Weekend Split: A Friday Win & Saturday Loss
The Timberwolves won on Friday against the Nets and lost on Saturday against the Rockets, continuing an early season trend of winning at home and losing on the road. (The Wolves are currently 6-2 at home and 2-5 on the road.) The weekend split also reinforced a growing body of evidence suggesting that the Wolves will end the season very close to the cut line of Western Conference Playoffs inclusion. As things stand, the Grizzlies are 8th in the West; the Wolves 9th.
Friday’s game seems like a great win because the Wolves won by 30 points against a team that had Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett playing. But it wasn’t a great win as much as it was a terrible loss by the Nets who turned in such an embarrassingly unprofessional effort. Any of the league’s other 28 teams would’ve defeated Brooklyn on Friday.
Saturday’s game seems like a bad loss because Houston was without superstar guard James Harden, yet controlled the game from start to finish. There weren’t many moments when a Wolves win seemed likely, if even possible. But it wasn’t a bad loss as much as a combination of a “schedule loss” (The Rockets were at home and hadn’t played since Wednesday. The Wolves played Friday and obviously had to travel.) and an unlucky night to play against reserve guard, Aaron Brooks. He had barely seen the floor this season, but the Harden injury gave him a rare chance. Brooks made the most of it with 26 points in 25 minutes. He was 6-7 from downtown. If Brooks plays his usual game — whatever that is exactly — the Rockets may still have won, but the game would have been competitive.
Panic spread around the NBA world on Friday night when three marquee players went down with scary injuries. In a matter of minutes, my Twitter feed announced a(nother) possible ACL tear for former MVP Derrick Rose, a non-contact knee injury for Defense Player of the Year Marc Gasol, and a hamstring injury “with a pop sound” to Warriors linchpin Andre Iguodala. If every injury realized its worst-case potential, the 2013-14 season would be damaged beyond comprehension. In the case of Rose and Gasol, they are unquestionably the best players on their teams that are gunning for a title in pure “win now” mode. Iggy is new to the Warriors, but his defensive chops and impeccable fit with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have given the Dubs a title-contending look that doubles as the league’s most watchable brand of ball.
The worst-case scenarios were avoided. Iggy *only* strained his hamstring and — while listed as out indefinitely — says that he is sure he’ll be back really soon. Gasol *only* sprained his MCL. Like Iggy, Gasol is out indefinitely. However, no ligaments were torn and he won’t need surgery. Both players should be back long before the playoffs, when their services are valued most.
The news was less rosy for Chicago’s point guard and franchise player. Derrick Rose has a torn meniscus and will undergo surgery tomorrow. If he has the meniscus — or part of it — removed, he could be back within weeks. But the reports indicate he will instead have it re-attached. This will effectively end his season with an eye on the greater good of his future health and productivity for the Bulls, where he remains under [a huge] contract through the 2016-17 season. Apparently, re-attaching the meniscus is thought to reduce the long-term effects of the injury. Given what we’ve seen with other players like Brandon Roy, the careful route is probably the smarter one.
Talking about “my favorite player” seems pretty childish. But then again so is sports fandom in general, and it’s usually childish in ways that aren’t necessarily bad. Anyway, Derrick Rose is my favorite player. Somewhere between his 2008 March Madness run where he essentially redefined what transition offense looks like, and his MVP Award in 2011, he replaced Kobe Bryant as the non-Timberwolf who I cheer for purely as an individual talent. Rose may not have deserved that MVP over LeBron or Dwight (then again, there are worse criteria for such an ambiguously-defined award than “best player on the best team”) but he rapidly shot up the ranks as one of the league’s best players and did it with an electric playing style mixed with unusual humility.
If Rose does what is expected and has the meniscus repaired instead of removed, and he misses the rest of the season, he will have played in just 49 regular season games over the three-year span of 2012 through 2014. He will have played in exactly 1 playoff game; the fateful Game 1 versus Philly when he suffered his first major knee injury. This three-year stretch probably amounts to one half of what would have been his prime, if not for the injuries. It’s possible that the combined effects of the surgeries, the atrophy in muscles and skills from the extended absences, and simple advancing age will mean that The Best Derrick Rose has already played his last game and the future version will be something less exciting. Perhaps not in a career-ending way, ala Roy or Penny Hardaway, but in a must-reinvent-his-game way, ala Antonio McDyess.
Knee surgery for a young man set to make about $80 Million over the next four years — no matter what his physical capabilities — is well within the bounds of #FirstWorldProblems and we don’t need to be as dramatic about it as Kyrie Irving, who tweeted last night:
I mean, if prayer is your thing it seems better used on Syrian refugees or those affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Or cancer victims. But I don’t mean to take a dig at Kyrie here, or his well-meaning intentions. God knows I get overly dramatic about sports and frequently lose perspective. I just think that Rose’s continued absence from the playing floor is something that fans mourn out of their own selfish interests more than a serious concern for the affected athlete. Kyrie is Rose’s competitor and quite possibly his friend, but I think his sentiment is one that many fans are probably expressing in various forms.
