The Three Pointer: A Big Bad Muddle

Game #21, Home Game #11: Seattle 99, Minnesota 88

Game #22, Road Game #11: Minnesota 92, Milwaukee 95

Season record: 3-19

1. Draw Straws, Flip A Coin, Plug a Leak. Or Not.

After the Timberwolves fell to the equally young Seattle Supersonics at Target Center Friday night, I asked coach Randy Wittman if he had any sense of what he could expect from his team from game to game. "It feels like sometime you plug one hole and then another one leaks," Witt conceded.

After another pratfall against a mediocre opponent Saturday night in Milwaukee, on-the-spot television analysts Jim Petersen and Mike McCollow were voicing similar frustrations. There simply is no consistency, at least as it relates to quality control and some semblance of reliability, on this ballclub. Praise or criticize any member of the team and you’re liable to look foolish within a game or two. Every week seems to contain different goats, players who were valiant heroes during the previous week’s losing cause. At the same time, guys you were discounting for their ineptitude suddenly show a pulse and make their case for being included back in the mix. Meanwhile, the losing continues.

So sure, for what it’s worth, we can perform an autopsy on the past two games. Seattle’s zone defense totally bewildered the Wolves on Friday, especially Marko Jaric and Al Jefferson. Jaric had three of the team’s 8 turnovers in a 4 and a half minute span early in the third quarter that initiated a tumble from a five point lead (50-45 with 10:40 to play in the third) to a 14 point deficit (55-69 at 3:52 of the period). And once Jefferson was able to get the feed from the perimeter, he seemed to wait before making his moves, the absolutely wrong way to attack a zone.

The next night, Michael Redd toyed with Corey Brewer at one end of the floor while Marko Jaric and the rest of the Wolves were unable to take advantage of Redd’s notoriously porous defense at the other end until it was too late. The stats will show that the Bucks shot 43% both overall and from beyond the arc, but that is factoring in the horseshit performance of Milwaukee’s bench, which bricked 14 of 15 shots, including all half-dozen treys. The Bucks starters were better than 50% from the field (32-62), and, led by Redd, a gaudy 60% from trey-ville (9-15).

What a weird game. The Chinese rookie Yi and Craig Smith took turns embarrassing the other’s defense, with Yi finishing with a career-high 22 points on 9-14 FG, while Smith went off for 30 for the second time in 4 games–and a night after he scored just 3–on 12-17 FG. Combined with Al Jefferson’s 11-19, that gave the Jeff-Rhino tandem 23-36 FG, yet during the 26:32 the pair were on the court together, Milwaukee scored exactly as many points as the Wolves. Jaric attempted 3 shots and registered one lousy point in 34:58, during which the Wolves were minus -16. Brewer built the Taj Mahal out of bricks, going 2-13 FG.

Smith had 12 in the first and 14 in the third. Ryan Gomes had a dozen in the second. Jefferson had 13 in the 4th and McCants chipped in another 12. And yet the Wolves hadn’t cracked the 90 point mark until McCants threw in a meaningless trey at the buzzer.

I’m not going to pretend to know what it all means.

Or, better yet, for the sake of sport, I’ll pretend I do.

2. Foolhardy Analysis

It probably isn’t a good idea to issue prescriptions for any team as constantly in flux as the Wolves, seemingly duty-bound to flummox logical examination. But what else are we going to talk about; the fact that FoxSports can’t sell ads for its telecasts and are thus giving us commercial-free halftime reports?

