The Three Pointer: Suffocating Hope

Game #28, Road Game #15: Minnesota 96, Portland 109

Game #29, Road Game #16: Minnesota 90, Seattle 109

Season record: 4-25

1. Play Richard

Wolves color commentator Jim Petersen and I probably differ as much as we agree on myriad aspects of the team, but as far as I’m concerned, the only thing missing from J-Pete’s constant lobbying on behalf of more playing time for center Chris Richard is a tone of simultaneous anger and disbelief that this elemental notion still hasn’t permeated the skull of coach Randy Wittman. There are many many things that can be blame-shifted or held in abeyance due to the injuries that have befallen point guard Randy Foye and pivot man Theo Ratliff–it is the Swiss Army knife of excuses–but the inability of center Al Jefferson and power forward Craig Smith to defend even mediocre NBA front lines certainly ain’t one of them.

Is this Timberwolves team sincerely playing to develop the talent and start the learning curve of defining roles for members of its current roster or is this franchise tanking in December? Given how obstinate Wittman has been about putting Jefferson and Smith in a position to fail, it’s unfortunately a legitimate question. I’ve already hammered on this point a couple of times this season, but watching the Wolves get waxed last night and tonight just diddles on the raw nerve of it.

First, let’s drag out the numbers once again. The latest figures from 82games.com don’t even take into account this weekend’s losses to Portland and Seattle. But they show that Al Jefferson–who everyone and their third cousin knows is a classic NBA power forward–has played the center position for 54% of the minutes the Wolves have been on the court during the team’s first 27 games. During that time, the Wolves were minus -222. During the 46% of the time Al Jefferson was NOT playing center for the Timberwolves, the team was minus -1. People can usually juggle statistics to justify most anything they want, but it is difficult to imagine numbers this stark and dramatic shrieking anything but "Play Jefferson at the 4, beside a legit center!"

Short of deliberately tanking games to get a high draft pick, there are only two reasons why the Wolves would pursue this wretched strategy. One is that they believe Jefferson will slowly but surely mature into a top notch center and that that is the best place for his skills. I whole-heartedly disagree, but at least that would be a justification that demonstrates some supposed foresight. The other reason is that the Wolves are very excited about Craig Smith and want to give him as much seasoning as possible. This makes a little more sense, because the Rhino certainly has shown he is capable of scoring in traffic against larger foes and be a beast on the offensive glass. But the guy is way undersized–generously listed at 6-7–which is exacerbated by the fact that most of the time he is playing with an undersized center–Al Jefferson. And both are, to put it charitably, defensively challenged.

Again, let’s go to the numbers from 82games.com. Through the Wolves’ first 27 games, Smith has logged 33% of the team’s minutes at the power forward slot. During that time, Minnesota is minus -125. By contrast, the Wolves are minus -98 during the 67% of the time Smith is not at the power forward slot.

Why are these plus/minuses so horrible for Jeff at the 5 and Smith at the 4? Well, according to 82games.com, Minnesota yields 108.6 points per 48 minutes (the full length of a game) when Smith is at power forward, and 109.7 points per 48 minutes when Jefferson is at center. That’s at least 6 points more than the 102.2 points per game the Wolves were yielding overall through their first 27 contests. Bottom line, the Jefferson-Smith tandem is a defensive sieve.

But anyone who watches the games knows that. Portland coach Nate McMillan and the Trailblazer scout watch games. On Portland’s first possession Friday night, 6-10 power forward Lamarcus Aldridge took Smith down in the low post and scored on a very basis and relatively unimpeded turnaround jumper. When the Wolves cut a longtime Blazer lead down to a single point with 7:32 to go in the third quarter, McMillan called a timeout and then called for Aldridge to post up Smith for a rally-stemming bucket. And five of Portland’s subsequent seven shots came from either Aldridge or Channing Frye–who came into the game at power forward, nudging Aldridge over the center–forcing Wittman to sub out Smith with Portland up 5 with three minutes to play in the period.

