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.

Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Los Angeles Clippers (1/17/13)

blakegriffin_chrispaulSetting the stage:

The Pups return home to the Target Center for Thursday night’s game against the LA Clippers.  As an added bonus, TNT will be carrying the game to a national audience.  When TNT picked this game up, I wonder if they thought the Twolves would be down to approximately eight healthy bodies, no Kevin Love, and an extremely limited Ricky Rubio.  I doubt it.

Minnesota is coming off a dreadful road trip losing all four games in a particularly ugly fashion.  The locker room also has the flu bug going around it, so we probably won’t know who is going to be available for the team and who isn’t until minutes before the opening tip.  While Rick Adelman stopped by the team on Wednesday, it does not sound like he plans on joining them on the sidelines just yet, leaving Terry Porter in the driver’s seat.

Back in late November, the Pups lost to the Clippers in LA 101-95.  Around that time, it was kosher to poke fun at how the Clippers were playing well, but were still a team coached by Vinny Del Negro.  In fact, I may have done that in our preview prior to the game.  Fast forward to mid-January and the Clippers are once again proving me wrong, holding the second best record in the league at 30-9 and percentage points behind OKC for the top spot in the conference.

It must be nice to have your star players at full health all season and players being able to fill the roles that they are supposed to be in, not trying to make them into something they’re not.  Chris Paul and Blake Griffin obviously lead the way here, but the team is getting solid contributions on the wing from Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Caron Butler.  Throw in the continued maturity of DeAndre Jordan and there you have it, a 30-9 team battling with the best in the league.

Player to watch:

Chris Paul – Paul killed the Pups back in late November and no one should be surprised if it happens again Thursday night.  What little chance of a letdown the Twolves faithful might be hoping for from a top team coming into Minnesota is likely nullified by the game being broadcast on TNT.  Get ready for the pre and post game interviews with Paul (or Blake) and all the nausea that comes with it from the studio.

Match-up to watch:

Nikola Pekovic vs. DeAndre Jordan.  These two played to about a draw in November, with Pek going for 11 & 10 and 4 fouls in almost 33 minutes of action, while Jordan went for 15 & 6 and 4 fouls in just under 27 minutes.  I expect more of the same from these two heavyweights Thursday night.  Quite honestly, the only way the Pups win this game is with Pekovic having a career-like performance on both ends of the floor.


Despite the two days off, the Twolves are in a slide and I don’t see how having the second best team in the league coming to town helps the situation.

Final score prediction: Twolves 92, Clippers 106

Three stars of the game predictions:

  1. Chris Paul
  2. Jamal Crawford
  3. Andrei Kirilenko

Let’s go Wolves!

Minnesota Timberwolves 95 – Los Angeles Clippers 101

Jeff Gross – Getty Images

Oh, how different the Staples Center is without Ricky Rubio on the court. Fresh off a win in Sacramento, the Minnesota Timberwolves marched into Los Angeles on Wednesday night to face the Clippers in the fourth and last game of their current road trip. Minnesota, who learned yesterday that star PG Ricky Rubio had been cleared to begin unrestricted practice with the team, was simply unable to contain Clippers perrenial All-Star Chris Paul and ultimately fell by a score of 101-95. CP3, who thrived in his matchups against Luke Ridnour and JJ Barea, did a masterful job of closing out the game for the Clippers and exploited Wolves guards for fourth-quarter mental mistakes that we were not used to seeing with Rubio on the floor late in games last season. Paul finished the night with 23 points on 7-13 shooting, 11 dimes, 3 steals, 2 rebounds, and only 1 turnover in 36 minutes of action.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Timberwolves guards played well as a whole throughout the entire contest. To sum up the performances of a few players based on a few late-game critical mistakes would be unfair and simply irrational, given their solid play throughout most of the game. Beginning with Ridnour, he forced the issue on a few passes in the final 4 minutes in a game that was ultimately seperated by a few points. Obviously, many people will rush to the judgement that Ridnour “played like crap” and should be either traded or dumped in some way, but what people are missing is that he is a valuable and integral part of this team and was outplayed in crunch time by possibly the best closer in the NBA, Chris Paul. There are no excuses for a couple of Ridnour’s 4 turnovers, but it must be understood that Ridnour is currently the first option at PG because of the absence of Ricky Rubio. Rubio, not Ridnour, will soon be the PG on the floor in the fourth quarters for the Wolves, and Ridnour will continue to serve as a very serviceable and above average backup PG once Ricky returns in a few weeks. Ridnour finished the night with 13 points (5-9 FG), 7 assists, 1 steal, 1 rebound, and 4 turnovers in 32 minutes of play.

While the top storyline of Clippers-Wolves matchups is almost always the matchup of superstar PFs Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, it was neither of the two players who decided the outcome of this game. Love had a relatively poor night shooting as he converted on only 3 of his 12 FG attempts, while Griffin was restricted by foul trouble for a good portion of the second half. K-Love had a good night at the free throw line scoring 12 of his 19 points from the charity stripe to pair with 12 rebounds and 3 assists in 35 minutes. Griffin ended with a line of 18 points (9-17 FG), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals in 33 minutes on the floor.

