Timberpups Weekly Preview 2014 – Week 23

 

Kevin Love & LeBron James ... Olympic buddies Timberwolves head to Miami as part of a tough week ahead (Photo credit: John W. McDonough/SI)

Kevin Love & LeBron James … Olympic buddies
Timberwolves head to Miami as part of a tough week ahead
(Photo credit: John W. McDonough/SI)

 

Setting the stage:

It feels like it has been a while since I wrote a weekly preview.  Despite calling it a season on Super Bowl Saturday, I was still posing the “Can the Timberwolves do it?” question here in this column just a couple of weeks ago.  Unfortunately, we have answered that question with erratic play and an inability to consistently beat teams that we should and occasionally pull off a few more victories to go on a prolonged winning streak.

Throw in the rumors that are floating around Twitter that Rick Adelman will not be returning to the sidelines next year and you have a pretty dull remaining of the season for our Pups.  Sorry, I can’t sugarcoat this one.  If you are looking for a sliver of hope, look no further than the product Gorgui Dieng has been giving the team while in the starting lineup during Nikola Pekovic’s recovery.  If nothing else, at least it proves that I’m not wrong 100% of the time?

As Warner Wolf used to say, “Let’s go to the videotape” … only there is no video here, just a preview for this week’s games.  I digress …

Game 74: Monday, 3/31, 7pm – Los Angeles Clippers @ Timberpups (TV: FS North)

The Clippers have been pretty hot of late and find themselves as the three seed in the Western Conference.  Their stars are performing and Jamal Crawford and JJ Redick have formed a nice combination at the SG position.  I still want to see this team win a playoff series before they receive the accolades.

Opponent to watch:

Blake Griffin – After Monday night’s game, the next time Wolves’ fans see Blake, he may be wearing the Pups’ jersey.  Wait, who said that?!  Griffin is having another solid season, putting up about 24 & 10.

Predictions:

The Wolves play in Brooklyn on Sunday night and come home for this affair.  Even if the season wasn’t over, I don’t think they would have pulled this one off.  Final score: Clippers 112, Timberwolves 102

Game 75: Wednesday, 4/2, 7pm – Memphis Grizzles @ Timberpups (TV: FS North)

Memphis has also been playing very solid basketball of late and has leapfrogged Phoenix and Dallas in the Western Conference to join the playoff fray.  Wednesday night will be the final game of a five game road trip for the Grizzlies.  Their last home game was, ironically, against the Wolves, where they absolutely hammered our guys, 109-92.

Opponent to watch:

Mike Conley – Conley beat up Minnesota’s PG’s in that meeting, shooting 9-12 from the field for 23 points, while adding 5 rebounds and 6 assists.  The Wolves’ defense from the PG position has been, who do you say “less than desirable” (in Spanish)?

Predictions:

This could be a make or break game for the Grizzlies when all is said and done with the regular season.  They need this game and it really doesn’t matter for the Wolves.  Final score: Grizzlies 107, Timberwolves 101

Game 76: Friday, 4/4, 6:30pm – Timberpups @ Miami Heat (TV: FS North)

Who made this schedule?!  After two tough games at home against Western Conference foes, the Wolves take the show on the road to face the Heat.  This game probably won’t matter to the Heat unless they make up at least a game and a half on the Pacers beforehand.  However, we’re talking about the best player on the planet and the two-time defending champs.

Opponent to watch:

LeBron James – He’s good.  You may want to watch him play.  Godspeed Corey Brewer.

Predictions:

This isn’t exactly how you draw up closing the season, is it?  Final score: Heat 115, Timberwolves 109

Game 77: Saturday, 4/5, 6pm – Timberpups @ Orlando Magic (NO TV)

The one game the Wolves are more than likely to win this week and there is no TV coverage for the locals.  The Wolves will finish their rough week by finishing up the journey through Florida.  The Wolves beat Orlando very early on this season, 120-115 in OT, and should be able to carry out the season sweep.

Opponent to watch:

Nikola Vucevic – In recent weeks, Vucevic is battling an extreme disorder like the entire Wolves’ roster.  There are nights when he looks awesome and there are others where you have no idea what to think.

