Where: Amway Arena
When: 6 pm (Central Time)
See it: Fox Sports North
Hear It: WCCO-AM 830
Last year was a rough one, as I’m sure you recall. For a team that relied heavily on one superstar, one rookie and one breakout role player, the Wolves performed admirably, staying in the playoff hunt well into March. Then Ricky Rubio’s knee happened, Kevin Love’s (insert any of several minor but debilitating injuries but most notably his concussion) happened, Nikola Pekovic’s ankles happened, and suddenly the team was borderline unwatchable and the idea of making the playoffs was laughable. Suddenly, we were cheering for the Utah Jazz because we wanted their mediocre draft pick. Not fun times.
And yet we kept watching, and we marveled at what might have happened if Kahn had surrounded his superstars with real role players and real talent. What if Love and Rubio hadn’t been forced to carry the Wolves on their respective shoulders in every single game before their injuries? What if the rest of the team had been better, allowing Love and Rubio to rest, or even (gasp) have a bad game?
Tonight, we will get preliminary, very unfinished answers to those questions, since Kevin Love’s flu set him back during Ricky’s debut. Rubio isn’t at full health yet by any means. Neither is Love. But they don’t have to be for Minnesota to win.
That’s not a knock on Orlando. The Magic have been impressive, given their circumstances, beginning the year 10-13 and playing competitive basketball consistently, even in losses. Young players like Andrew Nicholson give Orlando hope for the future, and the excellent coaching of Jacque Vaughn gives the Magic an oft-entertaining, competitive product on the court. Minnesota is quite likely to have its hands full.
But the Wolves are much, much better than last year. Andrei Kirilenko has been an All-Star, whether he makes the trip to Houston as a participant or not. Shved has been a revelation. Dante Cunningham went from barely on our radars to key contributor. The reliable returnees (Ridnour and…Barea? I guess?) have continued to be reliable.
Ever since December 15 came and went, the ESPN Trade Machine has been hard at work, as fans post their favorite trade scenarios all over Twitter. But there’s a reason trades take a while to formulate. GMs put their teams together in the offseason with a goal in mind, and (as was pointed out to me on Twitter today) more often than not, that goal isn’t to acquire trade assets. It’s because they believe that their teams can win games. Panic trades often hurt and rarely help. But the Wolves are a team that may require patience, and will continue to require patience, because even if they struggle early integrating Love and Rubio, the potential for an amazing final product is there. As long as the team seems to be making steps toward that goal, we should embrace them in their current form.
Welcome back, Kevin and Ricky. We have been waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting).
Jameer Nelson — PG — Luke Ridnour
Aaron Afflalo — SG — Alexei Shved
Moe Harkless — SF — Andrei Kirilenko
Glen Davis — PF — Kevin Love
Nikola Vucevic — C — Nikola Pekovic
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.