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With no bench, are Wolves too thin to win?

Even as the Minnesota Timberwolves were winning their first three games of the 2013-14 season, the extent to which the team had to rely on their starting five players portended problems sustaining their success over the long haul.

On Sunday night in New York, Wolves coach Rick Adelman felt compelled to play three of his starters more than 40 minutes on the first game of a back-to-back that culminated Monday night in Cleveland.

The Wolves managed to hold off the Knicks in Madison Square Garden by the score of 109-100, but the discrepancy was telling: All five starters had positive plus-minus totals for the game, ranging from Nikola Pekovic’s plus-8 to Kevin Martin’s plus-26. (Plus-minus is a measure of how a team fares on the scoreboard when that player is in the game.)

By contrast, the four substitutes deployed by Adelman were wretched. Alexey Shved was minus-3 in less than six minutes of play. J.J. Barea was minus-8 in 18 minutes; Dante Cunningham minus-14 in 15 minutes and Derrick Williams minus-15 in 21 minutes of action.

In Cleveland less than 24 hours later, the starters were predictably gassed, suffering their worst first-quarter performance of the season by a wide margin. A makeshift lineup containing two players off the bench, Barea and Williams, managed a furious fourth-quarter comeback, but the lackluster energy earlier in the game caused the Wolves to lose their first game of the season to an inferior Cavs team that played poorly and without composure down the stretch.

The preseason injury to projected starter Chase Budinger, coupled with the fractured elbow that befell backup center Ronny Turiaf during the second game of the season, has culled a crew of subs that was already thin on realized talent and NBA experience. With Budinger out, swingman Corey Brewer has moved into the starting lineup, leaving the task of backing up shooting guard Kevin Martin to the increasingly unreliable Shved. And with Turiaf on the sidelines, it is up to foul-prone rookie Gorgui Dieng to become a credible replacement when Pekovic needs a breather at center.

Outmanned by the Warriors

That was the situation on Wednesday night, when the Wolves came back home to face their toughest opponent of the season thus far, the Golden State Warriors, who had beaten Minnesota in 12 of their last 14 meetings, including six of seven since Adelman became the coach.

Before the game, I asked Adelman if, given Shved’s struggles, he had considered cutting the minutes of the second-year player from Russia and giving them to this year’s top draft pick, Shabazz Muhammad.

“It’s only four games. You’ve got to give it some time,” Adelman replied. “We know what [Shved] can do from last year. I don’t anticipate doing that…We have to find a way to get him going.”

Cue to a highly entertaining first quarter that saw the Wolves up by two, 28-26, on the strength of Kevin Martin’s nine points and Kevin Love’s dominant line of eight points, six rebounds and three assists. As the second quarter begins, Martin and Love sit for the first time, putting the Wolves at the mercy of a quintet of their reserves. Backup power forward Dante Cunningham hit a jumper to bump the lead to four. Then the entire enterprise fell apart.

Barea made two futile drives to the hoop, resulting in a turnover and a crazy, over-the-head shot with the back nearly to the basket that had no chance of going in. Dieng was whistled for three fouls in a span of 4:22, although he did contribute a couple of blocked shots. Speaking of blocks, Shved attempted two shots and both traveled less than halfway to the basket before being summarily rejected by the Warriors. The result was a 9-0 Warriors run. The Wolves never led again, falling by the score of 106-93.

The poster child for this defeat was Alexey Shved. Remember Adelman’s pregame comments — “You’ve got to give him some time … We have to find a way to get him going.” Well, Shved did not see the court again after that disastrous second-quarter stint, giving him a grand total of 4:23 for the game. This followed Monday night’s game — the second of a back-to-back, when reserves were expected to step up — when he logged a mere 8:28, which was preceded by the Knicks game, in which Shved played just 5:10.

In all three of those games, Shved performed so poorly in the second quarter that Adelman refused to risk playing him again, choosing instead to go with Barea as an undersized shooting guard. Since Barea is normally Rubio’s backup, that meant Rubio had to play all but 2:19 of the final 30 minutes of the game in New York, burning him out for Cleveland.

