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Time for Wolves coach Adelman to live up to his reputation

Wolves coach Rick Adelman
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Thus far this season Rick Adelman has not managed to wrangle enough spark or synergy out of this roster to create the momentum required for a successful playoff quest.

After 19 games of the 2012-13 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves had a record of 10-9, despite missing superstar Kevin Love for the first nine of those contests and passing wizard Ricky Rubio for all of them.

A year later, Love and Rubio have suited up for every game. In fact, except for a brief illness that sidelined Kevin Martin in a victory over Cleveland, the Wolves’ starting lineup has been intact throughout the first five weeks of the schedule. Yet in a season when a trip to the playoffs seems a realistic expectation, the Wolves are actually beneath .500, and behind last year’s pace, at 9-10.

Granted, the caliber of opponent has been slightly tougher, the schedule ruggedly front-loaded thus far. Minnesota didn’t play its 19th game until Dec. 12 last season, 11 days later than this year’s opening slate.

And Wolves optimists have plenty of ammunition. The team still ranks in the top half of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency (points scored and allowed per possession) and is outscoring opponents by more than four points per game. It is not unreasonable to imagine the dovetailing bonuses of center Ronny Turiaf and swingman Chase Budinger returning from injury right around the time the schedule eases up in late December and January. The recent trade of Derrick Williams for wing stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute further upgrades the team’s depth and defense.

But the appropriate reaction to the Wolves’ performance thus far is disappointment. The team hasn’t yet beaten a quality opponent operating at full strength, and has suffered ugly losses in winnable games against Washington, Cleveland and Denver twice. Indeed, a sub-.500 record despite the scoring differential and high efficiency rankings may indicate a cause for concern about the vaunted “intangibles” on the ballclub.

A coachable moment for an Adelman roster

It is right about this time, when a team is underachieving in ways that are both understandable and troubling nearly a quarter of the way through the season, that you hope to rely on a superior coach to strategize, motivate and position talent in ways that shake off the doldrums and alter the prevailing context.

I am a longtime observer of Wolves coach Rick Adelman and a steadfast believer in the ingenuity, methodology and tone-setting demeanor he has deployed to stoke success in his teams. He has thrived in a variety of  circumstances for a bevy of franchises over the course of his career. But thus far this season Adelman has not managed to wrangle enough spark or synergy out of this roster to create the momentum required for a successful playoff quest.

The coach certainly hasn’t lacked for support from the front office. When rumors were strong that Flip Saunders would replace David Kahn as the Wolves president of basketball operations this summer, I argued against Saunders because I thought he would infringe too much on Adelman’s influence in procuring personnel. But from the moment he was hired, Saunders has gone out of his way to acquire players who would logically thrive in Adelman’s system.

It is hard to imagine two bigger acolytes of Adelman’s motion offense than swingmen Kevin Martin and Budinger, the first pair of players signed by Saunders this off-season. For the sake of continuity and firepower, the team also re-signed center Nikola Pekovic to a fat long-term contract despite the absence of competing offers for Pek, who was a restricted free agent.

There were rumors that Adelman became less enamored of wing-stopper Andrei Kirilenko as last season wore on, and Saunders opted to invest in Martin and Pekovic and sign a less capable wing stopper in Corey Brewer rather than bowl Kirilenko over with a multi-year extension at $10 million per season. Adelman favorite Dante Cunningham had his team option picked up at very reasonable terms for the Wolves. When Adelman wanted both Robbie Hummel and point guard A.J. Price to fill out the bottom of the roster, the Wolves cut center Chris Johnson, who rarely got off the bench for Adelman during the preseason, and ate his $800,000 contract.

Coming into the 2013-14 season, then, the Wolves had clearly tailored their roster to enhance the off-ball movement and outside marksmanship on offense that Adelman prefers, while otherwise securing the continuity of its core players. They were a win-soon team specifically designed to take a big step forward into the playoffs this season and, to the detriment of painstaking long-term planning, remain laser-focused on quickly building toward championship contention. That’s what you do when a 67-year old future Hall of Fame coach is guiding the team.

