Seemingly at wits’ end after Saturday’s 101-89 loss to Utah, Timberwolves coach and executive decision-maker Flip Saunders vowed changes for a youthful team he said inexplicably lacked energy and hustle.
“How can that be when you have two 19-year-olds, a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old?” Saunders asked afterward.
There are two ways he can respond, one of which he and his staff already have been pursuing for some time.
Saunders has been managing playing time by using analytical player-tracking technology supplied by a company called SportVu that uses overhead cameras in NBA arenas to see all. The data has shown that hard-working Shabazz Muhammad and big man Gorgui Dieng, in particular, regress when asked to do too much on an injury-ravaged team that’s overmatched while missing Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin.
He has tried to measure playing time for both men when the evidence suggests their energy level drops and each moves slower than he did earlier in the game.
That doesn’t explain, however, why Saunders considered his team collectively lacking from the start of Saturday’s game. That’s when he threatened the second course of response: Withholding — not measuring — playing time.
“That lineup you saw tonight,” Saunders said after Saturday’s game, “there probably will be some changes.”
Saunders admitted Saturday his team lost some of its spunk and competitive spirit when he traded veteran Corey Brewer away two weeks ago, getting two future second-round picks, shooter Troy Daniels and dumping Ronny Turiaf’s contract by dealing a player whom Saunders determined would walk away as a free agent this summer.
“One thing Corey always brought is energy,” Saunders said. “We knew we weren’t going to have him back next year and we were in a situation to get something for him. It did take away a little bit the personality of our team because we have a lot of guys who don’t communicate, who don’t talk. Young players.”
Saunders seemed most alarmed by what he called a change in Muhammad, his hardest-working player. He traded Brewer in part to create more space for Muhammad to grow while also worrying if he could continue to play as hard as he had in a significantly increased role.
“My biggest concern has been the energy of Bazz,” Saunders said. “He has not been even close to the energy he had earlier.”
Asked if he is not the same energetic player who once was not long ago, Muhammad said, “I mean, we’ve been playing a lot of games, I’ve been playing a lot of minutes. That could do with it, but at the end of the day I’ve got to suck it up and play and win some games here.”
Saunders, Muhammad and rookie Andrew Wiggins all attributed Saturday’s loss — the Wolves’ 11th consecutive, and their 17th in the past 18 games — to a lack of energy and effort. That could be, though, just code for a young team that isn’t any good and certainly wasn’t physical enough against Utah without its three veteran starters missing — and one that is going backwards instead of forward under the burden of it all.
“We’re playing in the NBA. We have to turn it around,” Muhammad said. “The energy isn’t there. It’s just embarrassing.”
Saunders said he hoped his players aren’t waiting for the cavalry to come charging over the hill with the return of Rubio, Pekovic and Martin because some of them won’t play when those guys return.
“Like I told our guys, don’t think it can’t get worse,” Saunders said. “It definitely can.”
Wiggins said now is not the time for he and his teammates to wait for it to get better, not in the middle of a four-game home stand when they’ve already squandered chances to beat Sacramento and Utah and still have Denver and Phoenix upcoming.
“When they come back, it’s going to be great and obviously we want them to get healthy as soon as possible,” Wiggins said. “As a player, you can’t just depend on them and wait for them. You still have to try and win games and compete. … Energy comes from within. No one can tell you to play hard. You have to want to play hard. It’s all love of the game. You’ve got to love to play, got to love to compete.”