If I were god, or perhaps just Randy Wittman, I’d avoid matching Al Jefferson up with legitimate centers whenever possible. If you go to the website, click on Minnesota Timberwolves, and look at their Individual Player Floortime Statistics, you will see that, through December 15, the team’s top three plus/minus performers per 48 minutes are, in order, Chris Richard, Mark Madsen and Theo Ratliff. And you will see that, aside from the hapless Gerald Green and Greg Buckner (BTW, wouldn’t Trenton Hassell have looked fine guarding Michael Redd last night?), the two worst plus/minus Timberwolves per 48 are Craig Smith and Al Jefferson. Now, unless you think that Richard, Madsen and Ratliff are an indomitable trio and the Jeff-Rhino duo are rancid mincemeat, it would appear putting a legit center on the court beside Jefferson (or Smith) is a better idea than turning Jefferson and Smith into a frontcourt mismatch. Against relative bantamweight front lines such as those deployed by Atlanta and Phoenix, Jeff-Rhino is a formidable combo. But otherwise, eh, have you seen Chris Richard play the past couple of weeks? The dude is just 13 months younger than Craig Smith, and actually a month older than Jefferson, and arguably has learned the game as well playing for Florida’s Billy Donovan as Smith and Jeff have under the likes of Doc Rivers and Randy Wittman. And if Richard comes up a cropper, well, there’s Mad Dog and the Pale Rider, and maybe even Theo once the crocuses start to bloom.

In the backcourt, while we all Wait For Foye with bated breath, it is time to put Marko Jaric and Rashad McCants in direct competition for the off-guard position. Both players possess beguiling strengths and crippling weaknesses in their respective games; both are maddeningly inconsistent, and both seemingly need perpetual outside motivation. To some extent, Wittman is already doing this on a more subtle level. The year’s most pleasant surprise thus far, Sebastian Telfair has earned the starter’s position and, at least until Foye returns, starter’s minutes. I’d continue starting Jaric beside Bassy, but deploy a quicker hook as soon as the need for McCants’s perimeter scoring prowess becomes manifest.

Too often on a bad team, you wish you could combine the best attributes of two incomplete players into a single dynamite package. So it is with McCants and the offensive instincts of Corey Brewer. One could argue that McCants’ biggest weakness is that he seems to play only when he wants to–allegations of his selfish and inconsistent play have dogged him ever since Chapel Hill in college, and he’s done little to diminish them during his tenure here. Yet there have been recent signs of McCants getting the message: He’s cut down on his turnovers and begun to move his feet more on defense. But a flaw in Shaddy’s game that is seemingly beyond his control is finding a way to regulate  his offense in the normal flow of team play. Put simply, McCants usually performs as if he’s constantly looking for his shot or constantly, very consciously, trying to enable others–there’s no middle ground. His natural tendency is to go for his. The fact that he can be an effective teammate in terms of sharing the ball and fostering a flow attests to his court vision and basketball intelligence. The problem is that there seems to be no blend between the sharing Shaddy and the dynamic scoring Shaddy. Compare that with Brewer, who almost always plays within the flow of the game. Nearly every shot Brewer attempts is a "good" shot on paper, in that he is usually unguarded and set in position when he lets fly…which makes his putrid FG% even more of a concern.

In any case, after subbing in McCants for Marko, I’d leave him in for as long as either the sharing Shaddy or the shooting Shaddy is paying dividends, and yank him when the doldrums of either behavior are apparent. Maybe he can figure it out. But I think it is fair to say that the potential upside of McCants is much greater than that of Jaric, and fills more of a need among the team’s current personnel. On the other hand, Jaric has shown enough positive flashes, and has at the very least gilded a path for Telfair to gain some rhythm and confidence, to earn good minutes as McCants’s foil. And if he beats out Shaddy fair and square, more power to him.

At the small forward sl
ot, the job should be Brewer’s regardless of whether or not Gomes is outplaying him. The reasons for this are plentiful: Gomes’s expiring contract, Brewer’s hefty upside, the pace and synergy Brewer can put into the game, the way he already has established a rapport with Telfair and Richard (two guys I’d be starting right now), and the flashes of glue-guy brilliance Brewer has demonstrated via rebounding, defense, and blocked shots. All that said, Brewer needs to stop shooting quite as much. Yes, as I just said, they’re "good" shots–for most everybody but Brewer. And while you don’t want to suffocate what are clearly well-refined basketball instincts in this precocious rook, the idea of banging the ball down inside to Jefferson–especially Jefferson versus a power forward–needs to be more firmly established. Or, when McCants is on the floor, feeding the Dying To Be Loved dude. Because bad shots from McCants are more likely to go in than good ones from Brewer.

