Questions are rightfully being reviewed as to how, exactly, we should expect this team to handle its young superstars. Knockout, ready-to-contribute lottery performers are often given the run of the box-score minutes because their talents, and eventually their numbers, dictate as much. These players are also almost always 19 or 20 years old, working on a terrible squad with little help, and forced into big responsibilities right away. We’re not saying that humping in the high 30s minutes-wise is the reason Derrick Rose suffered two freak knee injuries or that Kevin Durant is on the pine with a scary stress fracture, but it’s worth wondering about.
We doubt very much that Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders cares about this as he enters his second stint running the team from the sidelines. He came to Minnesota to attempt to push a young team over the top over two years ago, just as he attempted to do in Washington a few years before, dealing and signing win-now talent in the hopes of keeping Kevin Love. The moves failed and Love forced a trade out of Minnesota, though, and the team was sent the last two No. 1 NBA draft picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett as collateral. Rookie Zach LaVine is around, as is raw but promising (the former more than the latter, sadly) Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad.
The Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since their championship hopes fell due to injury in the spring of 2004, and this is the second time in recent memory that they had to unload a superstar – possibly too late in both instances. Both turnabouts were also hamstrung by the work of David Kahn in between the deals for Kevins Garnett and Love, as he turned the cap space and presence of Al Jefferson (taken from the KG deal) and frittered them away, while infuriating Love with his insulting contract offer to the stud, plus the terrible draft picks and deals, as the losses piled up.
Kahn has been gone for two years now, but we’ve little idea as to whether or not Saunders and ostensible general manager Milt Newton will be a massive improvement. They lucked out in acquiring Wiggins and Bennett for Love, but only because a previously terrible Cavaliers organization lucked into drafting them – and that team may have blown the Bennett selection.
After a coaching search that seemed dubious from the start, Saunders hired himself to run the team from the bench, a choice that was followed by a collective groan from NBA followers used to this sort of move failing badly. Beyond the clash of coaching/front office interests is the worry that Saunders’ offense is a bit outmoded in the paint/free throws/3-pointers-era of efficient NBA ball. The man likes his 19-footers, and he doesn’t exactly have the personnel to shoot them.
This roster is a bit of a mess, but if Saunders and Newton are adept at dealing, this can be cleared up. The final four years and nearly $48 million left on Nikola Pekovic’s contract may not look as bad next summer, even if his defense puts a team in peril. Each of the team’s cornerstones are on (albeit large, for the former Cavs) rookie contracts, and even an eight-figure yearly deal potentially tossed Ricky Rubio’s way in the next two weeks doesn’t sound all that bad once you figure in projected future bumps to the salary cap. Holdovers signed by a giddy Saunders two years ago will complicate the cap picture next summer, though.
Back to Wiggins. He’s raw, but he’ll get his reps. He’ll get his chance to shine, and he’ll get his chance to go 1-for-11 and worry all of us. With a hopefully happy Rubio running the show, the Timberwolves will be perfect League Pass fodder for all of us hoop nerds.
They’ll also have the worst record in their conference.
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
Did Rick Adelman just pull out his phone?
Did the summer help at all?
It did, even though the Wolves will have to fight to win half as many games this year after going 40-42 in 2013-14.
Love is an absolute killer of a contributor, and he’s yet to hit his peak, but the second round of contributions that Saunders put together in order to win right away (Chase Budinger, Kevin Martin, Jose Juan Barea) just weren’t helping. With Rubio’s development stalling and questions as to whether or not Love and Pekovic worked well as a frontcourt in place, it was time to sell high. And they were very, very lucky.
Wiggins is no guarantee, and though Bennett has obvious skill and touch, there is a reasonable sense of worry that his lost rookie season in Cleveland just about ruined him. LaVine is similarly raw and 10 times as laconic unless his head is a full foot above the rim, and Saunders’ first lottery selection, Shabazz Muhammad, absolutely did not work out last season. There’s a significant chance that, despite all these showy names, this core may never gel.
