No better time than Super Bowl Sunday to delve into the particulars of hardly anyone's favorite basketball team, right*?
I know you, reader, better than you know yourself, and at some point, possibly during NBC's examination of Tom Brady's chin dimple's magical powers to heal sick baby otters, you thought to yourself, "My God, I'd rather read a homer's take on the Minnesota Timberwolves than listen to this stuff." You were being facetious, but all the same, YOU ARE WELCOME. Also, reader, you are correct--you have been pleasuring yourself a lot more lately, and it is freaking out your parents/lover/kitties. (am I scaring you with how much I know about you, reader? Don't be scared. It is our secret.) (Did the italics kind of make that creepier? Good.)
If you haven't been here in the Twin Cities, you don't know how desperately bad it has been. I mean, you surely have some idea, if you follow basketball. But you don't really know. You don't remember Ricky Davis being here. You don't remember Nbudi Ebi, or Will Avery, or Marko Jaric. You probably don't remember the brief hope we held that Eddie Griffin was going to turn his life around here. Instead, he did something in a car he was driving, and later committed suicide (or maybe he was just super drunk) by driving into a moving train. It felt like an apt metaphor for the team as a whole.
But surely, you've sat on your undeniably nice butt, and have watched some SportsCenter highlights of Ricky Rubio alley-ooping to every guy in a Wolves jersey outside of Luke Ridnour. You know the Wolves are better now. Hell, three games ago, a blogger at NBA.com suggested that the Wolves might make the playoffs. That's borderline crazy talk, and yeah, that blogger has the dubiously super-white name of Fran Blinebury, but still--it happened.
You, dear reader, might point out statistics like: the Wolves have won more games on the road this season than they did all of last year. Or that they've won 12 games out of 24, compared to the 15 out of 82 last year.
And you are right. Let's get into the whys and wherefores and whos and hows and whats and all that.
Coaching Matters. It is safe to say that everyone who watches basketball knows this. So how did the management team at the Wolves take it for granted for so long? The Wolves have been in the league since 1989, and exactly one coach (Flip Saunders) has taken them to the playoffs. The record under various coaches is staggering--The Timberwolves have had eight coaches who led the team in at least 100 games. If you remove Flip Saunders from that mix, you get a combined record of 255-686, which we can all agree--that's terrible.
I defended Kurt Ramis a number of times (more in his first year as a coach than his second year, when the Wolves were barely on TV) and I was wrong on that front. And David Kahn was wrong to hire him in the first place--but Kahn corrected that move, and bringing in Rick Adelman has undeniably been a major factor in the improvement of the Wolves. He's upgraded the offense and defense in pretty surprisingly quick fashion, considering the lack of time to practice every team in the NBA has had to deal with this shortened season. One of the biggest improvements, but one of the least talked about, is their defense, particularly in the fourth quarter. Last year, they were dead last in opponent's field goal percentage in the fourth. Last time I checked, the Wolves were now in the Top 5 in that category. And if a game is close in the fourth quarter, it is a winnable game. Especially with a functioning offense.
Kurt Rambis' triangle, that simply did not fit the players here, is gone (maybe, at some point, we could discuss how the Triangle really works well if you have one of the best shooting guards in a generation, and otherwise? Shrug). There's an undeniable synchronicity here--Rick Adelman brings in a great pick and roll game just as the Wolves are welcoming a devastating pick and roll point guard in...
Ricky Rubio. A lot of the national media assumed that Ricky would never play with the Timberwolves. That the very fact that David Kahn had drafted him had doomed him. That he could never survive a Minnesota winter, and if he did, he'd be so disappointed in his teammates that he'd demand a trade. That seems pretty goddamn unlikely at this early point--Ricky's shooting percentage is total trah (though (somewhat oddly) he is shooting an impressive 44% from the three-point line on the road) but he's had more double digit assist games than any Wolves point guard I can remember since oft-injured Terrell Brandon. Ricky's shooting percentage is terrible, as I said, but when you watch his games, it does feel like he hits the ones that matter. And meanwhile, as you've seen, dear reader and national highlights watcher, his assists are often breath-taking. And he's still all of twenty-one years old.
