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2013-2014 Timberwolves Season Recap: 5×5

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The NBA playoffs are in full force and I can’t help but toss back whiskey and feel depressed watching them. The 2013-2014 Timberwolves were supposed to be playoff contenders. Maybe not a championship-worthy team but at the very least a solid playoff-bound squad, looking to make some noise and upset some real contenders. That clearly didn’t happen. Instead, the Wolves are facing yet another draft lottery selection and pretty much just one season to straighten things up, and in a big way. Looming roster changes and a new coaching search spell a new future for the Wolves. Where will it go? How did last season influence what happens next? Find out what the writers of HTW think below the fold.

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About Dieng Time?

Dieng or Pek? That shouldn't be the conversation...

Dieng or Pek? That shouldn’t be the conversation…

There’s been a lot of talk recently on the Wolves’ rookie center Gorgui Dieng. Most notably, David Thorpe had some overly nice things to say about the Louisville product’s development and, more importantly, his production over the last month.

The Timberwolves’ best news, though, has come in the form of their rookie center out of Louisville, Gorgui Dieng, who has exploded onto the scene and will now play a huge role in Minnesota’s future plans — a role that could also have a big impact on Love’s decision whether to stay in the Twin Cities.

Woah now! You’re telling me that Dieng could impact where Kevin Love is going to play basketball in a year and a half? Either Thorpe is psychic or he’s gone off the deep-end. But sure enough he stuck by his point/article and reiterated his enamor for the rookie big man on today’s version of TrueHoop TV.

Dieng has been a awful nice piece. I won’t fight anyone on that account. His per game numbers on the season are terribly misleading because of exactly what Thorpe said: Rick Adelman doesn’t want to play young guys unless; A) they can flat-out ball WITHIN the system; B) he’s forced to develop because management said so or now, in the Wolves’ case; C) injuries force Adelman’s hand to play unproven commodities. And if you argue with Adelman on that point, you’ll never win.

So instead, let’s take a look at his numbers for the past month since taking over for Nikola Pekovic, who is nursing a constantly troubled ankle that hindered him last year into this season. Firstly, Dieng’s numbers as a starter in eight games are pretty nice. He’s averaging just over 12 points and 12 rebounds as a starter. He boasts a solid true shooting percentage (59 percent) and, what I personally love, is that is usage rate is on the lower side compared to Pekovic, who runs as focal point 1B in Adelman’s offensive sets, especially early in ball games.

What Thorpe was so excited about in regards to Dieng was his defensive aptitude and the always-sexy athletic intangibles. He’s right that Dieng is a fantastic above-the-rim defender, whereas Love and Pek, now both average to above-average defenders, stay well below the rim, utilizing their strength to move bodies and grab defensive rebounds. At 6-foot-11, 245 lbs., Dieng is a force in the paint who can jump above the rim and force penetrating guards out and make some of the most offensively skilled big men to think twice about their movements.

Gorgui Dieng has exploded as a starter in lieu of Pekovic

Gorgui Dieng has exploded as a starter in lieu of Pekovic

But what I’ve noticed looking at the numbers is that Dieng only, and I stress only because of how Thorpe pumped up Dieng so highly, averages just over a steal and a block per start in an average of nearly 32 minutes in a game. Perhaps probing steals and blocks in just eight starts makes me look out to be a cynic but considering five of those eight blocks came in just one game, maybe you’d think more about Dieng’s rim-keeping abilities.

I know I’m being harsh. After all, the guy has a 99 defensive rating total on the year, which ranks him amongst some of the best big men (Tim Duncan, Deandre Jordan, Roy Hibbert, just to name a few) in the league. But that’s the point. Everyone is so hopped up about Dieng’s play, which stirs some converse feelings about Pekovic’s standing on the Wolves in the future.

Thorpe is convinced that Dieng is the answer and that the next proper move would be to exchange Pek for some help off the bench or perhaps try to lure one more star in here, at least for the short-term, to convince Love to stay five more years. I understand how refreshing it is to watch Dieng play but do we have to go back and remind everyone just how good and valuable Pek is to the Wolves too?

Pekovic is a better defender than what many give him credit for

Pekovic is a better defender than what many give him credit for

Pekovic came from nothing when he started in the league. He was foreign to NBA basketball and even the USA. He fouled too much, he was reckless and turnover-prone on offense and he didn’t seem to care all that much, taking after his good buddy Darko Milicic. But then something snapped, Pek got hot in his second season, corrected a lot of mistakes — many of which had to do with basic defensive positioning — and eventually performed consistently enough to land him a hell of a pay day last summer. Although the injury bug flies often near Pek’s home, he’s still a top-five offensive center with a knack for banging the offensive boards better than anyone BUT Kevin Love. Pek is actually the fourth-best starting center in terms of offensive rating and also a big-time free throw shooter at nearly 75 percent this season.

