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Timberwolves Season Preview: Playoffs or (loud) bust

A realistic goal is securing a bottom-rung playoff spot and then giving their higher-seeded opponent a competitive series before succumbing in the first round.

At point guard, Ricky Rubio has great anticipation on when to jump the passing lanes for interceptions and when to go for the steal or the tie-up by jamming his man during the dribble.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Third of three articles

I. A sense of urgency

The best moment in the 2013 preseason for the Minnesota Timberwolves was the terse rant of coach Rick Adelman in the middle of October. The Wolves had lacked passion and energy en route to a ho-hum home defeat to the Toronto Raptors, continuing a lethargy that had affected the team’s talented starters almost from the beginning of training camp.

“You think you’re that good?” Adelman said, repeating to the media what he’d told the players after the game. “We aren’t the San Antonio Spurs and we aren’t Miami. We act like we have plenty of time.”

Longtime Timberwolves watchers have a right to be feeling better about the prospects for this 2013-14 edition of the team than any they have encountered in the past nine years. Relatively speaking, it is a very talented bunch — relative to Timberwolves rosters of the past, that is. Widen the context to the attendant talent and success that goes on each season in the NBA, however, and Adelman’s scathing reminder to his troops was spot-on.

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A realistic goal for the Timberwolves this season is securing one of the bottom-rung playoff spots in the Western Conference, and then giving their higher-seeded opponent a competitive series before succumbing in the first round. That would represent the pinnacle of achievement for any team in the entire history of the franchise that was not led by Kevin Garnett.

But it would still be a modest payback on the more than $68 million owner Glen Taylor has invested in salaries for this year’s roster, an amount closer to the luxury tax penalty threshold for overspending ($71.7 million) than the $58.7 million salary cap that ostensibly begins to constrain an owner’s ability to buttress his team with lopsided trades and free agents.

This, among other reasons, was why Adelman was appalled by his team’s lackadaisical attitude. The coach has been around for 22 seasons and 1,002 victories. He has taken 16 teams to the playoffs and won a pair of conference championships — but never the ultimate crown that begets rings and asterisks in the record books. At the age of 67, with his wife just months removed from her last bout with a seizure disorder, he wants to replace that bald spot on his Hall-of-Fame resume with a trophy before he retires. But he knows all too well that you don’t leapfrog to a championship after nine straight years out of the playoffs.

“You think you’re that good? We aren’t the San Antonio Spurs and we aren’t Miami. We act like we have plenty of time.”

This is the most important season in Wolves history since the 2004-05 team that was picked by many to win it all, only to tumble all the way out of the playoff picture, costing then-coach Flip Saunders his job. It is the most talented Timberwolves squad since that pratfall season, one nearly paid in full (only Ricky Rubio is due) and yet still vulnerable to dissolution.

If for whatever reasons the Wolves don’t take a significant step forward over the next six months, there will be incessant, distracting and necessary chatter about team superstar Kevin Love being able to exercise his option to declare free agency at the end of the 2014-15 season. Adelman inevitably will begin to look elsewhere around the league, or inward toward his family, for the next stage of his journey.

That the coach is keenly aware of this, and already whacking his team upside the head less than two weeks into the preseason, is good news. Because unless Love, Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin want to hang their hats on a seventh-seed and a first-round exit as an end point rather than a first step, an ongoing sense of big-picture urgency is required.

II. Scouting report: Defense

It’s no secret that the Wolves are almost certain to have a more potent offense and a more porous defense this season, for the simple reasons of health and changes in personnel. The team was fairly relentlessly ravaged by injuries during the 2012-13 campaign, yet three of the roster’s four best overall defenders — forward Andrei Kirilenko, center Nikola Pekovic and backup forward Dante Cunningham — stayed healthy enough to finish among the team’s top four in minutes played. (The other quality defender, point guard Ricky Rubio, was eighth in minutes.)

Meanwhile, the team’s two best three-point shooters, Kevin Love and Chase Budinger, each played less than a third of the season and were never on the court together at the same time. During the off-season, new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders added another potent wing scorer in Kevin Martin. Shortly after that, Kirilenko declined his option to stay in Minnesota and mysteriously accepted much less money to go play in Brooklyn. All of this will have a dramatic impact on Minnesota’s style of play this season.

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Let’s begin with the defense, where the loss of Kirilenko is huge. Although he is now a decade removed from the days when he simultaneously ranked among the top five in the NBA in both blocks and steals, Kirilenko was automatically assigned to guard the opponent’s best wing scorer last season, and had the versatility to match up with both 6-6 Kobe Bryant and 6-9 Kevin Durant. There are no viable replacements for him as a wing stopper on the 2013-14 roster.

The Wolves signed free agent (and former Timberwolf) Corey Brewer to shore up the defense, but Brewer lacks the bulk and technique that Kirilenko possessed to body up his opponent — Corey is a pesky disrupter, buzzing around for steals and deflections, more than a stalwart impeder. Further complicating the situation, the player expected to start at Kirilenko’s small forward spot, Budinger, suffered another knee injury and is likely to be out at least the first month of the season.

