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With no bench, are Wolves too thin to win?

Statistics verify what is patently obvious to Wolves fans: Adelman has almost no confidence in his bench players, and that lack of faith is mostly justified.

Even as the Minnesota Timberwolves were winning their first three games of the 2013-14 season, the extent to which the team had to rely on their starting five players portended problems sustaining their success over the long haul.

On Sunday night in New York, Wolves coach Rick Adelman felt compelled to play three of his starters more than 40 minutes on the first game of a back-to-back that culminated Monday night in Cleveland.

The Wolves managed to hold off the Knicks in Madison Square Garden by the score of 109-100, but the discrepancy was telling: All five starters had positive plus-minus totals for the game, ranging from Nikola Pekovic’s plus-8 to Kevin Martin’s plus-26. (Plus-minus is a measure of how a team fares on the scoreboard when that player is in the game.)

By contrast, the four substitutes deployed by Adelman were wretched. Alexey Shved was minus-3 in less than six minutes of play. J.J. Barea was minus-8 in 18 minutes; Dante Cunningham minus-14 in 15 minutes and Derrick Williams minus-15 in 21 minutes of action.

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In Cleveland less than 24 hours later, the starters were predictably gassed, suffering their worst first-quarter performance of the season by a wide margin. A makeshift lineup containing two players off the bench, Barea and Williams, managed a furious fourth-quarter comeback, but the lackluster energy earlier in the game caused the Wolves to lose their first game of the season to an inferior Cavs team that played poorly and without composure down the stretch.

The preseason injury to projected starter Chase Budinger, coupled with the fractured elbow that befell backup center Ronny Turiaf during the second game of the season, has culled a crew of subs that was already thin on realized talent and NBA experience. With Budinger out, swingman Corey Brewer has moved into the starting lineup, leaving the task of backing up shooting guard Kevin Martin to the increasingly unreliable Shved. And with Turiaf on the sidelines, it is up to foul-prone rookie Gorgui Dieng to become a credible replacement when Pekovic needs a breather at center.

Outmanned by the Warriors

That was the situation on Wednesday night, when the Wolves came back home to face their toughest opponent of the season thus far, the Golden State Warriors, who had beaten Minnesota in 12 of their last 14 meetings, including six of seven since Adelman became the coach.

Before the game, I asked Adelman if, given Shved’s struggles, he had considered cutting the minutes of the second-year player from Russia and giving them to this year’s top draft pick, Shabazz Muhammad.

“It’s only four games. You’ve got to give it some time,” Adelman replied. “We know what [Shved] can do from last year. I don’t anticipate doing that…We have to find a way to get him going.”

Cue to a highly entertaining first quarter that saw the Wolves up by two, 28-26, on the strength of Kevin Martin’s nine points and Kevin Love’s dominant line of eight points, six rebounds and three assists. As the second quarter begins, Martin and Love sit for the first time, putting the Wolves at the mercy of a quintet of their reserves. Backup power forward Dante Cunningham hit a jumper to bump the lead to four. Then the entire enterprise fell apart.

Barea made two futile drives to the hoop, resulting in a turnover and a crazy, over-the-head shot with the back nearly to the basket that had no chance of going in. Dieng was whistled for three fouls in a span of 4:22, although he did contribute a couple of blocked shots. Speaking of blocks, Shved attempted two shots and both traveled less than halfway to the basket before being summarily rejected by the Warriors. The result was a 9-0 Warriors run. The Wolves never led again, falling by the score of 106-93.

The poster child for this defeat was Alexey Shved. Remember Adelman’s pregame comments — “You’ve got to give him some time … We have to find a way to get him going.” Well, Shved did not see the court again after that disastrous second-quarter stint, giving him a grand total of 4:23 for the game. This followed Monday night’s game — the second of a back-to-back, when reserves were expected to step up — when he logged a mere 8:28, which was preceded by the Knicks game, in which Shved played just 5:10.

In all three of those games, Shved performed so poorly in the second quarter that Adelman refused to risk playing him again, choosing instead to go with Barea as an undersized shooting guard. Since Barea is normally Rubio’s backup, that meant Rubio had to play all but 2:19 of the final 30 minutes of the game in New York, burning him out for Cleveland.

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Against Golden State, it meant that when Warriors coach Mark Jackson went with his big lineup, his 6-7 shooting guard Klay Thompson was matched up with Barea, who is generously listed as 6 feet but is closer to 5-9 or 5-10. Thompson, a magnificently pure shooter, promptly nailed five straight jumpers, including a trio of three-pointers, within the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, extending Golden State’s lead from eight to 14. The Wolves never again cut it below double-digits.  

Bad drafts create anemic numbers

At the close of NBA action on that Wednesday night, the statistics verified what was patently obvious to Wolves fans: Adelman has almost no confidence in his bench players, and that lack of faith is mostly justified.

Through Wednesday night, Adelman had used his reserves an average of 74:12 minutes per game (out of a possible 240, although Minnesota did have one game with a five-minute overtime), less often than all but four teams, Portland, Atlanta, Washington and the Los Angeles Clippers. That paucity of time of the floor would account for low gross numbers put up by the reserves, but not the lousy per-game numbers and terrible shooting percentages.