He also boards pretty well (he is 6' 4", which surprises folks) and plays smart defense. He's as good or better as advertised. Something that doesn't get mentioned enough--his intensity and leadership on the floor. I've read multiple local stories about how he takes charge on the floor. Hugely important for a team that has had a distinct dearth of leadership on the floor (to the point where there was some discussion of changing the team name to the Distinct Dearths).
So those are the changes--the rest of the roster is essentially the same (with the obvious exception of rookie Derrick Williams, who happens to play the most log-jammed spot for the Wolves). JJ Barea is also new, and does figure to help out a great deal, but he's barely played, as he is just now getting back from a nagging hamstring injury. Oh, and Brad Miller, too. but he's yet to play 10 minutes in a game.
That's how you take a terrible team and make them a .500 team after 24 games played. But some of those same old issues continue, and need to be addressed before this team can really take the next step.
Who's the 2? A rotating band of guys have been taking turns at that. Most recently, as Rick Adelman has given Ricky more and more minutes at the point, it's been Luke Ridnour. He's had some excellent games--last night's win over the Rockets, for example--where he went 8-14 (4-6 from 3 PT) and scored 22 points. But he still plays a style I described in his first game as a Timberpup, back in 2010: "started hot, continued shooting when he wasn't particularly hot and then got hot again at the end, and maybe played a little spazzy at times when I was expecting him to slow the game down a bit." He's one of the closest things to a savvy veteran**** the Wolves have right now, and he's still a little spazzy at odd times. The kind of thing that doesn't kill your team, but does make you scratch your head--and he's not really a shooting guard (his height alone makes it problematic).
Playing Ridnour and Rubio together has been working, but it definitely feels like it shouldn't. But options are limited--Wayne Ellington must be frustrating the hell out of the coaching staff behind the scenes. He goes from playing 15 minutes and scoring 13 points to being a Coach's Decision (as he was last night). Martell Webster brings amazing defensive intensity, and a pretty sweet mohawk (no matter what some people say) but has been so injury prone that it is hard to sit back confidently and say, "Yes, Martell Webster will play 40 games this season." Martell also makes me nervous because he fits a classic Wolves gambit--"Hey, that dude f**ked us up pretty good when he played against us--let's bring him in!"
The only problem is a lot of dudes f**k us up pretty good, even now. Please witness Anthony Morrow's 40+ effort from a couple of nights ago (in a losing effort for the Nets). Crazy random fact--Martell Webster's mother was probably killed by the Green River Killer. (I just read a damn good graphic novel about that!) The shooting guard is pretty important to an offensive's efficiency--it has "shooting" right in the job description, after all--and with KLOVE and Rubio drawing so much attention, someone who can make it rain consistently on this team would make them more dangerous by a large factor.
Who's the 3? I mentioned the log-jam when briefly mentioning Derrick Williams. This will probably be his position as he learns how to play it in the NBA, and good lord, look out when that happens, because the kid is just irresponsibly talented, physically speaking. But he may never be a small forward--his one on one defense at that spot has looked iffy at times this year.
There's also Wes Johnson, whose step backwards this year is a conundrum to be sure. A guy who joined Stephon Marbury as the only Wolves rookies to hit 100 3-Pointers, he looks a little unsure as to his role. He went 2-6 last night, and one of those was a perfectly executed alley-oop from Ricky Rubio (who, Jesus Pooped On The Cross!**, loves to throw those things). Wes has had good games--he tied a Wolves record for perfect shooting early this season by going 6-6, and those were from all over the floor. Speaking of inconsistency, let's talk about maybe the most talented player on the Wolves--Michael Beasley.
