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Wolves in winter: Missing Adelman, waiting on Rubio

The team is in dire need of a first-rate coach who can siphon the most synergy out of a roster stripped of its best player.

Rick Adelman is distracted from his duties to the point of absence — eight games and counting — by a chronic medical problem challenging his wife.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Since my last column a week ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves have mostly halted the negative momentum generated by their horrendous road trip — four double-digit shellackings — that has been the nadir of their season thus far.

This is not to say that the Wolves’ meager playoff hopes have improved, nor that they have many bankable assets upon which they can rely in the near future. They came home from the trip and lost to a lackluster Clippers team minus superstar Chris Paul; finally posted a victory by handing a floundering and weary Houston team its seventh straight loss a night after the Rockets were manhandled by the very physical Indiana Pacers; and yesterday blew an 18-point lead to an Atlanta team that had lost 8 of its previous ten games.

But in those three games, Minnesota has been outmanned more than dismantled, game to compete instead of keeling from psychological and physical exhaustion, betrayed by a lack of familiarity and star power as opposed to being simply embarrassed by blatant dysfunction and ineptitude. That’s cold comfort to those who want to hop on a playoff-bound bandwagon, but small, significant solace to those who lay claim to their love of NBA hoops through the vicissitudes of the local NBA franchise.

These die-hards are not making excuses if they regard the team’s current 17-21 record as close to the best that could be expected under the prevailing circumstances. Heading into the season, it was reasonable to expect that at some point before the all-star break, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio would be igniting an improved cast of supporting players under the shrewd guidance of future Hall of Fame coach Rick Adelman. Instead, Love is waylaid by a re-broken hand, Adelman is lost for an uncertain amount of time with a family emergency, and Rubio’s return to vintage form has been problematical.

Missing Adelman

The impact of not having Love has been fairly well-documented, and we’ll get to Rubio’s woes in a minute. Right now the Wolves are a team in dire need of a first-rate coach who can siphon the most synergy out of a roster stripped of its best player, made less robust by regular rotation players nursing recuperating joints and limbs, and overly reliant on the scratch-off lottery of fringe players on 10-day contracts.

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Acting coach Terry Porter carries himself well as a figure of authority with an amiable mien, and has experience running an NBA team, having posted a 99-116 record in stints with Milwaukee and Phoenix. But that’s obviously not first-rate, and in any case, Porter finds himself in the thankless role of being a surrogate for Adelman, who is distracted from his duties to the point of absence — eight games and counting — by a chronic medical problem challenging his wife.

It is another circumstantial stain on what has become a hexed season. Porter is trying to blend the priorities of extensive daily phone briefings from Adelman with the complex, unpredictable, ever-shifting variables that inform much of the decision-making of an NBA game on the fly. It should be noted that Adelman is rightly regarded as one of the league’s best-ever coaches — with a current career record of 988-677 that includes the 2-6 mark Porter has compiled in his stead — in large measure because of the intuitive acumen of his in-game decisions and adjustments.

The downgrade from Adelman to Porter is not solely, and perhaps not even primarily, to blame for the second-half collapses that have come with alarming regularity over the past eight games. Certainly a lack of depth and familiarity, coupled with the absence of a reliable go-to guy in crunch time, are major factors.

But the fact remains that the Wolves have been outscored in every third quarter that Porter has run the team thus far, by a collective total of 47 points, or -5.9 points per game. They have been outscored by a collective 41 points in the fourth quarter of those eight games, for an average of -5.1 per game. Now consider that the Wolves currently rank dead last in the NBA in third-quarter differential at -2.5 per game over 37 games, and next-to-last in fourth-quarter differential at -1.8 points per game. Obviously, a disproportionate share of Minnesota’s NBA-worst second-half deficiency has come in the last eight games, when Adelman hasn’t been around to staunch the collapse with in-game adjustments.

Rubio the bricklayer, Barea the chucker

One aspect of Porter’s player rotations that seems sage is mostly splitting the point guard position between Rubio and J.J. Barea rather than having two players who both need the ball in their hands to be effective on the court at the same time.

In many ways, Rubio and Barea are polar opposites. Rubio plays an old-fashioned ball-distributing style beloved by the purists of the game, dishing the rock in a manner that is at once fundamentally sound and artistically spectacular. Long, lithe and graceful, he just looks like a ballplayer.

Barea is a fire hydrant with sneakers on. The strength of his game is borne of a selfish but indomitable impulse to challenge and outmaneuver players invariably bigger than he and put the ball in the hoop. Where Rubio will shoot only as a last resort, Barea will pass only if he believes a teammate legitimately has a better chance of scoring than he does — and that happens less often than it should. For that reason, he is scorned by purists of the game.

And he welcomes our scorn — it’s more grist for motivation. Where Rubio defends by using his wingspan and moving his feet to cut off court vision and passing angles while poke-checking for steals with his hands, Barea defends by inflicting claustrophobia on his man, inserting his small, stocky frame between his man’s chest and the ball and then moving in semi-sync with him like an ungainly dance partner engaged in an awkward bump-and-grind.

