Let’s get this stated right up front: I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman.
In an October 2009 story for SI.com, I called Adelman, then with the Houston Rockets, “the NBA’s most underrated coach.” Over the course of his long career, every one of the five teams that hired him improved its record over the previous year, and every one of the four teams he departed won fewer games the next season. If he never wins another game, Rick Adelman still belongs in pro basketball’s Hall of Fame as one of the premier coaches in the history of the game.
But Adelman has not done a good job coaching the Wolves thus far this season. Working with a team built mostly to his specifications, on a roster where the five starters have collectively missed just three games because of injury, he has not been able to guide the Wolves to a winning record since the weekend before Thanksgiving. At the halfway mark of the 82-game season, the team currently sits at 20-21, good for 11th place in the 15-team Western Conference, and four games out of the final playoff spot.
Along the way there have been some ugly statistics. The Wolves have lost all 11 games thus far this season that have been decided by four points or fewer. The defense has permitted the second-highest effective field goal percentage (a combination of two-point and three-point shooting accuracy) by their opponents among the 30 NBA teams. And at the other end of the court, the team’s own effective field goal percentage ranks 25th.
Not winning with ‘win now’ strategy
Of course for a Wolves franchise that has not made the playoffs in a decade and hasn’t ever won even 40 percent of its games without Kevin Garnett on the roster, compiling a record a game below .500 that is within sniffing distance of the playoffs at the halfway point represents progress over past ineptitude. Yet a more fully formed perspective suggests that the presence and methodology of Adelman requires more than mere mediocrity at this stage of the process.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Adelman was tapped to be the savior of the franchise when he was hired in September of 2011. The Wolves had won a paltry 32 games combined in the previous two seasons, the worst back-to-back campaigns in their sordid and sorry history. Coach Kurt Rambis had been fired and President of Basketball Operations David Kahn was the laughingstock of the NBA for his disastrous draft picks in the lottery (Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson) and tragicomic pronouncements such as likening the passing skills of perpetually -disgraced center Darko Milicic to “manna from heaven.”
Hiring Adelman conferred instant credibility but also signaled a sea change in the way the Wolves would rebuild out of the abyss. “We were going to build slowly with a young coach and young players. It was a good plan, but there was a misstep,” Wolves owner Glen Taylor told me in the summer of 2012. “Now we have a seasoned coach who has sort of said, ‘This is my last job.’ He is going to push faster because he wants to win sooner. But his [plan] is one I understand and can relate to.”
It is fair to say that Adelman was frustrated by his lack of clout over personnel decisions in his previous job in Houston under Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey, and wouldn’t have come to Minnesota without assurances he could call most of the shots. And there is a wealth of evidence to indicate that is what has occurred.
When Adelman wanted unrestricted free agent J.J. Barea to be an offensive sparkplug off the bench, the Wolves went out and signed him. After a year in Minnesota, when the coach demanded a quality wing stopper who could guard multiple positions on defense, the Wolves offered a huge contract to restricted free agent Nicolas Batum and ultimately signed Andrei Kirilenko after Portland matched Minnesota’s terms and retained Batum. When Adelman told Taylor and Kahn he had no use for Milicic and Michael Beasley, they quickly disappeared; ditto Wes Johnson.
The primacy of Adelman’s vision didn’t change when Flip Saunders replaced Kahn last summer. The first two players signed by Saunders, Chase Budinger and Kevin Martin, had demonstrated themselves to be ideal matches for Adelman’s motion-corner offense in previous seasons with the coach. Securing Nikola Pekovic for five years at $60 million after Kevin Love was already under contract for the league’s maximum annual salary demonstrated the Wolves were spending heavily and committing to a core group of players designed to “win now.”
Certainly that is the philosophy under which Adelman has coached this season. Minnesota’s top two draft picks, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, have played a grand total of 175 minutes, combined. Adelman’s steadfast disinclination to play Derrick Williams — taken second overall as the highest pick in Wolves’ history in the 2011 draft — finally compelled Saunders to trade Williams to Sacramento in November for veteran wing stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Of course unlike the previous two injury-marred seasons that cost Adelman the services of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio for months on end, he hasn’t needed to rely on his bench. Minnesota’s starting five has played more minutes together than any other unit in the NBA. It is a relatively expensive but ostensibly complementary quintet that, on paper, should have propelled the Wolves securely into playoff position right now.
Instead, Minnesota has a losing record. A roster expressly tailored for Adelman’s style of play and “win now” philosophy is significantly underachieving.
Second-guessing Adelman’s demeanor
When Adelman barked at his team after a lackluster loss to Toronto during the preseason this fall, reminding them that they hadn’t proven anything yet and were running out of time to get their collective act together, I applauded his sense of urgency in a 2013-14 season preview titled “Playoffs or (Loud) Bust.”
But since that time, Adelman still hasn’t been able to properly motivate his troops. It isn’t just the team’s wretched record in close games. Minnesota has lost a handful of winnable contests against clearly inferior teams, the type of losses that really sting and demoralize a club, and they have been spread fairly evenly over the first half of the season, indicating a chronic malaise.
In the face of this problematic course of events, Adelman’s predominant demeanor has been a varied mixture of exasperation, annoyance and befuddlement. While all of these reactions are perfectly understandable — Wolves fans can fully empathize — none confer the type of authority that might compel a change in behavior.
