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.
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.