2013/2014 Eastern Conference Preview

 

It has been the Heat's Conference recently, does that change in 2014?

It has been the Heat’s Conference recently, does that change in 2014?

 

Last week we previewed the (stacked) Western Conference and now it is time to tackle the East.  The Miami Heat look to make it not one, not two, but three conference championships in a row.  Can they do it?  Who can rise to the occasion?  Who is at the bottom of the barrel?  Let’s start there …

15. Philadelphia 76ers: I find it glorious that for David Stern’s final season, there is a team with enough charisma to say, “Here we are … tanking in all its glory” from the day the draft took place all the way through the trading deadline.  Where will Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young wind up?  I’m not sure they care, as long as it is out of Philly.  While I like what Philly did on draft night acquiring Noel and MCW, there is no hope for this team in 2013/14.  Zero.  Zilch.

14. Orlando Magic: Victor Oladipo is very likely going to be a very good NBA player, but this team lacks talent across its frontcourt.  If they can find a taker for Jameer Nelson during the season, they might give the Sixers a run for their money on ping pong balls.

13. Cleveland Cavaliers: Dan Gilbert wants this team in the playoffs, yet continues to do the strangest things on draft night.  I love Kyrie Irving, I just wish he played almost anywhere else in the league.  Cavs fans have to hope that Michael Bennett doesn’t eat himself out of the league (not a ringing endorsement for the #1 pick of the draft) and rely on getting something from Andrew Bynum and/or Anderson Varejao.  This isn’t going to end well.

12. Boston Celtics: The Celtics are rebuilding but I can’t put them any lower than this, given what you just read.  In fact, I actually wanted to put them a little bit higher, but figure this seems about right if Danny Ainge wakes up one day and says, “You know what, we are too good to get enough ping pong balls, Rondo needs to go”.  Rajon Rondo and the supporting cast (Jeff Green, Courtney Lee) are good enough to stay ahead of the prior three teams.

11. Charlotte Bobcats: On paper, this is a pretty intriguing team that you might want to keep an eye on, but then you remember it is the Bobcats.  They have a serviceable rotation of guards, signed Big Al Jefferson, and I love MKG.  Then I remember that they are the Bobcats and just drafted Cody Zeller at #4 ahead of a handful of others that would have been a nice fit.  Would the real Bismack Biyombo please stand up this season?

10. Detroit Pistons: This is going to be fun, right?  Right?!  Chauncey Billups returning to Detroit and trying to lead the Pistons with Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, and Andre Drummond.  At what point does Billups flat out retire?  It would be great if he just walked out of the locker room at halftime to never come back.  This is where we start thinking about teams that could sneak their way into the Eastern Conference playoffs … with 35 wins.

9. Toronto Raptors: Another team that is intriguing on paper and then you give yourself a reality check on second glance.  Do you want Kyle Lowry as your starting PG?  Is DeMar DeRozan ever going to turn it on?  How much of a leap is Jonas Valanciunas really going to make in one year?  Is Rudy Gay just going to shoot 33% from the field this year on 1,500 shots?  Sorry, no playoffs for this franchise.

PLAYOFF TEAMS                                                                                                                               

8. Washington Wizards: Relying on the health of an already injured Emeka Okafor may not be the wisest strategy, but there is too much talent here to not make the playoffs in the East.  John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. (another great pick from the Wizards front office?), and enough able bodies for big men.  If you go to their second unit, you have some defensive studs as well with Singleton and Ariza on the wing.  This could be a team to keep an eye on and is already on my League Pass watch-list.

7. Milwaukee Bucks: Every year I get sucked in and every year there is disappointment.  Where OJ Mayo goes, so does some bizarre allegiance to overrate the team he’s playing on.  That bus landed in Milwaukee this year.  I like their big men as a group, but not any particular individual.  You have ex-Wolf Luke Ridnour and Brandon Knight as the PG’s and Gary Neal as the fourth wheel in the backcourt.  It will be interesting to see what they get out of the SF position where the Bucks have two wily veterans in Caron Butler and Carlos Delfino.  This roster is good enough to make the playoffs.  (Until it isn’t)

6. New York Knicks: Look at how the NY Giants football season is going and that is what I would like to predict for the Knicks.  However, they have too much talent for the Eastern Conference to go any lower than this.  They will play .500 ball and get into the playoffs with ease.  Here’s what I like about the team: Tyson Chandler, from a few years ago.  That’s it.  There is nothing on this roster that I like.  Despite his gaudy numbers, there is virtually nothing Carmelo can do to not make me believe that he is an underachiever; outside of taking less than max money in his next contract and deferring to another star in order to win a championship.