Pekovic clearly has value to this team, despite his faults of not being a great defender or a low usage rate guy on offense. But in terms of statistics, he and Love have formed a formidable pair over the past two seasons, which is why he was awarded his fat pay check in the first place. As we all know, statistics aren’t exactly the best way to measure a team’s success — the Wolves would be the first to claim that after this abysmal, disappointing season — and wins are still the ultimate decider. Footnote: Dieng has a .139 win shares per 48 compared to Pek’s .170.

Getting back to coach Thorpe’s idea of trading Pek to make way for Dieng as the new starter in Minnesota, I think it’s obviously clear that that’s not an easy decision to make. Dieng’s sample size as a starting NBA center is too small to determine is long-term potential, and Pekovic’s inconsistent court time could simply be chocked up to shitty luck.

So here’s an idea for ya: Keep BOTH of them!

I’m a full-believer that Dieng can develop into a quality starting center one day but he, just like every rookie, must go through the learning curve, which will see plenty of ups and downs. Just as Pekovic. And as for Pekovic, having watched him grow over the past three seasons, I fully believe that he’s a top-five offensive center — perhaps even top-10 offensive big man — in the NBA. Just like Dieng’s hopping ability and length, Pek’s size and brute strength are healthy qualities to have at your disposal, no matter who’s coaching. So what’s so wrong with keeping both?

Here’s how I see it. You have a top-five, rim-protecting defender with great agility, some good abilities on offense and always plays with high energy in Dieng. You also have a top-five low-block scorer, who is at the very least average on interior defense and a rebound mogul. One is still learning the game, such as positioning, trends and playing styles and the other has been forced to miss a lot of time due to injury. Also, according to both players’ by minutes averages, they both play their best ball when seeing the court anywhere from 20-29 minutes per game. 20 plus 20 is a full game of basketball, folks.

If you ask me, together, Dieng and Pek create one of the most dynamic, physically-gifted tandems the league has seen out of two centers in a very long time. There’s no reason to think that these two players couldn’t play together for the next couple years and make an impact on both ends of the court each and every night. Playing a “center by committee” isn’t a popular strategy but it’s one that could very well work in Minnesota given Dieng and Pek’s strengths, abilities and physical and mental boundaries.

That is why there should be nothing wrong with these two playing together. But still, the problem with many NBA critics today — myself included — is they’re too quick to judge and immediately look to fix any mistake or redundancy they can find. Just because Dieng has looked great in eight starts does not mean that the Wolves should trade away a center in Pek, who’s posted PER numbers of 21, 20 and 20 that past three seasons. That’s why it’s utter lunacy to think and act on such a short-term basis. Most of the time, you’ll just end up sounding like a fool when all comes to fruition. And believe me, I’ve fallen victim to this more than I’d like to know.

In the end it’s a “Why get rid of one when you already have both?” situation for me. There’s no reason to rush a decision of who you have to keep right now when you can enjoy having both of them for the foreseeable future. While I appreciate reading and listening to David Thorpe and others bask in Dieng’s glimmer of success because it has been a silver-lining to what is yet again a very depressing season, there’s no reason to throw ideas of moving in a new direction or trading anyone when, in actuality, keeping both could be all the depth the Wolves need in the first place.

Gas tank on empty; Wolves lose 129-106

Gorgui Dieng doing work

Gorgui Dieng doing work

How did you spend your Wednesday night?

Well, mine started with an ice-cold one as I sat on the couch, put my feet up after a long day at work. Then I remembered the Wolves were in Dallas for a pretty pivotal matchup with some serious playoff implications, which Nick so gratefully laid out for us.

To all of our delight, the Wolves came out in the end with a brutally hard-fought victory. Brilliant efforts from Ricky Rubio, who recorded his first triple-double including a very rare 20-point performance, and Gorgui Dieng, the unheralded rookie, who’s found time due to Nikola Pekovic’s injury, led the charge over the Mavericks. It was the kind of victory that had a lot of beef to it; an overtime bout against a formidable foe, who’s pushing right alongside the Wolves for a spot in the playoffs. You’d really think it’d create some momentum heading into the second night of a back-to-back in good ole’ Texas.

Well, unfortunately that wasn’t really the case. In fact, outside of just one good quarter tonight in Houston, — the first quarter, to be exact — the Wolves pretty much ran out of gas and fought for the sake of saving some embarrassment all night long. At the hands of the red-hot Houston Rockets, though, what more could you really expect?

