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Wolves’ final eight weeks — the potential pros and cons

Ricky Rubio shooting over Portland Trailblazers' Damian Lillard
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Ricky Rubio shooting over Portland Trailblazers' Damian Lillard during the NBA Rising Stars Challenge on Feb. 15.

The good news is that the All Star weekend and the trading deadline have passed without anyone on the Minnesota Timberwolves getting injured or dealt.

As I said in my last column, standing pat was the Wolves’ best strategy — the team needs to conserve its resources to pay for a talented roster that injuries have robbed of collective playing time, and that will be more expensive next season.

Now that all the jabbering — about who did or didn’t deserve to be an All Star and who should or shouldn’t be moved for various combinations of players — is over, or at least moot, let’s turn our attention to the rest of the season.

Begin with the fact that there isn’t that much of it remaining. Commentators like to call the All Star break the midpoint of the campaign, but in reality it is closer to two-thirds concluded by then. The Wolves started play on Nov. 2, and a week from today is the first of March. The season concludes on April 17.

That said, the Wolves are tied with the Knicks for the fewest games played thus far, at 51, meaning they jam their final 31 contests into the next 55 days, beginning tonight in Oklahoma City. It starts a relatively rough stretch in which they play four of their next five on the road and then come home to confront the dominant Miami Heat.

This should obliterate any thin strands of hope some die-hards may still harbor about Minnesota making the playoffs.

The Wolves are currently in 12th place in a conference where the top eight continue on into the postseason. Thus, they have to leapfrog over four teams in eight weeks. Right now, the eighth-place Rockets have a winning percentage of .536, which telescopes to 44 wins over an 82-game season. For the Wolves to match that win total and theoretically tie for eighth, they would need to go 24-7 the rest of the way. And that’s not going to happen.

Signs of life

But there is evidence to suggest that the worst part of the season is behind us. That would be from Jan. 9 through Feb. 10, when the Wolves lost 15 of 17 games. Kevin Love and Chase Budinger were out with injuries. Ricky Rubio was limited to less than half a game of action and was woefully rusty after a nine-month absence because of knee surgery. Coach Rick Adelman missed 11 games in three weeks during that span to tend to his ailing wife. A cluster of minor dings kept Nikola Pekovic, Alexey Shved, Andrei Kirilenko and J.J. Barea out for various periods of time in that stretch. It was a brutal gantlet.

By comparison, the team’s current and near-term prospects feel like a placebo for a panacea. Rubio is rounding into a form that enables his body to execute many more of the things his ultra-competitive nature demands — you had to marvel at the diligence with which he nearly single-handedly whittled away at the fourth-quarter deficit against Utah in the final game before the All Star break. Derrick Williams still confounds with defensive naps and a quixotic self-assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, but over the past six games he is averaging 16.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in just 29.2 minutes — not bad for somebody still three months away from his 22nd birthday.

Luke Ridnour still is being handed the thankless task of trying to defend taller, heavier off-guards who routinely overwhelm him, but at least he is collapsing the disparity with his hot shooting. Even after Wednesday’s 2-for-8 performance from the field, Ridnour has converted 49.5 percent of his shots over the past 10 games. It would help even more if Luke would lay off the three-pointers. He’s made 7 of 26 (26.9 percent) from distance in the month of February while nailing 41 of 70 (58.6 percent) from inside the arc during the same span. And while the season-long splits are a little closer — 51.2 on two-pointers, 32.2 percent on treys — it still argues against him shooting from long range.

The return of Andrei Kirilenko provides more cause for optimism. One of the unsung highlights of the current Wolves season is how Adelman and his assistant coach Bill Bayno have molded Minnesota into the 13th-best team (out of 30) in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) despite having just one quality wing defender in Kirilenko.

Against the Sixers on Wednesday, the Wolves kept switching immediately on pick-and-rolls and a halftime adjustment by Philadelphia coach Doug Collins exploited that strategy to create open shots for swingman Evan Turner, who had 14 points in the third quarter on 5 for 10 from the field and 4 for 4 from the free throw line. In the fourth period, Adelman and Bayno stopped the automatic switching and let Kirilenko stay with his man through the screens, the way AK played in Utah for a decade under Jerry Sloan. Turner scored one point — he was 0 for 2 from the field and 1 for 2 from the line—in the final 8:45, a huge factor in Minnesota holding on for the win.

But the real enticement of these final eight weeks is the looming development of Minnesota’s five best players actually sharing the court together for the first time this season. Swingman Chase Budinger, who has been missing since Nov. 10 because of a knee injury, has begun lateral movements and is expected to return in mid-to-late March. A similar timetable has been set for Kevin Love, who broke his hand for the second time on Jan. 3 and hopes to return before the end of next month.

