Wolves 2007-08 Season Recap, Part 1

Note: I know I said I’d have a Wolves recap for you Monday, but with all the playoff ball consuming my time (not to mention other writing projects–my editors know what they are) I now realize I’m never going to get this done unless I break it into parts.

So, here’s Part 1, which deals with what I wanted to hear from Kevin McHale at his season-ending press conference last week. (Please bear with the changes in typeface that may crop up because I cut and pasted some of the press conference transcription.) At least one other part will be an evaluation of each player on the roster: Both how I regard him and how I believe the Wolves’ front office regards him. Anyway, thanks for your patience. I’m also willing to kick around the playoffs, if anybody is interested, and will probably in the next couple of days set up an open thread with a bevy of impressions to get things rolling and see what happens. 

When Timberwolves personnel veep Kevin McHale did his by-now traditional meeting with the media the day after the 2007-08 season to discuss the State of the Ballclub, his mood was decidedly more upbeat and the number of reporters he was addressing was much smaller than in recent years past. Part of the reason (for both) was that there was no buzz McHale was going to step down. The other part (again, for both) was that the bar of expectations had been set so low, especially for the immediate past and future of this ballclub.

McHale sought to change that some with his dramatic proclamation that, barring significant injuries, the 2008-09 Wolves should improve by some 20 games, flirting with .500, if not a bottom-rung playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. And how was this going to occur? Essentially by standing pat and letting the existing personnel get more familiar with each other.

McHale said this two or three different ways, but just to be clear, I asked him, "Beyond the seasoning of existing personnel, what does this team need?" This is what he said:

"It needs to come together and play. Everybody says ‘We’ve got to go and get somebody from the outside,’ [but] those guys have got to go in there and grow together as a team, establish themselves a little bit—Al has established himself—kind of, underneath that how are we going to play, our style of play, becomes more dedicated defensively in getting back; our transition defense needs a big step up. Defensively we have got to get tougher. So most of the growth I see is internally. Now in the draft we’ll get a good player in the draft, but with way it is set up we’ll get a 19, 20, 21 year old kid; if you are hanging your hopes on that coming into a man’s league….I would say that, overall, I would just say basically a little more shooting around Al, because he is going to get double-teamed and you have got to have court-spacers. But I thought Foye, when you had Foye and used Foye to enter the ball on the strong side and when you left him he made shots; that is a big part of it. Because I think Bassy was out trying [to distribute], not shooting a lot. Again I think shooting. But to me the biggest jump we are going to make is that group in there staying together and being confident."

Asked point blank what *besides* seasoning is needed, McHale repeatedly invoked seasoning.

There are two fundamental problems with this. Minnesota does not have a legitimate NBA center on its current roster capable of starting for a playoff contender. The other fundamental problem is that the Wolves have a glut of swingmen. You could argue–I do argue–that unless Randy Foye dramatically improves his court vision and attitude and Corey Brewer dramatic improves his strength and sinew, the team’s last three top draft picks are all best suited to play the off-guard position. And yet McHale specifically cites the two aspects of the game in which off-guards are thought to be most adept–transition defense and outside shooting–as the two largest areas where this ballclub needs to improve. 

I understand where McHale is coming from. He’s not going to say this team needs a hardy, defensive oriented big man, because unless he’s going to reach for a player based on position more than talent in the draft, or overpay in free agency, there doesn’t look to be any way to address that weakness. By contrast, talking about the need for shooting and transition defense sets the to-do agenda for his swingman glut heading into next season. I’d have more sympathy for his hands being tied if he wasn’t the one spooling out the rope.

 

But make no mistake: Minnesota will never be a viable playoff contender without a staunch big men to take the defensive pressure off the team’s two best players, Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes. A steady diet of postseason games has reminded me what it takes to be an elite NBA team: A bonafide superstar, a demi-star, knowledgeable role players, and capable team defense. It is possible–not quite probable–that Jefferson is a budding superstar. Gomes is certainly a knowledgeable role player who can find a niche on most any ballclub. But put them on the court together at center and power forward and you cannot defend in a playoff-worthy manner.

