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The Wolves’ losing culture

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Mo Williams was his typically lackadaisical self, pretending to guard people on defense in a 113-111 defeat at home versus the Phoenix Suns.

The excuses are real but insufficient. The Minnesota Timberwolves have lost three absolutely crucial players to injury for a period lasting nearly two months now. That is certainly just cause for extended ineptitude.   

But the caliber of the performance by this team has been even worse than their wretched situation.

The Wolves are currently mired in a 13-game losing streak that has plunged their record to 5-29—an 11-win pace over the course of an 82-game season. (That would obliterate the 15-win nadir that occurred in both the 1991-92 and the 2009-10 seasons.) Of those 13 losses, nine came against teams with losing records and seven of them were home games. It was a relatively easy part of the schedule.

Sometimes the Wolves have played valiantly, teasing fans with the potential of what this fairly talented young roster may be able to do when they are healthy, motivated, and a bit more experienced. Just as often they have embarrassed themselves and the organization with performances that mix lackluster energy, selfish behavior and chronically clueless “team” play. Usually, of course, the varying dynamics which lead to the ups and downs are alternately ascendant, creating the sine waves of competent/incompetent performance that ululate through quarters, games, home stands, road trips and so forth until the season is over. It is meant to be a glorious grind, which is why the people who do it get paid the big bucks.

But it remains a test of character — for individual players and coaches and for the abiding identity of the team and the franchise — to elevate both the highs and the lows on the performance roller coaster. That means battling to mitigate as much of the prevailing adversity as possible, ignoring the temptations of self-pity. And it means using genuine signs of positive growth as a new toehold to continue pivoting and climbing, instead of as a rest stop to bask in what then inevitably becomes a temporary accomplishment.

To put it more bluntly: Culture matters. And right now the Timberwolves are not only a losing team, they are fostering a losing culture. 

Not enough accountability

The Wolves latest loss — a 113-111 defeat at home versus the Phoenix Suns — was relatively encouraging, if your barometer is the general performance of a team that has won once since the day after Thanksgiving. And that was clearly the measure being deployed by head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders in his postgame comments.

The previous time Saunders met the media after a game, the Wolves had delivered one of their worst performances of the season—no mean feat—in a dispiriting home defeat versus Utah. Saunders himself called it “about as bad a loss as we’ve had in a long time” and claimed the opponent “took our heart away.” To remedy the situation, he vowed changes in playing time.

Unfortunately, before the next game, against Denver last Monday, Saunders fell prey to the flu that also robbed the Wolves of Robbie Hummel and Chase Budinger, complicating lineup decisions. Even so, the lone change in the rotation—swapping in veteran Mo Williams for teenager Zach LaVine at point guard—was hardly the message-sending shakeup Saunders seemed to imply was necessary after the Utah debacle. Williams had started seven games before being waylaid by a back injury in early December, and LaVine was a better candidate for the developmental D-League than an NBA starting lineup before Rubio went down.

In any case, Saunders opened his postgame comments after the Phoenix loss by saying, “we had some growth in some of our guys.” He mentioned heralded top draft pick Andrew Wiggins, who has indeed been the signal bright spot of the Timberwolves season thus far. Then, right after Wiggins, Saunders said, “And Mo of course played good.”

Yes, Mo Williams played good — on offense. He had 24 points and 11 assists and was a team-best plus-7 in 35 minutes played in a two-point loss. But Williams was his typically lackadaisical self, pretending to guard people on defense.

Ironically, Saunders confirmed this in the very next sentences after praising Williams. Ticking off the names of the Suns backcourt continent one by one—Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Gerald Green and Isiash Thomas—he said “We needed Wiggins to guard all four of those guys and he could only guard one [at a time].”

The obvious and correct implication was that Williams couldn’t effectively guard any of them. With Bledsoe, Dragic and Thomas all capable of playing the point, the Suns simply ran their offense through whoever was Williams’ defensive assignment.

