2013-2014 Minnesota Timberwolves Season Preview

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We have a Big Three now too

2004.

That was the last year that the Timberwolves have been apart of the Western Conference Playoff group. That might not seem like that long ago but let me put it in perspective.

  • Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake headlined the 2004 Super Bowl in what turned into television’s worst (or best) wardrobe malfunction of all time.
  • Meet the Fockers was one of the most popular movies of the year, and Million Dollar Baby won the Oscar for Best Film. Good movies, now classics.
  • Facebook launched in its campaign to take over the internet.
  • President Bush campaigned and was re-elected for his second term. Oofta.
  • Both Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles passed away. So did Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Pour one out for the homies.
  • Livestrong rubber bracelets among others for great causes became popular. Oh, what little did we know back then.
  • Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris’ ‘Yeah!’ was the year’s popular anthem.
  • Ashlee Simpson was relevant because she was caught lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live.
  • Speaking of television, the hit American Idol was adored by millions to top the charts. The winner that year? Fantasia Barrino. Yeah, I was hoping to put a picture of Carrie Underwood up too.

Amongst all that action as well as adapting to the ever-changing technology world, 2004 was a good year to Minnesota Timberwolves fans. But that was when it all ended. Not that life has been awful since but in terms of fandom, well, it kind of has. Between then and now, we’ve seen the franchises only star be traded away to Boston and win a championship for them. We’ve seen 6 different head coaches in that span, none of which have won more then 44 wins with an average of 27 wins per season. There have been botched trades, like the Kevin Garnett deal, the Cassel-for-Jaric swap and even the Antoine Walker fiasco. The NBA Draft, which is typically a great medium to re-tool a struggling franchise, was never all that great minus a few instances. We all know the Jonny Flynn before Stephen Curry pick, as well as the Brandon Roy-for-Randy Foye swap on the 2006 draft day, but with 11 1st round picks since 2004, the Wolves have come up with just two combined All-Star appearances, both of which came from Kevin Love in 2011 and 2012.

So I think you’ve finally caught my drift. It’s been a long, hard and miserable soon-to-be 10 year anniversary since we’ve experienced pay dirt in the playoffs. But another new year means more predictions, more calculations on what’s ahead in the future.

Because I’m trying to sum up the history as well as what others think about the current state of the Wolves and their prospects of finally reaching the playoffs again, here’s a list of what the media thinks is the outlook for the Pups.

  • ESPN: Marc Stein’s Power Rankings: 13th in NBA.
    • “With Adelman back and Kev Martin/C. Brewer coming in, you’d go ahead and call this a playoff team, too, if you knew the Wolves could finally stay reasonably healthy.”
  • ESPN Insider: Kevin Pelton’s Wolves Forecast: 5th in Western Conference.
    • “Realistically, Minnesota is looking at a win total in the mid- to high 40s. That should be more than enough for a return to the playoffs, and might just make the Timberwolves the surprise threat to the West’s five championship contenders.”
  • Bill and Jalen’s NBA Preview: 17th in NBA.
    • Bill: “Do you think some franchises can just become snakebit?”
    • Jalen: “I do.”
    • Bill: “Because it feels like we’re headed that way with Minnesota.”
  • Hoopsworld: 3rd in Northwest Division.
    • “On paper, the Timberwolves looked poised to make the leap into the playoffs for the last two seasons.”

Clearly there’s a solid mix of optimism and unadulterated pessimism from that group. There are more NBA previews with inevitable opinions on the Wolves still coming but based simply off of those, the general consensus of a potential playoff finish is positive.

So what’s HTW’s thoughts on this matter? Obviously there are a lot of factors in this prediction. And just like Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose of Grantland, I thought I’d divide this into sections and give you my final prediction once it’s all said and done. 

The Calm Before the Storm:

The Offseason:

The storm is the NBA’s regular season. The calm, well, I wouldn’t necessarily call the offseason a ‘calm’ period. In fact, for the Wolves, it was awfully busy.

