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The Wolves stay afloat in limbo

Minnesota enters a treacherous patch in the schedule, with six of its next eight games on the road, starting with Utah and Denver.

Knicks forward Kurt Thomas fouling Timberwolves forward Derrick Williams in the first quarter of their Dec. 23 game.
REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

As the Minnesota Timberwolves cruise past the one-third mark of their 2012-13 season with road games in Utah and Denver on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the team remains a simultaneously beguiling and frustrating work in progress.

Pessimists can rightly claim that injuries have robbed the Wolves of any reliable wing depth and put a significant dent in the quality, as well as the quantity, of minutes logged by top players Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. They’ll note that despite having played an extremely easy schedule thus far, Minnesota would be out of the playoffs if the season were to end today, and that it is unlikely their horrible three-point shooting will dramatically improve in the near future.

Wait. That has been the operative word of the optimists since the start of the season. Wait until Love is healthy, until Rubio is healthy, until Budinger (or, less likely, Roy) returns. Wait until newcomers like Kirilenko and Shved get time with Love and Rubio, until Ridnour’s back and Pekovic’s ankle are fully healed. Wait until the full complement of talent on this roster finds a collective rhythm and synergy that will arrive with ongoing health and familiarity.

Meanwhile, the Wolves continue to tease. They have forged a winning record (albeit barely, at 14-13) with a necessarily jumbled rotation, posting impressive victories and desultory losses almost regardless of who is on the court. Their past two games, both at home, were lackluster affairs that included a wretched defeat gifted to a tired Houston team, followed by a narrow win that practically came by default over a threadbare and dysfunctional Phoenix squad that came in with a 2-12 record on the road.

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Now Minnesota enters a treacherous patch in the schedule, with six of their next eight games on the road. Their next two opponents, Utah and Denver, are a combined 19-5 at home thus far this season. They don’t play a home game against a team with a losing record during the entire month of January.

Against this backdrop, allow me to make a couple of hit-and-run observations on my first column back from MinnPost’s holiday hiatus, followed by a thumbnail preview of the Utah and Denver games.

Why sign Lazar Hayward?

The Wolves’ backcourt remains a jumble. Thanks to a raft of significant injuries — Malcolm Lee and Josh Howard are out for the season (with Howard waived from the roster), Brandon Roy is wrestling with retirement, and Chase Budinger isn’t due back until sometime in March — the Wolves’ best (only?) option at shooting guard happens to be current assist leader Alexey Shved.

Shved has been particularly stellar on the pick-and-roll with center Nikola Pekovic, and in executing feeds to fellow Russian Andrei Kirilenko on back-door cuts. He also has thrived since being inserted into the starting lineup beside Luke Ridnour, mostly because he is allowed to become the de facto point guard.

Unlike J.J. Barea, who hogs the ball for assists and shots, and Ricky Rubio, who deserves to be the choreographer in the half-court sets, Ridnour is effective enough playing off the ball to complement Shved’s talents. In their eight games as the starting backcourt, Shved is averaging seven assists per game to Ridnour’s four. Together, they provide the versatile playmaking coach Rick Adelman prefers in his backcourt. And as this chart shows, they have been successful in tandem thus far this season.

But the truth is that both Ridnour and Shved are better point guards than they are shooting guards, at both ends of the court. While both are viable threats to thread the needle on a pretty assist to a big man, or create their own shot off the dribble, neither player provides either the rugged defense or the prolific and explosive scoring you want from the shooting guard slot. As this link to indicates, the only position where the Wolves are consistently outperformed this season is at shooting guard.

The recent signing of Lazar Hayward is no remedy for this vulnerability. Although billed as a combo swing man (both small forward and shooting guard), the 6-6 Hayward has spent almost all his time at small forward during his brief stints in the NBA, with the Wolves two years ago and Oklahoma City last season. His defensive numbers are terrible, but it is a small sample size and probably involves a fair share of garbage time, especially in OKC. But his three-point shooting accuracy is a miserable 28.4 percent, which is even lower than Minnesota’s current NBA-worst team mark of 29.8 percent.

Perhaps there weren’t significantly better options for the paltry amount of money the Wolves were willing to spend. I could throw out names both high-profile (Michael Redd) and obscure (D.J. Kennedy in the D-League), but I lack the intimate knowledge to second-guess Wolves’ management that specifically.

Maybe Hayward has been working on his perimeter game. But at first blush, particularly with Rubio missing the Rocky Mountain road trip due to ongoing back spasms, failing to sign a more natural shooting guard feels like a mistake. It also further tarnishes the wisdom of signing Roy, whose uncertain future muddies the team’s options moving forward.

