Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman is a legend. Adelman’s squads have missed the playoffs in just six of his 22 years of coaching. Unfortunately for the Timberwolves fans, two of those years have been with the Wolves, and this year may be a third. Adelman arrived in 2011 to lead a young group headed by emerging stars Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love into the playoffs. So far he hasn’t succeeded, and it’s easy to pass this failure off due to extended injuries the past two years. This year, though, a healthy Rubio, Love, and Nikola Pekovic have only led to a 13-14 record.
Adelman can win in the regular season. He’s racked up over 1000 career wins and owns a .585 winning percentage. Wolves’ new addition Kevin Martin is a leading candidate for most improved player, and part of that is largely due to returning to coach Adelman’s system which he’d previously played under with the Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets. Kevin Love is having a career year and is quietly making a case for the NBA’s Most Valuable player. So why are the Wolves losing?
The Timberwolves drafted Derrick Williams with the second overall pick in 2011, the same year Adelman joined the Wolves. While the young power forward wasn’t exactly expected to make an impact right away on a team that already had the best young power forward in the game, his performance was still disappointing for a No. 2 pick. Last year with Love missing nearly the entire season, Williams got extended playing time. As a starter, he averaged over 13 points and six rebounds in just under 28 minutes per game. Williams seemed poised to break out this year, but Adelman simply didn’t play him so Williams was promptly traded for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
This year, the Wolves traded for rookie Shabazz Muhammad on draft day. Muhammad has played in just eight of the Wolves’ 27 games so far, averaging around four minutes per game. The curious thing, though, is that Muhammad’s rookie teammate, Robbie Hummel, has played in 20 Wolves games averaging over 12 minutes per contest.
Neither Williams nor Muhammad fit in Adelman’s system, which is fairly strange as both of them are athletic, young players, and Adelman’s offense uses one of the fastest paces in the league. Still Adelman has shown that he would rather play guys like Hummel and Dante Cunningham, both of whom have limited upside but play their roles well, than try to develop talent.
The Wolves’ main weakness this year is their bench. Guys like Muhammad and and Williams make excellent sixth men. Both of them are natural scorers and have the speed and athleticism to give second units major problems. If Williams could have fit in Adelman’s system or if Muhammad was given the playing time to develop the Wolves would have a much more capable bench and likely a much better record.
Adelman’s main flaw has been developing young players. He has been able to get the best out of Martin and Love, but they were already strong players. Giving a roster spot to someone like Muhammad is pointless if he isn’t going to play. While he may be performing poorly in practice, there’s no way to see if he’s cut out for the NBA unless he plays meaningful minutes in NBA games. Winning now is important to the Wolves’ future as there’s a good chance Love leaves if the team fails to make the playoffs, but it will be hard to win now or in the future without developing rookies.