Timberwolves' Top 5 Offseason Questions

The foundation is set, but there are major questions surrounding next year's Timberwolves team. Mark Remme lists his Top 5.
As Rick Adelman steps down as Timberwolves head coach, the team's major question for next season is who will take his place.
David Sherman & Jordan Johnson/NBAE/Getty Images
by Mark Remme
Web Editor
@markremme

We are one week into the Timberwolves offseason, and we’ve already got a little clearer indication what the Wolves will look like next season. Last week, we counted down the Top 5 things you as fans can take away from the 2013-14 campaign. Today, we list off the Top 5 questions to consider heading into 2014-15

1. Who will coach the Wolves next season?

Rick Adelman officially announced his retirement from coaching on Monday, ensuring that the Wolves will have a new coach in 2014-15. Adelman laid a foundation that the Timberwolves organization can build upon, and whoever becomes the next head coach will inherit a far better situation than the 17-win club Adelman took over before the 2011 season. He identified and developed a core group of players, shipped off the rest and brought in complementary pieces that worked together to become one of the top offenses in the NBA this year.

Now, the question is who will take control and how will that person continue to build on that foundation. Adelman said himself that he wished he could have done more during his time in Minnesota, most notably getting into the postseason. For all the team’s improvements, including three straight increased win totals from 26 to 31 to 40, the Wolves fell short each year of making the playoffs. Injuries and defensive liabilities were the two main issues, and the next Wolves coach will need to find ways to fix the latter. President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders said the next coach will ideally be experienced, although that doesn’t necessarily quantify it much. Head coaching positions in college or the professional ranks, as well as assistants in the NBA will likely be looked at as candidates. Minnesota could go the route of a brand new NBA coach—a trending style around the league over the past couple years—or go with a veteran who has led an NBA team before. The main criteria for Saunders is someone who can keep the offense strong, find a defensive identity and give the team a tougher mindset so they can find ways to push through and win late.

2. Will Pekovic remain healthy for a full year?

This is by far the most intangible and unstable question on the board. Nikola Pekovic stayed healthy for much of the 2013-14 season through the first three months, but he suffered through ankle injuries in February, March and April that really derailed a campaign that had him at least in consideration as a candidate for taking a trip to All-Star weekend. His stats matched up across the board with most of the top centers in the league—including a strong January in which he averaged 19.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting and brought down 9.2 rebounds per game. But since being bumped up to starters minutes three years ago, Pekovic hasn’t been able to play more than 62 games in a season. His physical style of play and 6-foot-11, 285-pound frame often combine to cause nagging lower-body injuries like the bursitis in his right ankle this season. Pekovic will take the summer to get healthy, and the Wolves hope that next year he’ll be able to stay on the court for more than the 54 games he played this year. Perhaps the emergence of Gorgui Dieng and better health luck from Ronny Turiaf—who suffered fluke elbow and knee injuries this year—will offer Pekovic more time to recover on the bench in games and take a little bit of the minutes burden off him moving forward.

3. Will Rubio become a scoring threat?

Ricky Rubio does a lot of things well at the NBA level, and by some standards he is a cut above almost everyone else in the league. His 8.6 assists per game are the fourth most in the league (his 704 total rank second in the NBA this year and ties Stephon Marbury’s 1997-98 total for second most in team history), while he is first in the NBA in total steals (191) and second in steals per game (2.33). The biggest issue we see with Rubio’s game is his shooting. He’s a career 36.8 percent shooter, and although he shot a career-best 38.1 percent from the field this year it was still a concern for fans. He shot 33.1 percent from beyond the arc—up from 29.3 percent last year—while shooting a career-low field-goal attempts (8.2 per game) and 3-point attempts (1.6 per game). On NBA.com’s shooting chart, he is average or below average in all shooting areas on the court aside from the right wing above the break (50 percent, 17-of-34).

Yet Rubio is showing signs of becoming much more efficient. He’s scored in double-digits in eight of his last nine games, and in March and April he shot 42 percent from the field after shooting 38 percent or below in the previous months. He also got to the free-throw line more per game in April than any other month, and when he wasn’t fouled he did get to the basket and scored with much more efficiency. If he can become a more effective scorer at the rim, he’ll carry much better numbers overall moving forward. Knowing how hard Rubio works and how determined he is to succeed, I’d expect him to come back with a better scoring season next year.

4. How much of a role will this year’s rookies have in the rotation?

Wolves coach Rick Adelman has always been pretty consistent about bringing rookies along as slow as possible. Even Ricky Rubio didn’t start his first 11 games of his career, and had it not been for Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger and Malcolm Lee going down to injury in 2012-13 we would not have seen Alexey Shved starting so early in his career. So it wasn’t a surprise to see Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Robbie Hummel all get spot minutes early in this 2013-14 season. But one thing we found out about this crop of rookies is when they were asked to contribute, they were more than ready to do so. Dieng became a double-double machine in the final month and a half of the season, picking up KIA NBA Rookie of the Month honors in the process. Muhammad became a bit of a fan favorite inside Target Center when he got on the floor because of his ability to score quickly. And Hummel did what the Wolves hoped he would do: play technically-sound ball and hit open shots.

So the question is: How much will we see these guys next season? My guess is Dieng will be much more of a consistent contributor in the front court. Muhammad is athletic and able to play physical ball on the perimeter, and he’ll get his moments to shine as well. Hummel is the type of role guy you need on your team—he can step in and hit 3-pointers when given the chance. Guys have made careers out of being that type of threat, and Hummel proved this year he can do it while staying healthy.

5. Who will demand defensive accountability?

The Timberwolves were incredibly poor defensively this year. They were 25th in opponents points per game, 28th in fourth quarter points against, 28th in opponents field goal percentage and 29th in opponents field goals made per game. For the Wolves, that just won’t cut it. This team was built to score points, and it did it at an alarming rate in 2013-14. But the question from Day 1 was always: How will this team stop opponents from scoring? That ended up being Minnesota’s downfall.

From my vantage point, the biggest thing the Wolves need to shore up is defensive accountability and intensity. The Wolves need someone to set the tone internally that this group will work together as one each time they begin a defensive possession. There were too many open looks this year, too many lazy rotations and too many times gambles in passing lanes with no rim protection as an insurance policy. Minnesota needs to develop an appreciation for defense as a necessity. You won’t win more than half your games if you give up as many points as you score. When it comes down to crunch time, the elite NBA teams find a way to turn it up defensively. The Wolves weren’t able to do that in 2013-14. That’s a crucial part of the team’s success moving forward, and it comes with someone taking charge. Who will demand that type of accountability in the future?