If you look at the overall numbers, there is a temptation to think that Williams isn’t so bad defensively for Minnesota. The Wolves give up 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when he plays compared to when he sits. Plumb a little deeper, however, and you see how abject ineptitude enables players to evade accountability.

With Williams on the floor, the Wolves still give up 110.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Only three NBA teams have a worse ratio over the course of the season—the Wolves, and the bottom-feeding Lakers and Knicks. The reason Williams compares well to the Wolves’ overall team ratio is because 19-year old Zach LaVine was thrown into the NBA fray at a demanding and unfamiliar position with less than a 1000 minutes of college experience. Consequently, when LaVine is on the court, the Wolves yield an astounding 117.2 points per 100 possessions. Because Williams and LaVine play the same position, Williams has the enormous advantage, from a defensive charting standpoint, of never having LaVine’s diseased defensive prowess affect his numbers.

If you want to know what quality defense at the point looks like, the Wolves cede just 101.7 points per 100 possessions with Rubio on the court this season. Yes, it is a tiny sample size, so let’s look at Rubio’s career total—104.8 points per 100 possessions over three-plus seasons, which is 3.9 points better than his team performs when he sits. By contrast, teams Williams has played for over the past ten-plus seasons allow 108.6 points per 100 possessions when he plays and 107.6 points when he doesn’t.

Look, nobody expected Mo Williams to be a defensive stalwart for the Wolves. He is a veteran taking on more minutes than expected and running the offense much better than LaVine. But it is very obvious to anyone who watches that he expends much more energy on offense than defense—sometimes he literally seems to rest on defense to gather energy for the other end of the court. He knows the injury situation and he knows how relatively invaluable he is until Rubio’s return, and so he plays the way he prefers to play. This was noticeably injurious against the Suns and their deep contingent of quick playmakers in the backcourt. Saunders directly inferred as much—right after praising Williams for “of course” playing well.

Here’s another eye-opening postgame comment from the coach following the Phoenix loss: “This game was probably as good a 48-minute stretch as we’ve played from beginning to end.” Even if we assume he meant during the losing streak, or compared to the stench of the Utah game, you simply can’t say that after your squad yields 42 points in the fourth quarter en route to blowing a game you once led by 13 points, and still held a seven-point advantage going into that final stanza. That’s not “beginning to end.”

Speaking of “beginning,” in the first half against Phoenix, veteran power forward Thad Young missed all five of his shots and had one rebound, one steal and two turnovers in 11:23 of play. In the second half, Young sank six of 13 shots, grabbed seven rebounds, doled out four assists and one block with zero turnovers in 17:34 of play. Subbing in for Young, Anthony Bennett had his best game in a month for the Wolves, with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

After the game, I asked Saunders what he thought was the reason for the inconsistent halftime splits demonstrated by both Young and Bennett, putting emphasis on Young’s performance. “Thad had some shots early, didn’t make some shots. The one thing with young teams especially, is that many times the energy comes from making shots. And when you don’t make shots you lose your energy. And that is something we — we have to create energy out of our defense, not out of our offense and that is something we are trying to work on,” Saunders replied.

That’s a pretty damning statement; a theory that Young, a 26-year old veteran in his eighth year, wouldn’t naturally try as hard if his shot wasn’t going down.

Thad Young, like Mo Williams, represent what amounts to the precious remaining core of healthy veterans in the current player rotation. Rather than demanding leadership from this duo in particular, Saunders has chosen to overlook glaring flaws in their games.

Meanwhile, players who live on hustle, such as swingman Corey Brewer and undersized center Jeff Adrien, are traded and waived, respectively. 

Delicate and disillusioning

I understand the delicate situation Saunders is in. He correctly surmised Brewer wouldn’t stay with a rebuilding team and chose to swing a deal for three-point specialist Troy Daniels. (It would make more sense if he played Daniels more often.) Adrien has been effective but is of little use against leviathan opposing centers, such as Roy Hibbert of Indiana tonight. In addition, keeping him would have required he be paid for the entire season.

