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Top 5 Takeaways From The Wolves' 2013-14 Season
It’s funny how time flies, isn’t it? The Timberwolves’ season seems like it just kicked off yesterday with Media Day and a week-long trip down to Mankato for Training Camp. Yet here we sit on April 17, a day after the 2013-14 regular season ended, with the 25th year of Wolves basketball in the books.
There’s a lot we can say about this season of basketball, and of course the first thing that comes to mind as fans is it’s another postseason without the Timberwolves being involved. But the steps this team took were important toward once again getting back into the playoff conversation, and while we might have thought it would’ve happened this year it’s important to take a look at why the Timberwolves are in better shape today than they were a year ago.
So let’s break down some of the biggest takeaways from this 2013-14 season. There’s a lot to break down as we head into an important offseason for Minnesota, but given the way Minnesota finished out the season and grew throughout the year, there should be optimism surrounding this team heading into 2014-15.
1. The Wolves are back in the 40-win club
This is an important milestone. The Timberwolves hadn’t won 40 games in a season since winning 44 in the 2004-05 campaign, the year after their last trip to the playoffs. It’s been a tough road as a Wolves fan since those successful Kevin Garnett-led clubs, and we’ve seen this Minnesota team win as few as 15 games when the bottom fell out in 2009-10. But since then, there has been progress every year. The Wolves won 17 games in 2010-11, followed by 26 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. That was Rick Adelman’s first year in town, and had it not been for Ricky Rubio’s torn ACL and a slew of injuries that followed, that might have been the year Minnesota returned to the playoffs. They battled injuries all of 2012-13—losing 341 man games in the process—yet still managed 31 wins. And this year, Minnesota took the next step and reached the 40-win plateau.
In a different season when the West wasn’t so competitive, this might have been enough to get into the postseason. The Timberwolves’ very first playoff appearance in 1996-97, after all came after a 40-42 regular season. This is also the first year since 2008-09 that the Wolves didn’t finish last in their division, and it’s the first time since 2004-05 that they finished as high as third. The numbers do reflect a very tough stretch of basketball for this organization over the past decade, but it also reflects progress. This Wolves team built off last year, and it has the talent to do it again next season.
2. Kevin Love keeps solidifying himself as one of the league’s elite
Kevin Love earned his first-ever All-Star start this February thanks to fans across the country recognizing just how special a season he’s having. For a guy who already is a three-time All-Star and has continuously improved his game every offseason, the 2013-14 campaign was his best yet. He just set the franchise’s single-season scoring record, and became the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76 to average 26 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists. That puts him in the company of Abdul-Jabbar (6 times), Elgin Baylor (4 times), Wilt Chamberlain (3 times), Billy Cunningham (1 time), Bob McAdoo (1 time) and Oscar Robertson (1 time). All Hall of Famers. He’s the only player to average 26.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.5 3-pointers per game in league history. He’s also the only player in league history with 2,000 points, 900 rebounds and 100 made 3-pointers in league history.
Love led the league with 66 double-doubles, and began the season with 30 consecutive games with at least 30+ points or 10+ rebounds. That’s the most in NBA history since Bill Walton started the 1976-77 season with 34 straight games of that nature. He leads the league with 24 20-point, 10-rebound-five assist games, 50 20/10 games and 21 30/50 games. And he collected his first three triple-doubles of his career in 2013-14.
Love is revered across the league for his unique play. He always been associated with the top rebounders in the game, but over the past three years he’s turned into a guy who not only can score inside but also stretch the floor and hit the three with efficiency. This year, he’s turned into a much more effective passer. His 4.4 assists per game far and away trump his previous high of 2.5 set in 2010-11. And although he gets criticized for his defense, he did take important charges throughout the year and his 0.8 blocks per game are the second highest of his career.
Now we head into another offseason with this question in mind: What will Love do this summer to improve his game once again in 2014-15?
3. The Wolves’ 2013 Draft class is a keeper
I was there at Target Center on Draft night back in April. I know there was skepticism about the Timberwolves activity in the first round when they traded the No. 9 pick to Utah in return for the 14 and 21 selections, turning Trey Burke into Shabazz Muhammad Gorgui Dieng. Both rookies got spot minutes through the first three months of the season, but when they got opportunities they seized those moments. Their play over the past 2 ½ months provided optimism about what these two can do moving forward in their careers.
