There are excuses that can be made for the current five-game losing streak of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Yes, the team has been besieged by injuries, a roll call of the waylaid and wounded that includes budding superstars, floor generals, key role players and long-shot gambles that aren’t going to pay off. And yes, the most recent bout of offensive ineptitude is at least partly due to a transition period that has the dominant presence and idiosyncratic style of the Wolves’ best player, Kevin Love, being jerry-rigged into the existing system that favored more back-cuts and ball movement while Love was out with a broken hand.
But the truth of the matter is that after rousing 5-2 start, these Wolves are becoming an unlikeable bunch, lacking the character, cohesion, intelligence and instinct required to be respected during their adversity. They are playing without panache and repeatedly making stupid physical and mental mistakes in their execution at both ends of the court. They are consistently withering under pressure with the game in the balance. After quality road wins in Brooklyn and Dallas, they have frittered away a ridiculously easy portion of their schedule and currently sport the 13th best record in the 15-team Western Conference.
Adelman and the backcourt rotation
One of the more disheartening aspects of the current losing streak has been that the two biggest trump cards possessed by the Wolves — the coaching of Rick Adelman and the leadership of Love — have not been up to snuff. Let’s begin with Adelman, who, to put it charitably, has been unable to contain the damage the Wolves have absorbed in their backcourt matchups since shooting guards Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy went down with injuries.
As he did with Derrick Williams in the frontcourt while Love was out, Adelman opted to insert an inferior substitute into the starting lineup — in this case, second-year guard Malcolm Lee — so as to safeguard the depth and synergy of his talent off the bench and have them fresh for the fourth quarter. Since the first quarter is usually a feeling-out process and Lee has the size (he’s a wiry 6-5) and discipline to reliably execute the team’s defensive schemes, this ironically may indeed be the best place to hide his overall lack of talent and experience. Sure enough, the Wolves have only been outscored by seven points during the 169 minutes Lee has been on the court this season.
But is the point really to minimize the damage at a time the four players aside from Lee are ostensibly the cream of the crop on your ballclub, and need to be establishing their own rhythms and pattern as the game unfolds? The numbers — and the eyeballs of anyone watching the games — suggest that Lee has little to no business stepping foot on an NBA court.
On offense, Lee has been an appropriately reluctant and consistently terrible shooter, converting just 29.8 percent from the field, 15.4 percent from three-point territory and 60 percent from the free throw line. Consequently, opponents have learned to ignore him in the half-court sets, essentially guarding the rest of the Wolves five-on-four. And on defense, his supposed strength, Lee is allowing players at his opposing position to score over 28 points per 48 minutes and compile an effective field goal percentage (which includes the added value of three-point shots) better than 63 percent, per 82games.com.
Lee’s performance has been so ostentatiously wretched that even the Wolves’ ace color commentator Jim Petersen has been increasingly and appropriately willing to bite the hand that feeds him by calling out the absurdity of allowing Lee so many minutes. At the very least, Adelman should limit Lee’s hindrance to the first half, and depart from the silly custom of beginning the third quarter with the same quintet that opened the game.
The ongoing case for Shved
But Lee can’t be the scapegoat for all, or even most, of the Wolves’ current woes in the backcourt. With Budinger, Roy and, of course, Ricky Rubio all on the sidelines, Adelman’s options are Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved as either point guards or shooting guards, and Lee and Josh Howard (who also currently backs up small forward Andrei Kirilenko) as shooting guards. As Petersen and a raft of savvy Wolves-watchers (including the folks at Punch-Drunk Wolves) have already observed during my writing absence over the Thanksgiving break, Adelman is erring here too by not giving more minutes to Shved. Let me put a little more meat on the bone of this contention.
Ridnour and Barea have both been sabotaging the offense recently, owing perhaps to Ridnour’s ongoing back ailment and Barea’s slow recovery from a foot sprain. Even so, since Barea’s return, Adelman has been inclined to pair them in the backcourt, especially during crunchtime, which creates a huge defensive liability because of their size (Ridnour is the taller one at a mere 6-2), and, I repeat, is also deadening the offense due to their lack of playmaking.
You want to know why the Wolves have been tanking in the fourth quarter lately? According to nba.com, Ridnour is shooting 17 percent in the final period, and Barea is not much better at 27 percent. Part of that clanking is the result of Ridnour and Barea being unable to set up good shots for each other — or any of their teammates. Each is averaging a paltry .8 assists in the fourth quarter.
By contrast, Shved’s fourth-quarter assist rate is 1.8, more than twice as much as the two guards who have begun costing him crunch-time minutes. His fourth-quarter field goal accuracy is a relatively gaudy 39 percent. Those are the numbers. What your eyes show you is that Shved, alone among the current options in the backcourt, has the size and quickness to turn the corner on his opponent, drive to the basket, and then see the floor well enough to dish out an assist.
