An Old Dog Named Larry
USA Today Sports
As a dog becomes old, his tail wags with the same ambition, but the body betrays the youthful spirit. The elder canine is wise of mind and rarely curious, content on sitting and having a bone for dinner. He no longer ventures out the ‘doggy-door’ to pursue moonlit adventures. He knows the nature, the neighbors, and the other fixtures of suburbia, but as they get older, dogs begin keeping to themselves. Dogs, like humans, are creatures of habit.
Larry hails from New York City, and he’s a basketball official during the springtime for a recreational league in the area. He’s usually in a sweatsuit, officiating shirt visible underneath and wearing a hat with the early 90′s Knicks logo on it. We speak almost daily, but Larry doesn’t know any recent news or the latest trade rumors. Larry usually asks how my weekend was, or how things are going, but it’s never “how are the Knicks doing?! (who can blame him) or “what about those Wolves?!”
Of all the basketball minds I’ve met and talked with, Larry is one of those relationships the game of basketball has forged that is special to me. We share our favorite intangibles and explain our own subtle tendencies while telling stories of our experiences on the court. He loves the game and he knows it, I know it too — Larry’s just not the type to keep pace with all the intricate details anymore. He would rather talk about the richer things in life, as opposed to listening to the 23 year old standing before him. It’s unfortunate, yet inevitable, basketball will definitely outgrow all of us just as it has done to Larry. He’s an old dog now. Larry has the respect of the youthful pups, but can no longer keep up in frisbee or fetch — Larry is left with only the memory of being fast enough to dominate the competing dogs.
Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, George Karl, Larry Brown and Rick Adelman have each won over 1,000 games. Seven of these all-time greats have moved on to life away from the sideline, or life on the world’s largest — and most competitive — stage has moved away from them. Although the game of basketball is as simple as putting the ball through the hoop, it’s a game that is always in motion.
Rich Kraetsch profiled Adelman during Hickory-High’s “Profiles in Coaching,” and noted that he’s the coach who “sticks out like a sore thumb.” Kraetsch revives the days in Portland when the Blazers, under Adelman’s instruction, competed in three consecutive Conference Finals — twice advancing to compete for an NBA Championship, but to no avail. Two years and two first-round playoff exits later, he moved down the coast to coach the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors would fail to qualify for the playoffs, or even win 40 games, in both of Adelman’s years at the helm.
He then left the Bay Area but stayed within California to become the new head coach of the Sacramento Kings. Kraetsch mentions that although the Kings never made an appearance in the NBA Finals, the roster compiled of a disgruntled star and misfit castaways wouldn’t have the same accomplishments had it not been for Adelman’s scheme. He and the Kings parted ways after eight consecutive appearances in the post-season, none of which resulted in a trip to the Finals. Adelman’s next destination was Houston, where the sob-story of injuries to Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming prevented the Rockets from ever becoming the championship caliber team they were supposed to be.
“As encouraging his (Adelman) run in Sacramento was, this Houston run was equally disappointing. He should have done more there, Houston should have done more.” says Kraetsch
Adelman, 67, is now the head Coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s one of the league’s “Old Dogs” in the game, but the same trend seems to be following him wherever he goes. Adelman is constantly claiming that his young “Timberpups” roster — 17 -17 so far this season — hasn’t accomplished anything yet.
Last Monday, the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Wolves, 100-98. The starters for Minnesota scored 93 points. J.J. Barea was the only player to score off the bench; he played 17 minutes. Luc Mbah a Moute and Dante Cunningham each played 14, while Robbie Hummel and Alexey Shved combined for close to 12 minutes on the floor…and none of them managed to score. Barea’s five points were the Wolves only bench points, but star forward Kevin Love and coach Adelman remained optimistic about the season.
“I think if we can bring consistent effort every single night we’ll be OK,” Love said after the two-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks last week, “Coach hits it on the head when he says we haven’t done anything yet. We have to be one of the scrappiest, if not the scrappiest team, in the league.” – Love
“Sooner or later we have to break through. That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to have a mentally tough mind-set.” – Adelman
This wasn’t the first time fans have been reminded the Wolves “haven’t done anything yet.” In fact, the passive and conservative nature of the phrase is reminiscent of Adelman’s entire career. Dating back to last season, the Old Dog seemed to lack motive, desire or a drive to make things happen and conducted himself with a “sooner or later” or “we’ll see what happens” outlook about the future. When asked about his return for what would be the 2013-2014 season, Adelman told the media prior to an April 15th game against the Utah Jazz that he didn’t want to didn’t want to “hang out for a month or two,” but it was likely he would return as coach because the situation would, in his words, “work itself out”.