  • Who’s out?
    • David Kahn (Thank goodnesss)
    • Andrei Kirilenko
    • Luke Ridnour
    • Greg Stiemsma
    • Brandon Roy
    • Josh Howard
    • Mickael Gelabale
    • Malcolm Lee
    • Lazar Hayward
    • Lou Amundson
    • Will Conroy
  • Who’s new?
    • Flip Saunders
    • Corey Brewer (Semi-new)
    • Kevin Martin
    • Ronny Turiaf
    • Shabazz Muhammad
    • Gorgui Dieng
    • Robbie Hummel/A.J. Price/Othyus Jeffers (One of these three)

Just to clear things up, the ‘Who’s old?’ list features players that played at all last season for the Wolves. It’s pretty sad, isn’t it? And beyond the first couple names on the ‘Who’s new?’ list, things aren’t much better. But, perhaps the most important name on both lists is the first one. Kahn’s out, Saunders is in. And although Kahn actually did a decent job of creating the core of this team’s future, Saunders all but assured and helped lock them up for the foreseeable future. The incoming guys are contributors but they’re not the cornerstones. Kevin Martin comes in as a supporting perimeter scorer, who should improve the worst three-point shooting team in the league last season. Corey Brewer brings some hard-nosed defensive effort and injects life and passion into the lineup. And Ronny Turiaf is actually a capable backup to Pekovic, even more so than Stiemer was last season.

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Corey Brewer returns to Minnesota

The moves were good, not great. But the best part of the offseason, and the reason I give Saunders some credit, is that he locked up Pekovic long term and still leaves the door open to resigning Rubio for the long term as well. That gives the Wolves three solid years to make a run here with a Rubio-Love-Pekovic package, which is an old school basketball type of Big Three. It’s not as exciting as Lebron-Wade-Bosh but those three will play great basketball together, if they stay healthy, and give fans hope at a playoff run and maybe a championship run barring a few more roster moves.

The Injuries:

The grueling 82-game schedule has taken its tolls on the Wolves before. Just last season we saw Chase Budinger go down with a torn meniscus that forced him to miss the majority of the season. Kevin Love was showing off doing knuckle pushups until it bit back and caused missed time for him as well. Then you had Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko and J.J. Barea all miss irregular time to heal their battered bodies. All that happened while Ricky Rubio was just getting back into game shape after tearing his ACL the season before.

It’s no secret that injuries have sabotaged the Wolves the past two seasons. Pouring salt into the wound, those were two season that the general public was starting to support in a playoff push. So by this time, you have to assume that a third time’s the charm, right? I mean, we can only hope. Reports from the camp and through the preseason is that all is well in terms of health and physique. Everyone but Budinger, who had to have his surgically repaired knee cleaned out, seems to be in shape and geared up for the upcoming season. But preparation is only half of the battle. As mentioned, the grueling 5-month long season can take a toll on anyone’s body and some simply manage the bruises, then sores and the pain better than others. The makeup of this team is that injuries mean missed time, and that’s been the story for quite some time. At all costs, the Wolves have to avoid extended periods of time due to injury on an individual basis. It’s one thing to miss 1-2 games every couple months to heal a sore ankle than to try to play on it, aggravate it even worse and then miss more time than expected because of that.

The Preseason:

Using injuries as a segway to play in the preseason isn’t ideal, but, as mentioned above, the team seems relatively healthy heading into the preseason. The Budinger injury has crimped Adelman’s plans for the small forward position but there’s finally depth on this team to at least fill the void in the mean time. So far, we’ve seen Corey Brewer and Derrick Williams tryout for that open spot. As of now, it’s still an open race. Neither has done much to separate themselves but I have a hunch that this is Brewer’s spot to lose in these final two games. Given his defensive prowess and great size and athleticism, he makes the most sense to be a defensive stopper in the starting lineup as opposed to Williams’ advantage on the boards and inside scoring.

Moving onward, the Wolves have actually played well in the preseason. Not great, but well. They lost to CSK Moscow (facepalm) and the Raptors, where they both allowed over 100 points on defense but they also won three games (Toronto, Milwaukee and Boston) by scoring over 100 points of their own. I think they’re starting to realize that when you score a lot and hold the other team to a lot fewer points, you will win games. Revolutionary theory but it seems to be working.

