The Wolves suffered injury after injury after injury last season—and after that, they had some more injuries. It felt like some crazy, Minnesota witch doctor put a hex on the Wolves' jerseys.
Anyone who dons this uniform will not make it to April healthy.
If it were baseball, we'd be talking about combined time spent on the disabled list. Instead, we're talking about how Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, the three best players on the roster, never stepped on the floor together once all season. No team can have relative success if its three best players never play together. Not one.
Now, the Wolves enter the start of a new season healthy and rejuvenated. A Rubio-Love-Pek core can win games. Soon, we'll get to find out exactly how many.
Timberwolves 2012-13 Results
- 31-51 record
- Last in the Northwest
- 12th in the Western Conference
Key additions: Kevin Martin (sign-and-trade), Corey Brewer (free agency), Nikola Pekovic (re-signed), Shabazz Muhammad (draft), Gorgui Dieng (draft), Lorenzo Brown (draft)
Key losses: Luke Ridnour (sign-and-trade), Brandon Roy (knees), Andrei Kirilenko (free agency)
Can the Wolves stay healthy?
There can't be a repeat of last year. There just can't be. It can't happen. It's not possible.
Name any big player on the Wolves' roster last year and he probably went down with an injury for some extended period. At different points throughout the year, Minnesota saw Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger, Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko get hurt in some form or another.
The Timberwolves probably learned some valuable lessons after that grueling season. Knuckle pushups might as well now be banned in Minneapolis now. It's also safe to say the Wolves won't be signing anyone without doing a knee cartilage check first. (Actually, Chase Budinger says that's not true.)
Even injury replacements were getting hurt. Players like Josh Howard, who the Wolves signed in mid-November and played in only 11 games before tearing his ACL, couldn't make it through the year. It was bad luck after bad luck.
Now, the Wolves aren't relying on guys like Roy and Kirilenko, who have extensive injury histories, but still, the question looms: Can this team stay healthy for the whole season?
This is a playoff-contending roster, but remember that it was one last year also. Unfortunately, when a team's three best players (Pek, Love and Rubio) never see the floor together at the same time, 31 wins or fewer is all but a guarantee.
Can the team improve its perimeter offense?
The good news for the Wolves is that the shooting probably won't get much worse.
Minnesota shot 30.5 percent from three last year, good enough for dead last in the NBA. But the Wolves did make some moves to improve their perimeter shooting for this year.
The biggest impact is probably the signing of Kevin Martin, who shot 42.6 percent from three last season, but there are going to be internal improvements as well.
Kevin Love, who has shot 39.1 percent from long range in his last two healthy seasons, is going to be back and ready to play 82 games. Ricky Rubio shot 44.4 percent from three on 2.6 attempts per game in his final 14 games last season and might be ready to make a slight improvement on his distance shooting. A healthy Chase Budinger will help, as well.
There's a chance we also see a slight adjustment in scheme for the Wolves this season. Minnesota finished 25th in the NBA in three-point attempts from the corner last year, according to NBA.com. It shot 35.8 percent on those attempts, also good enough for bottom six in the league.
The corner three is the most efficient jump shot in the NBA. A 22' three is much easier to hit than one that's from 23'9" (which is the three-point distance from above the break).
The corner is where Martin works best. He hit exactly half his corner threes last year. Budinger, meanwhile, is mainly a catch-and-shoot offensive player that hit 48.0 percent of his corner threes in his last healthy season (2011-12).
Those guys will work from the corner more and that will help open up the floor for guys like Rubio and Love, who love to work in the middle part of the court. The shot selection and spacing will probably be better this season and because of that, the three-point shooting most likely will improve. At least, it can't get much worse.
Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
I've already taken a look at each individual player on the Wolves' roster. Here is a breakdown of the projected 15-man roster by position:
Projected Depth Chart
|First String||Second String||Third String||Fourth String|
|PG||Ricky Rubio||J.J. Barea||Lorenzo Brown|
|SG||Kevin Martin||Alexey Shved|
|SF||Corey Brewer||Chase Budinger||Shabazz Muhammad|
|PF||Kevin Love||Derrick Williams||Dante Cunningham||Chris Johnson|
|C||Nikola Pekovic||Ronny Turiaf||Gorgui Dieng|
Point Guards: B
The big question about the point guards this year will be, can Ricky Rubio make "the leap"? For Rubio to do that, he has to improve his shot.
