PFs, their season-long ace in the hole. It was that way in the first half against Atlanta too, but they couldn't and didn't sustain.
5) I think Stiemsma and D-Will can be a porous defensive tandem but Porter likes (or he should like) they way they function on offense. Thus, he helps them with a zone. But I agree that if you are going to run a zone, you can't allow them to penetrate, as happened down the stretch vs Houston.
6) Disagree here. Like Andy G above, I want to see more of Gelabale, who looks like he can step out and hit the three--and he is much better at defending the 2 than Luke. Barea and Luke actually have a solid +/- this year. In fact Barea helps every guard's +/-, which is one reason I had to give it up for him in this post. What he supposedly is doing wrong isn't resulting in bad things.
7) It will be strange. What little info I get out of the team indicates that he probably won't be back soon. I sincerely hope his wife will be okay--I am extremely happily married and would chuck everything without a blink if my wife was medically in danger--but that seems so PC to say in a column, and in fact my NBA fandom has to restrain me from wondering what is taking so long. Bottom line, it is his call and the franchise is wisely allowing him leeway. But if it keeps going indefinitely, I would like to see an interim tag placed on Porter so that these wins and losses accrue to him at the very least.

Gelabale

I think their offense stagnates whenever they don't have a 2 who can run PnRs and dribble handoffs, basically functioning as PG 1B (the exception is Budinger's limited minutes there, but he's such a perfect fit for their sets that it didn't matter). In limited minutes, Gelabale seems like more of an off-the-ball guy. Also, with 2 guys who don't know the offense (and another in Amundson who is an offensive minus, they almost needed 2 ballhandlers to freelance/pressure the D. This will probably be moot in a few days if Shved is cleared to play soon.

You're absolutely right about #3 and Shved. The first half vs. San Antonio basically became a layup drill if they didn't score, and their main shot creator in the PnR was Ridnour. He and JJ are a perfect contrast in productivity vs. fan support. Most fans would support Shved over Barea, but they play a similar offensive style: hold/dribble the ball, slow down the flow of the offense, make some good/great plays and some head-scratchers. In essence, they fill the same role that Jon Barry and Vernon Maxwell did for Adelman's first Kings team (Bobby Jackson did too, but he didn't have a consistent backcourt mate and was much more of a defensive force).

Losing team All Stars

The Woofies have a long history of these (can you say Googs?) -- Barea is the latest.
These are players who pile up impressive scoring numbers in games that don't count because no one takes the outcome seriously. Good teams know that they can beat the Wolves without trying, and poor teams don't care.
Rubio is the kind of player who's as good as his team.
Yes, he'd be better if he scored more (and he looks like he has a good shooting motion, just has to work on it), but you don't get an assist unless the player you pass to scores. Rubio does a great job of setting his team mates up with unmissable shots, but they miss them anyway.
Maybe next year ......

have to disagree a bit

The thing that has impressed me about Barea this season is that his hot spots have helped to create wins--he's hitting shots when it matters. Take yesterday's Atlanta game: The Wolves were watching their lead go down the drain and JJ went off late in the third quarter to boost it back up to like 7 points for the final stanza. Had Minnesota won, that would have been a crucial stretch.
Maybe it is because I am such a fan of the league, but I've never bought the argument that teams can turn it off and on whenever they want to in order to win the game. I know it happens occasionally--and the Clippers game may be a recent example--but I think the Wolves are enough of a rhythm team that they will make it hard on opponents if given enough rope. I think their chronic second half problems stem more from a lack of depth and the downgrade from Adelman to Porter.
For the trifecta of disagreement, I think Rubio needs to get some arc on his shot and his fundamentals may be the reason it is so flat. Don't know enough about the science of shooting for that comment to be certain.
And yes, we do agree that Rubio has lost at least two or three assists per game because of bad hands, inexperienced teammates or bad luck thus far this season.