-37 and +35. These are the plus/minus numbers of Al Jefferson and Darko Milicic against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now we have been over (and over and over and over) the dangers involved in using +/- stats in small sample-size situations but it doesn't take a whole lot to see that while there may be a bunch of noise in a single-game setting vis-a-vis the effectiveness of using +/- as a proper gauge of performance, but there's not THAT much noise.
The big take away from the game against the Thunder is a simple question: What other team's best player would be yanked down the stretch for an out-of-shape guy that was buried on the Knicks' bench for the vast majority of the season? If Al's knee is that bad, he shouldn't be playing. There is a difference between playing hurt and playing injured and while Al's offense clearly isn't as explosive as it was pre-injury, can anyone really say that his defense has changed that much? When everything is taken into account, the Wolves' highest paid player was just yanked for Darko Milicic and the Wolves had a much better chance at winning when their newest addition was out there with Kevin Love.
The Wolves also had a much better chance at winning when Ramon Sessions was out there with Love. Two way players matter and this team has a serious deficiency in that category. During Darko's 19 minutes on the court, Wolves fans were treated to the best interior defense this team has seen since KG. Let that sink in for a moment. Right now the Wolves' best rotation probably looks something like this:
When healthy, Jefferson is a magnificent offensive player in the low block. When healthy, he is also an atrocious defender. What if Darko plays effectively during the remainder of the season? Do we really need an up-close-and-personal example of how Love + a capable defender > Jefferson + Hollins? Do we really need to see how a legit 7 footer with modest passing skills is a more capable addition to the Triangle than a guy who can go nuts in the low left block?
These are the questions that could be answered with some interesting data by the end of the season. While we have just under 20 minutes of Darko game action to look at, I think the most unsettling thing here is that most Wolves fans have a general feeling that it won't take a whole lot to show what Love + a competent big could do compared to any sort of Jefferson pairing in the offense that Rambis has installed. We kind of know what the answers to these questions will be but do we really want to know?
Getting back to the whole two-way player thing, Corey Brewer is starting to string together a series of games where he deserves serious consideration as the team's best player and emotional leader. During the 3rd quarter Brew kept the Wolves in the game with spirited play at both ends of the court. When he shoots the ball, there is no longer a collective gasp from those in attendance. We expect that he'll make open shots. We expect that he'll finish a majority of his kamikaze drives to the rim. Whatever this coaching staff has done with the guy, they have done something right.
Perhaps this thought is the most important thing that has happened to the Wolves this season. Love and Brewer have shown great improvement. Wayne Ellington has also improved; showing himself to have wonderful two way potential off the bench. One of the things that struck me the most about David Kahn's approach to this team were his comments about player development being a key selling point for potential free agents. He wants the player experience in Minnesota to be a good thing that players tell one another about. Not only with player development, but with the way the team treats guys who are seeking buyouts or better situations. On this front, the Wolves have themselves a wonderful project in Darko. He clearly has had his issues in the league and no matter if he stays or goes, if the Wolves can be viewed as handling the situation as best as they can, maybe that will go a long way for their ability to attract free agents and foreign players down the line.
Wrapping this thing up, the Wolves ran up against a superior opponent last night and they showed signs of life when their bench rotations were allowed to rack up significant minutes. The big problem they have vis-a-vis the Thunder is that they simply don't have anyone as good as Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook on their roster. Talent matters just as much as two way play and the Wolves simply didn't have the horses to run with the Thunder for 48 minutes. Will David Kahn be able to use the team's considerable assets to make up this talent gap? Will players like Brewer, Love, Sessions, and Ellington continue to improve? Will Jefferson ever be able to balance his awesome offensive game with his equally awesome defensive and team-based deficiencies? We'll just have to wait and see.
BTW: What did everyone think of the team's interactive broadcast? We had many commenters who had their questions answered by Papa Glen and the POBO. Let us know what you thought of the production.