Starting Five: PG Ricky Rubio, SG Kevin Martin, SF Corey Brewer, PF Kevin Love, C Nikola Pekovic
Key Bench Players: PG Alexey Shved, G JJ Barea, G-F Chase Budinger (eventually?), F Derrick Williams, PF Dante Cunningham
Notable offseason additions: G Shabazz Muhammad (14th pick), F-C Gorgui Deng (21st pick), G Kevin Martin, G-F Corey Brewer, G-F Chase Budinger
Notable offseason subtractions: F Andrei Kirilenko, PG Luke Ridnour
FACT OR FICTION: The Timberwolves are under real pressure to make the playoffs this year.
FACT. I’m as surprised to write this as to be honest. I fully expected to be writing that the Timberwolves were an up-and-comer that just needed 82 games of mostly healthy basketball to announce themselves in the Western Conference playoff picture. There’s lot of reasons for optimism and lots of excuses for the past. But here’s the case that went through my head:
It’s Flip Saunders’ first year as GM and usually that buys you a few seasons of breathing room. You have to think the ownership agrees, opening the corporate checkbook to sign Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, and Chase Budinger – moves that scream complementary pieces for a winning core. I’m going to love watching this team. Kevin Love is one of my favorite UCLA Bruins ever and Ricky Rubio is a ton of fun. These two are backed by the brute (Nikola Pekovic) and mostly competent role players. They only won 31 (2013) and 26 (2012) games over the last two seasons, but they have been hit hard by injuries, especially Kevin Love, a surefire top 10 player in the world when healthy.
Love is going to be a free agent in 2 summers, so they need to have a plan and a direction by then. I think if this team reaches a 7 or 8 seed in the West, they’ll keep the core together and hope their young players continue to grow.
Case for Change
This team is over the cap (under the tax) and they have missed the playoffs 9 straight times. That starts to weigh on an organization. They start to make different decisions. And guess what? It’s time to make decisions on key Timberwolf assets.
Love, Pekovic, and Martin will be around a few years, but they can say a lot about their future with how they treat the extension for Ricky Rubio to and team option on Derrick Williams. Will the Wolves give up on Williams? It’s certainly possible. What’s worse is that they’re missing their 2014 first round pick (its lottery protected, but yikes). They’ve made a few key signings, but they also let Andrei Kirilenko walk for nothing and Budinger just suffered a major knee injury. There’s no guarantee this team is better than last year.
Best case scenario: 7th seed in the West, strong playoff performance in first round exit. The core stays healthy, with Love and Rubio developing an enviable chemistry. Love and Pek dominate the glass. The role players perform as advertised, drilling threes and playing defense on the wings. As bright as that future may be, I can’t see them ahead of San Antonio / OKC / Clippers / Memphis / Golden State / Houston, at least this year. The West is just too good.
Absolute Apocalypse: Their 14th ranked defense, middling as it was, drops through the floor without Andrei Kirilenko playing 32 minutes a game. The roster continues to be ravaged by injuries. The season has a few stretches highlighting what could be, but they finish as the 3rd or 4th worst team in the west again. If this happens, they’ll keep their lottery pick and really call into question whether or not this is the core of the future.
Expected outcome: I want this team to work and I’m betting this is the season it clicks. They won’t beat the Thunder, but they take advantage of the massive management implosion in Denver while also passing the Trailblazers and Jazz. That entitles them to a first round beatdown at the hands of the Clippers, Rockets, or Spurs, but this team would be thrilled to finally be back in the playoffs.
3rd in the Northwest , 9th in the Western Conference
Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series: