The Wolves weren’t just bad against New Orleans. They were disgraceful.

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
How head coach Flip Saunders handles the next week or two will resonate through the rest of the season.

Let’s concede that the Minnesota Timberwolves could trot out a lot of excuses as they headed into games against the New Orleans Pelicans and the Dallas Mavericks last Friday and Saturday night.

Because Wolves owner Glen Taylor had accepted the heftier payday of a “home game” in Mexico City against the Houston Rockets Wednesday night, the team had been on the road for over a week. They had lost their leader and best player, point guard Ricky Rubio, to a sprained ankle the previous weekend; and they had discovered that their second-best player, power forward Thad Young, was suddenly taking a bereavement leave due to the death of his mother.

To replace Rubio in the starting lineup, head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders opted for his top draft pick from last summer, Zach LaVine. He is a teenager who started exactly one game and played a total of 904 minutes his only year in college at UCLA. Heading into the weekend, he had logged 73 minutes in the NBA.

Subbing in for Young, Saunders first went to Gorgui Dieng, the 6-11 center who had never previously played power forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves. After Dieng was an abysmal failure on Friday night, Saunders went with Anthony Bennett, making his first NBA start at age 21, having previously played a total of 748 minutes in the pros.

For all these reasons, the Wolves could have been expected to perform with ineptitude in these back-to-back road matchups against opponents good enough to harbor legitimate playoff aspirations in the rugged Western Conference. But it was not reasonable to suppose that the team would disgrace itself. 

The worst ever

“Disgraceful” is a loaded word that should not be tossed around casually when discussing the performance of a professional team. The dictionary defines it as “shockingly unacceptable” and “dishonorable.”

Over the course of their 26-year history, the Timberwolves have been known primarily for their lack of success on the basketball court. Even during their golden era, a eight-year stretch where they made the playoffs every year from 1997-2004, they were deemed to have squandered the prime-time years of the phenomenally talented Kevin Garnett, going beyond the first round of the playoffs just once. Before and after KG, the Wolves put together dreadful games and seasons that made them a source of ridicule, literally the laughingstock of the NBA.

Yet no Timberwolves team had ever been beaten as badly as this current edition was thumped by New Orleans on Friday night. The final tally was 139-91, a 48-point margin that probably could have been wider. By quarters, the Pelicans topped the Wolves by 24, 12, 10, and 2 points, respectively. On defense, Minnesota allowed New Orleans to convert two-thirds of their field-goal attempts (56-for-84) and three-quarters of their three-pointers (15-for-20). On offense, the Wolves shot 40.3 percent from the field (29-for-72) and 21.4 percent from long range (3-for-14), committing 22 turnovers versus just 13 assists.

The following night against Dallas, the Wolves again had conceded the game by halftime, trailing 63-44 en route to a 131-117 defeat. Whereas New Orleans had dismantled the Wolves defense with outside shooting, the Mavericks destroyed Minnesota down near the hoop, tying the Dallas franchise record with 76 points in the painted area.

Obviously, the Wolves were undermanned and outclassed on both nights. But what made the performances “shockingly unacceptable,” “dishonorable” and “disgraceful” was the putrid level of effort and resistance mounted by the ball club. 

Talk is cheap

At the beginning of the season, shooting guard Kevin Martin made a series of surprisingly candid statements about his lack of effort and professionalism in previous seasons. First Martin relayed the information that owner Glen Taylor had called him during the off-season, reaching mutual agreement that the team’s performance in 2013-14 amounted to “a disrespect” to then-coach Rick Adelman. Martin later added that Saunders would be a lot more demanding. “I’m not going to be able to get away with the things I did the past five or six years because I have to be that guy, that big-brother type that has to do things the right way and not just get by on talent,” he declared during Media Day right before training camp.

As the cliché goes, talk is cheap, and by his performances over the weekend, Martin’s words have about as much currency as a peso in Argentina. Ever since Rubio went down, K-Mart has been struggling to get the ball in sync with the spots and rhythm that enable him to score efficiently from beyond the arc and at the free throw line. This state of affairs reached its nadir during the debacle in New Orleans, as Martin, the team’s leading scorer,  failed to convert any of his six shots from the field, finishing with a paltry three points.

Challenged by Saunders to hunt for his own offense, Martin erupted for 34 points on 12-for-17 shooting the next night in Dallas. So, all good, right?

Absolutely not. On the first game of this back-breaking road trip, Martin shored up the chronic weakness in his game—a commitment to defense—and finished plus 20 in 38 minutes of a seven-point victory. Of course that was when Rubio was feeding him good looks and the team had a decent chance of success and promise for the future.