 

The numbers at 82games.com show that the Wolves allow a whopping 12.1 points per 48 minutes more when Jefferson is on the court (116 points per 48) than when he is off it (103.9 points per game). One reason for this is because opposing centers have an eFG% (which factors in three-pointers, not generally applicable to centers and power forwards) of 56.3%. By contrast, the power forwards Jefferson guarded had an eFG% of 40.3%. Unfortunately, the sample size for Jefferson at the 4 is woefully small, so we don’t know if that excellent D on eFG% would hold up; but we do know his inept defense in the pivot, where he played exponentially more minutes, overwhelms that performance. And we know that even a scorer as gifted as Big Al isn’t going to lead his team to many victories if that team is ceding 116 points per game.

 

On to Ryan Gomes. Whereas Jefferson had a huge disparity between his minutes at center and those at power forward, Gomes, because he went to small forward not only when a center was slotted in beside Jefferson, but when Craig Smith or Antoine Walker entered the game, is shown to have played 26% of his team’s minutes at small forward and 34% of the Wolves’ time at power forward (meaning he was on the court approximately 60% of the time). Thus, his stats between the two positions are a little more reliable in comparison to each other. And again according to 82games.com, Gomes yielded an eFG% of 48.6% to the small forwards he guarded versus 54.7% to the power forwards he guarded. (His own eFG% was better at power forward–49.7% versus 48.5% at the 3–but not enough to overcome the disparity of his less effective D in the low block.)

 

Fortunately, McHale understands this. When I asked him at last week’s press conference: "Are you comfortable, long term with Jefferson at center and Gomes at the 4?" here is what he said.

"Well I don’t think, I think that Al is a 4-5, not a 5-4, and that Ryan is a power 3-4. Ryan gets more shots at the 4 because he can move around and all those big guys have that paint fixation. But he rebounds better at the 3, posts up better at the 3. They give you flexibility and that is a good thing. Do I want to see that 4-5 combination for 48 minutes? No. I would like to have another big guy for when Al plays the 4. Al has got to get better defensively. Randy Foye has got to get better defensively, Rashad McCants has got to get better defensively, Ryan Gomes, all those guys have to get better defensively. I like the versatility that they give you and again that is why I like bigger players that can do different things. To me Gomes may have scored more at that 4 spot, but to me he punished teams more when he was offensively rebounding and going into the post at the 3. I like that style of play. But he can play both."

 

When I pointed out that the vast bulk of minutes wound up with Al playing center and Gomes playing power forward, McHale acknowledged: "For 25-30 games, yeah. And I thought we fell into that. They are both two-position players which are really good to have. [But] you don’t like Ryan Gomes, who works really hard, against Rasheed Wallace. What you really like him playing 4 is against Luis Scola who is sitting in the paint. But what I like is you can make one substitution and go huge or one substitution and go small."

 

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Wolves play horrible perimeter defense, and have for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t quite as deadly when Kevin Garnett was the superstar in residence, and totally committed to the defensive end. (KG’s willpower slipped the last two seasons he was in Minnesota. I thought it was age until I saw him this season in Boston, reborn as a panther capable of hounding anyone from the three point arc to the low block.)

 

The third and final question I asked McHale was: "For some reason perimeter defense has been a chronic defect of this franchise. Why has that happened?" His reply was: "It bothers me too. It bothered me for twelve years. For me it goes back to 7th grade basketball: If you can’t keep your man in front of you, I’m going to take you out. Don’t let him cut in front of you and keep your rear end between him and the rim. That’s as tricky as I like to make it and sometimes I think we scheme up so much we got so many schemes going on that we lose sight of that. We have got to get better at that, at containing the ball. The good teams in our league defensively contain the ball. They may have holes in other areas but they contain the ball…That is a definite, huge area of concern that we have got to work on."

To me, that in a nutshell is why the Wolves only won 22 games this season: They played an undersized lineup where the center and power forward couldn;t effectively defend their counterpart, and they allowed perimeter players to penetrate into the paint almost at will.