Top 10 Wolves Storylines For 2013-14 Season
Email / Twitter
We are two months away from Timberwolves Training Camp opening up, and as we get closer to the team’s 25th season there are a lot of changes that make this a compelling campaign. Will this be the year the team returns to the playoffs after a nine-year absence? If the Wolves do make it, will they have what it takes to put together a memorable postseason run?
Early indications suggest Minnesota does, in fact, have the right mix of talent and leadership to make that happen in 2013-14. There will be obstacles—including unforeseen injuries that marred the team a year ago—but ultimately this Wolves squad is arguably the best prepped group for postseason contention the franchise has seen since the 2003-04 Western Conference Finals run. So as we look forward to the beginning of a new year, here are the top 10 storylines to follow leading into camp.
1. Roster Balance
Since Rick Adelman and his staff took over two years ago, they’ve navigated with an unbalanced roster featuring more point guards and power forwards and less shooting guards and small forwards. The result has been trying to win with undersized players playing on the wing who need to scrap against longer athletes on defense while also fighting for openings and uncontested shots. Luke Ridnour was the prime example of this, starting the majority of the games last year at the 2 when he likely was best suited as a replacement for Ricky Rubio off the bench. If you count Alexey Shved and Malcolm Lee, the Wolves essentially had five ball handlers on a 15-man roster and no true shooting guard. This year, Minnesota brought in Kevin Martin to correct that in a deal that ultimately sent Ridnour, a locker room favorite, to Milwaukee.
That move alone set the Wolves up to have Rubio and Barea at point guard, Martin and Shved at the 2 and Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer at the 3—with Budinger essentially being able to rotate into either wing position. The Wolves also have the option of trying Derrick Williams—now in his third season—at the 3 or going small with Love at the 5 and either Williams or Cunningham at the 4. If the Wolves are able to re-sign restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic, they’ve got a rock at center with veteran Ronny Turiaf and rookie Gorgui Dieng behind him. Chris Johnson has the shot-blocking ability and the quickness to run the floor that makes him an option at the 4 or the 5.
2. Kevin Love’s Presence
Remember when Love absolutely dominated the NBA in March 2012? When he played 40.4 minutes per game, averaged 30.7 points and 13.9 rebounds a night, shot 44.9 percent from 3, went to the free-throw line8.6 times a game and scored 40 points or more three times—including a team-record 51 against OKC on March 23? With Love missing all but 18 games last year due to injury, it’s easy to forget how potent he can be on the court. But those numbers are a small sample size of the outrageous production Love can provide the Wolves. He is so comfortable under the glass and has the innate sense for rebounding positioning, but he also became a clutch late-game performer and a 3-point threat in 2011-12. The Wolves desperately needed that last year.
This time around, coming off successful knee and hand surgeries and reportedly feeling great physically, Love is prepared to step back in and bring that productivity again. He’s an incredibly rare basketball player—a guy who brings productivity around the rim and stretches the floor from the outside. If the Wolves use him at the 5, he’ll draw opposing teams’ bigs out from under the hoop, essentially opening up lanes for Rubio to drive and kick or Martin and Budinger to finish. That 51-point game against the Thunder is a prime example, when Love hit seven 3-pointers while playing the 5 in place of Pekovic, who was injured. It drew Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka out and opened up room for Barea to register a triple-double off the bench. Look for Love to have that type of impact again this year in another All-Star caliber season.
3. The Development Of Ricky Rubio
Rubio brought Wolves fans renewed hope when he was drafted in 2009, elevated their excitement when he took the court in December 2011 and increased their resolve for the future when he returned from knee surgery in December 2012. It seems like Rubio’s been around for years, and in some ways he has. On the court, however, is another story. Rubio has played in just 98 games during his first two years due to the lockout, the ACL injury and the recovery. That’s the equivalent of 1.2 full regulation NBA seasons. Think about all the highlights he’s created in that short amount of time and how much learning and growing he has ahead of him. Rubio, for his career, is averaging 10.7 points and 7.7 assists a night. He’s played in two BBVA Rising Stars Challenges, is a nightly steals threat and brings the intangible spark teams hope for in a point guard. He’s an above-average rebounder for his position, and he’s working on improving his shot to ensure he’ll keep opposing teams honest while defending him. Give Rubio a full season, and he’ll develop even more into the type of player and leader Wolves fans already see him as—even with the small sample size.
4. 3-Point Efficiency
Only one team in the past decade shot the 3-ball worse than the Wolves did last season, and that was the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats during the shortened lockout year. That team finished with a .106 winning percentage, which in some ways might quantify the importance of 3-point shooting while also ensuring the Wolves did have enough scoring elsewhere—even through their injuries—to stay competitive. But new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders said from Day 1 that this is a 3-point league, and productivity on the perimeter is essential if a team wants to compete for a playoff spot and beyond.
That’s why the Wolves put much of their early offseason emphasis on players who can fit that mold. They re-signed Budinger, who missed four months after knee surgery but is a career 35.8 percent 3-point shooter. They targeted Martin, who is a career 38.5 percent shooter from behind the arc and hit 42.6 percent of his shots from distance last year. Brewer isn’t known for his 3-ball but did become an effective corner 3 guy in Denver. They still have Barea (career 35.5 percent) and will gain Love’s 3-point ability again. And with Shved entering his second year, the expectation is he’ll improve his efficiency. He proved last year he’s willing to take shots in pivotal situations.
