The Three Pointer: A Culture of Losing

Game #30, Road Game #17: Minnesota 82, LA Clippers 91

Season record: 4-26

1. 4th Quarter Follies

For those of you with hangovers, either from an excess of alcohol or undue loyalty to a dysfunctional, mentally weak basketball franchise, we’ll start with a Joe Friday straight script on the lodging of the Wolves’ latest L. The team was up 11, 70-59, heading into the final period against a woeful Clippers team that had lost six straight overall, seven straight at home, and all 17 games in which they had trailed after three quarters thus far this season. A mere five minutes later the Wolves had missed ten straight shots, committed three turnovers and four fouls, and watched the Clips reel off 15 straight points–the most they had amassed in any one of the three previous quarters was 21–en route to a sudden 70-74 deficit.

Against stiff competition, the most absurd stat of the quarter was the 13 personal fouls committed up by the boys in blue and green, a pace that would disqualify eight players from the game if enacted for the entire contest. Only one, perhaps two, of those fouls were the purposeful offenses of a team hoping their opponent misses from the foul line in the waning minutes of the game. In any case, the Clips leveraged the hacking for a bounty of 20 free throws in that 12-minute span, making 16, which by itself was enough to top the Wolves 12-point period (which included just 5 free throws). That’s how you come within one miss of tying the NBA record for three-point futility–the Clips finished 0-14 3ptFG–and still win by 9.

Four of those 13 4th quarter fouls were committed by Rashad McCants, whose regression has entered toxic territory. In the past two games, McCants has gone 2-13 FG–with just three of those shots inside the three-point arc–with zero, count ’em, zero, free throws. Tonight he fouled out in 18:48, registering a game-worst minus -15. But beyond the numbers, McCants seems to be moving at half-speed. His defensive rotations and scrambles back in transition are occurring in invisible molasses. His engagement and desire are MIA. Even as the desperate television stations broadcasting Wolves games repeat the feature on his many tattoos, this hip hop poet and sensitive soul is mailing it in on the court.

Perhaps Shaddy is sulking over his demotion, watching from the bench as Corey Brewer gets bumped over to his two-guard spot (that went to Marko Jaric before him) and Ryan Gomes takes the bulk of the minutes at small forward. It is hard to argue with Gomes’s effort and performance the past two or three weeks, however–last night he vied with Jefferson as the best player in a Wolves uni, scoring 17 points (8-14 FG) and grabbing 15 boards. In terms of the future, however, it is hard to imagine Gomes resigning here.

Hindsight is 20-20, and this only became apparent to me as the game was progressing. But the Clippers took the floor was grandpa Sam Cassell and defensive specialist Quinton Ross in the backcourt. The Wolves countered with Sebastian Telfair and Brewer. Coaches Mike Dunleavy and Randy Wittman both seemed content to cross-match the guards, with their taller, defensive-oriented 2s throttling their smaller point guards. That’s because Brewer’s season-long shooting woes made Dunleavy comfortable sticking the 38-year old Cassell (who moves like he’s 76 on D) on the rook. But what happens if McCants starts at shooting guard? That forces matchups of Ross-McCants, Casell-Telfair, and either Brewer-Maggette (who’s 6-6, 225) or Gomes-Maggette.

Wittman obviously didn’t want to go that way. His plan was clearly to take advantage of the Clips woeful front line, suffering from the season-long absence of Elton Brand, and, last night, Tim Thomas. That’s why he started Michael Doleac next to Jefferson, and put the taller Gomes on Maggette. Besides, Wittman also had to be salivating over the backcourt matchups off the bench. Specifically, 6-7 Marko Jaric would go up against either 6-foot Dan Dickau or 5-10 Brevin Knight. And, as it turned out, Jaric and McCants were greeted by Knight and career-scrub Richie Frahm to begin the 4th quarter. But Jaric never once posted up his nine-inch shorter opponent, But he, McCants and Sebastian Telfair went scoreless (0-7 FG) for the period while Frahm and Knight combined for 6 points, five assists and two steals.

Judging from his postgame comments, Wittman was more concerned with his backcourt’s inability to execute the paint-oriented gameplan. "I have to find some guards to lead us down the stretch. We had no direction, no leadership. We have mismatches on the inside that we don’t even recognize. It’s the same thing every game."

Clips center Chris Kamen, who notched 16 rebounds and 5 blocks, was equally frank. "They’re just not that good, so we were able to beat them. We’re not that good either. I mean, it was like a `Dust Bowl" game–two of the worst teams in the league playing each other."

2. Witt Tightens the Screws

Last night was the most aggressive I ever remember seeing Wittman coach. He juggled his lineup, inserting Michael Doleac so Jefferson could operate against rookie Al Thorton. When Jefferson committed some early defensive gaffes, Witt yanked his star less than three minutes into the first quarter and kept him on the bench for nearly five minutes. Likewise, timeouts were quickly called after a pair of mentally lazy turnovers in the third period and when Brewer allowed his man to waltz past him for a layup later in the second quarter. Finally, Witt altered his lineup five times in the first 4:36 of that disastrous fourth period.