But even so, one more domino had to fall. The only player exempted from the roster purge recommended by Adelman two years ago was Derrick Williams. I wrote about the terrible fit between Adelman and Williams in my last column, a week before D-Will was mercifully traded. Without getting into blame-pointing or chicken-and-egg scenarios regarding Williams’ frustrating tenure here, the point is the trade again alters the roster more to Adelman’s liking and opts for a known quantity in the short-term over the long-term potential of a 22-year old high draft choice.

Burning out the starters

Any criticism of Adelman should begin with Minnesota’s recent offensive production. One of the NBA’s most influential offensive coaches has an array of weapons tailor-made for his system, including Love, Martin, Pekovic and the court vision of Rubio. Yet the Wolves currently rank 24th among 30 teams in both field-goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage — and the clanking is getting worse.

A major reason why Minnesota has dropped seven of its past 10 games is because three of the yeoman starters — Love, Martin and Rubio — are shooting below 40 percent from the field, and Corey Brewer isn’t much better at 43.1 percent. Only Pekovic, at 57.5 percent, is reliable.

From long-range it is much the same story. Over the past10 games, Martin has the highest three-point shooting percentage among the starters at 35.6, still below the league average of 36.2, while Love is at 33.3, Rubio at 31.6, and Brewer is down at 25.5. (Pek doesn’t attempt three-pointers.)

Adelman probably has a much better idea than we do exactly why these shots aren’t falling. But it isn’t hard to notice that the Wolves are becoming more impatient in their half-court sets, frequently retarding or short-circuiting crisp ball-movement in favor of excessive dribbling, crowded pick-and-rolls, and premature shot selection. They also are becoming sloppier in transition in an attempt to make the home-run play, especially via long outlet passes that were once more successful but since have been scouted and schemed against by the opposition.

Another observation, one easier to quantify with statistics, is that the starters are getting dog-tired and wearing down because Adelman doesn’t trust his bench players enough to develop their roles.

Start with the most basic barometer: The Wolves lead the NBA in first-quarter points with 30.5 per game. They rank 26th in fourth-quarter points with just 22.7. This discrepancy is not a matter of pace — their fourth-quarter defense allows a middle-of-the-pack 24.8 points in the first quarter and 24.5 points in the fourth. It is a matter of accuracy: Minnesota’s shooting percentage plummets from 49.1 in the first quarter to 39.3 in the fourth period. From distance, the drop is even steeper: They make 46.7 percent of their threes in the opening stanza, and 24.6 percent in the final 12 minutes.

Half of the Wolves' losses this season have come on the tail end of a back-to-back in the schedule, a circumstance that has netted them only one win in six tries. Their three-point percentage in these games is 28.6, compared with 34.2 in their 10 games with one day’s rest and 38.9 in their two games played after two days’ rest. Yes, it is a very small sample size, but for a team that has the most frequently-played five-man and four-man lineup combinations in the league, downward scoring efficiency due to less rest makes sense.

I won’t go into the declines of the individual starters both late in games and in games with less rest, except to say that it mostly correlates with the overall team performance. (You can work the numbers yourself at either the stats page at nba.com or at Basketball Reference.)

The point is that Adelman rides his starters long and hard, but often to no avail. Love, Martin and Brewer all play as many or more minutes on the tail end of back-to-backs as they do otherwise, but with declining production. The indefatigable Pek plays more minutes on back-to-backs and actually improves his production. Rubio, alone among the starters, gets more rest on the tail end of back-to-backs but his production drops precipitously anyway.

The right roles for reserves

Which brings us to the way Adelman uses his bench, when he uses it at all. The Wolves’ top backcourt reserve is J.J. Barea, who seemed primed to be a real catalyst this season after a successful stint in international play for his native Puerto Rico this summer followed up by a capable preseason. But Barea has been a train wreck, shooting more frequently than at any time in his eight-year career while producing his lowest field goal and three-point percentages since his rookie season.

After Barea laid his latest egg in a loss to Oklahoma City Sunday night, Timberwolves beat writer Jon Krawczynski from the Associated Press, tweeted a shrewd observation: “Barea can be a very effective player as a helter-skelter mini-2 [shooting guard]. Wolves are asking him to be a pure PG. [Point guard.] That’s not his game.”

