“We’re the Miami Heat, and he’s Jeremy Lin.” – President Barack Obama, referring to his campaign versus Mitt Romney’s
Story time, kids.
When POTUS made that remark about his re-election prospects, most of the electorate missed it. They don’t follow the NBA closely enough to understand the imagery. But those of us who do, those of us who get primed up for a hyped night of Inside the NBA, know exactly what Obama meant by that. Right in the thick of LINSANITY, the Heat and Knicks matched up in prime time; the Knicks having won 9 of their last 11 and having all kinds of confidence facing the defending East champs. Lin was a skinny, Asian-American and Harvard-educated point guard, thriving on pick-and-roll sets, benefiting from the same hand-check restrictions that all NBA lead guards do. While the Knicks were confident heading into that game, there was cause for concern. Miami’s three-headed backcourt monster of Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James was sure to bring the Heat (PUN!) and pressure Lin at every turn.
So. LeBron and D-Wade harassed Lin all over the court en route to a big win. Lin shot 1 for 11 from the floor with 8 turnovers. Wade’s post-game comments were classy but direct: the Heat did what they were supposed to do.
“First of all, he deserves all of the credit he’s been given,” Wade said. “We knew it was going to be a tough task guarding him. … He’s a good player, but we put a lot of pressure on him and it was a success.”
LeBron sang a similar tune.
“He’s a good player, a really good player,” James said of Lin. “And they’re going to do some great things. But for us, we come in and take care of business.”
The moral of the story is, we come in and take care of business. Translation: Lin is a thing, but I’m LeBron Motherf*cking James. Don’t sleep. My wallet, it’s the one that says “Bad Motherf*cker” on it.
LBJ was right. Linsanity was a three-week craze, the Heat are dominators. The Heat aren’t cute. They don’t need gimmicks. (Mike Miller doesn’t count, he’s a gimmick but they don’t need him.) They don’t need fluky streaks. On the contrary: Miami is big, Miami is mean, and Miami is really, really, really good.
They flopped in the 2011 Finals, but instead of folding, the Heat came back and won it all in 2012. Lin? His run ended with a knee injury, his coach getting a pink-slip, Melo rightfully reclaiming the throne atop the NYC hoops world, and his self ending up in Houston after the Knicks all but publicly declared they didn’t want him anymore. Linsanity had a shelf life. The Heat don’t, really, because their shelf life will last as long as LeBron and Wade want, ’cause they’ll keep slashing the lane, dunking on fools, and most importantly, suffocating the rest of the league with their defensive pressure on both wings.
We’re all here because we’re Wolves fans. Lots more people are interested in the Wolves now than they were two years ago. Sure, they’re better. But a lot gets lost in the mania around K-Love’s NUMB#RS and Rubio’s Unicorn and the Russian invasion and Pek the Destroyer. Which makes me wonder, are the Wolves like Lin, or are they like the Heat? Neither, you say. (MANICHAEAN FALLACY!) I get that. But is the in-between really meaningful? If you’re a young, popular NBA team, you’re either legit (OKC) or you’re not (LAC). Contender or pretender.
The Wolves have reason for concern about last season’s craze. Through the first 41 games of the lockout-shortened season, they were right there with Lin as one of the League’s top stories. Ricky Rubio! Need I say more? Well, the Spaniard was the talk of the Western Conference, curling off ball screens and firing everything under the sun to wide-open teammates.
Rubio’s success depended heavily on three passes:
1) Flaring off to the right while pulling the help defender with him, then hitting the Destroyer on the roll for a dunk.
If the roll wasn’t there, he’d exploit either of two other options:
2) A behind-the-back pass to a popper (usually Love) or a cutting wing at the top or ball-side wing,
3) A one-handed skip over the top of the collapsed defense to the opposite wing for an open jumper.
By pushing any of these three buttons on a given possession, Ricky showed he could run an NBA offense better as a rook than most veteran point guards could ever dream of.
But Rubio’s John Lennon rockstar thing overshadowed some potentially important limitations in his game.
