Over the course of his four-year NBA career, Kevin Love has evolved from a gifted rebounder dogged by questions about his athleticism and conditioning into an All-NBA performer who played like an MVP candidate through the first half of the 2011-12 season and was one of the unsung (well, not entirely unsung) heroes of Team USA's gold-medal run at the 2012 Summer Olympics. By virtue of the work he's put into his game, the 24-year-old forward has earned a spot in the ranks of NBA players who matter; by virtue of the fact that his Minnesota Timberwolves have not earned a postseason berth in his four seasons, his team has yet to do so.
That could very well change this season, as a Wolves team that hung in the Western Conference playoff conversation until injuries derailed them has made significant offseason additions. In fact, after years of rightful criticism of his decisions, acquisitions and public comments, Wolves president of basketball operations David Kahn appears to have built one of the deepest rosters in the league.
As a result, Love's preseason expectations are at an all-time high, and he's not afraid to say so. From Kerry Eggers of the Portland, Ore., Tribune:
"It will be a big surprise to me if we didn't make a huge leap this year and make it to the playoffs," the Lake Oswego native told me Wednesday. [...]
"We're going to have a chance to be very good," Love said. "We're hoping Brandon can stay healthy through 82 games. Kirilenko is a big addition. Shved hopefully is going to be a big deal for us.
"We'll have more firepower in terms of veterans. Brandon and Andrei will help our locker room and on the court. It will make Coach Adelman's job a lot easier.
"If everything is put together, if Ricky comes back healthy, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with."
On paper, Love looks to be right on the money. Kahn took a major risk when he signed oft-injured shooting guard Brandon Roy, who was amnestied by the Portland Trail Blazers last season as a result of his serious chronic knee injuries, to a two-year, $10.5 million contract, but if it pays off, the former All-Star (who's reportedly feeling great) could provide legitimate scoring punch at shooting guard for the first time since Ricky Davis stalked the Target Center. Fresh off stellar performances in pacing Russia to a bronze medal in London, the Russian duo of forward Andrei Kirilenko and guard Alexey Shved should add the brand of multi-positional depth, box-score stuffing, creativity and excitement that coach Rick Adelman loves to have on the roster. Ex-Houston Rockets swingman Chase Budinger was imported to help stabilize a wing position that has been a black hole for the Wolves in recent years, and the tandem of shot-blocker Greg Stiemsma and tough-minded forward Dante Cunningham to add frontcourt heft off the bench.
Package those offseason additions with another year of development for lottery pick Derrick Williams, center Nikola Pekovic feeling strong after surgery to remove bone spurs from his right ankle, point guard Ricky Rubio targeting a December return from his left ACL tear (he'll be playing before Christmas, Wolves owner Glen Taylor reportedly said Wednesday), and there's just a lot to like about where the Wolves find themselves heading into the season. There are a lot of questions left to be answered (led, of course, by "Can Roy stay healthy?"), but considering they were over .500 through 40 games last season before Rubio tore his ACL — which, as Eggers notes, "began a progression of injuries that saw the Wolves without their top five scorers — including Love — at one point" — it's not at all unreasonable for Love to expect his team to compete late into the spring.
It's noteworthy, though, because of that word: "expect."
It's been about eight years since anyone "expected" anything out of the Minnesota Timberwolves — after making the Western Conference finals after the 2003-04 season, they stumbled out of the gate in '04-05, leading to Flip Saunders' firing, two relatively rudderless seasons devoid of playoff appearances, the eventual exit of franchise cornerstone Kevin Garnett and the onset of The Dark Times. Even last year, with Love coming into camp looking like a different person and fans envisioning immediate brilliance from Spanish import Rubio, there was a sense of optimism, but not expectation — not like this.
It's very different to play under the weight of expectations like that, and while Roy and Kirilenko will add postseason experience to a roster that last year had precious little of it (save ex-Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea, of whom "precious little" is actually a pretty neat description), it will be very interesting to see how what remains a very young Wolves team handles the shift. Plus, y'know, at least half of last year's Western Conference playoff teams look to have gotten better over the offseason, and those that might not have — for the sake of argument, the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks — are tough veteran groups who aren't exactly going to be easy to knock down a peg.
The Wolves have their work cut out for them — especially Love, the team's unquestioned superstar and leader, on whom rests the responsibility for pushing the team to the next level. If he takes to the task as readily as he set the bar, this ought to be a really fun season in the Twin Cities.
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