Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 2/20/13

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Setting the stage:

We are back from All Star Weekend and the Timberwolves open up at home on Wednesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers.  Both teams played their last game this past Wednesday and both teams lost going into the break.  The Sixers come into the game with a record of 22-29 and have fallen 4 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the 8th seed in the East.  The team is led by the trio of first time All Star Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, and Evan Turner.  However, the team will be without Young on Wednesday night as he remains out with an injury to his hamstring.

The Wolves return to the court off of the extended break and look to get a little healthier.  Andrei Kirilenko should be ready to return to action Wednesday night after missing the past five games with a quad injury.  The layoff hopefully provided others a few extra days to relax and recharge the battery.  The Pups handled the Sixers in Philly in early December without Rubio and a weak performance from Kevin Love.  The team will look to do the same despite the different faces that will be in the rotation on their home floor.

For today’s preview, I have reached out to another local friend who is a lifetime sufferer of being a Sixers fan, Jeff Agress.  Jeff and I used to spend too many Friday happy hours together debating the NBA and creating top ten lists – current players, all time players, women in the bar … you get the idea.  Similar to our Friday night previews, I asked for Jeff’s perspective on a few key storylines regarding this year’s Sixers squad.

Sixers Question #1 for Jeff:

Please describe your frustration level with Andrew Bynum and what are your expectations from him moving forward – this season and beyond?

Jeff:

The Sixers were literally one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago but the overall consensus was that they were an overachieving team that got a lucky break with the Derrick Rose injury and maxed out their potential.   Both the fans and the new Sixer ownership recognized that a core led by Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, and Lou Williams can only go so far.  As we know, over the summer they overhauled the team, highlighted by the mega-trade where the Sixers sent Iguodala, Nic Vucovic (having a solid season in Orlando), Moe Harkless, and a protected 1st round pick away in return for Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson.  To say Philly nation, self included, was pumped about acquiring Bynum would be severely understating it.  Ownership opened the introductory press conference to the fans and ran a marketing campaign around him.  For the first time since Allen Iverson was traded, the Sixers mattered again. The Sixers envisioned a team with Bynum manning the middle, demanding double teams and surrounded with sharpshooters (signing Nick Young and trading for Dorrel Wright in addition to Richardson).  Add in the core youngsters Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, and Thad Young and expectations in Philly were sky high for all of us.

Fast forward six months, and Bynum barely practiced with the team, let alone having played in one.  There is obviously a lot of frustration with the injury which can mainly be attributed to the mysteriousness of it all; the setbacks, the ever changing time frame, and the weekly updates where Bynum himself gives conflicting answers from “there is a lot of pain” and “I feel great” in the same interview.   Needless to say, hostility is in the air as we all get the sense that the front office is being dishonest in an attempt to keep ticket sales up.  With management mostly hush-hush, we are left to ask questions like “what doctor cleared this trade” and “when exactly did he get injured”.  After gaining a lot of praise last year for their accomplishments, ownership and Doug Collins are slowly seeing that disappear.

Bynum is now on the verge of becoming a free agent at season’s end.  I know for me, I’d like to see him play in at least play a handful of games and show the Sixers he is not damaged goods – he’ll certainly need to do that for other potential suitors.  Even if he doesn’t play one game this season he will likely be offered a max contract by someone.  Talent-wise he is a top 2 or 3 center in the league, but he has never played more than 65 games in a season, has serious knee issues, and a 5 year max contract is too risky a proposition.  The Sixers have some serious soul searching to do, for sure.

Sixers Question #2 for Jeff:

Jrue Holiday has made ‘the jump’ this season and just played in his first All Star Game.  What would you consider to be the one or two main reasons that caused this jump?  Separately, what aspect of his game still needs the most improvement?

Jeff:

Jrue Holiday, still only 22 years old, has been the ONLY bright spot this season for the team.  They beat the November 1st deadline and extended Jrue to a 4 year, $41 million deal (plus incentives).  Though Jrue has been somewhat inconsistent through his first 3 seasons, it was a move many Sixer fans backed wholeheartedly considering his upside and his encouraging play vs. top competition in the past two playoffs.

