2011-2012 Timberwolves Season Preview

The lockout is over, David Stern has egg on his face and the league’s superstars are again trying to strong-arm their way to the big L.A. and New York-based markets.

Yes, folks, the NBA is back!

Say what you want about the league, its sometimes controversial commissioner and the sport itself, but around these parts at least, there is FINALLY some reasons for optimism.

Our name, Land of 10,000 Losses, is a playful ode to our state’s mediocrity in sports, and the Timberwolves franchise has been the poster-child for this for years.

But for die-hard fans, the 2011-2012 NBA season brings with it the first inklings of hope that we haven’t experienced in Minnesota for years.

By now you know about Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams, the two prized rookies that new head coach Rick Adelman will have at his disposal this season.

Those additions, along with the already stellar play of All-Star Kevin Love, have sparked a renewed interest throughout “Wolves Nation.” And if this roster, filled with more young talent than they’ve had since the late 90’s, can manage to start to realize their potential this season, it won’t be long before more of the casual Minnesota sports fans start to line up to join the bandwagon.

Don’t get me wrong. This team is still young, immature (I’m looking at you, Michael Beasley) and still lacking in certain areas, but GM David Kahn does deserve some credit for the relatively fast roster turnover he has managed.

During the 2009-2010 NBA season, the Wolves were trotting out the likes of Sasha Pavlovic, Oleksiy Pecherov, Damien Wilkins and Nate Jawai (Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of any of them).

And now, those roster spots have been significantly upgraded with the likes of Rubio, Williams, Beasley and others.

While I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I think the Wolves will be contenders or even in the playoff picture in the Western Conference, at the very least, this Wolves team has the ingredients to become a legitimate up and coming team, capable of making vast improvements and hopefully surprising people along the way.

And that alone, compared to recent years, is something to be excited about.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at your current 2011-2012 Minnesota Timberwolves:

Projected Starters

Center – Darko Milicic (7’0″ 260 lbs, 26, Serbia)

His Game:

2010: 8.8 ppg|5.2 rpg|2 bpg

Having been drafted No. 2 overall in 2003 AHEAD of Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony, and right behind LeBron James, Darko has never come close to living up to that sort of hype.

Darko has now proven that he is not the all-purpose offensive weapon that many people around the league pegged him to be coming into the NBA in ’03.  He doesn’t have the best instincts or collection of low-post moves, but he is a competent defender and a capable protector of the basket, something this Wolves team desperately needs.

Biggest Question(s): What kind of effort can Rick Adelman get out of him? He’s a solid shot blocker and a decent rebounder, but motivation and consistency have been his issues.

2011-12 Outlook: He’s never going to be the star he was supposed to be, and because of that, people have a more negative opinion of him that they should.  He’s not without faults, obviously, but anyone who watched the Timberwolves last year had to be utterly flummoxed as to why then-head coach Kurt Rambis insisted on constantly dumping the ball down low to Darko as if he could be trusted to be the focal point of the offense.

I have to believe Rick Adelman is much smarter than that and will simply rely on Darko to be a defensive presence and let his teammates (namely Ricky Rubio) create offensive opportunities for him, sort of like a very poor-man’s Tyson Chandler for the Mavs last season. If that happens, Darko can be a useful player for this team.

I’m betting that his defensive prowess gets him the starting job at least early on.  We’ll still see Anthony Randolph and Kevin Love some at the 5 this season, but Darko is a legitimate 7-footer and can defend when he wants to.

Power Forward – Kevin Love (6’10” 240 lbs, 23, UCLA)

His Game:

20.2 ppg|15.2 rpg|42% 3pt

The Wolves’ premier player, Love’s rebounding skills are well-chronicled.  He has the uncanny ability to know exactly where he must position himself to secure rebounds to make up for his less-than-elite athleticism.

Love is a very good shooter as well, and has added the 3-point shot to his offensive arsenal, making him one of the more unique 4’s in the game.  He gets to the free throw line a ton, which makes up for his lack of true post moves on offense.

Biggest Question(s): Will Love be able to take the next step in his development and improve his defense and low post scoring ability? How will his weight loss affect his game?

2011-2012 Outlook: Love’s breakout season was impressive statistically, but didn’t translate into wins for the Wolves.  To truly become an elite NBA big man, Love is going to need to improve defensively to truly dominate matchups with opposing teams’ power forwards.

His publicized weight loss (reportedly down to about 240 from 260) might very well help him on both ends on the floor if he can be quicker and more explosive without sacrificing his trademark strength.

Under Adelman, I expect Love to remain the focal point of this offense. The coach has said that he wants Love to focus more on the defensive end as well as being a facilitator on offense.  We will likely see Love playing both the 4 and 5 spots depending on matchups and who Adelman has out on the floor with him.