This lack of playmaking in the backcourt has been especially ruinous to the team’s three-point shooting. Even without Budinger, the Wolves have a pretty decent cadre of long-range marksmen on the roster. Yet the team currently ranks dead last in three-point accuracy, according to hoopdata.com. Probe a little further, and you see that only Golden State has a lower percentage of assists on the three-pointers that the team is converting. It is far easier to sink a long jumper when a teammate is driving and kicking it out to you, or whipping a pass to you around the perimeter, than it is to try and rise up after rubbing your opponent off a screen or beating him off the dribble. The Wolves are not generating enough of those easier, assisted, three-pointers.
Bottom line, Rick Adelman is a Hall of Fame coach worthy of copious accolades. But his guard rotations — especially giving minutes to Lee in the third quarter and depriving minutes to Shved in the fourth quarter — are hurting this team.
A couple of days before Kevin Love ambushed “Wolves Nation” with his dramatic appearance in the starting lineup last Wednesday, beat writers Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune and Joan Niesen of Fox Sports North predicted as much in conversations before practice. Love succeeded in his aim to make a splash, not only playing but thriving in his first quarter of action with a whopping 16 points and six rebounds in nine-and-a-half minutes that propelled the Wolves to an 11-point lead.
But it has been pretty much steadily downhill in the three quarters and two games since then.
What jumps out is literally how isolated Love’s play has become since that initial stint. Five of his first six baskets of the season were converted via assists from his teammates. Of his 19 baskets after that, only four have been assisted. Put it together and 37.5 percent of Love’s buckets have been enabled by a teammate — way beneath his previous career low of 57.4 percent that occurred during his second season.
Part of this is because Love hasn’t knocked the rust off his shooting stroke, which has been further hampered by the hand brace that he angrily tossed aside in the final period of Saturday’s loss to Golden State. He has made just three of 20 shots from more than 15 feet away from the hoop and thirteen of his 24 baskets have occurred “at the rim.” Since he hasn’t lost his proclivity for securing offensive rebounds, one has to assume many of those unassisted makes are put-backs from the offensive glass.
But it is not hard to notice that the offense has become stagnant when Love is the focal point thus far this season and the blame belongs at least as much to Love as to his teammates. What we see at both ends of the court is slow reaction, be it his response to passing out of double-teams, shooting before the double-team arrives, coming up to “show” hard when defending the pick-and-roll play or getting back on defense rather than bitching to the referees on calls he has no chance of getting overturned.
It is reassuring to say that Love will work himself back into a groove once he becomes reacquainted with the nonpareil pace, length and overall rigor of NBA competition. But I worry about the hangover from an off-season where Love established himself as a peer among the elites during his gold medal run at the 2012 Summer Olympics, after being denied the gilded perq of a five-year contract with the Wolves after negotiations in January.
Love is in a position to think that the franchise needs him more than vice-versa. An indulgence of that mindset would lead to an extension of what we’ve seen thus far — a disconnect and absence of synergy with his teammates, and a desire to become more of a one-man show. It is obviously a small sample size, but Love’s usage rate — the percentage of plays where he is directly involved in the outcome — is 35.3 percent thus far, well above last year’s career high of 28.8 percent, which was itself a jump from his previous career high of 22.9 percent.
Love’s teammates also need to aggressively accommodate the new circumstances. In Friday’s loss to Portland, the Wolves were consistently outhustled and beaten to loose balls by a young opponent clearly in rebuilding mode; meanwhile, Love’s teammates seemed to be standing around waiting for him to compensate. But the next night versus Golden State, Love was dawdling and ball-hogging, and for a third straight game seemed perniciously preoccupied by the way the refs were whistling or ignoring fouls.
I’m not panicking or jumping to conclusions here. I understand it has only been three games. For what it’s worth, I happen to admire the Love’s work ethic, which is integral to his virtues on the court, and thoroughly enjoy his humor, intelligence and accessibility off the court. I have long been an unabashed fan.
But it was Love’s decision to immediately throw himself into games after being granted permission to play by the doctors. Regardless of whether it is for three, four or five years, it is Love currently earning the maximum annual salary possible from his employer. Especially with Rubio out, it is Love who must inspire and enable his teammates at least as much as he is inspired and enabled in return, while setting an example of focused composure during the heat of competition.
Yet aside from a sensational first quarter against Denver, we have seen little that warrants hero worship, and plenty that requires a rededication to toil and teamwork by Love and his cohorts. I fully expect Love to regain a performance level that merits his reputation as a burgeoning superstar. But fans, pundits, teammates and coaches do him a disservice if we don’t remind him that leading his team to a playoff berth is a relatively low-caliber requirement for a player of his talent, and that with Rubio and a handful of other key personnel temporarily on the shelf and a relatively easy slate of opponents in the near offing, the time for his leadership has never been more acute.