As previously mentioned, Rubio actually shot well from three down the stretch last year.
There are two ways to look at that. There's the glass-half-full way that says he came into the year recovering from an ACL injury, and once he started to regain his health, his shot started to get better. The glass-half-empty way says, "It's 14 games! Give me a legit sample size!"
For now, we don't really know if Rubio improved or if he merely played better for a short period of time, but we do know the kid can pass as well as anyone else in the league and can play some of the feistiest on-ball defense of any point guard in the NBA.
Barea is a solid backup, who won't help much defensively, but his athleticism can compensate for his size and because of that he's become a pretty decent streak scorer over the past few years.
Brown, meanwhile, was a second-round pick, who will probably hover in the D-League for most of the year, if he even stays on the roster. Like Rubio, the N.C. State alum isn't much of a shooter, but he's a 6-foot-5 point guard who sees the floor well and can overpower smaller guards.
Shooting Guards: B-
Production at shooting guard almost completely depends on if Martin can replicate his efficiency in Oklahoma City last season.
Last week, I went over the changes in Martin's shot selection over the past few years. He's become a jumper-heavy, layup-light guard. You'd think that might be synonymous with a Rudy Gay replica, but in actuality, Martin is such an accurate jump shooter that he's still one of the most efficient players in the league.
Martin can pull off a rimless style of play, mainly because he's consistently strong from every area on the floor. His shot chart shows that if teams force him out of his comfort zone and onto another spot on the floor, he can still hurt his opponent.
Shved got off to a brilliant start last year as a rookie, but his shooting fell off as the year went on, mainly after Rubio came back—and that might not be much of a coincidence.
Shved is so much more comfortable playing with the ball in his hands on the offensive end. He's a big point guard, but an effective one, and there is a chance that he could become the Wolves' second point guard, bypassing Barea, at some point during the season.
Shved is still young and he's smart. You don't necessarily need to know how to shoot to be an effective off-ball player as long as you know how to cut. Shved struggled with both of those things last year, but even if his jump shooting doesn't get much better, he can become a more effective shooting guard just by becoming a better cutter. That's something he can do and Rick Adelman hopes it's something he will do this season.
Small Forwards: C
This is probably the weakest spot on the team, filled up with a bunch of role players, all of whom have legitimate flaws.
The good news is that a duo of Budinger and Brewer will be able to defend. Brewer has been one of the better perimeter defenders in the league for years now and Budinger has shown that he is athletic enough to guard wings effectively on the outside. But again, there are problems.
Budinger's always hurt now. Last year, it was knee surgery. This year, it's another knee surgery, work on the meniscus to be exact. He's losing cartilage in his knee.
We always talk about what a ball player needs to be successful: athleticism, ability, talent, heart, whatever else.
You know what should be on that list? Knee cartilage. A basketball player needs knee cartilage and now Budinger has just a little bit less.
Brewer is someone who can't shoot but won't stop shooting, everyone's favorite type of player. He's attempted 3.2 three-pointers per 36 minutes in his career, even though he shoots slightly under 30 percent from long range.
Meanwhile, Brewer's offensive production needs a little extra context. He averaged a career-high 17.8 points per 36 minutes and shot a respectable 61.5 percent at the rim last season, but he played in a system that was perfect for his skills in Denver.
The Denver Nuggets ran like crazy last year. It was all about turnovers, fast-break points and points in the paint.
Brewer's percentage at the rim could be diluted by the fact that he was a transition-dominant player who worked well in a transition-dominant offense. 26.4 percent of his shot attempts last season came in transition, where he shot 58 percent, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). Playing in a more half-court style, the type of basketball that Love and Pekovic prefer, might yield different results.
