The Minnesota Timberwolves embark on the 2012-13 season under a great deal of uncertainty.
Their two best players, power forward Kevin Love and point guard Ricky Rubio, will be unavailable because of injury for at least the first month of the season — and for Rubio, it is likely to be two months. Two of the their other starters, small forward Andrei Kirilenko and off guard Brandon Roy, didn’t even play in the National Basketball Association last year — Kirilenko toiled in his native Russia after the lockout jeopardized (and eventually shortened) the NBA season, and Roy retired because of the wear and tear of six knee operations.
The fifth starter, center Nikola Pekovic, missed 19 games with assorted injuries last year and has logged just 2,151 minutes, less than a full season for a regular rotation player, in his entire NBA career. Finally, the team’s highest-ever draft choice, forward Derrick Williams, had a disappointing rookie campaign last season because of weaknesses in his game that have not improved enough to earn the confidence of his coaches.
There is no doubt that this array of adverse circumstances will have a negative impact on the team’s performance. The uncertainty is, how much? Plausible scenarios can be drawn that have the Wolves winning anywhere from 30 to 55 of their 82 games.
But to long-suffering Timberwolves fans, this is relatively great news, and a source of heightened enthusiasm. Because if this year’s squad does achieve only to the lowest end of that estimate, 30 wins, it will still have registered the highest victory total of any Wolves team in franchise history that did not have Kevin Garnett on the roster.
Addition by subtraction
One thing is certain: This year’s Wolves won’t have the likes of Wes Johnson, Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic besmirching the court on its behalf, which is cause enough for celebration among the faithful. It is hard to overestimate the toxic impact this trio had on the team’s fortunes last season.
Johnson, an athletic 6-7 swingman who was a lottery pick in the 2010 draft, was often tentative to the point of paralysis, refusing to maximize his physical prowess with either solid defense or drives to the hoop. According to the 82games.com website, a whopping 87 percent of Johnson’s shots were jumpers from outside the painted area, a doomed strategy when you sink only 39.8 percent of your shots overall and 31.4 percent from three-point territory, both well below league average. The Wolves actually outscored their opponents when Johnson was on the bench — when he played, the team margin was minus 153. Remarkably, he finished third on the team in minutes-played, as coach Rick Adelman apparently wanted to set the nail on the fact that President of Basketball Operations David Kahn made a grievous error drafting him, so Adelman could successfully lobby to be rid of him in the future.
We don’t have the space to similarly detail why Beasley and Darko were bid good riddance. Suffice to say that Beasley was routinely selfish on offense — challenging triple-team coverage while open teammates waited for passes that never came — and had a chronic concentration problem on defense, while Darko simply has no stamina for the scrutiny that comes from being paid millions to play ball and inevitably shrinks from the intellectual, physical and psychological duties required to flourish on the court.
By pruning these guys from the roster — along with the athletically gifted but otherwise clueless Anthony Randolph, the inordinately self-important Martell Webster, and the nice-guy but sub-mediocre talent Wayne Ellingson — the Wolves immediately upgraded their cohesion and reliability, benefiting more from “addition by subtraction” than any team in the NBA.
A pair of elite performers
But enough of this jaundiced optimism. Let’s revel for a minute in the positive reasons why, despite all the uncertainty and adversity, the Wolves stand a good chance of returning to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
It begins with Adelman, one of the 20 greatest coaches ever to patrol the NBA sidelines. Despite all the chuckleheads littering the roster last season, the Wolves still ran a remarkably intelligent offense. In the modern game, the two most efficient areas to score per shot attempt are right beneath the rim and outside the three-point arc. According to hoopdata.com, the Wolves were above the NBA average in the number of shots taken at the rim and from three-point territory, and below the league average in shots taken from everywhere else last season. By contrast, under Kurt Rambis the year before, the only place the Wolves were not at or above the league average in number of shots taken was at the rim.
Much of this has to do with getting the ball to the right people in the right places. Under Rambis, Beasley jacked up 5.5 shots per game from 16 to 23 feet away from the basket, the least productive area from which to shoot on the court. Under Adelman, Beasley that number was essentially cut in half, to 2.8 times per game. (Much of this came from reducing Beasley’s minutes. Once a clueless gunner, always a clueless gunner.) By contrast, Kevin Love’s shots per game jumped from 14.1 to 19.3 under Adelman, with the majority of that increase occurring on either three-pointers or shots at the rim.
Of course Love is the other primary reason why the Wolves short-term future seems relatively rosy. At age 24, he has already become a “tent pole superstar,” the kind of player who both structurally elevates and undergirds the performance of the team and the business of the franchise. He is arguably the best power forward in the game, a gold-medal Olympian, a member of the NBA’s elite fraternity. His defense used to be, and may still be, a weakness, but according to Wolves assistant coach Bill Bayno, who is in charge of the defense, Love played very well at that end until Ricky Rubio got hurt, and the subsequent increase in his offensive workload sapped his consistency at the other end of the court.