Off the bench, I think you have to reward the attitude of Antoine Walker, who has tamped down his pride and sucked up his resolve in order to be a positive influence on this ballclub. Right now Wittman is giving ‘Toine nearly all of his minutes at power forward. Since Walker ah, doesn’t defend the 4s very well, what about giving him some burn at the other forward spot? Specifically, I’d like to see what a lineup comprised of Richard and either Jefferson or Smith at the 4, with Walker, Jaric and Telfair on the perimeter, could do. That’s a long unit with the ability to penetrate, bomb from outside and own the boards–and, if Richard and Jaric are playing the roles, isn’t going to be embarrassed too much on defense.

To sum up then, against teams with a legit center, start Richard alongside Jefferson and Brewer up front (Smith in for Richard if the frontcourt opponents are small enough). Teams may still guard Jefferson with a big, but hopefully Richard’s defense will overcompensate at the other end. (Only Buckner has a worse opponents-scoring per 48 figure than Smith, both because Craig has difficulty defending good 4s and because Jefferson doesn’t defend centers well at all.) Keep giving Brewer 32-40 minutes a game at the small forward slot, and give Walker, and–if fouls and other factors intervene–Gomes the remainder. Set up a backcourt rotation among Telfair, Jaric and McCants, and if McCants and one of the others isn’t playing well, consider kicking Brewer into the backcourt for brief stints and giving Gomes or Walker a little more burn. Green, and to a lesser extent Buckner, are emergency or garbage time subs only.

3. Wittman On Parole

Randy Wittman is having a better year on the sidelines than last season’s macabre performance in which he reigned over a horror show that even sapped the seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm of Kevin Garnett. Having just admitted that this ballclub is incredibly unpredictible and inconsistent, it is difficult for me to "blame" Wittman for the squad’s 3-19 mark thus far, particularly with Foye and Ratliff logging a combined 161 minutes out of the 5280 that were available. Others are more confident castigating Witt, specifically because he can’t generate any positive momentum or patterns with this squad. It’s a chicken-or-egg situation. But if it continues throughout the season, and especially when (if?) Foye returns, the egg will be on Wittman’s face.

While giving Wittman the benefit of the doubt, however, the doubts are growing. Unfortunately for Witt, the team seemed to start gelling in the three games Jerry Sichting roamed the sidelines, and little things that Sichting implemented–like resting Jefferson near the end of the third rather than the beginning or middle of the 4th quarter–Wittman has belatedly adopted. Some of this may be political, always an underrated hazard that most any coach not named Jackson, Riley, or Popovich must encounter. By contract and every other way imaginable, Wittman’s bosses in the front office, Kevin McHale and Glen Taylor, have planted a wet kiss on Al Jefferson and anointed him the cornerstone of the future. So when the game is on the line, Wittman has to think twice about running a pair of plays that both result in Jaric sinking layups, which is what Sichting called, using the element of surprise to his advantage, in Atlanta. And maybe Jefferson not getting his number called in Atlanta helps explain his shout-out of support for Wittman after he destroyed Amare Stoudemire the very next game. At the very least, Wittman was far more likely to draw up a play that had Jefferson going against Samuel Dalembert–and getting lunched for the fifth time in the game–in the final minute of a loss to Philly.

Then there is the question of demeanor. A disciple of Bobby Knight, Wittman isn’t usually one to cloak his ire, or even disgust, as the Wolves are floundering. His sideline antics were blatant during the collapse versus Seattle on Friday, complete with quick hooks for lapses in concentration, tongue-lashings for players coming to the sidelines, and all manner of winces and frustrated body-spins and mutterings to himself. This would all be forgiveable, not to mention understandable, if the Wolves responded by righting the ship and learning from the tough love. Instead, Wittman’s second quarter tantrums merely led to more cluelessness and less hope and enthusiasm on the part of his troops as they gift-wrapped the victory ofr the Sonics in that fateful third quarter pratfall.

The bottom line is that Randy Wittman has a record of 15-51 as head coach of the Timberwolves thus far. That’s close to Jimmy Rodgers territory–a chilly outpost indeed. The excuse of Foye’s injury will buy some time. But if the Wolves continue to play at an 11-win pace for the rest of the season, even as Kevin Garnett angles for a second MVP Award, the revenue streams for this stumbling franchise will increasingly run dry. And that, more than anything else, is what makes heads roll.