Minnesota Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell knew he had to do something.
It had been a dark six weeks for Mitchell’s crew since the night of the winter solstice, when the Wolves had their modest two-game winning streak snapped by Boston in a 14-point loss that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated. Thus began a torrent of ineptitude, pouring forth 19 losses in 22 games, with 11 of those defeats debacles in which the opponent left the Wolves double-digits behind.
Once again, the Wolves were piling up losses with a numbing, repetitious familiarity, so it was perhaps fitting that they landed in Los Angeles on Groundhog Day.
The previous week, respected Associated Press beat writer Jon Krawczynski had published a story claiming that, “There is a battle of wills going on in Minnesota between an old-school coach and a roster built around new-school talent,” and revealing that “nearly half the roster of 15 players privately expressed concerns to the Associated Press about Mitchell.” The article also noted that Kevin Garnett, whom Mitchell had mentored when both played for the Wolves in the 1990s, had pointedly refused to comment about fan criticism of Mitchell’s methods this season.
At the shoot-around before the Lakers game in L.A., the normally reclusive Garnett came over to the media to set his version of the record straight. “I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I am endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” KG announced. “I want you guys to understand that not only do I endorse Sam Mitchell but the other players do too.”
That night, the Wolves played perhaps their worst half of basketball in this entire wretched season, yielding 66 points to a team whose offense ranked next-to-last in the 30-team NBA. And although the Wolves would rally and make a game of it in the second half, the bottom line was their 20th loss in the past 23 games.
On the morning of Feb. 3, only four NBA teams had won-lost records that were worse than Mitchell’s Timberwolves. Two of them, Brooklyn and Phoenix, had already fired their head coach. A third, Philadelphia, had compelled the NBA to intervene in the front office machinations of team architect Sam Hinkie, adding other decision-makers to counter Hinkie’s strategy of blatantly tanking games to secure better draft choices.
The fourth was the Lakers, who had just vanquished the Wolves.
Mitchell wants to keep coaching this team next season and beyond. The record and the prevailing attitude about the course of the roster was making that notion increasingly far-fetched.
It was time — long past time, actually — to recalibrate.
A more sensible rotation
The night after the loss to the Lakers, the Wolves remained in Los Angeles to face the Clippers. Although the Clips were without star power forward Blake Griffin, they had already thrived in his absence, winning the past four in a row, and 16 of the past 19 games en route to their 32-16 record.
On the other end of the spectrum, this would be the eighth time in the 2015-16 season that the Wolves were playing a second game in as many nights. The previous seven back-to-back scenarios had resulted in losses.
The Wolves’ best defender, Garnett, was missing his sixth straight game; ditto shooting guard Kevin Martin, felled by a balky wrist and the sting of the Wolves being unsuccessful in the efforts to unload him in a trade. And center Nikola Pekovic delivered the latest indictment of his chronically ailing body, sitting out his second straight game after having his minutes steadily diminish in the five previous games when he had suited up.
Odds-makers had put the Wolves chances of winning at seven percent.
But at long last, Mitchell realized it was time to shake up the status quo.
When the glorious rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns picked up his second foul less than five minutes into the game, Mitchell substituted in three-point specialist Damjan Rudez, who had looked good in a stint the previous night after playing just 20 total minutes in three games since that loss to Boston on the winter solstice.
Even more significantly, when Ricky Rubio likewise picked up two fouls in the first 6:42 of the opening quarter, Mitchell only filled Rubio’s point guard slot with Zach LaVine for three and a half minutes before bringing in veteran Andre Miller and sliding LaVine over to shooting guard. LaVine wound up logging more than 34 minutes of action, and over 30 minutes of that time was spent at two-guard, with either Miller or Rubio manning the point.
These rotation changes by themselves were not close to being the reason the Wolves pulled off the near-miraculous upset, beating the Clippers 108-102. On offense, Andrew Wiggins hit a key basket with 46 seconds left to play to finish with 31 points overall. On defense, the aged-but-game Tayshaun Prince relentless chased Clippers shooting guard J.J. Redick around and through picks and harassed Redick into a 1-for-9 clank-fest from the field and a meager five points overall.
But Rudez and Miller were knowledgeable soldiers who limited the damage that could have been wreaked on a depleted lineup facing a superior foe. Miller finished minus-6 while racking up seven assists in 14:27 of playing time, his longest stint since late November. Rudez sank all three of his shot attempts, two of them from long range, and finished minus-3 in 18:25, his most extensive playing time since Dec. 13.
Three nights later, back home against the Chicago Bulls, the Wolves again benefited from Mitchell’s more sensible rotation. This time, with no foul trouble to force his decisions, Mitchell made LaVine his first man off the bench, moving Wiggins to small forward so he could rest Prince. When Rubio needed a break, Miller once again was called, keeping LaVine at shooting guard — all 35:41 of Zach’s minutes were spent at the position best suited for his skill set.
