Some important questions about this 2013-14 version of the Minnesota Timberwolves have already been answered a mere four games into their season.
The core group of players assembled by coach Rick Adelman and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders can indeed operate Adelman’s motion-oriented “corner” offense as a synergistic juggernaut that flummoxes opponents.
Even after the exhausted Wolves stumbled to a mere 23 points in the first 12 minutes of Monday night’s loss to the Cavaliers in Cleveland, they still lead the NBA in first-quarter scoring based on their 38, 34, and 40-point eruptions in the opening stanzas of their first three games.
But offense was always going to be the easy part of the Timberwolves test this season. What is more heartening for long-suffering followers of this team is that the Wolves’ core unit is demonstrating the desire and the maturity to overcome their individual deficiencies and play effective team defense. After a four-game stretch against opponents that include arguably the league’s two most explosive scorers in Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City and Carmelo Anthony of New York, the Wolves currently rank third in the NBA in fewest points allowed per possession, according to Basketball Reference.
Here is the obligatory reminder that the first four games of an 82-game NBA season is a tiny sample size that doesn’t even qualify as a trend yet. The questions that have been answered by the Wolves relate to what they are capable of, not what they can sustain. And after injuries to swingman Chase Budinger and backup center Ronny Turiaf, plus strong indications that players taken in last summer’s NBA draft aren’t going to provide any immediate help, the depth of available talent on the roster is a legitimate concern.
But optimism that the Wolves possess enough talent and commitment to end their nine-year absence from the playoffs is likewise legitimate. Before the season opener last week, Adelman admitted he didn’t have a fix on his team’s mental preparedness, and worried whether they’d continue their preseason habit of losing focus and discipline for prolonged periods of time.
The team’s 3-1 start has quelled those fears and served notice that the core players are mature enough to understand what is required of them when the games start to count in the standings.
Before we focus on the two players who I believe have been most important to this season-opening jolt of competence, a couple of key defensive statistics to further stoke the hopes of the Wolves’ faithful. First, Minnesota currently leads the NBA with 46 steals, five ahead of next-best Golden State. While the ball-hawking duo of Ricky Rubio (who leads the NBA with 16) and Corey Brewer (who is 11th with 10) are primarily responsible, 11 different players have recorded at least one steal (and eight with at least two) through the first four games.
Second, even without Andrei Kirilenko, the Wolves have maintained perhaps their most positive defensive attribute from last season — the ability to guard without fouling. They currently lead the NBA in fewest fouls committed per opponents’ field goal attempts. Combine that with the ability of holdover superstar Kevin Love and wing scoring specialist Kevin Martin to get to the free throw line on offense, and the Wolves have the greatest positive disparity in made free throws of any team in the league — a whopping plus-54, which works out to more than 13 points per game. That dual mastery of the foul game is an identity to be cherished, and the Wolves appear to have the mindset and the personnel to maintain it.
Kevin Love: MVP candidate
It is not a surprise that Kevin Love is enjoying a monster start to this season — to the point where he was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday. In the two-season stretch between 2010 and 2012, Love was the best power forward in the NBA, a matchup assassin who buried three-pointers against slower big men out on the perimeter and tortured players assigned to stop his jumper with dominant rebounding and putbacks in the paint.
But last season was a nightmare for Love, and thus the Wolves. His animus toward Saunders’ predecessor, David Kahn — who, like former Wolves coach Kurt Rambis, never gave him the respect he deserved — resulted in an unfortunate interview with a member of the national media that damaged his goodwill with the fan base. More importantly, twice breaking a bone in his right hand robbed him of his shooting prowess in dramatic fashion. Season-ending knee surgery completed the indignity.
Love has returned this season with a distinctly new attitude. Gone is the guy who would joke around with the media gaggle, replaced by a curt businessman who prefers to let his play do the talking. It wasn’t hard to see that Love was locked and loaded, and with Kahn gone and he and Rubio both healthy, it was a safe bet that he’d start compiling freakish statistics out on the court once more. Sure enough, he currently ranks second in the NBA in both scoring (26.5 points per game) and rebounding (14.3 per game).
But 26 and 14 is close to being just another season at the office for a healthy Kevin Love. The reason Love should be a viable MVP candidate this season — he won’t win, but will likely be in the conversation — is because of the value he has added to other aspects of his leadership.
Begin with the most tangible thing, his assist total, which at 4 dimes per game is double his career average, even as his turnover rate holds steady at just 2.2 per game. Yes, the addition of cutting wings like Martin and Brewer have been a tonic, but Love is doing an excellent job of dishing for layups while still hunting for his own points — he has attempted more shots than anyone in the league.
Move on to defense, which for the first time in Love’s career has not been a weakness in his game thus far this season. From the first quarter of the opener against Orlando, Love has been noticeably more active on defense than ever before, but almost always within the team-wide scheme. He and Nikola Pekovic were crucial to the defensive game-plan against Durant and Anthony.
He had less success matched up with the Knicks’ perimeter shooter Andrea Bargnani, and his fatigue was obvious as Cleveland dominated paint scoring early in Monday night’s loss. He also isn’t ever going to be great at covering the corner three-pointer — he’s not a bloodhound, and lumbers instead of scampers — but he is surprisingly quick in short spaces for someone with a naturally blocky physique.
