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Game #59, Home Game #32: Charlotte 109, Minnesota 89
Season Record: 12-47
1. Getting the Message
It is just early March, with more than a fourth of the season’s games still to play, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are counting ping pong balls a lot more assiduously than they are counting victories.
Is the team "tanking"? No, not in the blatant, Mark Madsen will chuck up three pointers, or Kevin Garnett will suffer an injury sort of way. But the situation feels uncomfortably similar to this stretch of the season last year, when it became pretty obvious that the best five-man team the Wolves could put on the floor was KG and a bunch of young kids, yet Randy Wittman and the front office stubbornly played the stinking vets like Mark Blount and Ricky Davis with Garnett, all the while trying to convince would-be ticket-buyers that there was a "Blueprint" in the offing that would spell wins down the road. It just so happened that part of that blueprint was losing enough games to keep the draft pick instead of sending it to the Clippers.
Flash forward to this season. The Wolves have just lost consecutive home games to a Seattle squad that had won just 15 games all season, and now a Charlotte team that had lost nine in a row on the road and triumphed only once–in overtime, yet–in the entire month of February. In both games, Minnesota played quarter-assed defense (half assed is too much praise) and didn’t step up when it mattered most. In the postgame press conference Wittman stated the obvious: "Tonight we tried to have a nonaggression pact with the other team…it was happening from the first play of the game to the last play of the game…I think we are worrying too much about what is happening at the offensive end and not enough about what is happening on defnese…we had 3 free throws and 2 offensive rebounds in the second half–that’s nonaggression.
All true. But the part that perked up my ears was when Wittman mentioned, twice, at different points in his harangue, that Ryan Gomes was doing a noble job of fronting power forward Emeka Okafor, denying him the ball, and then–and here Wittman said it, twice–he went to his "big lineup" and the person on Okafor guarded him from behind and let him shoot. And that’s when it hit me: The "big lineup" Wittman was criticizing to the inferred plaudits of Gomes and the "small lineup" consisted of Al Jefferson at center and Craig Smith at power forward. But that "big lineup" was the front line I was criticizing as a "small lineujp" earlier in the season before Wittman went smaller still with Jefferson at center and Gomes at power forward. And the reason it is now the de facto "big lineup" is because the Timberwolves braintrust thought it would be a good idea to cut Theo Ratliff loose.
If your idea is to be as competitive as possible and win as many games as possible, buying out the remainder of Ratliff’s contract made absolutely no sense. If your idea is to groom Al Jefferson at his natural power forward position and get him used to playing with a defensive-oriented, shot-blocking man in the pivot who would be the perfect complement to Jefferson’s skill set, than buying Ratliff out makes no sense. If your idea is to see how the existing centers who are either young and unproven (Chris Richard) or signed relatively long term (Mark Madsen) do paired with Jefferson, the buying out of Ratliff does have some logic–but obviously that is not the Wolves’ intent. Richard got a whole 5:53 worth of burn tonight, bringing him up to 29:38 over the past six games–he played 25:17 in the December 14 game against Seattle alone. But even when the coaches deign to play Richard, it is almost always *replacing Jefferson at center*; the two rarely if ever play together. Meanwhile, Madsen hasn’t played since a token appearance against Toronto February 10, which was ten games ago. And Michael Doleac has logged a grand 2:25 in the last six games.
If Wittman wanted this ballclub to care more about defense than offense, he should have kept Ratliff, who I daresay would have made Okafor think about turning and shooting even playing behind him. Ditto Doleac, and probably Madsen. Richard and Okafor were on the floor at the same time for less than two minutes tonight.
At the end of the exhibition season, I was genuinely looking forward to the time when the Wolves could trot out a front line of Ratliff, Jefferson and Corey Brewer; I remember writing at the time that it had the potential to be a very good defensive trio. I was also looking forward to a shared backcourt of Foye and McCants with that front line. Yes, Ratliff would have been gone next year anyway, but he would have provided some defensive stability and attention to that side of the ball this year; he would have hopefully helped develop a habit of talking to each other and taking pride in one’s defense. I saw a team with Ratliff, Foye and Jefferson winning between 20 and 30 games. Now injuries certainly intervened. But it’s funny; just when that unit had a chance to finally get together, the Wolves’ braintrust pulled the plug and let Theo walk, saving owner Glen Taylor perhaps $3 or $4 million–and, not incidentally, putting them in a better position to let the likes of Seattle and Charlotte convert more than half their shots en route to road wins at Target Center.
