A LOOK BACK AT 2011-2012
The Minnesota Timberwolves finished the lockout-shortened season last year with a dismal 26-40 record, but for the first time since the KG-era, they gave fans real hope that sunnier days are ahead for this franchise.
Kevin Love, the two-time All Star and recent Olympic Gold Medalist, emerged as the best power forward in the NBA last season. While ESPN, Kia, Subway, etc. all had their proverbial lips securely glued to Blake Griffin’s backside all season for his highlight-reel dunks, Love grinded his way to NBA elite status by supplementing his already-ridiculous rebounding ability with a leaner body, more polished post moves and a deadly outside shot.
Oh yeah, and this.
Ricky Rubio finally made his NBA debut and wasted no time in proving wrong the critics who had doubted that his flashy style of play would translate to the NBA.
In addition to the Wolves’ young and dynamic duo, Nikola Pekovic had a breakout season as well, and provided the kind of consistent low-post scoring and toughness that the Wolves haven’t seen from their center position since… ever.
Head Coach Rick Adelman was also impressive, taking the reigns of a such a young roster and having his usual success (in 21 seasons as a head coach in the NBA, Adelman has had just four losing seasons). The level of professionalism and steadiness we saw from Adelman was like night and day compared to former head coach Kurt Rambis two years ago.
Of course, despite the emergence of the Timberwolves’ young nucleus of Love, Rubio and Pekovic, the team’s lack of reliable pieces around them ultimately doomed them in terms of wins.
Minnesota got absolutely nothing out of their wing positions, as Wes Johnson, Martell Webster and Michael Beasley were perfect models of inconsistency and ineptitude all year. Highly touted rookie Derrick Williams had his moments, but looked lost at times as he had trouble cementing a true role on the team.
In the end, the Wolves lack of depth was truly their undoing last year, especially after Rubio tore his ACL in early March. They were a respectable 21-19 before Rubio’s knee injury and in the hunt for the playoffs, but went an astounding 5-21 after he went down.
New Wolves: (SG) Brandon Roy, (SF) Andrei Kirilenko, (SF) Chase Budinger, (SG/PG) Alexey Shved, (C) Greg Stiemsma, (PF) Louis Amundson, (PF) Dante Cunningham
Departures: (SF) Michael Beasley, (SF) Wesley Johnson, (SG) Wayne Ellington, (C) Darko Milicic, (SG) Martell Webster, (PF) Anthony Randolph, (PF) Anthony Tolliver, (C) Brad Miller
After the season, GM David Kahn and the rest of the front office looked to rectify their lack of veteran leadership and true role players and overhauled much of the roster.
As the team’s franchise player, Love went on record earlier this summer, saying that there were members of last year’s team that didn’t care about winning at all and were counting down the days until the end of the season. It’s no surprise then that career underachievers like Michael Beasley, Wes Johnson and Darko Milicic, among others, are now gone.
Replacing them is a cast led by two consummate professionals and former All-Stars in Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko.
Roy, a three-time All-Star with the Portland Trailblazers, was forced to retire in December of 2011 because of chronic knee issues. He’s had six knee surgeries during his career and has no cartilage left between the joints of his knees. Ow.
But after a year away from the game, Roy decided to go oversees to have a procedure called platelet-rich plasma therapy (you can read about WTF that is, here.), which is the same procedure Kobe Bryant underwent a year earlier. According to Roy, the therapy has worked and he is ready to make a comeback.
Russian-born Kirilenko is back in the NBA this season as well after a year over in the Euroleague. He signed a contract with Russian squad CSKA Moscow during last year’s NBA lockout and remained there all season even after the NBA resumed play.
Kirilenko was a very good player in Utah and was a double-digit scorer and excellent defender in 2010-2011. He (along with fellow Russian and Timberwolf Alexey Shved) also led the Russian National Team to a bronze medal during the Summer Olympics this past summer and looked like he can still play against the world’s best.
Those two veterans along with the additions of Shved, Chase Budinger, Greg Stiemsma and Dante Cunningham will not only improve the Wolves depth, it also gives them a more balanced roster with players off the bench who have defined roles on the team.
And with Rubio and now Love both out of action until at least December, it will be imperative that Kahn’s new players are able to step in and contribute until the team’s two stars return.
At first glance, the recent news that Kevin Love broke his hand doing knuckle push-ups (a 6-8 week injury) sounds devastating to the Wolves’ playoff chances, especially given that Ricky Rubio is also expected to miss the first month.
Love is the face of the franchise and his incredible production will obviously be sorely missed, but I don’t believe his absence spells automatic death for the team’s chances.
If Love and Rubio both can heal quickly and return by the beginning of December, there’s a chance that they only miss around 15 games (9 of which would be against teams that failed to make the playoffs last season). While that is a significant chunk of the season, remember, there are 82 games in an NBA season, and there would be plenty of time for the Wolves to make a push for the postseason.
Secondly, the Wolves finally have a roster with playoff-caliber depth for the first time in many years.
