Monthly Archives: January 2012

Revenge of the Iron Ranger (Rockets 107, WOLVES 92)

Kevin McHale (Photo: The Chronicle, Thomas B. Shea)

For a recap of tonight’s one-sided loss to the Houston Rockets, click here.

For even more detail, click on any number of the excellent blogs in the right column.

For some observations, questions, and ramblings from a frustrated fan who sat through the entire game, see the following.

***

McHale’s Rockets

Kevin McHale’s Rockets are now 10-7. If the season ended as I write this, they’d be the 8th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs.

One season ago, the Rockets were not a playoff team under the Wolves’ heralded coach, Rick Adelman.

No knock on Adelman. But Kevin McHale might be a decent coach.

McHale’s squad oozes confidence like his Wolves teams did in that middle part of the 2008-09 season, post-Wittman, pre-Jefferson injury.  For an entire month, Mac led that talentless group to the best record in the NBA–not too shabby.

Kyle Lowry is playing particularly well under McHale. Kyle messed around and got a triple-double against the Wolves, dropping 16, 10, and 10 and giving Ricky Rubio fits in the process. You could say he had a Good Day (NSFW depending on where you W).

Kevin Martin versus Wayne Ellington

Did I ever think I’d miss Wesley Johnson?

No. I’ve spent most of the season wondering how much better the Wolves would be without him.

I’m trying to square that with what happened tonight, when dream became reality.

Wayne had an EMBARRASSING night. Martin ran him off of screens, spun him in circles, drew fouls, and buried jump shots. All. Night. Long.

K-Mart had 21 at the half and made it look oh-so-easy.  Parents with aspiring ballplayer kids should have them watch Martin move without the ball.  Just don’t let them watch him shoot–that unconventional and ugly stroke works for one guy and one guy only.

Kevin Love (the good)

K-Love was 5 for 5 from downtown tonight.  He had 39 points. He shot 13 for 19.  Love should shoot as many threes as he possibly can.

In fact, Love should emulate the one PF in the league who gives him matchup problems–Ryan Anderson.  Anderson is shooting 9.1 3PA’s per 36 minutes (compared to Love’s 4.7), and rocks a 24.9 PER.  Not bad for the 21st Pick in the 2008 Draft.  Love’s foul-drawing and rebounding are huge parts of his game, but he is noticeably-hesitant to pull the trigger on 3s. Not as much in tonight’s game, and 39 points later, I hope he builds on a great scoring night.

Kevin Love (the bad)

I won’t lie: I hate the way Kevin Love tries to draw most of his fouls.  He isn’t making basketball plays. He’s wrestling–sometimes without any hope for a real play–and he gasps in disbelief when refs DARE not to call a foul. Meanwhile, the other team is often running out for a secondary or primary break.

There are good ways to draw fouls.  LeBron James ATTACKS when he draws fouls. If a foul isn’t called, a shot goes up that might actually go in.  He might dunk over somebody.  He might find a shooter for three.

But when Love’s antics don’t work, at best he retains his balance and finds a playmaker like Anthony Tolliver or Wayne Ellington with 4 on the shot clock.

Good luck. With that.

Love is already getting star treatment from the stripes at an early age, and this is good for the team in the broader scheme of things. But this is my subjective pet peeve about how the game should be played.  It isn’t fun to watch and it should be increasingly ineffective if rule changes are enforced.

Derrick Williams Starts! (At the wrong position…)

Wes Johnson was sick, so D-Thrill started.  Thrill got 37 minutes, but went long stretches in the 3rd without touching the ball.  He played outside the three point line for much of the night. His 11-point, 7-rebound, 4-turnover performance (3-9 shooting, 5-8 FT’s) was not a success.  He was fouled at least twice (making real basketball plays while going extremely STRONG to the cup) without a whistle.  Thrill’s a scoring power forward. Where does he fit? (NOT rhetorical.)

A couple other thoughts on Williams:

*His free-throw shooting has been problematic–65 percent is unsatisfactory for a player as skilled as Williams.

*Adelman should work to incorporate Thrill’s interior game with Love’s perimeter game. It’s obvious that this is where each guy has the most to offer offensively.

Auditioning for Centers

Adelman stuck Anthony Randolph out there, after an extended, non-injury-related leave of absence the previous two games.  In 11 minutes, AR15 chipped in 9 points (4-8 FG, 1-1 FT) and 5 rebounds.

For various reasons, most notably that he fits in better with Rubio’s passing skills, I’d like to see Randolph take ALL of the Darko and Pekovic minutes.

Sure, those guys are heavier and will defend certain players better than Randolph.  But Randolph will finish plays that should be finished, he can get his shot against anybody, and he is an aggressive rebounder.

Heading into tonight’s game, he was third on the team in points per 36 minutes (17.2) and second in FG% (52.0) (to be fair, Pek leads at a mighty 60.7).

Randolph will have his moments when he self-combusts and needs a break. But so do Darko and Pek. Randolph is the least-bad option at center right now and the harm in giving the most-talented of the three more minutes is unknown to me.

