For nearly the first three months of the 2013-14 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves were an ongoing mediocrity. Almost without exception, the team would take the court with the same five starters, who would proceed to play more minutes together than any other quintet in the NBA. And almost without exception they would win one or two and then lose one or two.
Forty-five games into the 82-game season, the Wolves have never won or lost more than three straight games, and have never been more than three games above or below the .500 mark.
Treading water is fine if you are in the Eastern Conference, where a .500 record not only puts you in the playoffs, it has you just a game away from hosting a first-round series. In the Western Conference, however, it lands you in 11th place among 15 teams. The Wolves, who on Wednesday posted a winning record for the first time since the weekend before Thanksgiving, are currently 10th at 23-22. For a team with a 67-year old coach and a superstar who can opt out of his contract with the franchise at the end of next season, such mediocrity threatens to run out of the clock on a disappointing status quo.
Fortunately, there have been recent signs of a shakeup in the season-long somnambulance. Two long-injured reserves, center Ronny Turiaf and swingman Chase Budinger, have returned and become acclimated enough to start making positive contributions. This has prompted coach Rick Adelman to tinker earlier and more frequently with player units and rotations beyond his core quintet of starters. Perhaps not coincidentally, Minnesota is enjoying its most successful run of the season to date, with five wins in their last six games.
The missing security blanket
On the downside, the starters suffered their first significant injury of the season on Monday when center Nikola Pekovic went to the sidelines with what initially was termed a strained Achilles and later reclassified as right ankle bursitis. He is expected to be out a couple of weeks.
Pekovic has been the Wolves’ second-best player thus far this season, yet his absence creates some potential silver linings. All season long, Adelman has urged his troops to “get out of their comfort zone,” which means sacrificing some of their individual strengths and/or dedicating themselves to shoring up individual weaknesses in order to enhance the synergy of their teamwork. That’s easier said than done for athletes whose well-defined skill sets have enabled them to ascend to the NBA level.
Besides, when it comes to comfort zones, Pek is a handy security blanket. On offense, when he establishes position in the paint, teammates can simply dump the ball in and watch him go to work. Nobody has more field goal attempts within five feet of the basket than Pekovic this season. And with his current ledger of 601 shots and 46 assists, everybody is pretty sure what’s going to transpire.
On defense, Pek is less effective but in some ways nearly as predictable. He anticipates the unfolding of a pick-and-roll play better than any of the Wolves’ big men and almost always “shows hard” to contain penetration by the ball-handler. This works if there is anticipatory, rapid, and staunch help in guarding the “roll” man by a teammate. Last season it functioned exceptionally well when Andrei Kirilenko or Dante Cunningham was the helper in the paint, and terribly when that duty fell to Derrick Williams.
This season, opponents are executing that pick-and-roll with their center a little further away from the basket, exploiting Pek’s lack of quickness. Until he was traded, Williams remained an awful complement. Cunningham’s defense with Pek has also suffered this season, in limited minutes. And Kevin Love hasn’t really broken out of his comfort zone to fill behind Pek more capably.
(Here, among many other situations, is where the Wolves desperately miss Kirilenko. Has anybody noticed that Brooklyn’s current surge has coincided with Kirilenko’s return to action after an extended injury? The Nets whose record is 20-23, are 12-5 when he plays, and 7-1 when he plays more than 20 minutes.)
As Adelman said after Wednesday night’s win over the depleted New Orleans Pelicans, “we are a different team without Pek.” The two backup centers, Turiaf and rookie Gorgui Dieng, are both nearly the polar opposites of Pekovic, lacking his sophisticated array of footwork and deft shooting touch on offense, and much more apt to sell out for a shot-block attempt rather than emphasize containment when defending the pick-and-roll.
Thus far, the Wolves are blessed to be 2-0 in the games Pek has missed (counting Chicago, where he played only six minutes before hobbling off). In both encounters, the opponents were missing their best big man — Yoachim Noah for the Bulls, Anthony Davis for the Pelicans. The situation changes dramatically Friday night, when Memphis comes to town with one of the more rugged and accomplished frontcourt duos in the NBA in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. We’ll get into those matchups in a minutes.
The swingman shuffle
Filling in for Pekovic isn’t the only way the Wolves’ player rotation has been altered and expanded in recent games. The increasing good health of Budinger, the improvement of Alexey Shved, and the sudden return from oblivion for forgotten man Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (LRMAM for short), has enlivened the competition and guessing games on who will be manning the shooting guard and small forward “swingman” positions for Minnesota at various points of the game.
The biggest change is the availability of Budinger, an Adelman favorite who has weathered knee surgeries in each of his first two seasons with the Wolves. Although nowhere close to 100 percent, he has flashed increasing reminders of late about how his outside shooting and ability to move without the ball fit so well into Adelman’s offensive sets — first discovered during their two-year stint together with the Houston Rockets.