5. Atlanta Hawks: This is my Eastern Conference “I have no idea where to put this team, so they are going here”.  I cannot give a team home court advantage in round 1 of the playoffs if that is my general feeling towards the team, so they land at #5.  Love the Paul Millsap and Al Horford combination, like Jeff Teague, but have no idea what to think of their rotation of wings.  The Hawks’ wings really just need to fill roles though, right?  That should be good enough for a .500+ record and another trip to the postseason, only to be quickly disposed by the …

4. Chicago Bulls: We’ll get to this when we go through the playoff brackets later, but I see the Bulls coasting through the regular season, monitoring Derrick Rose’s minutes, resting him occasionally, etc. This team is tough as nails and will do what is necessary to get to right around the 50 win mark.  It won’t be pretty, we won’t enjoy it when they beat up the Wolves in the paint, but this team will get it done.

3. Brooklyn Nets: Prokhorov’s tax bill is “a bit” much, but you have to love an owner that is willing to spend any and all money possible to put together a championship contender.  Unfortunately for the Nets, there are too many stronger teams that will grind this team out of the playoffs at some point.  Deron Williams has a lot to prove and I see this team putting together a very strong regular season due to all of the veterans in the locker room.

Best of luck to KG in Brooklyn and a big “kudos” for the Big Ticket in wearing the #2 jersey with the Nets – in memory of Malik Sealy.  I might have to drag myself to the Barclay’s Center to see KG one last time in person.

2. Indiana Pacers: The country finally got to see who Paul George was and what this Pacers roster is all about in last year’s playoffs.  I don’t expect them to digress whatsoever.  In fact, if Danny Granger can stay healthy and Luis Scola provides quality backup minutes at the PF/C spots, this team is very, very dangerous.  Quite honestly, I love this team.

(You didn’t think I would talk about the Pacers and not mention David Kahn’s selection of Wesley Johnson over Paul George, did you?  The worst lottery pick the franchise has ever made.  The worst … and the bar is pretty ‘high’ for that proclamation.  THE WORST!  Let’s move on before my blood pressure pills start wearing off …)

1. Miami Heat: The Heat won something like 75 games in a row (it was 27) last season and the NBA Championship.  You know the story and the cast of characters.  Until someone knocks them off the pedestal, it is hard to place them anywhere else.

Which brings us to the playoffs, based on the seeds above.  Here is how I see the Eastern Conference Playoffs unfolding:

Eastern Conference

The top four teams in the East are light-years ahead of the rest of the conference, so they should all advance pretty easily out of the first round – unless you like the Knicks.  Then things get very interesting.  As mentioned above, I think the Bulls take it “easy” in the regular season a bit but knock out the defending champs, which sets up a close to epic battle against the Pacers.  I simply believe it is the Pacers time.

The early exit for the Heat leads to about 15 million stories and rumors about LeBron heading back to Cleveland, to the Lakers, etc. etc.  That’s going to be a lot of fun!

What do you think?  Is it too early to dethrone the Heat?  Do they have another trophy coming?  What are your surprise or disappointment teams in the conference?  Let us know below!

Is J.J. Barea the X-Factor for the Timberwolves?

Photo Credit: Tyler Parker

Photo Credit: Tyler Parker

Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman demands his Pups to run the Princeton Offense like a high-powered engine. Head mechanic Flip Saunders has made quick work installing a Kevin Martin turbo, patching the transmission with Corey Brewer while changing the oil with Chase Budinger’s new contract. Ricky Rubio sits behind the wheel and Kevin Love rides shotgun as the rest of the Wolves-Wagon idols patiently waited for Nikola Pekovic to climb aboard. The grueling NBA highway is conquered by a steady, and more importantly, healthy, pace. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. With no more Luke Ridnour or Malcolm Lee, who keeps between the lanes when Rubio needs rest? Alexey Shved is still adjusting to driving in the right-lane, leaving J.J. Barea responsible for keeping alignment steady to help drive the Wolves to the desired destination: the postseason.

Barea was a few nonsensical shots away from acquiring the label of a ‘chucker’ last season. He struggled to play within Adelman’s system, taking below average looks at inopportune moments, either in critical possessions or too early in the shot clock. Playing an expanded role on a roster ravaged by injuries, Barea tallied career highs in minutes, FG and 3PT attempts, turnovers and points last season. These numbers, to me, show he left it all out on the floor. He didn’t quit. It’s easy to look for scapegoats, but Barea shouldn’t be knocked for trying to do everything he could to try and help win games.