Let’s hope for a better one on Wednesday at Dallas.  The champs are playing better than they were early in the season when the Wolves thumped them at Target Center.

Season Record: 7-10

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Where Are They Now? Jonny Flynn Edition

Jonny Flynn (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Timberwolves will face Jonny Flynn and the Houston Rockets for the first time since cutting bait with the 2009 1st-round pick on draft night in June.

We all remember how bad Flynn’s Wolves tenure was.

This was arguably only partly Jonny’s fault.

Kurt Rambis, whom Wolves POBO David Kahn hired AFTER he drafted PGs Ricky Rubio and Flynn with the 5th and 6th picks, implemented the point-guard unfriendly triangle offense–the kiss of death not only for Flynn, but also for Ramon Sessions, whose career non-Wolves PER of 17.6 dropped to 12.9 under Rambis.

Flynn also suffered a hip injury that required surgery during the summer after his first season. He missed the season’s first six weeks and never regained whatever explosiveness he occasionally showed in his rookie year. Flynn’s lack of basketball ability also hindered his development.

It’s hard to erase the memories of Flynn’s ball stopping and thrown-away passes and ill-advised heat checks that are etched into Wolves fans’ collective psyche, and it’s hard to forget that Kahn could’ve drafted Stephen Curry or Demar DeRozen or Brandon Jennings or Jrue Holiday or Ty Lawson (oops, he did!) instead of Flynn. And it’s hard to forget that picking Flynn immediately after he had picked Rubio was what ignited so many KAAAAAAAAAAAHHHN! refrains heard over the past two and a half years.

What The Numbers Say

Statistics were consistent with what Wolves fans witnessed on a nightly basis: Flynn was historically bad during his sophomore season. (More on this below.)

So it was interesting when Houston Rockets GM Daryl “Dork Elvis” Morey–a man-god among NBA stats geeks who is a living symbol of the evidence-based movement–traded for Flynn on draft night. Morey has shown signs of eschewing statistics in making other decisions, including hiring former Wolves vice-president Kevin McHale as Rockets coach, but one year earlier Morey would’ve been the last GM Wolves fans would’ve thought might take a flier on Flynn.

The statistics aren’t encouraging.

First, consider how analytics rate Flynn’s 2010/11 season with the Wolves.

How bad was it?

The 4th worst in the past 26 years, according to one estimate.

In more than 800 minutes, Flynn sported a 7.1 PER, an offensive rating of 85, and a defensive rating of 114. He had negative win shares.

By these metrics, no guard has had as bad a season since Charlie Scott out-stunk Flynn in 1979/80.

There is little evidence that a fresh start with a new franchise and a point guard-friendly coach are resuscitating Jonny’s career prospects. Flynn has only played 70 minutes over 5 games in 2011/12, but his 9.8 PER remains abysmally low and his WS is 0.0.

Jonny’s TS percentage and eFG percentage have dropped from .444 and .417 to .383 and .325, respectively, and his 90 offensive rating is closer to last season’s abomination than his rookie rating of 97.

This despite the fact that, albeit a limited sample, Flynn has been playing with better teammates in a point-guard friendly offense.

Kyle Lowry, who is physically similar to Flynn, is sporting a PER of 22.3 and a WS of 2.0; Lowry’s TS percentage is .570 and his eFG is .506.

After fewer than 5 games in Houston, Rockets writers have already written Jonny off. This pretty much sums it up:

Awesome graphic courtesy of red94 (http://www.red94.net/)

Starting Fresh

Yet Flynn believes he’s now in a better situation. He clearly does not miss playing for Rambis.

“That’s not my style; I don’t think that’s anybody’s style,” Flynn said about Rambis’ > triangle offense. “Most coaches, they play to the style of their players. You
never hear of a coach going out there and doing something totally opposite to what his > players do best.”

So far Flynn has failed to crack McHale’s rotation. He’s stuck behind Kyle Lowry, who’s having an All-Star season, and Goran Dragic, another solid point. So it’s safe to assume Jonny won’t be playing much this season unless the Rockets’ backcourt suffers a rash of injuries. (TONYA HARDING ALERT!)

Still, Jonny remains optimistic:

“In this league, you just have to wait sometimes,” Flynn said. “Wait for things to turn  around in your direction. When it does, it’ll be good finally to show everybody the
real me.”

Somewhere out there, Jonny’s smiling that toothy grin Kahn found so seductive, smiling because somehow he’s still on an NBA roster.

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Jazz Hands (JAZZ 108, Wolves 98)

Ricky and Big Al (Photo by Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Andy G and I LIVE BLOGGED last night’s game against the Jazz. Except IT’S NOT live, technically, because we’re posting our immediate reactions now–over 12-hours later.

Sort of like the game itself, it is what it is. Candid reactions below.

***

Andy G, 9:13 PM: First possession, Darko swishes a hook. Guy’s a star!

Patrick J, 9:18 PM: Tuning in with 9:02 in the 1st. Rubio clanks another one. Must be waiting for #winningtime.

