It’s common to hear about the “blueprint” of a team’s success, about how a coach is the “architect” of that success, how a key player is a “building block.” But I’m not an architect, I’m a writer, and last night’s Timberwolves’ win over the Spurs had me thinking about a team as a novel, with various stages in their development as drafts.
As someone in the throes of finishing his MFA thesis in creative writing, I feel I know a few things about rough drafts—even if I still don’t really know how to get to a genuine final draft. If all you’ve ever written are papers for school, you’re lucky if you ever got some sense of how to truly write a rough draft. If you’re like me, you probably wrote a “rough” draft, lightly edited it, and called it final. But what I’ve learned from working in fiction is that turning a rough draft into a final draft doesn’t mean just taking out the bad and leaving the good; it means sacrificing the good to achieve the great.
It means that all the pieces have to work together, and that’s something that’s never happening in a complete way in a rough draft. Take the Timberwolves of last season as an example. The team had assembled a lot of parts, but it was never clear how they were going to add up to something greater. It was assumed that Wes Johnson was a key piece because he was a high draft pick. Michael Beasley had all the elements that should make him an essential offensive weapon. Darko Milicic was a still-promising veteran who could block shots and score well on a good night. And on and on: so many pieces that could be the right fit, depending. Jonny Flynn, Wayne Ellington, Martell Webster.
But the trick is that any individual good piece of a novel—a great scene, some dialogue that clearly defines the relationship between two key characters, a fantastic chapter—only matters if it works in the novel as a whole, and that requires knowing what the story is about. And the Timberwolves under Rambis had no idea what the story was. Depending on the situation, different parts could look great, even compelling, as Beasley did before he tweaked his ankle, as Love did when he got 31 points and 31 rebounds. But how were they going to make sense together?
The Wolves are not at the final draft this season. Not by a long shot. It goes without saying that championship teams are almost always final draft teams. They’re the teams with rock solid primary and secondary options, but also guys like Bruce Bowen, Derek Fisher, John Paxson, heck, even Mark Madsen (maybe, maybe not)—guys who on another team might not make sense. If players like Kobe and Jordan are the parts that everyone quotes—the “boats … borne back ceaselessly into the past”—those other guys are the parts that do the hard work of characterization, of moving the plot forward. They make sense because they make the whole thing make sense.
This season, the Timberwolves are looking more and more like a good second or third draft. Beasley returned from his sprained foot last night, playing 22 minutes and scoring 7 points but only shooting 27%. There were the head fakes and jab steps and spinning fadeaways that still managed to fall, sometimes. There was even a drive to the hoop that resulted in free throws, and he even passed the ball once. Sure, it resulted in a turnover, but it was a pass, dammit. Beasley can be a fun and electrifying player, and it was good to see him back on the floor. But he needs to be cut from the final draft of this team.
That fact and many others came into clearer focus in the fourth quarter. The Spurs and Wolves were tied at 64 heading into the final frame, and the game to that point was reminiscent of the game against the Kings two weeks before where Minnesota just couldn’t put the hammer down through three quarters. Forgetting for a moment the disparity in quality between the Spurs (12-8) and Kings (6-13), the question was: could the Timberwolves once again clamp down and beat a team they had managed but not dominated for three quarters?
They did, holding the Spurs to 15 points, and this is where this draft of the story started coming into focus. Wayne Ellington made sense in the fourth quarter off the bench. He only scored four measly points, but his energy has increasingly worked well with Rubio’s style. For all of Nikola Pekovic’s shortcomings with regard to traveling and offensive and defensive fouls and three-second calls, his bullying, physical style works better for this team than Darko’s neutral, workmanlike efforts in the paint. Ridnour works much better as a secondary point guard and occasional floor general when Rubio is getting a breather.
The cohesion the Timberwolves showed in the fourth quarter is evidence of the team beginning to make sense. Whatever their individual abilities, Darko, Wes, and Beasley don’t seem destined for inclusion in the final draft. The guys like Webster, Ellington, Pekovic, and Tolliver provide better support for the main characters—Love and Rubio—here. And so the Timberwolves need to keep rewriting and refining but at least in this second or perhaps third draft, there’s a glimmer of hope that they’re working on something closer to The Great Gatsby than A Shore Thing.