For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the bleached-clean Minnesota Timberwolves.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
Optimism abounds for Minnesota in 2012-13, as the team enters the season fully healthy and looking to make the playoffs for the first time since hitting the Western conference finals in 2004. Of course, the Timberwolves truly aren't fully healthy right now, but we're looking to avoid this fact because, well, optimism abounds.
Why NBA observers are paying more attention to the 20-19 start to Minnesota's season last year — the squad's record when Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL — and not the 6-21 mark that follows baffles me. The Wolves sunk like a stone after that, with Kevin Love also hitting the shelf after he suffered a nasty concussion; and though the team will have actual depth to rely on this season the odd way fans are looking past the team's current early season obstacles is surprising.
Rubio tore his ACL a good seven weeks before Derrick Rose tore his, and since Rose went down there has been considerable concern out of Chicago that he would miss the entire 2012-13 season. Right now, Rubio is slated to miss November and December, but January and February won't be the easiest time in his career as he recovers; and all the while the Wolves will be attempting to make the postseason as an offense-first squad with Luke Ridnour and Jose Juan Barea running the show. Respectable players, to be sure, and Ridnour has had success running a lights-out offense before, but this should still be a talking point before we dive too heavily into things.
What's worth diving into is the way Minnesota upgraded its wings during the offseason. Though the team hamstrung itself in several ways in a misguided attempt to overpay Portland forward Nicolas Batum, Minnesota rebounded quite nicely by pulling in a re-energized Andrei Kirilenko to play, well, everything. Andrei Kirilenko plays everything. He's your co-worker's annoying Pandora shuffle.
Alexey Shved (until he grows fond of the longer NBA three-point line) and Brandon Roy might not always be lights-out from outside, something badly needed on a team hoping to overcome what looks to be an iffy defense, but their competence at the off guard position will still be a step in the right direction. Fewer wasted possessions for the departed Michael Beasley means more time for Nikola Pekovic to take in touches; and yes, I think he's that good. 2011-12-style good, a year later, and with more minutes.
And no Kevin Love, for a little while at least, as he recovers from that broken hand. Though Love can't be in game shape upon return, he'll be close as he rehabs a hand injury that won't get in the way of much conditioning-wise. In his stead will be Derrick Williams, hardly coach Rick Adelman's favorite and a player looking to escape the clutches of David Kahn's busty obsession. Save for Rubio's 41-game stint, Kahn's lottery record (Wesley Johnson, Williams' dodgy rookie year, Jonny Flynn; and recall that Kevin McHale drafted Kevin Love) isn't to be cherished.
It's … doable.
Adelman's done great work, before, but he's also presided over some middling teams, and outright failures. You don't have to be an NBA know-all to observe that the spacing of his offense smartly stands out in this league, but he's going to have to get another all-world year from Love in order for this team to fly past Utah and hold off both the Mavericks and Warriors. It's true that both the Mavs and Golden State are dealing with significant injury issues of their own, wear-and-tear maladies unlike Love's current condition; but it's also (sadly) fair to point out that the Ricky Rubio we saw getting in everyone's way (in a good way!) last season might not fully return until this time next year.
Or, if the season goes on for long enough, perhaps late April and early May. Wouldn't that be a wonderful thing, for a fan base that has put up with two much in the years since Sam Cassell's untimely injury allowed the Lakers to walk all over Minnesota on Los Angeles' way to the Finals.
Quite a bit has to go right, and a blistering amount of shots have to go in.
Projected record: 40-42
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Another year in Rick Adelman's offense, this time with weapons on the wing. Success in Adelman's free-flowing corner scheme -- which blends the back cuts and dribble hand-offs of the Princeton offense, mid- and cross-block motions more reminiscent of the Triangle, conventional two-man-style play and boatloads of counters to the varied initial actions -- requires a lot of different things. You need players who are willing to both move the ball and move without the ball, who know what spots to head toward on the floor and (perhaps even more importantly) when to head to them, who can create spacing with both sharp jumpers and stiff screens. You need bigs who can pass and wings that can dribble; you need anticipation, feel and smarts; you need reps to make all those cuts and actions second nature. This year's Timberwolves have more of all of that than last year's, which could make things really fun for Minnesota fans and pretty scary for opposing defenders.
Consider, first, that without many smooth-fitting pieces -- hell, without even using his defined system a ton, thanks in part to mismatched personnel and truncated preseason installation time (thanks, lockout) -- according to NBA.com's stat tool, Minnesota ranked 13th in the NBA in points scored per 100 possessions through 41 games. (That's when rookie point guard Ricky Rubio suffered a torn left ACL, which effectively scuttled the Wolves' postseason ambitions and serves as the de facto division point for most analysis of what Minnesota was last year.) The rookie Spaniard's gift for distributing and the monstrous early-season performance by All-Star power forward Kevin Love (25.5 points and 13.8 rebounds per game at that point) obviously deserve heaps of credit for that, of course. Still, though: Minnesota was in the top half of the league offensively -- one year after posting the game's seventh-least efficient unit, with most of the wing minutes going to folks like Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster and Wayne Ellington, none of whom could really even grasp at the hem of a league-average player's garment -- thanks in large part to its coach's ability to engineer opportunity. This year, those wing minutes will go to players much better suited to playing the way Adelman wants to play (and, most likely just much better).