Sooner or later, the man craves more room, and extends his arm against Barea to get it. It is the moment Barea has been craving since he first started counting the chest hairs on the man. He quickens or retards his synchronicity a split-second so as to accentuate the bump-and-grind right as his man is extending the arm. Then he slightly but significantly exaggerates his reaction to this contact, so that the fire hydrant seems jostled from its moorings in a fairly dramatic fashion. Because he engages in this practice as a player whose actual height is somewhere between 5-7 and 5-9 (he is officially listed as 6 feet tall), Barea frequently draws charging fouls, or blocking fouls on himself, by creating this contact with his face. This is a living definition of pugnacity.

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On offense, it’s more of the same. Where Rubio dribbles the ball with the derring-do of a clown at a birthday party entertaining the kids with yo-yo tricks, Barea pounds the orb into the floor like a construction worker with a nail gun battening down the seams. Where Rubio glides away from defenders to better view the court, Barea pinballs into them, more comfortable in close quarters, where his abrupt quickness better mitigates his disadvantage in length — he’d rather feel his opponents than view the court, since his primary goal is to score on them himself.

Then, more often than not, Rubio makes the right pass — sometimes benign, sometimes a gorgeous assist. And, more often than not, Barea takes a shot, sometimes a pull-up three-pointer, sometimes a kamikaze drive to the hoop, sometimes a contorted turnaround fadeaway while moving laterally that would get hooted at on the most egotistical of playgrounds.

Regular readers know how much I enjoy Rubio’s game, and, conversely, how disdainful I typically am of the way Barea plays. But to have any credibility as an analyst, one needs to know when their bias doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And right now — and thus far this season — J.J. Barea has been better for the Timberwolves than Ricky Rubio.

Yes, Rubio is still recuperating from major knee surgery. We likely won’t see the resplendent form he flashed as a rookie before his injury until either very late this season or early next year. But it is more complicated than that. For one thing, Rubio can become a magician in every other aspect of play, but will not deliver on his considerable promise unless he can develop at least a mediocre scoring touch. For another, given the strengths and weaknesses of the skill set on this roster, Barea may be a better fit right now.

If Kevin Love and Chase Budinger were healthy, Rubio would flourish. Both are potent scorers who create space on the court, have good hands to catch passes on the move and in traffic, and can finish shots both at the rim and beyond the three-point arc. They are players who would be frustrated by Barea more frequently than they would be enabled by Barea. But they would remove the pressure on Rubio to get his own points and provide him with consistently changing options in the half court. Unfortunately for Rubio, neither player will rejoin the team until mid-March.

Without Love and Budinger — or Brandon Roy, who presumably can still create his own midrange jumper — the Wolves don’t have any scoring playmakers on the wing. If given a pick or an indifferent defender, Luke Ridnour can nail a jumper off the lateral dribble, but it isn’t inexorable enough to be a bread-and-butter option. Alexey Shved needs to prove he can handle the physical play and constant wear-and-tear of the NBA schedule, and his shot selection declines precipitously with fatigue.

And Rubio is a playmaker who can’t call his own number. He’s shooting 29 percent (4-for-14) in the restricted area closest to the hoop. He’s shooting 33 percent (8-for-24) on midrange jumpers. And he is shooting zero percent (0-for-14) from everywhere else. That’s a composite 23 percent, and a recipe for opponents daring him to score instead of allowing him to pass, regardless of where he is on the court.

By contrast, Barea is Minnesota’s only shoot-first playmaker out on the perimeter. All my previously stated reservations about his ridiculous narcissism with the ball still apply. The dude is still only shooting 40.5 percent, and 33.3 percent from three-point territory, both below the NBA average. He can hurt this team as easily as he can help it, as Wolves fans saw late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter of the win over Houston, when he became a chucking fool despite being engaged in a disadvantageous matchup against perimeter defensive specialist Toney Douglas.

But there have also been more times than anyone could have imagined in this injury-plagued season when the Wolves have needed someone to seize the reins of their offense and try and make something happen. For better and for worse, Barea is that guy. (When Nikola Pekovic went down with a thigh contusion against the Clippers, it was Barea who unilaterally took it upon himself to sub in Greg Stiemsma for Pek, and only then go and tell Porter, who was engaged with the referee at the time, what he had done.)

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And the pockmarked beauty of it is, the spark Barea has provided more often than not has been good for Minnesota. At least three or four of their 17 wins are almost directly attributable to his crunchtime heroics.

As the season descends into smaller pleasures then, let’s have the purists among us learn to appreciate the creativity of a miniature pit bull in the china shop. Yes, that no-look Rubio feed between his opponent’s legs is a joy to behold. But so is that little hesitation Barea pulls when he is hell-bent for the basket, a split-second lag that causes the behemoth behind him to likewise pause, for fear that he’ll run up Barea’s back and commit the foul. Barea times that moment of stasis perfectly, putting on the final thrust of his drive so as to create that sliver of space where he can bank the ball off the glass.

Someday the J.J. Barea Show will be less vital to the Wolves chances of victory. But right now, be glad that he’s there whether you need him or not.