Andy G, 9:19 PM: Wolves relying on their stars early. Wes and Darko carrying the load.

Patrick J, 9:24 PM: Is it just me, or is there EXACTLY one-third of the overall intensity of the last night’s 1st quarter. (I get that it’s the second night of a back-to-back and there’s potential for a letdown after last night. But still.)

Patrick J, 9:27 PM: Is Utah’s play-by-play guy calling the color guy “Booner” or “Boner”?

Andy G, 9:31 PM: Not sure — Big Al kicking some ass early, eh? What did we get for him again?

Andy G, 9:33 PM: Better Derrick: Williams or Favors? In three years?

Patrick J, 9:36 PM: Williams will be the better Derrick. Both currently look worse than they would on MOST other teams.

Andy G, 9:40 PM: How many Rubio assists can Pekovic fuck up?

Patrick J, 9:41 PM: Probably fewer than 8, but only because he plays limited minutes. What’s up with the FORM on Millsap’s fadeaway? Uh-oh. Anus Kanter’s getting warm!

Andy G, 9:44 PM: Not sure re: MILLSAP, but he’s a pretty damn nice player. C.J. Miles hit some bombs there in Williams’ grill. Hope that doesn’t discourage the rook.

Patrick J, 9:49 PM: Nah, that’s just what C.J. Miles does. FOR THE RECORD: Has David Stern ever verified that C.J. Miles and Lou Williams AREN’T the same person?

Andy G, 9:57 PM: Derrick Williams needs to play AT LEAST 25 minutes in every game. Leaving him on the bench is leaving PRODUCTION on the bench. And highlight dunks.

Patrick J, 10:01 PM: Couldn’t agree more. I’m glad Adelman is staying with him.

Eds: Derrick Williams goes *really* high for an alley-oop dunk from Rubio.

Jazz announcer: “That’s JEREMY EVANS height right there.”

Patrick J, 10:01 PM: “Who the fuck is Jeremy Evans?

Andy G, 10:07 PM: He’s this guy.

Andy G, 10:07 PM: What do you think of that first half? Jazz hit a lot of jump shots. Wolves played better basketball. Refs are calling lots of fouls. Wes Johnson (gasp) played well. Rubio was awesome. Your thoughts?

Patrick J, 10:14 PM: Williams needs to play more minutes. He’s made adjustments after struggling for a few games and is now filling key needs. He looks confident and that the most important thing.

Patrick J, 10:14 PM: Rubio was awesome.

Patrick J, 10:14 PM:Interior defense is difficult with Darko out and Pek being Pek against a STACKED Jazz front line.

Patrick J, 10:14 PM: Earl Watson is wily, but he shouldn’t be able to control the flow like he did in the first half.

Andy G, 10:29 PM: Love can’t take Millsap one-on-one, but he refuses to stop trying and then flails his arms in the air and asks for a foul. It’s annoying, ineffective, and it’s ruining any offensive flow. He also just got T’d up.

Andy G, 10: 30 PM: Why don’t they pair Rubio with D-Thrill or Randolph? His awesome passes are largely wasted by the other bigs when they get their shit stuffed time after time.

Patrick J, 10:32 PM: Millsap is deceptive in a lot of ways. Love seems to think he can beat him one-on-one, but this is incorrect. And Millsap looks like he shouldn’t be able to score at will, but he can.
Utah is leading 70-62 with 6:38 left in the 3rd. It’s time to start something or we’re going to be in trouble.

Andy G, 10:36 PM: I’m SHOCKED that Derrick Williams came in and turned the momentum. (SARCASM!)

Patrick J, 10:42 PM: Me too. We’ve only been calling for him to play a bigger role since, oh, when–the Hawks game?! Wtf? He’s our best offensive player when Mike Beasley is out…

Patrick J, 10:42 PM: Dude, Corey Brewer was meant to be a Jazz-man. He WILL play for Utah before he’s finished.

Andy G, 10:45 PM: Lots of fouling (still). Really killing the flow for both teams. Not a pretty game.

Patrick J, 10:47 PM: Yep, #turrible. I thought KEN MAUER JR officiated LAST NIGHT’S game…

Patrick J, 10:48 PM: Who’s going to take this game over during #winningtime?

Andy G, 10:48 PM: Should be Rubio. I expect it to be Jefferson or Millsap.

Eds note: Derrick Williams is again scoring EFFICIENTLY when Adelman plays him.

Andy G, 10:48 PM: I’ll ask again: How good is D. Williams? Only player on the team in the plus column. (+6)

Patrick J, 10:54 PM: Thrill has been a difference-maker ALL NIGHT. Just like he should be. What happened to this guy before the Clips game? Was it R. ADELMAN, J. SIKMA, or R.J. ADELMAN? Or did Thrill figure it out all by himself?

Andy G, 11:00 PM: None of the above: BILLY BAYNO!!!

Andy G, 11:01 PM: It feels like work, watching this game.

