What a dreadful time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to embark upon their longest home stand of the season.
On Friday, the Wolves were torched for 114 points by a Washington Wizards team that ranks dead last in offensive efficiency. On Saturday, they blew an 18-point lead to a Charlotte Bobcats team that had lost 16 straight home games and was begging to be put out of its misery for most of the contest.
After weeks of playing with grit and coherence in the face of mounting injuries, the roster has been overwhelmed. What was once resourceful pluck is now chaotic dysfunction. Minnesota has lost nine of its last 11, and 11of its last 14. They are closer to the cellar than to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Now they arrive home for six straight games at Target Center. Their next road tilt is not until Feb. 10 in Memphis. Let’s fervently hope that coach Rick Adelman is able to accompany them.
Still missing Adelman: The discipline edition
It has now been exactly three weeks since Adelman stepped away from practices and games with his team to attend to his ailing wife. That absence has been more harmful to the Wolves than many people realize. In the long, highly competitive hit parade of damaging mishaps that have befallen the franchise thus far this season, Mary Kay Adelman (illness), probably ranks a close third on the list behind Kevin Love (hand) and Chase Budinger (knee).
Part of last week’s column dealt with how much the Wolves missed Adelman’s in-game adjustments in terms of matchups and strategy. But the absence of Adelman the taskmaster is also becoming increasingly apparent and detrimental to the team’s ability to get the most out of its already diminished potential.
Most obviously, on two different occasions in Saturday’s one-point loss, a Wolves player attempted an inexplicably foolish behind-the-back pass that resulted in a turnover. These were a step beyond unforced errors, into the realm of heedless playground shenanigans. It’s telling that the Wolves enjoyed a comfortable lead both times they occurred, and that one of those passes was by Andrei Kirilenko, currently the team’s best and most mature player.
Showboating on the court is a sign of mental laxity and poor coaching. It is disheartening to watch from this current crew, because it betrays a lack of self-awareness and core discipline, which are absolutely vital virtues for a relatively untalented and outmanned squad to possess if they hope to snatch a rare winnable game or two when it comes along.
Silly turnovers are also symptomatic of the less blatant but equally crippling ways the Wolves’ discipline has wavered under Porter in recent weeks. The team’s defensive rotations are lackluster at best, their ball-sharing often ends at the makeable, instead of optimal, shot attempt, and their resolve is flaccid enough to cede 18-point leads twice in the past week.
Yes, it is difficult to know how much of this is mental fatigue, owing to the Wolves’ inferior talent now that injuries have so thoroughly strip-mined the roster. No one can blame Luke Ridnour for failing to contain Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson, given that Johnson is five inches taller and 65 pounds heavier. Some may blame him for failing to stay in front of Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, Ramon Sessions, and Ben Gordon Saturday night, but when Nikola Pekovic was healthy, Ridnour had a big man who reliably rotated into the path of that dribble penetration — he’s never been a shut-down on-ball defender.
This is how dysfunction gets compounded by plausible deniability. Ridnour and J.J. Barea can rightfully point out that the rotations from the big men were late, or that, until Porter substituted in a smaller lineup to better match up with Charlotte’s, they lacked the proper personnel to execute the defense properly.
Or, to choose an even nobler example, Kirilenko has been increasingly forcing the action on offense. One would argue that given his gaudy shooting percentage, base talent level and position of prominence on the team, it is not only appropriate but necessary that he push his game beyond his comfort zone, for the overall good of the ballclub.
It is at precisely these times that you need a master arbiter, a person of unquestionable authority and judgment who can pinpoint when it makes sense for Kirilenko to drive to the hoop more often, instead of getting his shots at the rim through back-cuts along the baseline, and when going beyond his comfort zone is actually hurting the team. But when it gets to the point where A.K. is going behind his back for no good reason, or launching a three-pointer with more than 10 seconds on the clock and his team down two in crunch time, you know his judgmental compass is faulty and the arbiter is absent.
Meanwhile, there are less subtle symbols that “the substitute teacher syndrome” has affected the Wolves under Porter. Take Derrick Williams, for example.
First, let’s gleefully acknowledge that D-Will has dramatically improved his court awareness and shot selection in recent months. Now that his preference for an “outside-in” approach to his offense — setting up drives to the hoop by first launching from the perimeter — has been granted and proven relatively successful, he is engaging the greater possibilities of ball movement.
