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Wolves' playoff chase: All over but the sighing

Wolves power forward Kevin Love, Toronto Raptors power forward Chuck Hayes
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Power forward Kevin Love attempting to block a shot by Toronto Raptors power forward Chuck Hayes during the second half of Sunday's game.

The best game played by the Minnesota Timberwolves on their just-completed, crucial four-game home stand was Sunday evening against the Toronto Raptors. It was a rugged game that seesawed in the first half on a pair of huge runs — Toronto going on a 18-0 spree to build a 46-33 lead early in the second quarter only to have the Wolves answer with a 17-2 spurt of its own to regain control at 50-48 with 2:14 remaining in the half.

Alas, it would be Minnesota’s last lead of the night, as the Raptors continually fended off the Wolves during a hard-fought second half en route to a 111-104 triumph.

You can identify a variety of individual reasons for the Wolves’ eventual defeat. Point guards Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea were destroyed on the boards, 18-3, by the Raptors point-guard tandem of Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez. The Wolves’ wing-stopper off the bench, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, was routed by Toronto’s leading scorer, Demar Derozan, before he had a chance to warm up, and wound up minus 18 for the game in only 3:50 minutes played. Toronto made 14 of 24 three-point attempts, enabling the Raptors to overcome 19 turnovers (versus only nine for the Wolves) and a whopping 50-20 disadvantage on points in the paint.

But in the end, what was obvious was that the Raptors were the better team, able to marshal a greater variety of resources to generate the synergy so vital to success in the NBA, be it little-used swingman Steve Novak coming off the bench to sink 5-of-6 treys, or Vasquez using his 8-inch height advantage to dominate Barea. By contrast, the Wolves were thumped despite a typically stellar performance by Kevin Love, who finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists.

I highlight the Toronto game because the Wolves played with admirable energy and executed their sets and schemes at a level that doesn’t warrant scathing criticism. And yet, while the Raptors are playing excellent basketball and currently rank as the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, they are a team the Wolves should and must beat at home to be regarded as a viable playoff contender in the more profoundly talented Western Conference.

Of course the Wolves didn’t beat Toronto and aren’t a viable playoff contender anymore. They are five games out of the final postseason slot in the West with 19 games left to play. To even make it compelling the final month of the season, they would need to finish 14-5 and hope for mediocrity from at least two teams ahead of them in the standings. Given that they haven’t been more than three games above .500 this entire season, and just finished 2-2 against the East on this make-or-break home stand, the playoffs are a pipe dream.

Heightened expectations

Folks who merely peruse the headlines of the sports section might wonder why the Wolves finishing out of the playoff race would qualify as a big deal. After all, this marks a full decade — 10 straight seasons — in which the franchise will have folded up shop after the final game of the regular season.

More than that, casual fans might well ask the die-hards why they aren’t regarding the glass as half full: With 19 games yet to be played, this year’s edition of the Wolves has already won more often than any team in franchise history that didn’t have Kevin Garnett on the roster.

For the die-hards, the answer is easy — this was the payoff season, the campaign in which patience would at long last be rewarded. Owner Glen Taylor invested heavily, re-signing center Nikola Pekovic for more than twice his previous annual salary, bumping swingman Chase Budinger from $900,000 to $5 million per season, and spending $11 million per annum on free agent swingmen Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. Add that quartet to the core duo of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, coached by future Hall of Famer Rick Adelman, and the Wolves, at long last, were a bona fide playoff contender.

What’s more, for the first time in three years, the Wolves have not been so besieged by injuries this season. Rubio has already set career highs in games and minutes played, and unless Minnesota shuts him down and enters tanking mode, Love will follow suit. Only two starting fives — in Portland and Indiana — have played more minutes together than the Wolves’ quintet of Love, Rubio, Pekovic, Martin and Brewer.

Yes, it was anticipated that Minnesota would sorely miss the defensive acumen and offensive glue of Andrei Kirilenko, and they have. Yet remarkably, even without “AK 47,” Minnesota is allowing fewer points per possession this season, boosting their defensive efficiency from 13th to 11th among the 30 NBA teams.

On offense, it was expected that the added firepower of Martin and Budinger, plus the return of a healthy Love and the maturing of Rubio, would overcome Kirilenko’s absence. And, without question, the Wolves are a more capable and explosive offense this season, boosting their efficiency from 25th to ninth overall, mostly on the back of Love’s incredible productivity.

