Young Timberwolves learning the hard way
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Al Jefferson heard all the talk about how the Minnesota Timberwolves and their fans were going to have to be patient while their ambitious rebuilding plan got off the ground.
He heard new president David Kahn say it would take at least two years before they were ready to start competing for a playoff spot.
He heard new coach Kurt Rambis say that all these young players had so much to learn before they started to challenge other teams in the powerful Western Conference.
Jefferson, the cornerstone of the new era for the Timberwolves, did not believe it then. But after the team dropped its eighth straight game on Wednesday night against Portland, the message finally hit home.
“I used to think when everybody used to say that – patience – it was just something they were saying so we didn’t have a big head. That it was just the right thing to say,” Jefferson said after a 107-84 loss to Portland. “But it’s really going to take some time. It is. We’ve got some young players. We’ve got a new system that we’re trying to learn.”
The Timberwolves opened the season with an inspiring rally to beat the New Jersey Nets, but have not won since. The messy stretch includes a 41-point loss to the struggling Golden State Warriors sandwiched between 23-point losses to the Trail Blazers.
“When you’ve got this many new faces, when you have the amount of young guys that we’re trying to give playing time, they just don’t have the experience, they don’t have the knowledge,” Rambis said. “It’s not they’re fault. It’s just not enough time.”
Kahn took over in May for longtime team architect Kevin McHale and immediately started with a massive remodeling of a franchise that has not been to the playoffs since 2004. He made more than 20 personnel moves this summer and put Rambis in charge of a team with 10 players that are 25 or younger.
So far this season, the team has looked every bit its age.
Turnovers, difficulty mastering the triangle offense, poor rotation on defense, all the hallmarks of a young team have been on display.
“That’s one thing about dealing with a young team, when your head gets down, it’s hard to pick it back up,” Jefferson said. “Right now, we’re letting teams hit us and we’re not hitting back. Most teams hit back. We’re getting hit and not even hitting back.”
The challenges have been many. Jefferson is not near the player he was before he tore the ACL in his right knee in February. He was averaging more than 23 points and 11 rebounds a game just before he was hurt in New Orleans last season, but has yet to regain the lift and quick-jump ability that he had before the injury.
And the team’s other top rebounder, Kevin Love, is not expected to play until December after breaking his hand in the preseason.
So far, Rambis is taking everything in stride. He expected these struggles. He anticipated the growing pains.
“The only thing I didn’t foresee was Kevin breaking his hand,” Rambis said. “Everything else I understood was going to be a process. Everybody else is looking like, ‘Oh my goodness they don’t get it nine games into the season.’
“Whereas I’m looking at this as a one-, two-, three-year process for guys to really even sort of get a grasp on what we’re talking about where they feel comfortable with what we’re asking them to do.”
It looks all too familiar to Blazers coach Nate McMillan. During his first season in Portland in 2005, the Blazers won just 21 games as they rebuilt with young players. But it has been steady improvement since then, and now the deep and talented team is one of the up-and-comers in the West.
“When you’re developing and trying to win at the same time, it’s very difficult,” McMillan said. “Kurt is coming in and trying to get his system into place. It’s going to take some time. But it’s very difficult. You’ve got to be patient with it.”
That has been perhaps the hardest lesson of all for these young Timberwolves. They don’t want to hear about all the draft picks the team has next year or the all the available cap room that will make them major players in the free agent market of 2010.
“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us,” guard Ramon Sessions said. “It’s not fun when you lose, no matter if you’re learning or what you’re doing. We’ve got to get wins, that’s all.”
For now, Rambis is not focusing on victories. He wants consistent effort and measured improvement. That’s it.
“It’s not going to happen in the first 10 games. It’s probably not going to happen in the first 45 games,” Rambis said. “It just comes over time.”