Friday, October 29, 2010

NBA Thoughts



The NBA season started this past Tuesday, and judging by the ratings that the Heat-Celtics game generated (it was the highest rated cable show in television history) most of you already knew that. Most teams however started on Wednesday night, including our hometown Timberwolves. I was interested to watch the Wolves, no doubt, but most of my NBA excitement centered on the Oklahoma City-Chicago game on ESPN. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and even Joakim Noah would usually be more than enough good players for me to tune in, but the fact that Cole Aldrich was also playing made it a can't miss game for me.

As most of you know, I've known Cole for quite a while. I was lucky enough to play with him on a few traveling* teams growing up and over the years we've gotten pretty close. I consider him a dear friend, so yes, even if he shot 0-58 in the NBA finals and committed six technical fouls that clearly cost his team the game, I wouldn't say anything bad about him at the time, and I especially wouldn't write anything bad about him on here. I don't have 'journalism ethics' guiding me, because, obviously I'm not a journalist. I write here because I enjoy it and I hope those of you who often read it as well feel the same way. I am absolutely biased towards Cole and always will be.

*I don't like that traveling can be spelled with one or two l's and be considered right either way. Spelling it with two l's looks strange to me, so I spell it with just one, but I think words should have one spelling. I'll gladly start adding the other l into the word if we can just settle on one spelling.

It was tough to watch the game on Wednesday and not see Cole play at all. From a strategic standpoint, I understand it. The Bulls only 'true center' is Noah, and he's more athletic than pretty much every true center in the league, so there's no doubting that there was never an ideal situation to give Cole the first minutes of his career. The game was also very close, so Thunder coach Scott Brooks did what he felt was best for his team. They ended up winning by 11, so there's no reason for anyone to second guess his decision. Cole will play and play plenty this season I think, so it's nothing to worry about. I think Cole's friends and family were more worried about it than Cole was himself, and to his credit when I talked to him after the game he was just happy they were 1-0. He knows he'll need to contribute in key situations during the year and he'll be ready when he's needed, there's no doubt in my mind.

It's worth noting that even the great Kobe Bryant didn't play at all in his first game. The Lakers began his rookie season with a 14-point victory over the Phoenix Suns. Kobe got his first minutes of the season in game 2, against the Wolves, playing six minutes in a six point win. He's arguably the best player in basketball, and there's simply no argument that he was the greatest player post-Jordan and pre-LeBron. No, I'm not saying Cole is the next Kobe; nobody is. There are differences in the situation, no doubt, but I bring up Kobe as an example because clearly it's not detrimental to a player's prospects if he doesn't play at all in his first game.

Cole will be needed to anchor the paint and bang down low in almost every game this year, and I fully expect him to see his first minutes tonight against the Pistons, who use Ben Wallace plenty still and that is a much better matchup for Cole than Noah would have been. Cole's playing time will fluctuate depending on the situation and how well he's playing, just like every rookie. However, this post isn't meant to discuss Cole, but rather to point out that while rookies minutes are usually jerked around by coaches, there's simply no excuse to do it with an established veteran player.

I've been fairly critical over the past few months of the Timberwolves decision making. When Glen Taylor first hired David Kahn, I was upset with the hire. Kahn's track record was terrible, and one of the teams he eventually left coined the phrase that they had been 'Kahned' into hiring him. Then Kahn traded Randy Foye and Mike Miller for the #5 pick in the draft, which turned into the hopefully great Ricky Rubio, and I was on board. Kahn traded away players like he was playing NBA Live, and considering how poor the Wolves roster was that was a good thing.

However, Kahn then decided to hire Kurt Rambis as the head coach. The decision seemed logical at the time; the team wanted to become a running team with the ability to play in the half court when necessary. Rambis had extensive knowledge of the 'Showtime Lakers' and the triangle offense, so on paper it seemed to make sense. Unfortunately, Rambis was hired after the Wolves had drafted Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry. Flynn's best skill was undoubtedly his pick and roll game, while Curry's best skill was his shooting. For those unfamiliar with the triangle offense, the pick and roll is frowned upon. It's an offense that relies on lots of cutting and good passing, and in turn is supposed to create lots of open shots for players. Even when the team would decide to run, Curry still seemed to be the better fit, because he would always be able to be a spot up three point shooter if nothing else. Flynn would need to drastically adjust his game to fit in the Rambis offense, and he would need to show things that he simply didn't show at Syracuse.

I like Jonny Flynn. He's not as bad as some of the more knowledgeable Wolves people I know seem to think, but being taken one spot ahead of Curry while Curry excels in Golden State's running system will always be a mistake. It was a mistake on draft night and it's looking worse and worse as the games are played.