Minnesota’s reserves were tied with the subs from Indiana for the lowest points per game total at 21.6 — and that’s only because the undefeated Pacers play a slower-paced, more defensive-oriented style. In terms of oveall shooting percentage, the Wolves’ bench is the worst in the NBA at 36.2, worst in three-point shooting accuracy at 19.4 percent, and 26th among 30 teams in free throw percentage at 62.1. They are also in the bottom five in rebounds per game at 10.8.

Certainly injuries have contributed to this crippling lack of depth — a healthy Budinger and Turiaf would come in very handy right now. Adelman must also bear some of the blame for his stubborn lack of patience with any options besides his starters. I couldn’t agree more that Shved deserves to sit, but then don’t plead for more time for the dude to develop, cite last season as a sign of hope when it was clear Shved relentlessly regressed over the course of that campaign, and refuse to provide any alternative other than burning out the starters or letting Barea get torched by a matchup with someone at least 8 inches taller.

Most of all, however, the Wolves’ woeful bench production is an almost inevitable result of their atrocious history in the NBA draft. In Kevin McHale’s final season as Minnesota’s president of basketball operations in the summer of 2008, the Wolves made a draft night trade of O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love and took Nikola Pekovic in the second round. The Love trade also included the acquisition of Mike Miller, who would be a key chip in an eventual trade that landed Minnesota the right to draft Ricky Rubio. It was a fabulous night for McHale and the Wolves.

Alexey Shved
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Wolves coach Rick Adelman: “We know what [Alexey Shved] can do from last year. I don’t anticipate doing that…We have to find a way to get him going.”

Since then, there has been phenomenal incompetence, mostly by McHale’s successor, David Kahn, although Flip Saunders did his reputation no favors thus far based on his picks in the 2013 draft. In the four drafts after the Love-Pekovic parlay, Kahn had a passel of high lottery choices, with draft positions that include the second, fourth, fifth and sixth picks in various years. Of those choices, Derrick Williams (second) and Rubio (fifth) are still with the team. Jonny Flynn (sixth) was traded for peanuts.

And in a tragicomic bit of irony, the Wolves will likely lose their first-round pick to Phoenix next year (it is top-13 protected, meaning the Wolves will keep it only if they play badly enough to wind up in the lottery again) as part of the enticement for the Suns to take Wesley Johnson (fourth) off Minnesota’s roster.

You can blame Wolves owner Glen Taylor for hiring the incompetent Kahn if you like, but no one should ever doubt his willingness to support this franchise. Leave aside Taylor’s notorious willingness to pay his marquee talent — the size of his deal for Kevin Garnett created the need for a new NBA collective bargaining agreement, and his offer to give Latrell Sprewell $21 million for three years, rejected by Spree, was a tad generous, given that  Sprewell never earned another dollar on an NBA court.

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Taylor also rejected ownership offers that would have taken the Wolves out of Minnesota, and agreed to bind the Wolves to Target Center for the next 20 years, despite a relatively paltry settlement of negotiations to improve the arena. He bought out some of his reluctant minority partners even as he enters his seventies with heirs reportedly not that interested in the ballclub.

More to the point, Taylor stepped up with the cash that solidified the current starting unit for the Wolves, paying Pekovic $60 million over the next five years, Martin $28 million over the next four, Budinger $15 million over the next three, and Brewer $14 million also over the next three. Most everyone associated with the team assumes he will pony up on a maximum or near-maximum contract for Rubio, to go with the maximum deal he has given Love (although there are reportedly hard feelings over the length of Love’s pact). 

Taylor also agreed to pick up the option that extends the contract of Derrick Williams, who will thus make $6.3 million next season after pulling down $5 million — fourth-most on the team behind Love, Pekovic and Martin — this year. Williams makes that much because he was such a high draft pick — second overall. Players taken in that slot are supposed to be cheap at this going rate.

D-Will’s lack of production — again, a chicken-or-egg argument related to Adelman’s lack of confidence in him — is emblematic of the sorry value Minnesota has reaped through their drafts from 2009-2013. The players on the roster garnered from either being picked by the Wolves or directly acquired with available picks during those years include Rubio, Budinger, Williams, Dieng, Muhammad, and Robbie Hummel.

Thus far this season, those six have combined for a shooting percentage of 32.1 (26 for 81), a three-point percentage of 21 (4 for 21) and a free throw percentage of 71 (22 for 31). They have collected 36 rebounds in five games. Rubio has 43 assists and 15 turnovers; the rest have zero assists and 7 turnovers.

Look back at those numbers. That is the production from a second, fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth (last draft, flipped by Saunders into lesser picks) position among the last five drafts. That’s how you arrive at a terrible bench despite an owner willing to pay for a quality roster.

That’s how you come to rely on the likes of Alexey Shved, a combo guard with three assists and seven turnovers, who has converted half of his shots (2 of 4) right at the rim and otherwise misfired on ten of 11 shots outside that bunny zone. And the less said about his lazy defense and his dour attitude, the better; it is difficult to assess which hurts the team more.

Long after nearly everyone else had gone home Wednesday night, Kevin Love sat at his locker and talked about leadership. He spoke about bucking up Dieng, telling him that Pekovic also had a tough time accumulating fouls in his rookie season. When it came to Shved, Love remarked, only half-jokingly, “Yeah, somebody needs to light a fire under his ass.”

Bring plenty of charcoal for the rest of the bench.