A few days ago, Zach Lowe from The Point Forward wrote a really smart piece about the concept of pace and how the Minnesota Timberwolves seem to have an incredibly high pace due to turnovers and poor, quick shots rather than because of an elite or even competent transition game.
The line Lowe used to end his piece really stuck with me though.
“Winning in the NBA is a complicated business, and running more for the sake of running more won’t get you there if you don’t have the right pieces in place.”
When David Kahn held his press conference to announce the three-month long process of deciding whether or not Kurt Rambis should coach a 17-win team next season, he continually mentioned the word “up-tempo” and talked about how the fans wanted to see up-tempo basketball. Perhaps, he was thinking along the lines that Lowe was thinking. The Wolves’ pace last year was the highest in the league but their transition game was sort of a disaster. Maybe the idea of playing more up-tempo had nothing to do with possessions and more to do with how they used those possessions.
Where I disagree with Kahn’s assessment that Wolves fans want to see up-tempo basketball is in the word “want.” To say Wolves fans just want to see up-tempo basketball seems to be extremely shortsighted. I think Wolves fans are willing to settle for up-tempo basketball if the wins aren’t going to be pouring in any time soon. If up-tempo basketball is going to make the Wolves more competitive than they were last season, I think it’s something we’d all settle for.
However, more than anything Wolves fans just want this team win more games. It sounds simple and maybe it is. 32 wins in two combined seasons will do that to you. If the Wolves had to grind out 78-77 wins every night to be a .500 team, I would take that over a 25-win team that made the all of the highlight reels. If that isn’t a possibility with the current personnel and whoever the incoming head coach will be, then I’ll definitely settle for seeing more exciting basketball.
If anything, this concept of the fans wanting to see faster paced basketball with Ricky Rubio running the show seems more like a marketing tool than a strategy for turning the Wolves around right now. It’s rebranding the image of a poor product.
Over the past 10 seasons, 45 teams in the NBA have had a pace of 94 possessions per game or higher, according the basketball-reference.com. 21 of those teams had a winning record, one of those teams finished 41-41, and 23 of those teams finished with a losing record. Last season, the Wolves had a pace of 96.5 and finished with the worst record in the league.
Of the teams that finished in the top 10 of the NBA in pace last season, only the Knicks, Nuggets and Rockets finished with a winning record. In the 2009-10 season, only three teams in the top 10 in pace ended up finishing with a winning record too. Teams like the Suns and Nuggets have made it work over the past few years because they know the difference between chaos and controlled chaos in an up-tempo setting.
The problem with forcing the tempo when you aren’t a very good team is you’re saying the best strategy to compete against better opponents is to give those opponents extra possessions against you. If anything, it seems more logical to limit possessions so there is less likelihood of your opponent getting the opportunity to make up for any miscues throughout the game. If your players are overmatched by their opponents most nights, why accentuate the disparity in talent by creating more chances for them to be inferior?
Does this mean the Wolves should grind it out and turn things into a defensive battle this coming season? Not really. They don’t have the roster to do so at the moment. This Wolves team is set up to run more than they are to bring back the style of the 2004 Pistons. The biggest difference with the Wolves current roster and the one from last year is they now have a true floor general with Ricky Rubio running the show. And they're going to try to utilize his skills immediately.
Despite having the most possessions per game last season, the Wolves were 25th in total assists. They didn’t have the offense or the point guard to truly set up scoring opportunities. While Ricky Rubio’s scoring ability and defensive capabilities are in question, his sense for finding open teammates and getting them the ball has never really been doubted. Rubio’s vision on the floor will be instrumental in turning the Wolves from an up-tempo team to a transition juggernaut.
The Wolves are basically stuck in their own way on the court right now. Through Rubio’s conducting, the Wolves could be in much better shape offensively. In theory, they’ll get better looks in transition and during the secondary breaks. They shot the ball extremely well from 3-point range last year (fifth in the NBA) but were 27th in overall field goal percentage. However, by running more on the court, they’re putting their 27th ranked defense at jeopardy of having to play more possessions each game.
It may seem like I’m contradicting myself here and playing both sides. That’s probably because I am. There is good, bad, and ultimately confusion with the Wolves’ plan of trying to turn the top-ranked tempo in the NBA last year into an even faster team.
Running more doesn’t really mean more wins or even better basketball. Running just for the sake of running seems like a way to try to bring outside interest to the team, rather than guaranteeing a strategy that will translate to wins. This is the reality Wolves fans have to settle for right now as we hope the franchise is ready to turn the corner.
It’s like Lowe said: “Winning in the NBA is a complicated business, and running more for the sake of running more won’t get you there if you don’t have the right pieces in place.”