Surviving the first month
The general consensus among NBA pundits is that if the Wolves were able to field a healthy roster throughout the season, they would easily earn a playoff berth and be a tough out for a quality contender in the postseason. But the collapse of the ballclub when Rubio went down last season — the Wolves were 21-20 when he played, 5-20 when he didn’t — and now Love’s broken hand, have many doubting they can overtake Dallas, Utah and Golden State to grab the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
But with the upgrades to the roster during the off-season, the Wolves will likely avoid the kind of disastrous first month that would torpedo the chances of ever being in the playoff hunt. First of all, the defense, which ranked 25th out of 30 teams in points allowed per possession last season, should be improved. (Just don’t take to heart the fool’s gold of their NBA-best defense in the preseason.)
The top priority for Adelman during the offseason was finding an athletic swingman who can defend multiple positions. The Wolves’ high-profile dalliance with restricted free agent Nicolas Batum came to naught when Portland matched their contract offer, so Minnesota adroitly shifted gears and signed Kirilenko, who lacks Batum’s future ceiling overall, but is a better defender, capable of limiting the damage wrought by explosive scorers out on the wing. Precious few defenders can single-handedly stop elite scorers, but having someone like Kirilenko — a great on-ball and help defender, who once led the NBA in blocks — prevents the sort of offensive carnage that compels defenses to scramble and panic, opening up secondary opportunities for opponents.
In fact, Bayno is very happy with his complement of front court defenders. The athletic additions of Kirilenko, power forward Dante Cunningham and power forward and center Lou Amundson have encouraged the team to change their pick-and-roll defense, trusting that the big men can “show” harder and press up on the little man while still being about to recover quickly enough to handle the big man rolling to the basket.
And here’s a revelation: Bayno claims that Nikola Pekovic is “our highest IQ player” and “best pick and roll defender.” If Pekovic can justify that high praise out on the court, then he can become a perennial all star, one of the NBA’s top three or four centers, and will become part of a “big three” alongside Love and Rubio that fulfills the axiom that a troika of stars is needed to become a serious championship contender.
That’s because Pekovic is also primed for a monster year on offense, and is the key player for Minnesota at that end of the court while they struggle to survive without their two best players. The player movement and ball movement under Adelman’s offensive system has always elevated the competence of average players, and in Kirilenko and swingman Chase Budinger, the Wolves acquired two players in the off-season who understand they can flourish under his system. But there is still no getting around how much Minnesota’s offense will miss Rubio’s anticipatory court vision and Love’s ability to spread out opposing defenses because of his ability to score from both in the paint and beyond the arc. So long as he’s healthy, Brandon Roy possesses superb court vision and a knack for creating space to get his own shot. But the more you lean on Roy, the greater the likelihood that his knees buckle and he’s lost for good.
Pekovic, on the other hand, can be a reliable force on offense, a legitimate go-to guy. He was third in the NBA in field goal percentage last season, a performance that gets better the closer you look at the numbers. Yes, Rubio is a marvelous pick-and-roll passer, but Pek was nearly as productive without Rubio. Yes, having Love space the floor should be especially helpful to a big man like Pek, but although the team suffered when they weren’t paired — Minnesota was +3.9 points per 36 minutes when Pek was with Love and -8.7 points per 36 minutes when Pek was without Love — Pek’s point totals and shooting percentage were almost exactly the same with and without Love.
Sure there are caveats — Pek hasn’t faced defenses designed specifically to stop him, and he still has a disturbing habit of encouraging turnovers by bringing the ball below his waist, a weakness that hurts, but is not reflected in, his scoring efficiency. But thanks to rigorous off-season workouts that have made him quicker without sacrificing his enormous strength, Pekovic rolling to the hoop (most often going right, as scouts are sure to notice) can be a money play that helps the Wolves survive.
To finish out the point, “survival” in this context doesn’t even necessarily have to mean that the Wolves play .500 ball without Love in the lineup. If and when both Love and Rubio return and eventually work themselves back into prime-time form, they can spearhead a playoff run so long as Minnesota hasn’t dug itself a hole in the cellar of the standings.
Scouting the player rotations
With that pleasant thought in mind, let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of this lineup. The biggest danger I see confronting the team in the first month or two is perimeter defense and the point guard position overall. In the past, for Minnesota and other teams, Luke Ridnour has proven to be a quality backup point guard, but whether it is his nagging disc injury, age or the lacking of familiarity with changing personnel, Ridnour looked dreadful during the preseason, to the extent where I actually wonder if the pint-sized ball-hogger J.J. Barea might be the better option. Or maybe Luke is just a cagey vet saving himself for when the games matter.
Either way, the huge drop off in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) after Rubio went down indicates that neither Ridnour nor Barea are physical enough to deter the creativity of their opponents — a likely reason for the more aggressive posture from the bigs on the pick and roll. One reasonable option would be to move Russian rookie Alexey Shved over to the point. But while Shved has good size at 6-6, he hasn’t demonstrated a command of defensive fundamentals. Adelman, who tends to make quick and fairly inflexible decisions about where players fit in his rotations, has him as the backup to Roy at off guard, even though he has been a very inconsistent shooter both overseas and in the preseason.
