I wanted to bring this article to everyone's attention this morning, a nice write-up from former Wolves beat writer Steve Aschburner. In it he states that a loss tonight against the Clippers would put Kurt Rambis dead-even with Jimmy Rodgers, the worst coach in team history, who had an astonishing 21-89 record, or .191 winning percentage during his tenure. I’ll have it known that Rodgers lasted only one more game at this mark and he did not have a guy averaging 21 and (nearly) 16. While many would argue the Wolves were going to be no good and rotten all year, let’s take a step back and give a rebuttal to the cynical group. This is a team with 2 21+ppg scorers on the roster, one of which (Love) is on pace to also average nearly 16 rebounds. Whether Love gets to 16 rebounds or not, he has currently surpassed Moses Malone’s best rebounding year (15.3 to Love’s 15.7) in 1983. Should he get to 16 by season’s end Love will be the first player to, if I have my facts straight (please correct if wrong), average 21 and 16 since Kareem Abdul Jabbar did a few times in the 70’s. Heck, since he technically has exceeded Malone’s rebounding average in ‘83, he is already amongst that company as it stands. This isn’t insignificant. In other news, the Wolves are currently the #2 3-point shooting team in the league, yet decide that packing the lane is a better strategy in defending their own strength on the other end. To no one’s surprise but apparently Rambis’, we get killed night in and night out from that area, most notably in the 4th quarter when the Wolves tend to hold a small lead and cannot seem to find momentum or flow on offense. This also is a team with the #2 shot blocker in the NBA behind Dwight Howard (Darko – on pace to shatter our team record in blocks), and a guy top 8 in steals per game (Brewer). This is huge for a team who, aside from Garnett, rarely has top guys in defensive categories. Yet, here we are with 6 total wins facing a Clippers team tonight who is better than advertised and has a very good chance of beating us. But why should they, given the above-average talent on our team? Rough schedule and injuries are not the whole story. Any up and coming team should have at least pulled off an upset or two during this stretch, especially given the individual accolades so evenly spread across the roster. The problem has to be bigger than that.
Some say that 75% of the coaching battle is team and ego management, and about 25% X’s and O’s. Whatever scientific ratio you use, Rambis appears to have nailed the player management piece. He also deserves credit for Darko’s emergence, who exhibited attitude and confidence problems in his first several NBA seasons. But what about our back court and their use? Some interesting observations: to be fair, Ridnour has had his positive moments this year. But overall, he has played far below expectation, and has made some baffling and frankly out-of-character decisions this season. Rambis has also decided on Luke for late game shots, an approach that has worked exactly zero percent of the time. Throughout his career, Luke has been known to play very well in pick and roll situations (much like Flynn). His inability to adjust to a triangle offense has made it difficult for him to create the kinds of opportunities he did in Milwaukee. In fact, when the Wolves run the P and R, suddenly Luke looks rather serviceable. Watch for it tonight. Moving on to Flynn, he obviously needs time, but still just looks iffy. Wes Johnson is hardly a focal point of the offense and is used mostly as a spot up shooter, which is poor use of a top 4 draft pick with superb athleticism. Brewers’ shots come off of the dribble/screens, hardly the best overall use of his offensive “abilities,” but he has improved there, probably as much as he can at this point. Webster has made his fair share of mistakes, but to be fair, has looked like a great addition 1/3 way through the year. Regardless, overall the backcourt play is a disaster. Where is the development here aside from Brewer succeeding on some of his steal gambles? Overall, why in the world is Rambis not allowing a few more sets that his PG’s are most comfortable running, and quite successful at doing so as history suggests? Does this make a lick of sense whatsoever, to consistently run what your players are bad at executing, rather than what they are good at? If applied to a corporate job in the United States, would hiring a bunch of aspiring, smart IT tech-support guys to be your sales managers bode well for the company?
