MINNEAPOLIS — If you ask David Kahn, this was all about on-court improvement. The rest was a happy accident.
Kahn, the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations, isn’t lying. The increased skill level and deeper roster are there. But it doesn’t take long to see that there’s something else, too, that’s vastly different.
It’s some kind of accident that Minnesota managed to bring in two highly regarded veterans in Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko, who are known around the NBA as good teammates and leaders. It’s great luck, then, that the players who didn’t return were the ones who left the locker room first after losses, silent and not nearly angry enough.
So take Kahn’s words for what they’re worth, and everything else. The Timberwolves were looking for skill this offseason, but they also were looking for that magic extra quality, so hard to quantify, that makes a player into not only a talent, but a good teammate. Acquiring those players and losing the downers isn’t done by accident, and it’s made easier by the fact that the most skilled players are often the ones with that increased drive. Of course the intangibles weren’t Kahn’s primary focus — skill comes first — but this was an offseason of studied decisions, and the Timberwolves believe they’ve emerged not only with better players, but also with the potential for cohesion.
Right now, before anything organized has taken place on the court, after weeks of meeting one another and informal workouts, the buzz word isn’t talent. It’s chemistry.
There’s that knock on last season still lurking. J.J. Barea’s comments from April about players not caring about losing linger, and lessons from last year are abundant. The shortened season, with its young crop of players and new coach, was a crash course for the Timberwolves in the value of relationships and the consequences of a situation in which a team is not jelling. They know how bad it can get.
“I’m not saying our locker room was divided last year, but yeah, for some guys, they had a date circled on their calendar,” Love said. “And it wasn’t the one where, oh, this is going to be our first day of the playoffs. It was, oh, this is the day I get to go home. I don’t think we have any guys on our team like that this year.”
Anyone who went through last season with the Timberwolves, either watching or in that locker room, should be hesitant to discount the effects of chemistry. Sure, this is a sport in which raw talent trumps all, but for teams that can’t afford a lineup stacked with superstars — basically, the majority of the league — other things can facilitate winning. It’s one part talent, one part getting the most from that talent, and that’s where relationships and attitude enter the equation. No, those characteristics are not going to make a mediocre team great, but they can be that extra push that a team on the cusp of winning, like the Timberwolves, needs.
This matters for so many reasons. Things are going to be difficult, even with this improved team. The Western Conference playoff race will be a battle, and it’s going to be difficult even to eke out a No. 8 seed for many teams. Things are going to go wrong, and having a group of players who can handle that and build from it rather than shut down might be the biggest potential improvement from last year. This can’t be 13 or 14 individual efforts, like it often was last year. It has to be one unified group, and with so many new players, achieving that takes the right kind of people and a concerted effort.
“In Dallas, our chemistry was everything,” Barea said. “I think we did as much off the court as on the court. I think that helped us in the long run. I think that’s something we’re doing this year a lot better. We haven’t started yet, and we’ve hanged out more times together than all last year.”
Last season, Barea was perhaps the most vocal critic of his team’s attitude, and coach Rick Adelman supported his point guard’s perspective both in April and again Monday. Kevin Love jumped on that vocal bandwagon in the offseason, discussing bad blood in the locker room and the changes he strongly suggested the team make.
At the time of Barea’s comments, though, teammates shied away from saying anything too drastic. But now, six months later, it’s easy to see that having a guy like that on a team can be beneficial. Barea speaks in absolutes: Ricky Rubio is a winner. Kevin Love is a winner. He himself is a winner.
It’s bold, almost challenging. And instead of feeling insecure about such accusations and characterizations, if this team has the chemistry it claims to, players should think about little more than to strive to meet whatever expectations Barea and others throw out.
You wouldn’t think media day would be an opportunity to see evidence of relationships, not with players being ushered from here to there, often alone with just a handler, posing and being interrogated more than anything else. And yet somehow, these Timberwolves did it.
There was the expected: Love and Rubio palling around at the microphone, proving they’ve sharpened their two-man routine into a decent bit. The best part? It’s real. There was also the surprise: Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, who have a lot more in common than just Russia. Kirilenko translated at times, forcing Shved to speak English at others, and the two had as easy a rapport as Love and Rubio.
There’s no denying they’ve mastered chemistry behind the microphone. The next step is to bring it to the locker room, and nearly every player made it a priority to discuss that on Monday. There were those, such as Love, Rubio, Barea and Luke Ridnour, who still feel the sting of losing. Others, such as Roy, Greg Stiemsma and Kirilenko, are simply accustomed to winning at this level. For them, this whole chemistry bit is less of a concern and more of something that they expect will come naturally. It’s been building as players have trickled back to the Twin Cities over the past few weeks, and the building is about to become something. Or so they hope.
“Starting with tomorrow’s practice, this becomes less about what if than about what’s occurring,” Kahn said.
In a sense, the past year for the Timberwolves has been a monstrous what if. What if it had been a regular season, not one shortened and condensed by a lockout? What if Adelman had been able to implement his system in a full-length training camp? What if Rubio hadn’t gotten injured? These are the questions that nagged at everyone involved with last year’s team. Now, in Adelman’s second year in Minnesota, he’s getting his biggest chance at a new beginning yet. There are systems to learn and plays to diagram, roles to solidify and ceilings to determine.
It’s a promising beginning, and it won’t be without challenges. But if the Timberwolves can do it all as a group, this will be a whole lot easier. No one is out to get anyone. There’s no vague maligning of people or methods, not yet, no reason for any player to think that he’s the one that another is calling out. That all will happen at some point, most likely, but if the Timberwolves have the kind of chemistry they claim, the kind they seem intent on building, it’ll all be so much easier to weather.