There are certain intangibles Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman will be looking for during this abbreviated and challenging 66-game season. But none are more important to the 65-year-old coach than his players improving and changing a losing culture that has plagued Minnesota’s organization since its last playoff appearance in 2004.
“No matter what happens with the wins and losses, if they keep getting better, we’ll win our share of games,” Adelman said. “The key for these guys is improvement. Are they doing things better than last year?”
Nobody in the Wolves’ organization, fans included, wants to think much about last season, or the season before that. The Wolves won only 32 games over the previous two seasons under former coach Kurt Rambis.
Adelman understands change is needed, as well as a certain amount of success to maintain fan support. The arrival of rookie point guard Ricky Rubio and rookie forward Derrick Williams, the No. 2 overall pick in the June NBA draft, already has raised fan excitement about the team heading into tonight’s opener against Oklahoma City at Target Center.
But Adelman faces some obstacles that might make it tough for him to generate an immediate revival. The league’s 149-day lockout left the veteran of 16 playoff appearances over a 20-year NBA coaching career little time to prepare, particularly with a team coming off a league-worst 17-65 record.
At least 10 players from that team have returned, forcing Adelman to try to change
attitudes and bad habits in a short time. The league also handed the Wolves an ominous schedule during the first 2-1/2 weeks. Six of the Wolves’ first seven games are at home, but four of their opponents were playoff teams that advanced to the conference semifinals a year ago. A fifth opponent, San Antonio, finished with the league’s best regular-season record (62-20).
In succession, the Wolves have home games against Oklahoma City, Eastern Conference champion Miami, defending champion Dallas, San Antonio and Memphis, which pushed Oklahoma City to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.
“We could really play well at the start of the season and have a hard time winning,” Adelman said. “That’s a tough schedule for us. I want to win more games, too, but I don’t know. We’ll see how the guys react when the pressure is on in those games.”
Adelman, who ranks eighth among NBA coaches in wins (945-616, .605 winning percentage), made it a priority before the team’s first practice to show his players that last year’s effort won’t be tolerated. He displayed on a board in the team’s locker room some of the key statistics last season that led to a dismal season, including a season-ending 15-game losing streak.
Among the stats he pointed out: league highs in points allowed (107.7), average turnovers (17.0) and average assists allowed (24.7). The Wolves also were 27th in field-goal percentage (44.1) and average fouls committed (22.2).
“You can tell the coaching staff is on the same page,” Wolves all-star forward Kevin Love said. “Those stats told us a lot. If we can build a base around the general concept Rick is giving us, I know we can be much better. Buying into the things we’re doing, it all starts with Rick.”
There’s a hesitancy to say how much better the Wolves will be this season, but the players’ respect for Adelman is obvious. Even after Adelman called the team’s defense “horrendous” last season, no returning player objected to the reference.
“I wasn’t happy with our defense, either,” forward Michael Beasley said.
Adelman’s emphasis on improving the defense could be a determining factor in more wins. The defense will have to be better to fulfill Adelman’s desire to play a three-guard rotation involving Rubio, Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea, three smallish ballhandlers who might leave the Wolves vulnerable defensively.
Adelman has won with a similar system with previous teams, so no one is questioning his approach.
“Our three point guards will have a big influence on what we do,” Adelman said. “We have to get them on the court and find a way to protect them a little bit. If we’re undersized, we have to make sure we hurt the opponent at the other end.”
Wolves players seem ready to take on the risk, and why not? Game plans over the past seven years didn’t work.