After 19 games of the 2012-13 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves had a record of 10-9, despite missing superstar Kevin Love for the first nine of those contests and passing wizard Ricky Rubio for all of them.
A year later, Love and Rubio have suited up for every game. In fact, except for a brief illness that sidelined Kevin Martin in a victory over Cleveland, the Wolves’ starting lineup has been intact throughout the first five weeks of the schedule. Yet in a season when a trip to the playoffs seems a realistic expectation, the Wolves are actually beneath .500, and behind last year’s pace, at 9-10.
Granted, the caliber of opponent has been slightly tougher, the schedule ruggedly front-loaded thus far. Minnesota didn’t play its 19th game until Dec. 12 last season, 11 days later than this year’s opening slate.
And Wolves optimists have plenty of ammunition. The team still ranks in the top half of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency (points scored and allowed per possession) and is outscoring opponents by more than four points per game. It is not unreasonable to imagine the dovetailing bonuses of center Ronny Turiaf and swingman Chase Budinger returning from injury right around the time the schedule eases up in late December and January. The recent trade of Derrick Williams for wing stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute further upgrades the team’s depth and defense.
But the appropriate reaction to the Wolves’ performance thus far is disappointment. The team hasn’t yet beaten a quality opponent operating at full strength, and has suffered ugly losses in winnable games against Washington, Cleveland and Denver twice. Indeed, a sub-.500 record despite the scoring differential and high efficiency rankings may indicate a cause for concern about the vaunted “intangibles” on the ballclub.
A coachable moment for an Adelman roster
It is right about this time, when a team is underachieving in ways that are both understandable and troubling nearly a quarter of the way through the season, that you hope to rely on a superior coach to strategize, motivate and position talent in ways that shake off the doldrums and alter the prevailing context.
I am a longtime observer of Wolves coach Rick Adelman and a steadfast believer in the ingenuity, methodology and tone-setting demeanor he has deployed to stoke success in his teams. He has thrived in a variety of circumstances for a bevy of franchises over the course of his career. But thus far this season Adelman has not managed to wrangle enough spark or synergy out of this roster to create the momentum required for a successful playoff quest.
The coach certainly hasn’t lacked for support from the front office. When rumors were strong that Flip Saunders would replace David Kahn as the Wolves president of basketball operations this summer, I argued against Saunders because I thought he would infringe too much on Adelman’s influence in procuring personnel. But from the moment he was hired, Saunders has gone out of his way to acquire players who would logically thrive in Adelman’s system.
It is hard to imagine two bigger acolytes of Adelman’s motion offense than swingmen Kevin Martin and Budinger, the first pair of players signed by Saunders this off-season. For the sake of continuity and firepower, the team also re-signed center Nikola Pekovic to a fat long-term contract despite the absence of competing offers for Pek, who was a restricted free agent.
There were rumors that Adelman became less enamored of wing-stopper Andrei Kirilenko as last season wore on, and Saunders opted to invest in Martin and Pekovic and sign a less capable wing stopper in Corey Brewer rather than bowl Kirilenko over with a multi-year extension at $10 million per season. Adelman favorite Dante Cunningham had his team option picked up at very reasonable terms for the Wolves. When Adelman wanted both Robbie Hummel and point guard A.J. Price to fill out the bottom of the roster, the Wolves cut center Chris Johnson, who rarely got off the bench for Adelman during the preseason, and ate his $800,000 contract.
Coming into the 2013-14 season, then, the Wolves had clearly tailored their roster to enhance the off-ball movement and outside marksmanship on offense that Adelman prefers, while otherwise securing the continuity of its core players. They were a win-soon team specifically designed to take a big step forward into the playoffs this season and, to the detriment of painstaking long-term planning, remain laser-focused on quickly building toward championship contention. That’s what you do when a 67-year old future Hall of Fame coach is guiding the team.
