It used to be that “Media Day” for the Minnesota Timberwolves meant that we wretched reporters and two-bit talking heads tried to waylay players and coaches as they moved between photo sessions down on the Target Center court, creating school-of-fish clusters and passive-aggressive jostling as we all tried to pin the tail on the takeaway quote.
Nowadays the media sit in neat rows of folding chairs while the players and head coach parade through for their 10 minutes apiece, a more genial, if less enterprising, setup. But it still happens the day before the onset of training camp, a good time to gauge what mood and message each interviewee wants to convey to create their first impression for the new season, and which ones, for better or worse, haven’t given it a second thought.
Of course it is easy to jump to conclusions while scrambling to get some instant purchase on the team’s prospects for the coming 82-game campaign, which begins four short weeks from today. At best, we might catch some clues or harbingers of the ups and downs that await us. With that caveat in mind, here’s my recount of Media Day.
A dour Kevin Love
Preseason is generally a time for hearts and flowers, smiles and optimism. And in past years, Love has played the media game and turned on the charm. But Love suffered through a horrible 2012-13 season that included breaking his hand twice, tweaking his hamstring, clanking shots from all over the court and giving an unfortunate interview that strained his relations with the fans and the organization. All of this inevitably set the context for many of the questions he received, even as a means to create a favorable contrast for the season ahead.
Love’s responses were ostentatiously curt and terse on anything related to last season. Three or four times, he offered a flat-toned mantra of “last year is last year” or “the past is the past,” usually accompanied by the equally flat-toned phrase that he and the team and the situation were “going to get better day by day.”
Asked if he changed his summer workout routine, he cracked, “I tried to be a lot more lucky.” At another point, he added, “I’ve never been so excited to play some basketball and stop hearing about last year.”
This performance wasn’t accidental. It is not like Kevin Love has been walking around alternately morose and peeved for the past five months, and he’s become enough of a star in this league to know that his words and behavior will be thoroughly parsed.
The message I took from it is that Love wants a clean slate, and if some stirring memories and goodwill from his all-star seasons have to be set aside along with his star-crossed exploits of the previous year, so be it. He understands that this is a pivotal season for the Wolves franchise, his place in the franchise and his career in general. He is in “talk is cheap” mode. He looks to be in fabulous physical condition and wants his performance to speak for itself.
This seems very positive — until it isn’t. Situations are called “pivotal” because they can so obviously evolve in at least two clear directions. Both President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders (who spoke to the media last Friday) and coach Rick Adelman explicitly stated that they want and expect Love to become more of a facilitator for his teammates this season, using the enhanced talent that has been brought in around him.
Last year, despite his blatant inaccuracy, Love continued to be a high-volume shooter and had a career-high usage rate — although to be fair, some of that is attributable to a slightly improved assist rate and all the rebounds he garnered from his own missed shots.
In the NBA, “facilitator” is code for being less selfish in looking for your own shot. Saunders and Adelman are right that this is the “next step” for Love. Only five or 10 players in the game could clearly be called better than Love right now, and almost all of them generate many more assists and in general “facilitate” more capably than he has thus far.
A big key for Love and the Wolves this season is if their star can channel his frustration from last season into improving an aspect of his game not in his natural comfort zone. What was apparent from his Media Day interview is that he is all about the business of channeling his energy. Under the circumstances, I like the way he has raised the stakes.
Pros, cons of Adelman’s situation
There were clearly positive and negative parts to what coach Rick Adelman revealed in his interview session. Let’s deal with the possible downside first.
Throughout the offseason, we were assured by Wolves’ management that it was likely Adelman would be back, and indeed he is obviously on board and ready to put his Hall-of-Fame-caliber coaching talents to work on behalf of the franchise. But Adelman was candid about the terms of his tenure. After missing three weeks during last season because of concerns over seizures suffered by his wife, Mary Kay, he said he wanted to make a quick decision about his return — except it wasn’t that simple.
The bottom line is that Adelman wouldn’t — couldn’t — commit until he was assured his wife’s medication and treatment had pretty much conquered the seizure aspect of her condition. The implicit message here is that if his wife’s seizures flare up again, Adelman will again opt for family over work, with a greater likelihood of making his absence permanent.
