The early season narrative for the TWolves has been that Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love are amazing players who need some help. Other starting players, most notably Wesley Johnson and Darko Milicic, have failed to provide meaningful production or consistent play that breeds any confidence in the two stars’ supporting cast.
Michael Beasley led last year’s team in scoring per minute (21.4 per 36; 19.2 per game) but didn’t make himself many fans after ankle sprains on each leg derailed what looked like a promising season. In 73 games, he surpassed 30 points 8 times, and 40 points once. But the way he scored those points, often isolation sets with some ball-stoppage, isn’t popular or always fun to watch. Also, and much more significantly if we’re being fair, his defense was often times lazy and always incoherent. A plausible retort to this would be that he was simply “joining the club” of Rambis-coached wings who had no idea how to rotate defensively. Beasley had serious flaws to be addressed if he were going to be an impact player on an up-and-coming team led by Rubio and Love.
This season, some fans and analysts expected a breakout year from Supercool Mike, both because of Rubio’s playmaking but more so because Rick Adelman would devise schemes to get him the ball closer to the hoop. A problem with the Rambis triangle was that it often resorted to clearing out for Mike 24 feet from the basket for everyone else to stand and watch. This wasn’t good for Mike’s efficiency or the Timberwolves win/loss record. In the early going this year, he showed flashes of improved play. His defense was been better. Night and day. He’s played respectable defense on LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and even Kobe Bryant. If you watched Wellington try to guard Kevin Martin (or if you remember the days of Shaddy McCants trying to defend Baron Davis or LBJ) you’ve seen an outmatched defender in a Wolves uniform. This is not Michael Beasley. If he’s focused and coached, he’s an adequate-or-better defensive wing. His shot was colder than we’ve ever seen it in the early going. He put together stinkers of 11-27, 2-6, 5-16, and 4-12 before spraining his foot and missing the next 11 games. It should be noted that the Wolves were probably playing their best basketball in that early going against a brutal schedule. They trounced the Spurs and Mavs (with Dirk, unlike the second time they beat them without Mike) and held late-game leads on title-favorites OKC and Miami. But Mike needed his shot to fall like it used to before things could really take off for he and the team.
Of course, the schedule weakened right around the time of the injury and the team ripped off an 11-game stretch of over-.500 basketball, going 6-5. THEY’RE BETTER WITHOUT BEASLEY! LOOK AT THE BALL MOVEMENT! Only, if you watched the Toronto or Atlanta games, you saw what happened against a respectable foe when the game slowed down and shot creating became a necessity. The Wolves have exactly one shot creator on the team, and he was sidelined for those games. You might also look at those 6 wins and notice that they came against either garbage competition (Wizards, Hornets, Kings, Pistons) or good teams that were without future Hall of Famers (Clippers without Chris Paul, Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki). The record was inflated by an easy schedule. Despite what some desperately wanted to believe, the team was NOT better without its best scorer.
Fast forward to tonight’s game at Houston. The Rockets (who recently spanked the Mike-less Wolves at Target Center) held a mighty 9-2 home record heading into this game. Minnesota had no rest, traveling overnight into Houston after a hard-fought loss against LA. Houston rested last night in their beds at home. This was not a game the Wolves should have won.
Oh, but they did win, and they pummeled the Rockets behind Mike Beasley’s 34 points on 14 shots. Mike had his jumper going, his dribble penetration game going, and he was getting to the line where he hit all 12 attempts. His monster scoring performance led the way in this one, increasing the lead throughout the second half. The Ricky & Love show became a Minnesota Big 3, as Rubio damn-near f’d around and got a triple double (18 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds) and Love added 29 & 7 of his own.
Is Mike going to score like this every night? Of course not. But he will some nights, and on those nights Minnesota will be almost unbeatable. When he’s clanking shot after shot? Sit him down, or watch Kevin Love collect rebounds. Beasley draws extra defenders, a skill that doesn’t show up in a box score but is essential to consistently-successful offense in the NBA. He also complements the team’s best players by adding a skill that neither possesses: a dominant one-on-one game that will foul out opponents, allow teammates to get some rest on offense, and challenge opposing coaches into lineup decisions they might not prefer.