But even so, one more domino had to fall. The only player exempted from the roster purge recommended by Adelman two years ago was Derrick Williams. I wrote about the terrible fit between Adelman and Williams in my last column, a week before D-Will was mercifully traded. Without getting into blame-pointing or chicken-and-egg scenarios regarding Williams’ frustrating tenure here, the point is the trade again alters the roster more to Adelman’s liking and opts for a known quantity in the short-term over the long-term potential of a 22-year old high draft choice.
Burning out the starters
Any criticism of Adelman should begin with Minnesota’s recent offensive production. One of the NBA’s most influential offensive coaches has an array of weapons tailor-made for his system, including Love, Martin, Pekovic and the court vision of Rubio. Yet the Wolves currently rank 24th among 30 teams in both field-goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage — and the clanking is getting worse.
A major reason why Minnesota has dropped seven of its past 10 games is because three of the yeoman starters — Love, Martin and Rubio — are shooting below 40 percent from the field, and Corey Brewer isn’t much better at 43.1 percent. Only Pekovic, at 57.5 percent, is reliable.
From long-range it is much the same story. Over the past10 games, Martin has the highest three-point shooting percentage among the starters at 35.6, still below the league average of 36.2, while Love is at 33.3, Rubio at 31.6, and Brewer is down at 25.5. (Pek doesn’t attempt three-pointers.)
Adelman probably has a much better idea than we do exactly why these shots aren’t falling. But it isn’t hard to notice that the Wolves are becoming more impatient in their half-court sets, frequently retarding or short-circuiting crisp ball-movement in favor of excessive dribbling, crowded pick-and-rolls, and premature shot selection. They also are becoming sloppier in transition in an attempt to make the home-run play, especially via long outlet passes that were once more successful but since have been scouted and schemed against by the opposition.
Another observation, one easier to quantify with statistics, is that the starters are getting dog-tired and wearing down because Adelman doesn’t trust his bench players enough to develop their roles.
Start with the most basic barometer: The Wolves lead the NBA in first-quarter points with 30.5 per game. They rank 26th in fourth-quarter points with just 22.7. This discrepancy is not a matter of pace — their fourth-quarter defense allows a middle-of-the-pack 24.8 points in the first quarter and 24.5 points in the fourth. It is a matter of accuracy: Minnesota’s shooting percentage plummets from 49.1 in the first quarter to 39.3 in the fourth period. From distance, the drop is even steeper: They make 46.7 percent of their threes in the opening stanza, and 24.6 percent in the final 12 minutes.
Half of the Wolves’ losses this season have come on the tail end of a back-to-back in the schedule, a circumstance that has netted them only one win in six tries. Their three-point percentage in these games is 28.6, compared with 34.2 in their 10 games with one day’s rest and 38.9 in their two games played after two days’ rest. Yes, it is a very small sample size, but for a team that has the most frequently-played five-man and four-man lineup combinations in the league, downward scoring efficiency due to less rest makes sense.
I won’t go into the declines of the individual starters both late in games and in games with less rest, except to say that it mostly correlates with the overall team performance. (You can work the numbers yourself at either the stats page at nba.com or at Basketball Reference.)
The point is that Adelman rides his starters long and hard, but often to no avail. Love, Martin and Brewer all play as many or more minutes on the tail end of back-to-backs as they do otherwise, but with declining production. The indefatigable Pek plays more minutes on back-to-backs and actually improves his production. Rubio, alone among the starters, gets more rest on the tail end of back-to-backs but his production drops precipitously anyway.
The right roles for reserves
Which brings us to the way Adelman uses his bench, when he uses it at all. The Wolves’ top backcourt reserve is J.J. Barea, who seemed primed to be a real catalyst this season after a successful stint in international play for his native Puerto Rico this summer followed up by a capable preseason. But Barea has been a train wreck, shooting more frequently than at any time in his eight-year career while producing his lowest field goal and three-point percentages since his rookie season.
After Barea laid his latest egg in a loss to Oklahoma City Sunday night, Timberwolves beat writer Jon Krawczynski from the Associated Press, tweeted a shrewd observation: “Barea can be a very effective player as a helter-skelter mini-2 [shooting guard]. Wolves are asking him to be a pure PG. [Point guard.] That’s not his game.”