Predictions:

Despite being the tail end of a back-to-back, I can’t have the Wolves go 0-4 this week.  Final score: Timberwolves 104, Magic 95

Wrap-up:

We’re closing in on the end of the season and it the streak of non-playoff seasons has hit a decade.  What do you want to see from the Wolves over the few remaining weeks?

Let’s go Wolves!

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.

Offseason Ideas: Timberwolves Needs + Monta Ellis in the Picture?

Could Monta Ellis provide the scoring the Timberwolves need to compete in the Western Conference?

Could Monta Ellis provide the scoring the Timberwolves need to compete in the Western Conference?

This season has been the definition of disappointing to say the least. The additions of Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, Brandon Roy, and Chase Budinger caused a stir of excitement and optimism among Timberwolves fans to begin this 2012-13 season, and many basketball fans around the league even believed that this squad not only had the chance to achieve a postseason berth, but that the team also had the depth and talent to make a run in this years playoffs. However, all of that came to a violent halt when we obtained the bubonic plague as we call them… (Injuries). It was not comprehendible during our summer of optimism that nearly every player on the Wolves would ultimately fall to injury at some point during the season. The dream lineup of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Roy, Nikola Pekovic, and AK never had the opportunity to log big minutes together and create the necessary chemistry to legitimately compete for a bottom seed in the Western Conference. Oh, and our head coach, Rick Adelman, was gone for an extended period of time with family reasons. This season has been a catastrophe in the minds of Timberwolves fans alike.

As this season carries only future implications towards draft position and free agency, this team has A LOT of issues to address. To begin, Minnesota statistically has the worst three-point shooting in the NBA and the Wolves do not have a player that can help to alleviate some of the offensive pressure off of K-Love. In addition, we are still missing that shooting guard in our lineup that we all hoped Roy could be. Glen Taylor and David Kahn will need to dig deep into team funds and allocate money towards a marquee scorer who can create his own shot and knock down shots on the perimeter. Kevin Love, as we all know, is not happy about the current state of affairs within the organization. Adding to the frustrations, our once-smiley Rubio is having a very difficult time with all of the losing and the great pressure being exerted upon him to do virtually everything for the offense to work.

Considering all of these factors, I have considered three soon-to-be unrestricted free that would be excellent fits for the Wolves. The players I chose are Monta Ellis, JJ Redick, and Paul Millsap. Any one of these players would provide an instant upgrade in multiple facets of the game for Minnesota and would allow our team to elevate to a higher level of competitiveness in the Western Conference. In order to get over the hump and be able to match up against teams like the Thunder, Spurs, and Clippers, we need legitimate scorers to fill the holes in our roster. It is unreasonable to expect that Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will be able to carry us to the postseason in a very competitive Western Conference all by themselves.

The future 2013 free agent of whom I believe would provide the largest upgrade to our team is Monta Ellis. Before you roll your eyes, consider the fact that the Timberwolves currently possess one player that can create his own offense and that the team has a very difficult job doing the most important thing in the game: scoring the basketball. Although Monta may demand an inflated contract and may likely get overpaid this summer, he would provide tremendous value to our team in a variety of ways of which we currently struggle. The guy can flat out score the basketball, and that will never be a topic of debate. The addition of Ellis would help take pressure off Love in the 4th quarter and would keep opposing teams honest. Also when considering his ability to play off-ball, pairing Monta with a play-maker like Rubio could create for a very exciting backcourt.

While it can be easy to blame Minnesota’s inefficiencies on injuries and a lack of talent, there is no excuse for their fading defensive intensity and critical turnovers late in games. Both aspects have greatly hurt the team this season as they rank 24th in turnovers per game and 25th in opponents field goal percentage. The Wolves need to take care of the ball and be quicker on rotating on defense instead of allowing so many open looks by opposing perimeter players. These are basic fundamentals that Rick Adelman has undoubtedly preached this season, and the players need to put his words into a tangible product night-in and night-out.

Another important area for improvement is the team’s transition defense. If you go to the stat line of the Heat vs. Wolves games this season, we have had an enormous edge in the rebounding battle. However, the Heat destroyed us in fast break points and transition offense which led to us losing late in each game. The importance of success in transition cannot be stressed enough as it continues to separate legitimate NBA playoff teams from the lottery losers.