On an individual basis, I have to say that we’re seeing Ricky Rubio come into his own a little bit more. It’s basically a fact: Rubio was not feeling like himself until late last year, and he let little mistakes creep into his head. But now he seems more like himself, averaging five assists per game. He’s even shooting 60-percent from 3-point land. That’s a little misleading given he’s only taken five shots from deep but for every one that falls, that confidence level in taking that shot steadily grows.

Nikola Pekovic was rewarded this offseason and he’s ready to produce consistent double-doubles on a nightly basis. Pekovic is keeping his attempts low and his makes high, while grabbing as many rebounds as Kevin Love leaves available to him. One thing I’ve noticed already is that Pek’s defense is still improving. Pek and Love together don’t make the stoutest defending combination in the frontcourt but they’re growing into that role and becoming at least a passable twosome.

And on to Mr. Love himself. Look, last year was painful. We know Love is a top-10 player in the NBA. The whole league knows that, which made last year look like a lost season in a young player’s campaign to stardom. But leaner and determined is Love looking to lead this team to paydirt, and, boy, do we ever need him. So far Love has been back to his old self, leading the Wolves in points per game (16.2) and rebounds per game (7.8). He’s not connecting on his three-pointers at the clip we’re accustomed to, just 24-percent through five games but for a talented shooter like him, it’s all about rhythm and he’s got a lot of time to get that in order.

As for the rest of the team, Kevin Martin finally showed up in the win over Boston, scoring 21 points on 16 shots, which is what we’d like to expect from the new shooting guard. Derrick Williams, although having played in one less game, is outscoring Pekovic on a per game basis with 11.3 points per game. And Alexey Shved, who was just so bad at times during his rookie season, is averaging under a turnover per game and has played in all five so far with 19.6 minutes per game. On the other end of the spectrum, Shabazz Muhammad isn’t making the impact that no one everyone thought he’d have, playing just eight minutes a game and averaging 3.5 points per game. And Corey Brewer is back to his old self, chucking up too many shots and is just 16-43 because of it.

The preseason isn’t a great way to judge how well a team will be during the season but at least you get to see teams start to work together and gel as time moves on. There are both positives and negatives coming out of this preseason but so far nothing tells me that those season predictions above are inaccurate to this point.

The Guys who don’t actually play the game:

Flip Saunders returns to the Timberwolves in a new role
Flip Saunders returns to the Timberwolves in a new role

I already touched on this a little bit but the biggest offseason moves were to get rid of David Kahn and bring in Flip Saunders. It isn’t very often you get to bring a highly-respected man around the league, who just happens to be homegrown and helped put your franchise on the map, back to run your team. Fans respect that move, a lot. Although Saunders doesn’t have prior experience as a President of Basketball Ops, he’s trusted enough by both the fan base and the league to put your faith in. There was a story I read last year that general managers of other teams didn’t like to negotiate let alone talk with David Kahn. He came off as squirrely and very personable. No one could relate to Kahn, which made it difficult to get inside his head and understand his reasoning behind some of the moves he made while in charge here. I think that’s a big advantage that Saunders has over Kahn already, making it potentially easier to build this team for even more success coming in the next few years.

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Martin returns to Adelman’s system, where he previously thrived in

Another big piece here is Rick Adelman. Last year, Adelman stepped away from the team to care for his wife, who was going through some medical issues. Because of that as well as Adelman’s age, it wasn’t known whether he’d be back or not to coach this season. That would’ve been a major blow. Under Adelman, the Wolves have steadily improved each season. The players and the fan base respect Adelman because of what he’s already accomplished as head coach in this league before.

Adelman, while in Minnesota, hasn’t seen the success we hoped but it’s not his fault. Injuries are tough for any coach to battle through alongside the player, especially when your bench is as thin as a blade of grass. But now the bench is deeper, there are multi-faceted players that can do many things on the court, giving Adelman an extensive roster of weapons to use at his own discretion. But seriously, these players have skills that simply work for Adelman’s system on offense, which expects all five players to pass the ball, move along the baseline and make highly intelligent decisions (passing up a good shot for a great shot, etc.). I think this is finally the time that Adelman walks into the locker room with a smile on his face that just says, “These are my guys.”

