The Three Pointer: A Golden Breakthrough

Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game # 38, Road Game #19: Minnesota 95, Phoenix 115

Game #39, Road Game #20: Minnesota 108, Denver 111

Game #40, Road Game #21: Minnesota 109, Golden State 108

Season record: 6-34

First of all, apologies for the near-weeklong absence. I wrote a fairly detailed three pointer on Sunday after the Phoenix and Denver games, only to have it eaten by computer gremlins. Some of what disappeared into the virtual ether needs to be updated or chucked, some of it still stands.

1. Foul Play

We’ve got to begin with the whistles. When first Ryan Gomes and then Rashad McCants were sent to the bench with three fouls midway through the second quarter Friday night against Phoenix, the Wolves were down a mere point. By the halftime intermission, the lead was 14 and the ballgame was essentially over. "You saw the momentum change right there," McCants told the Strib. But was he magnifying his own importance or lamenting his shortcomings by once again playing himself to the sidelines due to fouls?

The next night against Denver, the Wolves lose the game by 3 and the free throw contest by 28, being outshot at the line 43-15 (for made free throws the disparity was 35-12). Al Jefferson got tagged with a technical in the closing seconds arguing an out of bounds possession call. After the game, coach Randy Wittman complained, "All they had to do was yell and get free throws. I guess we still have to teach our guys how to do that." McCants added, "Sometimes we find a way to lose a game. It wasn’t that we found a way. It was kind of taken away from us."

I have strong feelings on both sides of this issue. First of all, as I mentioned a few treys ago, the Wolves get jobbed by the officials on a regular basis, both due to the relative lack of stars on the team and the relative lack of smart, consistently aggressive play that builds up goodwill on borderline calls. Only one team–Indiana–is whistled for fouls more often than the Wolves, and only one team–Toronto–has its opponents whistled fewer times than the Wolves. Consequently, the disparity of foul calls between Minnesota and their opponent on a per-game basis is +6.15. Six extra fouls, on average, every game. That’s enough to disqualify a player, or automatically land the team in the penalty for a quarter. It’s saddles at least two or three Timberwolves with enough additional "foul trouble" to affect their play, or their playing time. And it is grossly out of line with the other 29 teams in the NBA–Indiana, the team with the second-worst disparity, is just +2.70, or less than half of the onus on the Wolves.

But the kind of victimization talk voiced after the Denver game is counterproductive for this franchise. The main reasons why the Wolves get screwed by the refs is because they are callow, timid, and inconsistent in their aggression. They reach in with their hands and flap their mouths more diligently than they move their feet, and they simply lack talent. Take Saturday night: The matchups off the starting lineups were Jefferson vs. Marcus Camby, Gomes vs. Melo Anthony, McCants vs. Iverson, Telfair vs. Anthony Carter, and Marko Jaric vs. Linus Kleiza (Jaric was supposedly guarding AI, with Shaddy on Kleiza, but the switches were frequent and appropriate.) There wasn’t one spot on the floor where you could say Minnesota had a lockdown advantage on defense.

Meanwhile Denver was throwing out two players among their starting five ranked among the NBA’s top ten at getting to the line–Melo and AI. Anyone who saw the Denver game saw that many of Minnesota’s fouls were purposeful, meant to make the Nugs "earn it at the line" after they had beaten the Wolves off the dribble, in transition, or with an interior pass. Yes, there were some tough calls down the stretch–it does seem as if Iverson travelled on a crucial crunchtime possession, for example. But on the three plays that so vexed (and involved) Jefferson–some contact on his strong move to the hoop, a turnover for him stepping on the baseline trying to save a ball, and an out-of-bounds call that earned him the T–were all very close judgment calls that could have gone either way (the drive to the hoop and the confluence of hands on the out of bounds cite) or were correctly called against Minnesota (Jefferson did seem to step over the baseline).

McCants in particular needs to realize that he either needs to move his feet and commit himself at the defensive end more thoroughly, purposefully avoid either the cheap or, when he’s already in foul trouble, the purposeful, strategic infraction, or resign himself to long minutes on the bench that significantly reduce the Wolves’ chances of winning, and besmirch his reputation. The Denver game is a case in point. He picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter trying to guard Iverson and was sent to the bench. In the second quarter, he played a vital role in sparking Minnesota’s comeback, especially his ability to pass and flow in transition, giving the Nugs some of their own medicine. In the third period, he fouled Iverson again and then Melo, sending him to the bench with 3:20 play in the third period. Then, with 6:32 to play in a one-point game, Shaddy made the wrong pass in transition (he fed to his right, into a defender’s hands, while Gomes was open on the wing to his left), and committed a no-doubt loose ball foul scrambling to atone for the miscue. That sent him to the bench for a crucial three-minute stretch of crunchtime.

Why was it crucial? Because McCants is a matchup nightmare for the Nugs, having gone off for a career high 34 against them last time the two teams played. He had 23 and was a team-high plus +15 in the 35:05 he stayed on the court. That means the Wolves were minus -18 in the 12:55 McCants was on the bench. Now what was that he said again about the game being taken away from the Wolves? His inference was toward the refs’ bias, but every one of the five fouls that limited his minutes seemed legit.

Ah, but against Golden State this afternoon, the light bulb finally seemed to pop on in Shaddy’s head. When Monte Ellis beat him off the dribble in the first quarter, Shaddy resisted committing the foul that would given Ellis (a 78% foul shooter) two trips to the line instead of a basket. McCants was also moving more diligently on defense, while continuing his recent offensive contributions–he’s fit into the flow of the team’s offense better than ever the past week or two. Yes, he had some turnover troubles–four, by halftime, after getting four against Denver–but also picked up three dimes and, perhaps most significantly, had the fewest shots of any member of the starting five. And just one foul.