Shabazz Muhammad, the third small forward, might not get a ton of playing time, but he can be an effective catch-and-shoot player offensively, even though he might get torched by opposing players on the defensive end in his first year.
Power Forwards: A-
Welcome back, Kevin Love. You were maybe the biggest acquisition of the offseason.
Seriously, maybe the best offseason pickup was Love, who is the best power forward in the league when he's healthy. For the first time in a year, Love's body is feeling good and ready for basketball heading into the season. Wolves fans, you have the right to get excited once again.
Love is going to add stretch to an offense that lacked decent spacing for all of last year. When you have a point guard that doesn't shoot well, you better find a way to compensate for that on the offensive end. For the Wolves, Love is that way.
As for Love's backup, hasn't Derrick Williams become one of the more overly criticized players in the NBA? There is such a thing as being drafted by the wrong team. Maybe Williams is just one of those guys.
When Minnesota took Williams No. 2 overall a few years back, they figured he could eventually become a small forward, but that hasn't really happened. He's a 4 and he's staying a 4—and we all know he's not getting minutes over Kevin Love.
So that means Derrick Williams is stuck in Minneapolis purgatory. He can't get enough consistent minutes at power forward to get into any sort of groove. He can't develop any sort of comfort at a naturally uncomfortable small forward position. He's stuck.
Williams is still only 22 years old and pretty much all of his efficiency numbers got better last year. (Granted, he got to play a good amount of power forward with Love out for most of the season.) But aren't we being a little hard on Williams?
Just because he might not become an All-Star doesn't mean he can't be good. It can happen. Maybe this year.
Cunningham and Johnson round out the Wolves' power forwards. Cunningham, who is a fine third-string 4, can hit mid-range shots and is a capable defender.
Johnson, meanwhile, has athleticism on his side and while he probably won't see the floor much, he's someone who can play both the 4 and the 5 and could provide some depth and versatility if guys go down with injuries.
Don't mess with Nikola Pekovic. Why would anyone ever mess with Nikola Pekovic?
If there were an NBA street fight, Anchorman style, isn't it supremely possible that the Wolves would win purely because Pek was on their side? Oh no, Ivan Johnson is scowling right at me. Next topic:
Pek has never really played a full season and that's something to keep an eye out for. He's missed 56 games over his first three NBA seasons, and the injuries have happened consistently. He's missed between 17 and 20 games in each of those three years.
When Pek is healthy though, there aren't many other centers that can replicate what he does. He's arguably the best offensive rebounder in the NBA (no, no one has forgotten about Reggie Evans or Zach Randolph), and has turned into one of the league's best post scorers, as well.
The Wolves run into problems when you get to the backups. Ronny Turiaf is one of the best teammates in the league, but there's a reason that his personality is always the first thing any evaluator brings up when talking about his game.
Gorgui Dieng, meanwhile, is a rookie that has talent, but he's particularly raw offensively. He's a good athlete, but still hasn't figured out exactly how to use that athleticism.
Defensively, he's smart and knows where to be on the floor, but until he puts on some poundage, he might struggle guarding opposing centers in the post.
What to Watch For
Breakout Player: Shabazz Muhammad
"Breakout" might be a little strong, but Muhammad is definitely someone who can exceed expectations in his first NBA season.
When Muhammad committed to UCLA as a high-school senior last year, he was the talk of the country, the No. 1 recruit in his class according to some reputable rankings. If he wasn't No. 1, he was No. 2 behind fellow incoming freshman Nerlens Noel. But last year's expectations should have nothing to do with this year's.
Muhammad was a disappointment at UCLA, but that doesn't mean he wasn't any good. He can still shoot, especially coming off screens, which is a skill that most Timberwolves lack. If the Wolves struggle as a shooting team again, Muhammad could be someone that gets 15 to 20 minutes a game off the bench and has some meaningful moments when he gets hot from beyond the arc.
Team MVP: Kevin Love
Love is the best power forward in the NBA. When teams go to Minnesota, they have one major game plan in mind: Stop Kevin Love.
Even if Rubio makes "the leap" this year, point guard is the deepest position in the NBA and he still will need to improve as an efficient shooter. Pekovic is a major difference maker, but we're talking about Kevin Love here.
