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Wolves prospects without Kevin Love: An injury too far?

Wolves prospects without Kevin Love: An injury too far?
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Minnesota is often a prettier team to watch without Kevin Love on the court.

For the bandwagon fans who want to ride on the adrenaline of victories and playoff ratification, the second break in the right hand of Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love complicates matters for the rest of the season.

Ever since Love foolishly acceded to an interview with a reporter with an ax to grind against the Wolves front office and said enough negative things about his past and current experience with the team to be selectively portrayed as an ungrateful bore masquerading as a slighted superstar, a segment of the fan base has been anxious to diminish his importance on the ballclub.

Love enabled their disdain by shooting horribly, defending intermittently and struggling to return to peak physical condition after the first break of his hand in the preseason.

Minnesota is often a prettier team to watch without Love on the court, especially if Ricky Rubio can ramp up the playing time for his extraordinary passing skills and court vision after being sidelined or hampered nearly the entire season from last year’s knee injury. But they are not a better team.

 Synergistic chemistry and competitive moxie are valuable, endearing traits in a ballclub, and this year’s Wolves are blessed with both. But a team deprived of its superstar for most of the season is ultimately subject to the laws of gravity.

And math. The legitimate bonhomie surrounding this franchise right now stems from the fact that they have overachieved in the face of formidable adversity wrought by a chronic slew of injuries.

But the standings don’t grade on an adversity curve. The Wolves are 16-16 after 32 games, good for 10th place in a Western Conference that sends its top eight teams into the playoffs.

Kevin Love played in 18 of those 32 games — 56 percent. If Love comes back at the earliest point of his estimated 8- to 10-week absence from this latest injury, he will play in 25 of the team’s remaining 50 games — 50 percent. And it is a good bet that he will be at least as rusty upon his return as he was the first time this season.

At first glance, the upcoming level of competition would seem to be a silver lining. What appeared to be a remarkably easy early schedule of games underestimated the prowess of Golden State and Portland this season. Upgrading the four games against those two foes thus far (all losses) is one reason most of the mathematical formulas used around the NBA now rate the Wolves as having played one of the 10 toughest schedules in the league thus far.

Unfortunately, because the Western Conference is so superior to the Eastern Conference and teams play unbalanced schedules weighted toward games in their own conference, the nine toughest schedules thus far all belong to Western Conference teams. In other words, the Wolves rank 9th out 30 teams league-wide — and 9th out of the 15 teams in their conference. There is no advantage here.

To recap, the general consensus is that the Wolves have overachieved in the face of unremitting injuries. But that overachievement still isn’t enough to be playoff worthy — they are two and a half games behind the 8th-place team, and only eight teams advance to the postseason. Moreover, they will be without their best player for a greater percentage of games the rest of the season than they’ve been without him thus far. And it doesn’t appear that they will catch a competitive advantage from the upcoming caliber of competition.

To make the playoffs, then, the Wolves must overachieve to a greater degree than they have already demonstrated.

The Rubio factor

Ah, but what about the growing presence and impact of Minnesota’s second-best player the rest of the way? Ricky Rubio has logged a mere 132 minutes in seven carefully monitored games thus far this season in his measured return from significant surgery to repair torn ligaments in his knee. But he just competed in his first back-to-back set of games without incident and figures to keep getting physically healthier and strategically more prominent in the weeks ahead. Surely having the team’s best perimeter defender and offensive enabler on the court more frequently will boost playoff hopes.

Yes, it will. And it will be a blast to witness. Sometimes the size of the bandwagon relates as much to how a team wins or loses as it does to whether it wins or loses. Those who revel in the balletic majesty of the game will loyally tune in to see if and when Rubio will perform another magic trick. For a handy example, consider this behind-the-back, between-the-legs bounce pass to Lou Amundson on Wednesday night.

Does it matter that Amundson predictably blew the layup, or that the Wolves were down 22 points with less than four minutes left to play when it happened? Sure it does. No blowout is a good blowout, and the Wolves are thankfully beyond needing comic relief from inept plays such as Amundson’s wild shot as fodder for conversation about the team. But it also matters that die-hard fans were rewarded for their loyalty in continuing to watch an already-decided contest.

But I’ve already raved about the aesthetic pleasures provided by Rubio’s style of play. The abiding question is whether he can elevate the team enough to keep it in contention until Love and shooting guard Chase Budinger return in March?