But what wasn’t expected was Minnesota’s inability to win close games, underlined by their 2-12 record in games decided by four points or less. Nor was it expected that the Wolves would rank among the bottom five teams in three-point shooting percentage. Few observers expected the Pekovic-Love front court tandem to be so ineffective at protecting the rim, or for the bench to be so inconsistent — even toxic — throughout the season.

Fans expected coach Rick Adelman to wring more wins out of the existing talent on the roster. And they expected a greater focus and sense of teamwork from the players on the court.

Losses such as Sunday night against Toronto are unacceptable, given the stakes that were involved at such a crucial juncture of the season. But they are forgivable because of the caliber of effort and execution involved. What can’t and should not be forgiven by the team’s dwindling loyal fan base were early-season losses to Denver (twice), Cleveland, Boston and Sacramento, or the inexplicable choking that occurred in losses to the Clippers and the Suns.

After the Wolves lost to the Knicks to open the home stand last week and fall to a 30-30 record, I asked Adelman during the postgame press conference if he thought this team simply had the talent of a .500 ball club or was it that they weren’t maximizing their existing resources. Under the circumstances, it was a rude, insinuating question that he answered with grace and honesty.

“I can’t answer that until the season is over. We are a .500 team right now, but we just won six of seven and so that is really hard to answer. Right now I have got to figure that we are not a .500 team. We have got to win games. But also, we are not [way] above all the teams we are playing.” He mentioned the notion that the Wolves may have underestimated the Knicks because of their 21-40 record. “I keep telling our guys that you can’t expect to just come out here and just win because of who you are playing.

“That’s a good question. My feeling is that we are not a .500 team. But as we say all the time, we have got to go out and prove it. That’s the bottom line; you can’t talk about it, you have to go out and do it.”

The Wolves have not done it — they have not delivered on their promise and their expectations. Consequently, it would not be unreasonable to expect major changes, both voluntary and involuntary, in the seasons ahead.

Next time: expectations versus reality among the Wolves’ backcourt personnel.

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Comments (9)

Expectations

I actually think expectations among casual fans and diehards is the opposite: diehard fans have become cynical from the losing and injury-ravaged seasons that anything is better than that, while the bandwagon jumpers, desperate for a winning team to be associated with because of the Twins' and Vikings' recent failures, are outraged at things they don't fully understand because they haven't followed the team closely enough in previous seasons to understand. It's so obvious when hearing the people who call in with questions for Flip during his weekly KFAN appearance or with the increase in the misinformed comments I've seen around the web that much of the outrage is coming from people who treat a sports team's underperformance like it was a promise to them that wasn't delivered.

I asked one of the Wolves writers how many complaints he gets about Adelman compared to Rambis, and he said there are more about Adelman by far. That's so illogical I don't even know how to deal with it as well as the shining example of what I'm referring to in the previous paragraph. Things like the excessive campaigning for Shabazz Muhammad under the idea that playing in games is the way young players get better, suggestions that Rubio isn't good enough to be a starter in the NBA because of his current field goal percentage, constant fretting about Love's status in 2015, and suggestions that they need to trade Pek for a rim protector are the hallmarks of the casual MN sports fan.

This probably seems like a generalization, which it might be to an extent, but it's rooted in seeing the difference between how this team's being now and how it had been discussed during the previous losing campaigns. The diehards are the ones who were actually talking about this team when it wasn't even mediocre; those people are more interested in speculating on why it's happened and what it means than they are in demanding accountability.

Wolves

No one thinks that Rambis was a better coach than Adelman. No one. Rambis was so incompetent and the Wolves were so bad under Rambis, that no one even cared. If there is more criticism of Adelman, that is because expectations are higher and the coaching actually matters. And Rick Adelman has done a poor job coaching the Wolves this year.

The campaigning for Shabazz Muhammed isn't just about him improving. Its based on the fact that in his limited meaningful playing time, Muhammed has been better than what Adelman has been putting out there. Muhammed could have helped this team, and instead Adelman has kept him on the bench. A better coach would have used his talent and not wasted it.

Adelman's other big failure has been playing Barea instead of Rubio in the 4th quarter. If you crunch the numbers, the Wolves do much better when Rubio plays at the end of games, but Adelman keeps giving Barea too many 4th quarter minutes and we keep losing close games. If the Wolves had gone 7-7 in close games instead of 2-12, they would be headed to the playoffs.