Sure enough, Barea is putting up the best assist-to-turnover ratio — a “pure point guard” statistic — of his career, but it is messing up his “pure shooting guard” mentality. While he will always be a mercurial performer, his best games generally occur when his hot shooting sets up his passing. In standard half-court offensive sets, his short stature and limited handle off the dribble prevent him from easily feeding the ball to big men in the post. Thus, many of his assists are peripheral passes — Dante Cunningham gets a lot of midrange jump shots from Barea’s dishes.

This creates fewer turnovers but also leads to situations where Barea’s favored passing lanes are closed and Barea the shooting guard tries to bail out Barea the point guard. Unfortunately, calling your own number by default is less advantageous than proactively challenging the defense. That is one reason for his abysmal accuracy, and also why his free throw attempts — generated by drives to the hoop — are less than half of his career average this season.

There is a legitimately “pure” point guard on the bench in A.J. Price, but Adelman has played him a grand total of 32 minutes thus far this season. Price is not a good shooter but knows how to run an offense and has good size at 6-2 — 3 or 4 inches taller than Barea. There have been more than a few occasions this season when he seemed like a better candidate to back up Rubio.

Another intriguing bench player who isn’t getting enough opportunity is rookie center Gorgui Dieng. When Turiaf went down with a broken elbow during the first week of the season, Dieng was extremely raw and foul-prone backing up Love and Pekovic and Adelman severely restricted his role in the rotation.

But in the past few games when Adelman has deigned to put him in during the first half, Dieng has shown much better judgment and awareness. Against OKC Sunday night, he had two rebounds, a block, an assist and a steal while hitting one of two shots and committing no fouls in a four-minute stint during the second quarter. On the tail end of a back-to-back, he seemed a good bet to get another rotation in the second half.

Yet Adelman kept him on the sidelines, opting to play Love for the entire third quarter and then pairing Cunningham and newcomer Mbah a Moute alongside Pekovic on the front line to begin the final period. OKC superstar Kevin Durant took advantage of communication breakdowns between the two forwards and ignited a Thunder blitz that decided the game.

Afterward, the coach said he knew Love was tired and needed to get him some rest. Fair enough, except that Love is averaging more than 11-and-a-half minutes of every 12-minute third period thus far this season, and Dieng hasn’t logged a single minute in that third stanza. Maybe Dieng is too shaky for crunchtime, or even meaningful fourth-quarter minutes. But why not rest Love late in the third and send him out with Pek more frequently in that troublesome fourth quarter?

Respect and accountability

It is presumptuous to second-guess a future Hall of Fame coach whom I greatly admire, to the point where I feel compelled to make a brief rebuttal on Adelman’s behalf.

It is quite possible that with the injuries to Budinger and Turiaf and Saunders’ seemingly poor choice of overmatched swingman Shabazz Muhammad in the most recent draft (Dieng was taken with the team’s second first-round pick), Adelman does have a terrible bench. Barea and guard Alexey Shved have both been dreadful, and Williams simply didn’t fit in. Suffice to say that the Wolves’ reserves have a collective shooting percentage of 37.8 and are shooting just 22.1 percent from three-point range.

But, as with Williams, it remains an open question whether the bench players are wretched because Adelman won’t develop them, or if he can’t develop them because they are so wretched.

Ultimately, this is about respecting someone enough to demand accountability. When the Wolves are slinging the ball around with balletic grace for open jumpers and layups, we hail the great wisdom of Adelman’s influential “motion corner” offense. It stands to reason, then, when a is team loaded with natural scorers like Love and Martin and perceptive passers such as Rubio, we openly wonder why the great wisdom of Adelman’s sets can’t deliver any better than 24th ranking in shooting accuracy.

Furthermore, when a team is so obviously rushing its rebuilding plan to accommodate the august presence of its coach, it is fair to ask when and why the coach hasn’t been able to generate more wins than losses in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, where the Wolves currently stand in 13th place among the 15 teams.

The next two games are against last year’s NBA Finalists — the Spurs in Mexico City on Wednesday and the Heat back at Target Center on Saturday. The coach has his work cut out for him.

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Comments (16)

Go team!

Last couple of games it seemed like the reserves were getting more time. I agree about Barea. Seems like every time down court he'll loop around the defense and come driving up the baseline with no clue about how it's going to turn out. I like to see them either cut Shved or give him time. He's wasting a space. I haven't even seen Price play.