Flash-forward to Friday night, when the “big-brother” showed teenagers Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine how to lay down like a dog on the defensive end. And lest anyone think that indolence was caused by pouting over his own lack of touches and points on offense, Martin repeated his toxic refusal to guard anyone in the midst of his 34 points on Saturday.

Understand that Martin is a student of the game. In particular, he has become something of a master at rubbing opponents off picks set by his teammates, and taking angles when moving with the ball that generate fouls and trips to the free throw line. But K-Mart wastes all that wisdom at the defensive end because he can’t be bothered to utilize it. On the contrary, he is perfectly willing to take the angles that bottle him up in picks or allow his man to blow by him toward the hoop unless he commits the foul. Those inferior angles don’t require as much effort. And as was the case the past five or six seasons, Martin is “getting away” with it, at the expense of his team.

On Friday night, Martin ranked seventh of the Wolves in minutes-played with a total time of just 18:19, yet was dead-last in plus/minus with a whopping minus 31. On Saturday, a night when he threw down 34 points, Martin again played so poorly on defense that he penalized his team with his presence. During the 28:40 that K-Mart was on the court, the Wolves were minus 21. During the 19:20 he sat, Minnesota was plus 7. 

Veterans, but not leaders

Let’s move over to Mo Williams, another of the Timberwolves willing to stoke the credulity of preseason hype with specious fairytales of leadership during his Media Day comments. Acquired via a one-year contract to become a calming presence and capable floor general as Rubio’s backup, Williams impressively laid out the attitudinal force and restraints required to serve in that mentorship capacity. And he backed it up in the preseason with solid, self-composed play.

But Williams already-lackluster defense took another step back over the weekend. He blatantly took plays off at that end of the floor, simply not rotating or otherwise coming out to challenge the shot. Yes, he was enmeshed in a horrible shooting slump, going 6-for-38 over a six-game span. And yes, he has been more of a facilitator as required by the Wolves this season, with fewer shots and more assists per minute than he has registered in years. But the depth and cogency of Williams’ comments about leadership on Media Day made it plain he understands the example he has to set. And when he quits on a play, at the very least it detracts from the credibility of his advice to the youngsters—it becomes “do as I say, not as I do.” At the worst, he in fact becomes an example: “Hey this guy is an 11-year veteran brought in to teach us; maybe you’re supposed to concede the play and conserve your energy.”

Then there is Nikola Pekovic, the mammoth center currently drawing the highest paycheck on the roster at $12 million per season through 2017-18. (Rubio will exceed that when his new deal kicks in next year.) The blot on Pek’s resume is that he has never stayed healthy enough to exceed 2000 minutes played—approximately half of every game, hardly an iron man standard—in his four previous seasons.

As a preventive strategy, Saunders deliberately denied Pekovic regular playing time during the preseason, hoping to forestall the damage wrought to the balky feet and ankles supporting his 295 pounds. It cost the Wolves in the season opener, as Pek clearly wasn’t prepared to take on the Memphis frontcourt during a close loss. And it may all be naught, judging from the mincing ineffectiveness of Pek’s movements over the weekend.

One can only hope Pekovic was slightly injured versus the Pelicans and Mavericks. He was consistently caught in no man’s land on defense, almost equidistant from contesting shot and rebounding the potential misfire. Drop-off passes to the man he had abandoned to contest dribble-penetration and cuts down the lane and along the baseline produced a steady welter of made baskets. Without question, much of the blame can be attached to the perimeter defenders, who were even more clueless than lazy (no mean feat). But Pekovic exacerbated the problems with his own slow movements and poor decisions, which, given that he is not a high-flying rim protector, made his an extreme liability on defense. At the other end of the court he is suffering through some of the worst shooting of his career—42.2 percent from the field thus far this season, compared to his previous low of 51.7 his rookie year.

Pek’s off-court role and persona don’t add that much value to a struggling young team. He is very popular, a feel-good presence and gentle giant that only a curmudgeon would disdain. But part of that charm is his unremitting goodwill, which even in hard times merely shrinks to unflappable nonchalance. Pek is an emotional safety blanket—not the best foil when maturity through tough love is an inexorable component for improvement.

Just to be clear, I advocated for the team to re-sign Pekovic and only blanched a little at the size and length of the deal. I also applauded the signing of Williams. I’m not ready to disavow either position. But this team desperately needed more from both players on this road trip and they didn’t get it.

