Last night, the Timberwolves lost another game. Not just another game, but they lost another home game, and another home game against a mediocre opponent. This time it was the Milwaukee Bucks, who came into the contest rocking a 13-21 record, near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The Wolves lost for a variety of reasons. They shot the ball poorly; even rookie phenom Karl-Anthony Towns, whose shot is one of the few reliable things about this year’s team. After stingy defense in the first quarter, led by the usual cast of defensive characters — Ricky Rubio, Tayshaun Prince, Kevin Garnett — they defended worse and worse as the game went on, surrendering dunks out of pick-and-roll sets down the stretch of the game. They ended up losing by 10 points, after leading by 17 at one point, late in the first quarter. It was one of the team’s ugliest performances of the season.
Afterward, the wait for Coach Sam Mitchell was longer than usual. Chatting with fellow bloggers in the media room, I joked that someone should open with a question about Zach LaVine’s huge alley-oop dunk; it came late in the game, after the damage had been done, and if nothing else probably upset Mitchell even more. The spectacular dunk, in the context of a terrible performance, highlighted the apparent gulf between his young players’ physical potential and their realized basketball ability.
Nobody asked that question, and that was certainly for the best. Not only because it would have been silly and ruined the presser, but because Mitchell was ready to talk last night, and get something off of his chest. Mitchell wanted to talk AAU basketball, and what it’s done to spoil the young players on his Timberwolves team. The bad habits that they have developed as a result of “coaching” from the likes of non-coaches such as “the guy who owns the hardware store” and “some dude that’s got some money for sneakers and gear.” William Bohl typed up the full quote at A Wolf Among Wolves, and I encourage you to check it out in full.
This quasi-ideological rant against The State of Basketball by Mitchell was met with a wide range of reactions on Twitter. I personally loved it, but that had more to do with the insight we were provided about How Sam Really Feels than any clear agreement with what he was saying. There are plenty of old school, former players willing to denounce modern basketball. The high-profile examples of late usually involve the Golden State Warriors championship-winning style of play. Charles Barkley focuses on their lack of interior size, and how (he believes) they would lose to teams from his era. Mark Jackson believes that Steph Curry is “hurting the game” because of how young kids are shooting too many long jumpers before rounding out their complete skill sets. When these people say these things, the NBA blog engines heat up with reaction pieces, and Twitter arguments ensue.
This AAU thing of Mitchell’s is common, it’s not new, and it blends in with the related discussion about college basketball as training for the pros, as opposed to allowing and encouraging the most talented players to enter the NBA as early as they possibly can. But the general discussion about how 18, 19 and 20 year olds prepare for their futures in basketball is not usually as specific as Mitchell’s was, so let’s think about What He is Saying when he says these things after a bad loss to the Bucks.
First, Mitchell is focusing on “stance.” He’s focusing on the stance that his young players are [not] in, on both ends of the floor. Instead of having their knees bent at all times, he’s noticing that they stand up, which is more of a resting position than a basketball-ready one. On defense, he mentioned how they had to do “slide drills” in training camp, an unanticipated degree of basic that Mitchell felt should have been better coached to these guys when they were younger. On offense, he mentioned how they catch the ball “standing up” and bring the ball up over their head, as opposed to clearing through in a real triple-threat position.
He did not call out specific players, and this criticism would not be properly lobbed at some of them. For instance, on offense, Shabazz Muhammad is nothing if not ready to score immediately upon catching a pass. He is clearly not the target of that one. On defense, Ricky Rubio does not stand up to rest. Andrew Wiggins becomes fairly stationary when he isn’t involved directly in plays, and I suspect Mitchell is working with him to become more active. Wiggins should collect more rebounds and steals, and that would probably happen if his stance and activity level improved to resemble something closer to Rubio’s. Adreian Payne and Gorgui Dieng both bring the ball up over their head, in the way Mitchell described. LaVine does not have very smart instincts upon catching a pass, and — along with Wiggins — probably commits the “standing up” sin, as opposed to catching in a triple-threat stance.
Second, and more briefly, Mitchell made mention of “execution, picks, spacing, timing” and setting up a defender before coming off of a screen. These are more five-man-team concepts than ball-skill fundamentals. This criticism is probably just as valid as the first one — depending on which players he is describing — but it begs the response about Mitchell’s offensive system itself, and how it does not allow as much spacing as most other NBA teams. By utilizing so many off-ball screens, and wing and post entry sets, Mitchell is requiring a more nuanced understanding of team basketball and spacing from his young players, while simultaneously placing them in sub-optimal places to score, even when the plays work as designed. For the perfect contrast to what the Timberwolves do on offense, watch a few minutes of a Stan Van Gundy-coached Pistons game. Players stand ready to shoot behind the three-point line unless they are directly involved in the two-man game that initiates the play. Spacing is easier, and wider, in spread offenses.
Is this outdated offensive system that requires more advanced fundamentals going to positively or negatively influence the development of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine? I wish I knew. To paraphrase Mitchell, “if I knew the answer to that, maybe I should be up there coaching with him and earning the big bucks.” I appreciate how hard Mitchell is coaching this team, and I fully believe him when he says that they work on these details of Basic Basketball every day. But I also know that most other NBA teams have moved into a new era that embraces three-point shooting as a primary weapon, and I know that Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are not getting the type of in-game repetitions that, say, a young San Antonio Spurs player might get. Instead, more often, they are being asked to create offense for themselves. They are coached in basic ball skills, and need to figure out the rest for themselves. It’s as if in Mitchell’s basketball mind, the plays are out there to be made if you just know how to find them. A different coach might use specific shots and places on the floor as the starting point, and let the fundamentals follow from there.
I really don’t know which is better, long term.
The last takeaway from what Mitchell said last night is more simple:
He does not think his players are very good at basketball right now. What other interpretation of his speech is there? He ripped on their basic fundamentals, and whatever “coaching” they received as teenagers and college players (for one season). Aside from size and athleticism, basketball is pretty much about skills! He said that if they were not embarrassed about their effort last night, then they are the wrong guys to have on the team.
On one hand, I have a lot of respect for how Mitchell is coaching this team. He is doing it the only way that he knows how, honestly assessing his players, the franchise’s current place in rebuilding, and using varied disciplinary tactics to hammer home whatever message needs delivering.
On the other hand, this is a more dangerous route — this old school, hardass route — than what most coaches in Mitchell’s position would take. The NBA season is LONG, and only feels longer when the team is losing. When I was the age of Wiggins and Towns, I was playing on some losing small college teams, and those seasons would really drag on when losses pile up and the coach keeps yelling the same things. The last game of the season was a happy day. These guys play about three times as many games, in about twice as long a period of time as the typical college season. Most of them have never done much losing in their entire basketball lives. After a while, some tuning-out becomes inevitable because things just aren’t going to change without the passage of a lot of time. If Mitchell doesn’t lighten up, to a pretty significant degree, he’ll risk losing the locker room which would carry a death sentence for his NBA head coaching career.