First, Ricky isn’t unlike Jeremy Lin in that he’s skinny and isn’t very explosive. Unlike Lin, Rubio isn’t intimidated by pressure D (see 2008 Olympic Gold Medal Game), but Ricky isn’t likely to blow by it and finish at the rim like a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, and he never will be. Ricky’s ingenuity begins with shiftiness and, usually, a ball screen. Remember that Pacers game when they punked Kevin Love? They were pretty hard on Ricky, too. They sicced Paul George on him. Buckets were hard to come by. George is a force of nature on D.
The other limitation separates him in a bad way from Steve Nash, another non-explosive but awesomely-effective foreign point guard. That is, Ricky is a rotten shooter. Absolutely miserable. It’s broken so badly it probably at this point it’s probably beyond repair. So what, you say–Ricky rules! I agree, but in today’s NBA, a point guard is well advised to have a dribble jumper at the ready. Tony Parker and Steve Nash are the masters. After a couple years of work, even Rose and Russ are getting there too. Chris Paul could make a living just hanging around the right elbow. Rondo seems like the only real exception depending on what you think of Westbrook. Well, Ricky hasn’t learned this yet. Until he does, defenses will collapse, and he’ll have a lot of frustrating nights.
But even given his limitations, the Wolves were WAY worse without him. 21-20 was followed by 5-26. You can do the math. There wasn’t a guard on the team, save for the occasional J.J. triple-double that woulda had Cube rappin’, who could create offense. None. Nada. The team needs Ricky no matter his flaws.
You just know what he meant to us last year. I’m still in shock how much it affected our team when he went down. He created an atmosphere around our team that gave everybody a belief that they had the chance to win, no matter who we play or where we play.
All of this is to say that the Timberwolves were heavily reliant upon Ricky Rubio, and that even with a healthy Ricky, there are serious limitations. Rubio can and will improve, but that type of thin, unimposing player does not carry a championship offense on his back. This might have been possible in the days of Cousy and Havlicek, but not anymore. And, as I’ve said before, the Wolves only hope of becoming a title contender is through their offense. Today’s NBA is a league where great defense requires mobile, rim-protecting bigs. The Love-Pekovic duo is neither. So they need to be great at scoring, and to be great at scoring – not just good or even really good - you need your skinny, non-explosive point guard to be able to finish and shoot and not just pass like a Boss.
How to be Great at Scoring
So what to do, if not all high ball screens? You already know the answer. It’s the Princeton Offense.
Pete Carril’s basketball baby is the best counter to pressure defense and a proven method for success of *smart* teams that play unselfishly and actively. Last year’s Wolves, lacking experience and a full training camp with the new coach, did not use it. Unless Brad Miller, an old Adelman fave, entered the game. Rick had this to say when asked about back-cutting and his old system making an appearance in Minnesota:
Q How comforting is it to add two guys — Kirilenko and Chase Budinger — who don’t stare at you blankly when you call for a back-door cut?
A It’s really huge. Everybody talked about my system with Vlade Divac and Chris Webber. That’s why it became a system, those two guys. … These two guys can run the floor. They cut. They’re moving all the time. And when we get Ricky back, they’ll be really good.
Q How much of that system were you able to install last season because of the lockout-shortened training camp and the team’s personnel?
A Very little. We went to so much pick-and-roll because that was the only way we were going to win. We learned really quick why they were 30th in the league in turnovers the year before. I think you are going to see us doing a lot more things that we used to run. That’s one thing I like: You can really adjust to the people you have, and that’s my job as a coach.
By the sounds of it, the team is looking to relieve some pressure off the point guard and install a passing and cutting offense. In my last piece on Princeton, I quoted some year-old stuff from Carril. And it just so happens that Sam Amick dug up some fresh material when it was reported that none other than the LA Lakers were reportedly going to go Princeton after hiring Eddie Jordan as an assitant. Check out out when you have a moment. Carril is the man.
UPDATE: Joan Niesen of FSN North summarized today’s training camp events, and included a nugget from AK47 that touches on what this post is about:
“You know why I like European basketball, because there’s a lot of tactic involved,” Kirilenko said. “I know NBA, it’s an individual game prevails. People like to play one-on-one. People like the athletic style of the basketball, but if you can combine athleticism and the tactics, I think you can have a great product. If the athletic guys can start playing good team defense . . . it’s going to be impossible to beat. I think we can do it. Rick, that kind of coach, can really bring it.”