The Minnesota Timberwolves, as was the case early in the 2011-12 season, have become one of the NBA's great stories. Still working without All-Star Kevin Love and wunderkind defender and passer Ricky Rubio, the Wolves have rushed out to a 5-2 record on the heels of stout defense and effective half-court offense. The team isn't setting any marks for fast-break brilliance or lights out shooting, but Rick Adelman's crew has more than held its own without the appearance of its two franchise cornerstones.
Still, the team is stuck having to figure out more and more ways to work around its injury woes. Springy wingman Chase Budinger went down on Saturday night with a knee injury that was later revealed to be a full meniscus tear, requiring three months on the sideline. And though the team knew it was getting into a year's worth of questions regarding the comeback of former Portland All-Star Brandon Roy, Minnesota went ahead and signed the former top-scorer irrespective of the fact that cartilage (of which Roy has precious little in his knees) just doesn't grow back.
And Roy — sadly, and expectedly — is having a hard time working through things again. From NBA.com's great Steve Aschburner, in talking with Wolves coach Rick Adelman about the recently shut-down former star:
"He's figuring that out," Adelman said, as Roy navigates the physical and mental demands of his comeback. "He hasn't been as effective as a lot of people thought he should be, but they're thinking about the guy three years ago. He's so used to just letting guys come to him and taking 'em off the dribble and finishing plays.
"Y'know, he's just coming back after being off a year and he's just not as sure of himself right now. [Friday] he came out and took three quick jumpers and knocked 'em down. Everybody who comes back from knee surgery or major surgery, if they're smart players, they figure out how to get to their strengths. He still can do that. It's just going to take time."
The numbers are not pretty. In five appearances, Roy has averaged 5.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 24.4 minutes, while shooting 31.4 percent and 0-for-9 from the arc. Over his first five season, his numbers in those same categories were 19.0, 4.3, 4.7 and 35.6. He was a 46.0 percent shooter, 35.2 percent on 3-pointers.
Five appearances, in a season that asks for 82, are nothing. If Ray Allen or Kobe Bryant started a season shooting 31 percent over five games, we'd make notice of a terrible slump before relying on the knowledge that things have to turn around soon enough. If Buster Posey begins the 2013 season hitting .200 through 10 games, you'd barely notice. It's a blip.
For Roy, though, concern has to set in. Even during his heyday, nearly matching Kobe Bryant's production (once Portland's slow pace was accounted for) in 2008-09, Roy was never the most athletic swingman in da biz. With his knee condition obviously taking away his explosiveness and hops, he'll have to rely on smarts and touch to survive in this league. Roy definitely has both smarts and touch in big supply, and his 6-5 frame doesn't hurt, but even an out of this world basketball IQ and shooting guard size might not be enough.
Steve Aschburner was right to bring up his previous, fantastic, averages and percentages. Those Portland numbers, and Steve will tell you as much, weren't what the Wolves were after when they signed Brandon. They just wanted a competent swingman to take over at a space that was a historically bad position for Minnesota during 2011-12. Just someone to play up to average, and not his career averages.
Sadly, that hasn't happened thus far. And even those among us who were the most cynical about his return (again, cartilage doesn't grow back) can't help but be let down by all of this.
The news about Budinger is just as unfortunate, with the warming caveat that we'll get to see Chase play again as Minnesota continues its run toward the playoffs this spring. In averaging nearly 12 points in half a game and shooting well from the field (48 percent, nice work for a wing in this era), Budinger was making his mark as a significant upgrade on Minnesota's lacking small forward/shooting guard corps from last season, even hitting a game-winner last week against Indiana. It's true that he'll be hitting his stride just when the Timberwolves are scoreboard-watching as they attempt to make the playoffs this season, but … damn … Budinger, too?
This is where Andrei Kirilenko's All-Star-level play comes in. This is where Alexey Shved, seemingly already caught up to NBA speed just a few weeks in, can respond to increased minutes and responsibility. And this is where the Timberwolves, as reported by the Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda, might have to take to the waiver wire in order to keep up:
Adelman also hopes Budinger's surgery will give some clarity to a situation that could require the Wolves to add a wing player, either by requesting an injury exemption from the league or by signing or trading for a player and waiving a player.
Adelman said there have been internal discussions about whom the team might add. That list likely includes free-agent wings Mikael Pietrus, Josh Howard and Chris Douglas-Roberts along with Utah's Raja Bell, who has been exiled from the Jazz.
"I couldn't even tell you," Adelman said when asked about getting an injury exemption. "We're just trying to get through this game. I haven't even asked about that."
It's not the worst cast of potential characters to turn to, all but Bell can contribute sound play to an NBA team at this point, but it's also not what the Wolves had in mind after acquiring about 137 shooting guards and small forwards over the offseason.
Of course, Zach Harper at A Wolf Among Wolves is so giddy at not having to document the day-to-day play of Wesley Johnson and Michael Beasley, that he barely bloody cares. Five and two is five and two, and all without Love, Rubio and (whatever your expectations were) Roy.
And Britt Robson, because he knows more about basketball than most of us, reminds that defense is truly carrying Minnesota at this point.
From a typically must-read column at Minn Post, here's Britt's take on the coaching contributions to Minnesota's turnaround:
Assistant coach Bill Bayno has been the point person for that endeavor. An obsessive student of the game whose intensity has burned him out in previous head coaching stints, Bayno has learned to circumscribe his duties. Yet he worked tirelessly with players over the summer, including Pekovic and Derrick Williams, both of whom have upgraded their defense this season. Without discounting the flaws he sees in his troops — he still worries about the Wolves getting caught flat-footed in transition — Bayno has been cautiously optimistic that the Wolves could be "slightly above average" on defense this season. With a deeper cadre of front court personnel coming out to defend the pick and roll more aggressively, the team's interior defense has been bolstered and his prediction is on track.
Bayno's right. The team is currently ranked sixth overall in defensive efficiency, but that number could slide as the year moves along. No matter, though; because an offense-first coach leading a group of makeshift contributors while the stars sit … and you're still starting the first fortnight of the season with a top 10 defense? Meat pies are on me, Minnesota.
There's a lot to worry about, with this team. But there's twice as much to tune into, and to marvel at.