Timberwolves: life out of balance

Categories: Sports
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Photo by tarotastic

When I began writing about this Timberwolves crew six months and 58 losses ago--back when Al Jefferson and Corey Brewer could walk without crutches, when Rashad McCants and Calvin Booth both bravely flew the T-Wolves flag, back when Randy Wittman still brought the aggravated impatience with a nightly vengeance--I wrote this:

Here's what I can promise you, though: the soothingly hypnotic sight of Mike Miller's jumper feathering through the net over and over; at least 30 wins (well not promise promise); a season of such moderate expectations as to be free of this fall's nauseating surprises and portents; some fun, interesting basketball.
Not really. Nope. Pretty much. Occasionally.

If you're tired of reading about Mike Miller's weird unwillingness to shoot, I'm really sorry. I'm tired of writing about it; I'm really happy that I won't, after today, ever have to do it again (I hope). But for now you'll have to bear with me because I think it brings up something really interesting. The Wolves' last two games, in all their afterthought-ish glory, somewhat validated the sentiment of that first prediction. Miller splashed six of the ten threes he attempted in those two games. And the supple, composed way those shots floated through the net seemed so routine and, yup, soothing that I was prompted to give the guy the finger (really am sorry about that); seriously, though, the Wolves could've really used a touch of that at some point before game 80, y'know?

The most galling part of the whole debacle was the way that announcers looked at his fearless leader demeanor, his impressive rebounding and assist totals (6.6 and 4.5 per game, respectively, the latter a career high--compared to 9.9 points per game, a career low, by far) and asked us to believe that his studied selflessness wasn't hurting his team. Just last week, in fact, Wolves TV announcer Jim Peterson, in contrasting Miller to the Clippers' Baron Davis, praised his solid, stabilizing influence. Davis isn't "a stability guy," said Peterson, while Miller has been "a model citizen" on and off the court.  Now is probably a good moment to mention that, off the court, Miller really is a good guy, at least as far as I've seen. And his work ethic, rebounding and passing skills are genuinely impressive. Finally, he's far from the only reason the Wolves struggled this year. Nonetheless...

Miller himself has contributed to the perception that his neglect of his shooting, his greatest athletic gift, is an act of team-first unselfishness. "It's called basketball," he tersely replied to a reporter who questioned his decision making. In this sentiment, Peterson and Miller echo pundits, players and coaches from Mark Jackson to Larry Brown to our own Kevin McHale who extol the virtues of "playing the right way." Playing the right way is generally understood as a kind of conservatism, a time-tested alchemy of basketball fundamentals, role-awareness, selflessness and effort that invariably leads to victory and, not coincidentally, moral righteousness. Deviance from the (chant with me, friends) "right way" is, conversely seen as proof of a corrosive individualism, a lack of self knowledge, a moral failing.

I have two big points and a tangled web of sub-points about this. 1) There is no doubt that great teams have certain commonalities. They share the ball; they play great defense; they play with effort and intensity. But: it's an accepted fact Greg Popovich's gritty, fundamentally sound San Antonio Spurs have always played the right way, but, then again, so did the breakneck Showtime Lakers. Jordan's majestically athletic Bulls played the right way, but so did Bird's slow-footed Celtics. With his sound entry passes, crisp pick and rolls and NHL flavored defense John Stockton might be the great spiritual avatar of the "right way." But if Chris Paul, a high-dribbling spatial genius and the game's current best point guard, doesn't play the right way, then the term is meaningless, right?

You get what I'm saying here. There might just be a right way to play basketball, but if so, that way is deeply malleable, contingent on endless nuances of style, context and era. The 1959 Celtics allowed 109.9 points per game. The best basketball player in the world right now is not the supple, historically precedented two-guard with the classic mid-range game, but a 270-lb wing player with a mediocre jumper and no post moves. (Btw, check Free Darko for your nearly daily dose of "right way" deconstruction--props to them).

2) Back to Mike Miller (sort of). Stability and soundness are fine things; the game is surely better for the presence of hardworking, selfless glue players and ball-movers like Brian Cardinal and Shane Battier. But us Wolves fans have seen what it looks like when a team is composed entirely of solid, deferential role players: you shoot about 42% and win 24 games.  Playing the right way must, at some point, culminate in someone shooting the basketball--and shooting the basketball is a risk, an uncertainty. Even the most stable, balanced teams have to defer, every single possession, to this moment of deep, vivid instability.

What makes NBA basketball so incredibly compelling to me is the fact that this instability, this imbalance, is woven into the game's very fabric. The game can be seen as a delicate balance between cohesion and chaos, certainty and possibility. A pick and roll can become a Steve Nash odyssey or a contorted Chris Paul fadeaway. With his seismic speed and power, Lebron can redefine the physics of even the most structured possession. This is why that strong note of moralizing in the voices of so many pundits can so often miss the point. Yes, good basketball requires individuals to devote themselves to a common goal. But without those individuals' styles and modes of expression, and without their courage and will, the team becomes a drab, ineffectual wash. Someone, by definition, must decide to shoot the ball.

So, my point. Before Al Jefferson's injury, these Timberwolves depended structurally on Mike Miller's ability and willingness to shoot the basketball, on his ability to stretch the defense and create a flowing inside-out game. And after Al went down, they simply needed him, arguably the league's best pure shooter, to have the guts to score as much as possible. His refusal--in the names of selflessness, of stability, of a misguided conception of the "right way"-- threw his team dreadfully out of balance, caused players like Sebastian Telfair and Ryan Gomes to play beyond the boundaries of their skills. 

Especially in their post-Jefferson phase, the team was desperate for someone to create instability, to throw the game off of its predictable axis. They needed a player with something like Baron Davis's ecstatic unpredictability or even J.R. Smith's audacious, barely credible self-belief. (The defensive, insecure Shaddy definitely does not count). What they didn't need--and what they unfortunately got--was someone to swing the ball to Kevin Ollie with two seconds left on the shot clock. This is why I so appreciated Gomes and Telfair and Rodney Carney. Their unfeigned competitiveness, their appetite for disorder, made these games worth watching. Thanks fellas.
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