It's been a curious year

As a long time season ticket holder, I had rather mixed emotions going into the season.

I saw a lot of moves which I interrupted as a "we need to start winning right now". I applaud that having sat through the David Kahn years wondering if we would ever win again.

Yet each move we made was for a player who had a few tremendous strengths (be it a specific skill or physical attribute) that was unfortunately coupled with a few glaring weaknesses. But no players that would yield a first reaction of "he is a solid all round player".

So I figured it would be up to Adelman and his staff to:

1 - mix and match the various talents to make cohesive units while hiding as many of those glaring deficiencies as possible, while they

2 - "coach up" the individual player's glaring deficiencies to get to at least average NBA level

If this was achieved, I could see the playoffs. And as Dallas showed a few years ago, a decent team playing very well at the right time can go a long way in the playoffs - maybe even all the way.

But 60+ games into the season and I see little evidence of either #1 or #2 has been accomplished to any great degree by Adelman and his staff. We still have curious rotations (many pointed out by Britt and others on the web) nearly every game. There has been very little player growth with the key veterans - they seem to have the same strengths and weaknesses as they had at the start of season. It's beyond frustrating.

I mean, there just seems to be some basic coaching logic missing. Take as one example, if your strategy is to let Corey Brewer chase around on defense like a fart in a wind storm (RIP to my dad for that phrase) to disrupt the defense, then you better be able to get the rest of the players in the right help locations should Corey get beat. If you can't get the help side defense set, then maybe Corey needs to focus on a more conservative approach and simply focus on staying with his man. Yet, for weeks, we continue to see Corey get beat due to his over aggressive play only to watch his man get uncontested shots as a result of poor (or nonexistent) help defense. Why? As in why is this allowed to stay this way? Why has nothing been done to change the team strategy and/or the player behavior?

This is just one example - there are numerous situations/plays that I have seen over and over again - always with the same, predicable result. Einstein said insanity was "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Based on that definition, I would have to say our coaching staff must be suffering from a healthy dose of insanity. I don't understand why Adelman has not been able to do something about it.

I agree, we are headed toward an off season of change. If for no other reason, than its going to be impossible to sell tickets next year without some changes. The row I sit in was mostly full in November. Last night, there were 5 of us. And that is in a pretty prime lower bowl section.

Look forward to your team analysis pieces and off season plans as we drift toward the end of another lost season.

Thanks Dan and Tim

I get tired of the self-appointed "experts" criticizing the knowledge of the average fan. The NBA is one of the few leagues where a team can be turned around rather dramatically in only 1-2 years. So to expect even modest improvement isn't a sign of stupidity or impatience. And yet the experts think it's wrong to ask for accountabilty from one of the worst franchises ever assembled in professional sports.

Adelman, expectations, etc

The debate over Adelman's stewardship of expectations this season is contentious because both sides have pretty good arguments.
Yes, Rick Adelman has had a bad year coaching this team. I won't go into detail; regular readers know my particular list of complaints.
But Adelman can't make or miss all the open shots that do or don't get taken by his players. Shot selection on this team is terrible. Adelman also can't magically transform a moribund defensive team into one any better than their current 11th place ranking in efficiency.
This is still a player's league, and while Tim makes a number of good points about imbalance of skills, repetition of weaknesses and questionable rotations, Adelman has tried many of the things he is being criticized for. One reason I mentioned Mbah a Moute in the Toronto recap is because I have advocated putting him in for defensive purposes much more often. But when he goes minus 18 in less than four minutes, that's a burn on a hot stove a coach will be reluctant to touch again. Ditto Muhammad, who does some things well and doesn't do other things well. Yeah, he should have gotten Shved's minutes earlier this season, but what I have heard is that his hard work has improved him during the course of the season. He could have been a culprit as much as a martyr if given more time.
One area where I have trouble with Adelman is that he has not driven his players to practice every eligible day, nor held them equally accountable on either side of the ball. He doesn't like some of the things Rubio does but ignores those things when Barea does them. And so forth.
As for Adelman and Rambis, I agree that Rambis was a lost cause--playing Flynn more minutes per game than Love during Flynn's rookie season resulted in a 15-67 record and forever removed any crediblity for his future actions in my book. I have been more disappointed in Adelman's performance, because I have enormous respect for Adelman. After Rambis's first season in Minnesota, my only expectation was that he would retard the progress of this franchise until he was fired.