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Upsizing the small forward

The most logical argument for signing Hayward is that the Wolves don’t have anyone on the roster to back up Kirilenko at small forward. My rebuttal would be that upsizing the small forward slot by giving minutes to power forwards Dante Cunningham and Derrick Williams would be no more damaging or disruptive than Adelman’s common practice of downsizing at shooting guard by playing point guards like Barea and Ridnour.

Just as there are matchups where Adelman takes small-ball to an extreme and plays a three-guard lineup with Shved as the small forward, there are obviously occasions where the Wolves can go (and have gone) big, with either Cunningham or Williams joining Love and Pekovic on the front line. But the key to this strategy relies on Adelman demonstrating more faith in Williams than he has thus far.

Make no mistake, Williams has been a major disappointment for a player taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. But it has also become increasingly apparent that D-Will’s natural skill set makes him a different player from the one Adelman prefers to envision. Ultimately, it is going to be up to the coach to either relent and be more flexible, or cut bait.

Most obviously, try as he might, Williams lacks the organic fluidity and intuition to thrive as a scorer in the paint. For every nifty baseline drive like the one he executed last Saturday against Phoenix, there are two or three tragicomic forays to the rim resulting in stuffed shots and wild air-balls. 

By contrast, Williams has begun to settle into a nice little groove from three-point territory — his 37.5 percentage from distance is best on the team over the past 10 games. Since converting threes is the one vital element of the game the Wolves have most consistently failed to accomplish thus far this season, it might behoove Adelman to abandon his insistence on Williams building his offense from the inside-out and flip the equation to outside-in — nail some three-pointers, then drive to the hoop. And there are glimmers of hope that Adelman is in fact countenancing this change. At least the coach has stopped wincing every time Williams launches from deep.

It helps that Williams has been a beast on the boards this season — grabbing the tough caroms in traffic via better positioning and tenacity. Plus, more minutes at small forward would remove the impression that D-Will was victimized by a bait-and-switch during the off-season, when it was recommended that he lose weight in order better prepare to play at either forward slot.

As for Cunningham, his relentless energy and increasingly valuable savvy make him a worthy gamble even outside his normal comfort zone. His perpetually high motor can at least partially compensate for his relative lack of quickness when guarding small forwards.

Utah and Denver previews

The more winnable game in this formidable pair comes Wednesday night against Utah. The Jazz have lost six of their last eight and have been without point guard Mo Williams since just before Christmas because of a sprained thumb. Small forward Marvin Williams has a minor knee injury and is questionable for Wednesday.

The team relies on a deep and potent front court, anchored by veteran starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, with promising youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter coming off the bench. Wolves fan know about Jefferson, who hasn’t changed much since leaving Minnesota: Many points are scored at both baskets when he is on the court.

Big Al’s footwork, wealth of head and ball fakes, and sweet touch around the hoop make him one of the NBA’s premier low-post scorers. But he is a terrible pick-and-roll defender whose absence of peripheral vision or a quick first step dooms his team’s defense even when he is going all out. Paring him with the undersized Millsap — who frequently jumps passing lanes and tries to deny entry feeds in the post, selling out for steals — creates a frontcourt sieve that helps explain why Utah gives up the second-most points in the paint in the NBA.

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If the Wolves are fundamentally sound, Pekovic and Love should have a field day on offense, but both will be challenged to stop Jefferson’s guile and Millsap’s quickness and energy (Cunningham might be a helpful counter here) on defense.

On the perimeter, the wild card is another Wolves alumnus Randy Foye, who has transformed himself into a hot-and-cold three-point specialist, with checkered results akin to what the Wolves get out of Barea — when Foye is hot, Utah is very difficult to beat. That’s particularly true at home in Salt Lake City, where they are the only major team sport in town, with a storied history and a loyal and passionate fan base.

Winning in Denver on Thursday will be a tall order. After playing more than two-thirds of their games on the road in 2012 (including a split of two encounters with the Wolves at Target Center), the Nuggets get to acclimate themselves to the thin air of the Mile High City, where they have won 10 of 11 games thus far this season.

Meanwhile, the Wolves will be playing the second night of a back-to-back up in the unfamiliar altitude after jousting with a big, physical Jazz team the previous evening. They will be without Rubio for the entire trip, although Denver also is hurting some at point guard with Ty Lawson dinged and unlikely to play.

Key matchups will include the third contest of contrasting styles between power forward Love and Kenneth Faried, who have each outplayed the other yet lost the game over the course of their first two encounters. Aside from fatigue, the worry for the Wolves is veteran Andre Iguodala matched up with Shved — it’s possible the rookie could be embarrassed by a quicker and stronger foe the way Dwyane Wade schooled him in Miami. And if not, Nuggets coach George Karl has plenty of other options on a very deep and flexible bench.

We’ll kick around what happens in these two games on Friday.