I am not going to sit here and pretend to be some NBA coaching candidate, but watch some of the offensive sets and quality possessions other teams have night in and night out. Just something as simple as the flow and rhythm of an offense. Great ball movement, guys cutting and being in the right place, guards taking guys off the dribble. Open, smart, jumpshots. Even Del Negro will do it with his fleet of misfits, less Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, and 2007 Timberwolves castoffs tonight. These kind of possessions almost never happen for us. Think back to the weekend and watching Patty Mills in Portland (or Ty Lawson for that matter, but for the sake of discussing a top 6 pick getting absolutely destroyed by a very late 2nd rounder from the same draft, let’s go with this). Mills pretty much embarrassed Jonny Flynn off the dribble, and all night long in general. What the casual eye may not have noticed is that Mills performed so well partially because of Portland’s offense creating good space for him to go to work and hit pull up shots over Jonny. And since Jonny’s help D was ten feet away, parked in the lane waiting to instantly foul whomever got to the hoop, Flynn had no choice but to give it his best shot 1-on-1. He failed (as many do in that situation). The defensive possession failed and shockingly, mostly for other reasons, the Wolves failed to win. This has to be a reflection of the coach and the type of scheme he puts forth, right? The way I see it today, both the Wolves’ offense and defense is as predictable as a Full House episode. The opposition knows where we are passing and picks it off, or that our PGs won’t penetrate in order to draw contact or shoot a floater in the lane (Bassy an exception here, usually for worse), but instead will usually dribble themselves to a bad spot and turn it over. Then, on the other end, they know our help D is awful, doesn’t rotate and they can kick it out to an open guy for a 3 since closing out is not in our vocabulary. Swish. With 10 feet of space, and a Wolves defender practically pretending to close out after the ball is well out of the guy’s hands (and the ref calling a foul at least once per game on a desperation Wolves closeout for 3 FT’s in the process). Simple as that.
By the way, any NBA player can hit a 3 if they are wide open. If I can hit 2 threes (not counting the 12 airballs before and after) in a pickup game, a professional athlete can hit an open three pointer. And open they are, constantly. Because that is legitimately our defensive strategy. Rambis wants his wings to double down low. And to be fair, the approach makes sense. Sometimes. Rambis, after all, knows much more about basketball than I ever will even fathom and he is not a moron. However, it doesn’t make sense when there isn’t a single adjustment to play tighter after our opponents 5th 3 pointer in the 4th quarter. Or when we pack it in, yet give up our 4th long rebound of the quarter after a botched Darko box-out. Or, perhaps most odd about this approach, when we have the #1 rebounder in the NBA there to clean things up after the shooter gets hit with a hand in his face. This is unfortunately where that whole“25% X’s and O’s” seems to somehow be a negative, double–digit number, and where the bulk of our problems seem to lie as a team. Everything Rhombus seems to implement make sense for a different type of roster. His approaches overall are not flawed. They are flawed for this particular group of guys, who just need a little bit of simplicity and freedom in the worst way. Just watch, when we dumb it down, things work. I hate to say it, but it was Kevin McHale’s simple, Northern Minnesota laid-back approach that made him succeed during his brief time as a coach, and gain the utmost respect of his guys. I don’t care who we were playing or how easy the schedule was when he was coach, he did a nice job.
Despite a series of stellar individual performances this team still only has 6 wins. Our coach could soon be tied with the worst coach in franchise history record wise as soon as tonight. This matters. Whether you think the team is underachieving or not, can we all collectively agree these “growing pain” excuses are getting old? Or at least come up with another phrase to describe the team's shortcomings? The individual performances this season have been like nothing we have seen in an accumulation of the past 6 or 7 seasons combined, and yet: 6 wins and on pace to maybe win 20-22 games, still short of the Wittman/McHale year. Of note: those individual performances are not flukes. They matter. They do not happen on 6-win teams who are basically last in the league and have a good chance of losing to one of the small handful of teams on par with us tonight in LA. At the end of the day in sports, someone will have to be held accountable. Someone will get tossed if this continues. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that Kurt could soon be our worst ever coach, can it? But then what of his ability to create a cohesive team that seems to get along well and has great chemistry? This also matters. And what would a new coaching staff do next season with Darko and the other guys who have emerged this year? It’s a big risk, and I admit there is something about Rambis I like that separates him from Wittman and the other circus-leaders of years’ past, even though our record is worse (!). Maybe it’s his pedigree that I still can’t let go, or the fun atmosphere he seems to create that makes me like the team more. Maybe it’s the style he has implemented that, when clicking about 15% of the time, still somehow puts up a lot of points, is fun to watch and allows for inflated stats. Maybe it’s how he has brought in fun reclamation projects and brought out the best in them. It’s something though. Regardless, if this team doesn’t bounce back from this rotten December and take advantage of an easier schedule in January, someone will have to go. There is no way around it in today’s NBA. Justified, sensible, or not, it is how the game is played.