Saying someone is off base in their criticisms of the team...

isn't anywhere close to calling them stupid. Maybe it's just annoyance at the same regurgitated ESPN and sports talk radio opinions and at the mentality of not showing appreciation for the good stuff, especially while attending sparsely-attended games where the crowd makes little effort at providing a home court advantage. Even when the losing (or even the winning) gets annoying, watching pro hoops is a voluntary activity that people do without any real personal stake in the outcome.

As long as accountability was brought up, though, for years various other coaches and front office personnel were doing things much more harmful to this franchise's direction than anything that's happened this season. Muhammad got a raw deal? That's nothing compared to what Wittman and Rambis did to Love, which will have a much bigger impact on this franchise's future than anything Muhammad does in his career. Adelman caters his whole offense to Shabazz whenever he's in the game. Where was the concern when Kahn hamstrung this franchise's future through his awful drafting? If it weren't for Adelman taking over most personnel decisions, Kahn probably would've traded Love for 55 cents on the dollar already. When the team is bad is the time to be paying attention to accountability; teams who make big leaps do so with lottery picks and/or enough young assets to get a superstar. Instead, we had Love discouraged from shooting jump shots and guys being drafted based on how big their smile was. It's fine to be disappointed in Adelman this season, but it's shortsighted to not consistently scrutinize a team, no matter how good they are or supposed to be.

Um

Yes, Adelman is better than Rambis. A lot better. A million times better. But what you are doing is giving Adelman a pass because Rambis was so bad. Rambis was a F, and Adelman has been a B- The Wolves can and should do better than B- If there is more scrutiny now, its because it matters. Under Rambis, a terrible team was terrible. Under Adelman, a pretty good team is mediocre.

Quite frankly Greg's comment

"If it weren't for Adelman taking over most personnel decisions" is no small part of my frustrations this year.

At the end of his first year, Adelman basically laid it on the line with Taylor - quite bluntly I have heard through the grapevine - as to what needed to happen to get rid of players / acquire different players that Adelman could work with toward becoming a championship style team. Everyone of those players, except D Williams, was moved out by Kahn the following season. In Flip's first year, the major player moves have come pretty much as direct responses to Adelman's desires - including the moving out of D Will.

So, we have a coach who has exerted tremendous influence over the roster the last couple years - yet we can't seem to find a way to make the miss matched parts to jell. I think Adelman needs to be held accountable for this situation to a far greater degree than what the fans and media seem to be doing.

Britt is absolutely right (as was often repeated by Kevin McHale during is Twolves time). The NBA is, and always will be, a players league. And you can't hold Adelman responsible for several consecutive years of just out and out horrible personnel moves.

But you look around and see what Dwyane Casey is getting out of the no super star Raptors. What Thibs is getting out a depleted Bulls squad. And I think it is fair to ask - why is our hall of fame coach (and he certainly is no question about it) struggling so mightily to get cohesive play out of reasonably talented roster of players - players who are on the team mainly because of his influence in personnel matters.

Don't blow this up yet

I am one of those die-hard, long suffering fans. I've had it up to here and am not renewing my season tickets this year. (Bought a Lynx package instead!) But I do not want to see major personnel changes in the Wolves this season (except perhaps in management). One reason we've struggled -- in my opinion -- is that the Wolves' roster has been a revolving door. Sure, Rubio, Love, and Pek have been here a few years now. But one or more of them have been injured more often than not. And the rest of the team has undergone massive -- massive! -- reconstruction year after year after year. The teams that do well tend to have more stable rosters, so that players learn to play together as a team. Play to each other's strengths, adjust and support each other where there are weaknesses, get the ball to the places where shooters shoot best, help each other on defense, etc.

So, I'd like to see us keep our starting 5 and a few of our bench players, and look to make a few, key -- strategic -- changes that make us better without gutting the entire structure. Chemistry takes time to develop. This team has improved incrementally over the past few years, which is not what any of us wanted. But let's not destroy the forward momentum and blow this up. Not quite yet.

(If Love is going to leave, then yes, blow up this team to smithereens. And pray to the basketball gods that we get some luck and some skillful assembly of personnel. But until we know that's what's going to happen, let's keep building as smartly as possible.)

And oh yeah. I wish we had kept Dwayne Casey as our coach, when we had him!