Why Minnesota Timberwolves Will Be NBA's Biggest Surprise Next Season

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2013

Things are looking up for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Things are looking up for the Minnesota Timberwolves.Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been one of the most active teams early in free agency as they try to build a contender around Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio

According to Marcus Fuller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders had a busy Tuesday afternoon on the second day of free agency.

After reaching an agreement to retain one of their two unrestricted free-agents, Chase Budinger, Saunders pressed on and landed Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Kevin Martin as well.

Suddenly, Minnesota may be looking like a much more attractive place to play for the sometimes disgruntled Love. With Rubio returning to full health after his knee injury and Love's hand rested during the offseason, the Timberwolves look poised to contend for a playoff spot.

Yes, the T-Wolves lost 51 games last season, finishing 25th in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency. But they were beset by injuries to Love and Budinger, and Rubio did not return at 100 percent. 

Armed with their new, healthy rotation, the Wolves could feast on inferior competition next year, and that alone would be enough to get out of the lottery.  First we'll examine the signings and then see how they fit into the rotation. Finally, there's one big question mark remaining, and expect Saunders to address that directly. 


The Signings

OKC received Kevin Martin from the Houston Rockets in the James Harden trade, and now have very little to show for it.

Martin did a respectable job as Harden's replacement, averaging 14 points in 27.7 minutes per game off the bench. He knocked down 42.6 percent of his three-pointers and 89 percent of his foul shots.

The Timberwolves get a experience 2-guard with improved range and length at 6'7". 

Chase Budinger managed only 23 games last season and will serve like a new acquisition, provided he's healthy. In his three seasons with Houston, Budinger was a steady producer from the start, and his career averages (9.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game) reflect the statistical similarities of his four seasons. 

Budinger is no game-changer, but the second-round pick out of Arizona can knock down the three and shoot off of screens. He's a bit slight at 6'7", 218 pounds, but he can space the floor and possesses the athleticism to snag his share of rebounds. He could stand to improve his mid-range game, but he's still an asset for the Wolves' rotation.


The Existing Core

Ricky Rubio is only 22 years old, so it's easy to understand how you forgot about such a talented point guard. That can tend to happen when you play in Minnesota. Just ask Kevin Garnett.

Last season, Rubio seemed to lack the explosiveness that characterized his game prior to suffering the injury. He still averaged 10.7 points, 7.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds per over 57 games. Still, a knee injury can be hard to come back from for a high-motor player like Rubio. His player efficiency rating ranked 28th among point guards, just ahead of Steve Nash.

Rubio brings speed and an attacking mentality to the offense, though he struggles when shooting on the perimeter. The Spaniard also plays excellent defense and should be in fine form for 2013-14.

Meanwhile, the fate of Minnesota's season was essentially decided by Kevin Love's hands. Due to an injury and subsequent re-injury, Love appeared in only 18 games.

If you forgot how good Love can be, let me remind you. He averaged 20.2 points and 15.2 rebounds per game in 2010-11, followed by 26 points and 13.3 boards the next season. If he returns near that form after an offseason of rest, the T-Wolves will be hard to beat on the glass. Oh, and he can knock down three pointers.

Derrick Williams filled in last year and did a creditable job in Love's absence. That experience will be invaluable going forward, and Williams serves as an insurance policy after Andrei Kirilenko opted out of $10 million in guaranteed money.

Minnesota also returns a talented trio in the backcourt of J.J. Barea, Luke Ridnour and Alexey Shved. They also traded down for the No. 14 pick in the draft and selected UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad.

With strong rebounding and a slew of shooters to rain down on opponents, the Timberwolves have just one big piece of the puzzle to wrap up and round out their squad—the man in the middle.

Unfinished Business

Nikola Pekovic is a 27-year-old center and he racked up some serious stats last year. He's coming off a campaign where he averaged 16.3 points on 52 percent shooting and 8.8 boards per game. 

I would not have landed second place in my fantasy league without him, so thank you, Pek.

He did miss 20 games due to several injuries, but his power and raw talent have helped him develop into one of the more talented big men in the West.

Kirilenko is the only other free agent to address, but because he's 32 years of age, the T-Wolves will let other suitors pursue Kirilenko as they focus on retaining the younger Pekovic.

The Montenegrin is the only real center on Minnesota's roster, so losing him could prove damning to any hope of the playoffs. Considering the aggression with which Flip Saunders has addressed the team's needs already this offseason, expect Pekovic to be re-signed sooner rather than later.


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