After the Wolves thumped Utah last Saturday to halt a three-game losing streak that included an embarrassing home loss to Sacramento, I asked Adelman how he was handling it all. “It is just such a rollercoaster ride,” he lamented, adding that when he considers lineup changes or specific maneuvers, “there is no consistency, where you can say, ‘We need that.’ We have to get consistent effort.” Yet he noted that when the effort disappears, as versus Sacramento, “it becomes very difficult because then you are just trying to find answers.”
Second-guessing Adelman’s methods
The coach most obviously leaves himself open to criticism in his refusal to provide more playing time and consistent roles for his bench. After backup center Ronny Turiaf fractured his elbow early in the second game of the season, Adelman turned to the rookie, Dieng, for a season-high 14:25 of playing time. But after Dieng racked up four personal fouls, and then committed six more in less than 10 minutes if the two subsequent games combined, Adelman stopped trusting him and essentially pulled him from the rotation.
Who knows what might have happened if Dieng had continued to get small but still steady minutes, say about 10 to 12 per game? He provides rim protection that was otherwise absent given Turiaf’s injury, and Adelman’s determination to play Dante Cunningham alongside either Love or Pekovic, despite the opposing matchups, at times seemed like a lost opportunity for both Dieng and the team.
Adelman’s ongoing determination to use Barea as the backup point guard instead of a facilitator such as A.J. Price also has its consequences. Barea has his skills, but guiding his teammates through Adelman’s half-court sets clearly isn’t one of them. Throw in Alexey Shved, another ball-centric hero stylist who Adelman prefers to play alongside Barea, and the second unit essentially freelances on almost every offensive possession. This denies the backups the full scope of Adelman’s innovative offense and makes them unprepared to fill in with the starters, who are running the plays.
Trading away Williams was a significant concession to Adelman by the front office, and acquiring Mbah a Moute in return essentially filled a glaring need for a rugged wing defender who wouldn’t be physically overwhelmed by forwards, as happens to 185-pound Corey Brewer a trifle too often. But after Mbah a Moute had extreme difficulty hanging on to the ball on offense his first few games with the team, Adelman seems very reluctant to put him in. The situation reached comical proportions when Sacramento’s Rudy Gay torched Brewer and Budinger for 33 points on 12-19 shooting while Mbah a Moute remained on the bench.
Throughout the first half of the season, Adelman frequently complained about the density and difficulty of the Wolves’ schedule, often citing a lack of practice time as a specific concern. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that his words and attitude provided an excuse for his beleaguered troops.
But more to the point, now that the schedule has eased, the Wolves have with some regularity taken days off that could have been used for practice. Meanwhile, some of their communication problems on the court have persisted. How many times have we seen Pekovic come up to challenge the pick-and-roll play and the player beside him in the paint — most often Love but occasionally Brewer, Martin or Cunningham — fail to slide over or otherwise deter opponents counteracting Pek’s movement. Either Pekovic is being too aggressive or his teammates too passive and slow to react, but it is an issue that can and should have been resolved by now. This can also be said about other elements of the team’s pick-and-roll defense, and the decision of perimeter defenders to consistently go under screens.
You notice I said “second-guess” to headline the previous two sections. The point is, it is easy to second-guess once the perceived flaws are identified. I don’t want to pretend to know as much about basketball in general or this Wolves team in particular as Adelman, because the notion is ridiculous. But if I see that a team essentially built and guided by Adelman is underachieving on its promise, and state that he is not doing a good job coaching the ball club thus far this season, I need to marshal my argument.
Of course it isn’t all, or even primarily, Adelman’s fault. He has been betrayed by a reliance on certain veterans, including Barea and Martin, both of whom have the lowest true shooting percentages since their rookies seasons. Cunningham has not been as reliable as he was last season. The preseason injury to Budinger left Adelman with Brewer almost by default, meaning two wayward shooters among the starting five.
Nor has Adelman been totally passive. His encouragement of Martin to be more aggressive and his (presumed) advice to Brewer to shoot less are both good ideas. For better or, in my view, worse, he has sat Rubio in the fourth quarter in favor of Barea in an effort to inject another offensive threat at crunchtime. And he altered the rotation to give Love time with the second unit when it was struggling early in games.
But everyone knows the deal here. Adelman is 67 years old, happily married to a woman besieged last season by a seizure disorder. He almost didn’t return to the team this year because of it. He wants to win now, as much and as soon as possible, and he will coach accordingly. The team and the front office and ownership know this.
In addition, Kevin Love has never been to the playoffs — the only player besides Kyrie Irving among the recently named 10 starters for the All Star Game who holds that dubious distinction. If that remains true a year from now, Love will be looking at a chance to opt into free agency, helpfully and incompetently provided to him by Kahn.
The bottom line is that Adelman may only have about three months left to see his vision through. It’s possible that three months is all he wants, if the Wolves keep underachieving. But in two short years, Adelman’s leverage has declined from rescuer of the franchise to someone watching the window close on one of his last, if not best, chances to win a ring.
On behalf of Wolves fans everywhere, here’s hoping for a happy ending and a restoration of his sterling coaching pedigree.