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Timberwolves’ offense spiraling down

What makes the current ineptitude confounding is that during the off-season, the Wolves were assembled to be an offensive juggernaut.

Miami Heat center Chris Bosh attempts to steal the ball from Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic during Saturday's game.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves fans can only hope that Saturday night’s humiliating, 103-82 beatdown, delivered with almost whimsical panache by the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, represents the nadir of the Wolves’ half-court offense this season.

The second quarter was especially frustrating. The Wolves had six steals in those 12 minutes, and got to the free throw line a dozen times. Yet they were still outscored by 14 points, 31-17, because poor shooting and poor decision-making resulted in horrendous execution of their basic sets.  

When Kevin Martin stole the ball and laid it in with 10:52 left in that quarter, he had scored 14 of the team’s 27 points on 5-for-8 shooting while the rest of the roster was clanking 4-for-14. Yet Martin, being guarded by mediocre defender Ray Allen, never touched the ball in the ensuing three offensive possessions, and then went to the bench for his first breather of the game, cuing a double-digit deficit from which the Wolves wouldn’t recover.

Without Kevin Love — back home because of the death of his grandmother — Minnesota needed an atypically strong showing from their bench reserves to stay with Miami. Once more, the bench couldn’t deliver. In the second quarter alone, Gorgui Dieng committed two fouls and was minus-7 in just 2:37 minutes. J.J. Barea was minus-9 in 5:30, and Dante Cunningham was minus-14 in 8:04.

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By late in the third quarter, the Heat were clowning. Miami’s Dwyane Wade threw an alley-oop carom off the backboard to set up a Lebron James slam, the sort of hotshot maneuver you pull off in meaningless showcases like all star games. The two stars slapped palms and cavorted back down the court.

When it was over, point guards Ricky Rubio and Barea had missed all nine of their combined field goal attempts, and committed eight turnovers versus seven assists. And as a team the Wolves, had a season-low 13 assists and shot 29.3 percent from the field, the most inaccurate performance in the already sordid history of this franchise.

No offense taken: A collective failure

What makes the current ineptitude confounding is that during the off-season, the Wolves were assembled to be an offensive juggernaut. Superstar Kevin Love would again be healthy, and a matchup nightmare, working in tandem with fellow big man Nikola Pekovic so that opponents would have to pick their poison in terms of single coverage — Love as a “stretch” power forward out on the perimeter, or the burly Pek down in the paint.

Working the angles in the spaces created by those two would be Kevin Martin, an efficient scoring machine whose off-the-ball movement is a perfect fit for coach Rick Adelman’s offense; and Rubio, a superb passer with elite court vision. The starting lineup would be completed by either Chase Budinger, another Adelman-friendly mover and shooter; or Corey Brewer, a better defender who can also get out in transition and has had some success sinking the corner three-pointer.

It was not that unreasonable to suppose that under the leadership of Adelman, one of the most influential offensive tacticians in NBA history, the Wolves would rank among the five or six most productive offenses in the league.

And for a while it looked that way, as Love poured in points, assists and rebounds at a pace that put him in the early MVP conversation, combining with Martin to become the league’s top scoring tandem while the Wolves won six of their first nine games. About a month ago, I was declaring it to be one of the premier starting lineups in the league.

Since then, the Wolves have been shockingly incompetent on offense while losing eight of their past 11 contests. How bad has it been? Over their past 10 games through Sunday, Minnesota was dead-last among 30 NBA teams with a 40.4 shooting percentage from the field. Over that same time period, they are next-to-last, 29th, in three-point accuracy, at 29.5 percent.

Teams coached by Adelman pride themselves on ball movement. Over the past 10 games, the Wolves are 23rd in the league in assists, averaging 20.3 per game. It is now at the point where Minnesota has a lower percentage of assisted baskets (60.3) this season than they did during the 2012-13 campaign (62.4), when they were 25th in offensive efficiency.

