By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2012 1:51PM
Cue the Jim Mora tape. Really, it is the only soundtrack that matters as one considers the Minnesota Timberwolves, their not-so-recent history and their vision for the 2012-13 NBA season.
"Playoffs?" the former Indianapolis Colts coach said after a November 2001 drubbing by San Francisco. "Don't talk about ... playoffs? You kiddin' me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game."
The Timberwolves aren't in straits quite that dire. They won 26 games out of 66 last season and are projected to do much better in a full season. But playoffs? That's a different animal altogether.
This is a franchise that has gone postseason-less for as long now as it took to qualify in the first place. The Wolves made the long climb from expansion dregs to low seed in eight difficult years. They searched for leadership (four coaches in seven seasons) and talent, finally escaping from their Felton Spencer-, Christian Laettner- and J.R. Rider-days with the back-to-back arrivals of Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. In 1997, Minnesota embarked on a run of eight consecutive playoff berths, climaxing with the Western Conference finals in 2004.
Since then? Eight consecutive lottery finishes, the first three with Garnett still on board. A cumulative record 214 games under .500. Five more coaches. And Mora's famous-enough-for-a-beer-commercial's words, wafting over from that other sport, mocking any scrap of unjustified optimism each October (or last year, December). You kiddin' me? Playoffs?Ahem. Yes, playoffs.
"People are going to look at our team and say, 'Oh, those are the Timberwolves of the past,' " All-Star forward Kevin Love said in a September interview. "But I think we're going to be a different team, because of the people that we added."
Typical preseason optimism? Nah, it is more than that now. It is pragmatism, driven by the ticking clocks on Love, who can exit in 2015 if he's unhappy with the franchise's progress, and on coach Rick Adelman, who is 66 years old and didn't sign on for a deep-horizon rebuild. Time is short, too, for owner Glen Taylor, who at 71 is interviewing potential partners with the idea of transferring the team's title. And basketball boss David Kahn is overseeing his fourth season, about as long as most GM types get without some spring success.
Oh, and there is realism at work here too, because Minnesota's talent base has been greatly improved. With Adelman nudging for changes to fit his style and temperament, the Wolves' roster has been remade with seven additions and several key subtractions (Michael Beasly, Darko Milicic, Anthony Randolph and Wes Johnson among them) around a core of players who either "got it" or still serve the coach's vision.
Love, of course, is the cornerstone, arguably the best of the NBA's lush power forward class. He has an inside-and-outside game like perhaps no other in league history -- rebounding savant, 3-point threat -- and is the face of the franchise. But his time with Team USA this summer, as that squad's only member besides draftee Anthony Davis never to have experienced the playoffs, set his jaw for something bigger next spring.
Fortunately, as Love quipped about the Wolves after his return, "I haven't had this much talent around me since my UCLA days."
The new faces include Andrei Kirilenko, the Russian army knife who spent 10 seasons in Utah before riding out the lockout schedule back in Russia. Former Portland All-Star Brandon Roy, prematurely tipped into retirement by degenerative knees, signed to play for Adelman and with Love, and to test new regimens and knee maintenance methods. Combo guard Alexey Shved, a Russian spin on Ricky Rubio, joins countryman Kirilenko. Chase Budinger, Greg Stiemsma, Lou Amundson and Dante Cunningham round out the newcomers.
Love is excited by the workout enhancements of center Nikola Pekovic, a revelation last year as a force in the paint. All the Wolves are hopeful for Derrick Williams, who didn't move the needle as the No. 2 pick overall in 2011. Veterans Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea will handle the point while they all wait for Rubio to return from knee surgery.
Now, it's possible that Minnesota could be much improved this season and still miss the playoffs, based on the stiff competition within the Western Conference. But that's no way to think in October. Better that the Wolves get and stay above .500, then adjust their sights from there.
"To be honest, I don't think [the playoffs are] far-fetched," Love said. "But the way the teams have reloaded in the West, we have to definitely steal a lot of games, play scrappy, win some big games and the games that we should win."