But Williams’ defense under Porter has been abysmal. Again, he has plausible excuses — the absence of Pekovic beside him in the paint, the tough decisions that challenge his inexperience when the depleted, exhausted cadre of guards consistently get beaten off the dribble — but the energy level and commitment to getting defensive stops is noticeably less forthcoming than the joyful vigor with which D-Will hunts for touches and buckets on offense. That’s one reason why Adelman has been so tough on him — and why Williams and the Wolves are diminished in Adelman’s absence.
Clouding the big picture
With Love, Budinger and a raft of other key components missing in action, even a top-notch courtside coaching performance from an Adelman freed from family concerns wouldn’t net the Wolves enough victories to make the playoffs. No, his absence becomes most acute when you realize that he is more than the coach — he’s the personnel guru and one charting the course of the franchise for the next two or three years.
By now it is well documented — via my interviews with Wolves’ owner Glen Taylor, other media sources, and the common-sense conclusions you can make by how the Wolves’ front office has behaved — that the franchise abruptly changed its philosophy when they hired Adelman in September of 2011. Most significantly, the notion of building the team slowly and inexpensively through the draft and relatively low-cost gambles was supplanted by more of a win-now attitude.
Furthermore, Adelman was the architect and director of this new philosophy. Within minimal constraints, the roster would be tailored according Adelman’s specifications. Gone were beguiling athletes who were clueless about how to play the game; replaced by players with specific complementary skill sets that would foster ball movement, player movement without the ball, and a more versatile and active defense.
This required Wolves’ GM David Kahn to excise most of his high-profile draft choices and veteran player acquisitions — you know the list. Almost all of them are already chained to the bench of their new teams or out of the league altogether. Give Kahn credit for sucking it up and staining his already suspect reputation for personnel evaluation in order to provide Adelman with a roster more simpatico with his style of play.
We now know that Kahn was mostly meant to be the numbers guy all along, the person who could massage a mismanaged salary cap situation into financial stability. Kahn’s detractors will point out that his personnel mistakes were financially injurious in their own right — high draft picks like Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson should be playing like $10 million veterans now at a fraction of that cost. But the fact remains that Kahn’s ability to whack payroll made Taylor more comfortable about offering large deals to the likes of Nicholas Batum and Kirilenko.
The bottom line, however, is that Adelman calls the shots on most personnel issues. Unfortunately, it stands to reason that he will have less ability and less authority to make those decisions the longer he is away from the team.
This most immediately affects how the Wolves operate in the 24 days before the Feb. 21 trading deadline. The team has a couple of promising but still limited role players in center-forward Chris Johnson and swingman Mickael Gelabale. Adelman had Johnson in preseason training camp but has never coached either one in a regular season NBA game and thus lacks that intimate knowledge of what they can do and how they fit, psychologically and intellectually as well as physically, into his system.
The Wolves also have Brandon Roy and his $5 million expiring contract (he hasn’t played enough games to qualify for the second season of his original two-year deal) to dangle in front of teams. And, if you are looking for potentially momentous personnel decisions, the trading deadline is one juncture where the front office can signal whether or not they can afford to extend Kirilenko’s contract beyond next season and still resign Pekovic for what will almost certainly be $10-$12 million per season for three or four years.
If they can’t, trading Kirilenko at near-peak value is an option. But what do you want and ask for in return? Or, again assuming the team decides it can’t afford both AK and Pek, do they want a few months for a potential sign-and-trade with Pekovic, or can they package his current deal with someone like Roy or Williams (or Ridnour or Barea) and get someone talented enough and compatible enough with Adelman’s sets to mitigate the loss of those players?
The point is, on personnel matters large and small, Adelman lacks the contextual expertise that comes from immersion in how players on his team and players who oppose him are performing. He also lacks the unwavering focus on those matters while the health of his wife appropriately remains his top priority.
Who and what — if anybody or anything — fills that void? Does this strengthen Kahn’s hand when it comes to personnel decisions? In his recent interview with Charlie Walters of the Pioneer Press, Taylor went out of his way to praise Kahn for acquiring Johnson and Gelabale, and the owner has obviously been pleased with the way Kahn has reduced worries about the team’s salary structure. For that matter, the chronic injuries Love has endured this season makes Kahn look smarter for not locking Love up for five full years.
The adage that may apply here is “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Through absolutely no fault of his own, Adelman hasn’t been showing up these past three weeks. The longer the situation drags on, the less clout he will wield — either in judgment and/or authority–when decisions need to be made.
Put that on the pile of woe that has been the Timberwolves season in 2012-13.