They don't seem to have anyone to rise up and take over. You see a Harden or Durant take over a game in the fourth quarter but the Wolves don't have anyone to step up like that. I like them all but at crunch time it's a lot of bad passes around the perimeter and into traffic that result in turnovers, bad outside looks as the shot clock winds down. The outlet passes haven't been working much lately either.

With all the talk about their busy schedule I looked in the paper and although they are on the high side for games played it looks like they aren't alone in that boat.

Maybe the Lynx could give them some fourth quarter pointers.

Balancing Development with Execution...

Derrick Williams's challenge of fitting into the rotation whilst developing into a serviceable player, seems to be a microcosm of the wolves' problems at every level.

From the player's individual games, to in-game rotations, to roster movements, the wolves cannot seem to succeed at either developing talent or paying for short-term success. I tend to believe that one type of success will open a door for the other. So I am happy to see the wolves focus on "winning-now" via Adelman and Love.

I suspect that the wolves simply don't have enough of the right players. Perhaps modest relief is on the way with Buddinger and Turiaf, but I doubt it will be world-changing. Still, I sleep at night by appreciating the seismic shift in mentality across the organization over the last 1.5 seasons. Going from being poor at developing talent (when that is your stated goal) into "win-now" mode with no winning precedent and just 2 players with all-star potential is... ambitious. I can forgive personnel/system clashes right now, because the key pieces (the starters) seems to be falling into place well enough.

If the wolves cannot afford to drop games against Washington, Cleveland, or Denver... and adelman shouldn't abandon his system for the sake of terrible bench players... I guess I am in favor of paying to upgrade the 2nd unit guards somehow.

I think you are right that Adelman has a huge challenge over the next 2 weeks, but I doubt we will see many tangible strategic changes. I merely hope for effort, better execution, and the shots to start dropping in. Should I really expect adelman to spin this cotton into gold?

random thoughts: I think Pek deserves to a lot of credit for his extended minutes against top-notch competition. Rubio's passing is beautiful, as fans, we cannot overstate this.

Small difference can be big

Adam--
Thanks for another strong response.
I agree that the return of Bud and Turiaf is just "modest relief," but even a dozen minutes of adequate play apiece would loom large on this ball club.
Agree about Pek and Rubio. Always glad to have the heart and beauty of the game re-emphasized.

Great column.

Henry Abbott wrote a piece back in May devoted to Gregg Popovich's famous trust in young, undeveloped players. (http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/58751/gregg-popovich-builds-y...) The popular, smug response to using this as a contrast to Rick Adelman's rotations would be a throwaway joke about David Kahn and the Wolves drafting record compared to RC Buford's. Obviously Kahn was a poor talent evaluator and Buford is a great one, but as you mention, it's impossible to tell the entire story of causation when the coaches behave so differently.

Adelman might be the single most responsible person for the Wolves post-McHale turnaround from abject disaster to relevant competitor. But his unwillingness to trust flawed players is a stain on his resume' here.

One quibble I have is referring to Shabazz Muhammad as "seemingly a poor choice" and overmatched.

We really have no idea if this is true, other than to look at his garbage-time stats born out of the same under-the-microscope anxiety as any other young Timberwolves reserve. We have not seen Shabazz in anything close to a game situation where he feels like a player trusted by his coach to perform. He was thrown in against Denver for a few minutes when Adelman was proving a point to his lethargic starters. I hope they get him to the D-League as soon as possible where a lower competition level and different coaching staff can get him some game reps.

Gorgui Dieng should've played in the second half versus Oklahoma City. That loss stung a bit more than I would've expected going into it, because the Thunder played so soft in the first half and Kevin Martin consequently got his offense going in a big way. The home team upping its energy level should not necessarily mean a 21-point swing against a team that is supposed to be good.

Another PunchDrunk Wolves reply

Andy--

Thanks for the Henry Abbott link. Folks who somehow don't know the True Hoop site he runs on espn.com will be elated to find a compelling digest of smart NBA clips and original material.

