Timberwolves at the All-Star break: Sometimes inspiring, sometimes not

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      Photo by rbatina

We're here at the All-Star break, the NBA calendar's official moment of reflection and projection. These first 53 games of the Wolves season have been in turns inspiring and unwatchable, provoking feelings of great hope as well as deep perplexity. So let's reflect already.

I say we get the depressing part out of the way first. With most teams in the NBA, composed as they are of the most talented basketball players in the world, the important questions are ones of coherence and cohesion. Can a team find the proper balance of the group and the individual? Do the players' various talents and personalities mesh into an intelligible and effective style? Can they muster the effort and endurance necessary compete at this unspeakably high level for (at least) six months? Well, these questions haunt our T-Wolves too, but they (the Wolves) are also faced with a more basic problem: unlike most teams in the Association, the Wolves are simply short on talent.     

The Fair and the Good

The big headline of Wolves' GM David Kahn's media luncheon on Monday was his insistence that none of the Wolves' key players, young Ricky Rubio included, would be moved before the trade deadline. This decision to stand pat until the draft is interesting in its own right, considering the Wolves' salary cap flexibility and the fact that so many teams are currently willing to be rid of fine, young, but highly paid players in exchange for cap relief--check those Washington Wizards, for example who are said to be interested in parting with both Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. 

But the aforementioned talent deficit was the subtext of all of that talk. This is not to say that there aren't fine players on the Wolves roster; Kevin Love, Al Jefferson, Corey Brewer, Ramon Sessions and Damien Wilkins could all, at this very moment probably find a home on the league's better teams. But when we scan the bench and find Oley Pecherov and Sasha Pavlovic cooling their heels and see Ryan Hollins excitable face in the starting lineup, and then compare all of those names to what we see on, say Oklahoma City's roster, its pretty easy to see why the sledding is so tough most nights. For all of the talk of specific needs--a creative wing player and an athletic, rim-defending big man are the consensus (no argument here)--and for all the talk of growing into Kurt Rambis's system, the simple fact is that the Wolves just need some better players. There's your expert insight.

As I said, though, there are plenty of questions of style and cohesion worth asking.  Can Al Jefferson learn to move quickly and decisively enough, and to pass with enough intuition and creativity to fully utilize his own great scoring gifts while also fitting into Rambis's up-tempo-and-triangle offense? Despite their relative lack of size, leaping ability and quickness, can Big Al and Kevin Love defend well enough to play long minutes together? Will Jonny Flynn ever transform himself from a high-usage, one-on-one gunner to a playmaker who can enable and catalyze an offense? How good can Wayne Ellington become? Is the Corey Brewer phenomenon real or a beautiful hallucination? Will Ryan Hollins ever gain enough presence-of-mind to make full use of his tremendous physical gifts? (This man's opinion, respectively: think so; maybe, but they need help; kind of doubt it, unfortunately; pretty good; mostly real, partly hallucination; nope.)

In other words, are these Wolves the team that we saw on Tuesday night in Philly and for most of the first half against Charlotte on Wednesday? This team was neither big, nor quick, nor energetic enough to protect its own basket--and, for that matter, couldn't find their way out to contest outside shots either. This team was careless with the ball; they overdribbled; they took hasty, off-balance shots.

Or can we, somewhere down the line, expect to regularly see the team of the second half against the Bobcats, the team that has been the league's fourth-best three-point shooting team over the past ten games (not kidding)? These guys move the ball to open spaces on the court and shoot with rhythm and flow; they rotate to open shooters; they vigorously contest shots at the basket.

Don't Speak

Let me shoot for another way of describing what's so attractive to me about how Rambis wants his team to play basketball. When playing offense, the coach teaches his team that "passing is our communication." This might sound to you like another corny nugget of Phil Jackson pseudo-spirituality and it is partly that. But this little motto also acknowledges something real: that in a game as fast and as physical as basketball, a player's actions are also comprehensible gestures. Every movement announces a player's interpretations (of the defense, of his team's goals and his own role therein) and intentions. And the pass is the moment in which those gestures become communal, in which the relationships between players are most fully realized. "Passing is our communication" suggests that by entering into these relationships, players can make these blindingly quick reactions and decisions with a common body and a common mind. Nice.   

This is heady stuff, even more complicated to enact than to describe. Getting five players to achieve a dynamic, wordless conversation at the absurd speed and complexity of an NBA game--well, this is no easy task. Without a doubt, this task would be much easier (and produce more wins, if that's your thing) if it were practiced by the likes of Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. But there been some incredibly pleasing moments this year--that Charlotte fourth quarter, the two home games against Utah, those runs in Dallas--in which this humble crew has briefly made some of that communal potential seem almost real.  

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