Turnovers and defense were keys to the Clippers victory, as they committed only 10 turnovers to the Timberwolves 18, despite being heavily outrebounded by Minnesota 52-35. Clips center DeAndre Jordan had another wonderful game to add to his fantastic 2012-13 campaign, scoring 15 points while missing only 1 FG attempt and playing tremendous interior defense. Nikola Pekovic had his work cut out for him paired against the hyper-athletic 7-foot Jordan, and was only able to convert 5 of his 13 FG attempts on his way to 11 points and 10 rebounds.

In my personal opinion, Alexey Shved had the best performance out of all Timberwolves players as he was extremely effective in the fourth quarter when it mattered most. Shved, who continues to backup Malcolm Lee at the off-guard position, scored 17 points on 5-12 shooting but knocked down 3 of his 6 three-point attempts, all of which seemed to come at crucial momentum-swinging points in the game. Shved has clearly gained the coaches trust to finish games, and he has taken full advantage of the opportunities given to him. Lee, who started at SG, played only 25 minutes while Shved logged 36, and I wonder if we will see another Russian added to the starting lineup in the coming weeks.

Andrei Kirilenko sat out Wednesday night’s game due to back spasms, and in his place Josh Howard received his first start of his young Wolves career. In 26 minutes, Howard finished with 7 points (3-9 FG), 3 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 assist.

Overall, last night was a good indicator of what Minnesota is missing from their point guards, and it will be tough to compete with teams that possess a closer like CP3 without Tricky Ricky. But do not worry Wolves fans, the time is almost near for our floppy-haired savior to return to game action. Here are the three stars of the game:

  1. Chris Paul
  2. DeAndre Jordan
  3. Alexey Shved

Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Clippers

Setting the stage

The Timberwolves wrap up their four game road trip on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, facing the Clippers.  Also of note for fans, tonight’s game will be broadcast on NBA TV.

The Clippers come into the game off of a home loss against the Hornets on Monday night.  Blake Griffin will look to rebound off an abysmal showing Monday; 1-9 from the field for 4 points and 6 rebounds, before fouling out.  By his standards, Griffin is off to a pretty slow start this season, with both his points and rebounds down for the second consecutive year.  The ‘other’ LA team is actually led by Jamal Crawford’s 18 ppg, but true to form, he is doing very little else for the team aside from scoring.  (To be fair, that is what they need him for and what he was signed to do.)

Despite being coached by Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers are 8-6 on the season and currently tied for 1st place in the Pacific division with the Warriors.  They are putting up 99.5 ppg as a team, good for 8th in the league and holding opponents to 95.6 ppg (12th in the league).  Despite Blake Griffin and the growth of DeAndre Jordan’s game and role on the team, the Clip Joint are 24th in the league in rebounding at 40.4 a game.

The Pups are playing the tail end of a back to back after last night’s much needed win in Sacramento.  The win snapped their five game losing streak and moved the team 6-7 on the year and in a logjam / tie for 9th place in the conference.  Tuesday night’s win was a true team effort, with all five starters in double figures, led by Kevin Love’s 23 point, 24 rebound performance.  That performance was Love’s 16th 20-20 game in his young, but brilliant career.

Coming off the win, the Pups slightly improved their team’s season averages.  While still one of the lower scoring teams in the league (92.1 ppg for 27th place) the team improved to 5th overall defensively, holding opponents to 92.5 ppg so far this season.  The Wolves are 7th in the league in rebounding at 44 per game and will look to exploit their advantages in this area vs. the Clippers tonight to create some easy baskets.

Player to watch

Chris Paul – Prior to joining the Clippers and growing a prima donna attitude, I loved how Chris Paul played the game.  Truth be told, he still plays largely the same way, I just don’t like all of the whining and flopping that he has become accustomed to doing over the course of a game.  So with that prefaced, it will be interesting (and probably painful for Pups fans) to see what Paul does against the Twolves PG’s.  You might see a 20 point, 20 assist game here tonight.  Paul had a rough game last Wednesday against OKC, but I don’t believe the Wolves will be able to march out Thabo Sefolosha to guard him.  Paul’s averaging 16.4 ppg and 9.3 apg and I can’t imagine those numbers dip after tonight’s game.

Match-up to watch

Kevin Love vs. Blake Griffin – Was there any doubt that this would be the match-up selection?  Love comes into his first back-to-back series of games on the season due to his injury and it will be interesting to see how he follows up his monster performance from last night.  Is his conditioning in a good enough place to be able to handle heavy minutes in a back to back?  As mentioned earlier, Griffin’s stats are a little down this year but you know both guys will be ready to showcase their talents and try to stake their claim as the best PF in the league.


Final score prediction: Minnesota 99 – Los Angeles 96

Three stars of the game predictions:

  1. Kevin Love
  2. Chris Paul
  3. Josh Howard (break out game alert)

Let’s go Wolves!