This is the silver lining on the team’s back-loaded schedule. Even if Budinger and Love aren’t on the floor until March 26, the Wolves will play 14 games in those 23 days that conclude with the April 17 season finale. That will give Adelman and the front office a taste of what they can expect from a quintet of Budinger, Kirilenko, Love, Pekovic and Rubio in the 2013-14 season — if they pony up the additional money that will be required to keep that unit intact.

Portentous scenarios

This being the Wolves, of course, we can’t really end things on a happy note. While the team didn’t leverage the expiring contract of good-as-retired Brandon Roy or reduce the redundancy of Ridnour and Barea in a quest for another capable wing player, it apparently wasn’t for a lack of trying. Various reports had the team offering Roy, Williams and either Barea or Ridnour, plus the first-round pick from Memphis in this summer’s draft, in an attempt to acquire players.

Some of the talent the Wolves would have received had expiring contracts, theoretically freeing up more space under the salary cap for the team to use during the off-season. But some of the rumored trade offers furthered the season-long murmurings that the team, and specifically President of Basketball Operations David Kahn is not committed to re-signing center Nikola Pekovic.

Pek promptly went out and hung 27 points and 18 rebounds on the Sixers Wednesday, underscoring that he is indeed a top-12 NBA center (I could make a case for top 10) and a vital cog for a franchise that has no business dodging his salary after nearly a decade of ineptitude.

The most toxic rumor had the Wolves considering the acquisition of third-string center Timofey Mozgov from Denver. Mozgov, like Pekovic, will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season, meaning the team that holds him can match any salary offer from another franchise. Mozgov has a fair bit of talent and will command less money than Pek. He is also two inches taller at 7-1. And he has the advantage of playing with current Wolves Kirilenko and Alexey Shved on the Russian Olympic team.

But there is a reason the Knicks traded Mozgov to Denver, and why the Nuggets in turn signed two other centers -- Wolves’ reject Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee -- to new contracts after acquiring Mozgov. He is not nearly the reliable low-post force on offense that Pek represents, shooting a much higher percentage of midrange jumpers than Pek, according to 82games.com. That same website shows that over the past three seasons, New York and then Denver has performed at least seven points per 100 possessions worse with Mozgov on the court than when he is on the bench.

One caveat: Rumors are rampant during the final days before the trading deadline, and most of them are spun by agents and/or general managers looking to advance an agenda. The rumor surrounding Mozgov and the Wolves had Minnesota offering Roy’s expiring $5 million contract and the first-round pick from Memphis. That’s a pretty steep price for Denver to reject, considering that it is highly unlikely that the Nuggets are going to match offers for Mozgov during the off-season. So it is indeed possible that Kahn never dangled this offer.

The other source of trepidation involves the short-term future of Adelman. Coming back after a three-week absence, he explained that he wanted to make sure he could return for good, rather than yo-yo back and forth with his wife’s illness. While he has held true to that dictum, he missed practice earlier this week and also delayed traveling with his team to Oklahoma City in order to be with his wife, who obviously has ongoing health issues.

Adelman has consistently and appropriately let it be known that his family is his priority. Engaging now in pure speculation, it is possible that he could step aside from coaching if this family matter persists — or be more apt to chuck his Timberwolves gig if the front office doesn’t go all-in on providing him with the most talent to win now rather than build for the future. And that in turn could set off a domino effect, with Love exercising his opt-out clause three years into his deal, and Rubio seeing the way things are playing out and becoming determined to play out his contract without re-signing.

Yes, that is a fanciful doomsday scenario, and I don’t expect it to happen. But it also isn’t that far-fetched. And when it comes to this star-crossed Wolves franchise, you can’t rule anything out.

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Comments (7)

This might be the only comment in this thread

I think they should keep letting Luke shoot 3s. Most of his recently have come from the corners and have just rimmed out. Actually, his shot selection has become much better since Adelman arrived; no more long twos a foot inside the line, and a lot of Terrell-Brandon-range jump shots, which while not ideal shots are better than the Michael Beasley specials considered the worst shot in the NBA.

Honestly, they have another potential goal here: since OKC/Seattle went from bad to really good, the Wolves haven't gotten out of last place in the division. Making up 3 1/2 games to surpass Portland is at least possible. Beyond that, ending long losing streaks vs. the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, and/or Grizz or splitting season series vs Denver, Utah, and/or OKC would all continue what was started last season. Even having a chance to win the season series vs. Denver (though unlikely since the remaining game is there) are all good goals to end the season with.

