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Ball Don't Lie

Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Minnesota Timberwolves

Ball Don't Lie

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Ricky Rubio can't decide which ball to give up on (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

Everybody’s hoped-for second favorite team from 2012-13 turned into just about everyone’s greatest disappointment (Los Angeles Lakers excluded) during that term last year. The Minnesota Timberwolves opened the season with an outside shot at making their first playoff appearance since their trip to the Western Conference finals in 2004, but instead Rick Adelman’s crew completely fell apart in the face of a lost season from former All-Star Kevin Love, and myriad other injury setbacks. The team hoped to run up the rails toward at least .500, but fell apart at 31-51.

One bright spot was the eventual dismissal of longtime general manager David Kahn, who spent yet another offseason cobbling together a series of pointless moves (including an embarrassing back and forth with the similarly lottery-styled Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA’s most irrelevant rivalry), finishing off miserable Minnesota career that ended with a pathetic re-telling of his time as GM toward the end of the 2012-13 season.

Longtime NBA executive Milt Newton is the ostensible new GM, but former Wolves coach Flip Saunders is the shot caller here, one that we’re slightly worried about as he sets to attempting to keep Kevin Love happy in Minnesota. Love was drafted by ex-Wolves executive Kevin McHale, and had his career needlessly suppressed by Kahn hire Kurt Rambis before signing an extension that left Love unhappy once he blossomed into an All-Star. Kevin could split Minnesota as a free agent in 2015.

He’ll be surrounded by his best supporting cast yet, with burly center Nikola Pekovic signed through his prime to pair with Love up front, alongside Derrick Williams as either a starting small forward or (more likely) a reserve at power forward. Chase Budinger’s injury woes have carried over to his second year in Minnesota, and forward Andrei Kirilenko left nearly $7 million on the table to become a Brooklyn Net, so the small forward position once again will be lacking for Adelman’s crew.

Luckily for Rick, he has an old standby to fall back on in free agent signee Kevin Martin. Martin, who may already be the best shooting guard the Wolves have ever boasted (save for those few minutes when Ray Allen was the team’s top overall pick, before Minnesota traded him to Milwaukee), blossomed in Adelman’s offense in Sacramento and Houston, though the off guard will turn 30 midway through the first year of his deal, while making $28 million over the course of a contract that will no doubt run through 2016-17’s player option.

Next to Martin stands Ricky Rubio, who did well to return from an ACL tear midway through his second season, though Rubio’s offensive caveats should still be a major worry for both franchise and fans. Rubio is a career 35.9 percent shooter, and while one could blame those marks on rookie jitters followed by the frustration of a rehab year in 2012-13, those marks too closely align with the numbers Rubio came through with in the years spent overseas prior to his time stateside.

Saunders, without much hesitation, drew attention to Rubio’s issues over the offseason as a way to give Wolves fans hope that he was in the midst of turning things around, but the proof remains in the playing.

Rubio has to step up. In Pekovic and Martin, the Wolves have two other very good players that won’t threaten for an All-Star team, alongside the perennial All-Star candidate (if not “All-Star lock,” as Love remains strangely underrated by too many in this league) in Kevin Love. Love needs a third near-near-All-Star to be playing alongside him if he wants a chance at the win totals needed to make the postseason out West, and that guy has to be Rubio. Without Ricky taking that next step, and a thin’ish roster and history of injury woes in place, the playoffs seem like a tough sell.

Unfortunately. Because in the four players mentioned above, you have some of the more entertaining contributors this league has to offer; be it the boundless cutting of Martin, Rubio’s derring-do, Love’s all-around brilliance and Pekovic’s big man game. Toss in Adelman’s much-admired offense, and you have a must-watch team.

A must-win team? Eh, probably about half the time.

Projected record: 42-40

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Kevin Love is returning. Kevin Love is returning. Kevin Love is (Getty Images)


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Timberwolves for … the return of Kevin Love.

An admission: Sometimes, given the nature of the daily dialogue I have to follow and the things I have to write, I get a bit bogged down in/bummed out by the microscopic minutiae (“Who’s the most productive per-possession player on pull-up jumpers taken between 15 and 19 feet following one dribble after coming off staggered screens during road games played on the second night of a back-to-back in the Central time zone?”) and see-it-from-space stuff (“Something something clutch something something one-on-one something something ringzzz something something G.O.A.T.”) of the NBA conversation. Getting too wrapped up in that kind of stuff can keep me from just stepping back and appreciating something simple and great, which is why I’m glad I got this recent swift-kick reminder:

I’d already thought quite a bit about the comeback of Derrick Rose, but the second part hit me like, “Oh, right -- Kevin Love. I get to watch healthy, fully operational Kevin Love again.” That’s pretty rad!

