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Wolves' swan dive: Disintegrated hopes

Wolves' swan dive: Disintegrated hopes
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
The Wolves are comprised of literally marvelous individuals who possess a seeming surfeit of virtues and galvanized attributes.

The comeuppance has arrived. It’s a little sooner than even the more cynical among us had expected, before the “mid-season” break for the NBA All-Star Game this coming weekend. But the Minnesota Timberwolves, who entered the 2013-14 season with a legitimate opportunity to end their decade-long drought from playoff competition, have wadded those aspirations into a soggy little ball that is currently on a downward trajectory toward the trash bin.

With 30 games left on the 82-game schedule, the Wolves are seven games away from the eighth and final playoff spot in the 15-team Western Conference—and closer, at six-and-a-half games, to the conference cellar.

They have lost six of their past seven games, for thoroughly understandable reasons. Injuries have sidelined behemoth center Nikola Pekovic for all of those contests, and their most accurate three-point shooter, Kevin Martin, for the past two. Their superstar, Kevin Love, has not suited up in two of the past four games, and is currently beset by a welter of strains, stiffnesses and bruises that make his mucking style of achievement especially arduous.

But rare is the team whose campaign is not challenged by a spate of injury-related losses at some point in the season. The Wolves are currently bereft because they did not pay their insurance premiums for this rocky interim with inspired, capable play when the roster was at relatively full strength. They sacrificed eminently winnable games to Cleveland, Washington, and Denver, twice, in the month of November alone. Five weeks ago, with their starting lineup intact and key reserves Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger added back into the mix, they were embarrassed, at home, against wretched Sacramento. They earned this predicament.

Less than the sum of their parts

The Wolves are comprised of literally marvelous individuals who possess a seeming surfeit of virtues and galvanized attributes. Love is a bonafide superstar—the debate should be whether he is among the top five or the top 10 players in the NBA—who wheedles points from all over the court and thrives on personally choreographed collisions. Pekovic is a treasured crowd-favorite, a balletic bear of a man who mocks the terrifying gothic tattoos festooned on his body with a perpetually impish grin on his movie-villain visage. Point guard Ricky Rubio is the patron saint of passes, delivering the ball to his teammates with impeccable timing at impossible angles and sleights of hand, then magnetizing the nonchalant dribbles and lazy tosses of opponents into his own mitts to stand as the current NBA leader in steals.

Even the lesser lights have their twinkling. The statisticians dutifully note that Martin, for all his maddening flaws, most especially his appeasement approach to defense, is one of the most efficient scorers in the history of the game. Corey Brewer has the stretched frame and antic temperament of a greyhound, easily gulled into wasted motion and revving his synapses beyond the level where they can be properly coordinated, but seemingly inexhaustible nonetheless, saving himself from himself on an endless loop of burning rubber.

But as a team, it is difficult to discuss the 2013-14 Timberwolves in polite company. When a ball club meshes its talents in a manner that consistently synergizes those skills and surprises observers with successful outcomes—like the current Phoenix Suns, for example—we say they are a team of strong character and fiber, plucky and resilient.

For almost this entire season (the loss to Cleveland happened in the third game), the mesh of the Wolves has been moldy and threadbare, fine when the wind is at its back to carry some of the weight, but liable to rend and disintegrate under pressure and adversity. They are, until proven otherwise, a team of weak character and flaccid fiber.

Minnesota outscores its opponents by more points in the first quarter than any other team. They are 7th in second-quarter point differential and 6th in third-quarter differential. But in the fourth quarter, a.k.a. crunch time, or winning time, they are 29th, or next to last, behind only the Detroit Pistons, who fired their coach over the weekend. This is fueled by a whopping disparity of minus 122 points in the first six minutes of those fourth quarters, a time when Love is frequently resting.

Pieces of a dream, revisited

This recent swoon, even as their rivals currently eligible for a low playoff berth are surging, has landed this chronically floundering franchise—and their die-hard fans, bless them—in a familiar set of circumstances.

Love, the superstar, has a Get Out of the Gulag Free card, courtesy of Wolves management, who denied his request for a five-year contract extension and instead gave him the option of leaving after three years, which kicks in at the end of next season. With no playoffs likely for his sixth straight season in Minnesota this year, it would be prudent to plan for the possibility of Love exercising that option, which means the team must somehow enhance the inducements for him to stay, and/or calibrate the highest return they can get for trading him.

Rick Adelman, who has coached five different teams to more than 1,000 wins in this league, is 67 and presumably highly desirous of crowning his Hall of Fame resume with an elusive championship. With his wife still precariously close to last year’s scary batch of undiagnosed seizures, his formerly trustworthy instincts on player substitutions and motivations proving to be a miserable failure most of this season, and the team losing the scent of the playoffs, let alone a championship, his future, too, is in doubt. Indeed, when he missed Monday night’s loss to Houston due to “personal reasons,” it was hard not to mull the possibility that he was suddenly finished with his three-year tenure in Minnesota.

These are ways Wolves-watchers will increasingly invest their time and conversations. Is Love leaving? What can and should we get in a trade, either for his services or to help him stay? Is Adelman leaving? Who should replace him? How many minutes should we play raw rookies like Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng? Who should we pick in the upcoming college draft, provided we don’t sacrifice the pick by finishing ahead of 12 other teams? (If this last hypothetical is unclear, you don’t need to, or want to, wade into it just yet.)

For the die-hard optimists, there is still that roster studded with individual skills; the rationale that the Wolves’ 1-12 record in games decided by four points or less is a matter of chance that will revert to the mean; and a really soft part of the schedule in early March that could fuel a surge that returns Minnesota to playoff contention.

But the reality is that this has been the most disappointing Timberwolves season in nearly a decade because the standard litany of excuses isn’t tenable. The 2013-14 Wolves aren’t rebuilding, aren’t wracked by an unusual amount of injuries, and can’t point to one villain or cause or aspect of the game that spells the difference between success and failure.

And yet, for those who simply love pro basketball, the game abides. I won’t insult the intelligence of readers by putting a smiley face on the fact that, even at 24-28, this is the Wolves’ best record after 52 games since 2004-05. And I won’t pretend that wins and losses don’t matter.

But neither can I pretend that I don’t want to go see the unique likes of Love, Pekovic, Rubio, and contagiously joyous performers like backup center Ronny Turiaf, testing their skills against a wide variety of opposing styles and skill sets. The Wolves have 30 games left in what is becoming a season where disappointment will most likely lead to dramatic changes. Not all the memories these Wolves are leaving behind are good ones, by any means. But a lot of them are vivid, and many of those are, after all, to be cherished.

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Comments (19)

Let me be the first...

To say thanks for another excellent column. In spite of what I said in reply to your last post, I'm not entirely off the bandwagon. Funny that my exasperation coincided with the beginning of the swan dive. Saturday's game was very entertaining and demonstrated that this team's depth is really pretty good, I think. There is something missing though in the team's emotional makeup. These guys should have been like Portland or one of those middling successful teams this year.

Reading one of the Star's articles highlighted for me that we are still dealing with the failures of the David Kahn era. As much as this is a good group of guys and players, it would have been different and better without all of his mistakes.

Hard to imagine Adelman coming back next year unless they turn it around after the all start break. We can always hope. Last year I considered him indispensible to any success they'd have but now I'm not so sure that a change there wouldn't shake up the team along with a couple of artful roster changes.

I'm watching more T-Wolves now then I ever did before but my hope for this year is done. There ain't no playoffs comin'. In a couple months we'll know if there is any character in this team (not questioning the character of the individuals).

These guys

would make a great playground team.

Great expectations

Wolves fans have every right to be disappointed thus far. Flip Saunders set the table, the pitcher was passed around, and we all got a bit tipsy in anticipation of witnessing a playoff appearance. It had been a long time, and we were starved.

During those first few games of the season, we were still buzzing on the team's potential. The record-setting, first-quarter performance vs. the Lakers was a gas, and I'd like to think that a few of LA's shiny, happy people were slack-jawed at the sight. As the season progressed, the confidence in a starting five that had never played together before began sliding as the quirks and weaknesses began affecting outcomes.

I don't remember Flip or Rick making any guarantees about where this team might finish. Flip said the organization still had a lot of work to do. Certainly, the old guys had playoff aspirations, and perhaps Rick backed that notion by telling the team that it hadn't accomplished anything after the early losses . Did he say "yet"? Didn't matter to me - I was already starting to look forward to the post season. However: While quite a few in the local media early on favored the idea that this team would make the playoffs, I don't remember there being an overwhelming majority for the Wolves' case nationally. (Am I wrong there?) Britt, I seem to remember you were taking a thoughtful, cautious approach with this team - which was exactly what the newly-formed lineup required. It hadn't proven anything yet, but there were reasons for optimism. I did wonder if Rubio, Martin, Love and Pek could make it through the season without a lengthy absence or two due to injury or re-injury.