"Let’s build it together," is the new "Blueprint For the Future." It feels very familiar: A hard, aggressive public relations campaign while Theo gets his buyout and Antoine Walker–another vet who is highly respected in the locker room and has been a solid citizen up until the trade deadline, and is still straining to be a solid citizen now–sits in street clothes, spared the indignity of not having DNP-CD next to his name. But who’s to say ‘Toine couldn’t have provided a spark tonight, spread the floor a little bit?
Don’t think the players on the roster don’t notice these things. The talk around the league is how the Lakers got Pau and the Mavs Kidd and the Suns Shaq. Then there are teams that are positioning themselves for next year. Minnesota is in the latter batch–for the third straight year. And for the third straight year, losing games means more to this squad than to most, because the difference is not just a better position in the ping-pong ball chase, it is the difference perhaps between having a pick and forking it over to the Clips.
Every year about this time, I get into long involved discussions with people who think it best to inadvertantly tank, by "playing the young kids," or simply figuring out ways to move up in the draft. I understand the logic of the argument. But I hew to a simpler logic: Fans who pay good money to watch a pro NBA team deserve to see a team that is doing whatever possible to win now and win later with the personnel they have. And everyone in the Wolves locker room knows that the personnel moves made in recent days–be it the dumping of Ratliff or the mothballing of Walker–are not about winning now or later with the current personnel. It is about making sure another high draft pick comes to this ballclub. That’s not exactly a motivating force.
There is no doubt in my mind that if Theo Ratliff were still around and Antoine Walker was still getting some rotations that overall morale would be higher, and the defensive effort would be more rugged. I get the math of the draft picks. I get the "we’ll see who really wants to step up and play these last few weeks of the season," speech. But when Glen Taylor goes on television and talks about how much more fun this season has been than the last two, because you can really see how the young kids are coming together and ho
w there is a plan in place and how the future is brighter–well, some of that is true and some of that is fairly intolerable bullshit. This team is currently playing uninspired, demoralized basketball–they just handed a game to the pathetic Sonics and got impudently spanked by a team that couldn’t beat anybody in regulation during the entire month of February–you know, the month that ended four days ago. It’s not fun. It feels a hell of a lot like the previous two years, when it was hard to tell which was worse: If the front office knew what it was doing or if it didn’t. It’s a Twilight Zone, and that’s exactly how the players are responding to it.
2. Muddied Waters
Meanwhile, the jury is out on exactly how meaningful these last six weeks are going to be. Let me offer a few examples.
Point guard: The competition is between Randy Foye and Sebastian Telfair. The recent plan has been to start them both in the same undersized backcourt and then go "big" by swapping Bassy out for a bigger player than kicks Foye over to the point. Management obviously would prefer that Foye blossom into a quality point guard and settle the matter, consigning Telfair to back-up point status and enabling Rashad McCants to glide in as sixth man and shooting guard, or bump Corey Brewer back to the 2 when the Wolves really do want to go "big."
If this really is about players stepping up and making claims for their time, no favorites considered, then Telfair is doing his part. Wolves fans don’t even blink twice when they read a line like Bassy’s 9/1 assist to turnover ratio tonight. He’s got 141 assists versus just 33 turnovers in his last 22 games. The knock, of course, is that he is an unreliable shooter.
But Telfair is ever so slowly but surely improving that facet of his game. Tonight he sank 6-11 FG for 12 points, the 7th time in 10 games he’s cracked double figures, despite having his minutes cut some since Foye’s return. More significantly, he’s begun stroking the j without mentally checking himself, a crucial confidence threshold that he needs to maintain to have any shot at becoming a bona fide point guard in this league. Tonight in the second quarter he clanked a wide open look from about 13 feet, and had the ball bounce right back out to him. The Bassy of earlier this season would have looked around for a pass and, if not seeing one, brought the ball back out to set up a play. Tonight he got the rebound and realized he was in the exact same position as before–wide open for a 13 footer. After the quickest of glances to see if anyone was cutting for the hoop, he rose up and stuck the jumper. In the third quarter, a double-teamed Jefferson dished it out to him and Telfair nailed the jumper (inexplicably, no assist for Jefferson). Then there was the play where Bassy came down, did a quick dribble between his legs, faded right and sank a long two-pointer. And the play where Telfair sped down the court looking for a fast break, only to have no one keeping up. Finally, he hit the trailer Smith, who promptly dished it right back to him. Open again, Telfair let it fly–swish. All of which led to a play in the fourth where the ball went out to Telfair and Charlotte’s perimeter D started to close out on him. Telfair promptly zipped a pass to Smith beneath the hoop for a layup.
