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Thanks in large part to a broken right shooting hand that limited All-NBA power forward Kevin Love to just 18 games, the Minnesota Timberwolves finished the 2012-13 NBA season ranked 25th among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency. Rick Adelman's team barely cracked one point scored per possession on the season, according to NBA.com's stat tool, with much of the offensive ineptitude stemming from Minnesota's status as a gang that couldn't shoot straight.
The Wolves were a woeful shooting team, making just 30.5 percent of their 3-pointers on the season, which was the worst mark in the NBA by a sizable amount. Not a single Wolf made 35 percent of his long balls last year, which is pretty rough, considering the league average for 3-point accuracy was 36 percent. Defenses unafraid of heavy-minutes loggers like Luke Ridnour, Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved, Derrick Williams and J.J. Barea focused on slowing the Wolves' pick-and-roll combinations with burly center Nikola Pekovic, disrupting Pek's post touches and cutting off driving lanes to keep Minny's drivers (never forget) away from the restricted area, the only place they really did damage.
So, yes, the Timberwolves entered this offseason needing shooting, and set about getting it Tuesday by agreeing to a pair of free-agent contracts reported by Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski — a four-year, $28 million deal to import former Oklahoma City Thunder sixth man Kevin Martin and a three-year, $16 million deal to bring back swingman Chase Budinger, who was traded to Minnesota last offseason but was limited to just 23 games after tearing the meniscus in his left knee. The 30-year-old Martin is a career 38.5 percent 3-point shooter who hit a career-high 42.6 percent from deep for the Thunder last season; the 25-year-old Budinger's a tick below 36 percent in four NBA seasons, but was coming off a 40.2 percent mark in his final season with the Houston Rockets before suffering through injury last season, and is expected to be ready to go come preseason.
A team with a glaring need — really, a years-long need — for production on the wing, improved outside shooting and better floor spacing just added two pieces who not only profile to provide just that (if healthy), but are also intimately familiar with the Wolves' offensive scheme, as both Martin (his first two years with the Sacramento Kings, plus a year-and-a-half with Houston) and Budinger (his first two years with the Rockets, plus last year) have experience in Adelman's vaunted corner offense. Combine that with fully, healthy returns for Love and Rubio — oh, man, please let us get full, healthy returns for Love and Rubio — and what you have to believe will be a cap-straining bid to keep restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic, who's likely to receive a monster offer sheet once Dwight Howard makes his decision but whom new Wolves boss Flip Saunders reportedly plans to do "whatever it takes" to keep — and you've got the makings of a very, very fun basketball team that you'd expect would greatly improve upon last year's 25th-place offense.
There are, however, two sides to a basketball court, no matter how much fun it is to emphasize one at the expense of the other. All four conference finalists this postseason finished in the top seven in points allowed per possession last year, with the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat ranking third and seventh. All four in 2011-12 were in the top 11, with the Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder ranking fourth and ninth. Three of the final four were in the top seven in 2010-11, with the Heat and Dallas Mavericks ranking fifth and seventh.
While their offense was awful, the Wolves finished 14th in the NBA, just above the middle of the pack, in defensive efficiency last year, per NBA.com's stats. A very big reason for that: More than 2,000 minutes of strong and versatile wing defensive play from Andrei Kirilenko, whom the team brought back from Russia last offseason on to a two-year, $20 million deal that included a player option for Year 2. Kirilenko decided not to exercise that option, preferring to test free agency in the hope of securing a longer-term deal this summer.
In order to have enough flexibility to add about $11.5 million in combined 2013-14 salary to the roughly $58.6 million the Wolves have committed for next season without pushing up against the luxury tax line before matching the forthcoming offer sheet for Pekovic and filling a 14th roster spot, Saunders will likely have to renounce Minnesota's rights to Kirilenko ... and since it's extraordinarily unlikely that the 32-year-old forward's coming back on a minimum salary to fill that last roster spot, that probably means the end of Kirilenko's tenure in the Twin Cities.
That also means that, as presently constituted, the Wolves' best perimeter defender is ... question mark?
Realistically, the answer is Rubio, who's done a fine job since joining the NBA of not only using his size and length to hector opposing point guards (and some smaller twos), but also disrupting passing lanes with his good timing, strong instincts and active hands to create turnovers. But Rubio's a point guard, and he can only defend one guy at a time, and the Wolves are going to need someone to defend big, quality wing scorers.
Martin's not that guy; Budinger, while probably a slightly better option, isn't either. None of the other guys who figure to be in the Wolves' current wing rotation — Williams, Shved, Barea, rookie Shabazz Muhammad — strike you as stoppers, and while reserves Dante Cunningham and Mickael Gelabale are hard-working types with some quickness, I can't imagine Wolves fans feel too confident putting them up against top-flight offensive players. (It's also worth mentioning that, while both Martin and Budinger are smart, active workers off the ball in the half-court with higher outside-shooting upside, neither's as gifted a passer or facilitator as Kirilenko is, which means Minnesota's offensive gains might be mitigated a bit more than the pure shooting numbers would suggest, too.)
Not bringing back Kirilenko, in and of itself, isn't a sin, especially not if what he's looking for/winds up getting is an outsized number for three-plus years. Retaining Budinger and importing Martin aren't sins, either. And there are still some options available for finding a defensive upgrade on the perimeter — maybe a quality piece goes surprisingly unsigned for a bit and the Wolves are able to snare their $2.65 million "room exception," or maybe Saunders can partner up with someone willing to take a shot at former No. 2 pick Williams' upside or that views Ridnour as an upgrade at the backup point guard slot.
Until we see such a secondary move, it's fair to wonder whether the quest for better shooting weakened Minnesota's all-around effectiveness enough to make them anything more than a fun also-ran over the next few seasons. Given how frequently dismal last season was, though, maybe Wolves fans will be happy enough with that.
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