Second of two articles
Welcome to the second portion of our two-part interview with Wolves analyst extraordinaire, Jim Petersen. This is the conclusion of an 80-minute phone call we had on Monday morning.
For those missing Tuesday’s first portion, it can be found here.
MinnPost: We have been talking about the lines you walk: Between being a “team partner” and yet offering an honestly critical assessment; and between using detailed descriptions that invoke the latest analytical tools and yet not talking over the head of your average viewer. Another one might be when you know something through your access that you can’t divulge. Maybe it is something you saw in practice or at the shoot-around, or maybe it is knowing somebody is injured or going through an emotionally rough period. Those are fine lines to walk, aren’t they?
Jim Petersen: Yeah, especially for me. I would love to explain play-calls and how they work. It really is amazing if you could see an NBA playbook, the sheer numbers of plays that they have and how they communicate them, through verbal or hand signals. And I can’t give play calls to people; I’m not going to burn a Timberwolves coach by giving those out. And I certainly don’t want to give away strategy, what they’re thinking about.
So you’re right, I am always walking that line in terms of what I can say, and I usually say just a fraction of what I know. And I wish I could say more, and I think I need to figure out a way to do that. Because now that I’m a coach, I know there are things you can say that doesn’t burn them. But the last thing I want to do is burn a coach.
You know [Wolves coach] Rick [Adelman] doesn’t allow us the access we used to have. He doesn’t allow us to come to shoot-around, for instance. I thought it was a personal thing at first, but then I called my guys in Houston, Portland and Sacramento [places Adelman used to coach] and all said that is the way Rick runs it. And I figure if that’s the way Rick wants it, I’m not going to second-guess him.
But it has impacted me because I get a lot out of watching the walk-through and seeing,first of all, how are they going to match up and then how they are going to guard actions. I also learned a ton about how coaches communicate complex ideas and strategy. I find it fun and interesting to hear how they say it; how much or little they say, how they interact with the players, their teaching. I learned ways to talk to players watching the shoot-around. And since Rick is so good, I was dying to find out how he does it. But it is what it is.
I do get access to practice. Rick will let me come to practice and there you find out how good his assistant coaches are. Since I have been coaching [for the WNBA Minnesota Lynx], I value those moments and watch practice in a whole different way. I watch body language and interaction when someone is teaching, things I never would have looked at before.
MP: What must be tough is when you know enough to change your opinion about somebody but you can’t reveal why your opinion is changed.
JP: What do you mean?
MP: Say you know that because of the way the play was called, what looks like somebody’s error isn’t really their error. Or maybe it is personal, like if somebody is hiding an injury and they don’t want that injury known. Just anything where you know something but revealing that thing is betraying a confidence.
JP: By the same token, sometimes they want you to know. Flip was the opposite of Rick; he wanted you at shoot-around and he noticed if you weren’t there. It is instructive because if there is a breakdown during the game, I know more who is at fault and not calling out the wrong person, and I simply understand better what they are trying to do.
It is very difficult to get everything right. There are limitations. You only know when you are with the team every day and know exactly what is going into it strategy-wise. People think you can just inject Player A into the system and all of a sudden it is going to change. Coaches know more about their players than fans do. Coaches see everything at practice, and they know what is possible and what is not possible for the most part. A fan might have an opinion of a player and think he is better than this other player at this, this and this. But a coach knows that is not what is needed now, so he’s not going to put that player in; it is not what he wants or needs. Maybe the player can’t execute this other thing the coach needs, but that the fans don’t see. There is that kind of stuff going on all the time that fans and even analysts don’t understand.
Believe me, coaches know strengths and weaknesses. They have scouted the other team extensively and know what the strengths and weaknesses are from scouting. Then the coaches got together as a group and said, ‘OK, this guy can do this and this other guy can’t do this.’ And they know what is right and wrong for the team at that particular time. You may not agree with it, and that’s fine. But walking that strategy line of what is possible with a player is something coaches are always doing, and I understand that better now that I have been in that situation.
MP: To choose a specific example, you said the other night that Derrick Williams is not going to be a small forward. And even though he has gotten a few minutes because of injuries to Kirilenko, you said it fairly flatly as a strategic thing, about what coaches believe or don’t believe about this player. Yet there is clamor from the fans to play Williams at small forward.
JP: That’s a great example. Some fans don’t understand that it goes more than just if he can shoot the ball from the perimeter. They think, ‘The guy can shoot the three, so why can’t he play small forward?’ But the player has also got to, uh, remember the plays at the small forward, you know? You’ve got to remember that there are multiple play sets that you’ve got to be able to execute at one position. And it is hard enough to understand all the plays and complexities that go into one position — what to do in the timing of the play. When you have got to know those things from two positions, it is really difficult. We’ve had players on the Lynx side where we would have loved to play them at small forward more often, but you can’t stick them in a game and rely on them to know what they have to do on ‘2 up’ or ‘fist down.’ We’re in the game and we need to get a score and you call ‘fist down’ and say, hypothetically, Derrick doesn’t know where to go, then that’s a problem.