Andy G: 11:02: Can Adelman PLEASE get Rubio back in so there’s a CHANCE we come back and win? (Utah 93, Wolves 87, 8:03 remaining)

Andy G, 11:03 PM: Love just tried to take Millsap one-on-one. Again. It ended in disaster. Again. Is this new scoring thing getting to his head? He’s not playing intelligently.

Patrick J, 11:06 PM: When he started popping off those 30+ games at the beginning of the year, I was worried it would. Maybe it is. K-Love needs to shoot off kicks, not off the dribble.

Eds.: The Jazz just won 108-98.

Andy G, 11:11 PM: Re Love: Hopefully it will work itself out. Millsap and Jefferson just killed him tonight. The Wolves played better when Williams was on the floor. I wouldn’t have guessed he’d be the reason we lost this game, but you could argue that’s exactly right.

Patrick J, 11:15 PM: Re Love: All I know is that 5/16 (Clippers game) and 5/21 (Utah game) is NOT SATISFACTORY for a player whose reputation is built around EFFICIENCY. Here’s hoping this is just a SAMPLE SIZE BLIP.

Andy G, 11:22 PM: Love probably spoiled us a bit by playing OVER HIS HEAD for a couple weeks early on. I’d like to see this team get back to the offense it was playing then. Beasley’s return will help, as will more tick for D-Thrill. Love is at his best when he’s a second or third option jump shooter and rebounding specialist. His NUMB#RS are better and his impact is more significant.

Positive takeaway from tonight: BOTH rookies looked pretty awesome in a tough environment for youngsters.

Houston on Monday Night. McHale’s Revenge! Adelman’s Revenge! Should be fun, looking forward to seeing that one.

Until then.

Season Record: 7-9

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Can You Hear Me Now? A Night at the Verizon Center

Nick Young...yeah..

I’m a native Minnesotan turned academic nomad who has spent the last half-decade living in Chicago, the Bay Area, Boston, and now Washington DC. I only get to attend a few games at Target Center each year, usually while visiting family during the holidays.

But as both an NBA and Wolves junkie, a silver lining has been immersion in a variety of NBA cultures–in my case, the Bulls, Warriors, Celtics, and ‘Zards–while keeping a finger on the Wolves’ pulse through NBA League Pass, a running NBA-related email dialogue with Andy G, and religiously following a bunch of great Wolves sites.

I’ve attended games in each city where I’ve lived. Here’s a quick rundown.

My United Center experiences were pre-Rose and so pretty lame. The crowds were quiet, the United Center spacious and cold, and the neighborhood around the arena was somewhere you didn’t want to be.

My Oracle experiences were AWESOME. It was post-We Believe but pre-Implosion. The arena was cramped and stuffy and the fans were passionate and ROWDY. You’d see black, Asian, Latino, and white fans all sitting side-by-side, going all kinds of crazy for the Dubs. Whenever I went to Oracle, there was always a live funk band, cheerleaders wearing old school booty shorts and knee-high tube socks with yellow and blue rings at the top, and fast-break basketball. It was like a cross between a George Clinton concert and what I imagine ABA games were like. Best live basketball experiences I’ve ever had.

Games in Boston are fun because Celtics fans are PASSIONATE and LOYAL to the point of insanity. This was post-Title, but still when the Celtics were the best in the Atlantic. You’d feel like the guy sitting on each side of you might rip open your chest and pull out your heart if he even suspected you weren’t cheering for the Cs. Or that you weren’t a Red Sox fan. Or that you weren’t drinking Sam Adams. You get the idea. Overall, Boston games were fun because (1) the Celtics were really good and savvy, and (2) unlike the Dubs games, where fans were rowdy but just having a good time, Cs fans took the INTENSITY to a different level–so much so that ANGER and VIOLENCE always lurked as real possibilities for any perceived infraction at any possible time. I imagine this is what intense, insular religious experiences are like.

All of this is a roundabout way of setting up my first experience–last night–at a Wizards game here in DC. I knew the ‘Zards had the worst record in the league, but with their new unis and assorted personnel, I thought maybe–just maybe–the potential was there for a Dubs-like experience., with @JimmyWa playing the part of Boom Dizzle, Nick Young doing his best Stephen Jackson impersonation, Jordan Crawford shooting with the conscience of Monta Ellis, and JaVale McGee swatting shots like Andris Biedrins.

Man was I wrong.

Despite a close score, the atmosphere at the Verizon Center was flatter than Nebraska. The crowd only got loud during the 4th quarter when the Nuggs went to the free throw line, and only then because Chick-fil-A does a promotion where fans get a free sandwich when opposing players miss both shots during 4th quarter trips to the stripe. Yeah.

Then there are the players.

The Wiz’s best player, John Wall, was almost completely disengaged. Andray Blatche was a liability in just about every conceivable way. Nick Young did his best Shaddy McCants impersonation, shooting every time he touched the ball and scowling when fellow ball hogs Crawford or Blatche shot before the ball was swung to him. Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton play hard but have no talent. Booker is like Trenton Hassell–without the jump shot.

Then there’s the play itself.