Moving on from Iguodala and Brand was an addition by subtraction in regards to Holiday’s growth of a player and he has taken full advantage of being the focal point of the offense.  He has become much more assertive leading the team in general, is an underrated on ball defender, and has been more aggressive penetrating the lane for his own shot or locating open shooters on the wing.

Personally, I am pleasantly surprised that he is one of the top assist men in the NBA.  Jrue is still somewhat careless at times with the ball which leads to his high turnover rate and for whatever reason he doesn’t create enough contact when penetrating the lane. Cutting down on his TO’s and increasing his FT attempts will be vital if he wants to take his game to the next level.

Sixers Question #3 for Jeff:

We have talked through a number of trade scenarios in the past that largely revolve around Derrick Williams and Evan Turner.  Is there anything on the Wolves roster that is appealing enough to take him off your hands?

Jeff:

Interestingly, the Sixers are another year or so away from having to make another major decision: commit to Evan Turner or not.  He has improved this season, no question.  Always a very good rebounder and ball handler, Turner improved his mid-range jumper and added a corner three to his repertoire, but he has yet to add true consistency to his game.  From my perspective, Turner would be a better fit coming off the bench in a 6th man role, but I don’t feel he’d embrace it enough.  They are at the cross-roads and all signs are pointing to Evan Turner getting put on the trade block with their lack of many tradable assets, although I don’t see it happening until the offseason at the earliest.  Who knows, maybe the Wolves can be a potential suitor?

The Sixers are not athletic on the wings and are without an interior game until Bynum shows up.  I can’t see the Wolves entertaining a deal including Pekovic, so a trade between these two teams would need to center on Turner and Williams.  Straight up would be tough for a Sixer fan to stomach, but if another player is added to the deal, maybe Villanova star Dante Cunningham or Greg Stiemsma, I would be more open to considering it.  If there is a way to get the Wolves to take Spencer Hawes or Kwame Brown off our hands and add in another player such as Luke Ridnour, then I can see making something happen that makes sense.  How does Turner/Hawes for Williams/Cunningham/Ridnour sound?

John’s response to the trade proposal above:

There are certain parameters that I think could make this work.  The deal above wouldn’t be acceptable to me, but if we replace Cunningham with Stiemsma, there might be something there, particularly due to the play of Chris Johnson.  Looking ahead to this summer, this would also be a nice backup move for the Wolves and protection against losing Pekovic or even a sign and trade with Portland that swaps Pekovic for Batum.

I want to thank Jeff for answering a few questions on Sixers and providing some perspective on the Pups opponent.  You can follow Jeff on Twitter.

Player to watch:

Nikola Pekovic – If the Pups have any chance of getting back on track in the second half of the season, it is going to be because of Pekovic and the team’s commitment to getting him the ball in the paint.  While Spencer Hawes is quietly having a solid season for Philadelphia, I fully expect him to be eaten up by Pekovic Wednesday night.

Match-up to watch:

Ricky Rubio vs. Jrue Holiday.  As discussed above, Holiday is having a breakout season.  Without Rubio in the lineup earlier this season, Jrue put up a 13-9 game against the Wolves backcourt.  I would expect similar numbers against Ricky and company Wednesday.  Rubio has been molding into form over the past month or so and is coming off a highlight filled BBVA Rising Stars game.  He continues to look more and more like last year’s version and it will be great to see that trend continue through the second half of the season.

Predictions:

Coming off of the extended break and knowing that a handful of tough games against Western Conference opponents are forthcoming, I expect the Wolves to be fresh for this one and play with confidence, given the results from earlier this season in Philly.

Final score prediction: Minnesota Timberwolves 106, Philadelphia 76ers 98

Three stars of the game predictions:

  1. Nikola Pekovic
  2. Alexey Shved
  3. Evan Turner

Let’s go Wolves!