With the team’s newly acquired depth, Barea returns to a role we are comfortable seeing him in. He’s a phenomenal sixth man, a pure scorer and relentless worker on both ends of the floor. Where Barea lacks in size, he makes up for in heart and hustle.

In his final season playing for the Dallas Mavericks, Barea was everything that Mavs fans hoped he would be as an instant offensive boost from the bench. He even recorded his career high in assists en route to the Mavericks eventual claiming of a World Championship. Barea hasn’t had a chance to be the player he was in Dallas so far playing for the Wolves, but he will get the chance, at least early on, this season.

During the offseason, rumors surfaced that Barea could potentially be traded. Speculation landed him in either Dallas or Brooklyn, where he would reunite with former teammate, and now Nets head coach, Jason Kidd. JJ is owed $9,206,500 over the next two seasons and it’s almost certain, in my opinion, his name will swirl in discussions as the trade deadline approaches. Barea is set to become an unrestricted free-agent prior to the 2015 season.

I am concerned that the Wolves are not deep enough at point guard to make Barea expendable. Barea is currently second on the depth chart behind Rubio and in front of rookie Lorenzo Brown (who is not guaranteed to make the final roster). I’m not going to ignore the idea that Rubio could get hurt at some point during this season, it has happened before. In many ways our tiny point guard’s skill set is that of a shooting guard, although his stature demands that he play as a point guard. Meanwhile, Brown has no NBA experience other than Summer League in Vegas last month.  Shved is also not a natural point guard but can handle the ball respectably when asked to do so. Barea’s role significantly changes if Rubio becomes unavailable for periods of time this season, this much is certain.

It’s impossible to ignore trade rumors and one should never expect a roster to stay 100% healthy for a complete season, but until either become an obstacle I’ve defined Barea’s role to this team as such: He needs to provide between 15-23 quality minutes off the bench, playing with, but not limited to a scorer’s mentality that will put himself and his teammates in positions to score points. He’s a smart, hardworking and dedicated player who will do whatever is asked of him to win. When Rubio steps out and Barea is given the keys to the offense, sure, he may drive recklessly and aggressively at times, but he would never steer Adelman’s vehicle off-course or run it into the ground. He’s a T-Pup, and I’m glad to have him aboard.

Rumors: Timberwolves Interested in Corey Brewer?

Corey BrewerBeing as it is July 9, the heart of the offseason for sporadic NBA rumors is among us with the latest rumor involving a potential return of a former Timberwolves lottery pick. The former 7th overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft out of Florida is Corey Brewer, the 6-foot-9 SG/SF who Minnesota fans remember best for his smile and big heart.

Brewer failed to live up to the hype after being a top-10 selection for the Wolves but proved to be a serviceable swingman in the NBA after  contributing in a reserve role for the 2010 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks and following the title victory with two productive seasons for the Denver Nuggets. [Read more...]

Timberwolves 2012-13 Player Grades: Guards

Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved at the 2013 Rising Stars Challenge (NBAE/Getty Images)

Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved at the 2013 Rising Stars Challenge (NBAE/Getty Images)

Following a disappointing 2012-13 season in which the Minnesota Timberwolves amassed a 31-51 record, it is time to individually break down the contributions from each of the Timberwolves’ guards over the past season.

 

Player: Ricky Rubio

Position: PG

Season Summary

After having his impressive rookie campaign derailed by a torn ACL and MCL, Ricky Rubio missed the first 20 games of the 2012-13 season and made his much-anticipated return with an epic performance on December 15 against the Mavericks, playing 18 minutes while recording 8 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals.The expectations for Ricky this season were relatively low as few people expected him to have an Adrian Peterson-esque return from ACL surgery. As the season crept on and the injuries compounded – including Kevin Love’s twice-broken hand – the fans focus for Ricky became centered around a cautious approach for the young Spaniard given the future health implications that come from knee surgery. As the playoffs became a pipe dream to even the most hopeful Timberwolves fans, we got much of our satisfaction watching Ricky make small, yet incremental improvements in his game before finally getting back to full speed for the final two-ish months of the season.