Having been disappointed for a number of years, I may have simply taken my own expectations out of the equation by promptly picking the experienced, newly-healed Lakers squad as the eighth and final seed - rather than the younger Wolves.

At this point

Their best option is trying to find other teams unhappy with their lot and make a few equivalent contract trades to see if something sparks. Love, Rubio, and Pek aren't being moved, and it wouldn't make sense to move Martin (contract), Budinger (injury) or Turiaf (low value, team-friendly deal, worth keeping). If they follow the logic of not taking on any more years than they send out, I have no problem with moving any of the other guys on the roster. I'd miss DC and wonder what might've been with Prince Luc, but that's about it. Most of these guys don't have high value, but that's not the point so much as it is to find a different mix that might work better.

Ultimately, it's not hard to see why they'd struggle with Martin and Pek out against two of the 5 best teams in the West. What was more disappointing was their struggles when it was just Pek out. There's not many excuses for losing in Atlanta or New Orleans.

Looks like the league and injuries

are catching up with Love.
Trade him while he's still worth a starter on a good team.

I hope that's a joke

He had 31 points and 10 rebounds on a night when he wasn't 100%. He's missed a couple games this year, he's probably logged more minutes than anyone on the roster, etc, etc. I can name two guys more valuable than him and the only one of those two I'd take is Durant.

9 of 23

He got his points by putting the ball in the air a lot.
That's a shooting percentage of 39.
That's not how you win ball games.
He's getting a bit better at passing, but still turns the ball over juking around under the basket. And his outlet passes are scary.
Agreed, I did see him play defense on one play, which is an improvement.

I regret posting the original message

Now that this is one of the replies.

I'm not giving up

Wasn't it just last week we were celebrating our return to .500? Yes, some momentum would be nice, but what exactly is stopping this team from re-capturing the blowout-win magic of early in the season? Getting Chase and Ronny back? As tempting as it is to say that opponents have figured us out, that's a cop-out. This team needs stick with the game plan down the stretch - to keep running and keep looking for easy chances until defenses get tired and start making mistakes. And not to put the burden on Ricky in particular, but everyone knows he can't shoot, so I'd like to see him in the paint on a more frequent basis to put some pressure on help defenders. We've all seen what happens when this team plays to its potential - the players just need to figure out how to get back on the same page again.

This is where I'm at

It can happen, but they have to prove it.

Offseason

And so we turn to the off-season as our source of hope and entertainment once more.

Flip & Co. have one more opportunity to demonstrate to Kevin Love that he can win in Minnesota. To do that, in my opinion, you start with dealing Pekovic and work your way down from there. I get that Pek is a great center and has cleared the incredibly low bar of becoming the best center in Wolves' history, but to get you need to give and Pek can yield the most in return short of Love and Rubio. From there, you acquire role players who fit with Rubio. That's right, Rubio, not Love. Get athletes who can shoot and defend and I have a feeling we won't care so much about Rubio's scoring deficiencies.

The other major lynchpin is Adelman. If Adelman goes, and I think he should, guys like Budinger and Martin no longer are essential. They can go, too, as far as I'm concerned.

Buddinger deserves one more year

He's not really healthy yet, but occasionally shows flashes of all around effectiveness.
I'm skeptical about anyone coming back completely from major knee surgery, which is why I don't think he'd command much right now. No one else on the team can consistently create and make his own shot from the outside and penetrate, as well as contributing on defense.
The rookie (Shabazz) looks like he might have the potential, but under Adelman he's probably doomed to the Derrick Williams hell of being stuck behind Love and not getting the minutes he needs to develop.

Derrick Wiliams created his own "hell"

Williams started 71 games in 2 seasons and averaged over 20 mpg with the team. With Love out last season, they consistently gave him the ball in positions where all he had to do was go up with a shot and played him with Pek while sticking Cunningham with Stiemsma (yet Cunningham was still more effective). His current team thought so much of his potential as a SF that they traded for Rudy Gay shortly after acquiring him, and the only difference between him last year and this year is that he's shooting better on 2 pointers, which were constantly available to him last year.

