Thursday, March 11, 2010
The Timberwolves' long-term approach
By Henry Abbott
Most NBA teams sell themselves to fans as a good night out.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, on the other hand, are selling themselves as a good upcoming half-decade or so. They aren't making any promises about tonight. Consider, for instance, some recent Minnesota Timberwolves sales materials.
New basketball boss, new coaches, new players, new hope. And just when you thought the season was winding down we’re really cranking things up: A 2010 draft with two -- or possibly even three -- first-round draft picks, and massive cap room for this summer’s free-agency market.
Combine that with being one year closer to Ricky Rubio and maybe signing European big man Nikola Pekovic, and you have a recipe for another exciting offseason.
Nikola Pekovic, currently playing for Panathinaikos, is part of the sales pitch -- and yet not one current Timberwolf is. Could it be any clearer that this team is positioning itself for the long term?
That kind of thinking has been evident in the coaching, too. In recent days, the team has had private trainer Idan Ravin in to run some special sessions in addition to regular practices and shootarounds. It is yet another break from the norm.
Ravin is the focus of a whole chapter of Chris Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game, in which Carmelo Anthony explains why he calls the trainer Crouton: "Because his name rhymes with crouton, and he's a lot cooler than a regular cracker."
Ravin -- who has a reputation both for challenging, and connecting with, players -- took some questions on the phone on Thursday, and says he hopes to inspire the young Timberwolves.
Word from the players has been that the workouts these last few days have been tough!
Hopefully, if this has been hard for players, that's a good thing. It's good to break out of your routine. That keeps you from losing sight of the fact that it's not about this season. It's good to get excited about change. People only see the losing, but there's a lot more going on here.
I think it is important to see the lessons in losing. That's foresight. That's smart. For a lot of players this may not be going as planned. But if you can see the silver lining in the cloud ... there's a lesson to learn from everything.
I'm here to socialize you to a different mindset. There's so much growth that's possible over time with consistency of effort. It's seven months until next season. There's a lot you can do.
Is it uncommon to bring someone in like you at this time of year?
I've done it with several teams. My schedule didn't allow me to make it here earlier. But there are some very good guys here, and it has been really good.
In today's newspaper, there's an article about Kevin Love being frustrated. One of the things that came up is the fact that he was asked to guard Carmelo Anthony one-on-one for a bit last night, which nobody thought was optimal. Is that the kind of challenge you propose for players?
I think it's important to give players new opportunities. You're more versatile than you think. You have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
That's incredibly important.
I don't think you can ever grow when your whole world is laid out so that at 11am you do this, 11:16 you do that ... too much ritual can kill you. That routine gets old fast. You can say you want to get up at this time, or shoot at that time, but you better mix up what you're doing every week.
So, are you wearing out these players?
Are they working extra hard? No. They're doing new stuff. New things. If they're fatigued, I suspect it's more mental than physical. But the sessions are maybe 30 - 45 minutes, two hours before practice. Or a little bit in the evening. You can still play with a lot of effort. These are 21-year-olds, in a world where AAU teams play six games in two days. They might practice for an hour and 15 minutes, and then they get the rest of the day to be off their feet. These are not 12 hours in the gym. This is not China.
And learning new things can be exciting. It's like if I came into your office and taught you how to write with your toes, and you were good at it! You'd say you didn't know that was possible! We have to feel challenged, to keep growing.
How's the team?
There's some good promise there. Al Jefferson ... wow. He's got a lot of upside, let's put it that way. He's a 20 and 10 guy pretty much just using jump hooks. Have you seen him shoot with two hands? Jump-shots? And he could get to the line a lot more. He has just scratched the surface. We worked on free throws the other day, and then he had a 36 and 16 game. Afterwards, he said "Idan, that free throw stuff was great." The guy's going to be a killer.
Jonny Flynn is just getting started with what he can do. Corey Brewer, Kevin Love ... they've all just scratched the surface.
And Darko Milicic -- he's way more talented than anyone ever gave him credit for. He has been beat up in his first six years in the NBA. I wish I could sneak you into the gym so you could see what he can do. He really is seven-feet-plus. He's really bouncy. He's really running. You can see why it was a debate who should be first, second or third in that draft.
And you're a Carmelo guy!
Carmelo's my guy. But Darko's ta-len-ted. They're doing something smart here by welcoming him openly, and making him feel a part of what's happening. He's a good kid. There's nothing bad about him. What's the point of all the yelling and screaming and cursing and insulting that he has endured? Once you have lost your dignity and self respect, it's hard to be professional. Now he's somewhere where they are acting like they're happy to see him, and it's awesome.
It's good for people to be challenged. Kids get excited when they realize there's a lot still to be done.
This is just the beginning.