I also wanted to note that I read your PunchDrunkwolves.com game story about the OKC loss, and your specific mention of Dieng's absence in the second half, which mirrored my own feeling, increased my resolve to use that example in this piece. Couldn't find a smooth way to acknowledge that contribution in my piece, so doing it here now.

Finally, it may be that Shabazz Muhammad is a diamond in the rough. Every time I watch him play, admittedly under trying circumstances, I worry about his long term future in pro hoops.

Thanks for the shout out,

Thanks for the shout out, Britt. I also felt a little better about questioning Rick Adelman -- always a dangerous proposition, considering how much more he knows about the game and his team than I do -- after reading this.

On Shabazz, I just have low expectations of any "one and done" rookie. Anthony Bennett (whose post-surgery body fat is killing him as much as anything) was the top overall pick, and obviously very talented, but is struggling horribly to fit into a team that is trying to win. (Struggling at it, obviously, but winning now is the goal in Cleveland.) There just aren't many cases of one-and-done rookies who take on much responsibility for competitive teams. Carmelo Anthony comes to mind, and LeBron was incredible almost immediately out of high school, but it's a short list. Gorgui played three college seasons, the most recent on a national champion. He also turns 24 in January. So I think it is to be expected that he's more "NBA ready" than Shabazz, even if he was drafted a few slots later.

I actually thought that the Budinger injury would mean Shabazz would have to play. Adelman dug up Robbie Hummel to make sure that didn't happen. Speaking of Hummel, he played his way out of the rotation almost as fast as he played himself into it. Perhaps another example of Adelman's quick hook for reserves who make the occasional mistake. (I remember one bad turnover against Denver, and I'm not sure if he's been back on the floor since?)

You're implying an intent that I don't see

"Dug up" Hummel "to make sure that didn't happen"? Isn't the more obvious answer that Hummel has been the better player on both ends in practice and games? And as for his removal from the lineup, that seems fairly obvious as well: he's a placeholder who can step in, but they've acquired a player who can play the wing better than he can. He was playing for the same reason Malcolm Lee was playing last season. It's hilarious to read sinister intent ascribed to Adelman, a guy who opposing/former players always make a point to chat with and/or hug before/after games.

Hummel has a net rating of

Hummel has a net rating of +3.9 right now, better than Pekovic, Martin and every Timberwolves reserve. It doesn't seem obvious to me at all why he has been completely removed from the lineup.

If he's comparable to Malcolm Lee (i.e. sub-NBA caliber) then I understand the decision. But that cuts across your first point, because if Robbie is that bad (again, I don't think he is, at all) then he shouldn't have been playing ahead of Shabazz who could at least stand to benefit from the reps.

I haven't a clue if Shabazz is good, bad or somewhere in between. The only people who seem to have strong opinions on him are just carrying their predraft thoughts into the regular season where he has yet to be given a chance to prove them right or wrong.

Finally, I don't ascribe any sinister intent to Adelman. I just think he could show a little more faith in his talented-but-undeveloped bench players. Dieng is the most obvious example. The one time he was really overwhelmed was against Jermaine O'Neal. A few weeks later, what with J.O. looking like a 6th Man of the Year candidate, maybe that performance was more excusable than we realized.

I have never felt that player development

was ever one of Adelman's strengths in any of his previous stops. Which I think is going to be a killer in today's NBA - where the top 2 or 3 players soak up most of the salary cap leaving a coach/front office the challenge of filling the roster with young players or aging veterans. Unfortunately for the Wolves, we are not an aging veteran destination (due to both weather and our likelihood for a championship run). So, Adelman needs to somehow figure out a way to get some productive minutes from the bench.

I understand the questioning, but...

Given their schedule, this record is a minor disappointment, and their top players are still getting reacquainted. The standings will likely look different once the schedule evens out, some overachievers regress, and some big injuries (Gasol, Anthony Davis) take their toll. The disappointment has more to do with the way they've lost winnable games. Cleveland is the one truly bad team they've lost to; Washington and Denver are hovering around .500 and were preseason playoff contenders. Don't get me wrong; their execution has been awful to watch at times, and they have an elevated self-perception that has to be corrected, but a pro coach's biggest impact is in the gameplan and schemes, and their defense has been a pleasant surprise while their offense's problems stem from bad on-court decisions.