The Wiz have no offense. Remember what the Cippers’ offenses looked like when Mike Dunleavy was the coach? The endless iso “plays” for Corey Maggette, and Cat Mobley, and Ricky Buckets? Fast forward to now, and you’ve got the Wiz. Any reputation Flip Saunders ever developed as a good offensive coach can no longer be credible. He will be fired soon.

The Wiz also do not have any defense. They’re terrible. Sure, Wall took some charges and McGee blocked/goaltended some shots, but their forwards were DESTROYED by the likes of Al Harrington and Danilo Gallinari.

Harrington and Gallo are the kinds of guys who don’t quite have star potential but who can and do relentlessly exploit weak defense until their line is gaudy. And that’s exactly what happened. Harrington had 29 and Gallo had 21. Both looked unstoppable, but in the sort of way that that overweight guy who hangs out at the “Y” can look unstoppable against younger, weaker players. The nail in the coffin was that Ty Lawson toyed with Wall most of the game, who looked lost trying to run whatever offense Saunders was trying to tell him to run. I bet Wiz fans wish they had Ricky.

Wolves fans are lucky. We’ve taken our lumps but things are getting better. And whenever we suffer a disappointing loss, we can always flip our League Pass over to the ‘Zards game for a quick pick-me-up.

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Love-Griffin I (Wolves 101, CLIPPERS 98)

K-Love after the game winner

The Game

Darko Milicic opened this contest with a jump hook that gave his Wolves a 2-0 lead over the Clips. (Darko played great the whole contest, by the way.)  But this lead would be the only one the Wolves enjoyed until Kevin Love sank an open 28-footer as the buzzer sounded.  Narrowly edging out his friend and rival, Blake Griffin, Love capped a rather-amazing comeback for his team on a night when baskets were all-too-difficult to come by.  Ricky Rubio in particular (1-11 FGM-A, 9 points) couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn and looked as rattled as we have seen him in an NBA uniform.  But as everyone noted after the game, his competitive fire never waned and his playmaking and free-throw shooting were crucial to the victory.  Immediately before Love’s heroics, Ricky tied the game with a corner trey.  After missing all ten of his field goals to that point, he didn’t hesitate for a second in taking and making the big shot.  For all of his struggles, Rubio was a (+2) for the game; the only starter in the positives.

But enough about Rubio for now. This game was built up by the talking heads as a matchup of the league’s best power forwards–LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki may have things to say about this, but whatever, we’re going with it–who thrive even though they could hardly differ more in terms of their length and athleticism. In the early going, Blake struggled to score against his bigger defender, Darko. He resorted to jump shots, clanking almost every time.  As the game progressed, Blake showed some smarts, challenging Darko with spin moves and up fakes. He finished the game with a respectable 21 & 11, but his 5 turnovers were excessive and his missed pair of free throws with a minute to go (Darko fouled out respectably, corralling Blake to prevent the basket and putting the lid on his most-productive performance of the year – 22 points and 7 rebounds) proved to be fatal. Love had an equally-mediocre game by his own high standards, until of course, the buzzer-beating dagger.  He shot 5-16 from the floor, but grinded out a 17-point, 14-rebound, 3-assist, and 0-turnover stat sheet.  I would call the individual matchup (even though they didn’t guard one another, we’re calling this a matchup) a wash, except that Blake choked at the line, and Love was the hero in the end.  Love wins this one.

The Bench

Look at the box score, and you’ll notice that the bench has the big pluses in the +/- column.  Derrick Williams in particular stands out, as he chipped in 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists in only 14 minutes of action.  The Wolves were a whopping (+17) in that short bit of time while D-Thrill was wreaking havoc.  He showed off the move I’ve been clamoring for more of: that 15-17 foot jab step dribble drive.  Amar’e and Bosh use that all the time and Williams has that type of athleticism and dribbling ability. He did it in college and it worked for him tonight and I hope to see more of this in the future.  Given that the Wolves are searching for offensive proficiency in Michael Beasley’s absence, I have been disappointed to see Williams’ minutes cut.

Wayne Ellington continues to bury jumpers at a nice rate (6-9 FG; 1-2 3PT).  Wellington comes off a pick and fires like Rex Chapman or Eddie House.  Is this a sustainable way to produce?  Maybe; maybe not.  But as a limited reserve, there are worse things than a quality chucker.  Thirteen games in, Wayne’s field goal percentage is up from his career average (41.8 percent career; 46.3 percent this season).  Some of that is attributable to Rubio setting him up better than Flynn (ya think?) or Ridnour could in seasons past.

Anthony Tolliver didn’t play his best game, and here’s why: he forgot what his role is.  I think Hubie Brown (who was awesome, by the way–who doesn’t like color commentary in the second-person?) pointed this out, but Tolliver needs to shoot the ball when he’s open.  (So does Wes Johnson, but I’ve given up hope, there.)  Tolliver has seemed to understand his role in the offense better than most players and has hit huge treys off of Rubio dimes.  In this game, he put it on the floor too much and, as often happens for him, he turned the ball over.  A player of this type should not have 3 turnovers in an entire game’s work, let alone 19 minutes.  He was the only bench player in the minus column, with a (-4).

