It was a busy day yesterday for yours truly so I'd like to write a few words about the contest against Charlotte before I move on to the ostrich in the room.
Each and every Wolves fan left should be well aware of the fact that this team is a Mike-Miller-shot-with-0.1-seconds-on-the-clock-against-the-worst-franchise-in-professional sports-not-named-the-Detroit-Lions away from being an absolute catastrophe.
Against Charlotte, the squad played like the 3-13 mess it probably should be. (As a quick side note: Earlier in the year I wrote that this team was not a 4 win club; it was shooting poorly and playing a style of ball ill-fit to its personnel. I didn't take into account that I should have seen the warning signs that this is simply another McHale creation that will only drive more and more fans away from the organization.) Before the Charlotte game, and more importantly after a game in which they were annihilated at the free throw line, Randy Wittman complained that his team wasn't being aggressive enough, and that players needed to get to the line more. I.e. they need to drive the lane. In theory, this isn't all that bad of an idea. I have written many times about the fact that the Wolves had the league's worst FTA/FTM differential in the 07/08 season and it cost them upwards of 6 points per game. I have also written about how the Wolves lack a true point guard and are instead populated with a series of players not named Al that are built for up-tempo ball with lots of in-and-out/high-and-low action. The players that are capable of driving the lane are either not that good at dumping it off, can't go right, can't shoot over anyone over 6'6", can't make the shot even if they could, or take 5 seconds to set up whatever sort of herky-jerky drive they will take towards the bucket. In other words, we're still talking about a gap between system and personnel and, in this case, perhaps between tactics and strategy.
Charlotte beat the Wolves by running what looks to be "the book" defense against Al Jefferson. Wolves fans can get used to seeing this for the rest of the season. We'll talk about it in a future post but it is something the big fella has seen for about three games in a row now (and on a few occasions before when it really mattered).
Against the 'Cats, the Wolves took a grand total of 75 shots. It was a stunning display of poor, boring, and uninspired basketball in a game where the win was there for the taking against an equally poor team. In their wins, the Wolves are averaging 80.8 shots per contest. In their losses they are averaging 86.3. At first I thought that this was some sort of mistake but when you take into consideration overtime losses against San Antonio (106 shots) and Golden State (110), the Wolves are simply a moderately paced team that doesn't make a lot of its shots. To be fair to Witt, he's running a team of jump shooters that simply aren't making their jumpers and who are 26th in the league in eFG%. To be really, really fair to Witt, perhaps he has it exactly right. Perhaps he's simply leading a poor shooting team whose only chance to win is to keep the pace as slow as possible and to generate early FT bonuses in hopes to slow the game down even further and distract attention away from the fact that guys like Randy Foye, Rashad McCants, and Ryan Gomes really aren't good perimeter players. Maybe we stat-head fans simply got ahead of ourselves with the idea that if you simply surround Big Al with a bunch of guys who can shoot from the outside to the tune of 40% from beyond the arc, things will be OK; paying more attention to quantity than quality; especially in terms of where, when, and how guys like 4th Quarter and Shaddy get off their shots. Maybe we were wrong about just how useful these players were, and would be, in an in-and-out/high-and-low system. We'll save the doubt post for another day. Instead, let's take some time to talk about the real problem with this team, the Iron Ranger. Before I do, I would like to point out something from over at Britt's place:
"At the start of the game, we didn't get good guard play," Wittman said to Hughes and other assembled media in Charlotte. "We turned it over. We weren't into things. The right people weren't getting touches early on. When you turn it over, you can't get your defense set... We've got to start finding some veteran guys who can follow the gameplan and what we want done. You can't do it selectively... I thought we needed to get Randy off the ball and let Kevin [Ollie] run the show and I thought he did a great job of getting us into things. And Randy became more aggressive. He got to the free throw line. He was a different player than he was after that first half."