At another point in the interview, he mentioned that early in the summer, he had “some real doubts” about returning, “not only from my wife’s standpoint, but mine too … You get in this business over and over again and the travel gets to you … [A]s the summer went on, I looked long and hard at it, and I think what we’re doing [returning] is the right thing.”
On the plus side, Adelman spoke about his relationship with Saunders with more detail than either man has offered before, and it sounds like exactly the kind of respectful give-and-take and shared goal-setting that Wolves fans would hope for. After having a significant and persuasive say over personnel matters in his dealings with Saunders’ predecessor, David Kahn, it wasn’t a sure thing that Adelman would welcome the arrival of a successful and opinionated ex-coach like Saunders. At least that’s what I, probably more than anyone else covering the Wolves, worried about, to the point where I essentially lobbied against hiring Saunders.
Based on Adelman’s Media Day comments, I was dead wrong. The most convincing part came when the coach compared his dealings with Saunders with the relationship he had with former Sacramento personnel man Geoff Petrie when Adelman and Petrie were with the Kings. Adelman has always cherished his tenure in Sacramento, leaving little doubt that it was preferable to the situation he had with the front office in Houston before coming to Minnesota.
Checkered Derrick Williams saga
In his pre-Media Day remarks last Friday, Saunders raved about the conditioning of third-year forward Derrick Williams, claiming that Williams was “skinny” and saying that Wolves fans should be excited that someone has put in that much work and dedication during the off-season.
So the first question to D-Will on Media Day was a softball toss, asking him to comment about his svelte new physique. Williams promptly revealed that he’d had jaw surgery in May that caused him to sit idly for seven weeks, “not being able to do anything and then just trying to work my way back into shape as well as put on a little more weight to get my strength back and then lose it, so yeah, it’s been a tough journey but it’s been good.”
His subsequent remarks indicated that he had toned up his body and did feel good, but overall this was hardly the process and impression Saunders had wanted him to convey. It furthered the notion that Williams may be the most guileless and least media-savvy member of the Timberwolves, which has only added to his struggle to match the expectations that come with being the second player taken in the NBA draft two years ago.
At the end of October, the Wolves must decide whether to offer a contract extension to Williams, or likely watch him depart via free agency next season. A lighter D-Will is obviously slated to play more at small forward, which is a blessing now that the player expected to start at the position, Chase Budinger, is out for at least a month with another knee injury. We’ll soon see if Williams can stake his claim to a significant role on this team or remain a notorious underachiever.
Odds and ends
- Adelman and Kevin Martin both revealed that K-Mart was lobbying to rejoin his coach and sign with Minnesota even during last season when he was an integral part of a championship contender in Oklahoma City. Martin did say how nice it was to be a part of a top-tiered defensive team in OKC. Given his own notoriously porous defense over the years, and the Wolves’ need for players who can guard opposing wing scorers, an extra effort and capability by Martin at that end of the court would be most welcome.
- Although not as terse and ornery as Love, Ricky Rubio was fairly dull and pro-forma in his Media Day comments. Let’s hope it is a logical response to coping with the inevitable inanity of these sessions, and that he, like Love, is simply focused on proving that this team is a legitimate playoff contender this coming season even with the injury to Budinger.
- Forward Dante Cunningham speaks like he plays — earnest and straight-forward in his attempt to deliver what is asked of him. Despite being regarded as primarily a power forward, he revealed that he is clamoring to fill the role of wing-stopper on defense, something he said he also lobbied for at various points last season. And when asked if he is likely to deviate from his near-obsessive focus on shooting only midrange jumpers on offense, he essentially said no, listing the ways taking those shots helps his team.
- The MVP of Media Day was newly signed backup center Ronny Turiaf, a breath of fresh air in what felt like the most somber Media Day in Wolves’ history. He playfully chided Williams for being tardy to the interview, where they were scheduled to share the 10-minute time slot. He spoke sincerely about mentoring young players as a means of “paying it forward” from the veterans who mentored him. When he said he is in a position to urge those youngsters onward, because “I got paid already…I don’t need it,” the candor caused laughter in the room. “You guys are laughing. I’m serious. [T]his is not for money. This is for my desire to make something special happen.” At the end, talking about a signal after made baskets that became known as the “Turiaf twirl,” Turiaf said, “I survived heart surgery, I survived growing up in the project, I survived all of that, so let me just enjoy the time I am on the basketball court. Life is too short not to have fun. I wanna have fun, play defense, offense, have fun, and have fun some more.”