Greetings from San Francisco where I’ve been the past couple days, and will be tonight (well, technically Oakland) to watch the Timberwolves play at Oracle against the Warriors. Since I last wrote here, the Wolves have played three times, losing each game.
Last Sunday, they lost a close one at home to the Pacers. Their offense came out tentative against a good defensive team that allows very little opportunity for easy shots in the half-court. In the second half, sparked by the energy of Shabazz Muhammad, they came back and even took a 1-point lead. But poor execution in the final minutes — some by Muhammad specifically — let that one slip out of their fingers. They (Wiggins and Budinger, mostly) allowed C.J. Miles to go off for 28 points.
Next was the anticipated matchup with Kevin Love, now wearing the wine and gold Cavs uniform. The game wasn’t as exciting as the hype going into it. Flip Saunders said something about Minnesotans not forgiving Love because he turned on them, and then some people blogged about that. During the game, the Wolves just plain struggled to defend. They gave up 125 points. Love had 20 & 10 and looked good. The good news for Wolves fans was that Andrew Wiggins busted out of his slump to score 27 points on just 16 shots. He dunked really hard next to* Love, one time. (*I can’t say he dunked “on” Love, because Love still does the thing where he steps out of the way of dribble penetration instead of challenging it.) In any event, this game was not close. The Wolves lost by 21.
Last night’s game at Denver was close; more like the Pacers game. The Wolves, like always, were much smaller than their opponent. Whether it was Timofey Mozgov, Jusuf Nurkic, or J.J. Hickson, the Nuggets always had somebody down low who looked about 50 pounds heavier than Gorgui Dieng. But even with that particular disadvantage, the Wolves did enough stuff to hang in there to the final minute of the game.
Wiggins posted a line of 22 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists, building on the momentum started in Cleveland. Thad Young had one of his best games of the season, finding his touch on pick-and-roll floaters over the large Nuggets defenders. Gorgui Dieng did what he’s been doing, which is a little bit of everything. His stat line tells that story: 14 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 4 blocks. Shabazz had a solid scoring start interrupted in the third quarter when he took a Kenneth Faried finger to the eye and required courtside medical attention for a few minutes. He ended the game with 14 points on 5-14 shooting, which is below his average. He missed a couple of dunks where he thought he was fouled that would’ve made that stat line look a little prettier.
It looked like the game might really get away from the Wolves before Robbie Hummel checked in for a productive, 10-minute stint. He scored 7 points and took 2 charges. Hummel is one of the few players on this entire roster who could fit into a limited reserve role on any team in the league, including the title contenders. He knows how to play team offense, his defensive ability is better than you probably realize, and he does nothing to hinder what playmakers around him are trying to accomplish. (There, dead horse beaten. I really hope to see Hummel land in a more competitive situation so his playing time is no longer cut in the name of talent-development.)
The Nuggets game was partially decided by missed Wolves free throws in the final minutes. With 2:18 to play, Gorgui went 1 of 2 to tie the game instead of take the lead. With 1:21 to play, Thad went 1 of 2 to cut a Nuggets lead to 1 instead of tie the game. With 0:40 to play, Wiggins went 1 of 2 to cut a Nuggets lead to 2 instead of 1. With 0:18 to play, Gorgui went 1 of 2 to cut a Nuggets lead to 1 instead of tie the game.
You get the idea. The Wolves lost by 4.
That’s a summary of the past three games.
Some team issues I’m noticing:
* Anthony Bennett is getting worse.
Anthony Bennett is getting worse and increasingly difficult to watch. He looks tired almost immediately upon checking into the game. On offense, he mostly defers to less-exhausted teammates (including Jeff Adrien last night, who is not an NBA-level scorer) and occasionally hoists up a jumper that is lucky to graze the rim. On defense, he misses blockouts and lets average athletes blow past him to the hole.
He looks awful right now; more like he did as a rookie in Cleveland than he did when this season opened and he looked in shape, like a pretty smooth operator on offense with an interesting upside.
One theory for that, as someone who has played (at a much lower level than the NBA) in a small-minutes reserve role, is that he isn’t putting in the necessary work to stay in shape outside of the gameday routine. The regular players — starters and top reserves — keep their conditioning up with all of the work put in on game nights. Off days are for light practice and rest. For players in Bennett’s situation, conditioning during the season is an issue. They can’t do real conditioning work before games, because they are actually going to play a little bit, and can’t be tired for that. But they don’t play nearly enough to consider the game to be adequate conditioning.