A Love/Williams/Beasley/Johnson/Rubio lineup is arguably their most talented, but it remains to be seen how effective they can be together.

Small Forward – Michael Beasley (6’10” 235, 22, Kansas State)

His Game:

19.2 ppg|5.6 rpg|37% 3pt

Beasley came into the league as a pure scorer out of Kansas State, and in his first starring role since coming into the NBA, he did flash some of that scoring ability.

The trouble with Beasley is that we don’t know if he is anything more than a volume scorer who relies too much on his jump shot.  He isn’t a strong rebounder or defender and his decision-making was horrendous at times last season.

Beasley needs to make a concerted effort to drive the lane more often and stop settling for jump shots. He is very athletic and bigger and stronger than most opposing small forwards, and he needs to take advantage of that size advantage more often.

Biggest Question(s): With boatloads of talent, can Beasley grow up as a player and become the Alpha Wolf that this team needs offensively?

As a 3/4 “Tweener,” can Beasley assert himself as the Wolves’ top scorer like he was before his injuries last season?  How does Derrick Williams’ arrival affect his standing on this team?

2011-2012 Outlook: The instant that Derrick Williams was drafted, many Wolves fans have been calling for the team to try to trade Beasley for a true center or shooting guard.

I actually would prefer that they keep Beasley.  Yes, he can be careless with the ball and he doesn’t try very hard on defense, but he’s still only 22 (23 on Jan. 9). The onus is on Beasley to step up and realize that he has a huge chance to establish himself as a star in this league.

Before his injuries last season Beasley was putting up some pretty impressive scoring games.  Early in the season he had a streak where he scored 42, 35, 25, 28, 33 and 25 points in consecutive nights.  He can score, and at this point, he’s probably the only Wolf who can really create his own shot whenever he wants.

I predict that he starts early on while Williams gets his feet wet, but after that it will interesting to see which one of them takes over as the full-time 3.  It will be equally as interesting to see how the two of them, Williams and Beasley, look together on the court at the same time.

Shooting Guard – Wesley Johnson (6’7″ 215 lbs, 24, Syracuse)

His Game:

9.0 ppg|3.0 rpg| 1.9 apg

The good: Wes is an athletic wing who can defend well and can block shots and rebounds well for his position.

The bad: He’s not a shooting guard.  His ball handling is not on par with other NBA guards and he is way too reliant on his catch and shoot game, essentially wasting his athleticism.

Johnson is really a prototypical small forward who would normally excel running alongside a point guard like Rubio, but unfortunately with Love, Beasley and Williams,  Johnson has been pigeon-holed as a 2 on this team.   And as an off-guard, Wes was essentially a spot-up shooter and rarely drove the lane or earned trips to the free throw line.

Biggest Question(s): Will he be able to fit on this team with a log jam at his natural small forward position?  Can the Wolves succeed without a true 2 guard?

2011-2012 Outlook: If there is a trade to be made still this offseason, Wes might be the odd man out.  He’s a solid defender and an okay outside shooter, but on this team he doesn’t really offer much on the offensive end aside from being a great athlete.

If the Wolves do roll with Wes at the 2, they need to try to put him in a position to take advantage of his size over opposing guards.  Perhaps they can try to post him up more or have him cutting to the basket more often to receive those Rubio dimes, but to do those things, Wes is going to need to improve his skills.

Point Guard – Ricky Rubio (6’4″ 180 lbs, 21, Spain)

His Game: 

In Europe, where Rubio has played professionally since the age of 14, he is known as a very flashy, fast and smooth ball handler and passer, a true pass-first point guard with a knack for the sensational play.

Rubio projects to be a solid defender because of his length and ability to disrupt passing lanes. He has racked up steals and is a solid rebounder for a guard, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to stay in front of the quicker NBA point guards on consistent basis with the strict “no hand checking” rules in America.

Rubio’s offensive skills, namely outside shooting and finishing at the rim, are his biggest question marks by far. This past season in Europe, his numbers weren’t very good at all (just 27% shooting), but scouts and obviously Timberwolves fans are hopeful that his game is suited for the NBA.

Biggest Question(s):  Can Rubio ever live up to the hype? Will his unique skill set as a flashy pass-first point guard translate to the NBA game?

2011-2012 Outlook: Rubio has been a prodigy with extremely high expectations who had been pegged as a future NBA star for years, ever since he signed to play pro ball in Europe as a teenager. His arrival in Minneapolis is one of the biggest reasons for the recent infusion of excitement in this town after many of the east-coast-biased media organizations (ESPN) speculated that Rubio did not want to play in Minnesota and would force a trade to the Knicks or Lakers.

