Something epic happened at the start of the second half in last night’s Bulls/Timberwolves tilt. Anyone who’s been following the Timberwolves through the first ten games of the season knows the basic drill: The starting lineup takes the floor and proceeds to sleepwalk their way to a roughly ten-point deficit before Rubio, Tolliver, and Randolph come in and help the team clamber back up to a one-possession game before the half. Then the starters trot back out and foul it all up to start the third. With Beasley out with a mid-ankle sprain, Wayne Ellington’s been starting at the 2 with Wes at the 3, but it was pretty much the same thing last night.
But last night the deficit was even greater. At the end of the first, it was 17-33 Bulls. Before you knew it, it was 24-48 and the Bulls were outscoring the Timberwolves at a consistent 2-1 clip. But then a miraculous run brought the Timberwolves within 6 at the half. At the time, I commented on Twitter that if the starters came back out for the third we should riot. Tim Allen from Canishoopus replied that we knew it was going to happen. But then, amazingly, Adelman brought back the unit that had sparked the comeback. And yeah, the Wolves still ended up losing to the Bulls, but until they started taking desperation 3s at the end, they kept the deficit to around 6 points for the remainder of the game.
Now I’m trying to take the long view this season. A lot of people are calling for guys to be benched or started or deported to Tunisia (ahem), but I’m trying to see this from Adelman’s perspective. We, as fans, want to treat players like number generators, or even action figures. When we clearly have a cooler action figure in the toybox, we want to pull it out and plug it right into our Hoth playset. But Adelman is a new coach dealing with a team that was asked to learn a convoluted and doomed offensive system which also ran counter to the skills of the players asked to execute it. Wes Johnson is just broken right now, but I don’t think beyond repair if he’s sent to the bench and tasked with focusing on defense and rebounding. It’s increasingly clear that Darko’s lumbering, soft, left-handed hook shot game is ill-suited to working with Rubio’s blazing passing; Ricky’s much better served by bigs who will step out and hit midrange jumpers (Anthony Randolph, when he’s not losing his mind) or three-pointers (Tolliver, often, but not all the time yet and, obviously, Love). Beasley’s injury looks like it might be a blessing in disguise since he seems incapable of doing anything other than stopping the ball and jab stepping his way into a contested midrange jumper. I often wonder what part of the brain is responsible for understanding that getting to the rim gets better results than said jumpers, and why Beasley is missing that part of his brain.
But these guys (Wes, Darko, Beasley) are starters, and being a starter is a VERY IMPORTANT thing to basketball players. And why not? Up until getting to the NBA, almost all NBA players—even the scrubby ones—were the best or one of the best players on every team they had ever played on. And I’m convinced Adelman’s recalcitrance with regard to keeping them as starters has to do with making an indisputable case to the players themselves that a change needs to happen. To simplify dramatically, it seems like what players understand is two things: winning and playing time. Experiences like last night against the Bulls—where the bench clearly wins out over the starters and the team falls short—are the only way to convince players that winning matters more than starting. Adelman can’t hold onto authority by running the team on whims; his case with the players must be airtight and evidence-based.
All of that is easy to forget for fans as we watch the team struggle. But Adelman has to take the long view, and I think he’s right to look at this shortened season as a chance to see what he has and assess what he needs. As frustrating as it can be for a fan, this season is the laboratory for the Timberwolves.