The other wing position will be primarily filled by Martin at shooting guard, and K-Mart is the anti-Kirilenko, a horrendously bad defender who Wolves’ opponents will scheme to exploit as a specific part of their offensive strategy. According to Basketball Reference  (my go-to source for statistics unless otherwise noted), for the past seven seasons, opponents have scored significantly more points per possession against Martin’s team when he is playing, compared with when he sits. The range during that period is 1.6 more points per 100 possessions when he was in Houston in 2011-12, up to 5.7 more points per 100 possessions when he was in Sacramento in 2006-07, with average discrepancy during those seven years of an extra 4.3 points per hundred possessions. That is consistently terrible defense deployed by K-Mart while he was toiling for three separate teams.

To make matters worse, the assistant coach who did a spectacular job molding the defense last season, Bill Bayno, took a promotion to become an assistant head coach in Toronto this year.

Kevin LoveMinnPost photo by Craig LassigAt power forward, Kevin Love is probably a better overall defender than his reputation suggests, but inconsistent.

On the bright side, two members of this season’s starting lineup are above-average defenders. At point guard, Rubio has great anticipation on when to jump the passing lanes for interceptions and when to go for the steal or the tie-up by jamming his man during the dribble. His instincts and technique are less fruitful when defending the pick-and-roll, and when he is frustrated, he has a tendency to gamble too much. But he is smart, lanky and diligent at the defensive end of the court.

Minnesota’s other plus-defender is Pekovic, who remains criminally underrated at that aspect of the game because he doesn’t block a lot of shots. But there is more than one way for a center to be a “rim protector,” and for Pek, it’s being able to use his stone-wall physique and highly-refined sense of when to switch on the pick-and-roll to impede an opponent’s path to the basket without drawing the foul. After listening to Bayno insist that Pek was Minnesota’s premier pick-and-roll defender (even when Kirilenko was on the team) for the past year and a half, I focused on the big galoot and really came to appreciate how often he clogs the machinery of opposing offenses. If anything, he has been even better at it during the two preseason games I’ve seen this month, leading me to distrust the chatter that he came to training camp out of shape.

At power forward, Kevin Love is probably a better overall defender than his reputation suggests, but inconsistent. Like many players, he has a tendency to let an unproductive or unlucky offensive start affect his play at the other end of the court, an aspect of immaturity that needs to be remedied more than the current team focus on getting him to move the ball more efficiently on offense. One deficiency that the Wolves will have to live with is that playing Love and Pekovic together makes it extremely difficult for the defense to close out effectively on corner three-point shots, especially those launched by the opponents’ big men. Of course Love burns opposing defenses the same way. Live by the “stretch power forward” die by the “stretch power forward.”

That leaves the quandary of coming up with a wing-stopper, preferably at the small forward position formerly manned by Kirilenko. Adelman has unhappily churned through a series of candidates during the preseason. One senses that Brewer’s lack of offensive discipline (more on that in the next section) hurts his odds of playing with the starters as much as his lack of bulk on defense. And for the second season in a row, the inability of Derrick Williams to calibrate the intricate flow of team play is causing him to fumble a gift-wrapped opportunity for starter’s minutes at a forward position. Robbie Hummel is an end-of-the-bench stopgap.

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I continue to use my meager soapbox to agitate for Dante Cunningham as the Kirilenko heir, to predictably no avail. Cunningham is more naturally a power forward, and would have much more trouble guarding a backcourt type like Kobe Bryant than a more brutish wing like Carmelo Anthony. But he is a decent athlete, knows the assignments and will give you every ounce of his sweat equity for whatever role he is instructed to fulfill. He has not been a part of Adelman’s preseason carousel at small forward, and I wish he’d at least get the chance to fail at the job before Budinger recovers and the team rededicates itself to mostly outscoring rather than out-stopping the other team.

For defense off the bench, the pairing of Brewer and point guard J.J. Barea as kamikaze kids sowing chaos would enhance the comedy and provide an energy boost in varying measures of good and ill. Among the rookies, center Gorgui Dieng plays better defense and is thus likely to see the court more often than swingman Shabazz Muhammad, who may be facing a D-League stint when Budinger returns. Martin’s backup at shooting guard, Alexey Shved, lacks lateral quickness in coverage and an overall motor on defense.

Bottom line, it will be a minor miracle if the Wolves maintain or improve last year’s 12th-place ranking for fewest points allowed per-possession.

III. Scouting report: Offense

On the flip side, something is dreadfully askew if the Wolves repeat their 25th-place ranking for points per possession on offense. Much of the optimism centers around the arrival of Martin, who is so enamored of and suited for Adelman’s system that he was lobbying the coach to sign him even as he was toiling for a championship contender in Oklahoma City last season.

The raw numbers are certainly impressive. K-Mart’s accuracy from the three-point arc and the free throw line boost his true shooting percentage into the top five among all active players and the top 20 all time. He knows the angles and crevices that maximize Adelman’s ball-movement schemes (and player movements away from the ball) better than anyone on the roster, having run it in stints with the coach in both Sacramento and Houston. He is able to space the floor, knock down open looks, and convert at the line when fouled.

