The Three Pointer: Half Hearted

Home Game #4: Washington 105, Minnesota 89

Home Game #5: Washington 100, Minnesota 82

Season Record: 1-7


1. Swingman Glut Exposes Brewer

There are a dozen ways to explain how the Minnesota Timberwolves posted their worst six-quarter stretch of the young season this weekend, a trudge of ineptitude that lasted from the second half of the loss to the Wizards on Friday to last night’s thoroughly desultory performance against the Hornets. Like the apocryphal blind men with the elephant, descriptions of all the individual, isolated flaws would be woefully incomplete yet partially accurate, and, if stitched together, would yield of realistic composite of what the thing is. In this case, the thing is a pretty sorry basketball team: Too young, with insufficient talent, comprised of mismatched pieces and not enough pegs.

Al Jefferson is a peg. You can plant him at power forward and he’ll batten down one-fifth of a quality, perhaps championship-caliber, starting lineup. The rest of the roster? Nobody really knows, including coach Randy Wittman, who may be more confused about his ballclub today than he was at the beginning of the season.

One of the reasons the Wolves, and by extension personnel guy Kevin McHale, became such a laughing stock was due to the lopsided configuration of position players: Nearly everyone was either an off-guard or a small forward. One of the things lost during the hubbub over the Garnett trade and the boatload of new faces arriving for the cull-and-keep process of rebuilding was that this year’s team likewise is jam-packed with swingmen, scrabbling over each other for minutes like crabs in a bucket.

Let’s get specific. By dint of his 33-point explosion in the Wolves sole win last week versus Sacramento, Rashad McCants laid a pretty sizable claim on the off-guard spot. If Minnesota is to win, or even avoid being blown out against the better teams in the league, they need a legit perimeter scoring threat to complement Jefferson down in the low block; especially if that guy can also get to the rim and draw fouls off the dribble. McCant is far and away the most obvious candidate to fill that niche.

But then there is also Corey Brewer, whose perimeter scoring is, to put it kindly, suspect, but who dogs people on defense, scrambles for loose balls, hits the glass with a daredevil’s impetuous focus, and is a coachable, mentally mature kid almost certain to improve dramatically with experience. Brewer, too, is a swingman. At 6-9, it’s reasonable to assume his best position will be small forward someday, but at 185 pounds, someday is not today, or tomorrow, or most any other time this season. Only one player on the entire Wolves roster is lighter than Brewer; Sebastian Telfair, spots him ten pounds–but is nine inches shorter. McCants is 25 pounds heavier than Brewer. Ryan Gomes, who is currently splitting the small forward spot with Brewer, is 65 pounds heavier.

It’s reasonable to expect Brewer to bulk up at least a little over the next year or two. Looking strictly at the current roster and telescoping a likely 2009 starting lineup would put McCants at the 2 and Brewer at the 3. Consequently, Wittman is force-feeding Brewer at the 3 despite the fact that Brewer’s legs look like popsicle sticks from the knees down and he lacks the upper body to compensate. The alternative is to rob minutes from McCants, or steady vet Greg Buckner (Gerald Green is already a casualty). And when Randy Foye returns, he’ll bump Marko Jaric into the 2-and-3 fray in addition to claiming a few off-guard minutes himself.

That’s the long-winded explanation for why Corey Brewer found himself a boy among men while trying to guard small forwards Caron Butler (6-7, 228) and Peja Stojakovic (6-10, 229) over the weekend. Butler scorched Brewer for 18 points (6-7 FG, 6-8 FT) in the 22:51 Brewer was trying to guard him. By contrast, Butler had a respectable but hardly dominant 11 points (5-9 FG, 1-1 3pts, 0-0 FT) in the 23:22 Gomes played him. When it was mentioned to Witt after the game that Butler might have been a bit much for the rook to handle, the coach wouldn’t hear it, noting Butler is averaging better than 20 points per game. "He’s been doing that to everybody," Wittman claimed. Uh, not 85% shooting from the field and more than 16 free throw attempts per 48 minutes (his totals against Brewer) en route to a season-high 29 points.

The next night, with Theo Ratliff out with a troublesome, sore right knee, Wittman upped the ante. Against the tall and rangy New Orleans front line, he could have started banger Michael Doleac on Tyson Chandler, kept Jefferson at the power forward to go against David West, and set Gomes on Peja. Nope. Jefferson slid over to the pivot opposite Chandler, Antoine Walker was tossed in against West, and Brewer started over Gomes versus Peja.

Well, all things considered, Jefferson and ‘Toine held their own. But at the end of the first quarter, Peja had 15 points, boosting the Hornets to a 25-21 lead. For the game, Peja finished with 20 points (8-13 FG, 4-6 3pt) in 21:50 against Brewer, and 2 points (1-3 FG) in 6:51 against Gomes. And although Brewer did chip in 6 rebounds and 3 assists, he was scoreless for the game (Gomes had 12 in 26:10).

Is playing Brewer against large veteran small forwards the best strategy? I don’t know, and neither does Wittman. But with McCants showing flashes of explosiveness and Gomes surprisingly tepid the past three or four games, I understand the impulse. Wittman has faith that Brewer is mentally tough enough to endure these whuppings and profit from the NBA court time. I don’t recommend Brewer start at the 3 for the Wolves next game, however. The opponent has a small forward, first name LeBron.


