After a brilliant start to the season going 4-1 with two of the four best players on the team in street clothes, the Wolves have lost 5 in a row and have skidded to 5-7. From what I have seen, there are a few simple explanations for this slump and a few easy things we can to do to right the ship.
While the “Chicken or the Egg” question can be argued here, I think the first thing that has hurt us is our wings missing shots from outside. Over the first 6 games we went a lousy 27 for 95 from outside for a pathetic 28.4% from 3-point range. Over the last 6 games, we have gone 34 for 125 for an even worse 27.2% from 3-point range. We are dead last in the NBA at 27.7% from outside, and we are trailing the Heat by 15.5%. Granted, the Heat are #1 in 3-point percentage and are crazy good right now, but that shows just how far off we are from the leaders. We have to improve our outside shooting by nearly 50% to get to the top spot. Perhaps a better metric to look at is last seasons’ percentages. With Johnson and Beasley hoisting up pathetic numbers from outside, we shot 33.2% from the perimeter, which was good for 7th worst in the league (tied with the Nuggets). The Bobcats had the league worst percentage at 29.5%, which is nearly 2 percentage points better than where we are now. To make things worse, that Bobcats team only attempted 13.5 shots from 3 point range because they recognized how bad they were. We are averaging 18.3 shots from the perimeter. We are just throwing away possessions.
Most of the wings we have on the team have been known as decent 3-point shooters by percentages for their careers (Ridnour, Barea, Budinger, Kirilenko), so early on the opposing teams respected our perimeter threats. This opened up the lanes and got defenders outside for cuts and screens. Opponents had to play the pick-and-roll very aggressively because our guards could hit the shots with a little bit of space. This gave Pekovic plenty of space to work in the middle. It created lanes for Budinger, Shved, Roy, and the like to get to the rim. It allowed AK47 the ability to work the baseline for quick cuts to the rim. Those plays, in turn, forced the defense to collapse a bit and give more space for the shooters on the outside. The only problem is that the shooters weren’t hitting those open shots on the outside, so the defense was able to just stay collapsed and clog the lanes and remove the opportunity for cuts to the rim.
The “Egg” in my opinion is that the movement in the offense has stopped. And I am not even talking about the “ball movement”, because that is a product of movement in general. Our whole offense has stopped moving. We bring the ball down the court and dribble it around for 10-15 seconds, then run a pick-and-roll while 3 players stand around, then hoist up an outside, contested jumpshot because the defense doesn’t have to play aggressively on the pick. We have no ball movement because nobody is even trying to get open. The defense is all backed up to the paint, so there are no lanes for cutters to get to the basket. The only open shots we are getting are 16 feet away from the basket, and that is because the other team knows we can’t hit those shots. When Pek gets the ball, he is a good 10 feet from the rim and is doubled immediately because the opposing PF does not have to worry about defending Williams or Cunningham on the perimeter. Once Pek gets the ball, there is nobody open for him to pass out of the double-team to, because everyone is standing around waiting for Pek to take the shot. He ends up taking long hook shots in traffic because there are no other options on offense. The movement that was there in the first 6 games has completely stopped. That is why we went from 95 shots from 3-point range over the first 6 games to 125 shots over the next 6. Our opponents are clogging the paint and daring us to shoot from outside.
In the first 5 games, we won with defense. We allowed 537 points over the first 6 games. Over the last 6 games we have allowed 574 points. That is a difference of more than 6 points a game. We are only averaging 91.6 points per game and have only cracked the century mark once this season. We cannot afford to give up 6 more points per game.
Our defense has collapsed over the past 6 games. What used to be a very tight and stingy defense has slid quite a bit. It’s easy to blame this skid on injuries or on our guards not being able to defend the pick-and-roll (people love talking about the point differential from our backcourt to opposing backcourts over the last few games), and those are all fair points. But, I think our biggest problem is the “Chicken”. We are taking (and missing) bad shots on offense leading to quick possession changes and transition offense by the other team. Sure, our guards are getting beat in the pick-and-roll and our bigs aren’t giving enough help defense, but teams are lighting us up on the fast break as well. I can live with a contested outside shot going in from a very well-executed pick-and-roll, but when we jack up a bad contested shot from outside that leads to an easy bucket at the rim, that is a 4+ point swing. If we execute better on offense, if we start hitting our shots, we reduce the amount of transition offense they are able to get, and we bring their point totals back down to where we started the season. I will put our pick-and-roll offense with Love against any other teams’ pick-and-roll offense and see where it takes us. It drives me nuts to see so many points given up in fast-break opportunities for the other team because our offense broke down and forced a shot.
So, how do we fix it? Well, the obvious first answer would be to start hitting our shots. We need to start taking smarter shots. Our shooters need to get on the court and work out of their funks before the game starts. Right now that is Ridnour, Barea and Love, since everyone else is either injured, or are streaky shooters to begin with. We need to start moving off the ball. Right now our team freezes as soon as Love or Pekovic gets the ball, but we need to continue to move and cut and screen. We need to give Love and Pekovic people to pass out of double teams to. We need to increase our shots in the paint and we need to start making those shots. Too many missed opportunities in the paint, but a lot of it is due to Love and Pek having to force up shots and look for foul calls because the movement has stopped in the offence. If we can hit our outside shots, the defenders have to leave the paint to contest, which makes it easier for Pek, Love, AK47, Stiemer, etc. to get clean shots in the paint. It will also clear out the paint and give us better opportunities for rebounds. All of that will slow the opponents down and remove opportunities for fast-break offense, which should, in turn, increase our defensive efficiency.
As far as I can tell, our problems are mostly on the offense, and they should be fixable by playing smarter. Taking better shots, moving better, passing better, and not settling for contested jumpers. We need everybody to be involved in the offense on every play, not just Love and Pekovic. The next time you see Love or Pek put up an ill-advised shot in a double-team, rewind the game a few seconds and see what everyone else is doing; chances are they are standing there watching. They need to be moving. They need to give the defenders something to worry about. Even if Love or Pek end up taking the shot anyway, the defenders have to have in the back of their heads that the other players are moving and cutting. They can’t be allowed to simply focus on their man.