Timberwolves halt the skid

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                  Photo by Superfantastic

Well, the Timberwolves will not break the record for consecutive losses, at least not this week. More importantly, they somehow beat a very good Denver Nuggets team on the road. Things didn't begin well for the Wolves as they allowed the Nugs to shoot 59% from the field and score 40 points in the first quarter alone. But then they managed to play by far their best half of basketball of the season. Ryan Gomes and Corey Brewer entered trance-states and hit 18 of their 28 shots, many of them contested jumpers. They played the kind of frenetic, if not terribly disciplined, defense that we haven't seen in weeks. Oh, and the Nuggets totally forgot to play basketball in the second half. I, for one am pretty stunned.
 
Still, despite this rather shocking victory, the Wolves have been tremendously bad for most of the year. Having lost by double digits in 10 of their last 12 games, they have the league's worst point differential by a considerable margin, which lots of smart people will tell you makes them the worst team in the league. And the majority of their games (including the first half this Nuggets win) have been punctuated by periods of truly awful play, in which even their best players look utterly clueless. We all knew this would be a long season, but few of us predicted such a deep misery.  What exactly has been the problem?

Wan Star

The most obvious cause is that the Wolves' two most productive returning players, Kevin Love and Al Jefferson, haven't yet been able to make their normal contributions. Love has yet to step on the court in uniform (although he looked trim and sharp on Friday night in his plaid blazer, Rambis glasses and newly minted 'stache) and Jefferson is still recovering from knee surgery, still trying to regain his old mobility, conditioning and instinct. You can see it in his tentative one-on-one play, in his inability to explode to the rim and lift off the ground when he shoots, and as he gasps and heaves himself up and down the court. Don't be fooled by his recent, solid offensive numbers, the bulk of which came against in garbage time against reserves; Big Al is a shadow of his former self.

Second, as coach Kurt Rambis recently put it after the Wolves lost to Phoenix by 25 points, many of the team's problems are "inexperience based, lack of team cohesion based." This is evident on both ends of the floor, but especially defensively. The team's young players, particularly Jonny Flynn, Ryan Hollins and Oleksiy Pecherov, show a stark lack of defensive awareness and recognition. Far too often, players go over screens when they've been coached to go under (and vice-versa), they force the ball-handler away from the help defense, and that help defense is often tentative. Opponents seem to know full well that if they simply continue to move the ball, eventually the Wolves slow rotations will make an easy dunk or an wide open weakside three readily available.

And when opponents do start getting these easy baskets, the musk of frustration becomes palpable. "The guys get depressed," says Rambis, "they get scattered." They begin to hang their heads and slump their shoulders; they begin to play with a sense of pre-ordained defeat; they make even more mistakes; things get out of hand very quickly.

Young Prayer

The other big culprit is the team's point guard situation. The Wolves are committed to developing Flynn into a point guard that can play within Rambis's system. For that reason, although he is essentially splitting minutes with Ramon Sessions, the bulk of Flynn's time has been spent with the starting unit. Watching Flynn, one understands the appeal. Physically, at least, he resembles a combination of Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul, with his compact, powerful build and low center of gravity, with his ability to explosively change direction, and in his scorer's touch around the rim.

But despite the immense, obvious talent and the occasional bursts of scoring, the comparisons end there. Asked, probably for the first time in his life to reign in his instinct to dominate the ball, to play within certain constraints, Flynn's first weeks as a pro have been a little nightmarish, his solid second half in Denver notwithstanding. Despite playing the minutes of a starting point guard, Flynn's 5.6 assists per 48 minutes ranks him 66th in the league. And, catastrophically for the Wolves, he turns the ball over 5.9 times per 48, among the league's worst marks. These numbers don't just compare unfavorably with those of the league's best point guards (which they really do), but also with those of Sessions, his own backup (6.6 assists/48 minutes, 3.2 turnovers/48 minutes).

The contrast between Flynn and Sessions couldn't be more stark. Sessions appears to be in command of the team when he has the ball; his head is up, he's aware of the his teammates' positions on the floor; he's always poised to make the aggressive pass. Flynn, on the other hand, has been unable, in Rambis's words, "to organize the offense" and when he's on the floor, the team feels rickety and chaotic.

When Sessions is running the team, everyone seems to move the ball more effectively.  When the point guard's first pass is accurate and in rhythm (as Sessions's passes usually are), each ensuing pass is sharper and more fluid. Flynn's passes, however, seem to come a split second later and to be a touch less accurate, a touch less decisive, catching his teammates off-balance and disrupting the continuity of the offense. Its remarkable how these small nuances of accuracy, rhythm and decision-making can mean the difference between an open shot and a broken possession.

In recent games, Rambis has scaled back the offense for Flynn, allowing him more isolations and pick and rolls, which were his peanut butter and jelly in college. But Flynn has looked just as lost in those situations as he has running the Triangle. The proof of Flynn's poor stewardship is in the pudding. The Wolves are hitting only 42.7% of their shots (only New Jersey is worse) and are last in the league in free throws attempted (19.7 per game), despite playing at the seventh fastest pace.

Because he has been asked to play with the Wolves' second unit, a crew without an NBA caliber scorer (Sasha Pavlovic was supposed to be that guy, but he isn't--in fact he's been disastrously bad so far) , Sessions's numbers haven't been great. But (check this out) in the brief time that Sessions and Jefferson have shared the court this year, the Wolves have outscored their opponents by 15.14 points per 48 minutes. When Flynn and Jefferson have played together (the vast majority of the time), the team has been outscored by 16.6 points per 48 minutes. Now, the huge difference in sample size makes it hard to draw definitive conclusions, but mine own eyes tell me that when you pair an All-Star caliber scorer (even one as hampered as Jefferson currently is) with a point guard that knows how to get him the ball, your team becomes significantly better.

If the Wolves' primary goal were winning as many games as possible, rather than developing their promising young players, it seems clear that Sessions would be a starter, creating opportunities for the team's best scorers. Flynn, then, could cut his teeth with the second unit, providing the scoring they so grievously lack. Since they're trying to develop Flynn's playmaking skills, however, their strategy makes some sense. But, so here's the problem: is it possible to take a player who has been a dynamic scorer his whole life, who, in his own words "took on all the roles" for his college team, dominating the ball, shooting at will--is it advisable, or even possible, to re-orient this player's instincts, to teach him to play within constraints, to create in him new skills and a new approach to the game (which skills are already possessed by Sessions himself who, at 23, is not exactly a creaky vet)? A quick check back into the league's recent history--Iverson, Chauncey Billups, Gilbert Arenas, our friend Randy Foye--makes this seem a dicey proposition.

Remarkably, Rambis has shown that he's willing to remain patient, to calmly endure the ugly losses until his young crew figures itself out. After the deadening 25-point Phoenix loss he dropped this rather amazing quote: 

You have to develop this mindset that you just hate what we're going through so much that you're willing to do whatever it takes to not let this happen again, to not ever want to be in this situation again. If they get to a point where they're just so disgusted with themselves as individuals and so disgusted with themselves as a team, that will help push them out of that environment where they feel sorry for themselves.

Sunday night's victory may ultimately not mean much, but it may mean that the Wolves have reached that point. And it may just mean that there's something there worth waiting for.  

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