Andrei Kirilenko, Derrick Williams and Dante Cunningham will likely all see time at power forward in Love’s absence. While none of them are anywhere close to Love’s level, each brings something to the table, and together, it is possible that they can keep the ship from sinking for the first month.
Cunningham, in particular, is going to be a big contributor early on. His sheer hustle and energy will likely earn him more consistent minutes at the 4 than Williams.
Once everyone comes back healthy, the Wolves should be in good shape.
Rubio’s rehab is reportedly going very well, and he was not a player who relied on explosion and athleticism to the degree of someone like Derrick Rose. Rubio’s game is predicated on his court vision and ability to set up teammates. Those attributes should be unaffected by his knee.
TOP FIVE KEYS TO SUCCESS
1. Can the Wolves Keep Their Heads Above Water Until Love and Rubio Return?
This is the biggest question heading into the season. If the team can somehow avoid falling too far behind without their two cornerstone players, chances are good that the Wolves will have enough time to establish chemistry and string some wins together once everyone comes back healthy.
2. Will Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko Be The Same?
As mentioned above, both Roy and Kirilenko are former All-Stars, but both were out of the NBA last season. Kirilenko shouldn’t see much of a decline since his absence from the league last year was contractual and not due to injury. Roy, on the other hand, will be as good as his knees allow. If both can play relatively well by their standards, the Wolves will suddenly have one of the scariest lineups in the West.
3. The Maturation of Derrick Williams
The No. 2 pick from last year’s draft definitely showed some flashes of brilliance last season, but was way too inconsistent. If he can figure out how to beat NBA defenders and avoid offensive fouls, it will give the Wolves a huge boost off the bench.
4. Can Rick Adelman Work His Magic Again?
When Adelman was the head coach of the Houston Rockets years ago, stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming both missed extended time with injuries, and Adelman led that team to within a game of the Western Conference Finals. He has a history of leading “overachieving” teams, and he will need to do the same this at the beginning of this year.
5. Can the Wolves Separate From the Pack in the West?
Regardless of the Wolves’ injury situation, the Western Conference is loaded this year, and it will be a challenge to finish in the Top 8 even after Love and Rubio return. Both LA teams, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver and Memphis are likely playoff teams this season. And teams like Dallas, Houston, Golden State, Sacramento and even lowly New Orleans made improvements over the offseason in hopes of contending for the playoffs.
#1: Wolves Make Playoffs For First Time Since 2004
Projected Record: 45-37, 7th seed in playoffs
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Denver Nuggets
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
4. Los Angeles Clippers
5. San Antonio Spurs
6. Memphis Grizzlies
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
8. Golden State Warriors
#2: Dante Cunningham > Derrick Williams
Again, when you play for Rick Adelman, hustle, defense and consistency trumps potential every time. Unless D-Will takes a big step forward, I think the youngster will be nothing but a role player again this season. I hope I am wrong.
#3: Wolves Unearth Another European Star in Alexey Shved
When you watch this kid play, he reminds you of Rubio a little bit with his flair and passing. Shved, the NBA rookie from Russia, will make some plays this year. He will excite fans, but he’ll also give Coach Adelman plenty of headaches with his turnovers and tendency to make plays harder than they need to be. Overall though, I think he will be one of the fan favorites off the bench if he can hold his own on defense.
#4: Nikola Pekovic: All Star?
With Love out, Pek is going to have some huge scoring nights this year. He was already becoming an elite force down low, and Pekovic has reportedly gotten himself into great shape this summer in hopes of playing more minutes. While the NBA decided to do away with the center spot in the All-Star voting, Pek is going to make himself a household name this season. 23/10 possible.
#5: Brandon Roy: NBA Comeback Player of the Year
I do not expect Roy to be the same franchise player he was prior to his retirement, but I do expect him to be a key player for the Wolves this year. After watching him in preseason, it is clear that he can still play. The only issue is how much he can play. I think playing alongside playmaking point guards will help take some of the pressure off Roy, who is used to being the primary ball handler on offense. I expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 13-15ppg from Roy this year, which will be good enough for him to win the award.
YOUR 2012-2013 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES ROSTER
Projected Starting Five
- Dazzling passer with incredible vision and energy on offense
- Very good defender, knack for steals
- Needs to improve outside shot as well as finishing at the rim
Still rehabbing following knee surgery on his torn ACL. Wolves need him to come back healthy to make the playoffs. He has an incredible feel for the game and always seems to know where the open man is. Rubio needs to improve his shooting. If he does so, he will be absolutely deadly off the pick-and-roll.
SG – #3 Brandon Roy (Height: 6-6, Age: 28)
- If healthy, very good one-on-one dribbler who can get to the rim
- Not a great long-range shooter, but solid from mid-range
- A true leader, has been clutch player late in games
Roy’s success this season will begin and end with the condition of his knees. He was a do-it-all franchise-type player just a few years ago with Portland, and he’s only 28. If whatever the hell they did to his knees overseas works, the Wolves will be very good. Roy has shown during the preseason so far that he can still get to the hoop and hit the midrange jump shot. Likely will not play as many minutes as he has in the past for Portland.