One thing I would’ve liked to expect was back-to-back great nights from Ricky Rubio but that was just like trying to piss in the wind. And just when I was so jazzed up after reading Britt Robson’s great piece on the Spanish point guard and watching him play so well last night. Instead, Rubio may have been the first to tune out due to fatigue, only playing 25 minutes total after burning the hardwood for 49 ticks last night. He finished disappointingly with just five points and eight assists.

Another thing I would’ve liked to see tonight was a consistently sound performance from Dieng, but we didn’t get that either. Actually, fans got to gaze upon something much more special than that. Dieng finished with career-highs in points (22) and rebounds (21), which included a ridiculous eight offensive rebounds. Sure, the Rockets were indeed without All-Star center Dwight Howard but Omer Asik is a more-than-capable fill in and Dieng worked him to pieces. He benefitted from the perimeter-oriented Rockets’ attack but the numbers are gauntly, so daft that even the $12 million dollar man himself (Pekovic) probably couldn’t top it any better. It’s now been three games in a row that Dieng has brought his game when called upon and became a real force to be reckoned with.

Other than Kevin Love’s standard night of 29-6-5, though, the rest of the Wolves really fell in line with Rubio’s doing; simply just a lackluster performance that was fueled by fumes and 5-hour energy shots more than anything else. You can’t blame them because they probably felt the way I did after work on Wednesday night. And let me tell you, that’s never a fun place to be in. Well, unless you have beer and a comfy sofa like me. But instead they had to go out and play another game against one of the hottest teams in the league. That’s just cruel.

The fact of the matter is that this was still a tough loss and excuses probably shouldn’t be made. In fact, with Howard being out, this actually could’ve been a win for the Wolves, given how well they’ve been playing the past month. With the playoff picture practically just mathematically alive, any game, whether the opponent is great or not, is coming down to must-wins. Time will run out if the Wolves aren’t careful. And although it’s an extremely difficult uphill battle, the odds are still alive. Why not at least make a push?

Old School whips New School; Wolves lose 105-93

Big Al put on a show tonight in Charlotte

Big Al put on a show tonight in Charlotte

Remember back, like, a really long time ago, when Al Jefferson was the mainstay of the Kevin Garnett-to-Celtics deal? At the time, he was a highly skilled big man that brought a glimmer of hope that the NBA’s fruitful big men weren’t officially retired, and what was a somber move for the Timberwolves organization actually had some life and excitement to it.

The most unfortunate part of the deal was that the rest of Gang Green was sent packing alongside Big Al and the dooming spiral of depression that was the mid late 2000′s covered the Twin Cities like Hurricane Katrina.

Jefferson, now older, wiser but perhaps a tad slower, gave the Wolves a healthy dose of what could’ve been tonight by putting the Bobcats on his shoulders and sprinting them through to the finish line and a big win for Charlotte over the Wolves tonight. He finished with 25 points and 16 rebounds, helping Charlotte win that battle by a tally of 54-35. Ouch. They actually held all Wolves players, including Love and Pekovic, from reaching double-digits in rebounds tonight. A very rare feat indeed.

Meanwhile, the Wolves’ bench played crappy and, conversely, the Bobcats’ bench didn’t. Gary Neal had 19 points and Chris Douglas-Roberts and Cody Zeller both pitched in 10 themselves.

At a time the Wolves oughta be desperate for the wins, losing to the Bobcats is a tough one to swallow. And despite how well they’ve been playing since the All-Star Break, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that a chance at the playoffs are moving further and further away each and every night. I’m not giving up hope, but these are the facts, people.

Think about it: 13 of the Wolves’ next 18 games are against the dreaded Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Suns take on seven Eastern Conference teams and the Grizzlies remaining schedule includes two games each against the Jazz and the 76ers. Based on what lies ahead, not just for the Wolves, but the others fighting for that final playoff spot, it doesn’t add up well for Minnesota.

That’s still no reason to quit. In fact, the final 18 games of the season could be the most important, regardless of the playoff race. Look up and down this roster and tell me that there will be major changes. Aside from the long shot odds that Flip Saunders moves Kevin Love, every key piece will return next season. Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin are here on long term deals, Ricky Rubio will return on his rookie salary, and Corey Brewer will stay even if his role may be reduced to a reserve if they can find another small forward with a more well-rounded game. The Shved’s, Barea’s and even perhaps the Budinger’s of the squad could be in doubt, which could benefit next season greatly, given how drastically underwhelming the bench has been just about all season. But now you also have a chance to develop guys like Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, who didn’t get much burn to start the season off (Figures). Rick Adelman could have a difficult time inserting those guys and developing them at this juncture, especially when someone like Muhammad magically posts a minus-18 in just 10 minutes of burn but you just have to do it. End of story.