There are at least two ways of looking at this. First, Wittman has a thankless job and preferred to have praise and a long leash with his troops result in a steady increase of confidence and, thus, maturity and performance. And when it hasn’t happened, he’s been forced to withdraw the carrots and deploy more sticks. After all, people are finally beginning to understand how magnificently multi-faceted Kevin Garnett can be for a ballclub–all the big and little things he does to enhance your squad. Look at the Celts’ roster and tell me how they are allowing 86.82 points per game when the next best team is ceding 89.25. Then, on top of that, they don’t have Foye or Ratliff at the two most important positions on the court.

The flipside is that everything Wittman has tried hasn’t worked. The ballclub he is coaching is mentally weak, physically weak, woefully immature and now thoroughly embedded in a culture of losing. Witt fired one of his bullets a couple weeks ago when he essentially told his players they were a bunch of wusses; then, as further motivation, the Strib ran a front-page story openly wondering if this could be the worst team in NBA history, a challenge Witt said affected his team, who proceeded to play their best game of the season in blowing out the Pacers.

But since then, it’s been almost all regression, with playing time seemingly allotted without rhyme or reason. Last night it was Doleac getting his season high in minutes while Gerald Green and Chris Richard received their first DNP-CD in quite awhile. Why? Yeah, you can say Doleac was a nice matchup on Kamen (my choice for Comeback Player of the Year thus far) and the big lug did a good job. But with Doleac saddled with foul trouble, why not at least try out Richard? I guess it is plain that Wittman really does envision a Jefferson and Craig Smith front line for the future, a depressing thought. And while I am content to watch Green languish, his supporters have to wonder why he didn’t join Walker and McCants on the bombadier squad when Witt was desperately trying to salvage the game in the final minutes–or why he didn’t some of McCants minutes when Shaddy lethargically went through the motions in the first half.

Once again the question is–what’s the plan? Go with enough vet seasoning to help the young’uns? Give the kids all the burn they can stand? Find out about your expiring contracts–Smith, McCants, Green, T
elfair, Gomes–as much as possible? Reward hustle and performance or play for the future? Engender experience in specific roles or juggle the lineup to get the best immediate matchups? There is evidence that the Wolves are doing all of these things and thus none of these things very well. Some of it can be blamed on the bad luck of injuries and flu bugs and the travails of youth and immaturity. More of it is bad, inconsistent judgment.

Bottom line, the problems with this team are fundamental: Executing and defending the pick and roll, moving your feet, boxing out, staying mentally focused, avoiding stupid fouls. They are getting worse, not better. Meanwhile, ten players on the roster average at least 20 minutes a game (a testimonial to wildly fluctuating playing time) and three others average at least 11 mpg,

3. Hit and Run

I walked into the Caribou Coffee outlet beside Lund’s in Uptown the other day and saw that if you purchased a pound of Caribou Coffee you would receive two free tickets to the Wolves’ January 6 game against Dallas–while the supply lasted. Meanwhile, if the team’s play doesn’t kill fan interest, the absurdly expanded coverage by FSN will. While Jim Petersen and Mike McCollow are both astute and engaging analysts, promoting a former cheerleader to provide fashion tips or insights on halftime shows or having sideline guy Telly Hughes interview the third or fourth best player on that night’s victorious Wolves’ opponent kills more brain cells than the 180 proof everclear I once got for Christmas from a friend in Alaska.

After the Indiana win, I pronounced Telfair as having made it in the NBA, claiming that his next batch of bad games should be construed as a slump rather than an immediate ticket to Europe. Since then, Bassy has reverted to the form that earned him his rep as a colossal bust. Last night he shot 3-14 FG, and while the 7/2 assist-to-turnover ratio and the three steals were hopeful, the stubborn fact is that he can neither stick a long-range or mid-range jumper nor finish at the hoop in transition. Aside from Al Jeffersonj, no one will benefit more from the return of Randy Foye–provided it happens this year–than Telfair.

I have long been a supporter of Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who, especially compared to the likes of Pohlad, Wilf, and the Wild crew, has been willing to step up in a dramatic fashion to invest in his franchise. Taylor’s loyalty to Kevin McHale and Randy Wittman is another matter, and a can of worms I’m not opening here. No, what perplexes me is how and why Taylor stood by while two of his division rivals–Portland and Seattle–have stockpiled assets from a Phoenix Suns franchise that abhors the luxury tax, has abandoned any pretense of building for the future and is doing everything possible to win now. Portland’s owner Paul Allen has gladly accepted Phoenix’s top draft pick the last two or three years, ensuring that the already deep Trailblazer team is a dynamo for the next five to ten years even if Greg Oden can’t fully recover from injury (one, I might add, that deprives the Blazers of a greater potential talent than Randy Foye). Further up the West Coast, Seattle was able to execute a sign-and-trade with otherwise departing free agent Rashard Lewis that provided them with an enormous trade exception against the salary cap. They then peddled that exception to the Suns in exchange not only for Kurt Thomas (whose $8 million deal expires this year), but Phoenix’s first round pick in both 2008 and 2010. By 2010, the Suns should be in a precipitous freefall, giving the Sonics (or whatever they are called by then) a nice addition to the roster as Kevin Durant and Jeff Green enter their fourth year in the NBA.

Let’s end on a positive note, eh? Doleac demonstrated that he’ll be a solid 15-20 minute performer as the Wolves encounter a slew of legit centers–Joel Pryzbilla, Marcus Camby, Erick Dampier, and Shaquille O’Neal–in the week ahead. Sorry, that’s the best I could come up with.