GH And Petey's Timberwolves Blog

Monday, January 17, 2005

Team Identity

It's my own opinion that a team identity is the most important thing an NBA team can have. The most crucial aspect of team identity is:

Each player on the team must buy into the team concept.

Most players at the NBA level have been quasi basketball gods for almost their whole life and can only buy into a team concept if the coach is highly regarded and proven (Phil Jackson, Larry Brown, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan, etc) or if there is a definitive superstar who they can defer to. This is not Vince Carter -- his team gave up deferring a long time ago because he simply can't be the leader he needs to be. The Twolves make the playoffs every year not only because KG is a stud but because the team defers to him (yes the Twolves have great talent now, but a few years ago it was KG passing to KG who was then throwing the alleyoop to KG). The Pistons won the 'ship last year because the team was able to defer to Larry Brown.

This involves each player knowing exactly what they are expected to contribute. For example, guys with Mark Madsen's skill set generally do not succeed in the NBA. He's a well below average shooter, below average passer, below average dribbler, and has well below average athleticism and height for his position (generally C or PF). Ok, so he's below average on so many fronts but is able to be a difference maker on good nights and a decent defesnvie stop-gap measure on bad nights. He does this through a very high basketball IQ and knowing exactly what his limitations are. You will not see him dribble the ball upcourt. You will not see him drive to the hoop and attempt a pass in traffic. You will not see him shoot a 15 footer. He maximizes his ability by being extremely high energy and smart. He also is very overlooked and knows when to flash to the basket for an open dunk or when he needs to come over on help D to take a charge.

Ok, a good example of someone who does not know what's going on is Kobe Bryant. For a few years he would defer to Shaq and bought into Phil's concept. As soon as he got sick of Phil and stopped deferring the whole team had no idea how to play in their roles. Last year the Lakers survived off of pure talent and experience but as soon as they lost Karl, no one on the team knew what to do (except Luke Walton who was the reason they won game 2, no Kobe wasn't the reason). I've watched many Lakers games this year now that I'm in Southern California and I can say that it is obvious the team wants to defer to Kobe but Kobe does not now how to be the man and make his teammates better. He is very close to being another Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady who's team concept shortcomings were overcome by Shaq and Phil.

Wonder why the Warriors haven't made the playoffs in a decade? They haven't had the requisite coach or requisite stud player that their team was willing to defer to. Chris Webber was too immature, ditto for Spreewell, and Joe Smith just plain sucked. Frankly, I felt that Gilbert Arenas could have been that guy a couple of years ago but their brilliant management let him get away. Noticed that the Warriors-East (Wizards) are having a great season? Well, it's because the players traded to the Wizards have been together a few years and have matured into a cohesive nucleus.

How is this all applicable to the Wolves? I'm glad you asked because so far this year (for the first time since KG has been with them) they are NOT playing team basketball. Their most important parts (Cassell and Spree namely) have not bought into the concept that worked so well last year. Their new weapon, Eddie is in an uncomfortable position because he needs the more experienced leaders to define his role for him, but instead sometimes he needs to be the scorer, sometimes the defender, and sometimes the rebounder. KG is talented and experienced enough to know when to slide into these roles but I think Eddie has struggled to find his niche (and has run into a quasi rookie wall). Spree and Cassell are the biggest culprits. Spree doesn't seem to realize that he has a shot at a ring if he would only stay focused and bring the things he brought last year -- energy, defense, and a strong scoring punch when other teams focused on KG and Cassell. Sam has been battling injuries, but he doesn't seem too interested in getting the Wolves running on all cylanders like they were last year. Somehow he needs to set the offensive flow and make sure the defense engages when KG isn't playing the top of a 1-2-2 zone. As soon as this example is set, everyone will be focused and ready to feed off of all of the opportunities afforded by their superstar.

I think the Wolves are finally sensing the need to come together and especially the need to stop teams from scoring so much on them. Their offense can succeed even when they're not playing as a team since they have enough talented scorers -- their defense can only be as good as their weakest link.

Their robust 2 game winning streak is a nice start but it's not going to matter unless they can parlay it into a team consistent team identity and effort.