The aftermath of disgrace

Speaking of preseason spin, it was rich hearing Saunders portray himself as a taskmaster who could and would hold his troops accountable through the course of the season. Such behavior, be it virtue or vice, has notoriously been absent from his coaching style throughout his successful career. A major reason why he was let go by the Wolves the first time around was because Taylor and then-POBO Kevin McHale felt the team needed more discipline.

How Saunders handles the next week or two will resonate through the rest of the season. He was right to throw LaVine into the fire when Rubio went down, if only to send the message that youth would be served this season even when the results are painful. Unfortunately, the suspicion that LaVine would be way over his head running an offense has proven to be accurate, and losing Young along with Rubio the past two games, while coping with a gimpy Pekovic, merely compounded the carnage.

Those things are tolerable. Having players give up on plays, essentially quit on the team at various moments, is not, especially when the offenders include self-appointed veteran leaders like Martin and Williams. You could say that the Wolves were dispirited, that they were overwhelmed by adversity and that the weekend games snowballed out of control. You could even point to the fact that they shot 50 percent against Dallas and try to pretend that the team had some spunk despite all that was going against them.

That’s the tack Saunders took in his postgame interview on Saturday, a message that apparently got through to his assistants. During his routine halftime interview with the local television crew, assistant coach Sam Mitchell was spitting nails and appropriately angry with his team’s first-half performance in New Orleans. The next night in Dallas, confronting a similar first-half embarrassment, he was more circumspect and conciliatory.

That kind of coddling is not going to help. It is one thing to understand what LaVine is enduring, to say that Wiggins and the other young players were “starry eyed” from all the turbulence, and to not totally lambaste everyone. But those young players are watching and waiting to see what happens next.

Thus far the big news post-road trip has been that the Wolves are discussing  the possibility of trading Corey Brewer, who happened to be the poster boy for veteran leadership over the weekend with his balls-out effort in a situation of abject futility.

To state the obvious, yielding 270 points and losing by a combined 62 points in a two-game span is not business as usual, and downplaying the sordid details, especially in terms of desire, is a recipe for corrosive malaise. Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves need to confront the reality that it will take some clawing back for this team to regain its dignity. 

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 11/17/2014 - 11:01 am.

    yikes

    So what would you recommend? Trading someone? Sitting someone?

    • Submitted by jason myron on 11/19/2014 - 06:51 am.

      How about just folding it up?

      Seriously…has there ever been a more snakebitten franchise? Sometimes I wonder if we should have just let New Orleans have them

  2. Submitted by Tim Milner on 11/17/2014 - 11:36 am.

    What I’d like to hear Britt

    is your thoughts on exactly what Flip should be doing on the disciplinary front.

    Garnett was allowed the freedom to influence every single decision during those prime years you described. Signing Hudson. The Joe Smith debacle. Garnett’s fingerprints were all over those decisions. That’s Taylor’s fault because frankly – as owner – he allowed a player to be bigger than the franchise. As an analogy, how many teachers are going to discipline a student if they know the principal isn’t going to stand up for them? I think Flip, and to a lesser degree, McHale had that situation with Garnett and Taylor. But that’s water of the dam.

    There were two choices this year. 1 – focus on the young guys, try to develop them, and use the vets for backup and as trade assets. Or 2 – try and gain some respect and victories by playing the vets and spotting the youngster along the way.

    Historically, option 1 has been the way to go in the NBA. But it was crystal clear from discussions with my ticket rep that option 2 was the plan this year. A pretty big business decision – I am guessing that they were concerned about losing a ton of corporate and fan support if they engaged in another re-re-rebuilding plan.

    So instead, they are going to lose all that fan support by trotting out vets who frankly either 1- don’t give a damn (Kmart and Williams) or 2 – are no longer physically able to be front line NBA
    players (Pek and Bud) And to read that Brewer is the one possibly being traded just takes the cake – the only vet who, limited as is his, plays hard everyday.

    So what to do. I am eager to hear your thoughts. For me, I’d play the kids, find out who can play, scourer the dLeague and tryout anyone who might be able add something, and sit the vets / trade them out for assets.

    Because I’d rather pay money to watch young guys trying than vets not caring. No matter how many loss that might equal.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/17/2014 - 11:55 am.

      I’m with you, Tim

      Gee, I forgot about Budinger. Is he invisible?

      • Submitted by Jeff Germann on 11/17/2014 - 05:40 pm.

        No…not invisible…I think Buds still hurt.

        I thought he had recovered but I don’t think he has. Its all very odd.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/17/2014 - 11:52 am.

    For Rubio’s detractors….

    …I think this just shows his value. No way New Orleans does that with Rubio on the floor.