No, he probably can’t. Rubio is almost certain to become increasingly vital to the Wolves as the rest of the season unfolds. After missing two weeks with back spasms, he provided the best perimeter defense by a Timberwolf thus far this season, pocketing four steals in 18 minutes and finishing a game-best plus-10 in a five-point win over Atlanta. On a roster where the guards are too willowy (Luke Ridnour), undersized (J.J. Barea) or inexperienced (Alexey Shved) to be above-average defenders, Rubio’s mixture of size, guarding width, savvy and competitive toughness presents a huge boost on defense. And his nonpareil passing speaks for itself.

But his shooting accuracy is ugly, and a legitimate cause for concern. It isn’t just his wretched 20.8 percent thus far this season — five makes in 24 attempts — which can be blamed on needing to regain his rhythm after the long layoff and regaining strength and trust in his body.

Last season, opponents figured out that it was better to step back and invite Rubio to shoot instead of guarding him tightly in spot-ups or on the move, which merely created openings in the defense that Rubio surgically exploited with his pinpoint passes. Consequently, Rubio’s field goal percentage declined every month he played a year ago — and it wasn’t very good in the first place. In the first 21 games of the 2011-12 season, he shot 38.2 percent; in the final 20 games, it dropped to 33 percent.

This inaccuracy extends to his finishing plays off dribble-penetration to the hoop. Last season, Rubio made just 47 percent of his shots in the restricted area closest to the basket, a terrible number. This season he is 2-for-5 thus far — 40 percent. That’s why you have increasingly seen Rubio maintain his dribble and back out from the basket to resurvey the floor this season. He doesn’t have great confidence in his ability to finish and opposing big men are not selling out and leaving the man they are guarding to block his shot.

So long as Rubio continues to clank jumpers and layups, he will rely on spacing between him and his teammates to execute those nifty assists. Fortunately, coach Rick Adelman’s system of player movement away from the ball creates the kind of shifting chessboard that maximizes Rubio’s virtues and hinders the ability of the man guarding him to drop away and seal off potential passing lanes.

But it really helps when defenses must respect and stay with shooters over a wider area of the court. It showcases the value of Love, who, provoking fresh memories of his three-point shooting championship  at the last All Star Weekend, can draw opposing big men out on the perimeter while a beast like Nikola Pekovic prepares for a post feed in the paint and Andrei Kirilenko cuts toward the basket along the baseline. Take Love out of that equation in favor of Dante Cunningham springing out for his midrange jumper at the top of the key, or the still unproven and inconsistent offensive arsenal of Derrick Williams, and life becomes harder for Rubio in those half-court sets, increasing the need for him to nail his jumpers.

On the other hand, because Love is such a tremendous offensive rebounder and versatile shooter, his offensive game isn’t as reliant as his teammates on Rubio getting him the ball in the right spots.

Bottom line, on offense, at least, Love benefits Rubio more than Rubio benefits Love. Which is one reason why the upside of a healthy Rubio can’t fully compensate for the downside of a sidelined Love.

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Comments (7)

Ultimately, it's going to come down to the other teams

I'm not a fan of rooting for other teams to do poorly, but some teams will have to slip for the playoffs to be realistic. That's not a total fantasy; they've made the playoffs twice while finishing at or below .500. They've also missed despite winning 45 games. It will likely come down to health, as Portland and Houston have had few injury issues to their top players while each being somewhat top-heavy in their rotation. If Houston has to play a 5-game stretch without Harden or Portland has to start Sasha Pavlovic or Ronnie Price for a long road trip, things could look better. I also assume Utah trades Jefferson and/or Millsap (since they're both expirings and 2 lottery picks are waiting to replace them), which could move them down. On the flip side, I'd be shocked if the Lakers didn't recover enough to make the playoffs, and the combo of Dirk and Carlisle in Dallas deserve respect, even if they're playing Mike James in crunch time.

The other aspect would have to do with a small-sample-size run where they play above their expectations. It's assumed that they're currently doing that, but having a good veteran base, a good coach, and replacement-level players have been the core of many above-.500 teams. Their Pythagorean projection, which measures expected W-L record based on margin of victory, has them exactly at what their record is. It's not a stretch to think that they statistically overachieve for 3 weeks and put themselves in a better position.