I hope this isn’t a one-game fluke, and an amazing coach like Adelman can draw as much of Beasley’s natural talent as is possible. He’s a restricted free agent this off-season and the forward duo lauded by John Hollinger last year could be really something, especially with the Spanish floor general leading the way.
Some additional thoughts:
* Martell Webster’s feisty defense in the second quarter turned the game. He plays D on a slightly-different level than his teammates. Watch a Memphis Grizzlies game for comparable effort and approach. This is an asset, for sure, especially from a guy that the team can afford to get in foul trouble (because he will, if he plays this way). Webster should be the starting shooting guard very soon. Let’s all hope his back stays healthy. No more of these.
* Derrick Williams is frozen out of the rotation. TRADE DERRICK WILLIAMS will become a common meme. That could be wise, depending on the deal, but let’s not lose sight of the talent here, and how similarly-awesome college players with talent took their licks en route to NBA improvement. James Harden and Evan Turner took time to adjust, as Williams will. Biggest reasons for NOT trading him: (1) He’s on the rookie scale; and (2) He’s insurance against Love getting injured or Love bolting after 3 years. If he continues to improve as a power forward, and he will, those are not insignificant factors. A shooting guard can be signed in free agency this off-season, if need be.
* Kyle Lowry versus Ricky Rubio could be an All-Star debate in the next few years. Lowry bested him at Target Center, and Ricky took this match. Very different players. Very good players.
Season Record: 10-11
With the Wolves playing again tonight (at Houston, 7:00 CST, FSN North) I’m going to wrap up last night’s loss to the Lakers rather briefly, Clint Eastwood style.
The end-of-third-quarter lineup of Rubio-Webster-Beasley-Randolph-Love. After the struggling through two and a half quarters of ugly basketball and trailing by 18 points, Rick Adelman called timeout. He subbed Webster in for Wes Johnson, Beasley in for Luke Ridnour, and Randolph in for Brad Miller (made his season debut, managed to get T’d up in 8 minutes of action).
This group, arguably the five most talented Timberwolves, ripped off a 19-6 run to end the quarter that FINALLY got the crowd rocking on a cold Sunday Night in Minneapolis. Ricky pushed the tempo, jumpers started falling, and the ones that missed were tipped in by aggressive crashing of the boards. This momentum carried into the fourth quarter with the Wolves eventually taking small leads late into the game. The +/- numbers were kind to Beasley, Randolph and Webster due to this stretch of play.
Also in the “good” column: Kobe Bean Bryant. He’s become even-more polarizing than ever this year, chucking shots at a higher rate with (slightly) diminished ability on a Laker team that is struggling to meet the championship-level standard to which it is held. Kobe’s historically-great skill set was on display last night as he put together a 35-point, 14-rebound performance that left Wolves fans shaking their heads and Laker fans (lots of them showed up in their Number 24’s) going wild.
Timberwolves shooting. The Wolves shot 25 more times than the Lakers did from the floor, and the same number of times from the free throw line. The problem was that LA hit 50.6 percent of shots, and Minnesota hit 38.5 percent (40-104). The worst offenders were Rubio (2-13) and Webster (4-15). On a night when the Wolves pulled down 24 offensive rebounds, turned the ball over only 4 times, and shot the same number of free throws as the opposition, a defeat is rather puzzling. Shots weren’t falling.
The “defense” being played on Andrew Bynum in the last three minutes of the game. Adelman had the Wolves playing some zone defense in the fourth, and it was successful in part in forcing difficult shots and containing Kobe. But in a key sequence late in the game, it left the enormous Andrew Bynum open in the paint for easy dunks. The first one gave the Lakers a 95-94 lead with 3:04 to go. The second extended a one point lead to three, with 1:49 to go. In these crucial possessions, it isn’t asking much to prevent uncontested dunks. Defensive breakdowns were ugly to watch and helped lead to a disappointing loss.
