Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
Good god, people. You can joke all you want about the Minnesota Timberwolves fronting 97 point guards -- and with Luke Ridnour, Ricky Rubio, and Jose Juan Barea in the fold, that's fair -- but the team also has just as many undersized power forwards. There is no wing scoring, here, unless you think Bonzi Wells is going to make a difference some two and a half years removed from retiring and going off to golf in Muncie, Indiana; and no clear plan moving forward.
Perhaps Ricky Rubio's game is better served for the NBA level than it was a lower-status international stage. Maybe Derrick Williams' game fits with Kevin Love, though neither can defend. Maybe Michael Beasley is ready to go right. Perhaps Darko Milicic is ready to start playing consistently through sessions that run longer than seven minutes every third half. Maybe the Clippers' holding of Minnesota's unprotected pick isn't as significant as we once thought it.
Hardly matters. 12 wins or 52, these Timberwolves are going to be the belle of the League Pass ball. With the Los Angeles Clippers moving up to nationally televised status on the reg, yo, Minnesota is about to become appointment viewing.
This doesn't mean I agree with GM David Kahn's philosophy, or think they're in any way champing at the lower rungs of the playoff bracket. But this team will be so much fun to watch, and with the addition of coach Rick Adelman we'll see proper movement and spacing and finishing in a way that will almost help us forget that former coach Kurt Rambis replaced Quinn Buckner as the Worst Triangle Coach Ever.
This isn't slim praise. The Wolves won't have the sort of late night viewing destination that the Clippers, Warriors or Trail Blazers have enjoyed over the last few years (from that majority of Eastern League Pass denizens), but the crew should be incredible fun. Kevin Love's sticky hands and Ricky Rubio's attempts at 2008-era thrills should be enough to draw in the fans during the League Pass free preview that lasts the first two weeks of the season, and beyond that you'll find unending Twitter documentation of all that's gone right and wrong (and, well, mostly wrong) from Timberwolves performances starting at around 8:30 or so, on the island of Manhattan.
I don't take this lightly. For the nightfly-types amongst us, waking up in time to see the Wolves go out to play will be a fabulous thing. Adelman's spacing, the sheer preponderance of players worth admiring, and all the mismatched/stunning/intriguing/hilarious/warming parts will be a must watch. You may not appreciate the direction his franchise's front office is taking them in, but this group (including the team's website producers, its broadcasting duo, along with the players and coaching staff) is well worth falling in love with.
How many wins? Who cares? Just two more weeks until Timberwolves basketball sparks up. I'm game. How u?
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
I'm so excited for you!
Remember everything I wrote about Flip Saunders, pace statistics, athletic teams and chaos in the Washington Wizards preview? (Why am I even asking? Of course you do. How silly of me.) That goes double, or maybe even triple, for new Wolves coach Rick Adelman.
Adelman likes his teams to play fast. How fast? In 20 years as an NBA head coach, Rick's squads have finished top-10 in the league in pace 18 times. The two exceptions were the 2007-08 and 2008-09 Houston Rockets, which had a 7-foot-6-inch reason why dumping it inside made more sense than playing up-tempo. Four times, Adelman's dearly departed Sacramento Kings averaged more possessions per game than any other team in the league; once, they finished second to, of all teams, George Irvine's go-go 2000-01 Detroit Pistons.
Now, the legendary coach takes over a wonderfully weird Timberwolves team full of runners and jumpers built for speed (they finished third and first in pace in two seasons under Kurt Rambis) if not performance (they lost 132 games over those two years, which is why Adelman has this job). And they've added another exciting piece on the wing in 2011 first-round pick Derrick Williams, plus long-anticipated 2009 first-rounder Ricky Rubio, the vaunted push-the-pace point guard that Wolves fans are hoping Adelman can turn into the engine of a high-octane offense.
The roster's still a little too weird (Rubio + J.J. Barea + Luke Ridnour = I'm confused), the only known quantity (Love) is great but not dominant, and Minnesota won't defend anybody -- at all, even a little -- so they won't win very many games. But I'm planning to watch as much of them as possible this season, because with those pieces, that coach, and that philosophy, they have to run. They're made for it. Mistakes are sure to follow, but at least they're liable to be exciting mistakes. Which, frankly, represents a step forward for this franchise.
