Coming into the season, I was really high on Minnesota. Here’s a team that, despite a mediocre 26-40 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, was growing together with 3 really solid young pieces: a bruiser in Nikola Pekovic, a crafty young PG in Ricky Rubio and arguably the league’s best stretch 4 in Kevin Love. Add guys like Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Budinger, Alexey Shved and Brandon Roy, and this had all the makings of a fringe playoff team.
But that has not been the case. Far from it, actually. Headed into Tuesday’s games, the Wolves are 19-31, 12th in the Western Conference, dead last in the Northwest Division and 7.5 games out of the No. 8 seed. Minnesota’s 2-8 in their last 10 and a conference-worst 3-7 against division opponents.
The reason, or at least a major part of it: injuries, injuries, injuries. Love has missed 32 games with a broken hand and is out for the foreseeable future; he missed 9 games to start the season with the same injury, caused by knuckle pushups, but did not elect to undergo surgery until January. Rubio’s missed 25 games after starting the season on the sideline recovering from a torn ACL.
And then it continues: Budinger’s only played in 6 games this season and is out indefinitely due to left knee surgery, as is Roy, Minnesota’s $10.4 million investment this offseason, who’s appeared in 5 due to right knee surgery. Malcolm Lee underwent season-ending right knee and hip surgery after playing in only 16 games. Kirilenko’s missed 9 games, Pekovic 7, J.J. Barea 8, and Josh Howard, who played in 11 games, was waived in December after suffering an ACL injury. Even head coach Rick Adelman missed 11 games spending time with his ailing wife.
So that the Timberwolves have somehow accumulated 19 wins might actually be impressive. Hell, Adelman’s now starting a SF in Mickael Gelabale who played his way onto the team via 10-day contracts. Hybrid guard Luke Ridnour is the only Wolves’ player to appear in all 50 games this season.
Minnesota’s struggled to fill the hoop, especially in the absence of leading scorer Kevin Love, tallying a 21st-ranked 95.1 points per game. Without Love, their only consistent interior scoring presence is Pekovic, contributing to their 25th-ranked 43.7% FG percentage. And the Wolves lack shooters from the outside, easily coming in dead last, at 30.1%, in 3-point percentage. The Wolves remarkably have 8 guys averaging at least 9.9 points per game — Love (18.3), Pekovic (15.9), Kirilenko (13.3), Ridnour (12.3), Budinger (11.8), Barea (11.1), Shved (10.5) and Derrick Williams (9.9) — but those players have missed a combined 109 games.
The long-term future of this organization is in flux. Love has a fractured relationship with both owner Glen Taylor and GM David Kahn, neither of whom, at least according to reports, have been the most pleasant hosts. Love is still reportedly bitter over the organization not offering him a max-level 5-year, $60 million deal, instead opting for a 4-year extension last January. Love’s still paid handsomely and on the books through at least 2014-15, as is most of the team’s young core (minus Pekovic), but his name’s even been circulated in trade rumors.
Pekovic, and his interior force, is a schoolyard bully, in the best ways imaginable, with a team-high 19.2 player-efficiency rating to go along with his 15.9 points and 8.9 rebounds in 31.9 minutes. Pekovic, 27 and a restricted free agent this summer, has improved leaps and bounds each of his 3 years in Minnesota and is on pace to make some serious coin this offseason, should he sign a long-term offer sheet. Also in Minnesota’s frontcourt, Dante Cunningham, 8.2 points per game, is a reliable mid-range threat, and Greg Stiemsma, who emerged as a reliable bench guy in Boston’s run last year, is strong defensively, averaging a team-best 1.2 blocks in only 12.7 minutes.
Williams, last year’s No. 2 overall draft pick, has struggled to catch on in the NBA, with numbers barely better than last year’s in less minutes. Experts lauded Williams’ athleticism coming out of Arizona, but his versatility, also supposedly a strong suit, has yet to translate, with a poor 41.2% field goal percentage and even worse 32.7% 3-point mark (2.3 attempts per game). Williams, occasionally a liability defensively, also averages more turnovers (1.0) than assists (0.4). Williams, at this point merely a very poor man’s Josh Smith, needs to be more aggressive driving to the cup with his 6’8″, 241-pound frame, which should cause matchup problems either at the 3 (height) or the 4 (speed).
Aside from newcomer Gelabale, who’s limited offensively (and intelligently plays as such), Ridnour’s the only member of Minnesota’s backcourt with any form of consistent outside game. Rubio, who’s also struggling with turnovers (2.7 per game), is only a 34.3% shooter, and Shved, though with an explosiveness Rubio lacks, is not much better at 37.7%. Barea’s a 41% shooter with a limited perimeter game, other than using his speed and niftiness to access the lane. Minnesota was relying on from Budinger and Roy’s wing scoring, but obviously injuries have hampered those expectations.
With the playoffs likely out of the picture, Kahn should starting looking toward the offseason. Love will hopefully return fully healthy at his $14.7 million salary, and Kirilenko has a $10.2 million player option he would be crazy not to extend (though he’s been effective on the floor this year, with an 18.2 PER). Unless traded, Minnesota’s stuck with Roy’s $5.3 million cap hit, the same for Williams, a player with whom I still think Kahn should exercise patience. In total, Kahn has about $50 million already dedicated in 2013-14, which is $8 million short of this year’s cap, meaning very little wiggle room to fill out his roster (and re-sign Pekovic, who, by all appearances, seems happy in Minnesota and ready to ink long-term).
For a team that has not made the postseason since 2003-04, this may be tough to hear, but this team is still a few years away from contending. A lot depends on whether Love’s a part of their future; if not, the Wolves should cut their losses, build up some assets and start over.
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