Analyzing How The Timberwolves Stack Up In The Western Conference

Is a core of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic strong enough to carry Minnesota to the playoffs? (Brace Hemmelgarn, Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Is a core of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic strong enough to carry Minnesota to the playoffs? (Brace Hemmelgarn, Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

So far this offseason, the Minnesota Timberwolves have made a splash in both the draft and free agency. The Wolves started things off by drafting first-round picks Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, both of whom could provide solid minutes off the bench this next season while being potential  future starters. Shabazz has a high ceiling due to his play-making abilities on offense and Dieng has the body to become an elite defender in the NBA.

In free agency, the Timberwolves were able to sign UFA Kevin Martin to a four year, $28 million deal to fill the void as the new starter at shooting guard. The former sixth man from OKC brings perimeter shooting that the Wolves desperately need as he shot a tremendous 43% from behind the arc last season. In addition, the Wolves were able to bring back RFA Chase Budinger who also brings strong perimeter shooting and an extensive knowledge of Rick Adelman’s corner offense. In addition, former Timberwolves lottery pick Corey Brewer is also back to help replace some of Andrei Kirilenko‘s defensive versatility after playing an integral part to Denver’s terrific season in 2012-13. It is safe to say that Flip Saunders has assembled a very talented offensive roster that could very well make a playoff push come next spring.

Remaining on the agenda is the status of RFA Nikola Pekovic, who has still not found common ground with Timberwolves brass on a long-term deal that could keep the Montenegrin in Minnesota for another four seasons. Despite the current lack of a deal, it remains unlikely that Pekovic decides to leave millions on the table and instead signing his one year tender that would pay him around $6 million this season while allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. It remains very unlikely that Pek signs his one year tender as he would be taking a significant risk walking away from a $50+ million contract, especially considering his injury history. It will be very important for Flip to find common ground with Pek’s camp in order to find a mutually beneficial resolution to the extended negotiations, given how important of a piece he will be for Minnesota this season and in the future.

Is it be possible that this may be an inopportune time for the Wolves to significantly improve? As ridiculous as that may sound, let us take a peek at next season. With the hard cap created in the latest CBA, there are significant ramifications that result from the luxury tax largely as it applies to small market franchises. As it stands right now, the Timberwolves will have very little flexibility going forward for adding any more high-impact players. If their free agent additions fail to produce or if injuries continue to plague the team as they have in previous seasons, the Pups may miss out on both a playoff spot and a high spot in the draft. That would not bode well for the future of the team as the 2014 NBA Draft is considered by many experts to be the best draft in the past decade. The draft boasts high-end talent that includes Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Chris Walker, Aaron Gordan, Gary Harris, and the Harrison twins. There is a chance that multiple teams may draft their next superstar with a high selection, but having a pick in the 10-14 range would mean missing out on both a postseason run and a top end talent. With all of the talent and depth the Wolves have accumulated, it is very likely that Minnesota will miss out on players that could fundamentally change the franchise. As Minnesota is in clear win-now mode, it is somewhat unfortunate that the first time in a decade that the team does not appear in the NBA lottery may very well end up being the most important lottery to be apart of.

It is interesting to note that the last time the Timberwolves made a significant run in the playoffs in 2003, it ended up being arguably the greatest draft class in NBA history. Just look at some of these names: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and David West were some of the players selected before Minnesota who held the 26th overall pick. They ultimately selected Ndudi Ebi, who proved to be a completely useless asset for the franchise. While it is not guaranteed that 2014 will bring as many studs as 2003 did, it is initially alarming to think about history repeating itself.

The Western Conference currently boasts a highly competitive group of teams that will make it increasingly difficult to make it to the postseason. At the top there are the unquestionable contenders, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. The Thunder have arguably two of the top five best players in the NBA with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.  The Spurs are coming off of an NBA Finals defeat in which they played the Miami Heat incredibly close despite ultimately coming up short. However, they will be returning all of their core players and should be a force yet again next season. The Grizzlies have only added pieces around their core and remain one of the most defensively oriented teams in the NBA, a strength that makes them one of the most unique teams in the league. Coming off of their memorable playoff run, Golden State was able to add a new starting small forward in All-Star Andre Igoudala to complement their sharp-shooting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Clippers took care of their offseason priorities by re-signing Chris Paul while also addressing their needs at shooting guard by signing sharpshooter JJ Redick away from Milwaukee. Los Angeles also gained depth at small forward after trading for swingman Jared Dudley. Houston made arguably the biggest addition of the summer after signing Dwight Howard and have now positioned themselves as a championship contender with the addition of the best center in the NBA. Pairing Dwight with Chandler Parsons and James Harden will be interesting to observe to say the least.

