For the Minnesota Timberwolves, what started as a season full of hope for a playoff berth and a leap back into the ranks of legitimate NBA contention has fallen off a cliff. The team has lost 11 of its last 15 games, including five straight after a 90-77 loss to a Chris Paul-less Los Angeles Clippers team on Thursday night, as crushing injuries just keep piling up.
After missing the first nine games of the season with a broken bone in his right hand, Kevin Love made it through just 18 games before reinjuring the paw, requiring surgery that's likely to keep him out for at least another two months. Brandon Roy's chronically haunted knees have kept him sidelined since early November, and it remains unclear when (or if) he'll return to the floor. Key wing piece Chase Budinger might not be back from left knee surgery until March; veteran Josh Howard was brought into help bridge the gap on the wing, tore his ACL and was promptly waived; rotation guard Malcolm Lee is out for the season after knee and hip surgeries.
Things got even worse on Thursday, as starting center Nikola Pekovic left in the third quarter after bruising his thigh and rookie shooting guard Alexey Shved exited in the fourth after badly rolling his left ankle. Neither returned, leaving the Wolves with an even shorter bench and even fewer scoring options; Minnesota managed just 14 points on 5 for 16 shooting in the final frame of Thursday's loss. And all the on-court carnage comes as the Wolves' sideline leader, head coach Rick Adelman, remains away from the team dealing with the awful off-court reality of the hospitalization of his wife, leaving lead assistant Terry Porter to try to adjust to the team's new injury-impacted reality on the fly.
One of the few healthy(ish) Wolves at the moment, ironically enough, is point guard Ricky Rubio, who made his first start of the season Thursday after coming off the bench for a month following his return from left knee surgery. And while people like me might think the rash of injuries is a pretty reasonable explanation for the team's struggles, the second-year pro from Spain doesn't want to hear that noise, according to Ray Richardson of the Pioneer Press:
Rubio made his first start of the season, but the lineup shift had no impact on the team's performance. In fact, the results of Thursday's game left the second-year guard "very frustrated" with his own performance and generated some of his strongest comments since joining the Wolves.
Rubio dismissed his season-high 27 minutes, preferring to challenge his healthy teammates and pledge that "we're going to change it."
"The players that are healthy have to step up and do a better job," Rubio said. "We can't say we're playing bad because of the injuries. I don't think that's the way. In a way, be a man. Everybody has to step up and know his new role. We are here to win games and have fun, but I don't think we're having fun, and we're going to change it."
The charge to accept responsibility for keeping the Wolves' sinking ship afloat — that 11-of-15 slide has dropped Minny to 10th in the Western Conference standings at 16-20 — is the kind of leadership you'd figure the team's front office loves to see from the point guard they tabbed with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, and could be the sort of let's-get-focused jolt that galvanizes a reeling, flagging short-handed team. Especially if, y'know, Rubio practices what he preaches and steps up his own offensive game.
With Love and Roy gone for a while, and Pekovic and Shved possibly sidelined for the short term, someone's going to need to be able to score for the Timberwolves, and I'm not sure how much help Rubio's going to be there. Since making his season debut against the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 15, Rubio has attempted 45 field goals in 229 minutes; he has made just 10 of them, good for a 22.2 percent mark from the floor, and has missed all nine of his 3-point attempts. His jumper was a weak point during his injury-shortened rookie season, too, as he hit just under 36 percent from the field and 34 percent from deep, but it's significantly worse now, whether due to injury-spurred rust, wonky mechanics, a lack of confidence or a lack of leg strength in the early going.
Rubio also hasn't yet shown himself to be especially adept at getting into the paint for his own shot. He tied for 30th among NBA point guards in at-rim attempts per game last season and converted them at a well-below-average clip, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics, and in his limited minutes this season, he's taken a lower percentage of his attempts from the paint than he did last year (down from nearly 40 percent to below 36 percent this year, according to NBA.com's stat tool) and hasn't been very successful at connecting, going just 3 for 16 in the paint through 11 games.
Also, stuff like this is happening:
... which isn't great. If you can't score from inside and you can't score from outside, then it's hard to see you doing much scoring at all; until we see some more consistent snap on those jumpers and a bit more aggression on half-court attacks from Rubio, it's difficult to envision him leading a Minnesota scoring charge.
That said, of course, scoring isn't what Rubio was brought to Minnesota to do; as my colleague Eric Freeman has written, it's his court vision and ability to facilitate for others that makes the 22-year-old Spaniard such a truly special talent. It's possible that, with a return to starter's minutes alongside Luke Ridnour in a two-point-guard backcourt, Rubio could help turn around a Wolves offense that's been the league's fourth-worst over the past 15 games, picking out Andrei Kirilenko and Dante Cunningham on smart cuts in the half-court, serving up points on a silver platter to the likes of Greg Stiemsma and Lou Amundson, and maybe — just maybe — helping the gradual and ongoing unlocking of Derrick Williams.
Maybe Pekovic's thigh injury isn't as bad it looked to Jerry Zgoda last night and some combination of Pekovic, Rubio and Ridnour can terrorize opponents with high pick-and-rolls; maybe Shved's ankle winds up being OK and we get more chances to see the Rubio/Shved backcourt, which has gotten just 83 total minutes of burn this season and been pretty terrible (the Wolves are scoring and defending at sub-Bobcats levels when the tandem shares the floor, according to lineup data in NBA.com's stat tool) but feels like it has worlds of potential. Maybe, despite the lack of an apparent top scoring threat, a total lack of 3-point shooting and the continued absence of exactly the kind of offensive guru who could make a decent soup out of these seemingly mismatched ingredients, Rubio's sheer passing genius could help change things and make them fun again.
Then again, none of that would change the fact that they've gone from a top-six defense in points allowed per 100 possessions over the season's first month and a half to a bottom-six D over the last month, totally erasing the primary reason the Wolves were in the playoff race in the early stages of the season. I wouldn't worry about it, though, Minnesotans. Mickael Gelabale's on the way, so that's probably going to solve everything.