There are some interesting numbers, in an admittedly small sample size, regarding Budinger’s shooting thus far. He is 8-for-14 from three-point range during the first three quarters and just 1-for-10 in the fourth period, meaning possible fatigue, a tougher time scoring right now against opposing starters, or simply a small-sample aberation. He is also a wretched 3-for-21 on long two-pointers (from 16 feet back to the three-point arc), showing the wisdom of spacing the floor to get him three-point looks, and the damage that occurs when he is chased out of those longer-range attempts.
The good news is that Bud is moving enough to provide a semblance of defense, and an option that opponents need to account for on offense. Another bonus is that his competitive presence seems to have instilled some much-needed discipline into Corey Brewer’s shot selection. In the 11 games that Budinger has been available to sub in for Brewer, Corey has launched just 6.7 shots per game, making 54.1 percent of them, including 36.8 percent on 1.7 three-point attempts per game. In the previous 34 games, Brewer attempted an average of 10.3 shots and made 43.8 percent, including 28.9 percent on 3.8 three-point attempts per game.
It probably isn’t all cause-and-effect, of course, but it is nice to have a handy alternative when Brewer decides to go off the rails.
After the New Orleans game on Wednesday, Adelman provided a window into his thinking when he explained why LRMAM logged 22:40 of playing time, more than any game in five weeks and nearly twice as much as the previous four games combined. With both Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday out for the Pelicans, Adelman knew New Orleans would have to rely on Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans for scoring, and wanted LRMAM matching up with them on defense.
This reveals that Adelman views LRMAM as a wing stopper on shooting guards and small forwards, but not as a defender against power forwards. We know this not only because Adelman has resisted inserting LRMAM into games where it seems he could match up with power forwards, but because the coach explicitly noted that by playing LRMAM against New Orleans under these circumstances, he was keeping Shved on the bench. In Adelman’s eyes, Shved is strictly a shooting guard.
This is interesting because LRMAM has generally played more power forward than small forward, and certaintly shooting guard, during his career. Yet here in Minnesota, according to stats through last Sunday at 82games.com, he has played the overwhelming majority of his time at small forward.
This reflects Adelman’s abiding affection for the play of Cunningham. On numerous occasions this season, he has commented on how tough it has been for Cunningham to adjust to fewer minutes, which have shrunken because of the dominant presence of a healthy Kevin Love at power forward. First, the slice in minutes isn’t that extreme — Cunningham averaged 25.1 a game a year ago and 17.9 minutes in 2013-14. Second, you rarely hear Adelman lament the plight of (and, by inference, make excuses for) any other Timberwolf.
If LRMAM (or Mbah a Moute, in case you’ve forgotten what the initials stand for) has to earn his minutes strictly amid the logjam of swingmen on the team, he is in for a lot of rest. Given that the Wolves parted with their prime trade asset, Derrick Williams, to acquire him, that is not an ideal outcome.
It has been reported that Adelman signaled his appreciation of LRMAM to Saunders, and his intention to play him, before the trade was made. What has likely soured the coach is LRMAM’s stone hands and overall clumsiness in handling and moving the ball. The Wolves’ offense has the lowest turnover percentage in the NBA, a statistic that not only pleases Adelman — who played undersized J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour at shooting guard for two years almost strictly because of their ball-handling prowess — but President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, who told me earlier this month that the team’s defense is especially vulnerable to turnovers because of their lack of quickness in transition.
Matching up the big men
This is why it would be nice to get LRMAM some burn at power forward as well, especially with Pekovic out. But it is more likely that against smaller front lines, Adelman will move Love over to center and play Cunningham beside him, as happened during the entire fourth quarter against New Orleans. LRMAM also logged the entire 12 minutes of the period, as the small forward on a very interesting front line. If Cunningham is hot with his trademark midrange jumper — and he made 6-of-7 against the Pelicans — Adelman can be comfortable with that kind of alignment. But that doesn’t sound like a sustainable situation.
Friday’s game against Memphis poses a particular challenge with Pek out. Gasol and Randolph are both intelligent grinders, they love contact and they are adept at drawing fouls. Since Turiaf and especially Dieng are prone to fouling such players, and are overmatched anyway in this instance, the Wolves could be forced to scramble.
Adelman hinted that he may counter with quickness and side-to-side ball movement. One way to do that is by spreading the floor via Love’s three-pointers and Cunningham’s midrange jumpers.
Perhaps all these potentially new scenarios will eventually yield a return to mediocrity. But for now, Wolves fans aren’t tilting at windmills hoping that the infusion of new personnel, and even Pek’s injury, creates a situation where the team is jolted out of its comfort zone in the manner Adelman is asking for — compelled to challenge themselves in ways that broaden the team’s identity.
Already the added minutes of aggressive defense provided by Turiaf, Dieng and LRMAM has helped the Wolves hold three of their last six opponents under 90 points during this 5-1 spurt, after accomplishing this sub-90 point feat only three times in their previous 39 games.
If this formula continues to work, it may open up the possibility of other wrinkles. One humble, closing, suggestion is a little more time for A.J. Price instead of Barea at the backup point guard slot. It would be a nice departure from the “comfort zone” of Barea’s shot-or-single-pass decision-making.