The Wolves coach missed 11 games last season due to a medical issue involving his wife, Mary Kay. After returning to the team and finishing out the season, the likelihood of Adelman’s return to Minnesota was everything but official until mid-September, something that was supposed to have worked itself out in a matter of weeks. There weren’t many doubting the return of Adelman, but the situation was curious nonetheless.
While everyone assumes Rick Adelman will be back, it is a bit unnerving that the move hasn’t been made official yet, right? #Twolves
— timberpups.com (@timberpupsblog) September 14, 2013
The phrase describing the Wolves achievements–or lack thereof–resurfaced in the locker room after another disappointing performance from the rotation players that resulted in another close defeat. Earlier this season, back on November 27th, the Denver Nuggets bench outscored their Wolves counterparts 47-10. Barea, with six, scored the majority while Cunningham, an established role player, added four points in the loss.
“We haven’t done anything in this league. This team has the potential to do something, but we just have to commit to be a team on defense.” — Ricky Rubio told media after the loss in Denver
“We just came in and allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do at the offensive end. We put up no resistance,” Adelman said post game, ”There’s been all this talk about what kind of team we can be. I don’t care about what people talk about or what it looks like on paper. We’ve done nothing.”
Britt Robson, who covers the Wolves for MinnPost, wrote a column on December 3rd calling for Adelman to live up to his reputation.
“It is right about this time, when a team is underachieving in ways that are both understandable and troubling nearly a quarter of the way through the season, that you hope to rely on a superior coach to strategize, motivate and position talent in ways that shake off the doldrums and alter the prevailing context.”
The Wolves left Los Angeles in late December having fallen to the Lakers and the Clippers over the weekend prior to Christmas. Steve McPherson’s recap of the loss to the Lakers described Adelman as an “Old Fish”.
“I also think it would be crazy to think that his age doesn’t (at least partly) play into that conservatism. He may have been brimming with revolutionary basketball ideas when he started in Portland, but he now has a sense of the way the game should be played, and he’s not about to change that.”
On Saturday the Wolves fell victim to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, another loss that may be blamed on the performance of the players outside the starting lineup. However, there was a chance to overcome the second unit’s lackluster effort.
Love, the team’s only superstar, was at the line with four seconds remaining, having been fouled on a three-point attempt. He missed the first, the second and intentionally missed the third, Durant grabbed the rebound, time expired and the Wolves lost their ninth game by four points or less this season. That’s a statistic that suggests there is an inability to execute in late-game situations, an unusual characteristic for a team that’s supposed to be well-coached. However, the scapegoat for the Wolves struggles remains ripe — the bench only managed to score five points, again, Saturday against the Thunder.
Adelman isn’t by any means on the hot seat in Minnesota, but the abundance of close losses progressively eliminating the excuses for why his team hasn’t done anything yet poses the question: when do fans start becoming more objective?
The Wolves have yet to attain any consistency when it matters most, even though Adelman appears to have the pieces. Things aren’t quite fitting the way they’re supposed to.
The Timberwolves replaced a misfit piece and traded Derrick Williams to Sacramento last November. Williams was simply a bad ‘fit’ for Adelman’s unique corner offense. He played fewer than 15 minutes, averaging only five points and two rebounds per game. The way Williams career in a Wolves uniform panned out poses doubt that rookies Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad are receiving ample opportunity to contribute.
Have Adelman’s method of doing things, ethics and strategies that have constructed a resume of admirable success, finally passed through time as old tricks? Has the coach of the Timberwolves become a dog, one so old and stubborn, that he’s incapable of making the adjustments required to find present day success?
On January 3rd, after losing the Mavericks but before going against the Thunder, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders and Adelman made the decision to assign Muhammad – a first round draft selection and Saunder’s first pick as Minnesota’s President of Basketball Operations – to play with the Timberwolves shared D-League affiliate, the Iowa Energy.
In his only season playing at UCLA Muhammad scored 23.2 pace adjusted points per game. Muhammad accounted for 12.5 percent of the offense throughout the season, but only 1.1 of his possession per game came in isolation or pick-and-roll situations, signifying he wasn’t asked to do much creating offensively. Despite not having the same opportunities to play with possession of the ball, much like other college phenoms, Muhammad found ways to contribute in other areas. He shot over 40 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities and showed the ability to get up-and-down the floor in transition. Muhammad found himself in transition, an area where it’s highly likely for an offensive player to score, an average of 4.8 possessions per game.
