Posted Sep 7, 2012 9:50 AM
This is the fifth in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2012-13. Coming Monday: the Houston Rockets.
Hooking up with a new team, for an NBA head coach who has worked elsewhere, is like moving into a furnished house. It typically requires a keen eye, a stout sense of smell and a full roll of trash bags. You bought the place because you liked the location and the floor plan but, geez, that couch has to go. What were they thinking when they got that lamp? You don't even want to ask how those stains on the carpet got there.
That's pretty much how it went for Rick Adelman and his staff in Minnesota last season. New to the Timberwolves' losing ways and eclectic tastes, Adelman surveyed the situation, held his nose and got Minnesota to 26 victories in 66 games, a total it hadn't reached in five years in a full schedule. That was the equivalent, over 82 games, of 32, a dramatic bump from the 17-65 mark in 2010-11. No other staff new to its team last season was close.
Now he's back with a more ambitious plan -- the franchise's first postseason berth since 2004 -- some injury issues and a boatload of new faces. The dumpster is gone; by the time 2012-13 begins, only three players on the roster -- Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Luke Ridnour -- will have stepped on the court for the Timberwolves before Adelman did.
The Wolves were two games over .500 (21-19) and tied for the West's eighth playoff seed when Ricky Rubio went down in early March against the Lakers. From that point, they made a compelling case for the Spanish point guard as the NBA's "Most Valuable Rookie," an imaginary mash-up of MVP and ROY; Minnesota went 5-21 without him, including a miserable 1-13 slink to the finish.
Adelman might not have been able to kick enough butts then to make a difference, but he was taking names. Now much of the Wolves' adding has come via subtracting, with Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Wes Johnson, Wayne Ellington and a couple more sent packing.
With the coach either convincing team prez David Kahn or getting owner Glen Taylor's ear, the roster added experience, maturity and familiar (if not currently known) quantities: Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko, Greg Stiemsma, and Dante Cunningham. A mid-first round draft pick? Bah, Adelman snagged a helpful Houston shooter in Chase Budinger. The Rubio success probably emboldened the Wolves to sign Russian guard Alexey Shved for a second straight Euro-transition season.
Love, after winning Olympic gold and hanging around the playoff-seasoned NBA stars of Team USA, should be better than ever. He'll especially benefit from a year's worth of familiarity working at the elbows in Adelman's system. Pekovic is a machine who ground his way to third place in Most Improved balloting.
Minnesota has an awful lot riding on three knees: Rubio's surgically repaired left and Brandon Roy's supposedly healed pair. How soon the former can play at a level close to his rookie performance -- his passes dazzled, his defense surprised -- and whether the latter can get to and stay anywhere near his All-Star form from his Portland days could dictate much about the Wolves' season.
Rubio, in mid-summer, was said to be on target for a January return and management vows he will not be rushed. But a sluggish start? Dissatisfaction with Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea? Less than instant impact from Shved? Or, not unrelated, struggle or early pain flare-up for Roy? The former Blazers shooting guard is a class act and potential team leader but, blood-spinning treatments or not, if there's no cartilage, there's no cartilage.
There are other questions about a team that at least should be entertaining, with solid stories on and off the court (78 of their 82 games will be televised, including three national telecasts). Does Kirilenko come back rejuvenated after his year away from the NBA or, at 31, will he have lost something? Will Shved land on his feet? Can Derrick Williams, 2011's No. 2 pick, handle defense at small forward, the likeliest spot for him to get minutes?
Even without landing Portland's Nic Batum (Minnesota made a run at him, but the Blazers matched the offer to keep him in Portland), the Wolves feel they have a versatile roster, full of players who can man two or three spots. Adelman figures a real training camp, practice days and a second season of exposure to his system should speed them along the learning curve toward the playoffs.
Good thing, too, because Adelman, at 66, isn't in this to add years to his pension. Taylor, 71, has begun an orderly handoff of his majority ownership. The clock is about to start on Love's extended contract, his whereabouts beyond 2015 uncertain. Williams might have to show something by the February trading deadline.
There is ambition and a little NBA urgency again in Minnesota. It's high time.
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