Fighting for the final spots in the West with the Wolves will likely be between the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets. The Portland’s young lineup is set to make a playoff run this season as they are bringing back their entire starting five. Dallas and New Orleans have both completely revamped their rosters and should be the biggest wildcards of the Western Conference, while Denver has undergone a complete turnover of their management and coaching staff while losing a number of key players. Obviously, as shown by the Los Angeles Lakers last season it is nearly impossible to predict the playoff standings. It is no guarantee that even with their improved roster and a full season of good health from both Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, there is enough competition and talent in the West to keep Minnesota from snapping their streak of missing the postseason.

In the end, I am happy that the Wolves are going to be a competitive ball club next season. It’s about DAMN time! But there is always a price to being competitive that could negatively impact our future, just as it did in 2003.

Minnesota Timberwolves 88, Denver Nuggets 111

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver NuggetsGame Recap:

I will keep this rather punctual, as there are only so many words you can say following a 23-point loss and a 21-38 record. Minnesota marched into their demise playing a Denver team that has one of the deepest rosters in the association. The Nuggets entered the game with a home win-loss total of 27-3, and outlasted the Timberwolves in the fourth-quarter as the Puppies fell 111-88.

The Timberwolves went with a starting lineup consisting of Rubio-Ridnour-Gelabale-Williams-Stiemsma against Lawson-Igoudala-Galinari-Faried-Koufos for Denver. Minnesota gave up legitimate size and athleticism to the playoff-bound Nuggets, and were far too undermanned against a tremendous team.

From the opening quarter, the Wolves obvious problems in transition defense were very evident, and they experienced a lot of trouble on their switches in transition D as Denver did a good job of pushing the ball down the court following a Timberwolves field goal. The George Karl-led group does a wonderful job of spacing the floor in the half-court offense, and move the ball laterally very effectively. One cannot comment enough on the deepness of this Denver team’s roster, and it is unfair to rag on the Wolves too much for their loss when considering how few healthy bodies they have. With so many injuries to core players, it is tough to be very demanding with this squad.

The Pups had their work cut out for them opposite of Ty Lawson. The former North Carolina star was having his way, gaining easy penetration and doing a nice job of finding open teammates on the perimeter. The fringe-All-Star was once drafted by the Timberwolves, but was later shipped off for a future first-round pick instead. It is interesting to imagine what might have happened had we held on to Lawson and avoided Jonny Flynn…

The Timberwolves actually kept it close in the second half and went into halftime trailing 50-49. Half time notes and musings:

  • Why does Greg Stiemsma shoot jump shots? Why doesn’t the coaching staff stop this? Even though he knocked down a couple, he is spending much less time right next to the hoop where he should be. He has taken on a much smaller role in defending the rim as of late.
  • Three of Denver’s core rotation players were once Timberwolves. When does accountability fall on Timberwolves front office and coaching staff for failing to develop or recognize ability? It is infuriating to casually watch so many ex-Timberwolves thriving in their new settings.
  • Derrick Williams is not looking to shoot open three-pointers. He is playing as if he aspires to be a common role player. One thing that caught my attention during the game was seeing the absolutely ripped Andre Igoudala next to Williams, who still has some baby fat to shed. It led to me thinking about how in order for Derrick to really be good with the skill set he has, he will need to be at a higher level of personal fitness and will need to log many hours in the weight room this summer.
  •  Andrei Kirilenko continues to be missing with injury, and it is no shock considering his elaborate history with a myriad of injuries. There is no point in AK-47 playing with nagging injuries as the team, to be brutally honest, is essentially playing for a high draft pick at this point in the season. Without their core players healthy, this team is going absolutely nowhere.

The Nuggets took advantage of their various mismatches in the third period and they continued to heat up from beyond the arc. JaVale McGee was straight ballin’ in the third quarter and entertained the viewers with a few very exciting alley-oops. JaVale, who is currently slated behind former Pup Kosta Koufos on the depth chart, greatly exemplifies just how much more talented and deep Denver is than Minnesota. You could even make the argument that Denver’s second unit of which contains Miller-Brewer-Chandler-JaVale contains more talent than the Wolves current starting five.

JJ Barea played well tonight and should get some attention for his good effort. Ricky Rubio, however, had a very tough time tonight. Rubio had a tough time making plays as his fellow shooters were very timid and were very hesitant on countless good setups from our Spanish point guard. Denver had a relatively easy time holding off the Pups, and they stretched their lead 83-70 heading into the final period.

The last shred of hope for the Pups came when they were able to cut the score 85-76 with 9:30 remaining in the game. However, not soon after the Nuggets quickly opened the game up in transition and from beyond the arc. Ty Lawson was feeling especially hot from long range, and scored a game-high 32 points. Once the game got out of hand, Denver came out smiling and won by a score of 111-88.

