The broad strokes required to recap the Minnesota Timberwolves disastrous 2014-15 season thus far are easily wielded. In the fifth game, against Orlando on November 7, point guard Ricky Rubio sprained his ankle. In the ninth game, against Dallas on November 15, center Nikola Pekovic was sidelined after aggravating a chronic foot injury. During the very next game, against New York on November 19, shooting guard Kevin Martin fractured his right wrist.
Rubio is the Wolves’ acknowledged leader, their premiere playmaker and perimeter defender. Pekovic is the team’s defensive bulwark and offensive anchor down near the basket. Martin is far and away the ball club’s most prolific scorer and proven shooter from long range. Many weeks later, none of these three veterans have returned. In their collective absence, the Timberwolves have lost 20 of their past 22 games, including 17 of their past 18 and 11 in a row.
Playing without three integral members of the roster certainly helps to justify the team’s inadequate performances on a near-nightly basis. In addition, the onslaught of injuries encouraged Wolves management to fully dedicate themselves to their youth movement and abandon the already flimsy pretense, probably peddled to gull fans into renewing their season tickets, that the Wolves could compete for a playoff spot.
Thus, when Rubio went down, Saunders plugged in the grotesquely inexperienced Zach LaVine instead of veteran Mo Williams at the point. And in December, Corey Brewer — who had logged more games as a Timberwolf than anyone on the team and inspired with his persistent energy even in the midst of the most horrendous defeats this season — was traded to Houston for young shooter Troy Daniels, and to make room for second-year dynamo Shabazz Muhammad in the starting lineup.
Since the Brewer trade, the Wolves have taken the floor for the past eight games with a lineup that included two teenaged rookies (LaVine and heralded swingman Andrew Wiggins), two second-year players (Muhammad and center Gorgui Dieng), and Thad Young, the 26-year old power forward and theoretical veteran leader now in his eighth NBA season. And they have lost every time, never once yielding fewer than 100 points. Indeed, according to Basketball-Reference.com, in the 130 minutes and 50 seconds that quintet has played together this season, the Wolves have been outscored by 20.1 points per 100 possessions.
Corrosive development on defense
Heading into this season, the abiding question was whether head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders would properly emphasize the development of his young talent or make a byzantine chase for the playoffs with the veterans and stunt his team’s long-term prospects. Although the rash of injuries left Saunders no choice, it seems fairly clear now he was always leaning toward youth development.
But at this stage of this ongoing train-wreck of a season, a more troublesome question comes into focus: How well is the promise of youth actually being served by this dysfunctional carnage?
There are tangible signs that augur for optimism. In his own unflappable, maddeningly cautious manner, Wiggins is a slowly burgeoning star. Although LaVine still looks like a deer in the headlights, even as he imagines he is preening in the spotlight, he has begun to grasp such point-guard rudiments as the pocket-pass on the pick-and-roll play and the importance of maintaining pace when the ball is moving in the half-court offense. He will never be a quality point guard, but the experience he is getting will help round out his beguiling raw talent en route to him perhaps becoming a quality shooting guard. Muhammad continues to exhibit a relentless motor and thirst for the ball as rebounder and scorer that cements his status as a regular rotation player in the NBA. And Dieng is mostly surviving and occasionally flourishing through the palpable combat that is boot camp for any young big man who hopes to sustain a career out of the scrum-with-sinew skirmishes waged in the paint.
But what all four of these promising players are missing this season is the satisfaction and inspiration of successful teamwork.
This damaging void is most egregious on defense, where the Wolves are on pace to surrender the highest percentage of points from two-point and three-point field goals (measured as eFG%) of any team in NBA history. Put simply, this means that field-goal shooters make baskets on the Wolves more prolifically than they have against any other team — ever. Given the athleticism on Minnesota’s roster, this failure to thwart the opposition is less about physical talent and more about a glaring lack of wisdom and willpower.
While it is not entirely true that a team’s defense is only as strong as its weakest link (superb defenders can compensate for some gaffes by inferior teammates), teamwork in the NBA is epitomized by the ability to play consistent quality defense. Variations on the basic pick-and-roll play still account for a plurality, if not a majority, of the scoring strategies deployed by NBA offenses, so it is not as if defenses are clueless to what is coming at them. The key is to communicate and adjust quickly enough to avoid breakdowns and mismatches in coverage. That requires an equal mixture of concentration, experience and desire — the ingredients for intelligent, alert responses.
The Timberwolves, especially since Rubio’s injury, have demonstrated a shocking lack of concentration, experience and desire. They do not communicate. They do not sustain good habits. They boldly take plays off. What is most concerning is that, in terms of the youthful future of this franchise, these wretched defensive tendencies are being imprinted on blank slates. Dieng had a grand total of 818 minutes of NBA experience headed into this season. Muhammad had 290 minutes. Wiggins and LaVine had zilch, on top of just a single year in college.
Team defense is about trusting your cohorts to be active, alert and aware enough to fulfill their ever-evolving responsibilities on the fly. Bad defense is the product of a vicious downward spiral — failure to prevent a score erodes trust, which in turn erodes effort, which prevents experience from being beneficial. By contrast, preventing a score bolsters confidence and enhances accountability to sustain the success, engendering a positive dynamic between trust and effort, paying off in a beneficial learning experience.