    When they are losing I want to see them put in Bennett and Dieng and Muhammed rather than stick with the old guys. I’m also disappointed at the three old guys you call out and agree Brewer was the only one showing real effort this weekend. Unfortunately from a position balance standpoint he may be the most expendable. I’m glad they put Levine into the fire but when Williams, a shot first point guard, is so cold it would be nice to have a third alternative. But as is, I’d rather watch Levine’s OJT than watch Williams throwing up inaccurate bombs.

    I think those first games gave everyone a hope that they could break 40 wins and compete for the eighth playoff spot where I think before the year started we expected to lose a lot, just not as badly as Friday. I’m hoping that in a few years this team will be competing for a high playoff spot and when they do probably none of the old guys will still be here, maybe including Pek. So why not go young; let effort decide who plays?

    Thanks for another good column.

  4. Submitted by Peter Weinhold on 11/17/2014 - 11:54 am.

    Somewhat disagree

    On starting LaVine instead of Williams. Starting LaVine just indicated that this year is really is more about development than winning. Getting minutes as a backup to Williams until Rubio comes back would be as valuable in my opinion. If Saunders wants veteran role models on this team, put them in positions of leadership and hold them accountable. That is, until they fail miserably, then you can bench or trade them, whatever.

  5. Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 11/17/2014 - 01:20 pm.

    It is okay to be concerned

    Hi Britt –
    First and as always, I greatly admire your writing and find it to be the best NBA analysis in the country. If you ever write a novel, you have at least one buyer.

    I wanted to applaud the general perspective you brought forward with this article. As a fellow Wolves writer myself (no plugs, just want to babble), I try to keep pretty close tabs on what the general tone and perspective of the team is from all of those who cover it so well. Thus far being overly down or negative about the team has been met with a certain degree of sanctimony and it has, in my view, stunted discussion of what could very well be real concerns. When the Wolves lose by 48 points one night and allow 78 PitP the next night, it is more than okay to be down on the team, question Flip as both a coach/motivator and as a GM for building the most unbalanced shallow “deep” team we have heard of. It seems to me some of the vets have already started turning their ears in other directions.

    Oftentimes in fandom, especially when writing or tweeting, desiring accountability by using harsh words about something-we-all-probably-care-far-too-much-about can be confused with overreaction and constant doom and gloom. I don’t believe that is a fair assessment in the slightest. There are legitimate reasons to believe this latest iteration/re-re-re-re-rebuild/blueprint will evolve into yet another Glen Taylor-led cycle of ineptitude. Obviously am really hoping for that to not be the case.

    I appreciate your honesty and willingness to discuss those concerns

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/17/2014 - 02:59 pm.

    Lack of grit

    One thing that troubled me going into this season was our lack of that feisty player with a chip on his shoulder. I know many here are anti-JJ but that was one of the things he brought to the court, and it could be infectious (if other things were working). I can’t think of a current player on this roster who has the fire and gravitas to have that sort of impact, let alone right the ship, when things start to slide.

    But yes, missing Rubio had a huge impact on this weekend’s blowout losses, as did going without Thad. Both of them bring not only above-average defensive prowess, but also a dynamism to our offensive game which was sorely lacking. And that doesn’t even mention their calm and collected demeanor on the court, given their veteran status compared to the many fresh faces on this club.

    I’d be sad to see Brewer go, for many of the reasons Britt mentioned. You just can’t teach a motor like his – the closest thing we have right now is Shabazz, who currently has fewer logged minutes than Anthony Bennett. I really think Bazz has earned his minutes, and he’s fearless enough to help spark something in what has been a listless collection of players. I always feel a bit more confident when Bazzy is on the floor – it’s like playing pickup with a gym rat on your team – his level of effort can inspire others to do a little more on each possession.

    As for Kevin Martin, well, I thought your column was a bit harsh, but I have no problem with calling him out. Yeah, his defense is lacking, and sometimes it has as much to do with effort than with ability, but I think we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place here. No other player is willing or capable of shooting threes, no other player is getting to the line like him, and frankly, he’s our best offensive option by a country mile. Yes, his defense is bad, and his presence on the court makes us worse on that end, but we are so desperate for an aggressive player who can call his own number that it would be foolish to park his butt on the bench.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Dorgan on 11/17/2014 - 03:25 pm.

    Pelicans

    I watched that game and my conclusion was that the Pelicans would have beaten any team in the whole history of the NBA on that night. Almost everything they threw up, dropped through the net. It was one of those golden nights for a team that is already quite good. As for the T Wolves: Playing team defense in the NBA is hard and takes practice and time playing together before a team is good at it. It wasn’t a disgusting performance on the part of our lads. It was just the sort of thing to be expected until sometime in late December or January.

