“[I]f you want to call it a form of socialism, as some do, in terms of how sports leagues operate, I would say from an economic standpoint, we’re a single enterprise. We’re trying to create competition among teams. And that’s what makes our system.”
—Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner
“I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.”
competition \ˌkäm-pə-ˈti-shən\ : the act or process of trying to get or win something (such as a prize or a higher level of success) that someone else is also trying to get or win
“YOU PLAY, TO WIN, THE GAME!”
Generally speaking, a professional basketball game is supposed to be a competition. Owners pay a management staff to hire coaches, scouts, trainers and most importantly players to compete against somebody else’s team. The goal is to win the game.
There are exceptions to this general rule. Sometimes, some things have greater priority than winning a game does. At the management level, teams sometimes trade away their best players in order to ensure a worse record and higher draft position. Philadelphia is the most notorious example of this “tanking” strategy. By intentionally fielding a worse lineup, Philly is not competing.
At the coaching level, Gregg Popovich will sometimes sit out his best veterans in order to rest them for the playoffs. In terms of a championship pursuit — his main goal — he is competing. But on that night, he is not. He would play his best players if he cared about winning that game.
Coaches fail to compete in other ways. Some might say that by “checking out” last season with an eye on retirement, Rick Adelman failed to compete. Or, for another recent Timberwolves example, Kurt Rambis talked about the slow process of teaching a young team and how he was asking his players to do things that they were not yet comfortable doing. However implicitly, Rambis was acknowledging that he was not competing to win. If he cared most about winning, he would’ve set more ball screens for Ramon Sessions and sat Jonny Flynn on the bench. But instead he was using games as practice laboratories. Losses ensued.
Lastly, sometimes the players themselves fail to compete. This can also take different forms. It can be excessive selfishness in on-court decisions. If a player is clearly putting his own stats over the greater good, he is not competing to win the game. It can be refusing to play through a reasonable amount of pain. Nobody is expected to be Kevin McHale, hobbling on a broken foot in the NBA Finals. But basketball creates soreness and every player responds differently to it. In the lens of competition, the ones that best balance injury prevention with playing as much and as hard as possible can be considered the most competitive. They are trying the hardest to win.
But the worst and ugliest deviation from competition is when the players simply don’t show up to play hard.
And that’s what we saw from the Timberwolves this weekend.
On Friday, at New Orleans, the Wolves suffered their worst loss in franchise history; a 139-91 drumming at the hands of Monty Williams’ playoff hopefuls, led by Anthony Davis and a decent backcourt. The game was over almost as soon as it started, with the Pelicans jumping to leads of 7-0 and then 34-13. Losing by 48 to any team — let alone a not-great one like the Pellies — almost requires some intentional lack of effort. The Pelicans shot 67 percent from the field and — miraculously — even greater from three-point range, where they hit 15 out of 20. The Wolves couldn’t be bothered to defend any of the layups or three-point shots. It was a slaughter.
On Saturday, at Dallas, the defense was somehow even worse. (!) The Mavs were not as hot shooting as the Pellies were (8-26 from three) but they didn’t need to be, because the lane was open for business all night long. Nobody on the Wolves active roster seems to understand pick-and-roll defense. Help is either too slow or too careless, if it comes at all. Mo Williams’ feet don’t move. Kevin Martin’s don’t either, and it too often looks like he’s also not trying. Pekovic is out of sorts. Gorgui was frustrated by Tyson Chandler’s size and stopped doing anything else right. The Mavs set some kind of franchise record for points in the paint. I can’t even get myself to look up the details. I know that they scored 131 points.
The defensive effort in both games — regardless of inexperience or Ricky Rubio’s absence or any other excuses you can think of — was reprehensible.
There will be no meaningful progress if the players themselves fail to compete.
Moving past that, this concept of competition versus other NBA game forms is one worth thinking about at this juncture of this season. Rubio’s injury forced Flip’s hand. Whatever dreams he had of gunning for a playoff spot are dashed. Even if this team played its absolute hardest in the season’s final 73 games, it would not win more than half of them. As we have seen before when Rubio went down with a knee injury, the Timberwolves lack playmakers. In his absence, there is no player that can consistently get the opposing defense shifting around, and that shifting is necessary for finding open shots in halfcourt sets. And this doesn’t even get to defense, where the Wolves now rank 29th in the league and Rubio is an ace at the top of the key.
For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to assume that Flip Saunders can reach his young team and get it playing harder. Maybe that will mean more Corey Brewer and Shabazz Muhammad — two players who bring full effort to every possession — and less Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger. Or, maybe it just means teaching the newest, youngest players how to get the right amount of rest in the marathon NBA season so they aren’t more tired than they should be on game night. I trust Flip to figure this much out.
But beyond getting the effort level where it needs to be, fans who plan on watching the games will need to recalibrate their expectations. When Rubio is out of the lineup — and possibly even when he’s back in it — this will not always look like a competition. Zach LaVine isn’t “NBA ready” at any position, but the early signs suggest he’s extra uncomfortable at point guard, where he is currently needed. Rather than harp on this fact, it might be more fun to see what types of things he *can* do. At times (not over this past weekend) he has shown some nice defensive instincts. When coupled with his athleticism, that’s led to flashes of excellence on that end. On offense, last night, he got frustrated enough to where he just blew through the defense and up toward the rim on a few straight possessions. He didn’t finish all of them, but it’s interesting to see bits of that potential.
Shabazz Muhammad has only logged 402 career minutes. That’s like 12 games for a good starting player. Combined with his 1-and-done college career, he’s practically still a rookie. (Though he did seem to progress during a season of Adelman practices and a great off-season workout program.) Last night, Shabazz put together a line of 18 points (6-7 shooting), 4 rebounds and 2 assists in just 13 minutes of action. His game is still fairly limited in scope — he often resorts to a lefty hook. But he is also beginning to show off nice cutting instincts when a teammate drives and a dunk opportunity presents itself. Muhammad is averaging, per 36 minutes, 22.5 points (on 55 percent shooting) and 6.4 rebounds. Perhaps Flip could give him 36 minutes some night, even if he isn’t sure that’s the best ticket to winning that game. That might be a minor deviation from competition that would make sense and also be interesting for fans to watch.
There is a lot to watch with this team and — unless just about all of it fails — I plan on enjoying following it. But that would not be possible if pure competition was my expectation. That just does not seem realistic, given the Rubio injury and other factors surrounding this team and its roster construction.
But nobody should be okay with the drastic failure to compete that was this weekend’s back to back either. Flip’s lack of internal accountability — he is [minority] owner, GM, and coach — should only mean that the rest of us do more to hold him accountable from the outside. And when his team does not seem to even try its hardest, on consecutive nights, it’s more than reasonable for alarm bells to go off.
The Wolves are back home, and off until Wednesday when the Knicks come to town. Hopefully a few days of practice — and sleep — at home, will get their young legs re-energized and at least putting their best feet forward.
Season Record: 2-7