With all the trouble Barea, Shved, Cunningham and the other bench players seem to have putting points on the board, couldn’t a first-round talent provide a spark of any kind? Muhammad scored 12 points in 42 minutes of playing time, shooting only 25 percent from the field and 33 percent from three, before being assigned to the D-League.
Dieng, Minnesota’s second selection of the first round, averaged nearly 13 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per 40 minutes at Louisville last season. He ranked 23rd of Division I in blocks per game. He was one of, if not the largest, factor that made the the national champion Cardinals defense No. 1 in the nation last season. However, a broken hand kept him from appearing in the first five games and hindered his playmaking ability throughout the year.
The Timberwolves currently rank 29th in opponent field goal percentage at the rim, allowing opposing players to shoot 68.2 percent in the area around the basket. That’s nearly a 10 percent difference from the Indiana Pacers (59.1) who are the NBA’s best team defending shot attempts taken around the rim. Dieng has appeared in 18 games so far this season. He’s scored a total of 28 points on 10 of 24 shooting from the field (41%) and is also averaging 4.9 blocks per 36 minutes. Albeit the small sample size, Dieng makes a difference on defense when he’s in the game. The rookie is allowing opponents to shoot only 37.5 percent around the rim.
There’s no signs indicating that Muhammad is going to see significant playing time this season. Dieng remains with the team but hasn’t played more than 10 minutes since the Wolves lost to the Boston Celtics back on December 13th. In addition to the offseason acquisition of Martin and Brewer, Muhammad and Dieng represent Saunders’ first moves as leader of the new regime in Minnesota — personnel that appease Adelman’s system.
Larry never identifies a basketball subject to discuss with me during our conversations. It’s more likely for him to ask how my night, weekend or recent period of time away from work has been. Genuine questions such as how my siblings are, or how my writing is doing. Larry won’t be the first to talk about the NBA, or his beloved Knicks. He knows that if we begin conversing about basketball I’m going to say something he didn’t know, something that will blow him away. Larry understands parts of basketball, but it’s impossible for him to keep with the current players, coaches and gossip news. That’s beyond what he cares to know. Larry doesn’t care to understand basketball as anything different than how he learned the game as a youth.
Rick Adelman, I fear, is a dog that knows how to fetch, but can never quite get to the ball first. He’s always right there, but misses out just before Adelman is able to sink he’s teeth into it. That’s the same problematic characteristic his Timberwolves are playing with this season. Minnesota is currently 17-17, but have battled through injuries and absent – to mediocre – bench performances and approach the more forgiving portion of the schedule. It’s a pivotal portion of the season and the Wolves must play well if they’re going to qualify for the post-season. Adelman is running low on options, but holds a steady hand and going about doing things the way he always has.
Any method, or formula, capable of yielding successful results for over a decade should be considered something timeless. However it’s possible Adelman’s system, a timeless craft he designed to achieve successful against an entire generation of basketball before us, may be the reason for his demise. Granted his basketball knowledge and experience is vastly greater than mine, or anyone else’s — Adelman’s not experimenting with the – potential and combustible – solutions to fixing the Wolves deficiencies.
Adelman and the Wolves are depending on Chase Budinger and Ronnie Turiaf to rescue the starters from the burden of potentially carry nearly the entire load offensively. Budinger is shooting 49 and 36 percent from the field and three-point range, respectively, and played in the corner-offense as a member of the Rockets. Turiaf is a veteran, a presence with experience on a championship team, and is a leader on – and off – the floor for the Timberwolves. Seeing as the return of these two players is imminent, can they manufacture points off the bench and provide a defensive presence around the rim?
Adelman has earned the spot at the foot of the bed, and a bone each night for dinner. He’s the old dog that’s been around the neighborhood as long as anyone can remember, and no dog dare define his legacy. For years Adelman’s bark intimidated strangers passing through the yard and anyone else visible from his home’s front window. Unfortunately it seems as if he’s become so prideful, undoubtedly confident that things will happen the way they’re supposed to, that Adelman may not understand that there may be more to the game he once believed to have mastered. Perhaps he’s lost every last drop of spirit necessary to inspire the young Timberwolves roster into a winning streak.
The Wolves are .500, 17 wins and 17 losses after a win last night over the 76ers in Philadelphia. This is the time for Adelman’s team to piece things together in Minnesota, the old dog trusts his Timberpups can execute all of his old tricks and get to coveted proverbial playoff ball, just to show everyone competing that he’s still capable of crafting success participating in an era that may be beyond his time. Maybe things will figure themselves out, but as of right now — they haven’t done anything yet.