Despite playing without K-Love, Tricky Ricky showed us that he can be a game-changer by himself even if he is not an efficient scorer. Playing on a surgically-repaired knee, Rubio proved that he is back to where he was last season as a perimeter defender. In fact, the Catalan point guard recorded the most steals (43) in a ten game stretch since Ron Artest in 2002. Rubio’s length – 6’4″ with a 6’9″ wingspan – paired with his defensive instincts make him one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA, and he should be a major contender to make one of the NBA All-Defense teams next season if he can stay healthy for most if not all of the season. [Read more...]

Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Miami Heat, 3/4/13

Photo Credit: REUTERS

Photo Credit: REUTERS

Setting the stage:

The hottest team in the league just so happens to be the best team in the league and the defending NBA champions; and they happen to be on their way to Minneapolis to take on our reeling Wolves.  Monday’s game will be broadcast on NBA TV for the masses to see, as the Heat come into the game with a 14 game winning streak.  The Wolves are the complete antithesis of the Heat right now, having lost 5 in a row and 21 of 25.

The Heat are putting distance between themselves and the rest of the Eastern Conference, building a 7+ game advantage over the rest of the conference over the past few weeks.  They look like the clear favorites to reach (and win) the NBA Finals.  LeBron is playing in another stratosphere this season and has shown no signs of slowing down.

The Heat took down the Wolves 103-92 in Miami on 12/18 and the game never felt as close as the final score would indicate.  The Wolves were nearly at full strength in that encounter and as you are likely well aware, that isn’t the case right now.  It is still to be determined whether or not Kirilenko will be ready to go Monday night, but the remaining Pups that missed Saturday’s game in Portland will all likely miss Monday’s game as well.

Derrick Williams has been one of the few bright spots over the past few weeks for the Timberwolves.  He will be asked to do a little bit of everything and much more in order for the Wolves to even remain competitive against the Heat.  It will also be interesting to see who he matches up with on the defensive end of the floor given the current starting lineup for the Heat.

Player to watch:

LeBron James – I don’t think we need to go very much further than just mentioning his name at this point, do we?  He’s only averaging 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists this season, so sit back and enjoy the greatest professional basketball player on the planet Monday night.  If AK47 isn’t ready to go, and even if he is, you might see a very special performance in the first three quarters of play.

Match-up to watch:

Luke Ridnour vs. Dwyane Wade.  I’m getting tired of picking Rubio and Pekovic for this section and who knows who else will be suiting up for the Wolves by the time tip-off comes.  Luke has been shooting the ball better as of late, but has the unenviable task of matching up against Wade on Monday night.  This could get ugly fast.

Predictions:

Even with the Heat playing Sunday against the Knicks and the Wolves having an off day, Minnesota is probably going to be about +1100 in Vegas.  This is likely to be a long night for Wolves fans.  My advice: try to enjoy watching the Heat.

Final score prediction: Twolves 84, Heat 98

Three stars of the game predictions:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Dwyane Wade
  3. Ricky Rubio

Let’s go Wolves!

Timberwolves 2013 Mid-Season Roundtable

How will the second half fare for Ricky Rubio?

How will the second half fare for Ricky Rubio and the Timberwolves?

Welcome to the Minnesota Timberwolves 2013 Mid-Season Roundtable. We have gathered some of the most devoted Timberwolves minds from the web in order to debate some of the hottest topics surrounding the Timberpups’ current state of affairs. Joining me in this effort are Howlin’ T-Wolf’s own Derek James (@DerekJamesNBA), Andy Grimsrud (@PDWolves) of Punch-Drunk Wolves, Ben McDonald (@BenMac_STOB) of STOB Blog, and Timberpups very own John Flesta (@jflesta).

 

1. What is the Timberwolves biggest need, what can they do to address it, and when is it appropriate to do so?  (Trade, Draft, Free Agency)

 

Alex Glennon, Timberpups:

The Timberwolves rank dead last in the NBA in three-point shooting and currently lack a legitimate shooting guard on the team’s entire roster. To put into persepective the importance of three-point shooting, take a look at the top 6 three-point shooting ball clubs in the league as it currently stands: Golden State, OKC, Miami, San Antonio, Atlanta, and New York. Each of these teams are headed to the playoffs and have versatile rosters which allow for a much more balanced offensive attack that does not rely too heavily on one area of scoring.