The Clips

The elephant in the room is that the Clippers were without Chris Paul (and Caron Butler, but Gomes did just fine replacing Tuff Juice).  Chauncey Billups thinks it’s 2004 and this is a problem for Lob City.  As Mo Williams showed the world last night (25 points), he is actually a good basketball player.  Billups relies almost exclusively on trying to draw fouls and doesn’t pose the same threat that he used to as a playmaker.  When Williams was ejected (two separate technical fouls, almost-definitely swung the game’s outcome) Billups put on his hero cape and came up short with turnovers and missed shots.  In my opinion, the Clippers would benefit from ditching Billups and running with Paul and Williams for the bulk of minutes, and some Randy Foye mixed in as a change-of-pace reserve.

Oh, DeAndre Jordan.  It was almost comical watching the little Wolves trying to shoot over this guy.  Ridnour hit a floater that must have gone 15 feet in the air, and DJ damn-near got a hand on it at its peak.  Jordan is worthless offensively, but his defensive impact is obvious on a single viewing.  In case you forgot how bad Kevin McHale was at drafting players, he passed on Jordan with the 31st (Pekovic) and 34th (Mario Chalmers, traded to Heat) picks in the 2008 Draft.  Can you imagine walking away from that draft with Kevin Love and DeAndre Jordan?  I digress.

Looking Ahead (a few hours)

Wolves travel to Salt Lake tonight where they’ll face a seemingly-improved Jazz team (9-5, but against a relatively-easy schedule so far) led by an old favorite of my own, Al Jefferson.  Big Al is leading the Jazz in points (18.3) and rebounds (9.2) per game, but is hardly the focal point that he once was on some terrible Wolves teams.  EnergySolutions Arena (the Delta Center was so much easier to say) is a tough place to leave victorious.  The Jazz rested last night and the Wolves will have their hands full.  In the interest of getting way ahead of ourselves, if the Wolves want that eighth playoff spot in the West, Utah would probably be the team they’d displace.

Season Record: 7-8

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SAVE THE CENTER: A Rule Change That Should Actually Happen

George Mikan, Minneapolis Lakers

Kyrie Irving is a 6’3”, 191 pound point guard who left college after his freshman season at Duke to declare for the NBA Draft.  Having played only eleven college games, and without any of the special physical gifts that made scouts’ mouths water over Derrick Rose and John Wall in previous years, the Cavs selected Irving first overall to be the cornerstone of Dan Gilbert’s Post-Decision Rebuilding Project.

Irving’s rookie season and NBA career are off to a wonderful start.  The Cavs are noticeably improved (6-7 at this point), and he’s averaging an efficient 18 points and 5 assists per contest.  Only he’s no lock for Rookie of the Year, even if he can continue this pace.  That’s because Ricky Rubio happened. Rubio is the buzz of the basketball world due to his style and incredible ability to impact games as the Timberwolves’ floor general. Last year, Rubio couldn’t get anything right in Spain. Now he flourishes night in and night out against the best players in the world.

A month or two before David Stern (or was it Adam Silver–I’ve tried to permanently erase all memories of these suits since the LOCKOUT) called Irving’s name in New York, Derrick Rose–another 6’3” guard barely old enough to get into Chicago bars–won the league MVP for leading the Bulls’ revival from his spot at the point. The Bulls won 62 games last year, in large part due to his offensive dominance.

Irving, Rubio, and Rose are not alone in succeeding to improbable levels at point guard in the NBA.  John Wall, drafted first overall a season before Irving, had a dynamite rookie season for the Wizards and has the look of a future All-Star.  Philadelphia (10-4) is a dark horse title contender, starting 21-year old Jrue Holiday at the point.  The 11-4 Atlanta Hawks are starting a 23-year old, Jeff Teague, who was barely drafted in the first round.

Jrue Holiday...really?

Do a quick scan of every team in the league and ask yourself if any DOES NOT have a good point guard.  Sacramento?  Maybe, but only if Tyreke doesn’t qualify for the position.  The Lakers and Heat?  Perhaps, but they’re so stacked at the wing that having a point who dribbles a lot would be more of a hurt than a help.

So, all of these great point guards… does it reflect something nation or worldwide about basketball interest, and an influx of newly-20-somethings that have been dedicated to hoops?

If that were the case, wouldn’t there be a similar phenomenon amongst the bigs, too?

It isn’t.

Dwight Howard is the only center in the NBA who can fairly be categorized as a “superstar.”  And he isn’t a star for his offense.  Last season, his seventh as a pro, Howard averaged a career-high 22.9 points per game.  The only other centers who played in the All-Star Game (Tim Duncan and Al Horford, each of whom started his career in the league as a power forward) each averaged under 16 points per game.

What happened to the 1990s, when centers ruled the league? (Well, other than games that Michael Jordan was playing in.) In different seasons, Ewing, Robinson, Olajuwon, and O’Neal averaged between 27 and 30 points per game.  Today, that simply doesn’t happen with back-to-the-basket players. Shaq, Hakeem, and Robinson won championships; Ewing came preciously close.  Yet Dwight Howard remains ringless.