But there are reasons why he is the leader in minutes-played for the NBA’s third-ranked defense. “He’s really trying,” said Adelman, succinctly and significantly, when asked about Love’s defense. “One thing we have tried to get him and Pek to do is talk. Because they are the ones who see the court. Pek has never done it much. And I think Kevin is really trying to do that.”
More effectively sharing the ball on one end of the court while barking out screens and switches and otherwise helping to shoulder the load at the other end are pronounced upgrades in Love’s game. Then there are the intangibles.
Put simply, Love seems more engaged and less enervated this season. The distance he has established with the media doesn’t extend to his teammates. He’s a sincere cheerleader on the sidelines, not in a rote, role-like fashion, but with enthusiasm that matches the importance of the action or the depth of the effort — he’s paying attention like someone heavily invested in the outcome.
The first time I knew in my bones that the Timberwolves could be something special this season occurred right after Love had nailed the clutch three-pointer to send the game into overtime against Orlando on opening night. As the Wolves strolled on the court for the extra period, Love walked up behind Rubio, massaged his shoulders, and tousled his hair. The team’s best player was providing affection, encouragement and confident solidarity to the second-best player, right after performing as the hero. Kevin Love is all-in for 2013-14.
A wing stopper after all
Through the first four games, at least, it is fair to say I underestimated the overall contribution Brewer could make to this team. In particular, I was wrong to assume that the Brewer we saw in the preseason, with the same idiotic shot-selection and all-or-nothing defense that marked his play in Denver last season, would be what we would get during the regular season.
On the contrary, Brewer is properly devoting himself to becoming the wing stopper the Wolves desperately need. His shot-frequency is the lowest since his second year in the NBA, and while his three-pointers continually misfire (15.4 percent), he has mostly limited his two-point attempts to cuts and transitions, resulting in a gaudy 61.5 percentage from inside the arc, the first time in his career he has been over 50 percent in that realm.
More importantly, Brewer has delivered on defense with a refined sense of team dynamics providing an effective rudder on his customary nonstop motor. I felt like he was merely average in the opener versus Orlando — Aaron Afflalo had 24 points in the second half and really bailed Brewer out by dribbling out the clock for a fadeaway jumper on the final play of regulation. And I believe he was an important but not solitary part of the reason why Durant and Anthony were held in check — the schemes created by Adelman (a vastly underrated defensive coach) were magnificent.
But my view is churlish, compared with a couple of coaches who really know the game. I ran into the Wolves’ ace color commentator Jim Peterson after the Oklahoma City game, and Peterson, besotted with chalkboard thinking from his just-completed stint coaching and breaking down film for the Minnesota Lynx, raved about Brewer’s defense. Specifically, Jim-Pete praised Brewer’s knack for cutting off angles to slip or disrupt picks without going underneath, and pointedly noted that Brewer is more effective than Kirilenko at this aspect of the game.”
So I asked Adelman about this the next day, especially as it related to Brewer’s defense on Durant, and the coach heartily agreed. “Yeah he did a really good job. We gave him an option; we said if you can shoot the gap [between the pick] with Durant, shoot it. He did a nice job of starting to go under, and then Durant would fade back and he [Brewer] would stay on that side and go after it. He is just active.”
Is that just instinct on knowing when to go, I asked. “Yeah, it really is instinct,” Adelman said happily.
Good maturity, bad depth
What unites the added value Love and Brewer are providing to this team is maturity. Both players have eliminated flaws that have become evident in their respective game performances over the years — as the cliché goes, they have learned from their experiences.
It is perhaps no coincidence that this team has the best chance of making the playoffs since the 2003-04 contingent, a ballclub that also benefited from a mature starting five that included talented veterans like Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, along with heady role players such as Ervin Johnson and Trenton Hassell.
Among the current Wolves starters, Rubio is the youngest at age 24, but he has been playing professionally for nearly a decade now. Kevin Martin is in his 10th season, Brewer his seventh and Love his sixth. Even Nikola Pekovic, in his fourth year, had prior time playing in Europe.
Before anybody starts penciling the Wolves into home court advantage for the playoffs, let’s dampen things a bit and talk about depth. It seemed pretty obvious that Monday’s loss in Cleveland stemmed from the physical and emotional letdown of the previous night’s win against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. In that game, Love, Rubio and Pekovic all played more than 40 minutes, and all subsequently delivered their worst performance of the season versus the Cavs.
Sure, Adelman can be second-guessed for riding his stars so heavily. But Alexey Shved looks terrible thus far, Dante Cunningham can’t hit an open jumper, Derrick Williams continues to play in a manner that simultaneously fuels the arguments or his supporters and foes, and, as mentioned Shabazz Muhammad and Georgie Dieng are not yet reliable contributors. While I again do not have the same enthusiasm for the play of Turiaf that Adelman expressed recently — I thought he frequently got caught too far from the basket against Orlando, hurting the defense — both Ronny and Chase Budinger need to get healthy soon. Along with Rubio’s field-goal inaccuracy — he has replaced Brewer as my shot-selection villain — and Pekovic’s sluggish offense, depth is a concern that might erode the prospects of what looks like an eminently enjoyable season.