I'm so worried for you!
While Basketball-Reference and Hoopdata disagree a bit on the number of points allowed per possession, they wholeheartedly concur that the Timberwolves were the fourth-worst defense in basketball last year.
On a nightly basis, the Wolves played at a level that allowed whatever opposition they faced to put up offensive numbers on par with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, and New York Knicks. By B-R's numbers, only four players on last year's Wolves roster gave up fewer than 110 points per 100 possessions. All of that is very, very worrying. And while Adelman is preaching defense early in camp, his track record on that end of the court is up-and-down -- his early '90s Portland Trail Blazers teams defended very well, his mid-'90s Golden State Warriors did not, and his Kings and Rockets teams were mixed bags.
In Minnesota, Adelman won't have Chuck Hayes and Buck Williams on the block or Doug Christie and Shane Battier harassing wings. He'll be hoping that Love can anchor against opposing fours, that Beasley and rookie Williams can stay with faster small forwards, that Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster and Wayne Ellington can harness their length and quickness on the perimeter, and that Rubio -- whom NBA Playbook's Sebastian Pruiti judges to be a pretty sound defender, post-up situations aside -- can be a catalyst on the defensive end, as well.
Hope's a good thing, as a guy once said in a movie that this one sportswriter really likes. But hope can't lock down. And in the absence of some pretty miraculous work by defensive assistant Bill Bayno with what seems to be an ill-suited roster, it doesn't look like the Timberwolves can, either.
I have no idea what to make of you!
The Timberwolves might be the poster children of the "I have no idea what to make of you!" series for three very obvious reasons -- Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph and Darko Milicic.
If "I have no idea what to make of you!" was a six-man tag team tournament, Beasley, Randolph and Darko would pretty much be the late-model Demolition of confusing me. I would almost certainly have to hand my crudely made duct-tape-and-foam-rubber title belts over to them before we even started. (And I bet they would love them.)
Beasley, Randolph and Milicic all inhabit the same weirdly specific headspace. They're all supremely gifted players in their own right, possessed of unique skills -- Beasley's natural scoring touch, Randolph's beyond-the-pale "rambunctiousness," Darko's faded but perhaps merely dormant Dirkishness -- that once inspired sonnets and now inspire screw-faces.
They're all still so young (Darko's 26, while Beasley and Randolph have yet to hit 23) and yet save for the rare occasions when they bust loose, like when Beas went on his epic early-season scoring tear last year ("I'm a monster, and every day is Halloween"), they all seem so old and spent. Maybe playing in Minnesota's wide-open style -- but for a competent, proven coach like Adelman, for a change -- can roll back their emotional odometers and allow their since-dimmed lights shine.
If it does, though, will seeing them play all soaring and stylish feel liberating? Or will it feel more like a cruel reminder of the sludge they've crawled through to get free? If anyone could make the prospect of freedom seem somehow more confining, it seems only fitting it'd be these three.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: "The Office" (BBC version)
(ED. Note: There is one NSFW word hidden in this. Also, a John Travolta costume.)
The original, British version of "The Office" differs from its American remake in one particularly significant way: instead of feeling some manner of friendship and empathy for their boss, the treated his terrible jokes, unctuous manner, and casual racism as an imposition on their lives. Whereas Michael Scott is at heart supposed to be lovable, David Brent is at best to be pitied. The BBC show, at its best, is about employees finding some kinship with each other in the face of a dehumanizing work environment that includes their boss. If they tolerate him, they have accomplished something heroic.
The Wolves are a promising team with lots of young talent and a new, very impressive coach, but their boss, general manager David Kahn, hovers over everything they do with the potential to turn things negative at any opportunity. While the Kevin Love/Ricky Rubio/Derrick Williams core holds considerable promise, Kahn is liable to change his opinion at any moment and make a questionable trade, draft a player who must start at a position already filled, or make public comments that set up a player to fail. The shape of the franchise's future could change at any moment.
Kahn fans will note that he finally has his Rubio-led core in place, and that he should be given a chance. But the sad truth of the Kahn era is that, in true Brent fashion, his long-term plan changes whenever the situation suggests his job is in jeopardy. The question is then where that puts his employees as they attempt to build on their careers. How can any business grow when the boss is more concerned with himself than managing his employees effectively?