It was a month ago, on Jan. 8, that the Minnesota Timberwolves toppled an Atlanta Hawks team that was 20-12, never trailing in a 108-103 victory that boosted the Wolves to 16-15 and kept them firmly in the playoff chase.
Back then, it was tempting to toast a gritty team that seemed to be shrugging off the loss of superstar Kevin Love and had Ricky Rubio working his way past a 20-minute time limit. Tempting, but foolhardy. You don’t shrug off the loss of any superstar for long, even one with a compromised shooting hand and a relatively flabby physique.
In hindsight, it is clear that Love’s hand, always swollen, had never healed to the point where he could shoot with his natural arc and touch. Be it from the field, outside the three-point circle or at the free throw line, his accuracy was so far below his career norms that the inescapable conclusion is that he returned too soon. The second broken bone, suffered against the Nuggets on January 3, resolved that desultory stretch of play after 18 games. If and when he returns in March, let’s hope it is with a fully functioning appendage.
In addition to being dinged, Love was out of shape. That seems inexcusable after he’d signed a huge long-term contract, except that Love had a good excuse.
After toiling all summer as part of the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics right after finishing second in minutes-played during the 2011-12 NBA season, he figured he’d rest a month or so before gearing up again just before the start of training camp. It was almost precisely then, at his lowest physical ebb since notably re-sculpting his body in the previous offseason, that he first broke his hand. Clad in a suit behind the bench Wednesday night during the Wolves game against San Antonio, his frame already looks sleeker and more chiseled than in his last stint on the court.
Love’s stupid, tone-deaf interview with a Yahoo sports columnist with an axe to grind against the Wolves’ front office allowed the knee-jerk yahoos among the fan base to ignore his physical deficiencies and simply hate on a suddenly easy target — an ungrateful, underperforming “face of the franchise” fresh off a fat contract with a waistband to match. Meanwhile, the second break in that right hand effectively doomed the Wolves to another season of meaningless doldrums.
If anything, this was more obvious than the fact that Love rushed his return to action. On Jan. 11, I wrote, “[A] team deprived of its superstar for most of the season is ultimately subject to the laws of gravity. And math.” Minnesota’s record since then is 2-12. (And 2-13 since that win over Atlanta.) I wasn’t clairvoyant; just logical and realistic.
A better class of woe
That rather windy prelude is meant to be a reminder that we need to put this Wolves season into context.
At 18-28, the Wolves’ .391 winning percentage is now below last year’s mark of .394. Indeed, the Wolves have not broken .400 since the 2005-06 season, when their 33-49 record vaulted them to .402. They have never played better than .400 ball — which is itself a percentage worse than mediocre, a mark of chronic deficiency — in any season in franchise history when Kevin Garnett wasn’t on the team. Longtime Wolves fans have had more than their fill of follies — the collection of mostly unlovable losers who have been associated with this franchise could fill a dozen school buses careening over a cliff, yanking on emergency brakes that never engage.
But the 2012-13 Timberwolves do not deserve the guilt-by-association of being lumped in with those many miserable teams from years past. Coming into the season, the general consensus was that they were talented enough to make the playoffs but needed to overcome inexperience, the unfamiliarity of a roster overhaul, and Ricky Rubio’s recuperation from major knee surgery. When Love broke his hand just before preseason camp, their playoff prospects grew dimmer but were still viable. I had them pegged for the 8th and final seed in the Western Conference.
What has ensued since opening day is an almost unprecedented disaster. The team’s top three assets — Love, Rubio, and Rick Adelman have all been waylaid at some point in the season. Love has been shelved for 28 of the 46 games thus far, is scheduled to miss another month, will take the final three or four weeks to find his rhythm, and, as mentioned, wasn’t right during the 618 minutes he already logged. Rubio has played 518 minutes — including 29 minutes on the court alongside Love — and has recuperated to about 75 percent of his peak form from his rookie season. Adelman missed 11 games due to a medical problem with his wife, during which the Wolves went 2-9.