I also understand that Saunders needs his veterans not to mutiny and thus make a bad situation worse. The obvious rejoinder, of course, is how much worse could it get? At the very least, you can’t stand at the podium and imply that it is time to get tough on playing time and then continue to give Young his regular role in the starting lineup and elevate Williams to that starting lineup. Nobody is paying closer attention to the nuances of this than the players. They know when the talk is cheap.

One player signaled out for criticism by Saunders after the Phoenix game was Shabazz Muhammad, who didn’t stay with a suddenly red-hot Gerald Green and was thus burned for a trio of quick three-pointers to start that fateful fourth quarter. Saunders, who quickly subbed in the resting Wiggins, specifically cited those defensive lapses as the reason Muhammad didn’t get back in the game.

Maybe that’s part of a clever long game for the coach. He’s been very hard on LaVine this season, as well as Muhammad, and has called out Wiggins for a lack of hustle at various points this season. These are the guys he is banking on for a brighter future, and he correctly noted after the Phoenix game that for this franchise, “the biggest thing is the growth of Wiggins.” In that sense, he is accomplishing his mission.

But if you want to reward effort and diligence, Muhammad epitomizes the concept even as Young rebuts it with their respective performances thus far this season. As I have mentioned before, perhaps it is time to light a fire under Young, if possible, and see if Bazzy, at just 6-6 in height, can handle the power forward for stints. To the naked eye, he plays as rugged as Young in the low block—indeed, both he and Wiggins are outrebounding the 6-8 Young thus far this season.

At the very least, watching veterans like Young and Williams circumscribe their games is one of the more disillusioning parts of this dreadful season. It contributes to a losing culture. Saunders knows his personnel and the inner dynamics of his team much better than I do, so perhaps his hands are tied. But as President of Basketball Operations as well as coach, he’s the one with all the rope. 

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Bob Collins on 01/09/2015 - 11:39 am.

    The luckiest people in basketball

    (1) Rick Adelman

    (2) Me — Because I decided renewing season tickets with a 20 percent price increase didn’t pass the smell test.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/09/2015 - 11:58 am.

    COULD Williams

    at his age, play all out at both ends of the court for 30+ minutes a game? That’s not what he was hired for.
    The bottom line is that the Wolves are playing D-league players as regulars; they’re not going to win a whole lot.
    IF Rubio can come back and play real minutes at full speed this year, everyone will look better.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/09/2015 - 12:41 pm.

    Relegation

    The problem with American professional sports is that there is no relegation or promotion system. The teams simply are not under pressure to produce. What this also means is that the fans are stuck with bad owners, sometimes for decades. Wouldn’t it be great if somehow the T-Wolves could be demoted to a minor league to be replaced by a team, hopefully with an ownership team capable of putting a good team on the court?

  4. Submitted by Ian Stade on 01/09/2015 - 12:55 pm.

    Who’s our coach next season?

    Britt,

    This is starting to make me think the Wolves need to transition to a permanent coach sooner rather than later. My memory might be failing but I recall Flip was fired as coach because he lost control of the locker room. If he has having trouble motivating the players already, why not look for new coach soon? I don’t have anybody in mind. I’m glad we avoided the Blatt grenade – sounds like he is having his own trouble in Cleveland.

  5. Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 01/09/2015 - 03:39 pm.

    Thanks Britt. Another thinker. Easy to miss the implications of Flip’s post game comments.

    On the simplest of levels, it was nice to have an exciting game Wednesday where Wiggins played pretty well. I hope we see more of this. Losing 19 of 20 is never fun for anyone involved.

    On a global level, I have more or less resigned to the fact that striking gold in this draft was always the only way to climb through this absolute war zone of a conference. Even in good health, this team was clearly “2-3 pieces away” from ever really doing anything and was destined for the no-mans land territory we saw in the Adelman-era….close, but then never enough assets to make the move needed to go over the top. One of the problems with the Love trade was there were zero follow up roster moves of any significance to open up chances to rebuild the team. Maybe this speaks to Flip’s perception of himself on blending it all together on the court, or maybe that is a reach.

