An NBA season like every worthwhile competition holds many parallels with military battle and when I say that It holds many parallels I mean that they’re similar enough for me to make a tenuous analogy. So as you can imagine the pitched battle raging upon the fields of war, so too can you see the beleaguered starting unit of the Minnesota Timberwolves, fatigued after endless weeks of carrying a team vacillating between mediocrity and stable competence. This week saw relief brought to their side as the cavalry of Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger rode valiantly into the battlefield not just to reinforce but to re-energise their teammates as they move into the second half of the season.
If absences make the heart grow fonder then the eventual return as a result will usually end up being rather uncomfortable. It’s probably a good thing that humans retain the positive memories at a greater rate than the negative in these instances, but unfortunately the same mechanism sets you up for a untimely surprise and so is life, a constant cycle of hope and dejection. We battle on regardless of course, in the knowledge that occasionally something will meet our expectations and it will be glorious when it happens because it means we don’t need to alter our aims at all, because like a broken clock they will find themselves correct every now and again.
Sadly, when I speak of failing machinery it reminds me of the Timberwolves’ bench. There are few things more incongruous than the offensive motion and workings Luc Mbah a Moutes and the J.J. Bareas of this world, which I mistakenly say, as if there is the possibility of more than one J.J. Barea in this world. The second unit for the Timberwolves has knowingly descended into a one-man band with Barea at the helm, relentlessly pursuing his post-NBA career in the entertainment industry. Given that his offensive strategies consist of so much over-handling, lunging, diving, falling and gesticulating i’d assume that his hopes were to bring back the classic slapstick comedies of the 1920s. Who says It’s all been done before? J.J. Barea in a silent, black-and-white tragicomedy probably hasn’t.
Furthermore, the truth is that the likelihood of Alexey Shved being a KGB agent rises with each incompetent display. While Dante Cunningham remains a safe and unremarkable player who defends more capably than he seems and generally works OK within the structure of the team, he is not ever going to be a significant plus. Similar things can also be said about Robbie Hummel when he has gotten the minutes.
Given the general excellence of the starting unit (114 offensive rating, 105 defensive rating via 82games.com) and the brutally fine margin of defeat the Timberwolves like to play with, it’s reasonable to expect that the return of two significant reserves can have an impact in the win-loss margin. As much as we love to blame the more famous players, everybody on the court influences proceedings. And so, with Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger returning it’s very easy to be hopeful of a deeper, more complete team. In the past week alone, Turiaf has been constantly active in his 15 minutes per game, harassing opponents, hustling for rebounds, generally marauding around the paint fearing no consequence. He undeniably brings attitude to a frontcourt somewhat lacking in it, for all the strengths of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, neither would ever resemble a pirate snagging loot the same way Turiaf snags his rebounds.
If Turiaf’s has dive-bombed his way back into the rotation then it looks like Chase Budinger has quietly slipped into the shallow end before going through his warm up laps. A capable shooter and defender he has the most complete game of any non-starter on the roster, a meniscus tear is a serious injury and it would be silly to assume a comfortable transition back but regardless, the Wolves are waiting for his knee and his jump shot to return to full health as soon as possible.
Finally, one interesting emergence since the return of Turiaf and Budinger is the use of a consistent second unit. Many have expressed concern at the inconsistencies in the rotation times and the bench units when on the floor, but in the few games back there has been a regular display of the Barea-Shved-Budinger-Cunningham-Turiaf unit. Which, surprisingly, is the 8th most played Wolves unit, despite Budinger and Turiaf having featured in only three and six of the 37 games played so far this season. The sample size is much too small to warrant caring about the numbers (defensively, this unit allows 79 points per 100 possessions), but with time to gel and play together this bench could become a good unit, more importantly, it is the area of the team most likely to improve over the 2nd half of the season. So if you start to see the win-loss column look a little more favorable, these guys will probably need some of the credit.