- Good shot-blocker for his size and very active on defense
- Not a go-to player on offense anymore, but skilled around basket
- Nicknamed, “AK47” (for his initials and jersey number)
Kirilenko looked like he could still play at a high level during the 2012 London Olympics. If so, he will fit in nicely with the Wolves because his defensive ability is his best attribute. Unlike Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams, Kirilenko doesn’t need to score to be effective.
- Dominant rebounder on both ends
- Improved outside shooter, great free throw shooter
- Not great at knuckle push-ups
After Love improved his physique and conditioning last year, he emerged as an elite player in the NBA. Already incredible on the boards, he also developed a very good spot-up three point shot. He shot a lot of free throws last year and made 82% of them. Can still improve his low post offensive game and defense, but as we saw last year, he’s the elite 4 in the game today.
- Beast of a man in the post; overpowers opponents
- Can go to Halloween parties as “The Hulk” with little effort
- Feeds on the souls and dreams of his enemies’ children
Dude, just look at this guy’s tattoo for crying out loud. A Montenegrin warrior standing on a pile of human skulls using his sword to stab one of said skulls. BAMF. He burst onto the scene last year because he was finally able to learn how to play defense without fouling. After leading the league in 2010-11 in foul rate, Pekovic was able to correct that last year and with increased minutes, he flourished. He was hurt at the end of last year. This year, he is healthy and reportedly has improved his conditioning. Scary.
- Mid-range jump shot is money in the bank, solid 3-pt shooter
- Able passer; sometimes forces shots early in the shot clock
- Not great on defense due to below-average athleticism and speed
Ridnour will likely begin the season as the starting PG with Rubio out, although he is nursing a back injury. He’s solid off the pick and roll and is a good fit alongside Brandon Roy in the lineup because Ridnour is a very good spot up shooter.
- Young, talented “tweener” forward
- Good at drawing fouls and getting to the line
- Ugly jump shot
Williams was the Wolves top draft choice a year ago (#2 overall), and they were hoping to plug in the talented scorer in at the small forward spot alongside Kevin Love. But inconsistency and the fact that Williams’ is still probably best suited to play the 4 spot led to a reduced role last year. He’s lost weight since last season, though, and he’s only 21, so there’s still hope that he will develop.
- First season in the NBA, played on 2012 Russian Olympic Team
- Flashy offensive player with good outside shot, has PG skills
- Probably uses a lot of conditioner
Shved, the other Russian National Team member debuting with the Wolves this year, is a long, combo guard who can shoot and set up teammates. He has looked very comfortable during the preseason, making several Rubio-like plays to set up teammates. If he can hold his own on defense consistently, Shved will be another candidate to get minutes at the point guard spot until Rubio returns.
- Athletic wing player who can shoot from outside
- A standout volleyball player in HS, can leap and dunk
- Needs to improve on defense
Playing alongside a gifted passer in Rubio, the Wolves need someone who can space the floor and hit open three point looks. Wes Johnson and Martell Webster failed miserably at this simple task, so enter Chase Budinger. He is really the perfect role player for this team because Rubio/Shved will be able to find him for open outside shots or cutting to the basket for dunks.
- Energetic, hustle player
- Mobile and tough on defense, especially against the P&R
- Can hit the midrange jumper, but not much of a shooter
Cunningham is an active defender who can block some shots as well. He seems like the kind of player who will get playing time under Adelman because of his motor. Would be a very solid player overall if he improved his outside shot and rebounded better.
- Shot blocking specialist
- Can finish around rim, but limited offensively
- Went to U of Wisconsin…
The Wolves needed a big man who could protect the rim defensively and they managed to get one of the best. Stimesma finished 3rd in the NBA in shot block rate (4.44 blocks per 40 minutes). He won’t do much offensively, but that’s not his role.
- Pick and roll specialist who looks to score
- Not a great outside shooter
- His flops on defense would make a soccer player blush
The NBA is reportedly going to crack down on defenders who “flop” to try to draw a call from the officials. Not great news for Barea, whose lone defensive skill is flopping. Because of how small he is, opponents and referees alike fall for his acting bit way too often. On offense, Barea is lightning quick on pick and rolls, but does tend to hog the ball and force shots too often.
- High-energy defender who can rebound and block shots
- One of the worst shooters in the NBA. Terrible at FTs
- Undersized to defend most NBA centers
Amundson was brought in for depth purposes behind Pekovic and Stiemsma. He, like Cunningham, makes his living by being a high-energy defender. He is unbelievably bad at shooting free throws. He shot 43% from the line last year, and 39% the year before!
- Tall and athletic, very good one-on-one defender
- Good ball handler, but too many turnovers
- Awful outside shooter
Lee is on the squad to provide depth at the point guard spot, and was forced into action last year with injuries to Barea and Rubio. He has size and the ability to defend either guard position very well. If he can improve his shooting, he could catch on because he defends so well.
(Player mugshots courtesy of ESPN.com)