When Michael Jordan told Phil Jackson that he was going to retire after winning their third consecutive championship, his coach talked not about Jordan’s own concerns (which included the recent death-by-murder of his father) but on the millions of adoring fans that would be cheated by his stepping off the stage in the middle of his prime. This was not Jackson ignoring Jordan’s own interests, as much as refusing to talk him out of a huge personal decision. But the only point he hammered home was that he had a special gift that was appreciated by so many people. As David Halberstam described it:
His gift was along the lines of a Michelangelo, Jackson said, and therefore Jordan at least had to understand that it belonged not just to the artist but to all those millions who stood in awe of the art itself and derived, in a life otherwise filled with the mundane, such pleasure from what he did. ‘Michael,’ he added, ‘pure genius is something very, very rare and if you are blessed enough to possess it, you want to think a long time before you walk away from using it.’
If you view basketball from the fan’s perspective as a form of art, it’s painful to see a Jordan or Rose (or Roy or Rubio) removed from the script. Jordan’s mid-career departure is distinguishable from Rose’s on numerous fronts, including but not limited to Michael’s being voluntary, Jordan being the more unique and dominant player, and the NBA’s current, rapidly growing slate of superstars that increases its immunity to losing one MVP to injury. The Bulls will continue to play great defense and win more than half of their games. They’ll replace 80 percent of Rose’s production. And if you’re looking for a 6’3″ combo guard who penetrates defenses like he’s wearing a jetpack, you can watch Russell Westbrook or John Wall. All is not lost for basketball fans who enjoy Derrick Rose. But if you’re like me and attach a bit more meaning to Rose’s games and his place in NBA Narrative as the homegrown floor general of Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls, it’s pretty shitty to have so much of his prime wiped out by knee surgeries.
Timberwolves Defense: Where are the shots coming from?
The Wolves currently boast the league’s 9th best offense and — more surprisingly — 7th best defense. Taken together, their “net rating” of +4.4 (point differential per 100 possessions) is good for 9th in the NBA. Compared to recent NBA seasons, a net rating of +4.4 would correlate with something in the range of a 50 to 53 win season. Their current record of 8-7 sets a pace for 44 wins, meaning the win/loss column is currently lagging behind overall performance. This presumably stems from the close losses to teams like Cleveland and LA Clippers and the blowout wins over the Lakers and Nets.
Where are the shots coming from that comprise above-average results on defense?
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that the Wolves allow opponents to shoot 45.5 percent from the field (21st) and 36.7 percent from three-point range (18th). They allow opponents to attempt 22.0 threes per game, which is the 8th highest amount in the league. 6.1 of those threes come from the corners, which is the 10th highest amount of the best non-dunk shot allowed in the league. However, when adjusted for pace (where the Wolves rank as the 3rd fastest in the league) the threes allowed per game drops to 15th most in the league. The Wolves allow 27.0 shots per game in the restricted area, which ranks as the 14th most in the league, but is much closer to the worst (Lakers allow 30.9 attempts in the restricted area) than the best (Kings only allow 19.4 per game). In the restricted area, opponents shoot 63.2 percent, which is the 9th highest in the league. The combination of allowing opponents to shoot somewhat frequently and somewhat accurately from both behind the three-point line and right at the rim would seem to give rise to below average team defense in the aggregate.
So what gives?
First, the Wolves rank 2nd in the league in opponents turnovers per game. Adjusted for their fast pace (partially caused by these turnovers) the Wolves still rank 5th in forcing turnovers. It isn’t hard to see which players cause opponents to turn it over. Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer in the starting lineup. Dante Cunningham off the bench. The Wolves have a few players with special combinations of energy and defensive instincts.
The second force driving the team’s early defensive success is the lack of shooting fouls. The Wolves only allow opponents to shoot 17.4 free throws per 100 possessions, which ranks 2nd in the league, right behind San Antonio and right ahead of Indiana. The Spurs and Pacers are two of the very best defensive teams in the league and their ability to not foul is one big reason why.
The Wolves will probably never become an elite defensive team as long as Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic comprise the front line. The team’s 3.5 blocked shots per game ranks 29th in the league and “sounds about right” if you’ve watched the two Earthbound bigs play. (For what it’s worth, Indiana — with Roy Hibbert — leads the league with 8.9 blocks per game. San Antonio ranks closer to Minnesota with just 4.5.) But if they can do a reasonable job of running three-point shooters off the line and into the mid-range (unlike last night against Aaron Brooks) and continue to force turnovers without fouling, an above-average defense might just be realistic. Nobody that I read saw this coming, and it’s probably the most pleasant surprise of the early part of the season.
Speaking of Indiana, that’s where the Wolves are now, and where they play tomorrow night. The Pacers are tied with the Spurs for the league’s best record of 12-1. It’ll be a tough one, and a great chance to build momentum with a “signature win” as the team heads into a difficult stretch of games.