As the starting off guard, Roy is crafty enough to remain an offensive force, but running him through picks and screens on defense seems a simple and effective strategy for opponents with a dynamic perimeter scorer. Kirilenko can be shifted over to guard the larger backcourt wings, but obviously not everybody. Can Shved adapt quickly to the NBA game and shoot or guard well enough to become a regular rotation player? I’ve seen evidence to support both yes and no answers.
The one tweak I’d like to see is giving Budinger more minutes at off guard and less at small forward. Since his offensive game is anchored around corner three-pointers, it might hurt the team’s transition defense to have the guard committed that deeply in the half-court offense, but is Roy going to be any faster in getting back? Budinger is an adequate but hardly stellar on-ball defender, but that bias isn’t altered by whatever swing position he plays. More to the point, I’d rather have a relatively savvy and experienced (at least in Adelman’s system) player like Budinger backing up Roy instead of Kirilenko — counting heavily on Roy for an entire season seems perilous for a team with little margin of error in the playoff chase.
In the frontcourt, the chatter about moving Kirilenko to power forward with Love out seems overblown. Kirilenko was brought here to play small forward. He prefers playing small forward. He played power forward for less than 10 percent of his team’s minutes his final two seasons in Utah, and posted better stats, especially on defense, as a small forward, according to 82games.com. Bayno and Adelman both demur over much talk of bumping him to power forward. And he is a gigantic upgrade at small forward over anything the Wolves threw out there last season. Enough said.
Another reason it would be silly to move Kirilenko has been the pleasantly surprising play of Dante Cunningham at power forward. Cunningham, whose two previous coaches were notorious taskmasters Nate McMillan in Portland and Lionel Hollins in Memphis, works hard, does what he’s told, isn’t afraid to bang on defense, and can hit an open midrange jumper. He’s ideal as a glue-guy and back-of-the-rotation player, whose relative lack of pure talent will be exposed with starter’s minutes. But he’s a reliable commodity and the Wolves’ most credible stopgap with Love out.
Which brings us to Derrick Williams. Sometimes bad luck happens, and Williams is unfortunate enough to be drafted by a team that changed its philosophy from building for the future to winning right away with a veteran coach. Williams has contributed to his situation by being slow, and occasionally stubborn, in grasping what Adelman wants. He can be an explosive scorer and remains way too young to dismiss — I half-expect him to blow up for whatever enterprising team eventually filches him from the Wolves — but again, if the playoffs are the goal, developing Williams isn’t a priority. Right now his confidence is shot and I imagine he is both confused and pissed about the way he’s being treated. His best hope is to erupt often and consistently enough to become a tactical scorer off the bench while demonstrating improvement in his defense, court vision and shot selection.
At center, Kahn and Adelman have done a great job finding two backups for Pekovic with complementary skills. Greg Stiemsma is a superb rim protector — he was second in the NBA in blocked shots per minute for Boston last season — a skill no one else on the roster provides. He also is adept at steals, but is very foul prone. Lou Amundson is more of a center and power forward combo, a relentless banger who doesn’t shoot well but makes the game ugly in a good way for his team. Adelman will rotate their time behind Pek according to matchups.
It helps that Minnesota faces a relatively easy schedule early, because without Love and Rubio, there simply isn’t enough here to compete consistently and effectively with playoff-caliber teams. But if Pekovic is the story around the NBA two or three weeks from now, and Roy contains his ego enough to become a savvy role player and invaluable safety valve in the half-court offense, and the Ridnour-Barea combo at the point doesn’t completely sabotage this team, the Wolves should be in good enough shape to survive Love’s absence.
That said, the single biggest factor in whether or not the Wolves make the playoffs will be how capable Rubio plays upon his return. As the season went on a year ago, opposing defenses began to slough off him, daring him to shoot, and his production declined. Because of the knee injury, he wasn’t able to work on his jumper during the off-season. Rubio also was vital to the Wolves’ defense last season, and needs to demonstrate that he can play with the same tenacity and agility at that end of the court.
But with the various upgrades that occurred in the offseason, Rubio doesn’t have to improve his offensive game this season, just approximate last year’s performance. On offense, Love, Pek, Roy and Kirilenko comprise a fabulous spread for his dishes, and guys like Budinger and Williams and even Cunningham and Barea, can give you points off the bench. And when the defense sloughs, go to the cup, Ricky — Love and Pek are monster offensive rebounders.
Defensively, Rubio again only has to approximate last year’s performance, because it was pretty great. He’s got the wingspan and the wisdom and the competitive zeal to give ball-handlers fits on the perimeter, and that is where his return will do this team the most good.
In summary, this is the most talented Timberwolves team since Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell got the franchise past the first round of the playoffs for the first and only time in its history. There are too many injuries, and too much uncertainty, to expect that kind of outcome this season.
But the playoffs, as the 8th and final seed in the West? As Marv Albert would say, “Yessssssssssssss.”