MP: You have worked with different play-by-play guys now — Chad Hartman early, then Tom Hanneman for a long time, and now Dave Benz just for the past month or so. What do you need to do when you are dealing with a play-by-play guy? How does a rhythm get established?
JP: Well, I was a role player in basketball, and my default personality type is to get along. I want to get along as best I can. I hear all these stories about these broadcast teams that really don’t like each other very much, and I can’t imagine being in a dynamic where I go to work every day with somebody I don’t like. So my default position is to find something I like about that person and focus on that. And I have also been lucky because Chad Hartman and I got along great with each other. He is a great guy, smart basketball man, and I was blessed to work with a guy who really knew the game. And then with Hanny, there couldn’t be a nicer human being on the face of the earth. So I haven’t really worked with any guys who were jerks. When you start out with Chad Hartman and Tom Hanneman, it really doesn’t get any better than that from my perspective.
So then it is just a matter of working out styles. Chad was very basketball knowledge oriented. He would talk about strategy with me and understand player tendencies. He talked with Flip a bunch and so he would have knowledge pertaining to basketball strategy from the coach himself. Flip would come out pregame and sit there and do a show with Chad and then we would talk about the game in a very in-depth way that was very special, and Chad understood all of it.
Tom was a little different. He wasn’t so much a basketball strategist as he was a welcome friend in your home. He was a comforter. He was warm and inviting, a great interviewer and a people person. He left the strategy up to me. He is one of the best nuts-and-bolts broadcasters — coming in and out of breaks and all the little things; the quality of his voice. He was just an unbelievable professional the way he would prepare for games. He would have all the back-story of the players on both sides, so if I said something about a player, he had something he could immediately add from a personal standpoint. So I relied on Tom more for adding texture to the broadcast. It was different, like playing in a band — Chad was a drummer, and Tom was a keyboard player and you’ve got to learn how to work within the framework of their strengths and weaknesses and find a way to make the relationship work so that it is easy to listen to.
With Dave Benz, we’re still trying to work on that rhythm. He has got to get up to speed on the NBA because there is a lot to it. If you don’t know all the history with all these teams — Tom was a Timberwolves employee from day one of the franchise. So he has got layer upon layer upon layer of something Dave Benz doesn’t have. That isn’t to say Dave doesn’t have the ability to do it, because he will — it just takes time. But Dave is more of an energy guy. He’s like a guy off the bench, who is going to come in and impact the game in a different way with his energy. So we’re trying to figure out that rhythm, and I’m trying to get him up to speed on the league.
What I like about him is that he is a grinder, a hard worker, who is willing to do whatever it takes. You can criticize him, tell him what he is doing wrong — not me, but producers and directors — and he is open to listening, which is great. He doesn’t have this ego; he is open and wants to learn. He is thirsty for knowledge and a guy like that is easy to work with.
MP: What aspects of your job do you wish you were better at doing?
JP: I wish I was better at one-on-one interviewing. That is an art, to be able to talk with someone on camera and ask a really great question. Versus, “How did you do that?” There is a real trend now with sideline reporters when they are talking to coaches — “How’d you do that?”
MP: And the formulation of the question that begins with ‘talk about,” or ‘tell me about.’ I even heard myself do that to you once, although I get to edit it out.
JP: It is a crutch, that’s for sure, and in broadcasting they have wanted us — we get all kinds of prompts and told how they want questions asked, and “talk about” or “tell me about” is one of those things they don’t want. But one of the trends is “How did you do that?” Or “What allowed your team to be able to build this lead?” It is an open-ended question, but when you see everybody doing it, you realize it is kind of a group-think thing.
MP: Not only that but it begs for a cliché. Because you can always answer that “How did you do that?” formulation with something like, “Well, we just played hard” or “We were aggressive.”
JP: Exactly [laughing]. So I am still working on that part of it. I don’t get to do it enough — I don’t get enough reps. The other part of it, too, if we were playing better, if there were more good things to talk about — because I don’t want to be a downer. That’s the frustration: I want to be involved with a team that is playing so well that there are all these great basketball strategy things to talk about.
So the individual interviewing thing is something I want to get better at, and I want to get better about advanced stats to educate fans and help them know what to look for — I’m still picking my spots here and there about that. I think that’s one of things Alan Horton does so well over on the Wolves radio broadcasts. He is a one-man band over there, who has to be the play-by-play guy and the analyst. Of all the radio guys on League Pass that I listen to, Alan probably has the best understanding of how advanced stats and how it applies to basketball at the NBA level of anyone that I know. That’s another way Timberwolves fans are lucky. I don’t think Alan gets nearly enough credit for what he does.