As for the future, I wonder what, if any, lessons Taylor has learned. He's now had a taste of two quality coaches in Flip and Adelman, as well as a taste of what good drafting can do (Pek, Love, Rubio) surrounded by ineptitude in both areas. (I know a lot of people like Dwane Casey, but he only sticks out well compared to the stinkers who surround him in the Wolves coaching fraternity.) If not for the lockout, there's no way they'd have waited for Adelman to be ready to coach, and we'd probably have seen someone like Sam Mitchell instead. He's also witnessed some of the worst drafting and PR a decision-maker can bring to a franchise, to the extent that a legitimate opinion out there is if Kahn goes, Love's likelihood of staying goes up exponentially. (Just thinking about their approach to Love's extension in contrast to the max deal they were willing to offer David Lee makes my blood boil.) Taylor has seen what a difference there is to having a top-15 player on the roster.

At this point, I don't think anyone can assume that a sale is coming soon, so any status quo decisions because a new owner would clean house seem presumptive. If Adelman retires and no one forces Taylor's hand with Kahn, I worry about where this goes. We should all have eternal gratitude for Taylor keeping the franchise here as well as living with the oldest arena in the NBA (their expansion companion in Orlando opened a new one 2 years ago), but I really don't like living under the assumption that this franchise is a great coach's retirement away from an existence that has been rule more than exception.

Optimism and pessimism

I know that Greg isn't the only one who has an opinion on this, so I'll throw in my two cents as well. I'm still bullish on this team, as I've always been able to talk myself into a team being able to get into the playoffs until they're mathematically eliminated. That said, it's impossible to overlook some of this team's deficiencies, the most glaring of which could be overcome with the long-range firepower of Kevin Love and Chase Budinger.

Moving forward, I have an even greater sense of optimism. Ricky has played one solid month of basketball (after an understandably pedestrian start), and he and Alexey have their first healthy NBA offseason to improve their games. I'm sure it's common knowledge among those who read this column that significant improvement often takes place during most rookie's first offseason, so I'm looking forward to improved shooting from Ricky and some consistency out of Alexey.

Next, we have a pretty varied portfolio of assets that we can use to improve the team. We've got a lottery pick in a deep draft, a late first-rounder, Derrick Williams (whose fluctuating production keeps him on other GMs' radar), and expiring contracts with sought-after skillsets (AK, Luke). I'd prefer to keep AK and give him a more manageable and longer deal, but if a non-contender needs to dump a good player with a longer deal, we're at least in a position to take action.

Of course, the pessimistic side of me has to start with the already-discussed issues with the front office. I don't think Taylor has deaf ears when it comes to the criticism of Kahn, but I also think there's some sense of loyalty to the guy who has brought this franchise closer to profitability despite some hard-headed missteps (Rambis and Darko primarily). When you add the variable of uncertainty surrounding Adelman's return and the pending sale of the franchise, I'm not sure there are many things that I, as a casual fan, have the knowledge to recommend moving forward. That said, I'm more than willing to throw my hat in the ring for next GM of the Wolves! (though really I'm only doing it for access to Synergy stats)

As for our center situation, I've commented before that Pek is a top-ten center but perhaps less-than-ideal for an Adelman-and-Rubio led offense. But we do need to keep him unless another option avails itself - and it's definitely not Mozgov (though I'd be slightly more amenable to ex-Wolf Koufos). If by the grace of some higher power we end up in a position to draft one of the many highly-touted centers in this draft (my fingers are crossed for Noel), I'd strongly consider letting Pek walk and maybe signing a cheaper leaper (TM) to create some passing options for Rubio rather than a dump-into-post option.

Thanks for holding forth

I've been absent from my own comments section for awhile now, which isn't the way to award solid commentary. Much thanks to both PSR and Anton (and Andy G earlier) for holding down the fort.

Anton lays out the pros and cons pretty well, although I'm much more bullish on retaining Pek instead of training a newbie when the Adelman/Love window seems to be 3-4 years to produce at least a second-round playoff team.

I'm a little bit terrified (in line with the slim odds that it will happen) that the combination of his wife's illness and the front office not going all-in will compel Adelman to walk. I think that would be the first domino--followed by AK declining his option, Love opting out after 3, Rubio not re-signing, etc. I am also afraid that if Adelman bolts, Taylor will keep Kahn "for stability's sake." My opinion is the opposite: If I favor Kahn at all, it is with Adelman beside him making the personnel decisions. It is damning with faint praise, but the best recommendation for Kahn is that he defers to Adelman on personnel (Brandon Roy aside, and hopefully as the last exception). It would be hard to bring in a really player-savvy GM who could simultaneously tolerate the level of control Adelman seems to have on the roster.

PSR, I generally agree with you about the wisdom of 3's versus long 2's, but Ridnour is pretty deadly from 19-20 feet and not so much from slightly beyond. I think that becomes even more true as he is ground down by guarding off guards. His numbers in the 2nd and 4th quarters support this theory.