Dieng’s had the biggest splash, and it was born out of circumstance. He stepped in after Nikola Pekovic began missing time due to injury, and he was a force for the Wolves ever since. He recorded nine double-doubles in his final 18 games of the season, including three straight and five in six games after being thrust into the starting role. He averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game this season between Oct. 30 and March 15, but even in a half-month of play he earned the KIA NBA Rookie of the Month Award for March. Twice in 22 days he put together 20-rebound efforts against the Houston Rockets, including the first 20-20 game for a rookie in Wolves history (22 points, 21 rebounds) on March 20. Overall, he’s only the fifth player in Wolves history to record a 20-20 game—and he did it in his third career start (just the 6th player in the NBA since 1970 to achieve a 20/20 in his first three starts). He’s showing the promise of a standout center in the making.
Muhammad had a similar flash of brilliance late in the season. He was little-used in the first three months and ended up missing the final seven games due to a knee injury, but between Feb. 8 and April 2 he proved he has the scoring touch to really provide depth on the wing. His best effort came on March 25 in Phoenix, when he scored 20 points—including 10 in the fourth—and helped will the Timberwolves to a 110-101 road victory against a team trying to hold onto its playoff hopes. He followed it up with a perfect 5-for-5, 10-point effort in 14 minutes against the Knicks on March 5, and he finished 4-of-4 with nine points against the Lakers in seven minutes of play on March 28. Excluding the three minutes he played before getting injured in Miami on April 4, his final two games of the season against the Clippers and Grizzlies yielded a combined 9-of-11 shooting with 19 points in 26 minutes.
Muhammad is athletic enough to drive to the basket with authority, big enough to post up as a wing player and has enough finesse to hit that baseline lefty hook with incredible efficiency. Dieng’s rebounding, ever-evolving offensive game and potential not only to block shots defensively but to find the open man in half-court scenarios make him a strong asset to the team. The Wolves look like they’ve got two keepers for the future.
4. This team can score….now it’s time to D up
Minnesota improved offensively by leaps and bounds this season. They averaged 106.9 points per game in 2013-14, up from 95.7 points per game in 2012-13. They were fourth in the league in that category this year, trailing the Clippers, Rockets and Blazers and finishing ahead of the likes of the West-leading Spurs and Thunder. Yet they are the only team in the top seven in scoring league-wide to miss the playoffs. What happened?
First off, the Wolves did their work early in halves. They led the league in first quarter points per game and were second in third quarter points per game. They were eighth in the second quarter and 25th in the fourth. Coincidentally, while they were second in the league in average first quarter scoring margin, they were 30th in average fourth quarter margin.
What we take away from this is not as much offensive as it is defensive. The NBA’s top teams don’t always need to be great defensively, but they win their games with intense defensive effort in the fourth quarter. While other teams ramped up their defensive effort in the fourth quarter, the Wolves’ offensive—while one of the best in the league—couldn’t keep up because defensively they’re seeing the other team’s best and, on their defensive end, they just weren’t able to get those stops. Minnesota as a team was 26th in the league allowing 104.3 points per game this year. They were 28th in the league allowing their opponents 47.1 percent shooting from the field.
Minnesota’s biggest issue is rim protection. They were last in the league this year in blocked shots despite being third in steals. While the Wolves do gamble and jump into passing lanes with a certain level of effectiveness, it also leads to open looks and drives to the basket. Without proper rim protection, it leads to a pretty significant spike in points against. As a result, the Wolves were 37-22 when scoring 100 points this year but were 3-20 when they did not. Minnesota has the ability to score. Now they need to find a way to become better defenders heading into next season.
5. The Wolves play their best against the best
The Timberwolves 13 of the 16 playoff teams this year, including the top two seeds in the East and West. Some of the most memorable victories in 2013-14 came against the top teams in the league, including most recently beating the Spurs 110-91 at home and the Heat 122-121 in double-overtime on the road. The Wolves also collected a 100-81 win over the Thunder early on this season and a memorable 104-91 win over the Pacers in their first game after the All-Star Break in February.
The problem this year is that while the Wolves did play some of the best teams well and did beat up on the worst teams in the league, the middle-ground was the issue. Minnesota lost games against fringe playoff teams or non-playoff teams both at home and on the road that ultimately cost them a chance at the playoffs. Several games come to mind, including losses at Boston, Cleveland, Charlotte, Washington, Magic, Nuggets and the Lakers as well as home defeats against the Nuggets, Kings and Warriors. That’s 10 losses right there that really put the Wolves out of the playoff hunt. The name of the game is consistency, and Minnesota just didn’t have enough of it this year to take that next step. The key for the Wolves next year is being able to play at that high intensity level against all teams, not just the top organizations in the league. If they do that, you’ll see the Wolves take another stride in 2014-15.