Meanwhile, the Wolves came into the season lacking depth at the swing positions of small forward and shooting guard — and promptly began hemorrhaging swingmen. Brandon Roy lasted five games, Chase Budinger six, Josh Howard eleven and Malcolm Lee sixteen. Rookie Alexey Shved has started at shooting guard more often than anyone else. The current occupant in that role is backup point guard Luke Ridnour, who stands just 6-2, weighs 175 pounds, and is thus tragicomically overmatched most of the time by a larger, heavier, quicker, and more talented opponent. Ridnour also leads the team in minutes-played with 1412. Only the Washington Wizards, who sport the second-worst record in the NBA, have a minutes-leader with less time on the court.
In short, the Wolves have been penalized by injury in terms of both star power and the ability to adjust strategically to their misfortune. Their injuries have been significant and they have been staggered. They have affected the front line, the back court and the coaching staff.
Yet despite all this adversity, the team’s defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) remains in the top half — albeit barely — of the NBA. Perhaps more significantly, compared with last season, the remedies for what ails the Wolves aren’t theoretical. Fans don’t have to hope against hope that Michael Beasley matures, or that Wes Johnson finds both a clue and another level of athleticism, or that the psychological issues that so obviously plagued Darko Milicic and Anthony Randolph don’t become too embarrassing during the course of play. When healthy, the 2012-13 edition of the Wolves is superior to last season’s squad from top to bottom.
Big decisions coming due
But how superior? Yes, it certainly seems like the contingent on hand, if and when healthy, would get to the postseason, and perhaps even make some noise there. But how far can they go and how much will it cost to find out?
More than anything else, this year’s injuries have deprived the Wolves’ front office of hard evidence upon which to evaluate the existing personnel. To choose just one pertinent example, Budinger seems tailor-made to play shooting guard in Adelman’s system, and a natural complement on both offense and defense with the best players at the other four positions. During his limited time on the court, the Wolves averaged 13.6 more points per 100 possessions than their opponents (according to 82games.com), an extremely high number inflated by its small sample size.
But can Budinger sustain even a fraction of that value over an extended period of time? His career statistics are rather pedestrian — 9.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, on 43.6 percent shooting. As an unheralded second-round draft pick, he was an absolute steal salary-wise this season, earning just $885,120, according to the authoritative shamsports.com. But that contract expires this year, and as an unrestricted free agent, Budinger is likely to earn anywhere from $2 million to $5million per year on the market this off-season.
That said, Budinger’s deal is relatively small potatoes. Center Nikola Pekovic has been the Wolves’ most prolific and reliable scorer this season, leads the team in rebounding, and is their best interior defender. He is also a restricted free agent at the end of the season, meaning the Wolves have the right to match offers from other teams. But what if Portland — where Pek fits perfectly with their existing personnel and billionaire owner Paul Allen has a history of enmity with the Wolves organization — offers Pekovic $50 million over a four-year period?
Then there is Andrei Kirilenko, the Wolves’ best all-around player thus far this season and an obviously great fit at small forward. He has one year remaining, at $10 million, on his current deal. Do the Wolves want to extend it — and, if so, for how long at what price?
All these decisions would be easier if the front office had been able to see Pekovic and Kirilenko perform more frequently beside a healthy Love and Rubio — and Budinger, for that matter.
When Adelman agreed to become coach two years ago, it was with the understanding that Wolves owner Glen Taylor would change his philosophy and invest in a condensed timetable that would give the 66-year old future Hall of Famer a shot at a championship, the only thing missing from his resume. With Love able to opt out of his contract two years from now, the window for a championship push is small, and fraught with peril if Adelman, Taylor, and general manager David Kahn guess wrong on their personnel evaluations.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Taylor wants to sell the team but only gradually relinquish control. How he and his crew address the salary and personnel decisions facing them over the next six months will be crucial to the next ownership group. The injuries have dimmed the lights on this process. And, oh, yeah, Kahn’s contract is also up for renewal at the end of the season.
The current roster of the Minnesota Timberwolves is, dollar for dollar, perhaps the best value for talent in the history of the franchise. When healthy. Probably. For fans of this franchise, the difficulty of the decisions confronting the front office is a good thing, because there is something legitimate at stake here. But finding out how good this team can be will be expensive, and require some faith and fortitude in sticking with a win-now strategy.
At the very least, it adds a little more drama for a team once again playing sub-.400 basketball.