Flip talks about his young players being gym rats. “You can’t keep em out of the gym,” is the sort of thing he repeats. But he usually mentions Zach LaVine and Wiggins specifically when making this point. I don’t know if Bennett is in that group. Maybe he is. But it doesn’t seem that he’s getting the sort of work done that he needs. He talked before the season — in the context of his “chameleon training” with Crazy Frank and Shabazz — that he has a body that can gain and lose weight really quickly. I don’t necessarily see a weight gain taking place, but his conditioning level is moving the wrong direction and that might be next. He and the team need to address that.
Of course there are other possibilities; ones that make his future less hopeful. It might be that he just runs on a slow motor, or is just plain lazy. That’s certainly possible. The successful offseason regimen suggests to me that it’s more of a motivation issue — he needs it from somebody else rather than within — but if the end result with two franchises is a player who can’t keep up, what’s the difference?
Alternatively, and equally gloomy, it could be that his well-documented list of medical diagnoses prevents him from playing consistently at NBA speed. I’d be speculating if I dug too much into this one, but it is possible that he is not, and never will be, physically capable of exerting the requisite effort level to do this job.
* So, what to do about Bennett?
First things first: They need to pull him entirely from the playing rotation and get him in shape. Keep him home from a road trip, assign one of the Saunders or Adelman kids to the job, and get him in the gym and working as hard as possible. He can’t play if he’s tired all the time.
Once he’s in shape, it’d be nice to see him play in the D-League for a stint, where he can log a lot of minutes and build some confidence as a scorer. That is not going to happen on the current Timberwolves team; not with Wiggins being the franchise’s designated cornerstone and Shabazz thrusting himself into the conversation of go-to scorer by sheer will and determination. The shots won’t be there for Bennett to develop like he needs to.
An option that I’ve thought about (as have many others who reply to @PDWolves on Twitter) is just throwing Bennett out there for starters minutes, and sending Thaddeus Young to the bench. If nothing else, he’d get tons of reps, presumably get in better shape in the process, remove all excuses going forward, and provide the team with a clear understanding of who he is as a player before they have to decide whether to pick up his team option next year. (That seems like a questionable proposition, right now.)
I personally don’t think that’s the best way to go, right now. I thought so a short while ago, but having watched the past couple games (it isn’t described above, but his performance in Cleveland was even worse than last night’s in Denver) I don’t think he’s capable of playing right now. Consider this: the decision to play Hummel over Bennett in the second half would’ve been the decisive factor in the game, had the Wolves made free throws and pulled it out. While I like Robbie a lot for what he is (again, see above) that’s a damning statement about Bennett, who was the top pick in the draft and has the potential to be a star player.
I’d rather they just pull him from the lineup and get him back in shape, back to square one. He’s worth the investment — this year, anyway.
* Wolves losing all the time… still better than the Knicks?
The Wolves are currently 5-23, good for a paltry winning percentage of .179. That’s almost a 15-win pace. In Case You Missed It: The Wolves won 15 games during the especially-sorry Rambis debut. (They won 17 the year after that, with Kurt.)
Shockingly, and embarrassingly, that’s only the third-worst pace in the league. The infamous Sixers and the New York Knicks — yes, the Phil Jackson-led Knicks — both have lower winning percentages.
I don’t even have to take a position on whether the Wolves should tank. They’re doing it right now, but not by choice. But it would be nice if they ended this year with a top draft choice. Jahlil Okafor of Duke, a traditional low-post center with size and advanced skills, would be a franchise changer for this team that already has a point guard and 1 or 2 wings to build around.
* A Conversation with a Bartender
Yesterday we were sitting at a bar in Fisherman’s Wharf and learned that our bartender was a former pro basketball player in Europe. He was Romanian and in his mid-30s and it was interesting to hear his thoughts on NBA players; a subject he was obviously very interested in. He specifically talked about Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf — the former Nuggets guard who played as Chris Jackson in his college days — and how his quick release was something he modeled his game after. He thought Abdul-Rauf was the most fundamentally-sound guard of that era. I liked those Nuggets teams at a slightly younger age than this guy would’ve been, but had never thought of that.
Later he wanted to talk about Michael Jordan, a more predictable favorite. He wanted to make clear that Jordan was better than LeBron James. He described James as a “tank,” compared to Jordan who was graceful. He also said Jordan was better because he’s smarter.
I disagreed pretty strongly, but bit my tongue. We were on our way out and the conversation was fun.
Tonight’s game will probably not be close. The Warriors are an elite team and title contender who rested last night when the Wolves played. Also, they lost their past 2 games, and will be in no mood to let this game stay close. Mostly, I’m just hoping for promising performances from our young guys and a fun show from the Splash Brothers.