Keys of the Game:

Fast-break points —– Denver controlled the game in transition, and caught Timberwolves players napping on several occasions leading to fast-break slam dunks. Nuggets head coach Karl says that his current roster is the fastest roster he has ever had, and it was blatant all night long.

Steals —– Minnesota had 5 steals, while Denver grabbed an astonishing 13 steals. This allowed them to dominate in transition and put on a show for the sold out home arena.

Three Stars of the Game:

  1. Ty Lawson —– In 34 minutes, Lawson notched a ridiculous 32 points on 12-17 shooting. This included a perfect 4-4 from long distance, and he torched Luke Ridnour on many occassions.
  2. Corey Brewer —– Who else besides another Timberwolf? The Brew-Crew was great last night scoring 15 points on 7-13 shooting in 25 minutes off of the bench. Brewer has found a home and a team that trusts him in Denver, and it is very nice to see.
  3. Andre Igoudala —– Igouldala has looked much more comfortable in the Denver offense since his rocky start to the season, and is amazing in that he does a little bit of everything night-in and night-out. Iggy finished with the line of 10 points-5 rebounds-4 steals-3 assists-3 blocks in 32 minutes.

 

Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets, 3/9/13

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver NuggetsSetting the stage:

The Timberwolves travel to Denver on Saturday night to take on a division rival in a match-up that pits us against another very hot team.  Denver comes into Saturday night’s game riding a seven game winning streak, which has moved them up into the middle of the pack in the Western Conference playoff picture.  Denver has moved to 41-22 on the season.

Meanwhile, the Wolves are coming off of a two night rest after beating the Wizards on Wednesday night at the Target Center.  While the team had a few days off, they have not gotten much healthier, as both Pekovic and Kirilenko are expected to remain on the sidelines for Saturday’s game.  The team practiced on Friday and news coming out of the session was that Kevin Love was in attendance and taking jump shots.  Please let his return happen soon!  (Thanks @Alex_Cono for a great use of Vine!)

Without Love and a number of others, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams remain in the spotlight for the club.  Both have been performing more than admirably over the past few weeks.  While it hasn’t led to many wins, at least it is something for Pups fans to keep an eye on.

Minnesota has played Denver tough this year and has accounted for one of the Nuggets’ rare losses on its home floor (1/3 – 101-97).  The teams also split a pair of games in Minnesota earlier in the season (11/21 & 12/12).  You may recall that it was in the last game against the Nuggets on 1/3 where Kevin Love reinjured his hand and hasn’t been seen since on the court.  The respective seasons of both teams have certainly tailed in different directions since that moment.

Player to watch:

Kenneth Faried – The “Manimal” turned some heads with his performances during All-Star Weekend.  Faried – the 22nd pick of the 2011 draft – has steadily improved his game and truly is a “rising star” in the NBA.  He is averaging 12 ppg and 9.6 rpg for the Nuggets this season in just under 30 mpg.  With all of the injuries to the Wolves front line, it will be important for Derrick Williams to stay out of foul trouble and box Faried out of the paint on both ends of the floor.

Match-up to watch:

Greg Stiemsma vs. JaVale McGee.  What?!  I’m tired of comparing Rubio and (opponent PG) in the preview.  McGee continues to baffle announcers, fans, writers, and probably his teammates and coaching staff.  He is getting less than 20 mpg this season averaging 9.6 ppg and 4.7 rpg.  Should I point out the 20.9 PER and scream for more minutes or just watch this video … and scream for more minutes?

The match-up against Stiemsma should be interesting to say the least.  There is at least a 25% chance these two get tangled up and a double technical foul called, right?  Stiemsma’s play over the past few weeks has not been very strong.  He continues to pick up too many quick fouls and has to check out of games.

Predictions:

The Nuggets are coming off of a big win against the Clippers Thursday night.  With the day off in between, I don’t expect the Wolves to catch them napping.

Final score prediction: Timberwolves 87, Nuggets 102

Three stars of the game predictions:

  1. Andre Iguodala
  2. Kenneth Faried
  3. Danilo Gallinari

Let’s go Wolves!

Minnesota Timberwolves 94 – Denver Nuggets 101

Photo Credits: Jim Mone – Associated Press

He’s back! In a surprise activation for Wednesday’s home contest against the Denver Nuggets, Kevin Love was cleared to play by Timberwolves training personnel and stunned the home crowd by starting a game weeks ahead of his return schedule. Wearing a protective black glove on his right shooting hand, K-Love gave the fans plenty of reasons to cheer as he posted a remarkable 34 points (12-25 FG) and 14 rebounds in 35 minutes of play. However, Love’s heroics were not enough to put away a feisty Nuggets squad, and the Timberpups were unable to hold onto a 14-point halftime lead, ultimately falling by a score of 101-94.

