State Of The Wolves Featuring Punch-Drunk Wolves
Editor’s Note: Each month throughout the 2013-14 season, Timberwolves.com will reach out to members of the team's blog community and get their take on how the team is doing in this State of the Wolves series. As we move into December, Andy Grimsrud and Patrick Johnston of Punch-Drunk Wolves give their take on the highlights, the question marks and the things to watch on this roster.
You can find Punch-Drunk Wolves at PunchDrunkWolves.com and on Twitter at @PDWolves
Andy G: Heading into their matchup against the Spurs in Mexico City, the Timberwolves find themselves 9-10. As of this writing, they are 13th out of 15 in the Western Conference, which so far seems better than it’s always-high standards. (Or is the East just that bad?) By efficiency, the Wolves rank 12th in the NBA in offense (scoring 103.3 points per 100 possessions) and 10th in defense (allowing 101.2 points per 100 possessions).
Those rankings probably skew high compared to the early-season performance, given that the team is below .500 and has yet to beat a good team playing at full strength. Instead, they’ve combined blowout wins against teams overmatched or undermanned (in the case of Brooklyn, both) and competitive losses against teams of various strength. But on balance, and given the team’s and fans’ expectation of a playoff berth, the sub-.500 record through 19 games is a little disappointing.
But things aren’t all bad. What has been going right for the Wolves?
Patrick J: Three things: (1) Kevin Love; (2) Kevin Martin; and (3) Nikola Pekovic (of late).
Love looks like his old self. He’s playing like an All-Star, nay, an MVP candidate. He came into camp in good shape and focused, and it has been evident in his performance since opening night. The most impressive thing about Love isn’t necessarily his scoring or his shooting or his rebounding--it’s that he keeps turning weaknesses into strengths. This year, Rick Adelman challenged him to become a better passer and facilitator on offense. Love has responded: He’s averaging 4.1 assists per game, tied for second among NBA bigs, and well above his previous career high of 2.5 (2010-11). Martin is doing what he was brought in to do: Score. He’s currently seventh in the league in points per game, and is shooting from distance at the scorching clip of 44.1%. And Pekovic--he’s showing the signs of being the force he was in previous seasons as the Wolves’ second option, while adjusting to a new role as their third scorer. In this new role, Pekovic is scoring at about his career high, while shooting a team-best 53%. Having a viable “Big Three” is important, and despite their stutters thus far, the Wolves having the makings of such a trio.
One other thing needs mention: Ricky isn’t developing his game as anticipated. Can Rubio transcend into the upper echelon of point guards, despite being nothing resembling a credible scoring threat?
Andy G: You touched on the positives, and Rubio’s struggle to take the next step as an all-around force. Along with those are a couple of question marks going ahead.
Corey Brewer: The first is Corey Brewer. One of the great surprises of the season’s opening games was the instant connection between Kevin Love’s outlet passing and Corey Brewer’s speed and instincts as an opportunistic leak-out receiver. The appropriate Minnesota sports comparison for Love’s 80-foot bombs to Brew would be 1998 Randall Cunningham to rookie Randy Moss. Unfortunately (and unlike most Vikings’ opponents in ‘98) defenses have taken note, and are doing a better job of preventing Brewer breakaways. In slower, halfcourt offense he is not as effective due to his mediocre shooting ability. Brew is still a plus defender and manages to score in transition no matter what the opposing scheme (he’s leading the league in fast break points per game) but it might be that Chase Budinger ultimately replaces him in the starting lineup when he returns from injury. This would surround Rubio with another catch-and-shoot option. After all, the floor spacing can tighten when only two of five Timberwolves starters are a threat to punish a sagging defense.
Gorgui Dieng: The second question mark is Gorgui Dieng. It’s no secret that the Love-Pekovic frontcourt -- for all of its strengths -- lacks the mobility and verticality of a top tier defensive pairing. (Think Joakim Noah for the Bulls or Roy Hibbert for the Pacers.) Dieng, in a small but growing sample size, looks to be a natural rim protector that could help the Wolves in two basic ways: (1) defend pick-and-rolls more aggressively; and (2) provide a reliable bench option to spell Love and Pekovic when they need rest. Keep an eye on Gorgui over the next few weeks. In his first few stints, he struggled by committing too many fouls, but he’s showing quick improvement. Even when Ronny Turiaf returns from injury, Dieng might become a key reserve as the season moves along.
Patrick J: The elephant in the room is the Wolves’ bench. Right now, you might not think they have one. Do they? I don’t know. Does Rick Adelman know? I’m not sure. Derrick Williams was just traded to Sacramento for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Perhaps that will help? The bench doesn’t look competitive, but then again, fair judgments are difficult to make when so few players see so few reps. But one thing seems clear so far: No matter the talent the Wolves have in their starting five, it alone is unlikely to carry the team to the playoffs. One way or another, finding rotations that work is Rick Adelman’s paramount challenge.
The schedule has been tough from a travel and simple “games played” perspective and it eases up in January. If the Wolves make a few adjustments and develop a solid bench rotation, perhaps they can gain some ground and claw their way back into the Western Conference playoff race.
Given all that could change, it should be a fun ride.