The Three Pointer: Squandering Development Capital

Game #32, Home Game #16: Denver118, Minnesota 107

Game #33, Home Game #17: Dallas 101, Minnesota 78

1. Beating A Dead Horse

Al Jefferson and Craig Smith took the floor for the opening tap Friday night so you knew the Timberwolves would fall behind early. And, why, yes, Denver scored the first 12 points of the game and was up 12-2 when coach Randy Wittman mercifully subbed in Chris Richard for Smith with just 3:24 gone in the game. By the time Smith returned alongside Antoine Walker for Richard and Jefferson seven minutes and three seconds later, the score was 28-21, meaning the Wolves had outscored the Mavs 19-16 during that stretch. Nevertheless, to begin the second half, it was again Jefferson and Smith matched against  Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin. And again Denver jumped out, this time 5-1 to go up 66-53 before Wittman gave Smith the hook, in favor of Walker.

When I asked Wittman after the game why Smith was yanked twice, he said because the Rhino wasn’t getting back quickly enough on defense. Okay, got it.

The Dallas Mavericks came to town this afternoon. They started a front line of DeSagana Diop, Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. The tricky matchup, of course, is Nowitzki. Ah, but not for Randy Wittman. He goes with the old tried and untrue, Jefferson at center, Smith at power forward and Ryan Gomes at small forward.

Listen folks, I really would like to be more original in my criticism of this ballclub. But when a squad is losing 29 of its first 33 games, including the last 8 in a row, and is getting demonstrably worse, not better, I feel it is important to point out the main reasons why this seems to be happening. And with precious few exceptions, it has to be said that when Jefferson plays center and Smith plays power forward, the Timberwolves get their ass kicked.

You have a wealth of stats to back this up, and I won’t go back and get them (scroll back on previous posts if you want). Let’s just focus on this afternoon. By what logic do you send out a beefy undersized former second round draft pick, who was twice benched in the last game for not getting back on defense, and who has trouble guarding players outside the paint, as the one to match up against the reigning league MVP, who just happens to be a half-foot taller, quicker, and a deadly outside shooter? Do we really need a manual with the words Craig Smith vs. Dirk Nowitzki = bad matchup in bold print to prevent this from happening? Apparently so, because when Smith went to the bench with 2 fouls in the first 3:35 of the game, Nowitzki already had 7 points and the Mavs were up 7, 11-4.

Now without question Nowitzki is a brutal matchup problem for most every team–that’s a main reason why he’s MVP. But there were at least three better options for Wittman than Craig Smith. One would have been to play Jefferson at center, Gomes at the power forward opposite Nowitzki, and Corey Brewer at small forward on Josh Howard. Or kick Marko Jaric up to the small forward slot and slide Rashad McCants–he of the 34 points the previous game–in at shooting guard. Or go big, with Chris Richard or Mark Madsen (Michael Doleac didn’t dress) at center beside Jefferson at the power forward and Gomes at the small forward. Or throw a front line of Jefferson at center, Walker at the power forward guarding Nowitzki, and Gomes on Howard. Because Gomes, Jefferson, Walker, Jaric, Madsen, and Richard are all better matchup options on Dirk Notwitzki than Craig Smith.

And indeed, all but Richard got a chance to guard Nowitzki at some point in the game. For the most part, Nowitzki burned them all, finishing with 30 points on 12-20 FG and 5-5 FT. But Walker and Gomes took away his easy looks from three-point range, and it was good to see Jefferson reach down and get feisty with Nowitzki in the 3rd and early 4th quarters, bodying him up and making it a personal battle. Jefferson lost that struggle but the notion that he waged it, wagered a little of his personal identity on trying to stop someone for a change, was one of the few silver linings in this nasty 23-point spanking that wasn’t even that close.

Again, I understand I’ve said all of this before and am "beating a dead horse" as they say (unfortunately a very fitting analogy for this Wolves team right now). But Al Jefferson and the Minnesota Timberwovles play much much better with a legitimate center on the floor. Today, Richard and Madsen played center for a combined 21:08. During that time, Dallas outscored Minnesota by 2 points. In the 26:52 Madsen or Richard was not playing center, Dallas outscored Minnesota by 21 points.

This continues a year-long pattern that surely has been noticed by *someone* in the organization by now. The only logical explanation is that Wittman and the front office stubbornly see some benefit in perpetuating a consistently bad lineup. Yeah, one coujld argue that Dallas’s first quarter blowout quickly made the Madsen/Richard minutes in the second half garbage time, negating the plus/minus emphasis. (A full six minutes into the game, the Wolves had 1 rebound, 1 assist, 3 turnovers and were allowing the Mavs to shoot 78% (7-9FG).) But then how to explain Richard going plus +3 in the first quarter against Denver the other night–when the game theoretically was still in reach–only to never again see action during the other three quarters? No, the Jefferson-Smith pairly has been willfully rammed down the throat of Wolves fans by this coaching and front office staff. Wittman has occasionally justified it as providing better front court offense, but the awful defense from duo more than negates that supposed advantage.

