Timberwolves overwhelmed by everybody

Categories: Sports
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      Photo by orangeacid

Timberwolves' owner Glen Taylor announced on Tuesday that he was reducing the price of 95% of season tickets, some to as low as $5 per game. "I believe in the value that a franchise brings to the community," he said in a press release, "and I don't want these economic times to stand in the way of providing a home-court advantage for our team and our players."

Hate to tell you dude, but as far as home-court advantage goes, the economy is the least of your worries. 

After the Wolves' miserable 118-94 loss to the Golden State Warriors, easily their worst effort of the Kevin McHale (coaching). McHale is generally a voluble, friendly guy and one who would rather get kicked in the face than publicly criticize his players. This makes the quiet rage he was secreting after the game all the more unsettling. The team "didn't do anything...didn't compete," he fumed. Right on both counts guy.

Welcome to the Jungle

In the generally homogeneous world of U.S. pro sports, the Warriors, as coached by the Yeltsin-esque Don Nelson are about as close to pure smash-the-state anarchists as it gets.  The team's entire approach to basketball is to radically destabilize the game, to create confusion and disorder and to exploit the opportunities that arise from the chaos.  Their players are almost uniformly between 6'5" and 6'10" (all are athletic, nearly all get shoot from long range) and are aligned in ways that bear almost no discernible relationship to traditional positions on the floor.

Nelson's substitution patterns are erratic to the point of randomness, calculated solely, it seems, to create the strangest, most confusing one-on-one mismatches possible (i.e. someone like the Wolves' Brian Cardinal attempting to guard the Warriors' explosive, slashing Corey Maggette). And the team lacks any systematic offensive idea beyond the mandate to run and shoot as often and as quickly as possible.

Just for the record: despite the Warriors' indifferent defense and Nelson's erratic, autocratic style, I think it's pretty awesome that this team exists, if for no other reason than that their appetite for destruction serves as a (much needed) counterbalance to much of the league's conservatism and stolidity. And if you thought the whole thing was just a nihilistic exercise, consider again their ridiculous 2007 playoff run. The Warriors were loaded with talent (Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Al Harrington, Steven Jackson, Monta Ellis, among others) and were able to completely unhinge the buttoned-up 67-win Dallas Mavericks. Not coincidentally, they also produced some of the most creative, ecstatic basketball I've ever seen.

This Warriors team is a far cry from that magical '07 squad and yet the Wolves witlessly fell into every trap they set. Following Golden State's manic example, they played one-on-one basketball, taking quick, contested shots, unable to muster up any ball movement or flow. Their lack of care on offense translated into confused, lackadaisical defense; the Warriors' shooters found themselves constantly open, especially in transition.

Paradise City

This game truly was a monstrosity, but, despite McHale's tendency to focus his postgame comments on the mistakes and minutiae that led to his team's loss, there are problems here that no amount of strategic tweaking or improved effort will fix. The simple fact is that the Wolves are simply overmatched against almost every team they play.

This is not to say that, Tuesday night's loss notwithstanding, the Wolves can't be competitive. Indeed, since Al Jefferson has been out, they have been running a high-paced motion offense, predicated on constant screening, cutting and ball movement. And, for parts of almost every game, they've played since the injury, they've looked incredible. Their passing and off the ball movement have been better than at any time since Flip Saunders was the coach. Even against defensive giants like Utah and the Lakers, they've created open shots and layups and run the floor with style and energy. At these times, you can almost get the impression that Jefferson, stolidly occupying the paint, passing tentatively, actually slowed them down, prevented them from playing as creatively and aggressively as they were capable.

Sounds great, right? The problems arise when, as during Utah's 39-point fourth quarter, or during Houston's 20-2 third quarter run, the other team starts to clamp down defensively, starts to fight through screens, deny passing lanes and close out on shooters. In these moments, when the offense starts to sputter under the pressure and when all that running starts to take a physical toll on the undermanned Wolves, the lack of a player like Big Al, who can generate points all by himself while his teammates rest on the wings, becomes glaringly evident. The Wolves, during these ragged stretches, start to overextend themselves on offense, overdribbling, forcing passes and shots and turning the ball over.

Nonetheless, what's really killing them is their inablity to play N.B.A.-calibre defense. Over the last ten games, the Wolves' opponents have shot nearly 50.7% from the floor and averaged over 111 points per game. That's about as badly as you can do it.  Problems begin up front  where Kevin Love, as the Wolves only skilled big man, finds himself routinely swallowed up by dudes twice his size. He's still rebounding pretty well (although against Portland and Houston, with their jungle of long arms, he was held to six boards combined) but he's been outmatched defensively. He's plenty game, but against long, tall dudes like Pau Gasol or Andrea Bargnani, he's just too short and unathletic to make much of a difference.

And things just get worse from there. Jason Collins is huge but plodding, and as the owner of one of the world's slowest, most ungainly set shots--his heels barely leave the floor--he's a total nullity on offense. Craig Smith? He's too small to guard anyone over 6'8" (although it was pretty amazing to watch him try to bother Yao). Brian Cardinal might give you a bloody nose or break your kneecaps (and then smirkily argue with the refs) but you'll probably still score in the process. Shelden Williams? He's only played 5:01 as a Wolf, and it wasn't promising.

The Wolves perimeter players often attempt to compensate by hedging inside in an attempt to clog the lane.  But the team was already pretty mediocre when it came to rotating to outside shooters; this tactic leaves them all the more vulnerable. Basically, they've given up points in every way imaginable. Against Utah, they were unable to stop Deron Williams from penetrating the lane and setting up his teammates outside. Against Houston, they were too small to do anything but annoy Yao and Luis Scola and the problems just radiated out from there. And against Golden State they seemed unwilling or unable to play any transition defense. This isn't a matter of mistakes or a lack of concentration. These problems are intrinsic, a product of terrible luck and the team's inability to build any frontcourt size around Jefferson. I don't see them getting any better.
 

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