Timberwolves Fall to Denver, Enter Offseason of Uncertainty

In the final game of the Timberwolves rollercoaster 2011-12 season, the NBA said it’s final farewell to Brad Miller, as he took the court one last time in his impressive career. Surrounded by teammates wearing the same blue headband that Miller always sports, the Timberpups were unable to defeat the playoff-bound Nuggets and fell by a score of 131 to 102. By the fourth quarter, this game closely resembled a pick up basketball game at your local gym, with virtually any and every player heaving up three pointers from all angles. Not only was last night likely the final game in a Timberwolves uniform for Miller, but also for players including Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph, Darko Milicic, and Martell Webster. In need of a major roster shakeup, Rick Adelman and David Kahn appear to be intent on being very active in free agency and in trades. With the Utah Jazz in the playoffs, the top 14 pick that was sent to Minnesota as a part of the Al Jefferson trade will now belong to the Pups, who will select at number 17 in the upcoming NBA Draft.

The injuries to Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love were enough to diminish any playoff hopes that this club had, but the losses also exposed many of the surrounding players for what they are: scorers that do not help to win games. Although Beasley and Randolph both possess incredible potential to be high-impact players at this level, their lack of concentration, motivation, and effort have ultimately defined their inconsistencies to produce on a night-in night-out basis. Both have flashed their abilities and have given small sample sizes of high production, but they appear to lack the winner’s mentality and drive that is seen in stars such as Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Lebron James. You do not see KD or Lebron walking back on defense or not being ready for passes, and you definitely do not catch them smoking marijuana while speeding on the highway. It is not to say that players like Beasley and Randolph will never be great players one day, but it is evident that they will need to fundamentally change the way they approach the game of basketball and to decide just how good they want to be.

Martell Webster’s last year of his contract is a team option for around 5.7 million, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that the Wolves will pick it up. Webster averaged only 6.9 PPG this season and possessed a lousy 10.02 player efficiency rating. For around 6 million bucks, the Pups could very easily upgrade from Webster in free agency. The 6th overall pick in the 2005 draft, injuries and unfulfilled potential have come to define his play.

Anthony Tolliver is set to become an unrestricted free agent, but it is difficult to imagine the Pups not bringing him back. A clubhouse favorite, AT brings the hustle and gives his all whenever he gets minutes. He is a solid interior defender against smaller NBA frontcourts, and has the ability to stretch the floor when he is hitting his threes. Although he is not a franchise building block, Tolliver has an impeccable character and attitude, earning the respect of Coach Adelman. The Wolves need to place heavy value on high character individuals when adding players in free agency, trades, and the draft, because as we have seen it is not the most talented players that will necessarily bring the team wins.

2011-12 was a good year of learning for rookies Derrick Williams and Malcolm Lee, who both demonstrated their upsides as well as their areas for improvement. For Williams, he displayed that he can be a game-changing player in the NBA and that he possesses the “it” factor that very few players possess. After Ricky Rubio was lost for the season, D-Will’s game took a huge downturn and he found himself at the end of the season getting scrap minutes and playing with zero confidence. Rubio definitely made Williams a better player and continually set him up for high percentage scoring chances, building D-Will’s confidence throughout the first half of the season. This season’s rigorous schedule definitely was a lot to handle, and the offseason will provide Williams with a lot of time to mold his game into becoming a more natural SF. In the face of injuries to Minnesota’s guards, Lee was called upon to play his unnatural position of PG and he proved himself to be a very serviceable backup at times. Lee is much more athletic than the other PGs on the Timberwolves, and his ability to play SG and defend both guard positions effectively will help him in his development. With an offseason of uncertainty approaching, it is up in the air what role Lee will have for the Pups next year. He certainly possesses the capabilities of being a solid combo guard in the NBA, but he will need to learn to play smarter on the defensive end and to improve his body control when driving to the hoop.

Taking a step back from a respectable rookie campaign, Wesley Johnson stunted his growth as a player in his second NBA season by refusing to drive to the basket and settling with countless contested jump shots. In 66 games, Wes attempted a pathetic total of 34 free throws as the team’s starting SF. In order to be a productive SF, you have to get to the free throw line through attacking the basket and getting physical. However, Wes fell in love with the one dribble-shoot and appears to be headed towards developing into a Thabo Sefolosha type player (not what you want from someone drafted 4th overall). Wes did show that he improved on the defensive end and that he may end up being a very good perimeter defender, but his inability to be a game-changer on the offensive end may lead to a trade involving the Syracuse product.

Seeing a much-increased role during the second half of the season, Wayne Ellington’s long-term status on the Pups remains a question mark. Ellington displayed his ability to knock down three-pointers effectively at times, but has a very limited game outside of nailing spot-up jumpers. He does not have a great ability to create off of the dribble, and is not the strongest player defensively. However, he has a very good attitude and work ethic and looked much more comfortable under Adelman than in Rambis’ “Bermuda Triangle” offense. Wayne is still on his rookie contract that will pay him just over 2 million for next season, and will most likely be back in a Timberwolves uniform next season.

This season, we learned what JJ Barea can, and most importantly, cannot do. Barea is most effective when in a reserve role and is not a starting caliber point guard. Although he can fill up the stat sheet, bigger opposing point guards have a field day on Barea due to his tiny stature. He can be extremely effective especially against bigger, slower teams, and can lift the Pups’ offense when they are in need of a spark. He possesses the winner’s mentality that you look for in a player and was a very important part of the team, despite missing many games due to various injuries.

Darko Milicic will most likely not be back with the Wolves next season, as he will either be bought out, traded, or amnestied. Rick Adelman has continually criticized Darko for his lack of effort and devotion to the game, and the veteran coach will not allow players like him to compromise the team mentality.

The core of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and Nikola Pekovic is enough to keep Timberwolves fans excited about the future and will help to attract top free agents to the land of 10,000 lakes. With a full offseason with an experienced coaching staff, the Timberwolves are going to need to see big things from role players if they are to continue their path towards becoming a playoff contender. Players like Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson are going to need to take the next step in their games and provide consistent production on a nightly basis. With a major roster shakeup likely, much of the future success of the team now lies in the hands of General Manager David Kahn and Coach Adelman.

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