But after being drafted in 2009, Rubio is finally here after a fulfilling his contractual obligations in Spain.

He will likely be brought along somewhat slowly as Minnesota has Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea at the 1 spot as well.  But with a condensed 66-game season, I expect him to get plenty of playing time.

Early reports from T’Wolves training camp is that Rubio has looked as good as advertised, especially with his passing (Kevin Love: “He can pass the sh*t out of the ball…”).  But he has also reportedly shot the ball very well in scrimmages and workouts.  Obviously, shooting in an actual NBA game is different, but it’s at least encouraging to hear this sort of positivity coming out of camp.

I think Rubio will run this offense well, will rack up as many assists as his supporting cast will allow and will have rather pedestrian scoring numbers, somewhere in the ballpark of 8 points, 7 assists in roughly 25-30 mins per game.

First Off the Bench

PF/C – Anthony Randolph (6’11 225 lbs, 22, LSU)

His Game:

7.6 ppg|4.0 rpg|0.6 bpg

Randolph has loads of potential and is an extremely athletic power forward who handles the ball extremely well for his size. He also has the potential to be a truly elite-level shot blocker and a great rebounder if he chooses.

Randolph’s problem is consistency and effort like so many other talented youngsters. If he ever really decides to work hard on both sides of the court (not forcing jump shots and putting forth better effort on defense), he could become a great player.

Physically, Randolph is very thin and wiry, but has reportedly worked hard this offseason to beef up in an attempt to play major minutes at center since Kevin Love and Derrick Williams are both natural 4’s.

Biggest Question(s): Like Beasley, will Randolph mature enough to realize how good he can be if he just puts in the work? Will he be able to physically handle big minutes at the 5?

2011-2012 Outlook: Reporters from Wolves camp are saying that Randolph doesn’t look noticeably bulkier this season, so it remains to be seen whether or not he will be able to handle opposing centers on defense.

Depending on the matchup, however, playing Randolph at center will enable the Wolves to be field one of the most athletic lineups in the league alongside some combination of Love, Johnson, Beasley and Williams in the front court.

Those five, along with Rubio, are being billed as the main core of this Wolves team.  All six have plenty of talent, and now it’s up to them to mature (Wes is the eldest at 24) and grow as professional players.

To me, Randolph and Beasley are the keys to this team’s long term success.  Both are very talented, but both make too many mental mistakes and act too lackadaisical on defense.  If they can correct this, watch out.

PF/SF – Derrick Williams (6’8″ 240, 20, Arizona)

His Game:

19.5 ppg|8.3 rpg|.595 FG% (college)

Williams tried to sell himself as a small forward coming out of the draft, and the Wolves presumably drafted him as such, already having an All-Star at the 4 in Love.

But his game and his size are quickly dictating that he will be a more natural “stretch” power forward.  He is an above average athlete, but will be able to use that to his advantage more at the 4.  He is the not a freak athletically and the idea of him guarding the likes of LeBron James, Rudy Gay and some of the more agile 3’s in the league would be frightening from a Minnesota perspective.

He can play inside or out offensively and really knows how to put the ball in the hoop in a variety of ways, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the NBA, where he will no longer just be able to get by simply by being bigger and stronger than his opponents.

Biggest Question(s): Will Williams be able to carve an actual niche on this team behind Love at PF? How will he and Beasley be able to co-exist?

2011-2012 Outlook: Adelman has already stated that he sees Williams as more of a natural power forward, which creates somewhat of a problem because the Wolves invested highly in him, but have Love entrenched at the 4.

This could mean we will see Love playing a lot at center, but something might need to be done to remedy the log jam the Wolves have at both forward spots.

Like I mentioned above, many fans and bloggers were quick to assume Beasley would be traded as soon as Williams was drafted.  But again, Beasley’s game is much more suited for the small forward spot than Williams and thus, fits much better alongside Love than Williams would.

If and when Williams emerges in the NBA, the Wolves will probably have a decision to make regarding him, Beasley and Randolph, but after years of terrible play by terrible players, having a glut of talent at a particular position isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have.

PG – Jose Juan Barea (6’0″ 175 lbs, 27, Puerto Rico)

His Game:

9.5 ppg|3.9 apg|2.0 rpg

J.J. Barea is almost a polar opposite of Rubio.  Barea is a small guard who looks to score first.  He surprisingly dynamic off the pick-and-roll as evidenced by his performance for the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs last year against the Lakers.

On defense, his lack of height is a problem against many of the bigger, stronger point guards in the league, but he has a knack for drawing a lot of maddening charges and is a very accomplished soccer-level “flopper.”

Biggest Question(s): With Rubio and Luke Ridnour, what will the Wolves’ point guard rotation look like this season? At his size, can Barea and Rubio play big minutes together on the floor at the same time?

