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.