Terrible team defense has exerted a blatantly negative impact on all four of the Wolves young rotation players this season. LaVine and Muhammad appear the least able to grasp the dynamics of flow and response, and because the team is so rarely successful at generating stops, a discernable pattern of proper response remains elusive, robbing them of initiative. Because Dieng is himself relatively undersized at center and is playing beside power forwards who are inevitably undersized and lacking in grit, he has a tendency to get overwhelmed and then frustrated, becoming more reckless and undisciplined in his coverage. Wiggins bears the enormous responsibility of being the Wolves “wing stopper,” the defender assigned to the opponents’ top perimeter scorer. The grind of his task coupled with the constant breakdowns of his teammates performing less rigorous assignments occasionally saps his resolve and concentration.
Of course all of these individual deficiencies compound and exacerbate each other, generating a rolling snowball of dysfunction when it comes to overall team defense. Throw in an offense that has its own share of dysfunction, for many of the same trust and teamwork reasons, and you have a team on pace to generate the fewest victories of any Wolves team in the already sorry and sordid history of this franchise.
The Wolves lack of improvement seemed to hit a new nadir with Saturday night’s home loss to Utah, a team that is also youthful and riddled by injuries, and who played way down in Atlanta just the night before. After the game, Saunders called it “about as bad a loss as we’ve had in a long time, at least that I’ve been associated with,” adding, “they ripped in and took our heart away.”
Asked how he can get through to his players and change the losing dynamic, Saunders responded, “playing time.” He vowed to make changes in the lineup after studying the tape and holding practice. Of course he has made similar threats before, and not followed through, but eleven losses in a row have a way of compelling even conflict-averse personalities like Flip to take a stand.
My humble suggestion would be to bench Thad Young for a couple of games. Some dramatic gesture is needed to shake Young out of his current funk, to call out and clarify his struggles, give him a little time to absorb it and then return with a clean slate. He hasn’t been the same since returning from bereavement leave after attending to the passing of his mother.
That’s the charitable interpretation. The caliber of Young’s play has left open the possibility that Young’s funk is deliberate, and that he is trying to force his way off a soul-enervating experience with an inept franchise he never chose to join. The most obvious precedent for this was the indifferent performance of forward Boris Diaw in Charlotte three years ago. Once Diaw found himself in San Antonio, the Cadillac of NBA franchises, it is amazing how much his play was transformed in all aspects of the game.
At the end of this season, Young will have the option of either staying in Minnesota next season for a salary of just under $10 million, or becoming a free agent. The glitch is that the best time to become a free agent is not next year, in the 2015-16 season, but the year after, in 2016-17, when a flood of additional media revenue is expected to boost the salary cap enough for even the quality, capped-out teams to have space to sign players. It would be entirely understandable for Young not to want to stay in Minnesota. But not many contenders will have salary cap room to pay him what the Wolves would owe him next season. So he either has to bide his time, take his chances on the free agent market next season, or perhaps find some way to alter that status quo.
Regardless of whether he is a sympathetic figure still trying to cope with the loss of the most fundamental person in his life, a conniver looking to wheedle his way out of town, or anything in between, Young has been a huge disappointment for the Wolves this season. I dealt with the specifics of this in a column I wrote three weeks ago, but if anything his play has further deteriorated since then.
Most recently, after the Wolves had labored to reduce a 20-point Utah lead down to eight in the middle of the fourth quarter on Saturday, Young allowed Utah’s interior to dominate with a slam dunk and offensive rebounds on the defensive end while clanking a pair of midrange jump shots on offense. Over a span of 1:46, that eight-point margin ballooned back up to 13 before Saunders called time out and removed Young from the game.
For the season, Young field-goal and free-throw percentages are the lowest of his eight-year career. His offensive rebounding percentage is 4.2, just a little over half of his 7.3 percent career average. Advanced statistical measures such as PER and WinShares rate him out to be a below-average NBA player. In a situation where he was widely expected to be one of the team’s leaders even before three other veterans were felled by significant injury, his performance has been the most surprising pratfall in a season laden with woe. Oh, and the Wolves traded a first-round draft pick — one they acquired from Miami, a team playing poorly enough to make the pick of fairly high value — to obtain him.
Putting Young on the bench, to start the game if not indefinitely, would send a message that team leaders need to set an example. Young has been protected by the horrible play of his backup, Anthony Bennett, but Saunders should leapfrog over Bennett and either start Muhammad or Robbie Hummel at power forward. Neither are as large or as experienced as Young, but that hasn’t seemed to matter thus far this season.
The Wolves are playing Denver tonight. In the last matchup between the two teams, the day after Christmas, Denver’s power forward Kenneth Faried feasted on his matchup with Young to the tune of 26 points and 25 rebounds in less than 30 minutes. Although two inches shorter than Faried (and Young), Muhammad has the conditioning, strength and desire to match his nonstop energy. And although Hummel is less athletic than Faried, Muhammad or Young, he is a disciplined team defender who can be an able backup — and had a superb fourth-quarter against this same Nuggets team in late December.
Until Rubio and Martin return, changes are necessary—and welcomed.