Wittman stalked away and cut off his press conference early today, once again vowing to make "changes," and once again callign forth all kinds of fighting analogies to say that the Wolves lack heart. Well, yes, it appears that way. Certainly less heart than they showed in November, and slightly less than they showed in December. But what the coach needs to remember is that the hearts of players grow, like their confidence, when they are put in a position to succeed.


2. Make McCants Prove Himself

Ironically, pairing Jefferson and Smith on the front line is one of the precious few things Wittman has done consistently for most of the season. Another, by default, is playing Sebastian Telfair at the point. What consistent Wolves watcher doesn’t have a very clear idea of what Jefferson, Smith and Telfair can and can’t do?

But if Wolves fans are to endure an epically horrible season, they deserve that management, A) Identify which key players need to evaluated, and B) Get as large a sample size as possible by which to evaluate them. Put simply, there are certain players that need to prove or disprove themselves this season. And I’d put Rashad McCants at the top of the list.

Why? Because McCants is the team’s premiere scoring threat on the perimeter. Because he has undergone microfracture surgery and needs to be physically vetted. And because McCants is a player of great virtues and vices, and the Wolves need to see if the virtues can be maintained with more consistency, and if the vices are a product of simple immaturity of something more fundamental.

For all you McCants doubters out there, I understand. I see the scowls, the reach-in fouls, the neglect to penetrate and simply jack up jumpers, the bushels of points that don’t matter and the paucity of key hoops that could swing a game or two Minnesota’s way. But I also saw him get a career-high 34 in the flow of the offense Friday night. And I saw him get to the line 17 times in 55:24 over the past two games. The McCants supporters can appropriately note that if Al Jefferson goes off for 34 and 21 and shoots 17 FTs, we are all more apt to overlook his shakey defense, lack of passing and other deficiencies.

Besides, what are your backcourt options, folks? Sebastian Telfair looks fried, Corey Brewer can’t stick a J, Marko Jaric is approximately as
inconsistent as McCants, and Gerald Green is earning a C- in Basketball 101. Yes, perhaps McCants is a perpetual tease and a toxic head case destined to be more trouble than he’s worth. If the Wolves believe they know that to be true already, then they ought to be force feeding Corey Brewer in the backcourt rotation with Telfair and Jaric and given the vet Greg Buckner a little more burn to try and pull out a win or two. I think McCants remains an enigma. After awhile, that ceases to become a teasing mystery and turns into an deadly flaw–call it strangely willful inconsistency. But isn’t this lost season supposed to be about getting to the bottom of enigmas, and tossing away the bad apples and priming and then accelerating the development of those who seem to be getting a clue?

Stick Shaddy in the starting lineup for 30 minutes per game, minimum. State that this will continue at least until Randy Foye returns, and quite possibly beyond. Take some of it out of Telfair’s minutes, some of it out of Jaric, and some of it out of Gomes–Telfair needs a breather (psychologically if not physically), we know the Jaric rollercoaster intimately already, and Gomes is hardly a sure bet to stick around once his contract expires. The notion of a Foye-Jefferson-McCants triad on offense remains the rosiest point-scoring scenario before the next NBA Draft.

3. Quick Hits

Remember all that talk about how much this team pulls for each other and how tight and enthusiastic they are? It has been true and it has been remarkable. But it can’t last much longer without some good news, like a win or two or Foye’s imminent return and a lineup shift that suddenly pays big dividends. Al Jefferson in particular is starting to get surly, McCants is a couple of weeks from blowing, especially if his minutes continue to yo-yo, and Randy Wittman’s post-game snits are already running out of juice.

Also, remember all that talk about what a brutal schedule the Wolves had in December, and how things would improve in January? This was almost totally based on home games versus road games. For the record, the January schedule is if anything tougher than December’s. Portland, Denver and Dallas were all correctly figured to be losses. Miami at home without Wade and Shaq looks to be a golden opporunity to bag the squad’s first W since the Winter Solstice, but after that they have Houston and San Antonio on the road, Golden State at home, then Phoenix and Denver on the road before going to Golden State and Boston on either side of playing Phoenix here. If you’re wondering at what point the Wolves’ winning percentage falls behind Philadelphia’s NBA worst-ever percentage of .110 (9-73) from 1972-73, it would be 4-33.

Kevin McHale, quoted in Wolftracks magazine: "Another solid veteran for us is Antoine Walker. He gives us a different look at the four spot and also can play the three spot. He can shoot and help spread the floor– and he understands the game very well." All true. And ‘Toine at the 3–what a concept.