For the Minnesota Timberwolves, it was all good just a week ago. When they began their latest road trip, they were a feisty young team looking to establish a new identity in the post Kevin Love era. Six games and twelve days later, a bruised and battered bunch is limping home, trying to figure out how to remain competitive without Ricky Rubio. For the seven first and second-year players on the roster, the experience was a brutal welcome into the NBA.
The trip started with a splash, a 98-91 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. It was just how they drew it up before the season - Rubio had 12 assists, Kevin Martin had 24 points, Nik Pekovic had 11 rebounds and all five starters were in double digits. They were 2-2 and looking pretty good.
“It’s amazing how fast things can change in one week in the NBA,” said Martin after the last game of the trip, a 131-117 loss to the Dallas Mavericks that dropped Minnesota to 2-7.
Rubio went down during the second game in Orlando, turning the trip from a great opportunity for a young team to bond away from home into a grueling death march with no end in sight. He was the only guy the Wolves could not afford to lose - the face of the franchise, the engine of their offense and their best two-way player. Their roster, which features a number of guys better at finishing than creating, was set up to maximize his ability to create shots for others.
If Flip Saunders was going by the book, he would have started a 12-year veteran like Mo Williams, at least until the Wolves could get home and re-orient themselves with a few days of practice. Instead, he went with a more long-term decision, moving Zach LaVine into the starting line-up and keeping Williams at 6th man. That way Sanders could manage Williams minutes while giving LaVine the benefit of breaking in with guys who could make his life easier.
There wasn’t much time to make an adjustment. Rubio was injured in Orlando on a Friday and they had a game in Miami on Saturday. They ran a simplified playbook with LaVine at the helm, as he was basically getting the ball up the court and then getting it to one of the veterans. They started out flat, but they were able to make a game of it from there and LaVine ended up with a fairly solid line for a rookie - 5 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists on 2-5 shooting.
Dealing with a back-to-back is pretty common for an NBA team, where it gets weird for Minnesota is their detour into Mexico. Instead of a home game that would split up the road trip, they left Miami for Mexico City, where they would be the designated home team against the Houston Rockets. Not only would a game against the run and gun Rockets be played at a blistering pace, they would be playing at elevations above 7,000 feet, higher even than in Denver.
They kept the game reasonably competitive against a Houston team that has been blowing teams off the floor, playing them even until halftime before eventually losing by 12. Corey Brewer, just like he used to do back with the Nuggets, killed the Rockets with leak-outs, scoring 18 points by pushing the pace while everyone else was gasping for breath. If that had been the end of a road trip, the Wolves might have been able to keep things together a little longer.
Instead, the loss was the beginning of a stretch of three games in four nights in three different cities. After a game in Mexico City on a Wednesday, they had to play in New Orleans on Friday and in Dallas on Saturday. This version of the Wolves would have a tough time beating the Pelicans and the Mavericks in almost any situation, much less one like this. They were walking into an execution - the only thing missing was the blindfold and the cigarette.
At the end of the first quarter in New Orleans, they were down 43-19 and things didn’t get much better from there. They ended up losing 139-91 in the type of one-sided thrashing you often see happen to young teams at the end of a long road trip. The good news for both teams is that everyone got to pad their stats - the Pellies had guys like Austin Rivers going 8-9 from the floor while the Wolves rookie duo of LaVine and Wiggins set career highs in points with 13 and 20.
The two lottery picks are the first pair of 19-year-olds to start for an NBA team since Josh Smith and Marvin Williams in Atlanta in 2004. They are insanely athletic, probably the most athletic pair of teammates since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There’s no in the league with legs as fresh as those two. Their shootaround in Dallas was cancelled, but the rookies were still doing 360’s and taking the ball between their legs in warm-ups like it was nothing.
Once the game started, though, they faded into the woodwork. LaVine picked up 2 fouls in the first 2 minutes while Wiggins floated around without racking up a lot of statistics.
