MINNEAPOLIS — Bill Bayno has ice taped to his back. Shawn Respert, sweating, jogging, in his warmups, is looking more like a player than anything else. And Terry Porter, in his suit, in front of the cameras, is running the show.
This is the state of the Timberwolves these days. There are too few players to practice and the coaches are too young not to jump in, even if their 40- and 50-year-old muscles aren’t quite up to the task. That’s what Porter has inherited for the past two weeks, with things going from bad to worse, shorthanded to downright untenable.
Porter has been here before. He’s been a head coach for the good part of three seasons, leading one Milwaukee team in 2004 to the playoffs and coaching another Phoenix squad to a 28-23 record in 2008-09 before being puzzlingly fired. But he’s never been here quite like this, on such short notice, with so little preparation and so vague a sense of control when injuries make control a very relative concept.
Porter stepped in as acting head coach of the Timberwolves on Jan. 7 when Rick Adelman departed to be with his ailing wife, and he coached the team to a surprise victory over the Hawks on Jan. 8 before accruing five straight losses amid mounting injuries. And even with Saturday’s improbable win, there’s still no way to hide the fact that this is a battered, shorthanded team.
First it was J.J. Barea out with back spasms, then Lazar Hayward, on a 10-day contract, getting ill and infecting several teammates. Then Alexey Shved sprained his ankle, Nikola Pekovic bruised his thigh, Dante Cunningham caught a bug, and here Porter and company stand, with two more 10-day contracts shipped in Saturday morning and an NBA injury exception in tow, staring down .500 still three games away.
“No one wants to be in a situation like this when someone has family issues,” Porter said. “You don’t want to be, but as far as our roster, it is what it is. The guys that we have on this roster understand it. . . . We have to keep believing and knowing that we have enough talent that can win games.”
If there’s a battle cry to this Terry Porter mini-era in Minnesota, it’s just that: it is what it is. Injuries are injuries, and you can’t stop them, but still somehow you have to find a way to start winning. That conundrum is about the extent of what’s being discussed these days at the Target Center: how exactly do you win with next to nothing?
So really, it’s impossible to evaluate Porter’s performance, not in any kind of informed manner. He’s 2-5, yes, which is hardly ideal, but it’s hard to imagine even Phil Jackson squeezing more than about three wins out of this battered bunch over the past two weeks. Ask David Kahn how Adelman’s backup is doing, and you’ll get that very sense.
“I think he’s holding up,” Kahn said. “It’s a tough situation for anybody, much less Terry. It happened out of the blue, no preparation. . . . So it’s hard. He’s the one who’s probably had to deal most with the absence of the roster as it was previously envisioned. He’s doing fine.”
Fine. Fine is high praise right now, and maybe the spike of Saturday has bumped the team up from desperate to fine. Maybe. Really, you can’t help feeling sorry for Porter. It’s not that he was waiting for this moment at the helm to assert his authority and make a statement — he seems just fine with his role as an assistant on Adelman’s staff — but anyone, when given power unexpectedly, wants to make the best of it. Especially when that someone’s boss is Adelman, one of the most respected coaches in the NBA, a coach whom his assistants trust and revere. In a perfect world, Adelman would hand the reins over, be by his wife’s side, and return to a team still very much in the early playoff picture.
This is not a perfect world.
Perhaps the worst thing about Porter’s tenure is that sheer impossibility of assessing him. He’s talking to Adelman twice a day, of course, and the coach’s influence is still everywhere, with no decision being made without his stamp of approval. Adelman’s name is peppered through press conferences and conversations — “Coach says . . .” — and Porter still considers himself the “vice president.” But there’s only so much influence a man can have when he views his team only through a television set, and Porter is having an influence, no matter how small or how twisted or how overshadowed by injuries. It’s just that no one can really see it, not with all the distractions and obstacles.
He’s starting Derrick Williams, which is something many thought Adelman would never do again, but apparently the coach gave that stamp of approval. He’s easing new players like Mickael Gelabale and Chris Johnson in, but with just a few hours between them joining the team and their first game, it’s hard to imagine Adelman would have done so in a more adept fashion. He’s leading shorthanded practices, which is really more an activity in creativity than basketball genius. He’s talking to the training staff, looking for a spark, making sure he doesn’t play Andrei Kirilenko 48 minutes by accident and induce the back spasm of all back spasms.
He’s in the locker room sometimes after games, more than Adelman ever has been, and he even cracks a few jokes. He talks promptly, for the most part, and at greater length than his boss. His face betrays a bit more, maybe, and his laughs are a shade less caustic than the head coach’s, even under the circumstances. He sits on the sideline more than he paces, and he lingers longer in some conversations. That’s the closest thing to a Terry Porter system that’s emerged in these recent games, these nuances and habits more noticeable than anything he could put in on the hardwood.
“You know, we just have to hold court,” Porter said. “I’m preparing like I have to prepare for every game to be the lead until we hear something different with his situation. It is just digging in and thinking of ways of how we can do different things, how we can tweak different things, to try to best fit the personnel we have.”
There isn’t too much nuance to Porter’s job right now, little room to exert his own ideas, even if he wanted to. With so many new players, simple is the guiding force in Minnesota these days, and with no long-term solutions coming or word of Adelman’s imminent return, it may stay that way for a while.
You’d be crazy to envy Terry Porter right now. But you’d also be crazy to criticize. The man is treading water with the fate of a team bearing down on his shoulders, and somehow, he’s still smiling.