Brandon Roy's athleticism has obviously been diminished by years of knee injuries, but he's a big two-guard with handle, he's always been a heady player and has been a willing facilitator in the past, averaging just under five dimes per 36 minutes and a 24 percent assist rate for his career, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Andrei Kirilenko, whose all-around contributions could wind up making his two-year, $20 million deal look like one of the summer's shrewdest pickups, is a tremendously unselfish player with loads of experience in perpetual-motion-based offenses, including Jerry Sloan's flex in Utah and the Princeton system favored by coach David Blatt with the Russian national team -- a system that asks him to move without the ball, work along the baseline, find the open man and crash the offensive glass is a hand-in-glove fit.
Chase Budinger's no game-breaker, but he spent his first two years in the league as a cutting, moving, flashing cog under Adelman in Houston and can stroke the 3-pointer (40.2 percent last year, 36.3 percent for his career); rookie Alexey Shved's NBA learning curve will be steep, but his early-career experience in flex/motion-based systems in Russia, developing ball-handling skills and playmaking instincts should serve him well in Adelman's system. Dante Cunningham and Louis Amundson will set the screens, bang the boards and keep the second unit grinding with their work rate. There's still no Chris Webber or Brad Miller to serve as a high-post orchestrator -- I mean, unless Greg Stiemsma is, like, way better than we thought -- but there's more talent, more comfortable fits ... just plain more.
Minnesota will certainly struggle some in the early going, with Love slated to miss about six weeks after breaking two bones in his right hand and Rubio likely not ready to return from rehabbing his knee until a few weeks after that. But while it's tempting to just look down the depth chart, note the drop-off from Love to Derrick Williams and from Rubio to the Luke Ridnour/J.J. Barea tandem, and expect the Wolves to look bad for the first two months of the season, it's just as (if not more) likely that they look surprisingly good, thanks to a system that distributes playmaking opportunity and responsibility, a roster that's able to take advantage of it and a coach with a career-long track record of making defenses pay.
What Should Make You Scared: That I'm wrong about what I just said, and that your defense isn't improved enough to make up the difference. I mean, for a period likely to fall somewhere between 15 and 25 games, the Wolves will still be missing their best scorer, best rebounder, best shooter and best facilitator. That has to matter, especially if second-year pro Williams is as ill-equipped and unprepared to step in for Love as some say and if Ridnour struggles with the herniated disc in his lower back that limited him this preseason; if Pekovic can't shoulder the increased scoring load and Adelman's not able to figure out ways to spread the responsibility in a Pacers- or Nuggets-type fashion over the first two months, the prospect of relying on Roy as both primary shot-creator and shot-maker seems pretty scary.
They'll also be missing one of their best defenders, which, while less discussed, might be a bigger overall issue. Despite knocks on his foot speed and defensive capabilities before coming over from Spain, Rubio proved adept at using his long arms to contest shots and disrupt passing lanes, tying for third in the NBA in steal percentage during his injury-shortened rookie season and earning praise from coaches around the league for his instincts and effort on D. And while one man, and especially one point guard, does not a defense make, it's worth noting that NBA.com's stat tool has the Wolves allowing 100.7 points per 100 possessions, 15th-best in the league, when Rubio went down, and 108.3-per-100, fourth-worst in the league, over the season's final 25 games.
Adding Kirilenko, still a dynamic and versatile defender at age 31, will help a lot, as should Stiemsma's off-the-bench shot blocking. But they'll struggle defending in the backcourt -- the next man Ridnour and Barea consistently stay in front of will be the first, rookie Shved will gamble too much in search of steals and Roy's knee injuries have sapped him of much of his lateral quickness -- which could put too much pressure on wing rotations and a relatively poor (if inherently intimidating) rim protector in Pekovic to give the defense the kind of jolt it will need to compensate for an offensive end drop-off. If the scoring flags for the first two months and the defense can't pick up the slack, the playoff berth Love said he expected this preseason is in serious jeopardy.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
A couple months ago, when Ricky Rubio's return from his ACL tear was assumed to be going well and Kevin Love didn't have a broken hand, the Timberwolves looked ready to take the next step as a young team and earn a playoff berth. These two injuries, while temporary, have necessarily changed the expectations for this season. A postseason appearance is no longer a likelihood — it's now the sort of thing Minnesota will have to claw for.
Rick Adelman has been around long enough to know that teams don't make the playoffs just because they think they've earned it, and he likely would have imparted that lesson to his team regardless of their health. However, these setbacks have made that challenge considerably more tangible. As a growing the team, the Wolves are facing the realities of their challenges, just as Rubio's long-promised arrival last season made the franchise's future decidedly more exciting. These are not unforeseen struggles, but the facts of progress.
The question for the Wolves is how well they transcend those challenges, or if they'll even have the time to do so. The cloud lurking over all proceedings is the future of Kevin Love, who has made no secret of his displeasure at not getting a fifth year in his most recent extension. While there's a substantive discussion to be had about whether Love is a superstar or merely a perennial All-Star, he is clearly the kind of player who teams should want to have on their rosters. If he leaves town, or if he indicates that it's a possibility, the Wolves' situation changes drastically.
To put it another way, the Wolves' hurdles are a little more immediate than those of similarly young, rapidly improving teams. If they don't hit success soon, their fall could be greater than a one-season pause in their plans.