“There’s no question that the back-to-backs and the road trip caught up with some of the guys,” Saunders said. “Some of the rookies weren’t really here tonight. They had stars in their eyes.”
There are no back-to-backs in the college game and few road trips, since the players have to “go to class”.
When people say the NBA schedule is too long, they are thinking of games like the one between the Mavs and Wolves on Saturday. It was over before it even began and there was little entertainment to be had. With the exception of Kevin Martin, who shot over smaller defenders like Monta Ellis (6’3) and Devin Harris (6’3) as if they were the chairs, no one for Minnesota had a good game. Dallas had 131 points and they could have had 150 if they really wanted too.
The Wolves lost the last three games of their road trip by an average of 25 points. They have talent, but they aren’t very deep and they didn’t have time to adjust after Rubio’s injury. They would have been much better served practicing for a few extra days, rather than being rushed back into the fray to squeeze a few more games into the schedule. Pekovic only played 11 minutes on Saturday - if he got injured, Minnesota could be in even more trouble than they are already in.
Basketball is a physical and demanding sport that is really hard on your body. Doing that multiple times a week for 6 months is a grind, much less when you are criss-crossing across the North American continent on a nightly basis. After the loss to Dallas, Wiggins smiled and said “definitely” when asked whether the road trip was more travel than he had all of last season at Kansas. Corey Brewer told reporters “he never wanted to be back in the snow so bad.”
After such a long trip, most of the players seemed happy to be returning home. In the post-game press scrum, a fairly relaxed Saunders looked at the bright side. “Considering the circumstances, I was happy with what they did,” he said. “We gave better effort and we had more energy [than on Friday].” As the rare coach who doubles as his own GM, he doesn’t have anyone looking over his shoulder who can overrule him and generally making his life miserable.
He’s certainly not afraid to march to the beat of his own drum. Saunders took LaVine in the lottery even though he started only two games at UCLA. LaVine was a total YOLO pick - he was a back-up without consistent stats, but he showed enough tremendous upside potential you were intrigued anyway. Not many GM’s would have taken him high and even fewer coaches would have started him. Flip is not a guy worried about being second-guessed.
He does have an eye for talent. Even in a loss like the one to Mavs, you saw flashes of inspired play - a spin move to the front of the rim from Wiggins, LaVine exploding into the lane and drawing an and-1, Gorgui Dieng banking a shot off the glass. Anthony Bennett and Shabazz Muhammad had their moments too and Glenn Robinson III at least looked the part in warm-ups. In five years, most of those guys will still be playing in the NBA. The question is where.
For Wiggins and LaVine, the next few months are about survival. The hope is that they put up statistics that can keep them on the floor and allow them to play through their mistakes. People aren’t sweating their stats too hard yet, but there’s enough of a sample size for them to start jumping to conclusions. There’s a reason that very few rookies are playing significant minutes in the first few weeks of the season - it’s a big jump and their teams are trying to win games.
That’s not easy to do if you play a bunch of players who are just entering the league. As a rule, young players struggle to play defense and execute on offense and the refs don’t respect them either. The whole thing is a recipe for disaster - if you can’t score in the half-court, the only way you are going to score is running off the other team’s misses. So if you can’t make the other team miss, you can’t score and you give them the chance to run the ball back at you.
That basic scenario is what happened in the Mavs last two home games, where they were +67 against the 76ers and the Wolves. They don’t have much time to celebrate their success, though, as they play three of their next four on the road, including a game at Washington and one at Houston on the second night of a back-to-back. That’s life in the NBA. Last week, the Mavs were reeling from an 11-point home beating from the Heat that wasn’t even that close.
The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s always another game - can’t get too high, can’t get too low.
“Everybody says it’s a process. You have to have a short memory in this league,” Wiggins said in Dallas. “You have to prepare for the next game.”
His career is less than a month old and his team is already in crisis. In late December, they play at Cleveland, at Denver, at Golden State then at Utah. This road trip is the first of many such learning experiences.