MP: Let’s finish up by talking in general about the team. What do you think has been the most surprising positive and most surprising negative development about the team — aside from injuries, which is the easy out — thus far this season?
JP: I think the most surprisingly positive element has been the complete 180-degree turnaround in roster talent from 1 to 15. You can take stories within that statement, the surprises within the surprise, and there have been all kinds of them. Before Chase Budinger got hurt, to me he was one of the most pleasant surprises. To see him play every day; I kind of always knew what he did but to see him, and also just to see how much that kind of competent wing play completely changes what is possible on the floor.
After watching so much incompetent wing play over the past years. I don’t think the Wolves had anybody — since I’ve been doing it for 15 years, the only really competent wing player we ever had was Latrell Sprewell. But now there are Chase Budinger and Andrei Kirilenko and all these different guys that are competent professionals. What a breath of fresh air that is. So to me Chase Budinger is probably the No. 1 pleasant surprise.
Then there is Alexey Shved. What a gem he has been and what is possible for him in this game. When I first met him at Media Day, I was shocked at how skinny he was, and I didn’t know how he would be able to compete like that as a two-guard in this league, especially defensively. But just like Ricky Rubio, man, who isn’t very impressive when you see him, but when you get him on the floor, magic happens.
I like that Alexey doesn’t always settle. He will willfully get his way to the basket and he’s really good around the rim — he finishes. He’s not just jacking up garbage. Pick any guard the Wolves have had — from Martell Webster to Jonny Flynn to Wayne Ellington, just jacking up garbage. Where Alexey, he will throw up some shots [that are questionable] but sometimes when you are coming off pick and roll, it may not look like the best shot but sometimes you have to shoot it because the next shot you get is going to be worse. Also offensive rebounders are predicting that a shot is going to come on this particular play set and it is important for them to shoot it so they can go and get the rebound.
Which brings me to my third guy, who is Dante Cunningham. How great has he been? Here is a guy who just stays in his lane — a 15-foot jump shot from the elbow [area near the free throw line on the court]. Pick and pop. He is not trying to post up. He knows what his strength is. How many times in the past have we seen Wolves players go up for a shot and we never thought it was going to go in? With Dante, I always think it is going to go in. His shot selection is superb.
All these “surprises” go to how important it is to have a coach with a point of view. A GM is able to sit there and evaluate talent with a group of scouts and the coaching staff and understand what a Rick Adelman guy is — it is similar to being able to know what a Jerry Sloan guy is or a Phil Jackson guy is.
I think the way the current Lakers have been put together is a very instructive story. You can put together all these stars but they may not fit together very well. And what is a coach Mike Brown kind of player? And now you’ve got a Mike D’Antoni type of system which is a different thing. I think the Lakers are struggling with personnel because they don’t have a point of view.
The thing that David Kahn and his staff have done is that they got a coach in Rick Adelman who has a point of view and then they went out and got players who fit that point of view. It is so essential to be able to understand that. That was the key to Jerry Sloan in Utah. You know what a Jerry Sloan player is and if you are [Utah GM] Kevin O’Connor you don’t spend any time thinking about players who don’t fit into that system. That’s how you are able to go into the second round of the draft and find these gems because if they play a certain way and you can see with statistical analysis that they have a certain style you know that player is going to fit in that system, even if they are not a big name.
MP: The Spurs are probably the best at that.
MP: So let me put you on the spot about a surprising disappointment thus far this season.
JP: [Long pause.] Well it is hard to say Kevin Love has been a disappointment because he is averaging a double-double. But this is my point about statistics. He was also shooting 18 percent from outside the arc recently and mid-40s on shots at the rim. It is obviously hard to criticize him because he had a broken hand and hasn’t been able to work on his game. So he has other circumstances that give him a way out of that.
So I really don’t have many disappointments. Until you get a team that is at full strength — I mean, the injuries are the main thing. I don’t find myself coming to work going “This team is not very good.” I really think that everybody who is playing, they are competent, they are trying hard, they are playing within the system. So to me, there haven’t really been any disappointments.
MP: Let me play devil’s advocate and suggest that maybe Luke Ridnour has been a disappointment thus far. Or do you think he is playing hurt?
JP: Luke, to me, is in the injury category. Luke is also in a situation where, at 32 years of age, he is not supposed to be your starting point guard. Luke Ridnour is supposed to be a situational matchup player who, when you put him in his role, will be an incredibly valuable player. You stick in a role of having to do the heavy lifting of a starter’s minutes against matchups with other starters, that is putting him in a situation that is not fair to Luke Ridnour. So I can’t say Luke has been a disappointment because I think he has been one of the most professional guys that I have seen in my 15 years. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He is being asked to do stuff that he shouldn’t be being asked to do.