Now let’s talk about Chris Richard. I won’t gush over Richard like J-Pete does. Not because Pete gushed over Mark Blount and we all know how that worked out. Because I, unlike Petersen, don’t have to fill up precious airtime polishing the turds Minnesota has been laying with alarming frequency thus far this season. Petersen gushes because he is paid to keep viewers interested, and because he sees the Wolves’ most glaring flaw being that they are a mentally clueless, physically overmatched defensive team. He sees Chris Richard as the player with the most potential to partially remedy that flaw and at the same time follow the Wolves supposed blueprint of playing young kids as much as possible to see how they pan out–hopefully at a position in which they have a chance to succeed.

Already Richard is a better defender than Jefferson or Smith–not high praise, but a good reason to grant him more burn. He compensates for a relatively small 6-9 height with a reported 7-6 wingspan, and certainly plays taller than he looks. You can tell he listened carefully to good coaching for four years of college–be it pick and roll defense or boxing out and setting picks on offense, he is already fundamentally better than Jefferson and physically more capable than Smith (who is also fundamentally pretty solid). Thus far he hasn’t shown much on offense, but if he’s playing beside relative black holes like Jeff and Rhino, that’s probably a good thing. (There is a reason why Richard and intuitive gunner Rashad McCants are the best two-man combination on the team thus far, compiling a plus +34 together, according to 82games.com.)

Put it this way: there is only one player on this entire team who willingly and capably does the dirty work, doesn’t need the ball, and is under 25 years of age. He currently rides the bench most of the time for a ballclub with a record of 4-25 that has yielded an *average* or more than 110 points per game over its last six contests.

 

2. Choose McCants Over Green

Gerald Green is a child. Friday against Portland, he unsuccessfully swooped down for an offensive rebound and had to scramble at double-time to get back on defense, flying by the jump shooter in the corner who had been left alone by his miscalculation to crash the boards. When he nicked the guy’s arm and the ref blew the whistle, Green grabbed his head–his favorite form of protest–jumped up once and then writhed in agony. Tonight against Seattle, Wally Szczerbiak drew the foul on him with an up fake, then Green missed a jumper before heading to the bench with other players consoling him as he came.

How about this: Close out on your man when he drifts to the corner for a trey. Know your pick and roll assignments. Now that you are in your third year and have played more than 2300 NBA minutes, understand how to impact the flow of the game in a positive way at both ends of the court. And have enough composure that your coaches and teammates don’t feel the need to constantly coddle your volatile emotions. According to 82games.com, through the first 27 games, the Wolves scored an average of 88.5 points per 48 when Green was on the court and while yielding an average of 104.8 points per 48. That -16.3 point differential was by far the largest on the club, with Greg Buckner second at -13.1.

Yes, I am picking on Green. Maybe I am trying to model how a team demonstrates to its rapidly diminishing fan base that it is serious about building for the futur
e. That means making decisions that diminish time for some players so that other players get more burn, and have a larger sample by which to judge them at the end of the season. The Wolves—wisely, in my view–signaled that Green was not likely part of their long term plans by refusing to sign him to an extension this season. His physical makeup–from the springs in his legs to the form on his jumper–is magnificent and his potential is thus very teasing. And as someone who won’t turn 22 for another four weeks, he may yet mature, figure it out, and make caustic critics like yours truly look stupid for ripping him.

But are there signs that Green is "getting it"? Certainly not from the defense he played against Portland and Seattle. Yes, he had plenty of company in that regard. In both games, Minnesota rotated horribly, aped the keystone cops more often than Duncan and Bowen on the pick and roll, and generally looked either disinterested and/or poorly coached on a wide variety of fundamental defensive sets. By the way, that includes Rashad McCants and Marko Jaric, two players with whom Green is competing for minutes. To a lesser extent, on both counts, it also includes Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes. There’s a logjam of mediocrity at the swingman slots right now.

Lately, Witt has been rolling the dice by tossing forth a trio of bombadiers from his bench–Green, McCants and Antoine Walker–with typical boom-or-bust results. Yeah, it’s more fun than the peanut vendors who can sling their wares four or five rows to the point of sale, but is that the way to best evaluate a player like McCants, for whom the team utilized a first-round pick and who is in the midst of his make-or-break season with the squad?