As for Shabazz, his shot chart from the Portland game indicates a guy whose coach gave him every opportunity to play well: all of his points came from the left block and on the same move, a strategy that every team would see on tape and start denying him within a week. Still, he showed less ability to score off the dribble, in transition, and from the perimeter than Brewer or Rubio, who largely created their own opportunities out of nothing.

Unless a team is trying to lose, no coach is going to develop a player by playing him in games unless he's good enough to play or there are injuries at that position. Development happens in the offseason and in individual workouts with assistant coaches.

I think you start with Kevin Martin...

He's been the biggest disappointment so far this year. sure he has a great 25-30 point game....usually in a blow out win. But, recent outing at Golden state aside...he's pretty much disappeared in most 4th quarters. He was brought in as someone who we needed who could create his own shot...and he just hasn't proved that he can do that.

The bench is obviously an issue. Once again..we make organizational decisions on which players to keep and which to get rid of ...and make the wrong choice. I have to believe that Luke Ridenour in the end would have been better served as the backup PG for this team than JJ. And of course we let Trey Burke leave because we have "too many PG's". Who does scouting in this organization? Who are the GM's working with to figure out how good the college players really are. How can any one team be so wrong...so much of the time.

Finally, I love Adelman...and I feel bad that he's been hit by the wolves curse now...but he's just not getting it done. At some point we have to look at what he's doing. I am not a great NBA mind but it certainly seems that at some point we should be doing something different than what we're doing in the 4th quarter. I still think that goes back to KevMart...but ....I would hope the coach could put his finger on it and come up with an answer. This team also really misses Bill Bayno on the defensive side. I think that may be underreported. (Plus AK).

Everyone in the organization would agree with you on Ridnour

When one PG has a year left on his current deal and the other has 2, which one do you think other teams want? Also, Trey Burke's shooting %s are roughly what Jonny Flynn's were in his rookie year. I don't like Barea's game on this team, but he's the one who stayed because Kahn gave him a too-generous contract and the team didn't want to have to rely on undersized SGs and bad (as in no-longer-in-the-NBA bad) wings like they did last year. There are only so many roster spots.

Belated responses

Wow, I go away for a day and the place runs amok.
Let me see if I can pick and choose some topics for response, if only to re-establish where I stand on some of these things.
--First, I am not "giving up" on the Wolves this season either. Having been a beat writer every year since 1990 except for the three I covered the entire NBA (including the Wolves) for SI.com, I think folks know I am a die-hard hoops fan who isn't going anywhere.
But I am going to be realistic. The Wolves are 24-28 and won't have Pek or Martin for Denver tonight, and quite possibly not for the first few games back after the all-star break (beginning with Indiana). For the Wolves to eke into the playoffs as the 8th seed, they would have to play .700 ball the rest of the season (21-9), while hoping that at least one of three teams--Dallas, Phoenix and Golden State plays less than .500 ball and Memphis doesn't play better than 17-14. That's assuming 45 wins gets you the final seed, which is iffy--but a better bet than Minnesota finishing out at 21-9.
Thus, while I agree with Anton and PSR (or Greg on the signature) think rash, dramatic moves are more likely to hurt than help the team between now and the trading deadline, I do think it is realistic to prepare for another year without the playoffs and the possibility that it will compel Love and Adelman to reassess how long they want to stick around. And that is serious business.
--Second, which brings me to criticism of Kevin Love. No, he's not Lebron, Kevin Durant or Chris Paul. But claiming that the Wolves would be lucky to grab just another starter for his services is absurd. Love is the best power forward in the NBA. Yes, his defense is slightly below average (but don't forget that being a monster defensive rebounder who thus ends opponents' possessions is an often unrecognized defensive skill that Love has in abundance). He also is capable of getting you 30 points and 15 rebounds and 4 assists as a matter of course and you can count those players on one hand in this league. So let's stop the nonsense of underrating Love.
--Third, in response to Phil, I was one of the ones who believed the Wolves would be, and should be, a playoff team this season. Flip Saunders is the master of low expectations (except for the giddiness he allowed himself during the offseason as he signed Bud, Martin and Brewer plus Pek). In our interview, he said improvement over last year's 31-win season was a barometer. Nope. Not when Love plays less than half the games and performs at a career-worst level due to injury. In my opinion, if Minnesota doesn't make the playoffs, they have underachieved. They were and are a better team on paper than Dallas and Phoenix and should be ahead of Memphis, given how long Marc Gasol was out.
--Fourth, I find chatter about getting rid of this guy or that guy to be a giant waste of time. I prefer to talk about what this team has to work with and how it is working with it. Sure, I'd rather than Ridnour than Barea but everyone wanted Ridnour during the offseason because his contract was shorter and he was a more flexible piece; plus he was golden in Milwaukee because of the year he expertly mentored a rookie Brandon Jennings and the fine years he performed as a Buck. It was the only way the Wolves were going to clear salary and "balance the roster" for Martin and Brewer while retaining Pek. It is what it was and is going to be.
--Fifth, contrary to a fairly steady stream of negative columns, I remain a fan of Rick Adelman. I do see him being ground down by the losing and by the daily grind of NBA travel on his 67-year old body and mind. And I think it is long past time for him to realize that his abiding trust in the eventual resurgence of Barea is dooming this team, and by extension his hopes of building something special here. He is running out of time. I suspect he will resign instead of be fired as the circumstance of his departure, and I don't think that's wrong. But it is very hard to argue that he has done a good job coaching this season.
--Last but not least, let's keep the topic on the subject of basketball rather than each other's mental acuity--disagree with facts and example-based, descriptive opinion that reveals your knowledge of the game. And thanks to all of you for chiming in while I took the day off.