At which point the Ghost of Jim Mora's Rant can go haunt some other needy team.
1. Life was good. The Wolves had a spring in their step and a 21-20 record when rookie point guard Ricky Rubio banged into Kobe Bryant, popping two ligaments in his left knee. Goodbye, 21-20 and a possible playoff berth. Hello, 5-20 limp to the finish. "I'm still in shock how much it affected our team," Adelman said as camp opened. Rubio's injury sapped the Wolves' swagger and limited the ballhandling options in their attack. The latter was addressed over the summer, the former might not return until Rubio does sometime in December or January. But taking on losses while waiting for him can't be an option.
2. The whole basketball world (with the possible exception of some bitter folks in Portland) is pulling for Brandon Roy to come all the way back from his meniscus-inspired premature retirement. But smart Minnesota fans haven't fully bought into glowing reports of Roy's still-sparking skills, notions about his happy influence on team chemistry and such. The real and most rigorous test will come in mid-December, when the Wolves play four games in five nights, three on the road, wrapping up at Miami. Where Roy is at physically by then could make or break his return and his new team's season.
3. Derrick Williams came back to the Twin Cities lighter, better conditioned and far more prepared than he was as a rookie. The dropoff from Kyrie Irving's debut season in Cleveland to Williams' results in Minnesota as the 2011 draft's No. 2 pick was stark. Williams will try to close that gap while playing some small forward and vying for minutes with two or three other Adelman options.
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LAST YEAR: 26-40, 5th in Northwest
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2011-12 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2011-12 Stats|
LUKE RIDNOUR, POINT GUARD
12.1 PPG | 4.8 APG | 1.1 SPG
Playmaker started 53 games last season, many of which alongside Ricky Rubio. He'll hold down the point guard spot, as he did last year, until Rubio returns.
BRANDON ROY, SHOOTING GUARD
12.2 PPG | 2.6 RPG | 2.7 APG (2010-11 stats)
After being waived via the amnesty provision by Portland in 2011, Roy is back in the NBA. It's all about the knees, not in November but as back-to-backs pile up.
ANDREI KIRILENKO, SMALL FORWARD
11.7 PPG | 5.1 RPG | 3.0 APG (2010-11 stats)
A swing-and-a-miss at trying to sign Portland's Nicolas Batum this summer lead Minnesota to get coach Rick Adelman his desired versatile defender via Russia.
KEVIN LOVE, POWER FORWARD
26.0 PPG | 13.3 RPG | 1.9 APG
The league's leading rebounder (and two-time All-Star) has a hunger for the playoffs after his summertime stint with Team USA's stars in London.
NIKOLA PEKOVIC, CENTER
13.9 PPG | 7.4 RPG | 0.7 BPG
One of the strongest pound-for-pound post players in the NBA, Pekovic is still massive (6-foot-11) and a bit leaner, too, after trimming down over the summer.
|Ricky Rubio||6-4||180||G||Fueled a Wolves playoff frenzy until knee blowout.|
|Derrick Williams||6-8||241||F||The No. 2 pick of 2011 has much to prove after a letdown debut.|
|J.J. Barea||6-0||175||G||Pesky, creative scorer needs to adapt in anti-flop era.|
ADDED: F Louis Amundson, F Chase Budinger, F Dante Cunningham, G Jerome Dyson, F Robbie Hummel, F Andrei Kirilenko, C Brad Miller (retired; contract reacquired), G Brandon Roy, G Alexey Shved, C Greg Stiemsma
LOST: F Michael Beasley, G Wayne Ellington, G Wesley Johnson, C Darko Milicic (amnesty), F Anthony Randolph, G/F Martell Webster
BRANDON ROY, SHOOTING GUARD
In a surprise move, Roy ended his season-long retirement and joined Minnesota. The Wolves, who won't be at full strength early on, will improve their chances if Roy can consistently provide more than just glimpses of his former self.
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