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Timberwolves expect better in 2012


This news story was published on December 25, 2011.
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By Jerry Zgoda, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — There is — quite possibly for the first time since Latrell Sprewell wondered aloud just how he would feed his family on $21 million — a buzz crackling and humming around these Timberwolves.

You can feel it after so many seasons of indifference at Target Center, where more than 12,000 people gathered for a preseason game and 2,500 arrived for a free, lunch-hour scrimmage.

You can sense it on your Facebook page, where one friend proudly posts a cellphone photo of herself posed with Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio at Seven in downtown Minneapolis on a Saturday night.

Yes, it’s true the beauty of sports means every season brings optimism, but …

“People say things will be better every year because you don’t expect to be bad, ever,” Wolves forward Anthony Tolliver said. “But at the end of the day, I know some things for a fact: Everybody has a different attitude coming in this year than we did the last.”

There are many reasons Tolliver claims to know what he knows, the arrival of Rubio and Derrick Williams among them. But foremost is one that Tolliver expresses simply by pointing across the practice floor, his finger directed at new coach Rick Adelman.

“That guy right over there,” he said.

“That guy” ranks eighth on the NBA’s all-time list of coaching winners, and his 945 career victories with Portland, Golden State, Sacramento and Houston are 240 more than the Wolves have won in their entire history.

David Kahn’s 2½ years as Wolves president of basketball operations has had its share of suspect moves, but his patient recruiting of Adelman to replace fired and failed Kurt Rambis was September’s slam-dunk punctuation mark on a transformational summer, one where Kahn also signed Rubio after a two-year courtship and picked Williams second in the June draft.

First impressions

With one unexpected move, Adelman’s signing for $5 million a year brought the franchise something it has lacked since Kevin Garnett starred for it.

In a word: credibility.

“You start with the head coach and by going with Rick Adelman, the sky is the limit,” said NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, who played six-plus seasons for Adelman on Sacramento teams that battled the Lakers and Garnett’s Wolves in the playoffs.

So when Adelman spoke to his new players for the first time, they listened to a brutally honest man whose teams became known for their efficient, effective ball movement and underrated for their defense.

He wrote on a marker board the telling details of last year’s 17-victory season and ticked off evidence — points allowed, assist-to-turnover ratio, etc. — simply pulled directly from the 30-team league’s stats.

“It wasn’t hard,” Adelman said. “It was 30th in a lot of areas.”

He also presented evidence culled from a specialized scouting service that showed  last season’s team on average ran the court from offense to defense more than a second slower than it did the other way around.

“A whole second? In our league, you got no chance,” said assistant coach Terry Porter, who helped compile the talking points Adelman offered that first day. “You could tell by the looks on guys’ faces that it was something they’d never realized before.”

Forward Michael Beasley summarized Adelman’s introductory address as “what we did wrong, the few things we did right last year and the things we won’t do this year” delivered by a man he calls “quiet,” a “straight shooter” and a man with a unique voice who makes his point heard at any volume.

“We can hear him,” Beasley said. “It’s something we got instilled in our brains. As soon as he talks, you hear him a mile away.”

Speak softly and …

That voice — “A little raspy,” Beasley said — sounds like a 65-year-old who has spent a lifetime yelling too much, except for one thing:

“I’ve never been like that,” Adelman said. “I can’t yell. I don’t have the voice for it. There’s always a time and place for that. You try and pick and choose so that when you do it, they’re very aware that something’s gone wrong. You can reach people the other way, too.

“You can reach them individually. You can reach them as a team. It’s just a trust you have to build as the season goes on. You don’t have to yell.”

Not even when his children were small?

“Well, on occasion,” his son R.J., the Wolves’ director of player personnel and game preparation, said with a grin. “Every coach has his own style. He just is who he is. If you’re going to coach in this league and you’re trying to be someone you’re not, players see right through that. If you watch practice, when he speaks, they’re listening because he speaks in a very honest, very specific way.

“The bottom line is, he knows what he’s doing. His coaching style is reflective of his personality. He’s not going to change and he shouldn’t, because obviously he has been successful wherever he has gone.”

Louder than words

His teams have made the playoffs in 16 of his first 20 seasons as an NBA head coach. Those teams have won 50 or more games 11 times in those 20 seasons. The only place he didn’t win was at Golden State, a two-year stop in the mid-1990s that he said taught him a coach needs talent.

Webber said Adelman’s coaching style “empowers” players with its freedoms while also demanding “personal responsibility.”

“If you’re open and don’t shoot it, you’re going to come out of the game,” Webber said. “He knows Minnesota isn’t going to win a championship anytime soon. What he will do is work on the personality, the character and the play of his team and he will build for the future. He’s a unique coach in that he can take a team to a championship and he’s also one of the first guys to call to build a team that hasn’t done so well. He’s prepared for success.”

Those 945 victories, two trips with the Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals and a .633 winning percentage with a Sacramento team that never could get past the Lakers in the playoffs speak louder for him with players than that nasally voice ever will.

“We listen and he tells us what he thinks and wants us to do, and we either do it and are successful or we don’t do it,” Tolliver said. “It’s a pretty simple conclusion. I guess it’s like that with all coaches, but it’s a different level when you’re talking about a coach who’s gone out and won 900-some games in his career.

“It’s kind of hard to sit back and say, ‘That’s not right’ with him. You have to listen and you better listen, because his record speaks for itself.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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