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Wolves eye playoffs while still keeping an eye out for injuries

POSTED: Oct 22, 2013 12:35 AM ET

By Jeff Caplan,


Pekovic, Martin, Rubio, Brewer and Love: If they can stay healthy, they're a threat.

Rick Adelman, the bearer of so much bitter injury news last season, couldn't even get to his one of his first preseason interviews this time around. Chase Budinger, lost six games into last season with a knee injury and penciled in as the Minnesota Timberwolves' starting small forward for the 2013-14 season, is down again to another meniscus issue in his left knee. He underwent another surgery and is out indefinitely.

Timberwolves Season Preview: Ricky Rubio

"Losing Chase ... ," Adelman told the media gathering, "is really goi/ng to hurt us."

Adelman could have put that statement, with a different player's name inserted, on a loop last season. So at least the Timberwolves are old hands at this kind of stuff. Adelman wasn't certain he would return to the bench after dealing with a scary health issue that afflicted his wife, Mary Kay.

She has improved over the summer and Adelman, who surpassed 1,000 career victories last season, decided to return to the long-struggling franchise because it is so tantalizingly close to an elusive breakthrough -- if it can get a bit of good luck along the way.

"When I took this job I felt there were some pieces here and we could turn the thing around and put the franchise in the right direction," Adelman said. "Things have just happened over the two years that was out of everybody's control and I wanted to finish it."

Added Kevin Love: "A lot of us feel the same way about that. Myself included. We all know what happened last year and we just want to move forward and take care of unfinished business."

Timberwolves Season Preview: Kevin Love

For two seasons it seems like every day was Friday the 13th. Ricky Rubio tore his ACL after 57 games into his rookie season and he returned for just 41 games last year, mostly lacking the electricity he's capable of when healthy. Love freakishly broke his hand a year ago doing knuckle pushups, missed the start of the season, returned for 18 games and then broke the hand again ending his season. One by one, players crumbled to injury until it seemed more were present in the trainer's room than available to play.

"Last year is last year," Love, the All-Star power forward, said. "It's just going to get better day by day."

It is a new day, at least, in Minnesota. Former coach Flip Saunders is back and in charge upstairs, replacing the maligned David Kahn. The roster is reinforced, not only with a healthy and raring Rubio and Love, but most notably with shooting guard Kevin Martin, who can provide the type of sharpshooting and slashing the Wolves haven't experienced at the position. Corey Brewer, an energetic pogo-stick, is back for a second stint and is the likely candidate to replace Budinger in the starting lineup. Emerging two-way center Nikola Pekovic is back on a long-term deal.

An ultra-competitive Western Conference would seem to have six playoff locks entering the season (all depending on health, of course): San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Two spots will be slugged out between Minnesota, Denver, the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas, Portland and perhaps even New Orleans and Sacramento (sorry Phoenix and Utah).

The Wolves own the longest active playoff drought in the NBA. They haven't sniffed the postseason since finishing in ninth place and one game back of a playoff spot in 2004-05. Their last postseason appearance came the season before, when Saunders' 2003-04 club -- headed by league MVP Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell -- took the Lakers to six games in the West finals.

Timberwolves Season Preview: Rick Adelman

That season Minnesota averaged 94.5 points a game,10th in the league, a mark this loaded team should blow out of the water. The Wolves couldn't shoot last season, but the return of Love and the signing of Martin will help straighten an offense that finished 20th in points and 25th in offensive rating.

Ultimately, this edition will have to tear a page from the Garnett-led Wolves' defensive playbook if this is to be the year the playoffs return to the Target Center. That team allowed 89.1 ppg and finished sixth in defensive rating. It was a different NBA then, a much less offensive one (only Dallas and Adelman's Kings averaged more than 100 ppg), so these Wolves can't be expected to match such stingy defensive numbers, but a determined effort can't be dismissed.

"The biggest thing we're going to have a problem with, and the team is going to have to address it, is defensively," Adelman said. "We have to have guys step out of their comfort zones and realize they're going to have to be better at that end of the court to give us a chance to really win."

The Wolves promise to be one of the more intriguing and entertaining teams to follow this season. If their fans can bear to uncross their fingers, they should have plenty to clap about.

Three points

Timberwolves Season Preview: Coach's Corner

1. One player who might be more effective for the Wolves by playing less is Dante Cunningham. Because of injuries, Cunningham (2,010 total minutes in 2012-13) played fewer minutes than only Andrei Kirilenko (2,034) and Luke Ridnour (2,474). He also amassed 671 field-goal attempts, a career-high by far (making 46.8 percent), with only about one-third coming in the paint. Fewer touches on a healthy team with multiple offensive options should result in Cunningham getting higher-percentage looks.

2. J.J. Barea could be in for a big year after two disappointing ones. With Luke Ridnour in Milwaukee, the backcourt roles are set with Barea coming off the bench to backup Ricky Rubio, and at times playing alongside Rubio. If Barea can stay healthy -- and that's been a big issue the past two seasons -- he could deliver difficult-to-guard penetration and pick-and-roll.

3. Look for Kevin Martin to get off to a fast start being back in his comfort zone. He played it cool last season as the sixth man for OKC, but he often found his offensive game compromised. Yet, could Martin actually bring a badly needed defensive edge learned from the Thunder? "It was special to be a part of a No. 1 [defense] all the way until the last week, and it was more gratifying to be a part of the Nos. 3 and 4 best defensive teams last year. You saw what kind of success we had, so that's what kind of mentality we have to bring in every night. We don't want to score 120 to get by. That's not going to get us to where we need to be."

Jeff Caplan has covered the NBA since 2005. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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