If the plethora of good points and the dearth of good bigs isn’t a coincidence, then what explains it?

The rules changed.

Instead of “illegal defense” (guard your man or double-team the ball, essentially) defenders would only be restricted to a “three-seconds” rule for situations were they weren’t defending an individual player.  In other words, zone defense was now legal–with limitations–and perimeter players could now hedge down on the post without having to commit a full double team that left their own player wide open for a jump shot.

Why the change?  No need to speculate, there.  NBA Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations explained for us back in 2002:

The illegal defense guidelines needed to be eliminated because they have become problematic. They are problematic for our fans, who don’t understand the rule. They are problematic for the officials, who admittedly have had difficulty administering the rule. And finally, our teams have used the guidelines in a way that produces isolation basketball. Teams identify areas on the floor that they can use to their advantage in a given offensive matchup and this produces a real sameness of play amongst a lot of our teams. With isolation basketball, a lot of our teams began standing around. There is little player movement, there is little ball movement, and there is a decreasing amount of fastbreak opportunities. These developments began with the misuse of the illegal defense guidelines and therefore they needed to be eliminated. By eliminating them, our desired result is to get a game that once again is based on passing, cutting, player movement, and ball movement. A game that hopefully produces fastbreak opportunities because that is the way our game should be played.

Those admirable goals were, in large part, met with the rule change.  But along with the changes were some unintended casualties: namely, most of the superstar centers who used to dominate games with their backs to the basket.  Sure, Shaq won MVP’s and titles with the Lakers, but he was a unique case of overwhelming size and skill that has never been seen before, or since.  Tim Duncan was almost as dominant as Prime Shaq, but much of his play was at power forward, thriving off of a square-up game and bank-shot that is now emulated by fours like Chris Bosh and even Kevin Love.

After the announcement of the rule change, Shaq was asked for his opinion.  All he would say was, “Stinks.”  In the same Sports Illustrated piece, P.J. Brown added, “I don’t think it’s good at all. Zones will bring the games to a grind.”  What he wasn’t taking into consideration were the ever-tightening restrictions on hand-checking that would help make point guard the easiest offensive position in the league.  In other words, the game would only come to a “grind” for posts now facing more defenders from the same island, eight or more feet from the basket.

How many NBA players today actually prefer to score with their back to the basket?  Al Jefferson is probably the best, and it’s up for debate what type of role he can command on a competitive team.  The help-down defense on the strong side, combined with allowing free roaming of the other three defenders, is a strong deterrent to the post moves once relied upon by the best in the game.

Al Jefferson's post game is muted with the current rules

Given that the point guard-to-center exchange rate seems to be approaching 50:1, and there isn’t a single center as offensively-gifted as Patrick Ewing was in an average year, shouldn’t something to be done to remedy the situation and clear the way for some talented bigs (DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson, Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe) to challenge the sort of impact that Rose and his ilk are making?

Here’s a basic idea that is more-conventional than many rule changes that the most-conservative NBA has made over the years:

NARROW THE LANE.

In 1951, the NBA widened the lane from six to twelve feet.  This change, by no coincidence, occurred during George Mikan’s reign as the best player in the league and a flurry of (MINNEAPOLIS) Laker titles.  In 1964, a different Laker-to-be was dominating the league too much on the interior.  With Wilt dropping 100 on a hot night, the league felt the need to expand the lane even beyond twelve feet, out to sixteen.  Note that zone defense was outlawed back in 1946.  So the compromise was reached.

Defense: You can’t mess with Wilt too much; either a full double team or guard him straight up.

Wilt: Get out from under the damn hoop.  You’re enormous.

This equilibrium lasted for almost 40 years, until Pat Riley’s Knicks started playing clutch-and-grab, hack-a-anybody defense that damn-near carried them to a championship not seen in New York since the seventies.  But while New York is a big market, and the Spike-Reggie Rivalry was high entertainment, the brand of basketball was lacking.  Scoring was way down, players were being rewarded for thuggery under the hoop, and fan interest was deflating fast after the (second of three) retirements of His Airness.

Patrick Ewing going head-to-head with David Robinson

But with zone defense principles allowed for the first time in over fifty years, the league should have reciprocated to the tall folks of the hoops world by narrowing the lane.  Wilt and Mikan (and Shaq, had these changes not happened before him) needed a bigger lane because only one player was allowed to guard them.  In today’s game, posts are faced with defense from all directions.  This isn’t entirely center-specific (can you even imagine Charles Barkley trying to back his man down for 12 seconds with today’s rules?) but the seven-footers of the world are affected the most for two reasons:

* Their comparative advantage (height) is most-negated by being pushed away from the rim; and

* They possess the least ability to dribble with nearby defenders.