2011-2012 Outlook: The recent signing of Barea to a 4-year deal was somewhat of a surprise with Rubio and Ridnour already on the roster.  But Kahn has been quoted as saying that he thinks this team will need three point guards with such a condensed schedule.

I love the signing.  It isn’t as financially prohibitive as people think and he is a spark plug who really showed that he can be extremely disruptive on offense and get his own shot, something this team needs off the bench.

At times, you’ll see Ricky and Barea on the court together, with Rubio sliding over on defense to guard the opposing 2-guard with his length.  Neither are particularly good outside shooters, so we’ll have to see how this works out, but I’m excited to see how someone with the speed and quickness of Barea can work with the Wolves’ pick-and-roll game.

 

Key Reserves:

Luke Ridnour (6’2″ PG) – Ridnour was the best outside shooter on the team last season and if he is not traded prior to the season starting, he provides valuable veteran leadership to a young team.

Wayne Ellington (6’4″ SG) – The only pure SG on the team, Ellington has deep range on his outside shot. Reports are that he is looking very good so far in camp, and it will be interesting to see if he can establish a role on this team full of “tweeners.”

Anthony Tolliver (6’8″ PF) – Tolliver is that sort of role player that seemingly every contending team has who isn’t worried about stats but just does the little things necessary to win.  He is a smart player who rarely makes mental errors, and on this team, those attributes have value.

Malcolm Lee ( rookie, 6’5″ SG/PG) – Lee, out of UCLA, is a very athletic combo guard who projects to be an excellent defender. He’s a good enough ball handler to play some point guard, but on the T’Wolves, he will likely see the majority of his time at the 2.

Nikola Pekovic (6’11” C) – Pekovic is a clunky, bumbling big man with terrible handle and is a fouling machine.  He can score around the basket, but With Love and Randolph likely to see time at center in addition to Darko, it is possible that Pekovic will be released or traded.

Martell Webster (6’7″ SG/SF) – Webster just had another back surgery recently and has been very injury prone since joining the Wolves.  When healthy, he’s a steady contributor at the 2 or the 3.

Brad Miller (7’0″ C) – Miller was sent over from Houston in the Johnny Flynn trade this offseason.  He will likely miss the entire 2011-2012 season and might be forced to retire.

 

What to Watch For This Season:

1. What Will the ‘A-Lineup’ Look Like?  Many of the fans want to see the talented (5)Love/(4)Williams/(3)Beasley/(2)Johnson/(1)Rubio lineup for obvious reasons.  But if that doesn’t work, how will the player rotations in the front court work?

2. What Sort of Effect Will HC Rick Adelman Actually Have? Kurt Rambis looked woefully overmatched last year and didn’t get his key players to play a lick of defense all season.  The Wolves ranked dead last in defense and turnover rate last season.  It will be interesting to see how the youth on this team responds to a successful, proven head coach with a track record like Adelman.

3. Is Ricky Rubio the Real Deal? He’s been destined for NBA greatness in the media’s eyes for years, and now, FINALLY, Wolves fans will get to see their savior in action.  Whether or not you think he is going to be a star in this league, you can’t deny that he is probably the most fascinating aspect of this T’Wolves team this season.

4. The Bench. We’ve talked about the log jam at multiple positions that the Wolves have coming into this season, and while that could be problematic, it does mean that the Wolves’ bench does have a chance to be pretty solid.  A second unit led by Barea, Williams and Randolph is very intriguing.

5. How Will the Shortened and Condensed Season Schedule Affect the Wolves? I’ve heard both schools of thought: (A) The Wolves are young and spry, and therefore more capable of playing 5 or 6 games per week.  Or (B), with such little practice time prior to the season, this young group will be at a disadvantage as they try to get comfortable with a new coach, new system and new players.

PREDICTION: 26-40 (tenth place in the West)

Wolves Leaders:

Scoring – Beasley

Rebounds – Love

Assists – Rubio

Steals – Rubio

Blocks – Randolph

I think this Wolves teams’ talent will shine at times during this season, but obviously their youth and inexperience will as well.

I think OKC, Dallas, both L.A. teams, Portland, Memphis and San Antonio are pretty safe bets to be in the Western Conference playoffs.  That 8th slot will be up for grabs though, with Houston, Phoenix, Utah, Denver and New Orleans in competition for it.

I think the young Sacramento Kings and Timberwolves have an outside shot at that 8th and final spot, but are probably a year or two away.

The Wolves open the abbreviated preseason with a home-and-home with the Milwaukee Bucks (Dec. 17 at Target Center, Dec. 21 at the Bradley Center), and will open the 2011-2012 NBA season on Dec. 26 at home against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

(All images used above are NBA/Getty Images)

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