Whither the Wolves: An Email Exchange

Whither the Wolves: An Email Exchange
After watching a lot of Wolves basketball over the past few months, Ben Polk and I discuss the sideline antics of Randy Wittman, the curious case of Corey Brewer, and how to address the team's Greatest Needs. Next week: A blueprint for peace in the Middle East.

From: Benjamin Polk To: Jonathan Kaminsky Sent: Wednesday, April 09, 2008 Subject: I say hey, you say ho

Oh hi Jonathan,

So the Hornets barely sneaked by the Wolves Wednesday night, nipping them late in a 122-90 nail-biter. And as I have been all year, I was amazed by the incredibly thin margins in the NBA between winning, losing, and getting utterly mauled. I mean, the Wolves are an undeniably talented team, filled with legitimate NBA players (that is to say, some of the most magnificent basketball players in the world), players good enough to be quite competitive for half of the game. And yet, the Hornets were so evidently the better team that you, sitting right next to me, were able to predict a blowout in the making back in the second quarter, when things were close. This is weird and amazing to me: only at this unimaginably high level of competition are the distinctions between these superhuman athletes made apparent.

Nonetheless, apparent they were, particularly between the outrageously awesome Chris Paul and everyone else (6-11, 19 points all in the second half, 16 assists, 1 turnover in 34 minutes: that's a nice line). Even beyond that pretty obvious fact, this game outlined some of the Wolves big weaknesses. They had a tough time matching up with the Hornets' size: Ryan Gomes, playing power forward, got schooled by the taller David West and Hornets' Camby-esque center Tyson Chandler pretty well shut down Al Jefferson. And, as coach Wittman pointed out, they lack an aggressive, penetrating wing player who can get into the lane when defenses challenge the Wolves' jumpshooters (I guess you could also add a paucity of three-point shooters and a real point guard). This is especially striking when you look at the free throw disparity: the Wolves made 8-9 while New Orleans made 17-27 (although a lot of that can be attributed to an already flagging commitment to good defense that flagged harder and harder as the game wore on). So, Jonathan, I ask you: as someone who has watched this team pretty closely all year, what strikes you as the Wolves' biggest need, aside from another year of experience? Feel free to refer back to this game in particular, or not, or not respond at all. Whatever you feel like.


From: Jonathan Kaminsky To: Benjamin Polk Date: Thursday, April 10, 2008 Subject: The Talent Gap

Hey Benjamin,

Quite a game, eh?

The reason it was obvious to me that our beloved Wolves were doomed early in the second quarter--and I don't pretend this makes me some sort of seer--is that they are not a team to maintain a 72 percent shooting clip, particularly not when most of those shots are coming from the outside. First-quarter Foye, for instance, may light up Chris Paul for 16 early on, but that doesn't mean he's going to score 20 for the game.

Which sort of brings me to your question about the team's greatest need. My answer is not meant to sound flip: The Wolves' greatest need is more talent. Sure, they desperately need someone to complement Big Al down low, and yes, it would be great to have a point guard who can both pass and shoot, and yes it would be terrific to have a slasher who can get to the line and open up the perimeter.

To say that one of these needs is greater than another I think sort of misses the point. Until the Wolves get at least one and probably two more players as good as Al Jefferson, it doesn't really matter which position they try to improve. Which is to say: Come draft day, the Wolves must select the best player available, period. Basing a pick on the current roster is not a luxury the Wolves, with one sure thing on said roster, can afford.

To be honest, I can't really imagine the braintrust going against this logic. At least, I don't want to imagine the team passing up someone like Derrick Rose to affirm Foye's role as leader. Speaking of the braintrust, should Randy Wittman be this team's coach next season?

Yours, Jonathan


From: Benjamin Polk To: Jonathan Kaminsky Sent: Thursday, April 10, 2008 Subject: Coaching and Other Dark Arts

Right, right. It’s funny, because when I asked you what the Wolves greatest need was, I almost added "besides better players." You're right though. What they need is better players. That's not to say that they need to jettison the roster they have. Though Jefferson is the only one you could really call indispensable, I could easily imagine all of their top eight players (um, besides Marko) contributing to a good team (especially Gomes, who is the type of player one finds somewhere on the roster of almost every championship squad).