The return of Love was enough to overshadow the fact that the Wolves blew a big first-half lead and lost a game at home that they definitely should have had. The glove on Love’s shooting hand appeared to slightly inhibit his ability to shoot, as displayed by his 2-9 3FG and his 8-14 from the free throw line. As his hand continues to gain strength, we should see the same K-Love we know from behind the arc and at the charity stripe, and it is truly a Thanksgiving blessing that an estimated mid-December return was transformed into a November 21st return.

Free throw shooting played a key part to the outcome of this game. Both teams were nearly deadlocked in all team statistical categories, except for free throws. Denver converted on 22 of their 26 opportunities, while Minnesota only saw 16 of their 25 attempts fall. In a game that was separated by only a few points until Minnesota’s last minute foul frenzy, free throws played a huge difference maker in deciding the winner of this one.

The other big storyline from Wednesday night involved Derrick Williams, who received his first did not play-coach’s decision of the season. Williams, who previously was the team’s starting PF until Love rejoined the team, amazingly did not see the court once and appears to have completely fallen out of favor with head coach Rick Adelman. What this means going forward is very unclear, as D-Will is still only a tender 21 years of age and has flashed moments of brilliance from time to time in his young career. Dissecting this situation from the perspective of Coach Adelman, it is clear that he has had enough of dealing with the game-immature Williams and is focusing on winning now, with little to no focus on long-term prospects of this team. The implications of this are both exciting and terrifying, given that a successful team should maintain a healthy balance of veterans and young, talented kids who can someday replace the veterans who have less than five years of NBA years left. The one thing that I will say about Derrick is that from everything that I know and have learned about him, he appears to have a very good head on his shoulders and has displayed great work ethic and devotion to the game. At the same time, he is an extremely gifted player and possesses talent that very few others have. Because of this, I believe that if he continues to work extremely hard and is not a risk to be an off-the-court distraction (aka Michael Beasley), he will ultimately find his way in the NBA and will be a very good player if given the appropriate time. How often does one witness a hyper-talented, good-hearted person devote themselves completely to something and fail? If one is to fail at something they are completely and utterly competent at doing, it generally lies in external factors, as we have seen with Beasley’s pot smoking.

Andrei Kirilenko, who has been the heart and soul of the Timberwolves thus far, had a relatively quiet night and saw a decreased role in the offense with the addition of Love. In 35 minutes, AK-47 scored just 7 points (2-7 FG) and had 8 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists and was a -1 on the floor. The Nuggets did a very good job of guarding AK, as they gave him an extra step on the perimeter to protect against his tremendous shot-fake which he had thus far used to perfection in order to blow past defenders.

The other member of the Wolves starting frontcourt, Nikola Pekovic, was also ultimately ineffective against a quicker a more dynamic Kenneth Faried. The Nuggets did an excellent job of making adjustments at halftime and went with quicker and more versatile defensive matchups against the big bruiser on the low block.

The Pups starting backcourt had a very inefficient night on the offensive end, as starters Luke Ridnour and Malcolm Lee combined to shoot a miserable 4-16 from the field. Backups Alexey Shved and JJ Barea did not fair much better, as they shot a combined 7-21 from the field. Barea, who also made his return from a nagging ankle injury on Wednesday night, made 4 three-pointers (which is the most for any individual Pup this season), but was out of control at times and did not do a proper job of running the offense. Caught in a chippy matchup with Ty Lawson, he and Barea went back and forth exchanging offensive fouls and at times it seemed as if the two players were so caught up in their individual matchup that they failed to see the other 9 players on the court. The bigger and stronger Lawson ultimately got the better of the matchup, and it is disappointing to see the veteran Barea allow his emotions to once again dictate the way he operates on the floor. Barea ended with 12 points (4-12 FG), 3 assists, 4 rebounds, and 3 turnovers while Shved finished with 8 points (3-9 FG), 3 assists, and 2 rebounds.

When it comes down to it, Denver won this game in the post as they caught Minnesota defenders failing to box out on the weak side and took full advantage of their second chance opportunities in the second half. The Nuggets as a team outshot the Pups by 6% FG and were able to steal a divisional matchup on the road. However, there is no need to fret about last night as Love is only going to get his hand stronger and improved conditioning, and hopefully in only a few weeks we will have our starting PG in Ricky Rubio back. Happy Thanksgiving Pups fans, and here are my three stars of the game:

  1. Ty Lawson
  2. Kevin Love
  3. Andre Igoudala