Coach Rick Adelman was back, Nikola Pekovic was back, Alexey Shved was back and the opposing Los Angeles Clippers were without their MVP candidate in the backcourt, Chris Paul.
But at the end of Wednesday evening, the Minnesota Timberwolves were dealt their 10th loss in 11 games, and the post-mortems made it sound as if things would be so much better if the Wolves were just rougher and tougher.
“We’ve got a bunch of nice guys. But we need to be a little tougher. That’s something we’ve got to work on, stop being too nice,” said J.J. Barea in the locker room after the 96-90 loss.
Leave it to Barea to mistake feistiness for toughness.
One sign of NBA toughness is the ability to set jolting picks that free up your teammates for open shots. In the second quarter, Wolves backup center Greg Stiemsma did it well enough to enrage Clippers swingman Matt Barnes into a retaliatory flagrant foul — he first shoved Stiemsma, then went at him again with an elbow to his throat — that got Barnes tossed from the game.
Not long after that, when the Clips’ Grant Hill inadvertently hit Stiemsma in the face as they were jousting for rebounding position, Stiemsma pushed Hill down for his own flagrant foul. A swarm of angry Clippers then proceeded to rush at Stiemsma, pushing and yelling at him enough to earn two of them technical fouls and more free throws for the Wolves.
All this back and forth — the Wolves mostly tough, the Clippers mostly feisty — boosted Minnesota to a game-best 11-point lead.
Yes, the Clippers came back to win the game. They outrebounded Minnesota 45-38, got to the free throw line nine more times, and scored 42 points in the paint, compared with 34 for the Wolves. These are some of the true indices of tough, physical play, and the Wolves came up short in all of them.
But the Clippers have been doing that to all opponents, tough and nice, this entire season. They have an all-star power forward in Blake Griffin who has improved in nearly every facet of the game this season. They have a beastly seven-foot center, DeAndre Jordan, to whom they are paying $43 million over a four-year span almost solely to protect the rim and defend in the paint.
Largely as a result of this pair, the Clippers score the second-most points in the paint in the NBA and allow the second-fewest points in the paint in the NBA. That eight-point advantage in points in the paint they had on the Wolves Wednesday is actually below their season average of plus-10 in that category. Not coincidentally, their record is 34-13. And not coincidentally, neither Griffin nor Jordan has missed even one of their 47 games thus far this season.
By contrast, the Wolves were getting Pekovic back from a deep thigh bruise for the first time in 13 days. Nevertheless, he reliably racked up 17 points on 8-for-15 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds. And, as we all know, Kevin Love missed his 29th game on Wednesday, recuperating from his second broken hand of the season. When it comes to some of those genuine toughness factors — offensive rebounds, drawing fouls — few if any in the game are better at it than Love.
Yet even with Love gone for most of the season — and still-developing sophomore Derrick Williams and career backup Dante Cunningham filling his minutes — the Wolves have endured, or “hung tough” most of the season by grinding out games. They fight for position well enough to rank third in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage, and have taken a whopping 231 more free throws in 42 games — 5.5 extra chances for points each game — than their opponents.
Andrei Kirilenko is an exceedingly nice guy. So is Pekovic. To suggest that either one of them is therefore not tough, however, is, ah, malarkey.
Blame the backcourt
No, J.J., let’s get to the real reason — aside from the obvious torrent of injuries, of course — why the Wolves are flailing. Minnesota has four guards who get regular minutes in the backcourt. And by the caliber of their play thus far this season, none of them deserves to be an NBA starter.
After the Clippers game, Adelman topped Barea for the most wrong-headed quote of the night when he politely said, “We have four guards who are all good, but you can’t play all of them at the same time.” The next sentence was more accurate, and points out the dilemma for the coach and the team moving forward: “You have to find a way to see when two of them are out there what are you going to do with those two.”
Or, more bluntly put, the guard rotations are a crap-shoot. Most any pairing creates a blatant weakness that is likely to be more potent than any synergy that can be generated. The best playmaker and on-ball defender, Ricky Rubio, is a dreadful shooter who is also still occasionally hampered by off-season knee surgery.
The most consistent performer, Luke Ridnour, is woefully undersized at shooting guard and usually overmatched at the point guard in crunch time. The most exciting and productive of the quartet thus far, Barea, is frequently an all-or-nothing gamble with an overly generous estimate of his own capabilities. And the player whose size and skill set best fits the prototype for a shooting guard, Shved, is an NBA rookie lacking sinew and appropriate shot selection.
Without question, injuries have decimated the backcourt. When Chase Budinger tore ligaments in his knee cutting toward the basket at Chicago in November, one could see how his absence might be as detrimental to the team’s fortunes as the first loss of Love (but not both trips to the sidelines by a team’s superstar) and Rubio. A 6-7 athlete who could nail the three-pointer from both the corner and the wing, dive to the hoop down the lane or along the baseline, and possess an intimate and user-friendly knowledge of Adelman’s system? Budinger was a Wolves shooting guard straight out of central casting.
But now Budinger is out until March, having logged just six games, none of them alongside Love or Rubio. Worse, as a second-round pick with an expiring contract, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. The Wolves have to hope injuries and his so-so statistics his first two years in the league keep him under the radar. Minnesota might get a discount anyway — he is a perfect fit for Adelman’s system — but if the team is going to keep both Kirilenko and Pekovic long enough to see what this roster can produce when totally healthy, Budinger has to be signed at a below-market rate.
Then there is Brandon Roy, who played five games before the reality of bone-on-bone knee joints in both legs and a slew of increasingly ineffective surgeries inevitably intruded. His best value to Minnesota at this point is as a trade chip, or, even better if you want both AK and Pek, as a $5 million knock-off on next season’s salary cap. Which doesn’t help much this year. It is often a cold, hard business, but at a million dollars per game this season, David Kahn and the Wolves have thrown Roy a pretty nice retirement party.
Next on the list is Malcolm Lee. When he was briefly the starter earlier this season, I was pretty scathing in my criticism of Lee, a second-round pick who was gifted a three-year contract despite having absolutely no offensive ability. But in the wake of what has occurred since he, too, went down for the season, requiring a pair of surgeries last month, his above-average perimeter defense certainly wouldn’t hurt in the current rotation.
Which leaves the Wolves with four ill-fitting guards. No one among this remaining quartet is a natural shooting guard. That, plus the ongoing absence of Love, explains why the Wolves are shooting 29.5 percent from three-point range. That’s not only the worst in the NBA this season (Phoenix is next-to-last at 33 percent), but lower than any team but last year’s Charlotte Bobcats (en route to the worst winning percentage in NBA history) over the past nine years.
The PER comparison
But it is more than just an inability to score from outside. Perhaps the best measure of a player’s all-around ability is PER, a formula devised by former ESPN analyst and current Memphis Grizzlies front office guru John Hollinger. His formula is too complex to delve into here, and doesn’t do enough to encompass a player’s contributions on defense. It also favors big men a little bit in its overall rankings.
But as a measure of a player’s general value — especially against peers who play the same position — it is pretty accurate. A player with a PER of 15.0 is considered average; 18.0 is considered a quality NBA starter, and over 20.0 is getting into stardom territory.
The website 82games.com has a section that compares a team’s performance against its opponents on a position-by-position basis, using PER as the final metric of performance. Through games ending on Monday, Jan. 28, the Wolves’ shooting guards were -3.6 in PER, compared with their opponents. Only Cleveland and Detroit fared worse. The Wolves’ point guards were -3.0 in PER compared with their counterparts, a deficit eclipsed by just five other teams — and two of them, the Lakers and Heat, have point guards who are overshadowed by dominant shooting guards, which obviously isn’t Minnesota’s situation.
Even with Love out, Minnesota’s power forwards have a PER value that is +0.7 better than their opponents. At center and small forward, where Pekovic and Kirilenko handle most of the minutes, the PER advantage swells to +1.2 at center and +1.4 at small forward.
The Wolves’ woes are in the backcourt. One can hope that Rubio’s offense continues to come around; that the two weeks Shved was off recuperating from a sprained ankle will rejuvenate him after he appeared to hit the “rookie wall” last month; and that Budinger can get back on the court long enough for the team to get a sense of how he fits with Love, Rubio, Pekovic and Kirilenko.
Because that quintet — which is almost certain to be expensive enough to test owner Glen Taylor’s resolve and commitment to Adelman to supply him with a winning roster — is where the road to the playoffs comes to fruition.
Simpatico talent, not ersatz toughness, is what is missing right now.