These are the big questions: Can Corey Brewer gain enough muscle to be a consistent, durable defender and improve the mechanics of his shot enough so as not to be an offensive liability? I don't see why not. The guy is a phenomenal athlete and I can't believe that a million hours in the gym over a few offseasons, plus some more experience, won't make him into a serviceable shooter (it is weird, though, just how broke his jumper can be--I'm amazed that a player of his ability could get this far without anyone telling him that he needs to follow through). Can Randy Foye ever become a real point guard and, if not, can he and McCants coexist playing similar games at the same position? Not sure and don't think so. Can the Wolves land a solid defensive/rebounding center and if not do they plan to allow Al Jefferson to continue his slog against bigger, longer players?

That brings me to your question about Wittman. I'm always amazed when non-experts clamor for coaching changes on NBA teams, as Wolves fans have been. I dunno, maybe this betrays some deep lack of understanding on my part--but I defy anyone not intimately involved with the inner workings of a club to really pinpoint a coach's effect on a team on a game-by-game basis. After all, I'm positive I saw quite a few respected people claim last year that Doc Rivers was the worst coach in the NBA, the same guy that might very well win coach of the year. Sure, there are the broad differences in playing styles and clearly coaches need to establish a consistent rotation that the players believe in (Isiah's Knicks are a good cautionary tale here). But it seems to me that by far the most important job of an NBA coach is to get his players to play hard. And how they do that remains a mystery to me.

On that note, I can't imagine Wittman's players not getting sick of the perpetually exasperated, facially distorted, seizing hands routine that the man goes through on the sidelines, win or lose. He seems affable enough in person, but the fact that he is an avowed Bobby Knight disciple makes me very skeptical of the guy. He seems to embody that weird notion among sports people that "disciplinarian" equals "teacher," the very notion that caused people to lionize a bully like Knight. One could certainly criticize Wittman's decision to play Jefferson at center, causing many of the Wolves' interior defensive woes (although Wittman certainly can't be blamed for the Theo Ratliff injury that has left them so shorthanded up front.) What worries me most about the Wolves' coach is that I can easily foresee the team tuning him out in the middle of another long season.


From: Jonathan Kaminsky To: Benjamin Polk Sent: Thursday, April 10, 2008 Subject: Bassy’s Warning-Track Power

Will Sebastian Telfair start knocking down jumpers in games? Will Rashad McCants accept his role as instant offense off the bench? Will Corey Brewer bulk up, straighten out his jumper, and start finishing around the hoop? Will Randy Foye be visited late one night by the point-guard-skills fairy? Will Craig Smith grow three inches?

So many questions. As for Brewer, I am inclined to agree with you—he’s got a future in the league. And I’m rooting for him. He’s never been handed anything, he works hard, and he is to all outward appearances a gentle soul. But I’m still worried. I’m fairly confident he’ll bulk up a bit—although I can’t imagine him ever being above the 20th percentile in the league in terms of muscle mass. And he'll likely shoot a zillion jumpshots in the offseason, which hopefully will iron that part of his game out somewhat. But his persistent and jarring inability to finish close to the hoop is freaking me out. Like the wide-open five footer late in the Hornets game that he airballed (leading one prominent Wolves analyst to remark to his peers that he’d never seen anything like it in an NBA game). Or, in the previous game, the fast break ending with a finger-roll barely skimming the front of the rim. Someone has to tell him to ease up just before releasing the ball. Probably someone has. But he isn’t doing it, Benjamin. He isn’t doing it.

And that other guy, the one who seemed to get the best use out of Brewer’s frenetic energy? Sebastian Telfair? I’ll admit to a bit of a bias: I instinctively like him. He is an up-tempo player who always looks for the open man and is a smooth passer. Too bad he can't shoot, right? At a practice a few weeks before his season-ending ankle injury, I watched as an assistant coach feed him shot after shot from around the college three-point line. He shot in sets of 10, moving a few feet around the horn after each set. In the four or five sets I watched, he hit either eight or nine. It just goes to show you how different it is in practice and in the heat of a game. But man, it would be good if that confidence came around.

Anyhow, to return one last time to your question about the team’s Greatest Need: I’d really love to see Jefferson get another big man to help on defense and complement him on the offensive glass. I’d also really like to see someone with Rashad’s jumpshot combined with an ability/willingness to penetrate that nobody on the team seems to possess. Those are the two biggies in my book. But, again, more than anything, I just want a dude who’s going to put the ball in the hole on his terms, who doesn’t screw up the flow of the offense, and who doesn’t phone it in on defense. Or maybe, you know, two guys like that.

Until next time, Jonathan

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