MP: Was the Brandon Roy signing a mistake?
JP: [sighs] Well [laughs]. Brandon Roy is one of my favorite all-time players. The way the contract is structured, his second year is not guaranteed unless he meets certain thresholds, and I think that is a good thing. He should have to meet certain minimums this year if the next year is to be guaranteed. So it is not $10 million — it is $5 million guaranteed right now. The question then becomes, is $5 million too much, predicated upon what you think of his ability to come back and play? I think that the expectation that he was going to be able to overcome Mother Nature was a real long shot.
But being in Minnesota, you had to overpay to get him because of the other teams that wanted him. I think he was worth the risk.
Now I don’t know to what degree you could have gotten somebody else. Is the $5 million well spent if you could have gotten Courtney Lee in here instead? I don’t know of the other players who were realistic possibilities, in lieu of Brandon Roy. So whoever it was on the back burner that they didn’t sign because they were doing the Brandon Roy deal might be a factor.
But I’m not going to second-guess, because I think Roy adds value being in the locker room just because of who he is. There is not enough of that going on in the NBA — those veteran guys who know how to play and who have done it and can help other players understand how to do it, too. Brandon Roy has been a disappointment, but I think I came to the party with my eyes open on that one. I have all kinds of cartilage problems in my knees, and I know science has not solved that problem. You can spin all the red blood cells you want, but that isn’t going to create the cartilage that is going to allow you to play NBA basketball. So I figured there would be all kinds of problems, but I also think there are some good things that come from having him around. And you are not saddled long term with a problem if it doesn’t work out.
MP: Last thing: Give me a range of scenarios for this team both this season and in the next few years.
JP: Hmmmm. Well, I think as long as you have Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio and you are adding people you can pretty much count on, you are going to be OK, at least for the length of Love’s contract. I look at Nikola Pekovic, he is a restricted free agent and so you don’t have to give him up and hopefully you are going to be able to keep him. Some people debate with me whether or not he is a starter at the five position. I think he is a starting five. So now you have three players. Pekovic is at least a fourth option, because the thing he does is run the floor in the early offense. You don’t even have to run any plays for him because he just does that and that is a very valuable thing strategy-wise, to have a big guy who can just run the floor and then randomly sit down in the paint and get a layup. That is huge.
And he is going to get more efficient with his post-up opportunities. I have had ankle surgery, so I know what it does to you for a while. And then he sprained his ankle again this year. So he is getting his shot blocked, but I don’t think he is 100 percent. I think he is going to get better that way.
I think Alexey Shved is a really nice piece to the puzzle and Dante Cunningham is still very young. I think [Greg] Stiemsma is a good third post center in terms of top to bottom strategic pieces — we need defense so let’s put Stiemsma in. If you need a bucket, he’s not going to be the guy, but if you need a stop, he is.
I think in the next couple of years you still have to add and get that two-guard thing figured out. That’s the biggest hole right now for Minnesota — you’ve got to get a dynamic two guard. Superstar level would be nice, but just someone you can count on every day to knock down shots. That is the most glaring weakness to me.
Rubio, to me, is already one of the most dynamic pick-and-roll point guards in the game. With Nash getting old, other than Chris Paul, I don’t know if there is a more dynamic point guard in the league than Rubio.
You’ve got Kevin Love, who, aside from his defensive weaknesses, is one of the most versatile pieces on the chessboard. You can post him up, he can pick-and-pop, he’s got three-ball range. Strategically if you can get a four [power forward] who spaces the floor, it is hard to guard that. So in Kevin Love you have someone who I think is a superstar — he’s one of 15 best players in the league which puts him in the superstar category.
Andrei Kirilenko is another really important piece. I don’t know how long he wants to play, but his game is not predicated on incredible quickness. He has the kind of game where he can play as long as he wants to play. He is 31 and he could play until he’s 36, very easily five more years.
So in this next four-to-five-year window, you’ve got one of the best overall rosters this team has ever had. Except for that team with Kevin Garnett that went to the conference finals; you’d have to say that was the best roster because it produced the best results. But I don’t know, man. This team, if you put it all together, I think it is a really tough team to cover and I just hope they can put it all together. If everybody is healthy at the same time, I really like this team and what it means for basketball enthusiasts — all the strategy we are going to be able to talk about. We have a great coach in Rick Adelman, and some of our stars are coming into alignment for a special thing to happen. Maybe not championship-level stuff, but really fun stuff to watch on a regular basis.