Only the Good…
Kevin Love’s game-winning shot showed how TWolves are part of a new NBA trend.
by Matt Domino / @PuddlesofMyself
As Friday night turned to Saturday morning, Ricky Rubio was 0-9 from the floor. He had 6 points on six free throws and dazzled as usual with is innate passing ability.
Then, with the TWolves down 98-95 with under a minute to play, he hit a three from the corner to tie the game. That shot was his only made field goal of the game. Then, on the other end of the floor, he stifled Chauncey Billups’ layup, which set up the TWolves’ final possession. And, as time expired, Kevin Love hit a three pointer to win the game. It was just another night in the ‘11-12 NBA season.
This was just a game in January but it was a perfect example of an ongoing trend in the NBA over the past few years: The League is now filled with “good” guys— likeable, talented players who you want to root for. “Good” guys are partially why you find yourself excited for a Clippers-Wolves game in the middle of winter. Nothing exhibited this trend more than the image of Kevin Love embracing Rubio and whispering in his ear after he made his game-winning three.
Last month, when SLAMonline interviewed one of these “good” guys, Pacers center Roy Hibbert, the conversation touched on how beneficial it was for the League that teams like the Pacers and the Grizzlies and the Thunder were suddenly thriving, even in the face of all the Miami Heat backlash. So far this season, you could add the Sixers and, to a lesser extent, the TWolves to that list.
The Wolves are not yet a very good team, though they have the makings of one. But what they have in common with the Thunder, Pacers, Grizzlies and Sixers is that they have been carefully assembled and have allowed their players to grow and learn. A certain premium has been put on the character of the players on a team, which is something that was lacking in the NBA for a long time. Character and good team chemistry have slowly become more of a focus since Dwyane Wade and LeBron James entered the League in 2003; and rapidly since Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant have started playing.
The Thunder have obviously been the model of this kind of “good guy” success in recent years. Each night, at various times, the Thunder trot out Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Eric Maynor (pre-injury), Thabo Sefalosha and the immortal Nick Collison. These are all talented, likeable players who are competitive, play hard and enjoy playing with one another. You can point to the perceived Westbrook-Durant feud as evidence to the contrary, but overall the Thunder are a good team and they have become perhaps the model NBA franchise.
The Thunder’s success is tied to the model of success the Spurs set the past decade due to Sam Presti’s San Antonio front office roots. The Spurs’ past success and continued willingness to be patient with players and prospects (I.e. Danny Green, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter) has begotten the Oklahoma City Thunder and their success. The Thunder’s success and popularity have begotten the Grizzlies, Pacers, Sixers and now the Timberwolves as they are currently constructed.
The Timberwolves were a laughing stock as recently as last season. Now, people want to see the TWolves play. They want to see Kevin Love; a freak of nature who by all accounts is a great teammate. They want to see Ricky Rubio and his infectious passing skills. And they want to see the exciting upside of rookie addition Derrick Williams. Meanwhile, the rest of the team is filled out by high character role players like Luke Ridnour, Anthony Tolliver, Wayne Ellington, Wes Johnson and even a journeyman like Darko Milicic.
In the Eastern Conference, the Pacers and 76ers are mirror images of each other, including the fact that they both lack a star player on the scale of a Kevin Love or a Kevin Durant. Indiana has Hibbert, Granger, Collison, the tough veteran David West, Tyler Hansbrough, George Hill and the promising Paul George. Meanwhile, the Sixers have Iguodala, Jrue Holliday, Jodie Meeks, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and the veteran experience of Elton Brand. They are the surprise leaders of the Atlantic Division because they have youth, talent, experience and have bought into their coach’s system. All of that has led to the team giving off a sense that they genuinely enjoy playing with each other, which is the same sense you get when you watch the Indiana Pacers.
In the promo for ESPN’s The Association: Denver Nuggets, George Karl, in describing his team, summed up this trend best by saying, “I don’t want the top guy at one or two positions. I want a top-10 guy at every position.” The statement very much reflects the backlash that the Miami Heat have created around the League.
Franchises are looking for real teams in the truest sense of the word—teams without super-duper-stars. Teams are now saying, “If star players are going to force their way to big markets to play with other stars, then so be it, we’ll get by with a bunch of guys who aren’t superstars, but who are borderline All-Stars and we’ll spread them around the roster, make our team extra deep and go to war.” And that isn’t a terrible strategy.
In the end, this trend of “good guys” may not end up winning Championships. Last year’s Mavericks were a team of veteran “good guys,” but they had Dirk, a Hall of Famer playing the best basketball of his life, to get them to the top. More often then not, you need a Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant to win a Championship.
Even in the fact of that reality, it is still refreshing, in an era when the “team” aspect of football has been beaten into our heads by sports media, that a personality driven sport like basketball can thrive on good teams filled with good players both young and old who genuinely seem, even to the viewer at home, to enjoy playing together. Even a team of superstars like the Miami Heat have filled out its roster this year and look more like the Mavericks or Thunder than that hated Heat team of a year ago.
And this entire recent history of “good guys” in the NBA was perfectly manifested by the hug between Love and Rubio in the early hours of Saturday morning. It showed where the League is, where it’s going, and how some of these “good guys” may succeed and how others may not.