Despite that drafting mistake, I was still pretty much on board with Kahn until this past off-season. I hated the trade that sent the #16 pick to Portland for Martell Webster, and that was before he was hurt and needed surgery. Some fans have said it was a great trade because Webster had a great pre-season. Yes, honestly, these fans think a great pre-season means that Webster is for sure going to be a good player for the Wolves. While I would love to be wrong, the fact is Webster has been in the league for five years and nothing he's done suggests he'll ever be anything more than a decent 7th or 8th man on a playoff team. Paying him $5MM a year for the next two years is foolish, especially when players of his caliber are available each and every off-season for about half of that.

I wasn't a fan of drafting Wes Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins, and while I wasn't as against the Darko signing as most people were, there's little doubt that drafting Cousins and spending the $5MM a year they gave Darko on a free agent wing man like Josh Childress would have made the team much better this season and likely a lot better into the future.

I cannot stand Kurt Rambis, though. He strikes me as someone who thinks he knows more about the game than he does because he's been around it for so long. The Wolves lost their season opener by one point on Wednesday, and there were certainly some positives. Luke Ridnour looked very good, quieting the doubters that said repeating last season's performance was virtually impossible, for at least one night. Anthony Tolliver played great in stretches. Even Sebastian Telfair, who at times looked lost, played a very good game. The Wolves new point guard tandem combined for 35 points and 12 assists, and just 5 turnovers. Wes Johnson looked good, despite getting just 18 minutes.

But there were a few negatives, too. Beasley shot the ball too much and didn't shoot particularly well. The most popular negative from the game though has been the playing time of Kevin Love. Love is probably the most underrated player in the NBA, and certainly the most underrated Minnesota athlete I can remember. Most fans hate him. Most fans still think it was a mistake to trade him for OJ Mayo.* Love isn't flashy. He looks like a fifty-year-old man when he runs up and down the court. He doesn't jump out of the gym, and while he has range all the way to the 3 point line, he doesn't shoot over people. He's very effective, but he's ugly to watch. I understand why fans don't like him, and given that he hasn't played enough to truly show his talents, I don't blame most fans for not understanding just how good Kevin Love really is.

*To those of you who think it was a mistake... you're wrong. Way wrong, actually. Love has been among the most efficient players in basketball over the last few years, and he's been the best rebounder per minute in the NBA. If the idiots that run the Wolves would just give the kid the 35 minutes a game he deserves, he'd be putting up some ridiculous stat lines some nights. He'd lead the league in rebounding by a pretty wide margin, which is saying something considering he's undersized for his position. And I haven't even mentioned that Mike Miller came over in the trade too, and he was a focal point of the trade that landed the Wolves Ricky Rubio. It was one of the few good trades McHale made.

Kurt Rambis continues to jerk Kevin Love around like he's a rookie who needs to earn his minutes. He said that benching Love in favor of Tolliver down the stretch wasn't because of anything Love did wrong but rather because Tolliver was playing so well. I won't disagree about Tolliver, because he was playing great. But Love certainly could have played at least half of the final eight minutes at center over Darko, right? Darko isn't a very good rebounder, and while he did block four shots, he was fairly brutal down the stretch. Even if Rambis wants to say the team is simply better defensively with Darko at center and Tolliver at the 4, not putting Love in for the final possession was the dumbest thing he did all night. The team was down 117-114 with about seven seconds left. They didn't have time to get a quick two and foul, they needed to tie it with a 3 on this possession. There likely wouldn't even be a chance for a rebound and another three point attempt; they were going to get one good shot at best.

So, it would only make sense that you'd have your best 3 point shooters on the floor, right? If nothing else, Rambis should have simply subbed Love in for Darko, since Love has the ability to stretch the floor far better than Milicic. The Wolves ultimately missed a game-tying three and the rebound was tipped in as time expired, and the only shot the Wolves had at being over .500 this year was squandered because of absolutely terrible coaching down the stretch.

This team will never be more than a 30-win team as long as Kurt Rambis is directing the ship. If I was Ricky Rubio I'd be telling my agent I either want to be traded to a team in a much better situation, or I just want to stay in Spain and continue to dominate that league. While the constant negative comments the national media is saying about the Wolves are getting old, there's no doubt that for the most part they are right. The Wolves are simply not headed in the right direction, and the only way Kahn and Rambis are going to have a winner during their time here is if they hit a homerun in the lottery next year AND Rubio decides to come over. Even then, I'm sure Rambis would find a way to screw up the playing time just enough to ensure our Wolves continued losing winnable games down the stretch.