Don't think for a second that the "off the ball" comment wasn't directed squarely at the front office. I'm becoming more and more of the belief that Witt is actively trying to force McHale's hand. At this point in the season there is such an obvious gap between system and personnel that any change would either have to do with making a trade (admitting the personnel isn't adequate) or firing the coach (which would do nothing in the long run without changing the front office). Witt is walking a fine line here. On one hand, I love nothing more than thinly veiled shots at the personnel decisions of this team from someone inside of the Country Club. On the other hand, I've worked for bosses like this before and he's probably a few "they aren't following the system" comments away from open revolt amongst his players. He's already a Bobby Knight style coach who yanks players for looking at the scoreboard the wrong way and I can't imagine that free range tweaking in the media will do much more for the players' confidence or their performance. One really has to wonder just how much Papa Glen's promise of employment is worth. Is it worth enough to win a battle with the guy with ugly sweaters? We'll just have to wait and see. Jerry Zgoda takes this point to its obvious conclusion in today's column:
Afterward, coach Randy Wittman said he might need to rely on his veterans to find somebody -- anybody -- willing and able to follow that evening's game plan.
His answer begs a couple of questions: Was it another motivational salvo fired across his young team's collective bow or a solution that is the ultimate indictment of a franchise that has traded away Kevin Garnett, Brandon Roy and O.J. Mayo for a mismatched collection of players who have won four times in their first 16 games?
And if Cardinal, Ollie and Jason Collins are the best they have, isn't this outfit in big, big trouble?
Finally getting around to the Iron Ranger, let's say for a moment that McHale makes a deal. At this point in his career McHale is little more than a gambling junkie doubling down on dwindling resources. KG has been exchanged for Big Al. Spree and Sam were swapped out for Ricky Davis and Mike James, who have since been flipped for Randy Foye and a player to be named later. Trenton Hassell has morphed into Corey Brewer; Marko Jaric now runs around with long hair and stories about the Corn Palace; you get the picture. I've written numerous times about how McHale's entire basketball world view is encased in the amber of the 86 Celtics, and that any personnel decision he makes can be viewed in terms as what player is closest to Larry, Danny, and so on and so forth. What I haven't mentioned is that McHale's post-KG career with the Wolves is little more than him trying to recreate 04 with nothing but table scraps. It's pretty hard to argue against this point. He's gone through coach after coach after soon-to-be-coach to make this 04 blueprint work. There are new ad campaigns and players on the court, but it all boils down to the second verse being exactly the same as the first.
This team continues to poke its fans in the eye with an increasingly incompetent storyline: old players are cashed out for lesser versions of themselves, draft picks are either mismatched or misused, and the ones who got away (Josh Howard, Danny Granger, Brandon Roy, Thad Young, OJ Mayo) act like salt in an open wound. Meanwhile, it's always the coach's fault for being unable to make the motley crew work. Flip wasn't able to square the circle, Dwayne wasn't a member of the Country Club, and Randy is about to be exposed as a failure for being unable to put together the pieces that only fit inside the Iron Ranger's mind. Team commercial spokesmen are also not immune to the constant downgrading of McHale's leadership, as Sweetwater Jones has morphed into Don Overbeck. Next year, after the team takes yet another player that doesn't fit the system or existing personnel, we'll have to watch commercials with Pappy Thompson, a 50s era reject with thick glasses and tight shorts who talks about the good ol' days at the Minneapolis armory. Even things out of the team's control follow a sick pattern. First it was Shaddy, then Foye, and now Corey Brewer is missing a significant portion of his 2nd year with a severe injury. K-Love better come out in a protective cocoon in his sophomore season.
Something needs to change. I'm fairly certain it will be a trade or a coaching move, but we remaining fans all know what needs to be done. The issue here isn't Witt (although it may be if he continues on his current path of not trusting players and calling them out in the press). The issue here isn't bad shooting or poor defending post players. It's Kevin McHale. Period. This front office needs to be cleaned out and the furniture bleached of the stench. I am rapidly approaching a point of no return with this club. I find it hard to even watch the games anymore. What is the point if the same crew that crashed the car is going to be the ones behind the wheel with up to 4 1st rounders and a bucket of free agent money? These clowns have been blowing drafts all the way back to 1999. They've been overpaying players since Wally. They've been signing the wrong free agents since T-Hud. Even if they get lucky (and they've been lucky before with Mr. Roy and Mr. Granger landing in their laps), they won't get it right. Even if they change coaches, they won't get it right. Even if they land a free agent, they won't get it right. At what point is enough enough? Fire McHale, blow it up, start over before it's too late.