Against Golden State, it meant that when Warriors coach Mark Jackson went with his big lineup, his 6-7 shooting guard Klay Thompson was matched up with Barea, who is generously listed as 6 feet but is closer to 5-9 or 5-10. Thompson, a magnificently pure shooter, promptly nailed five straight jumpers, including a trio of three-pointers, within the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, extending Golden State’s lead from eight to 14. The Wolves never again cut it below double-digits.  

Bad drafts create anemic numbers

At the close of NBA action on that Wednesday night, the statistics verified what was patently obvious to Wolves fans: Adelman has almost no confidence in his bench players, and that lack of faith is mostly justified.

Through Wednesday night, Adelman had used his reserves an average of 74:12 minutes per game (out of a possible 240, although Minnesota did have one game with a five-minute overtime), less often than all but four teams, Portland, Atlanta, Washington and the Los Angeles Clippers. That paucity of time of the floor would account for low gross numbers put up by the reserves, but not the lousy per-game numbers and terrible shooting percentages.

Minnesota’s reserves were tied with the subs from Indiana for the lowest points per game total at 21.6 — and that’s only because the undefeated Pacers play a slower-paced, more defensive-oriented style. In terms of oveall shooting percentage, the Wolves’ bench is the worst in the NBA at 36.2, worst in three-point shooting accuracy at 19.4 percent, and 26th among 30 teams in free throw percentage at 62.1. They are also in the bottom five in rebounds per game at 10.8.

Certainly injuries have contributed to this crippling lack of depth — a healthy Budinger and Turiaf would come in very handy right now. Adelman must also bear some of the blame for his stubborn lack of patience with any options besides his starters. I couldn’t agree more that Shved deserves to sit, but then don’t plead for more time for the dude to develop, cite last season as a sign of hope when it was clear Shved relentlessly regressed over the course of that campaign, and refuse to provide any alternative other than burning out the starters or letting Barea get torched by a matchup with someone at least 8 inches taller.

Most of all, however, the Wolves’ woeful bench production is an almost inevitable result of their atrocious history in the NBA draft. In Kevin McHale’s final season as Minnesota’s president of basketball operations in the summer of 2008, the Wolves made a draft night trade of O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love and took Nikola Pekovic in the second round. The Love trade also included the acquisition of Mike Miller, who would be a key chip in an eventual trade that landed Minnesota the right to draft Ricky Rubio. It was a fabulous night for McHale and the Wolves.

Alexey Shved
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Wolves coach Rick Adelman: “We know what [Alexey Shved] can do from last year. I don’t anticipate doing that…We have to find a way to get him going.”

 

Since then, there has been phenomenal incompetence, mostly by McHale’s successor, David Kahn, although Flip Saunders did his reputation no favors thus far based on his picks in the 2013 draft. In the four drafts after the Love-Pekovic parlay, Kahn had a passel of high lottery choices, with draft positions that include the second, fourth, fifth and sixth picks in various years. Of those choices, Derrick Williams (second) and Rubio (fifth) are still with the team. Jonny Flynn (sixth) was traded for peanuts.

And in a tragicomic bit of irony, the Wolves will likely lose their first-round pick to Phoenix next year (it is top-13 protected, meaning the Wolves will keep it only if they play badly enough to wind up in the lottery again) as part of the enticement for the Suns to take Wesley Johnson (fourth) off Minnesota’s roster.

You can blame Wolves owner Glen Taylor for hiring the incompetent Kahn if you like, but no one should ever doubt his willingness to support this franchise. Leave aside Taylor’s notorious willingness to pay his marquee talent — the size of his deal for Kevin Garnett created the need for a new NBA collective bargaining agreement, and his offer to give Latrell Sprewell $21 million for three years, rejected by Spree, was a tad generous, given that  Sprewell never earned another dollar on an NBA court.

Taylor also rejected ownership offers that would have taken the Wolves out of Minnesota, and agreed to bind the Wolves to Target Center for the next 20 years, despite a relatively paltry settlement of negotiations to improve the arena. He bought out some of his reluctant minority partners even as he enters his seventies with heirs reportedly not that interested in the ballclub.