  8. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 11/17/2014 - 03:54 pm.

    Hopefully, this is the nadir

    I skipped watching the 2nd half in New Orleans after seeing what the score was. Obviously, there’s an element of strategy gone wrong in that case, since only Ryan Anderson is a dangerous 3 point threat for New Orleans, but they still didn’t adjust when it seemed like the Pelicans’ night. Against Dallas, their strategy and in-game adjustments were both bad. Chandler was killing them on the offensive glass by tapping it back to the guards, yet the Wolves never adjusted. It was also disheartening to see them leave Nowitzki open for jump shots multiple times, not contest Ellis at the rim, and not adjust with lineup changes; Chandler Parsons and Al-Farouq Aminu were in at the same time as forwards while Bennett was playing, yet Bennett ended up on Parsons for some reason.

    When it comes to the vets, it’s hard to determine their effect without becoming cliched. For example, is the bench’s offensive stagnation due to Williams or to the young guys not sticking with the sets? That would go for LaVine with the starters as well; ESPN’s David Thorpe, who’s basically Martin and Brewer’s personal offseason coach, mentioned in a chat on Friday that “without Rubio, they run garbage.” Defensively, I’d have to guess Rubio and Young were the most aware of the opponent’s sets, and the inability of anyone to step up in that area is troubling. The bench has struggled at times on that end at times this season, and it’s likely that Brewer’s not the one who can corral everyone into the right spots. Unless they dust off Turiaf, the main way for the vets to step up is by being disciplined on both ends and fearless offensively.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 11/17/2014 - 08:23 pm.

    Talk is cheap

    Brit. Do remember that 7 out of the 15 you are so readily chastising in this early season have 1 or 0 years of experience.

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 11/18/2014 - 09:08 am.

      He’s not

      Williams, Martin, and Pekovic all have at least 4 seasons of experience and combined to play over 1,500 NBA games.

  10. Submitted by Tom Om on 11/17/2014 - 09:41 pm.

    Williams

    Now we can understand why Utah didn’t want Williams around T. Burke, and why Portland gave-up on his services after one year.

    Britt, How many days after posting your column you read/respond to late readers’ comments?

  11. Submitted by Fern Vander Hart on 11/18/2014 - 01:36 pm.

    I am afraid to watch the next game

    I can’t stand much more humiliation for this team that I care about. Poor Pek can’t get going without Rubio. Wiggins looks a little scared. Dieng needs more weight. Martin and Williams–ugh. Would Bud be better if he actually got some time to play? I just don’t know if I will tune in on Wed. night. This was a well-written article that, without meaning to, depressed me. I look forward to the NBA season a lot, only to have it feel like it is over for the Twolves already. Any chance Flip has a few tricks to help this team?

  12. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 11/17/2014 - 02:59 pm.

    Lack of grit

    One thing that troubled me going into this season was our lack of that feisty player with a chip on his shoulder. I know many here are anti-JJ but that was one of the things he brought to the court, and it could be infectious (if other things were working). I can’t think of a current player on this roster who has the fire and gravitas to have that sort of impact, let alone right the ship, when things start to slide.

    But yes, missing Rubio had a huge impact on this weekend’s blowout losses, as did going without Thad. Both of them bring not only above-average defensive prowess, but also a dynamism to our offensive game which was sorely lacking. And that doesn’t even mention their calm and collected demeanor on the court, given their veteran status compared to the many fresh faces on this club.

    I’d be sad to see Brewer go, for many of the reasons Britt mentioned. You just can’t teach a motor like his – the closest thing we have right now is Shabazz, who currently has fewer logged minutes than Anthony Bennett. I really think Bazz has earned his minutes, and he’s fearless enough to help spark something in what has been a listless collection of players. I always feel a bit more confident when Bazzy is on the floor – it’s like playing pickup with a gym rat on your team – his level of effort can inspire others to do a little more on each possession.

    As for Kevin Martin, well, I thought your column was a bit harsh, but I have no problem with calling him out. Yeah, his defense is lacking, and sometimes it has as much to do with effort than with ability, but I think we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place here. No other player is willing or capable of shooting threes, no other player is getting to the line like him, and frankly, he’s our best offensive option by a country mile. Yes, his defense is bad, and his presence on the court makes us worse on that end, but we are so desperate for an aggressive player who can call his own number that it would be foolish to park his butt on the bench.

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