Last year, people forgot just how good of a player Love can be; this year is his chance to remind everyone.
Most Disappointing Player: Corey Brewer
Brewer can defend and he can contribute, but he's probably not someone you want playing more than 30 minutes a night in a conventional offense. The Nuggets were so quirky under George Karl last year that Brewer's performance may have been secretly inflated by playing in a system that catered perfectly to him.
Unless the Wolves run the floor more than expected and Brewer cuts down on the bad three-point shots, it might be hard for him to replicate last year's production in the upcoming year.
Player Most Likely to be Traded: Derrick Williams (honorable mention to Kevin Love)
Williams is out of place playing behind Love and he still has one more year on his deal after this season, a $6.3 million team option. That's a tradable contract if a team thinks that it sees something in the third-year forward that he hasn't superficially shown over his first two seasons.
Love, meanwhile, is the dark horse; granted, one of the darker horses out there. He's only under contract for one more season after this one (he has a player option for 2015-16) and if the Wolves get off to a bad start and know they won't be contending come playoff time, it might be wise to break it down and get a huge haul for a big-name player, who has been reportedly frustrated with the Timberwolves' organization for some time.
So you're telling me a rivalry with five other teams isn't really a rivalry at all. Well, conceptually, these are the teams that are most important when it comes to the Wolves making the playoffs.
The top six in the West is pretty set. The Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets will probably be the top seeds in some order come playoff time. That leaves six teams that have a chance to contend for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.
If the Wolves can win the majority of their games against the Lakers, Mavs, Pels, Blazers and Nuggets, they'll stand a good chance to grab one of those two seeds.
Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios with Predicted W-L Record
Best-Case Scenario: 49-33, No. 7 seed in the Western Conference
If Rubio makes "the leap", Pekovic stays healthy, Love stays away from knuckle pushups and Martin maintains his efficiency from the perimeter, this is a realistic possibility—improbable, but realistic.
The West is so strong at the top, that it would be so incredibly unlikely for Minnesota to grab a seed of No. 6 of better, but the No. 7 seed isn't off limits. If Brewer and Budinger help a team that finished 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season stay around that same number, the offense could improve enough to bump the Wolves to a near 50-win team.
Worst-Case Scenario: 36-46, miss the playoffs
If Pek's injury history holds up and he gets hurt again, the Wolves are in trouble. If Love isn't the same coming back from his injury, the Wolves are in trouble. If Rubio regresses simply by not progressing, the Wolves are in trouble.
If Brewer struggles to such a degree that he can't play major minutes, the Wolves are in trouble. If Budinger doesn't recover well from his meniscus injury, the Wolves are in trouble. If all of those things happen, the Wolves don't have a shot.
Predicted W-L Record: 45-37, No. 8 seed in the Western Conference
Ultimately, a healthy Timberwolves team is talented enough to make the playoffs, even with the losses of Luke Ridnour and Andrei Kirilenko. A few of the biggest flaws from last year will be improved, though they might not be all the way there just yet.
Even with Kirilenko gone, the defense will presumably get better with Brewer on the roster, and with Rubio and Budinger playing more games. Those guys can all make an impact on the defensive side of the ball and even if Minnesota struggles protecting the rim, the perimeter defenders could cut off a bunch of ball handlers before they even get to the paint.
As for three-point shooting, Martin can knock it down from long range. So can Budinger. So can Love. So can Muhammad.
Even if the Wolves aren't the best shooting team in the league, they can't get much worse than last in the league, and with those four guys now on the roster for the full season, they almost definitely will improve on that figure.
Rick Adelman is one of the better coaches in the NBA. He's just always had bad luck for some reason.
He could've had a good year last year, but the injury bug plagued the Wolves' entire roster. His teams in Houston were riddled with injuries. His 2001-02 Sacramento Kings' team came minutes away from getting to the NBA Finals.
Adelman has karma on his side. Minnesota has karma on its side. And maybe, just maybe, both of them can finally get a season they deserve.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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