You can sum up the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2012–13 season with a single three-digit number: 109. That’s the total number of games starters Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic lost to injury last year—64, 25 and 20, respectively.
The wave of pulls, breaks, tears and full-body collapse that hit the Wolves last season was so bad only one player on the roster suited up for all 82 games, backup point guard Luke Ridnour. Obviously, these things come down to luck—it’s no one’s fault, what’s the use in assigning blame, etc. But that said, it’s a minor miracle a group of drunken fans didn’t jump the training staff in the parking lot of the Target Center.
The timing of what was effectively a lost season couldn’t have been worse for Minnesota. Following the crime against basketball that was Kurt Rambis’s two-year tenure as head coach (during which the team went a combined 32-132), Rick Adelman actually managed to spark a tiny flicker of optimism in 2011–12. Love put up a double-double in 48 of the 55 games he played, Rubio dished out 8.2 assists a night and, despite the team’s 12th-place finish in the Western Conference, after a few pieces were added in the off-season, there was a sense that the team could make a genuine run at the playoffs.
It all fell apart, of course, but if you pretend that last season never happened (probably best for everyone involved), you’ll find the Wolves in roughly the same place heading into 2013–14: The core is healthy, the off-season pieces are in place and Minnesota just might be a playoff team.
Additions: Kevin Martin, Ronny Turiaf, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng
Departures: Luke Ridnour, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy, Greg Stiemsma, Malcolm Lee, Mickael Gelabale
The loss of Kirilenko, who jumped to the Nets for pennies on the dollar in free agency, is a blow on both ends of the floor. An adept, if awkward-looking, finisher, with length and a unique defensive skill set, the Russian forward’s versatility in guarding both threes and fours was a crucial asset for Minnesota’s league-average defence. Brewer, a capable perimeter stopper in his own right, will be leaned on to fill the Russian’s shoes on D and should bring a similarly disruptive ability to stretch into passing lanes and generate steals.
Martin saw a sweet spike in his three-point shooting last season, hitting 42.6 percent from beyond the arc, and his 1.07 points per possession ranked him among the 20 most efficient offensive players in the NBA (per Synergy Sports). His defence is a glaring weak point, especially without a Serge Ibaka-quality shot blocker behind him, but he gets to the line a lot for a jump shooter and has made 89.2 percent of his gimmes over the past two seasons.
- Though Love ranks among the league’s best rebounders and nothing moves Pekovic in the post, Minnesota still lacks a rim protector to anchor the defence. Nabbing Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng with the 21st pick in this year’s draft will help in the long run—the six-foot-11 Dieng is raw, but brings athleticism and a wingspan that measured longer than seven-foot-three at the pre-draft combine. But how will the Wolves manage this season? Dread pirate Ronny Turiaf is a surprisingly good shot blocker given his subpar athleticism, swatting 1.8 shots per 36 minutes last season, but the Clippers (not exactly the NBA’s deepest frontcourt) only gave him 10.8 minutes of run a night and Adelman won’t be able to justify much more. The lack of rim protection could be particularly deadly given Minnesota’s weaknesses on the perimeter. Martin is paper-thin, and though Rubio and Brewer (who will likely start at the three with Chase Budinger out indefinitely) are solid stoppers with length, both have a tendency to gamble for steals, which could be death without backline support.
- Derrick Williams is playing for a contract, but at what position? The Arizona product and 2011 No. 2 pick threw down some sweet highlights last season, but failed to define his role despite starting 56 games with Love sidelined. Too small to guard power forwards or dominate the post, he leaned on spot-up shots to generate offence with fairly unspectacular results. He’ll need to demonstrate some value this season if he wants the Wolves to pick up his $6.3-million player option for 2014–15.
- The storyline so big it’s worth writing twice: Can they stay healthy? Despite a roster that featured a pair of dominant post scorers (Love and Pekovic)—one of whom doubles as a cash-money spot shooter (Love)—and an exceptionally creative playmaker (Rubio), Minnesota turned in the 25th-ranked offense in the NBA last season. Why? Because those guys missed huge chunks of the season. Yes, the offensive possibilities for the Ricky-Martin backcourt are loca, especially alongside Love and Pekovic. But those possibilities can only be realized if they can all stay on the court.
Ricky Rubio. Over the first-half of the 2011–12 season and the second-half of 2012–13 (in other words: the times he was healthy), Rubio averaged 12.1 points, 8.2 assists and 2.7 steals a game. Coming off a summer that wasn’t given over to rehabbing from a ruptured ACL, the Spaniard should improve on those numbers in 2013–14. His shooting, particularly his ability to finish at the rim, has drawn a lot of criticism, but Rubio is a magical facilitator and a joy to watch. He makes the Wolves a playful, daring, highly watchable outfit—and he could dish out 11 or 12 assists a night this season.
Scale of Decency
Quite decent. Yes, there are still some holes and question marks, but Minnesota should be a fun club (thanks to Rubio) capable of taking a substantial jump from last year’s 31 wins. In short, the Timberwolves are a playoff team… wait for it… if they can stay healthy.
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