    While it’s on the front office to add that second piece, hopefully they can in the draft. It is a sickening , defeatist, and very familiar pattern, but at the same time…..

    At first I was fine with the approach Flip took this summer. The youth+vets blend seemed like a good idea at the time to me, but now I see the flaws and think getting out of some of these deals and creating some breathing room on a terribly crowded, unbalanced and very fragile roster is a critical need for this front office.

  6. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 01/09/2015 - 04:11 pm.

    It’s so easy…

    It is easy to forget how this team looked at the beginning of the year. I thought .500 was possible, although maybe Britt doesn’t agree. All the negativity I feel now and all that I read in the comments wouldn’t be here if not for the three big injuries. I think the “losing culture” wouldn’t be so apparent if everyone were healthy. I think some perspective needs to be maintained.

    The good news on the injury front: faster development Wiggins and the emergence of Bazz. Also probably the growth of Gorgui, although he’s probably playing too many minutes. Also, Lavine will never be “an NBA caliber player” unless he gets time on the floor, but maybe he would have been in a development league or at least not playing so many minutes in important parts of the game. He could have learned a lot playing next to Rubio. And without all the injuries Brewer would still be here pushing and inspiring.

    The bad news as I see it: Pek will probably never again be a full time player I wonder if he’d last longer if he played lighter. That ain’t all muscle he’s carrying.

    That’s my two cents. Keep writin’ ’em, Britt.

  7. Submitted by Tom Om on 01/09/2015 - 05:04 pm.

    Williams, Young

    Good post, especially the analysis of Williams’ stats.
    Now we can understand why Utah didn’t want Williams to mentor Trey Burke, and why Portland gave-up on his services after one year.
    I agree that Saunders should bench Williams, but I am not so sure about Young. Loosing a parent can be devastating, and can affect the ability to function normally for a long period.

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/09/2015 - 06:31 pm.

    Circling the drain

    I’ve been a die-hard NBA fan since I can remember, and a Wolves fan since we got a team. This year, I experienced a strange phenomena – a Wolves game was on TV and I didn’t even bother to turn it on. I’ve stuck by this team, even attending every game during a particularly tragic season (2008-09), but our recent play just really stinks. It’s tested my patience as a fan of hoops to watch, especially after such a promising start to the season.

    I think the losing culture you mention is a bit of a byproduct of several factors. Losing our three best players means that there is far less flexibility on this roster to actually address the problems. Benching Mo or Thad Young means giving minutes to their clearly inferior backups – a laughable proposition if this team is going to compete on a regular basis. (As a brief and partial defense of Young, his skillset is not properly taken advantage of in this offense)

    And so I’ve got some sympathy for Flip’s situation. As a coach, he’s doing what he can to retain control of the development of his players, and as POBO, he’s made some moves that work counter to that. Case in point is probably dumping Brewer, a motor guy who also acted as PG of Last Resort, which would come in handy about now. And while I’m a huge Shabazz fan (and criticized the pick when we made it), I have no problem with Flip benching him when he makes mental lapses.

    We’re just so limited from a roster standpoint. We went into the season with three centers, and now essentially have one. We expected Rubio and Martin to play heavy minutes at our guard positions, now those options aren’t there. The heavy minutes foisted upon Wiggins, Dieng, and Muhammad are necessary and welcome, but I really don’t want them out there with LaVine and Bennett – they need to play with some veterans to help understand the nuances of the NBA. I don’t see how Flip (or any coach) could turn this team around without the return of some of our starters.

