There are ups and downs to watching young lottery-bound teams in action. They normally have elite athleticism and energy on the offensive end, but sometimes it takes some convincing to get young guys to play defense. On Friday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves showed such little effort on defending their basket, interim head coach Sam Mitchell benched three of his starters— Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio — early in the third. They never returned to the game, and the ‘Wolves lost, 116-101.
Minney’s alternate lineup of Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng was able to make it a game again, but they ultimately fell short. Mitchell didn’t spend much time explaining to the media what happened, but it was clear from his brief comments, by way of the Star Tribune, that his three starter’s lack of effort was the primary culprit.
“I thought the guys who played in the second half played hard,” he began. “Played together, played with a type of intensity and energy we needed to. I thought some of the guys in the first group didn’t play that way. And they have to understand, every single night you have to earn it. You don’t get to sleepwalk your way through 20, 25 minutes of the game and then decide you gotta play. … So the guys that didn’t play in the second half, after we pulled ’em out, hopefully they understand that there’s two sides on the court. You have to play both sides.”
Sometimes coaches will give young players some tough love and bench them early, as was the case with Lakers coach Bryon Scott and No. 2 pick, D’Angelo Russell — who he deliberately kept on the pine in fourth quarters earlier this year.
But the situation in Minnesota is more extreme. First of all, Towns is the only player in the group who is a rookie, Wiggins and Rubio have more seasons under their belt and should know how important defensive effort is by now. And after the game, Rubio said he agreed with Mitchell’s decision.
“We played terrible,” Rubio said. “You can’t make that many mistakes on defense, and we can’t let anybody outwork us. And that’s what happened. … We couldn’t find our pride out there. We can have a lot of talent. But if we don’t play hard, it doesn’t matter.”
But Wiggins didn’t exactly see eye to eye with his coach, saying “If that’s [Sam Mitchell’s] plan, that’s his plan…I played hard.”
It’s been a difficult year in Minnesota after former coach, GM and minority owner, Flip Saunders, passed away just before the beginning of the season. Since then, Mitchell has had his hands full with a young team and the losing — only the Suns and Lakers have a worse record in the West. So, it remains to be seen if his leadership will continue into next season.