Britt--I wonder if Adelman's

Britt--

I wonder if Adelman's ability in Minnesota to have his sons working in relatively high responsibility roles (one is a player development coach, another is director of player personnel, is there a 3rd?) will keep him coaching the Wolves for a few more years. Not only might having close family around make working beyond standard retirement age more palatable, but it is also a great opportunity for his sons that I would guess is not otherwise available to them--at least not until they build up resumes with these jobs they currently have with Rick pretty much running the show.

Of course his wife's medical situation could trump all, but if her situation becomes resolved I wouldn't underestimate the sons factor. I hope Adelman stays on. In the meantime, I wouldn't mind adding Elston Turner to the bench as an assistant and head coach in waiting. He's 53 years old, clearly desires a head coaching job, and would seem like a natural replacement for his longtime boss and coaching mentor. Oh yeah--and he quit his job in Phoenix when he was passed over by the far less experienced Lindsay Hunter. (Blessing in disguise, perhaps, there.) (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/suns/2013/01/24/phoenix-suns-el...)

I know this isn't addressed to me, but

I wonder about the effectiveness of RA's philosophy without him as the coach. We saw what it looked like on an interim basis, and while Turner isn't necessarily Terry Porter, Porter's at least been hired twice and finished at .500 or better in 2 of his 3 seasons (though he was fired in the midst of his only Suns season, which is more Steve Kerr's fault for hiring him). Lead assistants get hired so often, and with the exception of Thibodeau and Rick Carlisle, how many of them have been smashing successes? Meanwhile, non-lead assistants like Monty Williams and Mark Jackson were passed over by the Wolves for Rambis.

Good points. It's pretty

Good points. It's pretty difficult -- for me, anyway -- to predict whether a new coach will exceed or fall below the expectations set by his playing personnel. The Thibodeau thing sure seemed like a great hire just because he was so widely credited with Boston's innovative defense. That has worked out. But there are plenty of counterexamples.

It doesn't seem like Adelman's system is so unique anymore. There has been a ton written about how he doesn't have a rigid system and how he adapts to personnel. I've also seen Pete Carril quoted in the last few years that his old Princeton Offense (first imported to the NBA by Adelman) may no longer be good strategy due to the incredible comparative effective of high ball screen sets with the hand-checking rules freeing up dribble penetration.

Turner mostly just seems like a guy with the right type of credentials. He played and coached in the NBA and CBA, as well as Europe. He's "paid his dues," so to speak. But who knows. Sikma and Bayno seem like good coaching candidates too, but I don't get the impression that either of them desires an NBA head coaching job. Sikma because he seems like he could've had one by now if he wanted one, and Bayno because he's had health problems in the past with the stress of head coaching.

Succession not endorsed by me--and a Comcast rant

First off, I owe you guys a response. I'm not big on nepotism moving down to the courtside level. (It has long been a part of the Wolves front office, from Bob Stein to Rob Moor.) The only person I can think of where it seems to have worked is Donny Nelson, son of Don Nelson, who seems to have evolved into a pretty good evaluator of talent--but here again, it isn't translating to the court level.
I have heard good things about Turner. But he's never been in the top job and this franchise is going to be at a crossroads, with a lot of player options and contract extensions on tap. If you can't make Love and Rubio confident of greater success, you will lose your core and be compelled to yet again start over. I don't have faith that Turner or anyone named Adelman not named Rick will fill the bill here. I'm not even sure a coach I like quite a bit, Turner's former boss, Alvin Gentry, would be enough here.
I guess what I'm saying is that if you are going to give Kevin Love an out after 3 years and still keep David Kahn around, then you better have a powerful and capable coach around who Kevin Love really likes. If you are not going to keep Kahn around, that opens up another thorny issue--what competent GM is going to tolerate the influence Adelman has on personnel?

Now let me apologize in this space--which won't be well read, I know--to my readers for not having a column up today as planned. The original idea was to do a gamer today and a gamer on Friday, reflecting on how the Wolves fare against a weak opponent and a strong opponent, and also giving the die-hard reader a little more pith on game analysis. That strategy was sabotaged because I am stupid enough to subscribe to Comcast for my access to basketball, and because the NBA is stupid and greedy enough to black out League Pass customers in favor of the local sports feed, even when that feed is unavailable to members of the viewing audience.
In other words, I am paying Comcast and paying League Pass for the right to deny me a chance to earn my living writing about basketball. If I wasn't well aware of Minnpost's anti-profanity policy, I would write quite a bit more right now. Suffice to say that I am nonplussed by this thoroughly ridiculous and literally counterproductive situation.