If the league narrowed the lane back to 12 feet (same as high school and college) two things would undeniably happen:

* Centers would score more points.  They’d be allowed to establish position closer to the hoop and traditional back-to-the-basket moves, like drop steps, up-and-unders, and jump hooks would all be executed from a reasonable distance.  Rather than having to square up and essentially dribble penetrate from the extended elbow, posts could be posts again.  In the 90’s, Ewing and Hakeem could spend as much time as needed backing down their man to get prime position.  In today’s NBA, there are too many quick hands and sneaky help defenders for the tallest players to be putting the ball on the floor with any frequency.

* Shot Blockers would matter more than they do now.  If Darren Collison and Eric Maynor and Jeff Teague and D.J. Augustine can be solid NBA players, why can’t Hasheem Thabeet?  Why shouldn’t a 7’4″ freak who can bat your weakass shit into the fifteenth row be able to make a living despite weaknesses, the same way a 6’1″ lead guard with court awareness but no value added to league entertainment be able to?  With a narrow lane comes quicker helpside defense.  Shot blocking would be more relevant than it is now.

A narrow lane would not make centers unstoppable.  The best post scorers like Jefferson, Howard, and Bynum, would simply attract more defense and their teams would have to hit perimeter shots to counter.  It’s still the team game and free-flowing concepts sought by Stu Jackson in 2002, just with a fair fight between the less-coordinated-but-mammoth centers and the lead guards that will soon need their own league to employ all capable job candidates.

The NBA has made radical changes to its rules over its history.  Think about the three-point shot.  How crazy would it seem to us young adults (who weren’t around when that change happened) if a four-point shot was instituted for 30-footers?

Is narrowing the lane to a width used at an earlier point in history so crazy?  Do fans simply not enjoy great bigs? Did somebody forget to consult Bill Walton?

One final question:

If the league had to widen the lane when centers become too dominant, shouldn’t it narrow the lane when the position is nearly extinct?

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Playing to the Competition (WOLVES 93, Pistons 85)

15,598 people attended tonight’s matchup between the Timberwolves and Pistons, and most of them brought the same level of enthusiasm as the Wolves’ players. That is to say the arena had the feel of a tennis match as Tayshawn Prince destroyed Wes Johnson (and anyone else who tried to stop him) and Wolf jumpers continuously clanked off the rim, the backboard, or both.

The saving grace tonight for the good guys was just how inept Detroit has become. Despite a hot shooting night from Prince (13-23, 3-5 3PT, 29 points) and a (relatively) efficient night from Ben Gordon (7-15, 18 points) Detroit made enough mistakes and missed enough free throws to lose to Minnesota on a REALLY cold night. The Wolves shot just 30-75 from the floor (40.0 percent) and that number must have been even lower at halftime, when they trailed 42-36. I overheard somebody in the concession line remark that “it’s okay; you only need to play one quarter to beat the Pistons.” That was proven correct in this game. The Wolves ratcheted up the defensive pressure in the 4th Quarter (WINNING TIME) and buried Detroit with a 29-14 quarter point.

This really wasn’t the most interesting of contests, even for the die-hard NBA fan. With that in mind, and with a weekend double-header on the way (Clippers on Friday (CP3 may not play–hamstring), Jazz on Saturday) I’ll bring this one home with a few brief notes and let readers add anything they see fit in the comments:

* Detroit lost this game at the free-throw line. They shot 10-21 (47.6 percent) and a respectable 15 or 16 makes would have SERIOUSLY pressured the Wolves comeback effort.

* Ricky missed everything tonight–EXCEPT the coolest layup I’ve seen all year. He drove left, whirled the ball around his back and finished as the defenders’ heads were spinning. He shot 1 for 8, yet impacted the game with filthy dime after dime down the stretch. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but the winding kick-out to Wellington on the wing for a trey stuck out as an uber-important basket. This bucket extended the lead to 7 (88-81) with 4:22 to go and was the moment that the game felt in hand.

* Oh, and Ricky was getting his hands on every loose ball and rebound opportunity, too. This type of game is what optimists expected as his upside. (9 points on 8 shots; 7 rebounds; 8 assists; 6 steals). His impact was second to Love’s in securing this win.

* Love had 20 and 17. Ho. Hum.

* Derrick Williams, I continue to believe, needs to aggressively drive from that 15-feet, square-up position. When he does it without hesitation, he looks like Amar’e Stoudemire. Too many times, he looks more like Wes Johnson, shuffling his feet and wondering how best to not do something productive. Come on D-THRILL! He’s good, just give him time.

* No matter what you might think, or what you’ve been led to believe, the team is not benefitting from Michael Beasley’s absence. They’ve managed to beat some bad teams (Wizards, Hornets sans Gordon, Kings, Pistons) and have lost to the Raptors, Bulls, and Hawks. If Beasley’s shooting regresses to the mean of his career, he’s a player this team could use. That isn’t to say he’s perfect, great, or even “good.” Just that he possesses a skill set that no other Wolf comes close to. That may change over time with Derrick Williams, but he isn’t anywhere near as polished as Mike is at collecting baskets against real defense. Combine Rubio’s passing with Love’s foul-drawing and then add in Mike’s shot creating–that has the feel of a legitimately-good team. Not just one that eeks out scrappy wins against dog shit competition.

Season Record: 6-8

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