Obviously, the loss of last season’s three-point champion in Kevin Love was a huge blow for a team with very little shooting depth, but this season has put spotlight on the Timberwolves’ desperate need for perimeter shooting and a real, legitimate shooting guard who thrives when playing off-ball. Alexey Shved has been a pleasant surprise this season, but the fact remains that he is not a traditional shooting guard and he should not be looked at as the future starting 2-guard for this team. Depending on Minnesota’s draft position (and number of first-round picks) it would most likely be a good idea to find a youngster to throw into the mix for next season, but I believe that the Timberwolves brass must do everything in their power this summer to bring in an accomplished sharp-shooter to man the position. Some possibilities that immediately come to mind are JJ Redick, Kevin Martin, Anthony Morrow, and Kyle Korver.

Derek James, Howlin’ T-WolfRufus on Fire: 

Shooters, right? Of course, injuries will help with this some once Kevin Love and Chase Budinger get healthy, but after them, there still aren’t a ton of guys on this roster that are capable of stretching the floor. As a result of all of these injuries, the Timberwolves have become the leagues most dismal shooting team, and it’s no doubt cost them some games. It sure didn’t help that the Brandon Roy gamble didn’t pay off because that would’ve meant having an extra shooter at their disposal. As far as fixing it, I don’t feel like trades are the answer at this point, and I don’t know enough about the draft to really say there. So, that likely means seeing what niche players are out on the market this summer.

John Flesta, Timberpups:

Yes, shooters are the answer to this question.  I agree with Derek, I don’t necessarily see the ultimate fix being via trade, specifically before the forthcoming deadline.  If we can get rid of Barea (OK fine, Ridnour) for a complementary piece that would help next season and beyond, that would be nice. Ideally, that would just help balance out the rotations a bit more vs. having to use multiple PG’s all the time.   However, I think the long term answer is most likely found in the draft with a lot of luck or in free agency.

Andy Grimsrud, Punch-Drunk Wolves:

The cop-out answer is that the Timberwolves’ biggest need is a healthy Kevin Love.  Love is a great player in any system, because of his elite rebounding and foul-drawing abilities.  But his jumper — and the way it stretches opposing defenses — is what is missed most, right now.  The Wolves are dead last in the NBA in three-point shooting accuracy, and by a significant margin.  In that Thursday night TNT game versus the Thunder, Love teased us (by shooting well, with his bad hand) with a sampling of what could be with this team of Rubio/Shved, Love, and Nikola Pekovic.  Great passing, shooting, and interior scoring looked incredible for one night.  But Love’s hand hasn’t been right ever since he broke it and that needs repair more than this team needs anything else.

Outside of the current roster?  A wing that can shoot threes, defend and run the floor would be helpful.  Maybe that’s Chase Budinger?  Mickael Gelabale?  I’m not sure, but I think a team led by Ricky Rubio should do more damage in transition than it is doing, right now.  Some speed and shooting ability would help.  

Ben McDonald, STOB Blog:

I have an ongoing discussion going with a buddy about this.  I vote we need a shooting guard most. He argues small forward is more an area of need.

My argument is that Shved is our only true shooting guard, as Budinger over his career has played most often, and his best, at the small forward position.  I’m yet to see if Malcolm Lee will ever be a competent NBA player to the extent we can trust him to be the backup to Shved.  Following this year, I never…EVER…want to see Ridnour starting at shooting guard for this team.  I’m flat embarrassed for our team when Ridnour is being posted up by the likes of Kobe Bryant.  It isn’t Luke’s fault and I applaud him for battling the way he does with the mismatches he has to face almost nightly.

My buddy’s argument is that once AK’s contract is up after next year he will either A) leave or B) start showing his age to the point that we become very thin at small forward especially since it seems D-Will isn’t going to become a small forward anytime soon.  We’d be left with (if we re-sign him) Budinger as our only true small forward.

I look to the best in the league and see how I can copy them.  The old “if you can’t beat em, join em” holds true.  One of Miami’s most effective lineups according the 82games.com is Wade-Allen-Battier-James-Bosh.  In affect, they play a SG/SG/SF/Freak/PF lineup.  If you are one that needs the assignment of positions to all basketball players and wants a PG/SG/SF/PF/C perfect lineup every time, then this is sacrilegious, but it works.  With that in mind I’m trying to fight that instinct the more I see the game transition away from pigeon holed position players, to more diversely skilled and sized players working together without the worry of position.

With that being said, the Wolves biggest need to me is a wing player.  Honestly, if we could just clone the Budinger we were seeing in those few precious games we got from him earlier this year, that’d be the guy I’m looking for.  Can play multiple positions, has good size, athleticism, can hit an open shot, attacks the rim and is basketball smart.