As has been true for the past couple weeks, Foye was more inconsistent, alternately better and worse than his competitor. Tonight he came out smokin’ with 9 points and 4 assists in the first quarter, including some midrange penetration that often yields his running banker on the right lane. He followed that up with 1-1 FG but two turnovers in 5:59 of the second period, then a gruesome second half in which he went 2-5 FG but produced zero assists and two more turnovers, plus 5 personal fouls, in 14:39. The Randy Foye of the 1st quarter deserves the starting point guard position. The Randy Foye who has a 0/4 assist to turnover ratio and 5 fouls in the last three periods must be given the "injuries take time to heal" waiver because the Wolves invested a lot in him both in terms of his draft position and his being acquired for the reigning rookie and the year and current All Star, Brandon Roy. It also of no small concern that both Telfair and Foye were just awful on defense, along with just about every member of the ballclub.
Power forward not named Jefferson. With Walker bumped aside, the meaningful competitors are Craig Smith and Ryan Gomes. I’ve always felt like the Rhino is easy to overestimate because he’s the archtypal gritty underdog people love to root for as an undersized second-round draft pick with an uncanny knack for scoring in the paint. Consequently, I’ve probably underestimated him this season. He and Gomes share a proclivity for occasional breakout games–they are two of three Wolves to have scored 35 or more this season–and more frequent disappearances. But lately he’s had another boomlet, and what’s especially pleasant to see is how much he is moving without the ball, making him an excellent partner for Telfair–and, increasingly, Jefferson, who is looking for him near the hoop as often as he looks to the perimeter when the double coverage comes. The other things that distinguish Smith are superb hands–that aforementioned bullet pass from Telfair was partially screened by defenders and not an easy catch–and a knack for footwork and body control that create space versus taller opponents, which, along with a nice touch with the arc, gets him hoops that are improbable to say the least.
Smith is not a very good defender, however, with an admirable frequency but low success rate at attempting to draw charges, and a ‘tweener curse that makes him too short versus large power forwards and too slow versus quick power forwards.
Gomes is a more versatile glue guy, and not just because he can play the 3 too. He has more range on his jumper (but is less accurate than Smith overall), and is a better passer (‘tho Smith is improving), dribbler, and defender. Wittman’s comments about the defensing of Okafor tonight notwithstanding, however, Smith generally is better able to guard low-post oriented players, and so if Minnesota truly wants Jefferson to be the center in their future, Smith’s odds of being resigned in Minnesota go up. Another relative plus for Smith: He will be cheaper than Gomes.
Those are just two thumbnail comparison sketches, and what they dramatize for me is that the sample size remains incredibly small and there are so many contingencies that folks–probably including the front office–don’t even know what the parmaters of comparison or the needs of the ballclub are going to be. A part of me yearns to see the same kind of decisive handicapping that had the Wolves not offer an extension to Gerald Green and then unload him at the trading deadline. They saved time by deciding that he was never going to be an answer. Rather than give Kirk Snyder all kinds of burn, or continue to fiddle with McCants/Foye/Telfair without a clear sense of what you are looking for(due top draft uncertainty, I understand), it would be nice to know what each player needs to accomplish or resolve in order to raise his stock. Hopefully, an emphasis on improving defensive prowess is on everyone’s criteria list.
3. Sign of Progress
Let the record show that Jefferson had two assists to night–as I mentioned earlier, I saw three, perhaps even four. But for the first time this season I also saw something equally exciting for Wolves fans. When Jefferson was being double teamed in the fourth quater and the Wolves ran their bread and butter play with a baseline cutter going past Jefferson on the left block, he was able to create space for himself by feinting the pass, then spinning for a relatively uncontested layup. The better he can dish, the easier he can score. It was a rare optimistic moment.