Wolves commence losing


                   Photo by photomastergreg

The Timberwolves have been playing for nigh on a week now and there are very few surprises to report. Since their rather miraculous opening night comeback against New Jersey, the Puppies have gone down in spirited losses to the Cavs (104-87), Suns (120-112) and Clippers (93-90). At different moments they've looked tentative, energetic, jittery, precocious and painfully young--and occasionally, all of those things at once. So, the massive highs, the crushing lows:

  • Firstly, something that doesn't really qualify as news and that you're probably kind of sick of hearing: Lebron James is unbelievably good at basketball. You know how all those NBA guys are so good at basketball that its kind of hard to describe in normal human terms? Well, LBJ is better than all of those guys. That his jaw-dropping size, speed and quickness don't really translate to television is well documented. Less so is the skill and economy of motion that help to make his movements seem so effortless and unadorned. In person, though, watching the 6'8", 270 lb man handle the ball and move with the nuance and subtlety of a 5'10" point guard creates a kind of eye-rubbing visual dissonance, like there are suddenly new rules of time and space, like your powers of perception are somehow incommensurate with what you're watching. Sick.
  • Its been pretty clear early on that the Wolves' offense is not functioning terribly well. They did manage to score 112 points and shoot better than 46% against Phoenix but this was due more to that game's fast pace and wide open style, not to mention the Sun's perennially poor interior defense, than to any offensive facility on the Wolves' part. As has been widely anticipated, this young team is struggling to learn the triangle offense. They've looked hesitant and disorganized in their half-court sets; they've struggled to move the ball; they've struggled to create open shots.

      Besides the expected steep group learning curve, the problem, to my eyes, is twofold.         First, rookie point guard Jonny Flynn has been unable to create good shots for anybody but himself. He was criticized for being an inefficient scorer in college, but this hasn't been a problem so far--he's shooting 47.5% and regularly getting to the free-throw line. The problem, a huge one for a point guard, is that the Wolves haven't been able to run their offense smoothly when he's in the game. Flynn's first instinct is to put his head down and get to the basket, passing the ball only if he finds his way impeded. The end result has been lots of forced passes in the lane, lots of teammates left scrambling with little time left on the shot clock, lots of disjointed possessions, lots of turnovers (3.75 per game in only 24 minutes per game). Clearly, learning this offense is a huge challenge for a rookie; under duress, its only natural that Flynn would revert to his ridiculous one-on-one skills, the thing he's always been able to rely on. Still, at the moment, he's not a point guard--and with the memory of Randy Foye, another undersized scoring guard, still fresh in our minds, we Wolves fans know just how difficult this transition can be.  

This has posed a dilemma for Wolves coach Kurt Rambis. The team wants Flynn to learn on the job, but it's been obvious that the offense has functioned better when Ramon Sessions, Flynn's backup, is in the game. In the fourth quarters of close games, you can almost see these opposing mandates--develop your young star or give your team it's best chance of winning--playing themselves across Rambis's face.

Still, in the past the triangle offense has been successful without a true point guard (think John Paxson and Ron Harper in Chicago, Derek Fisher in L.A.). What seems indispensable is the presence of a creative wing player, one with the ability to score for himself and also keep the ball moving within the offense (uh, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant). Right now, the Wolves closest to fitting this description are Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes. Together, the two have hit 41 of 106 shots this year. That's 38.7%: not so good. Against the Clippers, Brewer alone took 21 wild shots and missed 15 of them (all the while, of course, playing hyperactive defense, pulling down rebounds and running the floor like a lunatic--Corey Brewer, you are marvelous). One day, when Brewer has gained a little more poise and muscle and improved his stroke, he may become an average shooter. But he will probably never be able to consistently and efficiently create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates, as he is being asked to do now. And there is almost certainly no reasonable world in which he should ever take 21 shots in a game.