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Some assembly required for the new-look Timberwolves

Expect a lot of growing pains with the Timberwolves during the 2014-2015 season, when disheartening beat-downs will be as plentiful as thrilling victories and encouraging defeats.

The newest Minnesota Timberwolves displaying their new jerseys, left to right: guard Andrew Wiggins, forward Anthony Bennett, forward Thaddeus Young, and guard Zach LaVine at Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

To root for a franchise as chronically unsuccessful as the Minnesota Timberwolves have been over their 26-year history requires a short memory, one that can be made oblivious to the grand plans that were being hatched as recently as the previous season.

As the Wolves front office and fan base pump themselves up on the team’s new blueprint for relevancy, it behooves us to get a grip on the context of their latest endeavor. For that we need only compare and contrast the actions of the past two summers, and notice how they will unceremoniously collide throughout the upcoming 2014-15 NBA season.

In the summer of 2013, then-new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders spent tens of millions of dollars of owner Glen Taylor’s money. The interlocking priorities driving these investments were plain: Beef up the roster with players tailor-made for then-coach Rick Adelman’s patented “motion corner” offense. Lock up talented veterans to complement star forward Kevin Love for the foreseeable future. And balance the roster with fewer undersized guards and more three-point shooting.

Over a two-day period in mid-July, the Wolves inked deals with a trio of swingmen ranging in height from 6-7 to 6-9. Adelman favorite Kevin Martin was the most expensive, at $28 million over the next four years, while the Adelman-friendly Chase Budinger netted $15 million for three years and high-motor gadfly Corey Brewer received $14 million for three years.

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A month later, the Wolves rewarded their behemoth center Nikola Pekovic, Love’s sidekick in the paint, with a whopping $60 million, five-year deal.

Saunders, Taylor and Adelman all knew back then that “the future is now.” 

Adelman was in his late sixties and looking to cap his distinguished coaching career with a championship. Love was coming up on the option year of his contract without ever having made the postseason. So Taylor put serious bank into a potent offense that could have Love creating mismatches on the perimeter while Pek dominated down low. Martin and Budinger would further space the floor with deadly outside shooting while point guard Ricky Rubio acted as maestro choreographer. The unstated battle cry for the 2013-14 campaign was “playoffs or bust.” 

The Wolves went bust, missing the postseason for the tenth year in a row with a won-loss record that was nine games behind the lowest playoff seed in the Western Conference. Adelman retired and Saunders appointed himself the replacement. And last weekend, Love’s looming free agency prompted a blockbuster trade that tries to ball up the bad juju and rewrite the script for 2014-15.

Minutes after the Love deal was official, the Wolves unveiled a marketing campaign emphasizing the high-flying athleticism of four new players—heralded swingman Andrew Wiggins and power forward Anthony Bennett, both arriving from Cleveland, power forward Thaddeus Young by way of Philadelphia, and the Wolves own draft choice this summer, Zach LaVine.

At Saturday’s press conference, Saunders was effusive in his praise of the new crew, inferring that Wiggins and LaVine could become “destination players” good enough to attract other stars to frigid Minnesota somewhere down the line. He called Young a “borderline All Star statistically” and said that all four, including Bennett, “have the potential to be very good two-way players.” 

Saunders did his best to defray the frisson inherent in the contradictory impulses of the past two summers. A year ago, the gambit was enlisting battle-tested veterans who conformed to a system and outscored the opposition. This year, the focus is on raw athletes who can fly up and down the court and create suffocating defense.

“[O]ver the last year, I didn’t know if the team had an identity,” Saunders said on Saturday.

Of course they did: It just wasn’t a very likable identity. But many of the players who helped mold that identity are still on the roster with years left on their contracts. That reality compelled Saunders to improbably claim that the players he was counting on to create a new identity only needed to complement the holdovers. Last season, he noted, “this team won 40 games and we have six of our top seven guys back…we just want these [new] guys to come in and be able to add to the veteran players we have on this team.” 

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No, he doesn’t. The Wolves are marketing transformation, not some caulking to the existing core. Nobody is more aware of this than the holdovers.

Dissecting the roster

Let’s get specific. Last year’s holdover trio of swingmen — Martin, Budinger and Brewer — will inevitably be competing for minutes with the brightest baubles in Saunders’ “destination player” strategy, Wiggins and LaVine. For all the talk about “two way” performance, each member of this five-man competition is sorely lacking in at least one crucial element of the NBA game. Throughout the season, Wolves will pick their poison in various increments and combinations.

Martin had the kind of season last year that makes one root for his demise. Awarded with a long-term contract playing for his favorite coach in a system ideally suited to his talents, his shot selection was putrid. He attempted a higher percentage of long two-pointers than at any time since his rookie season, at the expense of high-efficiency three-pointers and drives to the hoop, where he is a master at drawing fouls. Meanwhile, his always-lackluster defense plunged further due to his indifference.

Hampered by another knee injury requiring surgery, Budinger also disappointed, losing mobility required for quality defense and getting open for weakside three-pointers and cuts to the basket. Brewer, on the other hand, was a sporadic catalyst as a defensive irritant, but was a horrible shooter whose field goal percentage was inflated by all the outlet passes he received from the now-departed Love. 

The problem with Wiggins and LaVine is more fundamental: They are teenagers with precious little college experience, let alone NBA seasoning. Neither has proven to be an accurate shooter and there is zero evidence of folks who clanged jumpers in college suddenly finding their stroke in the pros.

