Niesen: Bonding on the court -- and off it -- matters, and the Wolves seem to be on their way.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
MINNEAPOLIS – In the week and a half since Timberwolves media day, approximately 20,000 words about the team's chemistry and the difference it will make have been beamed across the Internet and plastered throughout newspapers. That's a lot of words about something that's the most vague and intangible element of basketball, and yet we continue to wonder and ask and write.
I'm as guilty of it as anyone, but after 10 days of wondering if the entire thing is a complete crock, I'm pretty sure it's not. This isn't just some sort of empty speech to pipe at the media, at least not in the Timberwolves' case, and their brand of chemistry might be just what this young, rebuilding team needs.
In Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, the author recounts a trip to Las Vegas in which he, in a somewhat awkward run-in with Isiah Thomas, asks the former Piston to reveal what he'd been hinting at in Cameron Stauth's book The Franchise when he said he knew the secret of winning basketball. Thomas had never fully spelled it out, and nearly two decades later, Simmons asked him point-blank what it was.
Thomas' answer: The secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball.
It's easy to apply that to the Timberwolves mantra of chemistry, chemistry, chemistry. As easy as it is to discount such a statement, there's no denying that success goes beyond just talent on the court. If it didn't, why else would the Timberwolves have dumped two former No. 2 overall picks this offseason, players who have raw skills but have never yet stuck with a team? Why would they have added veterans known for their presence in the clubhouse? Why else would Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea have organized a team dinner at downtown Minneapolis steakhouse Manny's?
They did it because this stuff matters, and they did it because they know how tough things can be without chemistry. They've seen a locker room that's fragmented, if not divided, and the end of last season was anything but fun. In fact, it had to have been miserable, and nobody wants to get back to that point. There are too many uncontrollable factors that can doom a team, but chemistry – that, they can control.
These days, there's a different feeling in Minneapolis. Coach Rick Adelman is smiling, a sight that became rarer and rarer in the weeks after Rubio's injury last March. There are high fives and team chants. There's a certain cohesiveness that we saw glimpses of last season, which now has a chance to color a team.
But the Timberwolves have not yet been tested. They've gone to a steak dinner, yes, and hung out at night. They've gone paintballing. But those are just the trappings. Steak dinners are just steak dinners without more than a superficial approach to all this, and paintballing is just a chance to get bruised. Therein lies the skeptic's argument, and right now, it's impossible to refute. There needs to be games and problems and trials before anyone can say that the Timberwolves have chemistry or that it's helped them.
But for now, let's not discount it. Perhaps there's no need for 20,000 more words on it (other than these, of course), but let's acknowledge that maybe this chemistry thing can work. It's coming from the right places, from team leaders like Love and Rubio and the most disgruntled loser of last season, Barea. It's probably coming from other sources, too, like Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko, who are elite – or once-elite, that too remains to be seen – players accustomed to winning.
This early chemistry goes beyond just the trappings, though. It has translated into practices, which have been energetic if not perfect. The sentiment behind it is right, too, at least from Love. To have this chemistry is to function as a team, and though every successful team has its superstar, that superstar must know he's nothing without everyone else. It takes selflessness and sacrifices, and that's where it gets tough. For true chemistry, players must sacrifice their own objectives for that of the team, and it can often be most difficult for the players with the highest potential.
Not so on the Timberwolves, at least according to Kevin Love.
"If I have to sacrifice points for our team to win, so be it," Love said. "I don't think it's going to drop too much. Coach still says I'm going to be a large focal point of this offense, but he wants me to look for passes a lot more."
This coming from the man who's accustomed to carrying a team, albeit through difficulty and losses. He will still carry it, though perhaps through different circumstances, but his do-it-all attitude could be a tough habit to break. Early signs, though, say he's handling it.
"You're going to ride or die," Love said. "Blood, sweat and tears are going to go into every play. You're going to help your teammates, and your teammates are going to want to help you. We just want to get a real family atmosphere right from the get-go."
Love might not want to relinquish his statistics, and he might not have to. But he also understands there are more than just points and rebounds, and to be a great team, the Timberwolves must use him in the way that most benefits them, not his chances at the NBA scoring title.
So the Timberwolves have their selfless superstar, and they have their supporting cast. They have their intentions of chemistry and the framework to build it. Now, it must grow. There's no way to describe how that will happen or what exactly the Timberwolves will need to form a cohesive group, but on Tuesday, a trick of little more than language and translation hinted at it.
"Don't forget, this is a young team," Kirilenko said. "Not age-wise, but with new faces. It's a new team."
It's a young team in that it, the unit of these 14 players, is so newly formed. Kirilenko is phrasing it as such, not as a collection of players, but as this young, indivisible thing, and there's really no better way to look at it. The Timberwolves, as this new unit, are in a stage of infancy, and right now, the dinners and jokes and silly bonding activities matter. This intangible chemistry matters, at least until proven otherwise. The Timberwolves are in the first stages of growing up.