Unlike the seasons Brandon Roy, Kevin Love, Malcolm Lee, Chase Budinger or even Josh Howard had, Dante Cunningham played this year. His early coming out party in Brooklyn as the Wolves rallied in the fourth quarter was a sign that maybe things would be different this year.
That’s all I could find of Dante’s contributions from that Nets game. He punked Kris Humphries on the boards (something of a theme for him this year, as well) and got his hands on every loose ball. Never mind the midrange jumpers — his role is said to exist on most every NBA team, and I’m watching Udonis Haslem provide the Miami Heat with a lot of gristle and guile (as well as a fair amount of midrange jumpers).
That’s a term we use in sports, right? As I understand it, it’s the guy that is willing to do whatever is needed for his team as a way to keep things together. When things are going poorly, he’s diving on the floor, flying in for rebounds, getting deflections, darting toward the basket, picking his teammates up, and showing all of the intangibles in tangible form. The adhesive of their impact on the game is supposed to keep a team from spiraling out of control.
That doesn’t always work out though.
Dante Cunningham could be described as a glue guy. When the team was relatively healthy, he seemed to be the first player off the bench for the Timberwolves. Rick Adelman loved him and fans did too. He was the energizer for the Wolves. If the team needed a shot of adrenaline to the heart in order to get back into a game, he was Adelman’s go-to guy for that. If the team needed to keep a run going but give a big man a breather, Adelman trusted Dante to get in there and find a way to keep things rolling.
Guard a center? No problem for the 6’8″ forward. Guard a power forward that is a banger in the post? Cunningham will happily get low in his defensive stance and try to provide as much resistance as possible. Guard a small forward or even a top-notch wing scorer like Kevin Durant? He’s happy to put on his hard helmet (you know, let’s pretend those are the new shooting sleeves) and try to pester a guy he really shouldn’t have to defend. This is what DC did for Rick Adelman and his teammates; he sacrificed for whatever the team needed. That’s what glue guys do.
He isn’t unique, necessarily, in this role. Almost every team in the NBA, if not every team, has a player like this. They have a guy who can excel in a limited role in which he just has to play defense and be intelligently aggressive with the plays he tries to make. And that’s exactly how I’d describe what Dante Cunningham does on the offensive end of the court: he’s intelligently aggressive.
You rarely saw him dribble a basketball more than once on any given play. In fact, if he dribbled the ball even once it was a bit of a shock. He wasn’t someone that could get sucked into taking a bad shot. He ran pick-and-pop plays and if the jumper was there, he’d take it. If he needed to dive to the basket and make a play at the rim, he did it. He didn’t dribble. He didn’t try to thread the needle with passes. He just existed. For the first two months of the season, he existed in spectacular fashion.
Early on, it seemed like his midrange jumper was automatic. You expected it to go in, even if that’s
really not even what the percentages told you would happen. He just seemed incredible at finishing plays, and they never seemed designed for him. He was just there to clean it up with his hustle. It was easy to glorify his position on this team because he always seemed to be the one the Wolves could rely on during a season of injury-induced turmoil. The truth was asking him to do more than the random hustle and subtle execution wasn’t something he was cut out for.
In the nine games Cunningham started, he was terrible at making shots. He shot 39.3% from the field as a starter this season. A lot of that came after a few injuries left him banged up but still managing to play. He was one of two players on the roster (Luke Ridnour being the other) that played in at least 80 games for the Wolves this past season. Even through back issues and other various nicks, he gutted it out and showed up to play. As the extended minutes piled up, his effectiveness seemed less consistent. He was one of many role players on the team asked to do more than he should. But he never seemed ticked off at what he was asked to do.
That’s what I’ll take away from Cunningham from this past season. He wasn’t perfect by any means and he certainly is someone I have trouble deciding whether or not I want him to get minutes over Derrick Williams (assuming they’re both around next season). Ultimately, talent wins out in this league and Williams certainly has more talent than Cunningham. But talent doesn’t always translate to someone who has earned minutes. You need players like Cunningham to just go out there and give effort no matter what, even if it doesn’t lead to success. He’s a potential spark plug.
Comedian Jeff Ross tells this story about when he was trying to figure out his comedy career. He was trying to parlay any momentum he had as a standup comedian into a booming career but was struggling to do so. He asked his friend Dave Chappelle for some advice and Dave responded with, “Stay your lane.” Whenever I look back at clips of Dante Cunningham from this season, the idea of “stay your lane” pops into my head. DC doesn’t try to do anything he can’t. He seems very aware of what he’s good at and what he isn’t good at and you rarely see him deviate from that formula.
That’s what glue guys do and Dante Cunningham was the Wolves’ glue guy this past season.