Whenever any of these five players is on the court, their flaws will be glaring, and stand in sharp contrast to the folks on the bench. Among the many ways Love will be missed is his three-point marksmanship. Without him, the Wolves shot a collective 32.7 percent from beyond the arc last season, well below the NBA average of 36 percent. Martin, Budinger, and incoming combo guard Mo Williams are the best bets to shore up that weakness, while minutes for Wiggins and LaVine will exacerbate it. But unless Martin undergoes an attitude transplant and Budinger finally has functioning knees, the perimeter defense will inevitably suffer. 

None of this will be occurring in a vacuum. Fans on hand to chronicle the pending superstardom on Wiggins or LaVine are going to be irate if the bulk of the game features the same ol’ same ol’ from Martin and Budinger, plus the tragicomic slapstick that Brewer usually provides. But if the hyper-athletic pups are allowed an extensive crash-course in NBA, it won’t be pretty on the scoreboard or in the locker room.

Martin was prone to pout last season, when everything seemingly was in his favor, and he’s got another two years on his contract after this season. Brewer, who has logged more time as a Timberwolf than anyone on the roster, appointed himself team spokesman and chief critic as it became more apparent Love was on his way out last spring. He isn’t likely to take a demotion gracefully.

You notice Shabazz Muhammad is missing from this discussion. Last year he kept his counsel, worked tirelessly and offered intriguing low-post scoring prowess when finally given the opportunity late in the season. Will he remain a good soldier as players even younger move ahead of him in the rotation?

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Nor have we discussed J.J. Barea, a feisty Adelman favorite coming off his worst season, deprived of his defensive tactics by the new rules against flopping, long on confidence and opinions but with a very short fuse.

Williams and perhaps also LaVine will suck up many of the minutes fatally accorded to Barea as backup point guard last year, and, as we have seen, the shooting guard spot is already crowded.

In the front court, the absence of Love robs the team of a truly unique skill set and an automatic matchup nightmare for opponents. Nobody should expect any of the replacements at power forward—Young, Bennett or second-year man Gorgui Dieng sliding over from center—to come close to replicating Love’s inside-outside scoring and tenacious rebounding.

Ah, but won’t there be an upgrade on Love’s much-maligned defense? Perhaps. But the biggest criticism of Love was his lack of rim protection—he blocked only 35 shots all season and allowed his man to score 57.4 percent of the time on shots at the rim, according to the stats page at NBA.com

Unfortunately, that same page shows that Young blocked only 36 shots and allowed his man to score 60.2 percent of the time on shots at the rim.

Bennett allowed only 47.4 percent accuracy from his opponent on shots at the rim, but the sample size is very small, owing to a rookie season where he was plagued by injuries and a sleep disorder and played out of shape. And it remains to be seen if the 6-11 Dieng can chase power forwards out on the open floor without being prone to the fouling that dogged him early last season.

In any case, an underrated component of team defense is grabbing the contested rebound that prevents the opponent from extending the possession. Nobody on this team does that better than Love.

At center, Pek is obviously a centerpiece of the team, with four years and $48 million left on his deal. But he won’t have the freedom of movement down near the hoop on offense, a bonus of playing alongside Love, who draws opposing bigs out with him to the three-point line. The Wolves didn’t acquire a mobile, shot-blocking power forward that would best complement Pek on defense. And it will be suspenseful to watch Pek move his 285-pound body up and down in the court in the new high-octane style the Wolves figure to unleash, given that he has never played more than 62 games or 2000 minutes in any of his four seasons due to various injuries. 

The bright side

I’m not trying to be a killjoy. But when a franchise embarks upon dramatic philosophical and personnel changes to its roster two years running that contradict one another, the shakeout is inevitably going to be ugly. That fact can be obscured by swooning dreams of Andrew Wiggins becoming a legit superstar in 2016, or even by the notion of Wiggins, LaVine, and Young delivering showtime to the Target Center faithful as if their sneakers were equipped with trampolines. 

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There will be growing pains on the court and strife on the bench. The disheartening beat-downs due to immaturity and exasperation will be as plentiful as the thrilling victories and encouraging defeats. 

But there is one clearcut winner in this new Wolves order—Ricky Rubio. One of the more surprising subtexts to last season’s underachievement was the passive-aggressive feud over style of play that was waged between Rubio and Adelman. The coach unsuccessfully tried to excise the flash and panache that seems an inherent component of Rubio’s incomparable court vision and ball distribution. More than any other factor, Adelman’s tendency to turn toward Barea at crunchtime sabotaged the team’s playoff hopes and tarnished his legacy. 

Saunders will be more forgiving. And Rubio’s high-flying teammates will re-energize spirits that seemed to leak away from him last year. Coming into his final season before restricted free agency, Rubio is the bridge between the past two Timberwolves rosters, a facilitator and agile defender who needs to improve his shooting, but otherwise seems primed to mint the identity Saunders wants to implement while enabling the holdovers enough to potentially stave off mutiny, if not discord. 

In two or three years, this ball club may belong to Wiggins, or perhaps LaVine or Bennett will eventually ascend enough to justify their hype. But for the 2014-15 season, the keys to this jerry-built contraption are in Rubio’s hands. Vroom, vroom. Bring your checkered flag, and call an ambulance.