Wolves’ rotation problems have confounded Adelman
MINNEAPOLIS — Anyone who’s attended, watched or caught up on highlights of a Timberwolves game this season has seen it.
That classic Rick Adelman expression. Palms turned skyward, arms outstretched, eyes widened in befuddlement. A call he doesn’t agree with draws it. So does an erratic Alexey Shved air ball.
And after trying — and failing — all season to establish an effective mix of personnel, the 23rd-year head man has to at least raise those gray eyebrows and be tempted to throw his hands in the air every time the need for a sub arises.
He’s spent the entire season, which is now down to 13 games with no realistic postseason hopes, banging his head against the wall, he said.
"That’s how I feel," Adelman said. "I’ve always had an eight or nine-man rotation, and the guys played the minutes, and that’s it.
"This year, it just seems like we have a good game then — it could be one half to the next half. That’s been the hard part, trusting what’s going to come."
While the issues are many, the result is singular. There’s a small handful of guys on the Timberwolves’ roster their coach truly trusts.
It’s an obvious list that starts with Kevins and ends with Pekovic. Ricky Rubio’s the only viable starting point guard at Adelman’s disposal, and giving Corey Brewer the bulk of the minutes at small forward hasn’t been a controversial decision thanks to Chase Budinger’s snail-pace recovery from his second meniscus surgery in a year.
But behind the easily apparent starting five, Minnesota’s presented its coach a different conundrum on a nightly basis. One night, the Timberwolves’ bench catches fire in the second quarter, only to yield a game-turning run to start the fourth. The next, the bench will play admirably but fall short of erasing whatever deficit a lackluster start from which the starters have suffered.
Adelman’s played Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Rubio and Brewer heavy minutes this year, enough to wear down Love and erode Pekovic into missing the entire month of February and, now, the second half of March. Rookies Shabazz Muhammad, Robbie Hummel and Gorgui Dieng have had their moments in injury-borne opportunities. Veteran reserves J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham, too.
But among the injuries and the second unit’s unreliability, the NBA’s winningest active head man has constantly hunted for a substitution pattern that produces consistent results.
He’s still looking.
"I’ve been searching," Adelman said. "I’ve been in this business a long time. I understand if the coach doesn’t win they’re not going to be there very long. Whoever I feel can win the game for us, that’s who I play, but I also understand maybe right now, there hasn’t been an answer."
And even if he was to unearth one between now and the team’s final regular season game April 16, it’ll be too late.
The Timberwolves’ point guard situation offers prime illustration of their 2013-14 volatility. Rubio’s shortcomings have been documented exhaustively; he’s second in the league in steals per game (2.4) and fourth in assists per game (8.5) but can’t yet shoot effectively (37.6 percent from the field, 9.1 points per game) to be deemed a top-tier point guard.
Behind him, Barea’s had perhaps the most up-and-down season of his eight-year career. With Rubio fully healthy for the first time, Barea’s minutes are down to 18.3 points per game — the fewest since his second-to-last year in Dallas — and his 8.8 points a contest are the fewest he’s scored since signing with the Timberwolves as a free agent in 2011.
The 3-point shooting he can provide hasn’t been there, either; he’s shooting 32.5 percent from beyond the arc, the lowest mark since his rookie year, and has a knack for missing badly in key moments. He’s shooting 20.2 percent from 3 in the fourth quarter and has missed 11 of 17 shots in the final 3 minutes of games this season.
But Adelman’s had a hard time leaving Rubio on the floor in clutch situations, especially during the middle part of the season.
Several decisions to instead play Barea late drew scorn. But Adelman responded the same way every time.
"I play whoever I think gives us the best chance to win," Adelman’s said repeatedly this season.
His job’s become even more difficult in the past week with Barea (sprained left foot) and little-used A.J. Price (recovering from an emergency appendectomy) out of the lineup. That leaves Shved as the team’s only point-guard option behind Rubio.
Giving Martin and Brewer more than 32 minutes per game, even at their somewhat-advanced ages, is more of a no-brainer. Brought in to produce points and knock down triples, Martin’s scoring 19.3 points per game and shooting 38.5 percent from 3-point range. Brewer was signed using the team’s midlevel exception to be a pesky defender and produce points in transition — he’s done both, scoring 11.6 points a contest and ranking 14th in the league in steals (1.6 per game).
But Brewer got the starting job when Budinger went down in the preseason and has held onto it as Budinger labors through a seemingly never-ending recovery process. The potential sharpshooter averages 17.9 minutes, six points and 0.9 3s made per game — all career lows.
Behind them, Shved, Shabazz Muhammad, Robbie Hummel and, at times, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute have manned the wing. But none have done so concertedly enough at the end of the floor to become part of that eight- to nine-man contingent Adelman prefers.
Dante Cunningham is right there as Love’s primary backup or frontcourt mate when Minnesota goes small. But, like Mbah a Moute, he possesses a limited, niche skill set — midrange jumpers, solid picks and an occasional block that makes opposing scorers think twice.
Mbah a Moute is even more one-dimensional; the defensive specialist that can play both the wing and the post is scoring 7.7 points per game since joining the Timberwolves in exchange for Derrick Williams in November.
Only when Adelman sees a favorable matchup has Mbah a Moute seen extended playing time, a trend the player admits is frustrating. For example, he played 24 minutes, 35 seconds last Thursday at Houston — his largest workload since mid-February.
In the two games since then, he earned a DNP and played 8:27.
"I went with Luc (against the Rockets) because of (James) Harden," Adelman said. "He can guard him. He’s done great guarding him before. But sooner or later, you’ve just got to say ‘Listen, whoever we’re gonna go with, we’re gonna go with.’ You have to go out there, and you’re gonna have to learn what’s going on."
That’s been the requirement for Gorgui Dieng, who has double-doubles in four of five starts since Pekovic re-exited the lineup March 16 due to his latest ankle flare-up. Backup Ronny Turiaf has been out since Feb. 19 with a bone bruise in his right knee.
But Minnesota is managing with Dieng in the frontcourt. He’s shot 54.5 percent in his past six games, and his 18.2 rebounds per 48 minutes played rank 10th in the NBA.
Given how confounding this campaign’s been, Adelman joked he expects Pekovic and Turiaf to return on the same day, throwing a wrench into whatever plans he’ll have had for his rookie center.
"Then what do I do with G?" Adelman quipped. "If you have a suggestion, let me know. That’s going to happen. They’re both going to come back in the same game."
But it’s not just about deciding on a starting lineup (which, by the way, hasn’t suddenly become difficult; Dieng’s played well, but he’s no Pekovic). It’s about discovering and using combinations of player that can be effective together and against a certain opponent.
When an adversary goes small, for example, Adelman’s been wont to use a three-guard lineup of Rubio, Barea and Martin and play Love at the five. When he needs Mbah a Moute on the floor as a stopper, Martin or another scorer enters to mitigate the drop-off in offensive firepower.
But none of the old chess master’s moves have resulted in enough checkmates. Monday’s loss at Memphis dropped the Timberwolves (34-35) back below .500 and further assured the NBA’s longest active playoff drought will reach its 10th year.
There are few puzzles Adelman hasn’t been able to solve in amassing more than 1,000 wins and taking teams to the postseason in 16 of his 22 seasons in charge of a club.
But this one, he admits, will probably always remain a mystery, no matter how much he tinkers with players’ minutes.
"It’s just been a very difficult year," said Adelman, who along with Minnesota has an option on his contract following this season. "I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced — it’s not like you want to do it that way. It’s not fair to guys, but you’re trying to find ways to win games."
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