We all know the rotation-caliber players who could've been on this roster if not for Kahn's draft blunders. I'm not going to assume the team will ever be at full health; I'd guess that a return for Budinger and Turiaf will also mean needing to fill in somewhere else. It probably will mean continuing to fine-tune the rotations to ensure the bench guys aren't exposed. It's a logical assumption that proven, worn-down starters are a better option for those minutes than unproven rookies like Dieng. I don't think Price is a better option than Barea; he's a recognizable name who's proven in his other stops that he's an injury fill-in for a good team or a backup for a bad team.

I have a lot of opinions about Adelman's development of young players. There's a false perception (not by you) that Adelman won't play young players and doesn't know how to develop them. He has played young players at every stop. In the NBA, the young players who make it are the ones who can turn losing teams into winning teams or fit immediately into winning teams. The biggest difference between selling hope and winning is that the good coaches immediately suss out who can and can't help them and develop them appropriately, no matter what age; that's what he's doing.

A little too rose-colored for me

PSR--
As always, great, original and thought-provoking insights.

I agree that it is hardly time to panic, and still believe that the Wolves will make the playoffs this season.

But I don't agree that there is that much more room for growth in terms of "their top players are still getting acquainted." I don't think it is a matter of familiarity--they were most in sync the first week of the season.

What isn't happening is Love getting rested and then featured in 4th quarter sets specifically designed to help him take over at crunchtime; or Martin and Brewer being told about shot selection. Bulletin, K-Mart in the post ain't all that after all. That wild and crazy fadeaway is predictably starting to clank. And Brewer is back under 30 percent from distance. Adelman the offensive guru needs to clamp down when players stray from the gameplan, or he needs to gameplan better so his players are better put in position to thrive. Neither is happening and it has more to do with discipline and direction than familiarity.

Another point of disagreement: I'd rather have Price instead of Barea as my backup point guard. Give me somebody who can feed the post, and can facilitate ball movement as a first instinct, and who isn't totally engaged in seeing how much he can get away with from the refs. That's okay for a catalyst when a spark is needed; not from a point guard trying to get seldom-played backups their sea legs out on the court.

As for worn-down, proven starters performing better than unproven rookies, true enough. But if those starters still can't bring home the victory bacon and are wearing themselves down further in the process, giving time, confidence and a bit of role identity to the rooks is a better idea that might pay off even more when those inevitable injuries you speak of occur.

Agree about Adelman--he'll play people he trusts, regardless of experience. I just wish he trusted a little more often and a little longer in some cases.

That's all fair

My perception of the situation might differ from yours. If players are taking overconfident, quick shots, the players need to have a self-correcting mechanism. I'm sure Adelman's brought it up to them; at that point, it's on them to fix it. It has looked so amazingly effortless at times that the players are too often thinking that they just need to make shots instead of realizing that the offense is what's generating those shots and doing a host of other good things (drawing fouls, generating layups, etc.).

I didn't want my previous comment to go too long, but the biggest issue with Barea is when the other guys on the floor aren't enough of a scoring threat. Obviously, he hasn't figured out how to get Pek the ball; other than him, though, his offensive game works if another scorer is on the floor. He and Martin had a few things working on Saturday night, and I like him when paired with Love.

Love the debate

I totally understand what you're saying and agree with much of it.

Here's an example of my disenchantment: In my view, Kevin Martin can do no wrong for Adelman. Did you see his shot selection in the second half vs OKC? And if Corey Brewer wasn't getting transition layups, his FG% would be right where it always was. It is up to Adelman to insist that they run his offense.

Otherwise, everything you said is seconded. Except I do worry a little that when it is Barea and Love there are pretty much no touches left for anyone else--except Cunningham's midrange, of course.

You've still got to

play both ends of the court.
Brewer is the only high minutes player who's consistently enthusiastic on D. They still need someone who can defend the rim.

Trey Burke

Could the Wolves have used Trey Burke? Or to put it another way, would Burke have been more useful than Muhammed?

don;t know

Dan--

Afraid I don't know the college game well enough to answer that.

At the time of the draft, Wolves needed wings more than points. As of now, I believe the reverse is true. So just on that basis, if Burke can be solid immediately, yes, I think he'd be more useful.