More to the point, Taylor stepped up with the cash that solidified the current starting unit for the Wolves, paying Pekovic $60 million over the next five years, Martin $28 million over the next four, Budinger $15 million over the next three, and Brewer $14 million also over the next three. Most everyone associated with the team assumes he will pony up on a maximum or near-maximum contract for Rubio, to go with the maximum deal he has given Love (although there are reportedly hard feelings over the length of Love’s pact). 

Taylor also agreed to pick up the option that extends the contract of Derrick Williams, who will thus make $6.3 million next season after pulling down $5 million — fourth-most on the team behind Love, Pekovic and Martin — this year. Williams makes that much because he was such a high draft pick — second overall. Players taken in that slot are supposed to be cheap at this going rate.

D-Will’s lack of production — again, a chicken-or-egg argument related to Adelman’s lack of confidence in him — is emblematic of the sorry value Minnesota has reaped through their drafts from 2009-2013. The players on the roster garnered from either being picked by the Wolves or directly acquired with available picks during those years include Rubio, Budinger, Williams, Dieng, Muhammad, and Robbie Hummel.

Thus far this season, those six have combined for a shooting percentage of 32.1 (26 for 81), a three-point percentage of 21 (4 for 21) and a free throw percentage of 71 (22 for 31). They have collected 36 rebounds in five games. Rubio has 43 assists and 15 turnovers; the rest have zero assists and 7 turnovers.

Look back at those numbers. That is the production from a second, fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth (last draft, flipped by Saunders into lesser picks) position among the last five drafts. That’s how you arrive at a terrible bench despite an owner willing to pay for a quality roster.

That’s how you come to rely on the likes of Alexey Shved, a combo guard with three assists and seven turnovers, who has converted half of his shots (2 of 4) right at the rim and otherwise misfired on ten of 11 shots outside that bunny zone. And the less said about his lazy defense and his dour attitude, the better; it is difficult to assess which hurts the team more.

Long after nearly everyone else had gone home Wednesday night, Kevin Love sat at his locker and talked about leadership. He spoke about bucking up Dieng, telling him that Pekovic also had a tough time accumulating fouls in his rookie season. When it came to Shved, Love remarked, only half-jokingly, “Yeah, somebody needs to light a fire under his ass.”

Bring plenty of charcoal for the rest of the bench.

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Comments (7)

The Bench

I don't think there's any question that there is a huge drop-off when our starters go out of the game. We do not have a backup wing until Chase comes back, and I'm not sure Shved has the mental tools to dig himself out of this rut. Dante is playing uncharacteristically bad basketball, though I don't think his problems run as deep as Shved's. And Derrick Williams - at least he's aggressive, right? Still can't finish at the hoop, still often confused on defense, but lots of players in their third year would have shied away from attacking the rim by now.

But I can't blame our bench entirely on our poor drafts - we've also missed/exchanged opportunities to sign cheaper players near the end of free agency due to our willingness to spend early. Martin, Brewer, and Budinger are all here due to Taylor's willingness to spend in FA (while retaining Pek). I'm glad you pointed out that Glen Taylor is not the problem here - there are other similar markets that would handle similar situations in a much more risk-averse fashion.

I know that many Wolves fans look at Steph Curry or DeMarcus Cousins and curse David Kahn (I was part of the Granger-over-McCants fanclub several years ago). But sometimes weak drafts are just weak drafts, and sometimes we take the player that will fit with our team rather than the best guy available.

And even when we did dump Wes (for example), it was for an immediate chance to make our team better - a chance to sign former all-stars AK and Roy (in addition to trading our first for a proven commodity in Budinger). And while I wish we'd cut bait on Derrick sooner rather than later, especially if it's for SG help, I don't know who else we could've selected at that pick (I was personally in favor of moving down, as college scoring efficiency rarely translates to the pros).

That said, you don't get to be a playoff team without hitting some singles and doubles in the draft, and our drafting ability was terrible during the Kahn era.

Right

Too many 'names' who are now damaged goods.
There's a reason why former all stars are 'former'.
At best they might provide valuable (if limited) end of the game minutes, but you can't build a team around them.
Derrick Williams is still the future; Budinger, Cunningham and company the past.
Adelman is too desperate to win now; he doesn't have the horses.
This team needs a coach who will build for the next five years, given that the key Wolves are in their early 20's.

Anton to the rescue

Well said Anton.

