It's been said so often over the past six months that we've started giving it the "Yeah, whatever" treatment, but it does bear repeating: this season is a learning season for the Wolves.
That's not to say that the team is going to throw games away in the name of development, or that it's acceptable that its losing games it should be winning. But it is reality. With a team this young that has this many new faces on it, there is a lot that needs to be learned, that's not all basketball.
In many ways, it's more important that this team learns about each other. And that its coach learns who they all are as a family.
One of the most interesting observation in family psychology is how siblings almost always end up being opposites of each other. Even though they (usually) share the same gene pool, environment, and upbringing, more often than not they will be very different as adults. If one is quiet and introspective, the other is rambunctious and outgoing. If one is mathematical and linear, the other is artistic and abstract. There's no conclusive study as to why this is, but it happens in an overwhelming number of cases.
As an adopted child, I can say that this even happens in families with no biological heredity involved. And likewise, it also happens with identical twins, who have identical biology.
If the Timberwolves are a family, then Corey Brewer and Wesley Johnson are the twins.
By the time the 2010-2011 preseason ended, it appeared that Brewer was on his way out. Wes Johnson seemed to be everything Brewer was, plus more. They were both rangy athletes who would shoot, rebound, move the ball, and defend...but Wes did all these things better. There was no need for two players in the same mold, right?
Well, not really. Wes and Corey have turned out to be siblings all right...both in how they are similar and how they are different. While they do more or less the same things, they are doing them in radically different ways.
Think of the comparison between Rudy Gay and Gerald Wallace. They do roughly the same things on the court, right? Score with decent efficiency, shoot a couple of threes a game, rebound at a high clip for the 3 position, and play some sticky defense.
But stylistically they're almost polar opposites, and it affects the way they produce. Rudy Gay is a graceful athlete. He plays a finesse game, getting his points mainly off of jump shots and transition dunks and getting his rebounds by jumping really really high. Whereas Wallace...hey, there's a reason the guy is nicknamed "Crash". GForce does what he does by being extremely physical...sometimes to the point of recklessness...getting to the free throw line, bodying rebounders out of the paint, and....well, crashing around.
That's the difference we're getting between Wes and Corey. The smooth operator and the suicide diver. Not only have they found a way to differentiate from each other...and to be individually effective that way...they've also found a way to co-exist. Believe it or not, Corey is actually a positive per 100 possessions on both offense and defense this year, and four of our top five lineups feature both Brewer and Johnson on the court at the same time.
It's still early in the season....and Webster has yet to play at all....but what the team has gotten from Wes and Corey is a lesson learned and microcosm of the team itself. Building from the ground up takes time, and not everything can be anticipated. That's why we play the game. Give what you have a chance to prove itself....or prove it isn't working...before moving on.
It's the same philosophy the team displayed last season with Kevin Love and Al Jefferson. Fans may not like the inertia...particularly when losses begin to pile up....but these things do need to be given a chance to play out.
Of course, Corey and Wes aren't the only youngsters on the team. By NBA standards, everyone except Luke Ridnour is a kid. Even well traveled NBA veterans Darko Milicic and Sebastian Telfair have yet to top the quarter century mark, and our two best players....Michael Beasley and Kevin Love....are just 21 and 22 respectively.
I suppose that makes Kurt Rambis the father of this family.
It seems to be one of life's universal truisms that a parent learns everything important about being an adult from their children. I'd imagine Kurt Rambis feels the truth of this every day.
Often times, we forget that Rambis is as rookie as most of the players. He's only been a head coach for a year, and was managing a team of layovers for that season. This is the first time he's been the head coach of a roster that somewhat resembles the kind of team he'd ideally choose to lead. As much as he leads them, he also grows with them.
Already we have seen progress on Rambis' front with player development. We in fact saw a good dose of it last season with Corey Brewer....there was just so much wrong with the team then that we didn't know what to make of it. But already, early in this season, the returns on his ability to coach young talent has been overwhelming. Michael Beasley is averaging career highs in FG% and 3pt% (or career highs in TS% and eFG%, for those of you more ADV inclined), as well as in assists and points per game. He's also brought his PER back to his rookie year level (17.2) when he was one of the best midrange shooters in the league, and he's nearly equaled last year's rebounding average, despite playing the 3 rather than the 4, and having to "compete" with Love for boards. Wes Johnson has been better than expected, and like Beasley, is doing it playing out of position (82games strongly indicates that Wes is much better at the 3 than the 2) Darko's progress speaks for itself. And Kevin Love...what is there to even say? Four 20/20 games in a month, including the first 30/30 game in 28 years.
It's by looking at Rambis and Love that we see the strongest parent/child dynamic and the progress both have made. It's no secret that the two have been at odds in the past. Rambis hasn't always been a fan of Love's off-and-on work ethic or defensive lapses. Love hasn't been a fan of playing limited minutes or a limited role.
Yet how often have we heard of this "feud" this year? Just once really, after the very first game of the season. Since then, nothing. Why? Because they've worked it out. And it wasn't by either of them playing the "my way or the highway" card, but rather they've met in the middle.
Rambis has learned that young players make mistakes; that they aren't complete packages, and that having them on the floor is the best way for them to learn from those mistake...and that despite periods of burn here and there where Love's focus wanders off, if he gets playing time, he almost always produces. And Love has learned that he's not entitled to anything; that he still has to work hard to earn what he can get, and if he doesn't, he gets run over like anyone else...and that he's not meant to be a team's go-to player.
Part of Love's jump in production is him coming to an understanding of what his limitations are as a player. And part of that understanding is Rambis working with him and the team as a whole to establish a hierarchy the players can see is effective, and setting guidelines of what is and is not acceptable play on the court. And in the process, Rambis has learned a little bit about rolling with the punches.
It's like a father and son who can't agree on what time everyone needs to be home by. The kid wants to be out as late as he feels like and thinks he's entitled to it because that's what all his friends get. Dad wants him home by 9, and sometimes won't let him go out at all because he hasn't done his homework or chores. Sure they could fight every night over it, but if they've got a healthy relationship, they learn to compromise. Do what you're asked to do and you can be out there until 11.
The son realizes that dad is just trying to guide him along as he grows up; the dad realizes his son doesn't need to be watched over 24/7....that he needs a chance to grow up on his own.
The reflection for all of this on us as fans is simply that we need to be patient. Yes, we're all tired of losing. We want to see wins. We want to see progress by whatever means we use to measure it. Some of us are not happy with "the plan" for this team. We don't like the way the Wolves draft, or make trades, or market the team to the public. That's ok...frustration is normal when a team has struggled for as long as we have.
Sometimes the team drops the ball on making a call most of us could have made in our sleep. I regret passing up Stephen Curry as much, if not more, than anyone. Why wasn't the coach hired before the draft?
Sometimes it makes a decision that most of us are against, and it turns out to be the right one (DeMarcus Cousins commits a lot of fouls and causes problems in the locker room? Who would have ever seen that coming...) And who is Luke Babbitt, again?
But whether we agree with how things are being run or not, doesn't this team deserve a chance to let things play out? Shouldn't we at least wait until there's conclusive evidence that this won't work before we say it won't work? Isn't that what we asked for in the past, whether it be Randy Foye as a point guard, Kevin McHale as a coach, or Love and Jefferson as a duo?
Kids don't become competent adults overnight. Adults don't become competent parents overnight. A team isn't built from the ground up overnight. The Wolves....management, coaches, and players alike....all have a lot left to learn before this team can really begin making big leaps in the standings. And if we step back and look at things, we can see that they are indeed learning those lessons. Becoming a family takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.
It's a slow process, but it is happening.