Sometimes it’s the malaise that gets you, not the disaster.
When things go haywire for an NBA team – when the losses come four or five in a row, the locker room sours and both parties in the coaching/playing relationship hit the mute button – grabbing at a fix is relatively easy. You change up everything, or as close to that as possible, turning whatever dials and pulling whatever levers are available. Downside is minimal because desperation equals justification, and the alternative to trying anything is doing nothing, at which point a wink-wink about tanking becomes the last refuge of scoundrels.
Malaise is trickier. Malaise is less the presence of awful than the absence of OK. It’s that pervasive uneasiness, that general sense of something lacking in the strategy, on the roster or in their hearts. It is sputtering along two games below .500 almost halfway through the schedule, and burrowing back down each time they break the surface. It is the lack of legit winning streaks, and awkward losses to losers.
Malaise is offense without defense, talent without leadership, instructions without inspiration, velvet glove without iron fist. It is the Minnesota Timberwolves right about now.
Losing at home to Sacramento and slipping to 18-20 Wednesday night was merely the latest symptom of a season gone sideways. And as the Wolves face another challenge Friday in Toronto against the resurgent Raptors (7 p.m. ET, League Pass) and former coach Dwane Casey, the bright spot is that at least they’re not at home, where Minnesota has dropped four of its last six and, according to Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, things have turned – worse than hostile – apathetic.
Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic dribbled the ball a couple of times between free throws Wednesday night; the bouncing ball seemed to echo throughout Target Center.
“Wake up!” one fan yelled from behind the Wolves’ bench between those free throws in the fourth quarter.
The Wolves started the night by hitting the snooze button and trailed the rebuilding Sacramento Kings by 10 points entering the fourth quarter.
“It was dead,” Wolves guard J.J. Barea said. “Couldn’t hear anything out there.”
Flatlined is as flatlined does, and the Wolves are kidding themselves if they think a raucous home crowd is going to save them. If it’s cause-and-effect they’re seeking, it’s going to have to start with them rather than the fans. In the mirror rather than in the stands.
What was billed as a breakthrough season has been anything but. The purging of David Kahn as chief basketball executive was followed almost immediately by a bungled draft night that played almost as homage (the No. 9 pick parlayed down for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng). The guy the Wolves took and traded to Utah, point guard Trey Burke, has been better than both of them, and the equal of zestless Ricky Rubio, who has been playing as if his dog is lost, shrinking in lockstep with his shooting percentage.
A season in which Kevin Love‘s commitment to the franchise and to the market was supposedly reaffirmed, to hear new Wolves president Flip Saunders tell it, mostly has ground on, leaving Love in an emergency-exit row, window seat, for 2015. The roster is full of nice guys without much bark, never mind bite – despite Pekovic’s oft-noted “Bond villain” appearance – and the saltiest guy on board, the smallish Barea, wouldn’t scare a chessmaster.
As a result, the Wolves have been wandering through the hinterlands in January, jumper cables in hand, the battery in their jalopy pretty much dead. If head coach Rick Adelman has said it once – “I don’t know who we think we are” – he has said it a dozen times, a reasonable guess given his team’s 0-11 record in close games (four points or less).
The malaise, mind you, is starting to stick to Adelman, too. His methods haven’t noticeably changed any more than his postgame material, making him appear more detached from the situation than he might be. Benchings? A revised rotation? Less adherence to corner-3 tactics? A heightened commitment to defense – not just from Corey Brewer or Luc Mbah a Moute but by all five on the floor at any time, including two Kevins (Love and Martin)?
Adelman has more NBA know-how in his proverbial little finger than the Wolves franchise had for several years prior to his arrival in 2011. But his ongoing frustration – “It almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody. You have to get after people in this league,” he said after the Kings loss – is reminding folks that he re-committed late to this team last fall (after his wife’s illness last season). Adelman will turn 68 in June and the longer the Wolves bump along, the more out of sync they’ll look with their head coach’s timeline.
Which gets us to the elephant that recently squeezed through the door.
Adelman is one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history. He has 1,020 victories and has taken his teams to the playoffs 16 times in 25 seasons. But he happens to have a boss in Saunders who won 638 games and took 11 of his 16 teams to the postseason. When Saunders was hired last spring, he said he no longer craved the sideline and he can argue persuasively that he not only has a better, safer job now but a less consuming one as well.
From the start, Saunders has said the right things: “I will be the general manager that most coaches want. Because I understand what it is like to sit in that seat.” But he also has a distinctly different, more enthusiastic personality than Adelman. Saunders isn’t big on confrontations or conflicts but he’s a closer when it comes to confidence. His willingness to sell, sell, sell came through in a recent Q&A with MinnPost.com’s Britt Robson:
Part of coaching is managing frustration. Unfortunately that’s we have to do. We have to continually get ourselves up the next day and present a front to the players, a very confident front, a front that we are not in a panic situation.
Until they are, anyway.
So Minnesota finds itself in a predicament that is more than vaguely familiar. Nine years ago, a Wolves team desperate to improve on its prior year’s performance meandered through the season’s first half. A skid of seven losses in eight games left them one game under .500 (25-26), at which point the team’s general manager (Kevin McHale), with owner Glen Taylor‘s blessing, reluctantly fired the head coach and took over on the bench himself. Minnesota went 19-12 under McHale the rest of the way but it wasn’t enough; the Wolves finished ninth in the West and still haven’t been back to the playoffs.
Back then, Saunders was the coach. This time he’s the “GM that most coaches want,” but with a tiny sliver of minority ownership and an impatience with what’s playing out right now.
It might not happen and, given the pitfalls inherent in breaking down that today vs. tomorrow wall between administrating and coaching, it probably shouldn’t. But it has to be tempting in the midst of a malaise.