5. Controlled Rookie Development
The Wolves made a Draft night trade for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng while also nabbing Lorenzo Brown—whom they value as a second-round steal. Those three were on the Wolves’ Summer League roster and are presumed to be headed to camp this fall. Muhammad and Dieng are guaranteed and should be locks for the roster, but their situation should provide time for development. Muhammad is a swingman who can provide enhanced depth behind Budinger and Brewer at the 3 and Martin and Shved at the 2. He won’t however, be called upon to play extended minutes in his first season. Adelman has a history of not throwing rookies into prominent roles if at all possible—remember Rubio came off the bench initially in his rookie year. Dieng will have a similar situation if Pekovic re-signs, given Pek will play the majority of the minutes, Turiaf is a capable veteran and the Wolves can go small with Love at the 5 from time to time. Both rookies should have the opportunity to grow and learn the game without carrying too much responsibility right away. Of course, they can earn those minutes as they go.
6. Flip’s Return
Saunders rejoined the franchise in the front office this offseason, and in doing so he brought back a familiar face and name for Minnesota fans and a well-known and successful voice around the NBA. Saunders is the only coach in Wolves history to get them to the playoffs, and during his stints in Minnesota and Detroit from 1995 through 2008, he reached the playoffs in 11 of 13 seasons—including four trips to the conference finals. He and Adelman have combined for more than 1,600 wins as coaches in this league, and they understand what it takes to maximize a player’s potential. They also are on the same page when it comes to structure and philosophy within the locker room. Both were aware of the team’s needs on the perimeter, and in doing so they brought in Adelman-type players. Martin and Budinger, for instance, both played for Adelman in other markets and are fiercely loyal to their coach. Saunders was active in Draft workouts and has the type of coach credibility that allows him to communicate with players at that level and help with player development as well as basketball operations.
7. Fight For No. 15
The Wolves currently have 14 players on their 15-man roster, leaving one spot remaining heading into camp. It’s a tossup what they’ll decide with that spot. One option is to go with Lorenzo Brown, who could give them size (6-foot-5) and one extra backup point guard just in case. They could also go with a shooter like 2012 second round pick Robbie Hummel who, when healthy, can provide a little perimeter pop. The other option is going with a veteran like Othyus Jeffers, who really impressed the Wolves’ coaching staff during Summer League through his defensive play and experience. He played a combined 31 games in 2009-10 and 2010-11 with Utah, San Antonio and Washington, and he spent 16 games with the Wizards with Saunders as coach. The last option they could choose is simply leaving the roster spot open, opting for salary cap and roster movement flexibility in case injuries make the team thin in any one specific area.
8. Is This The Year?
It feels like Wolves fans have sense it coming, but each time the team has fallen just a little short. The Timberwolves are currently 22-game losing streak to the L.A. Lakers. Their last win was March 6, 2007, in a 117-107 overtime victory at Target Center during the KG era. Since the two teams met in the 2003-04 Western Conference Finals, the Wolves are 5-27 against the Lakers. But with L.A. currently battling injuries—Kobe Bryant is coming off an Achilles tear while Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are coming off banged up years—while the team lost both Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace this offseason, this could be the year Minnesota gets back in the wins column.
9. Pounding The Boards
The Wolves are a team that can flat out rebound when their players are healthy. Most of that is due to Love and Pekovic, but the Wolves also have a sparkplug off the bench in Dante Cunningham and should get some perimeter help from Budinger, Rubio and Brewer. But the whole key to the Wolves’ rebounding potential lies with Love and Pekovic. Love led the league in total rebounds (1,112) and offensive boards (330) in 2010-11, and he was second in the NBA in total boards during his last healthy season in 2011-12. He brings down nearly four offensive boards a game for his career and has hauled in 12.2 per night since he debuted in 2008. Pekovic is a rare rebounder in that he nearly brings down as many on the offensive glass as he does on the defensive end. He averaged 3.7 offensive rebounds a night last year while hauling in 5.1 defensive boards. That came while missing 20 games due to injury and working his way back. If Pekovic is back and healthy, his physicality makes it tough on opposing defenders to gain position and wrestle rebounds away. Pacers center Roy Hibbert once called Love and Pekovic a dynamic duo, and on the glass that’s certainly the case.
10. Ending The Drought
Any Wolves fan knows the answer to, “When was the last time Minnesota made the playoffs?” The question still to be determined is, “When will the Wolves make it back?” That answer very well could be 2013-14, as Minnesota made the necessary adjustments to their roster to form a more than capable group. The key will be health, but there are certainly spots in the Western Conference field of eight to be had if Minnesota can keep their guys on the court. There aren’t a lot of current workers in this organization who were here during that 2003-04 run, but the ones who were still tell stories of the atmosphere and the excitement surrounding that team. Minnesota’s moves over the past two years have set the table, and now it’s time to make the move. This roster, even more so than last year, feels like it’s the right make up for a playoff push. We’ll see come April how it all plays out.