What has happened to McCants? Is the guy just a rock-solid enigma, ultimately a bigger heartbreak than Gerald Green, or can he become a valuable piece on a good team. The evidence continues to mount for both sides. Against Portland, McCants duplicated what has become something of a maddening pattern: Missing jumpers and otherwise disappearing when the game is close, but suddenly catching fire when the team is down late in the game and rallying them 70 or 80 percent of the way back–but never, except for that first win against Sacramento–to victory. On both offense and defense he is inconsistent not only in his performance but in the particular attributes of the performance. Sometimes he’s a huge defensive liability because he doesn’t rotate; sometimes because he reaches in for dumb fouls, sometimes because his turnovers cause easy transition baskets. Sometimes he hurts the offense because he hogs the ball, or misses shots, or for some reason doesn’t shoot when he should. After nailing a couple of treys against Portland, he and Telfair played catch on the perimeter three times, with Shaddy turning down Telfair’s nonverbal entreaty to jack it up each time–very Kobesque.

Tonight versus Seattle was typical McCants. His shooting was suspect, not only because he went 2-8 FG, but because only one of those shots wasn’t a trey and he had zero free throws, both of which indicate a lack of penetration against one of the more porous and least intimidating NBA opponents. At the same time, he had four steals, five rebounds, three assists and a block, and was a respectable minus -1 in 21:16 of a 19-point loss.

Even more than 4-25, what must exasperate die-hard Wolves fans is the lack of any apparent plan, or methodology for examining key talent. I mean, if McCants can’t crack the starting lineup or be the prominent sixth man on a squad missing Randy Foye for the entire season thus far, what does that say about his future? And should the Timberwolves be subtlely sending that negative signal based on such relatively few minutes for such a relatively large investment and potential key cog? I understand the frustration with the enigma–I yo-yo back and forth on the dude constantly himself. But isn’t this the season to stick him in a role–starting two guard or designated scorer and sparkplug as 6th man–and milk it until it is patently obvious he just doesn’t have it, or until you understand how deep the enigma goes? Right now Wittman is fond of starting Gomes at small forward and Brewer at shooting guard. While I generally applaud the recognition that Brewer is physically better at the 2 right now–Seattle’s Wally Szczerbiak was the latest to body him up–and think Gomes has finally started playing the way I figured he could before the season started (although he still gets beaten on D and clangs open looks more than I figured), I think McCants needs to encroach on both Gomes and Brewer, mostly Gomes, who doesn’t figure to resign here, especially if he plays well. (And how was that for a convoluted sentence?)

3. Quick Hits

Who else is tired of hearing how rarin’ to go Randy Foye is while Brandon Roy gets named NBA Western Conference Player of the Week two times running and Portland fans chant MVP when he steps to the free throw line? Funny, the Wolves probably opted for Foye over Roy because they figure Foye was a better fit as a combo/point guard and that Roy was more of an injury risk. Who said irony was dead? Personally, I’ll never forget how much Dwane Casey favored Roy over Foye with his body language and tone of voice when the braintrust came down to first announce the choosing of Roy and then the trading for Foye.

The best time to make this observation is when it doesn’t matter to the outcome of the games and won’t seem like sour grapes: The officials job the Timberwolves almost every game. Part of it is the star syndrome (the Wolves really don’t have any), part of it is favoriting vets, and part of it is favoring hustle and smart aggression. But even granting the Wolves’ paucity in all those areas, they consistently are on the wrong end of the refs’ double standard when it comes to charges versus blocks on player contact, on borderline shooting fouls, and on being sticklers for travels, double-dribbles, moving picks, etc. It penalizes the poor and when you are as poor as the Timberwolves, very noticeable.

Ever since the beginning of the season, the best half court offensive play for the Wolves has been Jefferson on the block and Ryan Gomes cutting baseline, usually on a give and go but occasionally to clear out so Jeff can go for the turnaround jumper.

Foye gets the next report on his knee January 7. If more delays are announced, it is time to stop this cat and mouse and engage in a full-blown press conference that lays out all options in a realistic manner. Because it is beginning to look like Foye will never suit up this season and that the team is being very disingenuous about that possibility.