We never got to see anything approaching that last season, thanks to Love famously breaking two bones in his right hand while doing preseason push-ups and missed Minnesota’s first nine games. He had some strong outings after returning from the injury -- 34 and 14 in his first game back, 23 and 24 against the Kings, 28, 11 and 7 in a win over Team USA buddy Kevin Durant’s Thunder -- but he had trouble shaking the rust and rediscovering the rhythm on his shot.

The gifted stretch four shot just 35.2 percent from the floor, 21.7 percent from 3-point range and 70.4 percent from the foul line in 18 games before re-injuring his hand in early January, necessitating surgery that put him back on the shelf for three months. After that, the discovery of scar-tissue buildup in his left knee prompted another surgery that prevented a planned late-stage return and put a period at the end of a disappointing season that began with high hopes for a playoff berth.

Those hopes have returned this fall, thanks in part to the re-signing of restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic, the wing additions of Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer (and, if/when he gets back, the reintroduction of Chase Budinger), and point guard Ricky Rubio having a full healthy offseason to prepare without having to rehabilitate a surgically repaired ACL, as he did last summer. Realistically, though, the playoff hopes are tied to another big huge hope -- that Love will return to the form he displayed during the 2011-12 season.

That’s when Love -- after dropping 25 pounds and coming into post-lockout camp looking like a completely different person -- made the jump from “excellent rebounder with a good scoring touch” to “unquestionable member of the NBA’s elite.” He averaged 26 points and 13.3 rebounds in 39 minutes per game in the shortened season, shooting 37.2 percent from deep on 5.1 tries per game, and getting to the foul line more than eight times a night. He basically did everything for the Minnesota offense, and was their best rebounder, too; he was amazing, very deserving of his sixth-place finish in MVP voting and a slot on the All-NBA Second Team.

In case you forgot, here’s what that looked like:

I thought there was a chance we might get something even better than that last season, after watching Love earn his way from the end of the American bench to Team USA’s leading rebounder at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but the hand injuries derailed his momentum. Now, after nearly a year of rehabbing and working out, and coming off a preseason in which his per-minute scoring and rebounding averages were just about in line with what he put up back in ’11-’12 (albeit on lower shooting percentages and, y’know, in preseason), he’s going to get the chance to pick up where he left off alongside the best collection of talent he’s played with since leaving UCLA. Whether that’s enough for Love to make his postseason debut remains to be seen, but I can’t wait to watch him give opposing big men work as he tries to scratch and claw his way there.

Honorable mentions: Rubio, duh; whether lineups featuring the Love-Pekovic-Rubio trio can get back to their strong 2011-12 play, when they outscored opponents by nearly seven points per 100 possessions in 458 total minutes, after not sharing the floor for a single second last season; Year 3 of “Is this the year Derrick Williams gets it?”; what kind of second-unit off-guard punch Rick Adelman can get from sophomore Alexey Shved and rookie Shabazz Muhammad.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

Everyone likes watching Ricky Rubio: he has amazing court vision, a flair for the dramatic, and a sunny disposition that just makes basketball joyous. For two seasons, that’s been enough, particularly with several more widespread problems dooming Minnesota’s chances at a playoff berth. In this context, Rubio has been a bastion of watchability, a player we all love for a few amazing highlights no matter what happens around him.

But it’s also true that Rubio is a bad shooter yet to prove that he can score in the NBA. While players like Rajon Rondo have succeeded without standard scoring skills — particularly when, like Rubio, they’re adept defenders — the contemporary NBA typically requires high-level shooting from every member of the backcourt. If Rubio doesn’t develop this skill, then the Wolves will be at a disadvantage moving forward, even if Kevin Love provides better-than-average long-range shooting at power forward. If Rubio doesn’t improve his shooting, he may have a limited ceiling for his career.

I don’t believe it possible for basketball fans to sour on Rubio entirely, because he’s just that fun to watch. But it is possible to see a future in which all this positivity is followed by a qualifying “yes, but …” as an admission that he is lacking in some pretty major areas. He’s a bright young talent, clearly, but popular opinion has often turned on such players in the past.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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