Thursday, November 4, 2010

Are the Timberwolves for Real II?

The Timberwolves went 6-2 in pre-season and everybody wanted to know, Are they for real? Well, now, after a disastrous 1-5 start to the regular season, is it too soon to answer? Hopefully not.

But the signs are not encouraging. First came a 1-point loss at home to a non-playoff team with its best player out, a game in which coach Kurt Rambis sat his best player for the last 9 minutes of play for alleged defensive indifference. As if, in giving up 117 points, Kevin Love was the only fellow who had an off night on the D.

Then came a home win against the Milwaukee Bucks, followed by 3 blowout losses at Memphis, Miami and Orlando. Now, you might not expect a win on such a road trip. But neither do you expect to lose by an average of 122-91.

And it doesn't get much easier. After resuming play Friday night at the Target Center against the Atlanta Hawks, 16 of the next 25 games are also on the road. By the time the Wolves have played a fair balance of home and away, long about mid-February, the season could already be long lost.

What happened? Well, regular season? The other guys are trying? Tougher competition, especially in these last 2 outings, a 129-97 loss at Miami and a 128-86 demolition job at Orlando.

But more specifically, shooting percentage. The Wolves shot darn near 50 percent in the pre-season, despite Cory Brewer's 25 percent funk. Well, now it looks as if everybody is taking lessons from poor Cory, who remains at 27 percent. The Wolves as a whole are at 38. Opponents are at 47. At Miami and Orlando, the numbers were 37 and 33 percent for the Wolves and 58 and 50 for the other guys.

Among Wolves' starters, Luke Ridnour is at a respectable 47.5 percent. Michael Beasley 44, Kevin Love 41 and Darko Milicic 14 percent. Not a typo. 14 percent. Wayne Ellington is at 36 percent and has relinquished his starting spot at the so-called "shooting" guard to, um, Brewer, again, at 27.

Beasley came out strong against his former teammates at Miami, scoring 11 points in 10.5 minutes, but he went down with a left hip contusion and hasn't played since. Rookie Wesley Johnson replaced him in the starting lineup with a 34 percent shooting performance to date.

Off the bench, you've got Pekovic, Koufos and Ager at 50 percent or better, and Telfair at 44, though Anthony Tolliver is at 38 and Lazar Haywood is at 15.

The Wolves are doing OK in the possession game with +4 offensive boards almost offsetting +5 turnovers. But in addition to being outshot, the Wolves are getting just 15 assists a night to their opponents 26. The Wolves' ball movement is resulting in an assist on about 40 percent of FG, while opponents are assisting on over 60 percent of their FG.

Which brings us back to the D. This was supposed to be an improved defense with Milicic and Pekovic in the middle and...well, who exactly is a plus defender otherwise? Certainly, nobody so far. And if Milicic is so great, how, come the Wolves were 2-24 down the stretch with him last year?

David Kahn said last summer that there was no question the Wolves roster was better than the one he inherited when hired as the Wolves' GM. If that's the case--though, of course, reasonable people could differ on that point based on the evidence so far--but if that's the case, then the finger is going to start pointing at coach Kurt Rambis before too long. Oh, wait, it just did. His triangle offense has long been characterized as way too difficult for his inexperienced team. Now it's looking like his defensive schemes aren't exactly taking root, either.

Even assuming that the Wolves can and will play better than they have so far, looking at their schedule, they seem likely to close November at 5-13 at the very best, and December at maybe 8-26. January gets easier and 13-35 seems not out of reach. But these are probably best cases.

So at 13-35 in January, or maybe 10-38, the Target Center is likely to be empty enough, again, to catch Glen Taylor's eye. Kahn is probably here for awhile. But it's not too much to think that a new coach will be on board before the season is half over.

Either that or the 6-2 pre-season Wolves are lurking just beneath the surface, just waiting to break free, or to starting shooting 45 percent, whichever comes first. They key, it seems to me, is Ridnour, at least until Jonny Flynn returns from injury. Ridnour averaged 16 points, 6 assists and 2 turnovers in the 1st 2 games--the win and the close loss. He is hardly the only guy who was overmatched on the road trip, but as the "1" he's the guy who makes things happen, or not. And his numbers say "not"--19 points in 3 games, 6 assists and 7 turnovers. The Wolves assist numbers say they're not getting good shots, and it might be time for Sebastein Telfair to log some more minutes before too long.

The other immediate concern is Beasley's health and the inconsistent play of the Wolves' putative best man, Kevin Love. Somebody's gotta take charge and right now, Kurt Rambis is the only guy doing so, and that ain't workin'.

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