Referee whistles have been the saving grace of Minnesota’s point production in recent weeks. Over the last 10 games, the team has led the NBA in both free throws attempts and free throws made. Thus far this season, they have sunk 172 more free throws than their opponents, an average 8.6 more points per game. Those free throws boost the Wolves offensive efficiency — points scored per possession — up to 15th, right in the middle of the NBA pack.

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That’s not good enough for this franchise to end its decade-long absence from the playoffs.

Sources of blame

Last week I specifically cited Adelman as a member of the organization that really needs to step up and begin fixing what ails this team before it is too late in the hyper-competitive Western Conference playoff race. That’s because it seems obvious that the Wolves lack discipline on offense — they literally aren’t doing what they are supposed to do in order to maximize their talent.

This pretty much extends to all aspects of the offense, aside from rebounding and drawing fouls. The shot selection has been shoddy, especially from wing players Martin and Brewer. Good spacing on the court is less frequent as the players increasingly abandon sustained ball movement in favor of pick-and-rolls. The team too frequently pushes tempo when the numbers aren’t there, rather than pulling back and going to work on offense.

To the extent that there are boutique additions to Adelman’s standard sets, they ought to be designed toward maximizing Love’s production, in the paint as well as on the perimeter.

And somehow, somewhere, this team needs to figure out how to get some offensive production out of its bench reserves.

Before the Miami game, I asked Adelman what most concerns him about this team now that nearly a quarter of the season has passed.

“Trying to get some consistency,” he replied. “The biggest concern that we have is, looking at the schedule, we basically have practiced twice in about three-and-a-half weeks. You just start getting attrition when you don’t get a chance to go out and do things on the floor defensively. We’re not great defensively anyway. We need to work on things. We can’t talk about it; we can show them film, but you just start listing things after a while. That’s probably my biggest concern.

“Out goal is to try and maintain here in December, where our schedule is [tough] just like it has been. January it starts breaking for us, but we’ve got to get through December and we’ve got to win games. That’s the concern I have. We continue to play at home for one game and then we go on the road. It is just not conducive to trying to get things done.”

The elephant in the room: Rubio’s shooting

Every now and then, a really good national NBA beat writer will make an observation about the Wolves that puts clarity on a subject that I have kept vague due to some attendant bias.

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Such was the case last week, when Zach Lowe of Grantland — a former colleague of mine when we both were at, who has really stepped up his already-stellar analysis and his writing since moving to the ESPN site — provided a succinct, note-perfect take on Ricky Rubio. The link is here and well worth your time.

Lowe doesn’t stint in his praise of Rubio’s nonpareil passing prowess, but, unlike yours truly, hasn’t let that admiration extend his patience for Rubio’s abominable shooting. He points out the tough injury luck and systematic issues that might affect Rubio’s performance. But he also correctly notes that, “The honeymoon has to end — might as well be now.” Then he delivers the bad news.

Rubio is shooting a hair under 37 percent (36.9) after 3,700 minutes of NBA action. Lowe discovered that only two NBA players who began their careers after 1965 have logged 5,000 minutes and shot no better than 38 percent — the late big man and shot-blocker Eddie Griffin, and three-point specialist Daequan Cook. Both were quickly out of the NBA after those 5,000 minutes were achieved. Put simply, Rubio’s shooting is historically bad.

Lowe also demonstrates how that has hurt the Wolves, specifically on offense. I repeat, it is worth your time to read his entire take.

Even after his evisceration, complete with in-game graphics, Lowe correctly concludes that “Rubio’s a clear net positive for Minnesota.” Even so, the chatter about Rubio getting the five-year maximum deal when his rookie contract expires has quieted.

For Rubio and the team, the next six weeks are pretty critical. The point guard and his cohorts — and the coaching staff — need to demonstrate that they can concentrate the ample offensive firepower on hand, beat some good teams and establish some momentum.

In the locker room after getting pasted by Miami, Rubio said, “I think we took two or three steps back, in everything.” After two days of practice, they will face Detroit’s 16th-rated defense, followed the next night by a home game versus Philadelphia and their 28th-rated defense. None too soon, an opportunity for improvement awaits.