But it’s important not to equate Martin’s efficiency for primacy in the offense. He has always functioned best as a complementary scorer and doesn’t have enough physical talent or psychological experience to be the go-to scorer on a successful team. He has started just one playoff game and played in three postseason series overall in his 10-year career. He is, at best, a second option to Kevin Love.

The obvious rebuttal is that Love has yet to appear in a single playoff game in his five NBA seasons. No matter: Team chemistry is about setting up a logical pecking order and Love has earned alpha dog status. He has been on multiple all-star and Olympic teams, and proven himself as a legitimate peer to the best players in the game, a member of the elite fraternity. No player in the game can match the blended production of his rebounding and three-point shooting.

It should also be noted that three of Love’s five seasons with the Wolves have been at least slightly distasteful. Who can forget that in his first two years in the league he started only 59 of 141 games for a team with a terrible won-lost record, while listening to his coach and later his general manager cast aspersions on the significance of his role? It was only after he pulled down an astounding 30 rebounds in a game — the first time in decades that it had happened — that he was assured of a spot in the starting lineup.

Last season was a different kind of woe. Two broken bones in his hand, season-ending knee surgery and an unfortunately spiteful interview with a member of the national media all conspired to sabotage his natural role as team leader. Perhaps worst of all, the swelling in his hand deprived him of his normal accuracy in every aspect of his shooting. It was especially hurtful to the team that his three-point percentage tumbled from 41.7 and 37.2 the two previous years down to 21.7 in 2012-13. Combined with the early loss of Chase Budinger, Love’s misfires contributed to Minnesota’s last-place ranking in three-point percentage.

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There has been a lot of talk during the preseason about making Love more of a facilitator, along the lines of the high-post passing that Vlade Divacs and Chris Webber executed to such great effect for Adelman’s teams when he was in Sacramento. No question that should be a part of the Wolves’ offense. But it is also important that Adelman make room in his system for the special skill-set Love brings to the court. Webber was a magnificent player and a great passer who averaged 4.8 assists during his seven seasons in Sacramento. But he also shot only 23.8 percent from distance, got to the line an average of 5.4 times per game while shooting less than 70 percent, and corralled a respectable but not Love-like 10.6 rebounds per game. The disparity between Love and Divacs is even wider.

Put bluntly, in the two seasons before last year’s injury-riddled campaign, Love was probably the best power forward in basketball. If he totally bought into Adelman’s ball-movement schemes, designed to get open shots at various points around the court, there would be a lot of clanked jumpers from Ricky Rubio and (assuming he is the starting small forward) Corey Brewer. I’d rather have a little more hero ball from a player capable of playing at a heroic level and make a dedication to defense the discipline you enforce. Because given his past relationship with this franchise, if Love is not accorded the perks of alpha-dog touches in the offense, he probably isn’t going to stick around.

Frankly, it is not likely to get that dramatic — at least not over that issue. Adelman is smart enough to get the most out of Love’s offensive game and Love is hopefully mature enough to realize how well his teammates complement his offensive skills. Rubio is already one of the top three or four passers in the NBA. Martin is a natural floor-spacer whose constant movement will discourage lengthy double teams on Love and Pekovic.

And Pek and Love are a matchup nightmare for the vast majority of opposing defenses. When a big comes out to guard Love by the arc, Pek is going to be a handful in the low block — and he is a great offensive rebounder with less competition for caroms in the paint when Love draws out the power forward.

(Aside from the obvious hazard of guarding the corner three, Pek and Love are also fairly complementary on defense. When Pek comes out and shows hard on the pick and roll, the Wolves will still have Love, a stellar defensive rebounder, ready to clean the glass even if Pek can’t get back in position.)

The most troubling element of the Wolves’ offense during the preseason was the dearth of shot opportunities for Pekovic. He finished second on the team in minutes played, second in field-goal percentage (52.6), and eighth in field-goal attempts. Notorious clankers such as Rubio (39.1 percent, albeit 54.5 percent from distance), Brewer (36 percent on an unconscionable 50 shots in 136 minutes, which comes to 13 FGA per 36 minutes) and Alexey Shved (39 percent) all jacked up more shots than the cornerstone low-post titan who has a career shooting accuracy of 53.3 percent and is being paid an average of $12 million a season through the 2017-18 campaign.

Rest assured that the Wolves will score a lot of points. They simply have too many weapons and their coach is too smart on the offensive side of the ball for it to be any different, barring the carnage of injuries or dissension. But they will need nearly every one of those points to overcome their defensive shortcomings and win the 45 games or so I believe they will capture in order to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04.

A playoff appearance will be a wonderful balm for the fans, who have been starved of meaningful games in the spring. But it is a necessary requirement, a fundamental first step, for a team this talented and, realistically, with this small of a window in which to get their act together. They can’t afford clown-car shot selections from Brewer, sufficient NBA seasoning for Muhammad, deflating inconsistency from Derrick Williams, temper tantrums and unfair treatment being lobbed back and forth between Love and management, the absence of Budinger past Christmas, or any more seizures for Mary Kay Adelman.

The opening tap happens tonight. A sense of urgency and commitment need to be continually on the docket.