Sure enough, Barea is putting up the best assist-to-turnover ratio — a “pure point guard” statistic — of his career, but it is messing up his “pure shooting guard” mentality. While he will always be a mercurial performer, his best games generally occur when his hot shooting sets up his passing. In standard half-court offensive sets, his short stature and limited handle off the dribble prevent him from easily feeding the ball to big men in the post. Thus, many of his assists are peripheral passes — Dante Cunningham gets a lot of midrange jump shots from Barea’s dishes.
This creates fewer turnovers but also leads to situations where Barea’s favored passing lanes are closed and Barea the shooting guard tries to bail out Barea the point guard. Unfortunately, calling your own number by default is less advantageous than proactively challenging the defense. That is one reason for his abysmal accuracy, and also why his free throw attempts — generated by drives to the hoop — are less than half of his career average this season.
There is a legitimately “pure” point guard on the bench in A.J. Price, but Adelman has played him a grand total of 32 minutes thus far this season. Price is not a good shooter but knows how to run an offense and has good size at 6-2 — 3 or 4 inches taller than Barea. There have been more than a few occasions this season when he seemed like a better candidate to back up Rubio.
Another intriguing bench player who isn’t getting enough opportunity is rookie center Gorgui Dieng. When Turiaf went down with a broken elbow during the first week of the season, Dieng was extremely raw and foul-prone backing up Love and Pekovic and Adelman severely restricted his role in the rotation.
But in the past few games when Adelman has deigned to put him in during the first half, Dieng has shown much better judgment and awareness. Against OKC Sunday night, he had two rebounds, a block, an assist and a steal while hitting one of two shots and committing no fouls in a four-minute stint during the second quarter. On the tail end of a back-to-back, he seemed a good bet to get another rotation in the second half.
Yet Adelman kept him on the sidelines, opting to play Love for the entire third quarter and then pairing Cunningham and newcomer Mbah a Moute alongside Pekovic on the front line to begin the final period. OKC superstar Kevin Durant took advantage of communication breakdowns between the two forwards and ignited a Thunder blitz that decided the game.
Afterward, the coach said he knew Love was tired and needed to get him some rest. Fair enough, except that Love is averaging more than 11-and-a-half minutes of every 12-minute third period thus far this season, and Dieng hasn’t logged a single minute in that third stanza. Maybe Dieng is too shaky for crunchtime, or even meaningful fourth-quarter minutes. But why not rest Love late in the third and send him out with Pek more frequently in that troublesome fourth quarter?
Respect and accountability
It is presumptuous to second-guess a future Hall of Fame coach whom I greatly admire, to the point where I feel compelled to make a brief rebuttal on Adelman’s behalf.
It is quite possible that with the injuries to Budinger and Turiaf and Saunders’ seemingly poor choice of overmatched swingman Shabazz Muhammad in the most recent draft (Dieng was taken with the team’s second first-round pick), Adelman does have a terrible bench. Barea and guard Alexey Shved have both been dreadful, and Williams simply didn’t fit in. Suffice to say that the Wolves’ reserves have a collective shooting percentage of 37.8 and are shooting just 22.1 percent from three-point range.
But, as with Williams, it remains an open question whether the bench players are wretched because Adelman won’t develop them, or if he can’t develop them because they are so wretched.
Ultimately, this is about respecting someone enough to demand accountability. When the Wolves are slinging the ball around with balletic grace for open jumpers and layups, we hail the great wisdom of Adelman’s influential “motion corner” offense. It stands to reason, then, when a is team loaded with natural scorers like Love and Martin and perceptive passers such as Rubio, we openly wonder why the great wisdom of Adelman’s sets can’t deliver any better than 24th ranking in shooting accuracy.
Furthermore, when a team is so obviously rushing its rebuilding plan to accommodate the august presence of its coach, it is fair to ask when and why the coach hasn’t been able to generate more wins than losses in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, where the Wolves currently stand in 13th place among the 15 teams.
The next two games are against last year’s NBA Finalists — the Spurs in Mexico City on Wednesday and the Heat back at Target Center on Saturday. The coach has his work cut out for him.