The Timberwolves coach attempted to deploy a deeper bench. He wanted to give some of his younger, unproven players an early season shot at proving their worth. He hoped to maximize his starters’ output by keeping their legs fresher.
So far, 11 games into the season, it hasn’t worked. So rather than rotate in en masse, Adelman’s turned to mixing and matching.
More J.J., Robbie and Dante. Less Derrick, Alexey and Gorgui.
“It’s just something that we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with the bench trying to put four or five guys in at once,” Adelman said, “so I’ve been trying to just adjust that.”
Even after back-to-back stalwart performances from guard J.J. Barea and forward Dante Cunningham — arguably Minnesota’s two most proven backups coming into the year — the Timberwolves bench ranks last in the NBA in scoring (23.1 points per game) and 3-point percentage (22.4) and second-to-last in field-goal percentage (38.8). Not only is the second unit not producing points, but it’s not defending, either; opponents average 39.4 bench points against Minnesota, also a league-worst mark.
Both expected to fulfill flex roles, forward Derrick Williams and guard Alexey Shved have yet to earn Adelman’s trust. Center Ronny Turiaf’s elbow injury forced Gorgui Dieng into duty earlier than expected, and the rookie has struggled to stay out of foul trouble long enough to make an impact.
So Adelman, at least the past two games and for the immediate future, is paring down his bench. Against Denver and Boston this past weekend, only Barea, Cunningham and Hummel saw meaningful minutes in backup duty.
“I’ve been trying to work (the reserves) in with the starters,” Adelman said. “So they’re on the floor a little bit with them, and kind of shorten the rotation a little bit, for right now, and try to get guys in as I can.”
That requires heavy minutes out of the starting five and a bit of creativity on Adelman’s part. He’ll use Kevin Love at center and Cunningham at power forward to spell Nikola Pekovic, for example, while Barea and Ricky Rubio — both point guards, by trade — are spending more time on the floor together.
Count Barea as a primary beneficiary.
In situations where he’s helming an offense with Shved, Williams, and other currently third-tier subs, teams can zero in on the sleek, sweet-shooting point man. That caused Barea to attack when he shouldn’t, he said, while playing alongside Rubio, Love and/or Kevin Martin allows him to relax and play more to his strengths.
“I think I was a little bit overaggressive the first couple nights,” said Barea, who averaged 7.1 points during Minnesota’s first nine games but has scored 13 and 21 the past two. “Lately, I’ve just been taking my time, picking my spots a little bit better, under a control a little bit more, and it’s helping me out.”
Despite a different roster makeup that now includes Martin and Corey Brewer on the wing, Cunningham has stepped back into the role he manned during last year’s injury-riddled campaign — play both forward spots, defend opponents’ top scorers, hit those trademarked elbow jumpers.
He ranks first among Timberwolves reserves at 19.8 minutes per game and is shooting 44.1 percent from the floor.
“It just makes me feel like I’m doing something right,” Cunningham said when asked about Adelman’s confidence in him. “I kind of have a great home feeling here, and hopefully it lasts for a long, long time.”
Thus far, Cunningham has earned more playing time than Williams, who’s now under contract through 2015 after the team exercised its option on the fourth year of his rookie deal. President of basketball operations Flip Saunders insisted this offseason Williams could be a dangerous seventh- or eighth-man go-between at forward, but in eight appearances, the former No. 2 overall draft pick is shooting 39 percent from the floor in 16 minutes per game.
Instead, Love and Cunningham have locked up reps at the four, and when Corey Brewer needs a break, the job has gone to Hummel.
The same Hummel that played in Spain last year and had to scratch his way onto the 15-man roster this season.
“Robbie’s a smart player,” Barea said. “He knows how to play the game, and he plays hard. He don’t really need the ball. When he’s open, he’s gonna shoot it, but other than that, he’s gonna play defense, he’s gonna make the right pass, he’s gonna rebound, so I think he’s doing a great job.”
In Friday’s 117-113 loss at Denver, only Barea, Cunningham and Hummel saw time behind the starters. Barea and Cunningham totaled 33 points together, while six Nuggets backups — led by Wilson Chandler’s 19 points — combined to score 66.
A day later, Barea scored 13 and Cunningham 12 in a 106-88 victory over lowly Boston. It was the first time this year Minnesota’s bench outscored that of an adversary; previously, the Timberwolves hadn’t gotten closer than within 12 points of that feat.
“Good teams need a good bench,” Barea said after practice Monday. “We’ve got to keep it going. I think Robbie’s helping us, too, and me and Dante have been doing it for years. It’s looking a little bit better.”
The absences of Turiaf (right elbow fracture) and wing Chase Budinger (left-knee meniscus surgery) limit Adelman’s options. Budinger’s injury, in particular, leaves the Timberwolves rather thin on the wing.
It was hoped Alexey Shved could spell Martin periodically at the two, but Shved is playing too “frenzied,” as Adelman characterizes it, and has made five shots all season. Martin, a 10th-year pro who will turn 31 in February, consequently ranks second behind Love in minutes per game at 35.1.
Budinger’s return would help lighten that load, but he said Monday he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to come back. Coming into the year, he was expected to contend with Brewer for the starting small forward job, with the loser of that battle serving as a top-level call-in off the bench.
“It’s always difficult watching your team play and not being able to help,” Budinger said. “But our guys are doing a great job so far, and I’m very proud of them, and hope when I do come back I can increase our winning percentage and help our team in anyway.”
Fortunately for Adelman, he has two of the NBA’s top six scorers — Martin and Love — in his starting five, who together are playing 34 minutes per game. But the less production he can expect behind them, the more wear and tear they stand to incur.
And folks around here know all too well about wear and tear after last year, when Pekovic, Rubio, Love and Budinger all missed significant time with various ailments.
The sooner someone emerges as a tertiary boost, the better; the Timberwolves embarked Tuesday on the last of three five-games-in-seven days stretches of an arduous November slate, and December isn’t much easier.
“J.J., Dante and Robbie have all played well, and you have to keep giving people chances,” Adelman said Saturday after the Boston game. “It’s a long year, and we’re only 11 games into it. There’s 71 games to go, so guys have to stay with it. They have to stay in shape, and they’ve got to seize their opportunity when it’s given to them.”