That’s what happens when you’re working in the wake of the disastrous Kahn administration, and when your first two years on the job (for Flip) were nearly as disastrous. Chances were taken. Let’s see what’s next.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Saunders also acquired cash on draft night for trading away his second-round picks, alongside a low lottery chance pick (for the second year in a row) in LaVine, and retained Robbie Hummel while signing insurance guard Mo Williams to a one-year deal.
The Love Deal is the deal, though. Minnesota hopes that within four calendar years – even if Love has won three titles during that stretch – the transaction will be referred to as The Wiggins Deal. Minnesota just traded a 26-and-12 guy for (essentially) a 19-year-old who didn’t dominate as Durant did during his one year in college. You can point to Bennett’s slimmed-down figure and potential for a confidence increase under competent coaching, or the presence of poor, pitiful (but super professional) Thaddeus Young in the lineup, but all eyes are on the rookie.
Where to start?
Even Minnesota’s veterans – Pekovic, Martin, Budinger, Williams – don’t play defense. The team was in the top 10 in offense and the upper half of the league in defense last season, but that was with Love scoring 26 a night and before a trio of clueless youngsters in Wiggins, LaVine and Bennett came to town. Wiggins will excite defensively at times, but one turned head and/or blown assignment mitigates that contribution.
This is a mish-mosh, with players like Budinger and Martin acquired to fit Adelman’s offense, Pekovic retained in order to keep Love happy, and rookies and second-year players who have yet to develop consistent offensive moves at an NBA level. This is Year One of rebuilding, and that always means that the team will be one walking weakness.
Contributor with something to prove:
Rubio is the obvious selection here, working with shooting coaches for the second straight summer and still trying to improve upon the shooting that, though its percentages have increased two straight seasons, still ranks him amongst the NBA’s all-time worst for players receiving significant minutes.
Rubio remains a stout and sometimes dominant defender at a position that is often impossible to check, he’s a team leader, and he is clearly a brilliant passer and floor general that takes good chances. This isn’t a question about his long-range shooting, though, as Rubio is pitiful everywhere on the floor. It’s one thing to back off of a player missing two thirds of his 3-pointers (as Ricky did last year). It’s another to guard him with the knowledge that he’ll miss in the paint, too.
Perhaps Mike Penberthy is the answer, and Rubio busts out. It would be wonderful to see, especially if he and the Wolves can agree on a long-term deal this month.
Potential breakout stud:
Bennett’s Summer League work was solid enough, but he’ll have the similarly-styled Young working ahead of him. Fellow second-year man Muhammad would seem a likely candidate had he not looked so middling last season and so inconsistent during Summer League. Wiggins is too raw, and rookies don’t technically “break out” in their first season in the NBA. Martin, even with heaps of shots at his disposal, is just cashing checks these days.
This leaves Pekovic, provided he can stay healthy, as the guy here. He’ll have all the shots and (with the rookies firing and missing) rebounds he can handle, and though Saunders will want to develop Dieng, he does have Pekovic’s trade value to consider. Nikola will turn 29 midway through the season, and he won’t be at his best when his new teammates turn their respective corners some years from now.
We’re treated to an entertaining team that manages to develop players who badly need it, encourage young contributors to sometimes do as they see fit, and work in the front-office moves they want to make. We see Rubio finally come around on his shooting style from outside and in the paint (the Wolves should hire Rod Strickland to work with him there), and Wiggins looks every bit the franchise player, even in his first year.
If everything falls apart:
Bennett continues to struggle, as do Muhammad and (sadly) Rubio. Saunders attempts to turn Rubio into Terrell Brandon, his offense looks straight out of 2000-01, and Wiggins fails to build upon his lone up and down year in the NCAAs.
Kelly Dwyer’s best guess at a record:
Bottoming out in the West, 19-63. Not yet, Timberwolves fans. Not yet.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
- - - - - - -