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Unless you've gotten lost on your way to the personals ads and stumbled into this column by mistake, you know that the Minnesota Timberwolves have been suffering through a rather spectacular slump over the past two weeks. Here's my take on why things have suddenly gone so horribly wrong and what has to happen for the Wolves to bounce back.
Inexperience as an elite team
Admit it: When the Wolves won 30 of their first 40 games, a part of you felt like it was too good to be true. Well, for all their outward signs of confidence, somewhere in the recesses of their psyches the Wolves' players probably felt the same way. Five straight years of losing in the first round of the playoffs have made it imperative for the team to take a step forward this season. They truly believe they can--and until two weeks ago, all the evidence supported that belief--but they can't know it. When your year-end fortunes neither progress nor regress for a solid half-decade, a vague but insidious pressure builds. And when, for the first time in the history of the franchise, you start to get a finger hold on the next rung of the ladder, it's easy to overreact a bit when your grip starts to slip.
Even elite teams experience slumps at various points during a season. But rarely are they as dramatic and comprehensive as the one the Wolves are enduring. After ranking among the best rebounding and most accurate shooting teams in the league, Minnesota was suddenly getting pounded on the boards by the likes of Detroit and Toronto, and converting less than 40 percent of their shots against Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Meanwhile, teams have been able to score at will on a defense that had become slightly above average. The nadir came midway through the Cleveland game a week ago, when the Wolves were outscored 45-4 by a club that had lost 12 straight games. When your performance is that putrid, you're either not trying or trying too hard--you're quitting or you're panicking.
The Wolves haven't been quitting. Instead, they've been racing around without discipline at both ends of the court, disrupting the rhythmic cohesion that is so crucial to their passing offense and matchup zone and man-to-man defenses. Since the Cleveland fiasco, they have improved somewhat, but still go through stretches in every game where they needlessly try to force good things to happen, rather than, as the clichè goes, letting the game come to them. If lack of effort were the problem, it would be easy to cite a malingerer or two and remove them from the situation. But for the past two weeks, there hasn't been a single player on the roster performing as well, let alone better, than he did earlier in the season. Put simply, the Wolves are pressing.
The Wolves' two most physical players, Gary Trent and Joe Smith, have both missed extended time with injuries this season and it is somewhat of a surprise that Trent's absence has been the greater loss. That's because, in basketball parlance, Smith is a grinder and Trent is a banger. Smith works mightily to body-up his man on defense and gain inside position for rebounds, but he lacks the brute strength to punish an opponent who tries to score on him (more often he goes flying backwards, drawing a charging foul) or to create space around the basket when going up to corral an errant shot. Trent punishes people (be it through picks, fouls, or simply jousting for position) with jolts they feel the next morning, and possesses both the sinew and the savvy to clear maneuvering space for himself and his teammates under the hoop.
The other members of the Wolves' front line--Kevin Garnett and Rasho Nesterovic--are finesse players who thrive when given more room to operate down in the low post. In other words, they're better at grinding than banging, making Trent's skills more complementary and less redundant in the overall mix. Because Trent had been injured the previous two seasons, the Wolves were able to pick him up as a bargain basement free agent, in the hope that he had healed enough to provide the team with some sorely needed muscle. But when healthy, Trent has been more versatile than expected. With the possible exception of Rasho, he has been the team's most polished and reliable scorer in the low post. More importantly, he has been quick enough to guard many small forwards, providing coach Flip Saunders with another option when he wants to rest KG.
The bottom line is that when Smith went down with a calf injury, the Wolves plugged Trent into the starting lineup and won seven straight games. Conversely, Minnesota's slump began not long after he sprained his ankle against the Lakers on January 11. After returning ten games later to help the Wolves beat Boston on Friday, he retweaked the ankle in Sunday's loss to Sacramento. If and when he can regain his stellar form of early January, he'll shore up a front line bedeviled by Smith's tendency to rack up fouls and Rasho's maddening inconsistency.