Got that? McCants was resisting his reach-in temptations on D, and, while being a tad turnover prone, was passing out of the perimeter double-teams Golden State occasionally threw at him and rarely if ever short-circuited the offense by hogging the ball. Despite all this, Randy Wittman still chose to sit him for an 8:22 stretch in the second quarter, When he departed, replaced by Antoine Walker, the Wolves were up ten 37-27, with 10:37 to play in the half. When he returned, with 2:49 to play, the Warriors were up by 1, 48-47.

Wittman did not learn from the experience, but instead duplicated it in the fourth period. subbing out Shaddy with the Wolves up 4 and 8:42 to play. I figured it was simply a chance for McCants to catch his breath, but Wittman left him on the sidelines until the score was tied and there were just two minutes left. Finally reinserted, McCants zipped a nice pass to Ryan Gomes halfway between the basket and the foul line, forcing Golden State to foul. Gomes made both free throws for Minnesota’s final points of the afternoon, and the difference in the game.

With McCants demonstrating improvement in key facets of his game–the ability to avoid foul trouble and to foster ball movement–it is
a mystery why Wittman played the least of any of his starters. Once again, McCants was a team-best plus +15 in 31:39 of play. What that means is that the Wolves have scored 30 more points than their opponents in the 66:44 that McCants has been on the court the past two games, and been absolutely waxed by their opponents, outscored by 32, in the 29:16 he has sat on the bench. While this is a more dramatic outcome than has occurred for most of the season, the fact remains that, relative to their other starters, the Wolves have benefited most by the minutes for McCants pretty much the entire year.

2. The Mystery of Small Ball

It is good to see that Wittman and company are belatedly recognizing that the Jefferson-Smith frontcourt pairing is usually not an effective tandem. After playing Big Al and the Rhino together for 6:46 of the first 13:15 of the Denver game–and going minus -9 during their stint–the coach shelved the combo the rest of the game and today’s Golden State tilt besides. It probably seems churlish to mention it in the wake of the competitive loss to Denver and the feel-good win this afternoon, but the next puzzler in the allotment of minutes is the brain trust’s strangely stubborn desire to play Al Jefferson at center.

According to the website, Jefferson is a more accurate shooter at his natural position of power forward than he is at center. He also rebounds better, commits fewer turnovers and fewer fouls per 48 minutes, and has almost exactly the same ratio of blocks and assists. And he dominates opposing power forwards much more than his edge on opposing centers. Not surprisingly then, the Wolves are outscored by an average of 16 points per 48 minutes when Jefferson plays center, compared to being outscored by just 1.8 points per 48 when Jefferson is at power forward.

If statistics don’t phase you, let’s talk philosophy. What is it that Wolves fans most want to see happen this season? I’d venture that the most popular answer and top priority would involve the ability to evaluate the young talent in challenging game settings as often as possible so determinations can be made on who should be culled, who should be re-signed, and who is or isn’t able to make progress against NBA competition. In other words, this year, the key is to accumulate solid, realistic knowledge on the NBA readiness of the boatload of young players dominating the roster.

Chris Richard seems to be exactly the sort of player Minnesota would want to toss under the microscope this season. Yeah, he’s just a second round draft pick, but the Wolves aren’t exactly overflowing with quality options among the natural centers on their roster–Michael Doleac and Mark Madsen. It is not like Richard’s ceiling is going to get appreciably higher with patience: He’s already older than four players on the team–Jefferson, Telfair, Gerald Green and his college teammate Corey Brewer–and having stayed in college for three years and two national championships under Billy Donovan at Florida, his overall grasp of the game is precocious, relative to his scant NBA minutes. Indeed, Richard’s greatest flaw thus far–a total lack of offense–would seem best remedied by the boost in confidence some steady NBA minutes would provide, especially if the coaches urged him to look for his shot more often.

Put it this way: If you are letting Richard languish on the bench *this* year, it is a fairly loud signal he doesn’t fit into the Wolves’ future plans, given the paucity of alternatives.

But there are at least two other good reasons for putting Richard in the pivot. First, the person you displace from the starting lineup is Jaric, the one player who has been thoroughly vetted by the franchise in terms of his strengths and weaknesses. Is there really that much difference between Marko’s performance this season and what we’ve seen the previousj two years? It is difficult to imagine him changing his idiosyncratic spots this late in his career. Second, sliding Richard in for Jaric in the starting lineup enables no fewer than three Timberwolves currently playing out of position in the small-ball lineup to move back to the place they are most comfortable. Not only would Jefferson go from center to power forward, but Ryan Gomes would become a small forward instead of a power forward, and Rashad McCants would go to the backcourt as an off-guard, where he belongs.

For those who argue that small ball is the trend of the future, or the best utilization of the Wolves’ current talent, I point to the fast break statistics. Minnesota currently yields more FB points than any team int he league, and ranks 28th, out of 30 teams, in generating FB points of their own. So just because they’re small doesn’t mean they thrive in transition,

3. Last Thought

Ryan Gomes takes what the defenses give him, and Golden State gave him a lot this afternoon: Gomes racked up a career high, incredibly efficient, 35 points to go with 11 rebounds, shooting 11-15 FG and getting to the line 12 times while missing the free throw just once. During the telecast, Wolves color commentator Jim Petersen said that over the past six weeks Gomes has been Minnesota’s second-best player. Okay, sure, but for the last month, since December 21, he’s been the best player, period, on the team: Nearly as valuable as Al Jefferson in terms of offensive flow and synergy, and better on defense.