As for what this team can do, it has to be answered in-house. If Roy can't play but isn't retired, they basically have to choose between going 8-9 deep or giving minutes to Amundson (often alongside Stiemsma, which isn't a good combo) and whoever they have signed to a 10-day (I assume it won't be Hayward the whole season). And those combinations have to work; as much as I want Adelman to return, I thought Porter has been very conscientious about mixing groups effectively. The trade speculation is popular, but everyone assumes they'd have to overpay, which doesn't really make them better, and the adjustment after any trade might cost them winnable games. The most important aspect is making sure the roster is balanced. It makes no sense to me that Amundson is on this team instead of an equivalent guard, nor does it make sense to keep him here even if his deal is guaranteed. As impressed as I was when Don Nelson coached a long stretch of games with 6-7 healthy guys and a few injured guys suited up, that's really not something that I need to see with this group. The NBA's roster rules don't work for teams that have been hit hard by injuries. If they had a legitimate minor league/feeder system and a basketball equivalent to baseball's 40-man roster, the Wolves could at least field a full bench.

They also can't burn anyone out. I was cringing that they had Rubio and Shved in during garbage time on Wednesday, and my heart skipped a beat when Rubio came up limping and left the game after a timeout.

Porter's rotations

Good stuff as always PSR. I agree with you about the units TP is putting on the floor. By all accounts he is in heavy consultation with Adelman, and I'm sure defers to that whenever possible. But the fluidity of a game with its fouls and matchups and injuries makes it impossible ot coach by remote control.

Whoever had the idea, I really like giving at least some minutes to the triumverate of of Rubio, Williams and Stiemsma. It is pretty obvious that Ricky helps D-Will more than anyone else on the ballclub, both emotionally in terms of confidence and feel, but also physically in the way Williams thirsts for points and Ricky doesn't want to be the one to shoot. Rubio also knows how to hit a guy in rhythm and D-Will is clearly a rhythm shooter.

Having a rim protector like Stiemsma and a perimeter defender like Rubio allows the freelancing, intentional or otherwise, of Williams to be less injurious. And, like Love, after he's hit a couple of shots, the intensity of his D escalates. And nobody helps him put the ball in the basket like Rubio.

That said, I'm still looking for more of that flying wedge front line of DC, AK and D-Will. There are certain lineups where it could work really well while giving Pek some rest. It obviously came up aces against Portland in the 4th quarter of that comeback, and I think it could have been used vs OKC when Collison was the center on the floor. I like Barea in the backcourt in those sets to intensify the chaos factor that obviously has to be in play for that group to flourish.

Add Golden State... the Houston and Portland list. Golden State can't sustain their run any more than Portland. Leaning on Stephen Curry's brittle ankles and David Lee -- who hasn't missed less than 25 games in each of the last two seasons -- both for 37+ minutes a night can't last. Blazers and Warriors gonna fall.

Rubio's defense at the point would seem such a huge upgrade -- and offensively he fosters ball-movement benefitting everyone (more than just D-Will, AK and Pek, in particular -- even Stiemsma has gotten some buckets -- max their offensive value when the ball is moving), that Ricky's progress would seem to positively outweigh the otherwise half-empty take on the Wolves' playoff chances (and Ricky's busted J).

Specifically, I could see games against Portland and Golden State being affected positively by just having a body staying in front of Lillard and Curry more often than a turnstile allowing drive-and-kick 3s. Having a positive defender at the point could be enough to get the Wolves to .500, nevermind the peripheral benefits of easier buckets and less wear-and-tear on Shved being the primary playmaker full-time.

I'm more concerned with what Love's injury does to D-Will tradability and/or the Wolves priority turning away from a decent corner 3-point shooter.

Howl City

I like your comment but the dojos around here won't allow it without a proper name. Please resubmit if you can afford the exposure.

And now I notice you just tried again under another fictitious name.

As the cliche goes, you need to "get real" to post here

I'd be a 2-time offender...

Posted on 12/06/12 at 01:38 pm in response to The Wolves stay competitive with early survival techniques
Jim Pete sang Josh Howard's praises in Boston as the game was getting out of hand. Hard to see him not taking minutes from Derrick Williams, once AK returns.

There was a question Dave Benz posed during the Sixers game about why Alexey Shved wasn't drafted -- I read somewhere during the summer that his agent had warned teams off somehow, and somewhere since that teams simply didn't journey to Moscow to watch him play. I felt Jim Pete punted the answer, simply saying it was a diamond in...

Howl City

No attempted ruse, I was merely pointing out I had no trouble posting here a month or so ago by cutting and pasting my profile history.

Here's hoping the Adelmans are healthy and doing the shopping.

Real superstars

play both ends of the court these days.