Games like this are going to litter the end of the season and potentially spoil it, but as long as we don’t give up playoff hopes — because literally anything can happen — we’ll be just fine. As Minnesota sports fans, we’ve all learned to expect the worst but still desperately hope for the best. We can do it for the Wolves for just one more season, right?

Novak Nightmare; Wolves lose 111-104

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So back to .500 they go.

Thanks to Steve Novak and a huge night from behind the arc, the Raptors were able to bury the Wolves, keeping them from jumping two games above that dreaded .500 mark, and even shut Kevin Love down from grabbing his second triple-double of his career. The Raptors shot 14-24 from deep, including a 5-6 mark from Novak in his 20 minutes of burn off the bench. Compare that to the Wolves’ respectable 7-19 from that territory, you can see why this one was a little bit out of their reach for most of the game.

The Big Three came to play once again. The Love-Pek-Martin combo combined for 63 points, while Corey Brewer contributed 17 of his own. But it was the difference in the benches that swung this one’s result. Raptors got a lift of 15 from Novak and 12 from Greivis Vazquez to completely open up the game. By that point, the starters from Toronto just had to play marginally to score the win, which is exactly what they did. In fact, Novak and Vazquez combined netted a plus-28 while on the court. The rest of the Toronto starters combined for a plus-2, so it should’ve been much closer if it weren’t for that meddling white guy.

This was kind of hurts for a few different reasons. For one, the Wolves were playing some excellent basketball, in particular some stout defense, for the past couple weeks. But the Raptors all but blew that open by shooting red-hot from the perimeter. Sometimes it’s just a hot night, sometimes it’s poor rotation and not closing out on guys properly. I think it was a little bit of both in this one. Secondly, the Wolves are fatefully bound to this .500 mark. No matter how good this team can be, they’ll always seem to hover right around that record it seems like. They’re the classic case of, “Well, we’re pretty good but we’re still gonna make bad mistakes and let a three-point shooter off the bench take us down.” Classic.

And finally, I’m finally starting to keep my eyes on the playoff race. So, as I took a gander at the West’s standings this morning, I realized quickly that the Wolves are; A) a long shot to make that final spot; and B) are totally screwed by being in the Western Conference period. Under new commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA will undergo some changes. They’ve already looked at a European division. There’s talk of expanding the court and making a 4-point shot, or at least increasing the distance of a three-pointer. All good ideas. But if you really want to fix this league and the parity that runs through it, the divisions must be eliminated and the conferences of East and West completely scraped clean. I get that teams change and new ones get better, old ones get worse but it’s been this way for quite a while that the West is just straight-up more dominant from top to bottom than the East. And it’s sickening. The Wolves would actually be in the 7th seed right now in the East. And although that doesn’t bode well for a first-round matchup with the Heat or the Pacers, at least it’s a taste of the playoffs that could jumpstart the fan base a little more and perhaps give Kevin Love a little convincing to stay.

The Raptors are a good squad, and there’s no denying the fact that this could’ve been a statement game for the Wolves had they won it. But the frustrating thing is that even the Raptors would struggle to compete in the West, just like the Wolves, but instead they get to reap the benefits of playing in the East and now they’re fighting for home-court advantage in the first-round despite having a good enough record to even make a spot in the West. I didn’t intend to make this recap a rant on what I believe should happen in the NBA soon but this game was a perfect example of how the league can better its teams by ridding itself of divisions and stirring up the pot that is the East/West divider.

Wolves a winning; Beat Kings 108-97

Nikola Pekovic came back tonight and in a big way

Nikola Pekovic came back tonight and in a big way

There’s a new attitude gleaming from the entire Wolves organization. Prior to the All-Star Break, hope was all but lost on making the Western Conference playoffs and looming personnel decisions like the trade deadline and Kevin Love’s status braced headlines from blogs and Twitter pages across the entire web.

But now, as winners of five out of the past six contests after the All-Star game, the Wolves’ playoff dreams are beginning to look a tad more realistic, and everything couldn’t be gelling as well as it is at a better time than now.

Tonight the Wolves got both Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic back from injury, giving the Wolves an enormous boost. Those two helped lift the Wolves to a solid win in Sacramento by combining for 46 points. Martin was the hot-hand to begin with, scoring 14 in the first, while Pekovic gave Boogie Cousins a healthy dose down low as well. The two’s return couldn’t have been better planned, considering Kevin Love had a bit of an off-night. He started awfully slow but Love regained form in the second half and was a big reason why the Wolves pulled ahead in the third and sealed the game well before the clock hit zero.