2. McCants–Best When Selfish?

In the comments section of the last trey, readers and I had a good scrum about whether the emergence of McCants might get in the way of Jefferson’s alpha-dog status in the offense and thus simultaneously deter from the Wolves’ stated "score in the paint" philosophy and smudge the pecking order enough to hurt team chemistry. Over the weekend, McCants generally put those fears to rest by often looking to get his teammates off in the half court sets. In both games, he and Jeff executed the sort of nifty, rapid-fire pick-and-roll that barely waits for the switch–Jefferson slammed home the stuff on both occasions.

But much more frequently, McCants’ passing gambits were unwise. He committed 8 fat turnovers versus the Wizards on Friday (only two of them charges or travels), and, given that Jefferson misfired from point-blank range in the paint at least a half-dozen times while finishing a miserable 5-16 FG, probably should have called his own number more often. Against New Orleans, McCants joined the general dolor infecting the entire Wolves roster, hitting just 2-10 FG while committing another three turnovers. Yet those 10 shots in 27:04 again indicate the Shaddy was hardly ball-hoggin’. The more intriguing question now becomes, does he need to go for his own to maximize his scoring prowess?

Wolves’ fans should cross their fingers and hope the answer is no. Instead, let’s offer two more reassuring explanations. First, McCants is neither a point guard nor should be expected to play like one. With the likes of Telfair and especially Jaric, however, he increasingly finds himself compelled to "set something up" out on the wing (hat tip to Garwood Jones for the original insight). Now at the rate things are going, Wolves fans are going to expect the return of Randy Foye to cure cancer–it certainly has been to go-to answer for every other thing ailing the Wolves and humanity. But in this instance, the return of Foye should be of great service to Shaddy, in part because Foye’s penetration and (hopefully) kick-out will provide McCants with a bevy of open looks from the perimeter, and in part because McCants will be freed to operate in shoot-first mode more often when he gets
the rock. It will be Foye’s job to foster ball movement.

The second explanation is that, after nailing so many sweet jumpers versus Sac, McCants forgot that scoring in the paint off the dribble is an important–and vital to his good standing with Wittman–part of his game. Just one of Shaddy’s seven baskets (in 16 attempts) was a layup against the Wizards. Versus the Hornets the next night, he simply didn’t score from the perimeter, registering his only points on a reverse slam in the first period and a spectacular left-handed jam over Tyson Chandler in the third (he egregiously traveled on the play, but no whistle so no harm).

In short, by dishing to Jefferson in the first 85 seconds of play on Friday and looking for his teammates most of the weekend, McCants showed he wants to operate within the context of the club’s offensive schemes. And when Foye finally returns and McCants does the up-fake and go more often as a play off his jumper, the turnovers will diminish and the field goal percentage will rise. Maybe.


3. Silver Linings

It’s a shame the Friday night tilt versus Washington wasn’t televised, for the Wolves put forth a much better effort than the dog-like performance on Saturday. The key was the performance of the bench in the second quarter, with Telfair, Brewer, Buckner, and Walker joining Jefferson for a smallish quintet that swung the ball with verve and then moved after the pass to foster more ball-movement opportunities; rotated crisply on defense, especially doubling-down on passes into the paint, and generally played with a sense of fun, purpose and electric energy perhaps not seen since the opening quarter of the season opener against Denver.

The quiet leader by example in all of this was once again Antoine Walker, reprising his role from the previous game versus Sacramento. Watching Walker’s on-court intelligence makes one wince in recognition of how clueless almost all of his teammates are by comparison. (No disrespect intended, but when ‘Toine is the brains of your outfit, your team is in very deep shit.) For example, knowing the multi-misfiring Jefferson was starting to swat at the mosquitoes buzzing his psyche, Walker fed Jeff in traffic for an easy layup he could have converted solo. Little things like that go a long way toward demolishing Walker’s checkered reputation.

He also has a knack for a maneuver that I haven’t seen a Timberwolf do well since Fred Hoiberg enabled KG: Caught in a double-team, Garnett would dump it to Hoiberg. Freddie would wait just half a beat, perhaps make a feint like he was going to the hoop, then immediately zip it back to Garnett, now facing only one defender and no longer stuck on his pivot foot. Walker executed a similar "get it, wait a sec, give it back" twice with Jefferson to perfect effect (that is, if Jefferson could have hit any shots on Friday). And on offense, ‘Toine had the perfect mix of quick-release treys, and up-fake dribble penetration plus quick snap passes. Bottom line, he had 11 points and sparked a 16-2 Wolves run in the first 6:10 of the second quarter.

The other Wolves’ player who boosted his internal standing over the weekend was Telfair. The differences between Bassy and Marko at the point, particularly with respect to pace in transition and probing in the half-court, were obvious. Two cavaets: On both Friday and Saturday, Telfair’s first stints in action much more productive than his second stints. And Telfair’s fabled defense was not in evidence on Saturday when New Orleans blew open the game in the second half. Neither Telfair nor any other self-respecting point should let the likes of Jannero Pargo waltz down to the foul line before seriously picking him up. That laxity was typical of the entire Wolves defense, which generated a mere 4 turnovers despite the absence of Chris Paul from New Orleans’s lineup. In any case, it is hard to lavish too much praise on any point who helps enable Pargo to go off for 15 points and 7 assists with just a single turnover.

Nevertheless, Telfair had his best back-to-back outings of the season, and, if he maintains the momentum, should receive the bulk of the backup minutes when Foye returns. He also has a special chemistry with Brewer on the court–they find each other, and feed off the other’s energy–which made Wittman’s decision to start Brewer and not include Telfair on Saturday all the more perplexing.