UPDATE: I crossed out the "blow it up" part as it was a bit ambiguous with its distinction between personnel and front office. Midlife Crisis hits the nail on the head with a comment from a previous post:
I’m pretty worried about the future of this franchise when the best that the most obsessed fans can hope for is blowing up the team again, and leaving ourselves another tier down talentwise and again hoping for what, exactly. A top star moving to a small market in an ice cold town with a front office that shipped out then flamed the best nba player (by a long long ways) to ever grace this franchise. Or are we hoping that Ricky Rubio will have a bigger impact than Lebron James.
That's spot on and I'm, admittedly, guilty as charged. Speaking for myself, the "blow-it-up" attitude comes from years of being poked in the eye by the only team I really pay attention to. I have zero idea where they are going and zero faith that they can get there. When I step back from it and get as detached as possible, I can say that this team needs a new front office with a fresh set of eyes. I really am convinced that guys like Miller, Love, Jefferson, Gomes, Brewer and Foye can exist on a winning team. You may be talking about 4 bench players and 2 starters, but they're not bad players and some of them could have value to make a necessary move. This team just needs to have the Country Club blown up. My main disagreement with MC's post is that McHale, by himself, is a constant downgrade machine. By the simple virtue of him running the ship, you get a lesser version of what this team should be. From coaching to personnel to marketing to whatever, this team suffers under his leadership. Papa Glen deserves his fair share of the blame here. Ultimately, the buck stops with him and his refusal to do what needs to be done is a big problem with this team and it continues to downgrade the product and move more fans to the exits with each passing season.
UPDATE ii: I forgot to mention it, but on the way to the gym to watch the 2nd 1/2 while on the treadmill I tuned into local Wolves affiliate 1420 KTOE to listen to the game. Instead of hearing the Wolves v Cats in Papa Glen's hometown, I was treated to the world famous Bethany vs. Luther College tilt from Iowa. Awesome.
UPDATE iii: Inspired by an Andy G comment from an earlier post, I present to you an illustrated history of being a Wolves fan:
With each and every move we talk ourselves into believing, the ball gets pulled away yet again. First it was Ebi, then McCants over Granger, then Foye over Roy, then Brewer over Young...it's now Love v. Mayo and while I still think the deal was a one-sided win for the Wolves, I have a nagging feeling that I may just be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome rather than having a solid b-ball take on the deal that went down.
UPDATE iv: Sterno has some excellent things to say in the comments:
This is where I think my fandom will hang in the balance: if they go with Hoiberg, i think i’m done the Wolves after 20 years. It will be hard, given I generally ike the NBA and have had many great times at Wolves’ games, but life is too short and tix are too expensive.
However, if they step outside the organiation, and hire a real GM, things could look up. New blood. A lot of draft picks. Cap flexibility. Some young players with potential. One of the best low-post scorers in the league. Another frontcourt player who SHOULD compliment the low post scorer on the offensive end. So what if you don’t want to play up for a Van Gundy or a E. Jordan or F. Saunders (not that I like any of those guys anyway)? Why wouldn’t a quality assistant want to start with those assets?
We’re 20% into the season and my only hope is that we have total regime change. Not where I want to be.
Over at Britt's place, A.K. has another interesting nugget:
One of the inducements this season for season ticket holders is the perfect attendance "contest". As long as at least one of an account holders' tickets gets punched for each game they remain eligible for prizes. Through eight home games, only 656 account holders are still eligible. The Wolves already have STH's money - this is about reducing empty seat syndrome.
Think about that - only 656 account holders have gone or found a use for their tickets less than 20% through the season. That's probably competitive with the Swarm. And yet the status quo drumbeat goes on.
I'd be willing to bet that the Swarm average more fans per contest than the Wolves this year. Last year they averaged 11,405 per home game. Is this the year Lacrosse eclipses basketball in the hearts and minds of Minnesota sports fans? I kid but only a little.