Season Record: 9-11
Despite the brilliant performance turned in by Nikola Pekovic (aka, The Godfather) in last night’s win over San Antonio, most Wolves fans would agree that the center position remains an area of concern. One (or two or three or four) quality performance from Big Pek isn’t enough SAMPLE SIZE to alter my opinion on this seeming truth. One possible solution that is often discussed (and occasionally utilized) is to slide Kevin Love over to center. On this Wolves team that recently drafted a power forward with the second overall pick, there’s a glut that would be partially lessened if Love moved over to the low block on defense and allowed Williams to play his natural position at the four.
But, as I am sure you’ve read or heard, this is not a winning formula. Look at the Lakers and their dynasties. The common denominator is a Herculean Center that dominates the paint, fouls out his opponents, and inevitably blings out his hands with championship jewelry. The Celtic dynasties included the best defensive center of all time, Bill Russell, a true rim protector whose blocked shots would often double as outlet passes to Bob Cousy. Their 1980’s dynasty had a huge and dominant front line of Bird, McHale, and The Chief, Robert Parish. And Michael Jordan’s Bulls, while offensively-led by star wing players, always had seven-foot goons to protect the paint.
So, is there a championship-tested example of an undersized center?
There is actually, and Willis Reed’s Knickerbocker teams of the early 1970’s are widely considered to be one of the best true TEAMS in league history. Reed was under 6’9″ without shoes on, much like Kevin Love is. Harvey Araton of the New York Times recently wrote one of the best sports books I have ever read. When the Garden was Eden goes into detail about Coach Red Holzman’s decision to play Reed at center against goliath centers of the 1970’s, and how a seeming weakness would sometimes prove to be a strength.
First was the debate of whether to play Reed at the 4 or the 5. In the early part of his career, the team made an aggressive trade for Hall of Fame center Walt Bellamy.
“I think they thought because Bellamy was bigger that I would be better as a forward,” Reed said. Throughout his career, he was alternately listed at 6’10” and 6’9″, but Holzman had measured him at Grambling in his socks at a shade under 6’9″. The conventional wisdom was that if they were to contend for a title, the Knicks would need more size at the position to confront the likes of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
Araton, Harvey. When the Garden was Eden. Harper Collins, 2011 (p. 46).
Sound familiar? Remember when Ryan Hollins started over Kevin Love? (!!!) Remember when Darko Milicic got serious tick on the Wolves? (What–that’s still happening?!) The concerns about Reed playing center sound much like the Wolves’ own obsessions over length up front and the need for a true center.
So, how did things work out for the undersized Knicks? Well, a quick Google search can tell you if you didn’t already know that they won two championships with Reed playing center. Araton describes the effective strategy of matching up Reed against legends Alcindor and Chamberlain, en route to the 1970 title.
Offensively, Reed was a nightmare for the UCLA grad. The young Alcindor was loath to switch on screens, and against a team with as many shooters and willing passers as the Knicks, that sort of immobility amounted to playing too long on the railroad tracks. Reed would step outside for jumpers, and when Alcindor deigned to challenge him, he would fake the jumper and go hard to his left.
Reed’s approach against the young Kareem–camp out on the perimeter and dare him to come out–would go double for Wilt Chamberlain in the Finals…
In Game 1, for reasons that were related to his health, his head, or both, Chamberlain refused to move away from the basket to contest Reed’s mid-range jump shot. Reed scored 25 points–in the first half.
The teams split the first two games in New York, but Reed erupted again for 38 points in Game 3.
If Willis Reed could pose matchup problems against Abdul-Jabbar (then Alcindor) and Chamberlain–arguably the two greatest centers in world history–could Kevin Love hold a similar advantage against modern NBA centers? I recently wrote about the modern NBA center position, and the dearth of bigs who actually dominate games with post play. Love has a low center of gravity and can hold position on the block in those instances when a big man decides on a post move. Would these players enjoy chasing Love out to 23-feet, where he’s currently hitting 40.4 percent of three-point attempts?
Love battling with David Lee under the boards
Perhaps bigger defenders would guard Derrick Williams, since he’s showing himself to be more of an interior scorer than any Wolf not named Pekovic. But so what if they do? D-Thrill would blow by taller, slower players and create more highlights than he already does.
It’s an idea worth exploring. Share your comments, and go read Harvey’s book if you enjoy NBA history. Or team sports. Or good writing.