I say, "let's talk", but I really don't know what to say about Beasley. There are games, when he is focused and engaged, where he seems like the second-coming of Kobe Bryant (but without the allegations of rape--Beasley's far too mellow for that stuff). Slashing drives into the lane, hitting floaters, stepping back and popping and drawing fouls like no one's business. When the Wolves beat Houston in late January, Beasley was unstoppable--10 of 14 from the field, 12 of 12 from the stripe. A week later, against the same team, he was 3-9 and had a +/- of -7 (team worst). I don't mean to suggest that there are games when Beasley isn't engaged--I think he is either engaged or TOO ENGAGED. He gets a little too wrapped up in what he is doing, and gets away from the team a bit. What I'd really like to see from Beasley is for his assist numbers go up a little--he can shake guys as well as anyone, but too often he just runs into traffic for no good reason, and makes a tough shot tougher.
I have a feeling that if any of these guys really brought defensive intensity to their role, they would jump to the top of the list. It is telling, as of last night, that it's the one spot on the floor where no one can carve out 25 minutes of time. Rubio, Ridnour and KLOVE (the 1, 2 and 4) all went over 30 minutes--Johnson, Williams and Beasley all played under 20 minutes, and Webster probably logged some minutes officially at the 3 as well.
[Intermission]--I've been wondering when KLOVE was going to get sick of the lack of calls he's not getting, and it may have happened tonight, but it is hard for me to know for sure whether he intentionally STEPPED ON LUIS SCOLA's FACE. Take a look for yourself. And do remember that Scola did happen to throw a ball right into KLOVE's KLOVESACK*** just a week ago (whilst trying to save a ball from out of bounds.) Said Kevin, after the game, "He was right there, it happened to be his face just like in Houston where it happened to be my groin.” Hmm.
Who's the 5? We are getting some clarity here, and it is looking more and more like Nikola Pekovich (who I have f**king loved since Day 1) is getting his chance. After his first game in 2010, I wrote, if I may quote myself here, "He'll take some time adjusting to what is and isn't a foul in the NBA...but he'll get there. And when he does, he'll probably start stealing minutes from Darko Milicic." Now, to be fair, I was excited by Pekovic because of his tattoo featuring a warrior standing on a pile of skulls, and his Ivan Drago/Schwarzenegger quotes (like: "This is the only time I want to come [to the NBA], some time when I am man and all this.")
The Wolves signed Darko Milicic to a deal, that was kind of derided by folks until they realized that it wasn't that much money, NBA wise, and that given the dearth of big men in the league, it wasn't the worst thing in the world. Darko's had a rough start to the year, with injuries and illness, and Pekovic has stepped into that void, and provided some stability to a position on the Wolves roster that is really about converting close in and being ready for both crazy passes and rebounds.
Pekovic seems to get that part of the game extremely well. He's highly efficient around the basket, a monster on the boards (and maybe just a monster in general. Have you seen him?). He's also a much better free-throw shooter than Darko--75% compared to to 58% (career). Mike Fratello opined on the NBA Network that the Wolves were paying Darko an awful lot of money to be the second string, but Darko is being paid almost exactly $100,000 more than Pekovic, and they are both below $5 million this year, so that seems like a really, really silly argument, put forth by someone who has just glancing knowledge of the situation. (No offense, Mike!).
So, no big deal, right? Just need to confirm our center, figure out the small forward and find a shooting guard who isn't a point guard. No problem at all. But for now, and I'm sure I speak for all fans of the Wolves, and fans of the NBA in general--we're quite alright with a super-young, exciting, and competent Wolves team.
*my favorite team, though. I've divided my life, at almost 50/50 between DC and St. Paul. But it is really easy to close the book on the Wizards, and has been, since, what, 1996? I barely cared when they got John Wall. And it looks like that was a good reaction, mental health wise. Just sayin'. The Wizards are f**king terrible, and as a Wolves fan, we've seen what happens when you replace Flip Saunders with Randy Wittman. It worked out GREAT! That's why Randy Wittman is still here, and hasn't been fired by every franchise that has ever hired him.
**yes, I'm trying to make that a phrase that people use. "Jesus Pooped On the Cross, what a f**king game!" and so on.
***that's what people are calling Kevin Love's balls now. Trust me, I'm a blogger.
****It annoys me more than it should that the Google Search of "Trent Tucker Savvy Veteran" doesn't come up with a video of Trent Tucker saying, "SAH-vee VET-TER-ran"