To reiterate, if we want to be a championship contender we have to have the firepower to be able to beat teams like the Heat and Thunder (elite teams). We won’t be able to accomplish any of this without an increase in talent and greater accountability from the players, the coaching staff and the front office. To be brutally honest, Minnesota right now is a LONG ways away from being a true contender in the NBA, although they possess the proper foundation to build a very good team in future years. Just like we saw with Rick Spielman’s genius drafting for the Vikings just one short year ago, a few good moves can fundamentally change the dynamic of a ballclub.

Minnesota Timberwolves 93 – Orlando Magic 102

Kevin Love & Ricky Rubio.jpgThe opening of Minnesota’s road trip through Florida didn’t start off like it should have, with the Wolves dropping the opening game of a back to back down in Orlando.

As expected, Kevin Love returned to the starting lineup tonight for the Pups, joining Ridnour, Shved, Kirilenko and Pekovic.  No surprises from the Magic, as they opened up with Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Maurice Harkless, Glen Davis, and Nikola Vucevic.

As they should have, the Wolves got off to a quick start dominating the paint area going up 12-5 and forcing Magic coach Jacque Vaughn to burn an early timeout.  With the Wolves up 14-9, Luke Ridnour turned the ball over to Big Baby who then dribbled the ball down the court for a dunk.  How or why no one on the Wolves caught up to Davis to foul him is beyond me (and quite frustrating).  Minutes later, Pekovic was called for traveling in the paint when the refs should have called a 3rd foul on Davis.  Knowing the final outcome of the game allows me to point out how critical this call/non-call was.

At the end of the 1st quarter, the Wolves were up 29-27.  However, it should have been much larger as the Pups failed to score a single point in the final 2+ minutes of the quarter.  Ricky Rubio checked into the game with about four minutes left in the quarter and had several flashy passes – some of which led to turnovers instead of easy baskets.  This will likely take some time to get acclimated to his teammates and tendencies.  The Magic were down by as many as 11 points in the quarter and were able to close strongly, on a 10-1 run.

The Wolves second unit struggled on the offensive end of the floor in the 2nd quarter.  Dante Cunningham provided his normal, active body.  However, DWill, Rubio, Barea, and Stiemsma all struggled to produce in their minutes.  Adelman saw similar results and went back to much of his starting lineup coming out of a TO halfway through the quarter.

After taking a 42-41 lead, the Magic went cold and allowed the Wolves to open up what should have been a comfortable lead.  The Pups went on a 20-7 run to close out the half, with the Wolves up 61-49.   Here are a few halftime thoughts through my Wolves lens:

  • Despite the score, the Wolves did not look good defensively
  • However, they dominated the paint on the offensive side of the ball, particularly Pekovic
  • JJ Redick would look fantastic in a Wolves uniform, no?
  • The Magic announcers (Breen and Goukas) basically said that Kevin Love will be a Laker or Blazer sooner rather than later.  Excuse me for a few seconds …

The opening minutes of the 3rd quarter were played at a relatively slow pace.  The Wolves increased their lead to 15 points, going up 68-53.  With a chance to increase the lead further, the Wolves missed another layup and saw the Magic start to cut into the gap.  The Magic were led by the offensive efforts of Big Baby.  Kevin Love’s defensive efforts were not on display in this one.

The Wolves continued to struggle on both ends of the floor in the 3rd quarter, outscored by the Magic 25-17 at the end of three to reduce the Pups lead to just 4 points, 78-74.  Interesting stat from the quarter; neither team attempted a FT in those twelve minutes.  This can’t happen very often at all, can it?

As a Wolves fan, the 4th quarter was incredibly frustrating.  The game went back and forth over the first six-seven minutes or so of the quarter with neither team doing much offensively.  Unfortunately, the Magic woke up and were able to pull away over the next few minutes, going on a 17-6 run to end the game and pull out the win, 102-93.  The Wolves fell asleep in the second half for some reason, only scoring 32 points over the final 24 minutes.

These are games that the Wolves need to win.  With the assumption that Rubio is shut down for Tuesday’s game in Miami as scheduled, it looks like the team will head back to Minnesota later this week on a two game losing streak and facing the Thunder.  (Gulp)

Three Stars of the Game:

  1. Glen Davis
  2. JJ Redick
  3. Nikola Pekovic