The starters were lethal offensively but struggled to contain Rudy Gay at the other end. Gay came up big dropping 24 points in an efficient performance (Shocker). And then Cousins and Isaiah Thomas both had themselves terrific second halves scoring wise. But the Kings, as they normally do, committed way too many turnovers, and when the Wolves are forcing their opponent’s hand with pressure on the perimeter, mistakes will be made. The Kings had 19 turnovers, while the Wolves capitalized by scoring 27 points off turnovers thanks to the leaking Corey Brewer and company.

The Wolves have delved into a different mode we’ve never really seen before. For the first time in years, they seemed to have figured out how to link consecutive, quality games by creating and staying true to their own special brand of basketball. Winning teams have recipes for their success; Pacers play suffocating defense; Heat play a well spaced-out floor on the offensive end; Lakers play the triangle (Well, not so much); Suns run a fast-paced game to keep the opponent on their heels all night. It’s still difficult to pin exactly what the Wolves have been able to do over this winning stretch because it’s not exactly consistent with what they’ve ever done under Rick Adelman before. But as long as Love keeps playing out of his mind, Brewer and Ricky Rubio provide steady, stout perimeter defense, Martin and Pekovic continue to be role scorers putting up anywhere from 16-24 per game each and the bench keeps up their hard-played minutes, I like our chances moving forward even if it will be a constant, difficult uphill climb until the end.

It’s an exciting brand of basketball the Wolves are playing, and it was certainly on display tonight in Sacramento. Now all that’s left to do is play consistently night-to-night and keep racking up the wins. Next up: The Nuggest in Denver on Monday night.

A real J-azz whooping

The Jazz had no answer for Love's enormous night

The Jazz had no answer for Love’s enormous night

A solid, fun game like that deserves a punny title, so there’s that. But to get down to business, tonight’s win was exactly what the Wolves were looking for coming out of the All-Star break and now sit with a two-game win streak. #Winning.

As far as I’m concerned, a heavy dose of Kevin Love on offense and an all-around team effort seems to be the winning formula thus far. So after Wednesday’s big win at home over the highly heralded Indiana Pacers, the Wolves took that idea into Utah and came out victorious. And in a big way. Speaking of winning ways, check out this site for NBA odds on the Timberwolves for game-to-game lines and to gauge expectations for them come playoff time.

Kevin Love recorded the first triple-double of his career, despite averaging a double-double over the span of his career so far. Tonight he did it scoring the rock (Typical), sucking up rebounds (Uh-duh!) and dishing out some serious dimes (Wait, whut?!). Believe it or not, Love’s actually become quite a potent option to set up teammates for open looks. It’s his comfortability both inside the paint and beyond the perimeter that gives him that newfound advantage. He gets a wide variety of looks at the basket from all over the court, so if others around him are moving well without the ball, he’ll be able to find them in a split second, passing up an open shot of his own. It’s an aspect of his game that’s really grown over the course of this season and deserves a lot of credit for the overall growth to his game. And let’s not forget that a good amount of his assists come off of Minnesota’s go-to play, The Brewer Outlet. My goodness it’s a thing of beauty.

Now, Love’s 37-12-10 line was the showstopper but it must be known that this was yet another solid team win for the Wolves. Part of that new winning formula is an all-around team effort, which was visibly apparent again tonight.

Ricky Rubio had his second straight game where he looked very comfortable on both ends of the court. He actually ended the game with 15 points on 5-7 shooting. He also had seven assists himself. The assists were a big reason that the entire starting lineup of Love-Rubio-Cunningham-Budinger-Brewer all scored in double digits. Cunningham had one of his better games of the season with 11 and five boards. Then you also have to be fond of how the bench performed, most notably Gorgui Dieng. Scoring major minutes with Ronny Turiaf sitting this one out, Dieng started the game 4-4 with eight points before missing his last shot and also had eight rebounds off the bench, which helped the Wolves dominate the glass 49-34. Dieng had his best game of the season and it’s undoubtedly a confidence builder. I think they’re still looking at Dieng/Shabazz Muhammad as long-term options off the bench, almost as go-to guys off the bench, so a game like that can do wonders toward reaching that goal.

All in all, the Jazz are not a very good team, so some could look at this win as a bit of a given. But as inconsistent as the Wolves have been all season, two straight wins in convincing fashion are a momentum builder without a doubt. Hopefully this new formula will play a part in many games to come. If so, wins are on the horizon as the Wolves battle for that final playoff spot.