I wish I could disagree with you more and get something started. Responses are fewer thus far this season--maybe it is attention toward the Vikings or the election--and I don't have anyone to argue with in the comments.

I get it about off years, but I do remember a few of my friends really pounding the drum for Curry; especially former TC Reader sportswriter Bob Hummel, living out in Pasadena now. Smart guys who follow the college game. I always defer to their wisdom, not watching college hoops unless I am in front of a TV or it is the tournament.

Yes, no singles or doubles from Kahn hurt. I am glad you put the Wes trade in a little better context--it was to free up salary space to get AK and, unfortunately Roy. Shved was also a Kahn pickup. Man what a terrible resume on personnel.

Some things just aren't making sense

Foremost among them is how ineffective the Shved-Barea pairing is. I watch them the way I watch a TV show when someone else controls the remote: strangely fixated but gritting my teeth. I'm not making any claims as to their attitude toward each other, but they play like 2 guys who hate each other and can't set that aside.

Sometimes, I think back to when Rubio was a rookie and was coming off the bench with Barea. There was something about both of those guys, together, going all out, zipping the ball around, and getting into the lane that was really pleasing. I don't know why Barea and Shved can't find a lower degree of that rhythm. Obviously, Shved played better with Ridnour when both were starting, but I don't get how he's still so fixated on having the ball in his hands for 75% of the shot clock.

Mostly, the bench suffers from not having a threat the D needs to focus on. A lot of blame is placed on Barea, but I think that's partially due to the D being able to stay on their guys for most of the shot clock and forcing a guard to be the hero.

great analogy

The remote you don't control line--"strangely fixated but gritting my teeth"--is superb.

I can relate, but without the expectations that they will find a rhythm. Adelman likes guys who can get their own shot and Barea qualifies--unfortunately that shot isn't landing as often thus far this season.

But that is still better than Shved, who hasn't been able to playmake for himself, let alone others, for quite some time now. Adelman still remembers, with increasingly fervency the longer it is absent, those days when opponents couldn't trap either Alexey or JJ because the other might go off.

That still doesn't translate into any mutual rhythm, a la Rubio and Barea. Although I understand your fondness for the Rubio-Barea backcourt, it still means one of them guards the shooting guard.

I do agree with your analysis of the backups needing another scorer besides Barea.

In other words, its last season all over again--waiting for Budinger--albeit for the second unit rather than the first.

Another source

Hey folks--

Zach Harper of A Wolf Among Wolves and CBSsports, who also happens to be my ongoing conversational partner during home games, is now also writing for 1500 ESPN radio, and put up a post about bench scoring a day before mine appeared. I don't mind duplicating a topic if I have my own take, but still generally like to read a writer I respect who has posted on the same topic I am about to embark upon, in case it informs my thinking further. In this case, I still haven't gotten in the habit of going to the 1500 site and thus missed it until now.

PSR, Zach is thinking along the same lines as you in terms of Barea and creativity. In any case, here is a link for you or anyone else interested. As always from Zach, good stuff.
http://www.1500espn.com/sportswire/Harper_What_can_the_Wolves_do_to_impr...

Pek

Britt- Great stuff again so far this season. I haven't chimed in yet because A.) I don't bring as much to the table from an analysis standpoint as your and others; and B.) because of work travel, I've only watched 1 1/2 games thus far. Don't be down about the fact you have fewer comments ... I suspect we're all reading, there's just less to disagree about at the moment.

Anyway, not having seen as much game action as I would have liked this year, I'm wondering what's happening w/ Pekovic. From the look of the box scores, it appears he's struggling more often than not. Am I right? What are you seeing? Is it simply a matter of finding his place on an healthy/improved team? Are there enough touches for him to be as successful as we've seen in the last couple seasons?

It makes me wonder if Pek could help both his struggles and that of the backcourt subs if rotations were handled in a manner that he was regularly on the court w/ the second unit. It would allow him to be the focus of the offense and get plenty of looks, as well as run the P&R, and/or provide spacing/kickouts/etc. for JJ and Shved. If I'm reading 82 games correctly, I think only about 20 of Pek's 236 min have been with those two on the court.

This theory is one that may not be easy to test w/ Turiaf out, but curious what others think ...