Bold Expectations:

Every new season brings new expectations. And the best part about being a biased fan is that you can openly express them with little-to-no backlash! In seasons past, my expectations haven’t been all that positive. If you have to ask why, then you haven’t been a fan of this team for more than a year or two if you’re even a fan at all. But, of course, this season is different, right? So here are so of my bold predictions for the 2013/2014 season.

Kevin Love will lead the league in rebounds per game.
Okay, so I know what you’re thinking, “That’s not a very bold prediction!” Yeah, I get it! But I need the karma of a safe prediction to start things off to give my other ones a shot at coming true. Part of that’s because I want to see them all come true — or most of them. Back to the prediction, it’s not that safe given a couple factors. Love played just 18 games last season, so he’s certainly not in game mode quite yet. It could take a little while before he’s back to his automatic double-double form. Also, he revealed a slimming new bod at Media Day that could prevent him from being more physical inside. I don’t really believe that because he’s a naturally gifted rebounder but it’s still something to note. Just to take things a little further, Love will average over 15 rebounds per game this seasonHow’s that for a bold prediction!?

Ricky Rubio will shoot over 40 percent for three-point land:
This one has a small caveat. Rubio’s shooting stroke will be more consistent, which leads to more made shots from deep but I don’t think he’ll be taking as many this season. He’s going to thrive on the wide-open looks from the wing and leave the forced attempts from the perimeter to Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and Love.

Nikola Pekovic will double his 2012-2013 blocks per game total:
That total was 0.8. Not very good, was it? But here’s why I think that’s going to improve. Pekovic’s defense has gotten better season after season. It’s part of the reason he just become $60 million richer. No more are the days where 10 minutes would get you three or more personal fouls. Pek is improving at his weak-side defense, which will lead to more altered shots in the paint. Players with around 1.6 blocks per game last season: Robin Lopez, Derrick Favors and Marc Gasol. Given that list of players, this is a lofty goal but I believe it’s obtainable, especially at Pek’s new price point.

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J.J. Barea is primed for a big season without Luke Ridnour in the picture, that is if he can stay healthy

J.J. Barea will lead the team in three-point shooting:
You’d think that Flip Saunders’ big free agent acquisition, Kevin Martin, would lead the team here. I mean, that’s his game, right? WRONG. K-Mart is going to be used differently in Minnesota than he was in Houston and Oklahoma City. Within Adelman’s system in Sacramento, Martin averaged 3.7 three-pointers a game but in his three and a half years with Houston and OKC, he launched 5.8 from deep. Because of what I think will be a decrease in shots from Martin, Barea will take advantage of his playing time by launching up some threes and making his fair share.

Ronny Turiaf will play more minutes than Dante Cunningham, Derrick Williams and Gorgui Dieng:
Turiaf is the kind of big any coach loves to have at their disposal. He does everything he’s asked and plays the game with a high motor. The others guys in this group have their downfalls. Cunningham fell off the train completely last year with inconsistent performances. Williams, well, he may not even be on this team come February or even sooner. And Dieng is just too raw despite already being 23 years old out of the draft. The cards are there for Turiaf to make an impact off the bench and I believe Adelman’s gonna ride him all season long.

The Final Prediction:

Writing this 3,000-plus word preview has opened my eyes. It’s taken me four days but I think I nailed it down. Trying to gauge the scope of a franchise that’s been through it all — mostly hell — for the last 24 years isn’t easy. We’ve seen success, franchise players, tragedy, scandal and complete and utter defeat. But all these experiences help make this team who they are today. Last season should be an eye-opening experience for those who were there. They witnessed firsthand what it means to live down to expectations. It hurts. It’s painful for everyone involved from the teammates, the fans, the front office and the whole organization. The play on the court dictates how well this franchise runs, and it’s been a long time that these people have had a good team to hang their hat on in the end.

Well, now is that time. This season will mark the official turning point from awfulness to mediocrity. Will they be great? Definitely not this year. But they’ll be able to turn enough of these expectations into reality and be able to build off of that momentum of making the playoffs this season for the first time since 2004.

My final prediction: Timberwolves go 46-36, claim 7th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs