OK, first things first: you can't win basketball games when you head into half time with 29% shooting, 5 assists, and 9 turnovers. The Wolves may have shown some grit and nice team work in the second half (the ball movement at various points was outstanding) but the first half was some of the most brutal ball we've seen all year. They couldn't hit the broadside of the barn, the offense was stagnant, and they were all-around sloppy.
As mentioned, in the second half we saw some sparks of life, mainly from the second unit. In a game where the Wolves lost by 8 and at one point were down by 18, Brian Cardinal ended up with a +13 in 16:32 of burn. In doing so, he provided a glimpse into the main issue that will plague this squad from here on out.
In his first stint on the floor, Cardinal was -2 while Kevin Love was on the bench and even with him on the floor. In his second stint, Cardinal was -2 with the Big Piranha taking a break and +10 with him on the floor. In his 3rd stint, Cardinal (with a bit of Mark Madsen) straight up subbed for Love for nearly 9 minutes of court time. This was immediately following Love's most effective stretch of ball following the half. Upon leaving the game after playing 5 minutes, Love did not enter the game until nearly 5 minutes to go in the game. We know that he's not a 35 mpg type of guy yet and that Craig Smith is coming back from injury, but come the hell on. Two points...
First, it's not like it's a surprise that Cardinal and Love play well together. The duo is +25 in 232 minutes. We know from the last month of play that Love has thrived playing alongside the injured Al Jefferson. Playing along side of Big Al, Love allowed the big fella to average 3 more points per game than he did alongside Smith while grabbing more rebounds and allowing the team to win at a higher clip. The team has a statistical track record of these things happening. They are not surprises. Even with the naked eye, you can probably figure out that Cardinal + Love is about as good as this front court gets right now.
Second, the problem the Wolves face with Big Al being out of action is not the set of minutes Kevin Love replaces. Whether the Big Piranha plays 25, 30, or 35 minutes, he is the Wolves' best all around player right now and he fills the stat sheet and hardwood with the most the team can muster in terms of efficiency and positively ended/extended possessions. The problem with Big Al's injury (outside of the fact it's a knee problem on a 6'10" 265 lbs man who runs and jumps for a living) is the stretch of 13, 18, or 23 minutes his position is manned by Brian Cardinal (less than optimal), Mark Madsen (even less than optimal), or Craig Smith (disaster). We'll continue to explore this little phenomenon as time wears on during the season but head on over to 82Games to check out the player duo page. Compare and contrast that data with the 5-man unit page. Smith + Cardinal or Smith + Love aren't the duos you want to see on the court for extended periods of time.
Speaking of Mr. Love, last night he scored 17 points on 7 shots. That's 2.428 points per shot. If you calculate shots as FGA + .5 * FTA, then he still made out with a well above average 1.307 points/shot. He combined this with (relatively) solid interior defense, 11 rebounds (4 offensive), and only 1 turnover. Which brings me to my final point: For me, and from here on out, judging this season's success will be determined by individual improvement. Can Love maintain his rebounding numbers while increasing his eFG and scoring efficiency? Can Bassy avoid situations like the one he found himself in at the end of last night's game and not give in to the temptation to take threes or fashion himself as the team's main offensive weapon on 3 consecutive possessions with the time running off the clock? Can Randy Foye impact his team in a positive manner when he is the lead guard? Despite his late game melt down (and the fact that he took 3 three pointers) Bassy was a neutral +/- while the team was -8 in the 15 minutes he was not running the point. Will the Wolves be able to develop a rotation that gives them the best chance to succeed in the minutes that Love cannot fill in the absence of Big Al? Will they pair Cardinal and Love as much as possible? Will they keep the Big Piranha in the high post or will they force feed him some Big Al positioning in the low left block?
Finally, Wolves fans should take this opportunity to thank former Puppy Mike James. James ended the night with a -1 while daggering the Wolves with late threes. In the middle of the game, James was especially putrid, giving up a -18 while offering little in terms of basketball prowess. His only FGMs of the night were long balls. He had zero rebounds and no steals. On top of giving the Wolves a chance at more ping pong balls with his well timed threes (which his team wouldn't have needed if he were a half way decent player who brought more to the court than long distance shooting) James' contract is one of the reasons why the Wiz are in salary cap hell and, should they be unable to move Antawn Jamison's contract, are staring smack dab in the face of this (taken from a comment I made over at Real GM):
I didn’t realize how badly the Wizards are over the cap. If the status quo remains, they enter next season with $76 mil in salaries. They could have a top 3 pick which would put them at $80 mil. The current lux tax projection is at $67.5 mil. That’s $12.5 mil in extra lux tax payments, which would put them at $92.5 mil for a s$%tty club with less than 20 wins. By moving James and Thomas, they can take $12 mil off the baseline number. With an addition of Smith, they get a nice young bench player and $10 mil off the mark, which puts them at $66 mil, or below the lux mark. Of course the lux mark could go lower. That would make it even more imperative for them to clear salary. As far as the Wolves are concerned, that money is already out the door and they are below the cap.
Making this deal could end up saving the owner of the team somewhere in the neighborhood $26 .5 mil. That’s not exactly chump change. Even if they get the top pick, is he worth that much? That’s a hard one to argue.
Mike James has a player option that will account for just over $6 mil of that number (i.e. $12 mil in total costs over the lux mark). If the Wiz stay their current course, they can't afford the number 1 pick. If they wait until after the season, they lose out on the benefits of expiring contracts. As much as I think James is a worthless player, he would become very attractive if he were attached to the Wiz's #1 pick. The Wolves should do the Wiz a favor if they can't find a suitor for Jamison. Trade Calvin Booth, Jason Collins, Craig Smith, Shaddy and the rights to Nikola Pekovic to the Wizards for Etan Thomas, Mike James, Juan Dixon, and their top pick. Hell, throw in the Utah pick if they want it. The Wiz and the Wolves are both on their way to top 5 picks. I don't care how thin this draft is perceived as being, increasing your chances to get Harden, Griffin, or (hopefully) Rubio is worth it...especially when you don't have to give up a whole lot to get it done.
BTW: What knucklehead GM gave James that ridiculous deal?