Meanwhile, after judiciously limiting Towns’ playing time the entire season, Mitchell turned him loose for a career-high 40:52 against the Bulls frontcourt, and steadfastly paired him with Gorgui Dieng, who logged a season-high 41:29. Not coincidentally, the Wolves gutted out their second victory in a row over an opponent destined for the playoffs with a winning record, this time by a score of 112-105.
After the game, I asked Mitchell two questions about the shifts in his rotation. Can he continue to play Towns and Dieng as much as 40 minutes apiece per game? And can he continue to lean more heavily on the 39-year old Miller to spell Rubio so LaVine can remain at shooting guard? His grinning answer was the same to both queries: “We’re going to find out.”
Persisting holes and the stakes ahead
And thus ends, at least temporarily, our feel-good snippet for the Wolves in February.
Two nights later, at home against the Pelicans, the Wolves again faced an exceptionally unpleasant scenario for this team — early foul trouble for both Rubio and Towns. Not wanting to burn out Miller, the oldest active player in the NBA, Mitchell subbed in LaVine at the point for nearly two minutes before sliding him to shooting guard at Miller’s insertion. And with Garnett and Pekovic still on the shelf, Rudez was again called upon to replace Towns beside Dieng in the frontcourt.
Ah, but Dieng needs a breather at some point, and Miller can go more than five or six minutes at a time before catching some time on the pine to recharge. So it happened that Mitchell brought in Adreian Payne for Dieng when the score was 28-27. New Orleans promptly erupted for 11 straight points in 101 seconds.
Mitchell then brought in Wiggins for Miller, moving LaVine to the point. After three more points extended the Pelicans’ run to 14-0, he called for Towns so that Payne could take an ignominious perp-walk to the bench. Less than two minutes later, after New Orleans had tacked another point on to what was now a 16-point lead, Rubio replaced LaVine. And less than a minute after that, Prince and Dieng restored the original starting lineup — just in time for a jumper by ex-Timberwolf Dante Cunningham, pushing the lead to 20 and culminating a 22-3 Pelicans run that essentially decided the outcome before halftime.
After the brutal loss, Mitchell was measured in his criticism, chalking it up to a team-wide “clunker” that inevitably occurs three or four times to every team over the course of an 82-game schedule.
Of course, if you trot out a frontcourt tandem of Adreian Payne and Damjan Rudez against a Pelicans squad that is long and deep in front court personnel, “clunkers” are not random circumstance. Payne was minus-13 in just 2:25 of play; Rudez minus-16 in eight second-quarter minutes.
Obviously, this wasn’t the rotation Mitchell would have preferred. The ongoing absence of Garnett, Pekovic and Martin and the limited minutes that can be accorded Miller, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Prince, makes the roster’s lack of depth a glaring flaw and puts players in a position to fail.
Fine. But even after that two-win boomlet, the standings offer cold facts. The Wolves continue to sport a better won-lost record than only four teams. Three of those teams have experienced massive shakeups in either their coaching ranks or front office personnel, while the other team, the Lakers, is ostentatiously staging a farewell tour for future Hall-of-Famer Kobe Bryant as a way to mask reality: that if they don’t have one of the top three picks in next summer’s draft, they will lose it to Philadelphia under the terms of a previous trade. More than any other ballclub, the Lakers need to tank their season.
We have heard Mitchell’s justifications for the disappointing record, and some of them have merit. The roster is exceedingly young and unschooled. The top priority is the development of the cornerstones, Towns and Wiggins. Lessons are being taught at the first fundamentals, the most basic levels of instruction.
But at the end of this season, there needs to be a reckoning. The Timberwolves are on the way to having back-to-back rookies of the year. The reason why that has never happened before in the NBA is because the prevailing talent of the first rookie should be sufficient to ensure you don’t get a chance to acquire another rookie stud.
Obviously, last season’s brilliant stealth tanking overrode that obstacle. But boasting two premiere young players and still looking at a scenario where you lose twice as often as you win? That’s not a good bargaining position for Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton to be in at the end of the 2015-16 campaign.
The most positive comparison that can be made is to the 2008-09 edition of the Oklahoma City Thunder, when the team finished 23-59 despite having rookie Russell Westbrook and second-year forward Kevin Durant as a pair of 20-year old future superstars. But a key difference is that the Thunder finished strong, going 18-27 from early January through the close of the season. They also experienced a coaching change, from P.J. Carlesimo to Scottie Brooks, shortly before that surge.
After tonight’s home game against the Toronto Raptors, the NBA will have its annual All-Star break, extended to more than a week this season, and followed by the trading deadline. Mitchell says the plan is to meet with Newton and owner Glen Taylor to take stock and determine the best way to proceed.
In my next column, I’ll offer up my own thoughts on how the franchise should pivot into the final 28 games after the break. For now, the biggest takeaway is that, thanks to Towns and Wiggins, the long-term future has never looked brighter.
Or put another way, the stakes have never been higher.