#5

I generally am unwilling to criticize Adelman too much because effort and focus are the domain of the players and the team leadership (not sure who that is with this team) in pro sports, and their close losses are mainly due to missing open shots. The staggering of rotations is worthy of scrutiny, if for no other reason than to maximize the effectiveness of offensive players who aren't first options and defensive players who have no reliable offensive skills, and playing Barea over Rubio would be troublesome even if JJ wasn't going through one of his worst shooting seasons.

Most importantly, I don't criticize him out of fear: what comes next (no matter when it comes) isn't necessarily a step forward in catching up with the standard being set by guys like Popovich and Carlisle (regardless of whether Flip is just shopping for the groceries or also cooking the meal). Adelman's still better than at least half of the coaches in the league because of his offensive innovation and ability to make an efficient defense while lacking elite athletes and defenders; he also effectively neutered Kahn and showed how little the players Kahn acquired have helped the team succeed. Flip's not as good of a coach as Adelman, and he seems even more resistant to change. The only way the coaching even stays as good is if Taylor forbids Flip from hiring himself and he makes all of the concessions necessary to get someone like George Karl, Stan Van Gundy, or Lionel Hollins.

close losses

I'll agree with most everything you said here, except that Adelman isn't responsible for effort and focus and the close losses are a matter of missed shots. I think both are too simplistic.
The Wolves lose effort and focus at crunchtime. They have messed the bed in fourth quarters of close games through most of the season. Adelman has steadfastly decided to start most fourth quarters with both Love and Rubio on the bench. I would like to see more flexibility there, as in giving Barea some third quarter minutes and giving Love more fourth quarter minutes. Barea plays more in the fourth than Rubio. Love plays almost the entire first and third quarters.
As for focus and energy, something is amiss with Kevin Martin, who was an obvious Adelman favorite (and vice versa) but who has consistently seemed to lose focus more often as the season wears on.
PSR, the three coaches you mentioned at the end--Karl a little but especially SVG and Hollins--are all about focus (Karl more about energy) and they play certain guys accordingly.
When you get outscored 37-20 in a game you need to win against an injury-depleted New Orleans team, you aren't ready to compete the playoffs. That is just one of about 8 games I could cite where I wished the coach had a better handle on the mood and affect of the players. I know he has groused about it from time to time; but to no avail. Bottom line, if this roster won't put out a complete effort for Adelman, for whatever reason, that is at least partially on Adelman.

A pitcher of managed expections

Your answers to the responses are a lot of fun to read, Britt - even when one of us needs a bit of guidance. Saunders comes across as so honest and sincere that I neglected to fully account for the Kool-Aid that comes with managing expectations. Of course, one's perception also gets a bit distorted after about a decade of observing all the fun in the dysfunction. It's nevertheless great to be able to talk about the possibility of playoffs, regardless of how remote the chances are at this point.