The problem has less to do with where we are than where it appears we are headed.
With last night’s loss the Timberwolves are three games below .500 for the first time all season. Technically, they are only four games out of the playoff picture; this, and we have not even reached the season’s halfway point. It is possible that the Wolves will make a trade or figure something out with the playing rotation and find themselves in the conference’s top eight.
But the way things are going, that just seems very unlikely.
The list of problems is long:
Ricky Rubio is struggling in halfcourt offense, particularly late in close games. He is frustrated. Rick Adelman has been sitting Rubio out of recent fourth quarters. This is unpopular with fans and (so far) has not translated into wins. But it might be a necessary strategy in the short term, while Ricky continues to work on his shooting and scoring skills.
Kevin Martin no longer seems like a dynamic scorer. And as we already knew when he came here, he is a minus defender.
Corey Brewer can’t dribble or shoot, and is not a reliable one-on-one defender. He probably won’t be starting for much longer. Brewer’s ideal NBA role of spark-plug off the bench might be the only one he can execute competently. It would not surprise me if Chase Budinger (better scorer) or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (better defender) is in tonight’s starting lineup instead of Brewer.
Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are the backbone of the team and can be counted on for consistent production of points and rebounds. Love’s game continues to expand and he now creates scoring opportunities with clever passing from the high post. But neither he nor Pek has the physical capability to turn a losing game around with defensive dominance. Basically, the team needs to score at a very high rate to contend with good teams. And they haven’t been able to do that as often as we all would like.
As these team weaknesses have surfaced, the losses have piled up and the Wolves have struggled to beat any decent teams. Since the home win over the Blazers (who were exhausted and on the tail end of a road trip) on December 18, the Wolves wins have come at home against the Wizards, Pelicans and Bobcats, and on the road against the Bucks and Sixers. In that same month-long period the team lost games to the Lakers, Clippers, Mavericks, Thunder, Suns, Spurs, Kings and Raptors.
The season is now on a brink of sorts and not only with respect to making the playoffs.
Fans are beginning to question Coach Adelman. Flip Saunders, Adelman’s boss and this franchise’s most successful coach in history, might be doing the same thing. (For what it’s worth, Punch-Drunk Wolves is firmly entrenched in Adelman’s camp. Simply put, he’s an awesome coach and any change would be a downgrade. My only concern, sometimes, is that he doesn’t seem as intense or demanding as a developing team that struggles with focus might need. But that’s a relatively small point — he’s dealing with professionals, after all — and I’m not even sure if it’s true.) Local sports writers are blasting Ricky Rubio as another bust in a long line of draft mistakes. (Eds note: that column ignores that defense is a part of basketball. So there is that.) Kevin Love is a free agent in 1.5 seasons and Saunders will be tempted with big offers before next month’s trade deadline. The 2014 Draft is deep with high-end talent and we are a losing streak or two away from sliding some attention away from the game-to-game grind of the Wolves season and toward Chad Ford Insider posts about Kansas and Kentucky players. One can imagine a scenario where Love is traded for a young player and draft picks, Adelman promptly retires, and Saunders coaches a team that suddenly has Shabazz Muhammad in the regular playing rotation.
Those are some of the stakes as we head into consecutive games against the Utah Jazz. Tonight’s matchup is at Target Center. Tuesday’s is in Utah. It’s not hyperbole to call these “must win” games. Especially tonight’s. The Jazz, despite having some intriguing young players, are not good. They’re really bad, actually. Last place in the West.
Hey, if nothing else, the Timberwolves are never boring.