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.