  9. Submitted by Tim Brausen on 01/09/2015 - 11:22 pm.

    Time to play the kids

    Thanks for calling out Williams and Young, they’ve been hideous on defense and pretty selfish on offense for weeks, and both seem to call their own number in clutch time with poor results (Young’s erratic free throw shooting has cost them many a comeback.) Good teams are built on defense, and this team is far from even a mediocre defensive team. Hopefully Young gets traded for another draft pick, though Brewer no doubt had more value. Wiggins, Dieng and maybe Muhammad will be around if the Wolves ever get good again, maybe Rubio if he’s not chronically hurt (10 weeks plus for an ankle sprain is very worrisome, he’s starting to look as lame as Pek.)

    Given that the year continues to be about player development, I wish Flip would play LaVine and some of the other kids more, let them learn from making mistakes. It really can’t get any worse and they might get the number 3 pick (I presume that’s their ceiling in the farcical lottery.)

  10. Submitted by Tom Om on 01/10/2015 - 01:36 pm.

    PG

    I understand Anton’s worry that excessive playing time to LaVine as a PG (I can see him as a great SG) might impede the development of Wiggins and Dieng. Jeff German suggested signing Nat Walters.
    I was thinking about Gal Mekel, a first pass, high motor guy that can play defense. The Pacers wanted to sign him, but couldn’t due to visa issues that probably were solved by now.

  11. Submitted by Jeff Germann on 01/13/2015 - 12:29 pm.

    Losing culture…

    Someone was talking in another forum about how we have been terrible for 10 years and pretty much every terrible team has had at least 1 year where they’ve been able to get out of the muck to give their fans a dose of good basketball. So why are the wolves so bad for so long and why have we bred this losing culture?

    To me..there are 3 things that really come into play: Bad ownership. Bad management and Bad Luck. I know 1 and 2 are “kind of” the same…but you can have a bad owner who can pick a good manager/GM. Or good owners who pick bad managers/GM’s. If you can get any 1 of the 3 going for you…you have a chance to get out of the losing culture. (1 hit on draft day can change your fortunes). Look at Cleveland and draft picks. That’s good luck…even with a crappy owner.

    Our problem is we really cant get a break on any of the 3 and that’s why we have a losing culture.

    The only positive I take on this was that our luck might have changed with Lebron deciding to go to Cleveland and that allowing us to make the Love/Wiggins deal. To me..that was good luck on our part. So….maybe….its changing?

  12. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 01/09/2015 - 06:31 pm.

    Circling the drain

    I’ve been a die-hard NBA fan since I can remember, and a Wolves fan since we got a team. This year, I experienced a strange phenomena – a Wolves game was on TV and I didn’t even bother to turn it on. I’ve stuck by this team, even attending every game during a particularly tragic season (2008-09), but our recent play just really stinks. It’s tested my patience as a fan of hoops to watch, especially after such a promising start to the season.

    I think the losing culture you mention is a bit of a byproduct of several factors. Losing our three best players means that there is far less flexibility on this roster to actually address the problems. Benching Mo or Thad Young means giving minutes to their clearly inferior backups – a laughable proposition if this team is going to compete on a regular basis. (As a brief and partial defense of Young, his skillset is not properly taken advantage of in this offense)

    And so I’ve got some sympathy for Flip’s situation. As a coach, he’s doing what he can to retain control of the development of his players, and as POBO, he’s made some moves that work counter to that. Case in point is probably dumping Brewer, a motor guy who also acted as PG of Last Resort, which would come in handy about now. And while I’m a huge Shabazz fan (and criticized the pick when we made it), I have no problem with Flip benching him when he makes mental lapses.

    We’re just so limited from a roster standpoint. We went into the season with three centers, and now essentially have one. We expected Rubio and Martin to play heavy minutes at our guard positions, now those options aren’t there. The heavy minutes foisted upon Wiggins, Dieng, and Muhammad are necessary and welcome, but I really don’t want them out there with LaVine and Bennett – they need to play with some veterans to help understand the nuances of the NBA. I don’t see how Flip (or any coach) could turn this team around without the return of some of our starters.

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