To acquire this type of player I truly think the draft will be our best bet.  Looks like we’ll be in the lottery, maybe Stern throws us a bone for once and we win the thing.  Then we get Ben McLemore and live happily ever after.  Otherwise if we get everyone back healthy at the end of this season and D-Will starts warming the bench more than the nets, and we get a late lottery pick, I look to trade up in the draft or just a trade using D-Will and our pick in hopes of grabbing that guy.

 

2. Nikola Pekovic is sure to garner a lot of attention this summer and may even receive a max-contract offer sheet. With that being said, what should the Timberwolves do with their Montenegrin bruiser? Is he worth matching a max contract extension should he receive one? If he is not worth a max contract, how much money is he worth?

 

Alex Glennon:

Here is where David Kahn’s situation gets very tricky. How do you value a player who has been injured a significant percentage of his time during his first three years in the league, but when healthy, has been one of the most destructive scorers on the low block. Last season, Nikola Pekovic held the highest offensive rebounding percentage in the NBA and got jipped out of the Most Improved Player award after averaging 13.9 ppg and 7.4 rpg with an astounding 21.47 PER. The 27-year-old Montenegrin center has proven to be an ideal teammate and student of the game and has gained the admiration from a future Hall of Fame coach and a highly regarded assistant coaching staff.

Here is my take on the Pek situation: listen to trade offers before the deadline in case another team offers a great haul of cheap and young assets, but otherwise match any offer that Pek shall receive. It is no secret that Minnesota owner Glen Taylor has a long history of taking the “cheap” route in free agency, and I do not know if I trust the Timberwolves management to make use of the extra cap space should they decide not to match a Pekovic offer sheet. Pek is simply too important for the future of this team and gives Minnesota a presence on both ends of the floor that few teams get from the center position.

Derek James:

The Pekovic situation isn’t an easy one. He will get attention, and likely a lucrative offer. Being able to re-sign him will also be determined by how willing the organization is to go over the cap to keep him, which they can do since they have his Bird Rights. Somewhere between $10-$12m to keep him makes a lot of sense. Let’s be careful not to overrate our own player here, and try to justify paying him upwards of, say, $15m to keep him when he’s been inconsistent at times and susceptible to injury. I like Pek a lot, but at the right price.

 John Flesta:

If Pekovic gets a max offer from Portland, he should be wearing a Blazer uniform next season.  Under no circumstance should we match that contract offer.  None.  The $10-$11 million range is the ceiling I would put on the new contract.  As long as it isn’t a max contract offer from Portland, you probably match it unless they have something up their sleeve – i.e. Pekovic for Batum or something like that.

Andy Grimsrud: 

Pekovic must be re-signed.  Even if he signs a max offer sheet?  Yes.  This is much more, “Pek is worth 4 years/$60 Million to the Timberwolves” than it is, “If Pekovic were an unrestricted free agent, he’d receive 4 years/$60 Million from Hypothetical Team X/Y/Z.”  It’s difficult to assign “market value” to any player.  But the Wolves can pay a lot of money to Love and Pek for the next two seasons while still having Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved signed to cheap deals.  If and when a time comes when the luxury tax threatens, they can do exactly what Memphis did with Rudy Gay.  Guys like Love and Pek will always have enough value to be moved.  For what it’s worth, I don’t expect Pekovic to receive a full max offer.  I think it’ll look more like what the Wolves offered Nic Batum, and it might even be Batum’s team that signs the deal.  But they’ve got to keep Pek.  He’s a huge fan favorite and worthy of a big salary. 

Ben McDonald:

Max contract offer is tough to stomach but at the same time the fact is there are only a handful of centers out there on the level of Pek.  Wolves need to be smart on this one and really hope that they can get Pek for something in the range of what OKC gave Serge Ibaka and Memphis gave Marc Gasol, 4 years around $50 mil.  I think that is the range you have to pay to keep a big man with the skills that Pek has.

Portland is going to be out for blood with Pek though and that price may rise, then the decision makers need to be smart to not put us in a situation in which we can’t afford Ricky/Love/Pek all together when the time comes to pay the piper on all three.

 

3. With Rubio improving and logging increased minutes, is it time to trade either JJ or Luke?  If so, which one do you keep and why?

 

Alex Glennon:

Despite recent criticism, JJ Barea has had a decent season and has clearly out-played Luke Ridnour at the point guard position. However, with Ricky back in the starting lineup and Ridnour functioning much more efficiently as a shooting guard, Barea has become Minnesota’s most frustrating guard and has had trouble adjusting to his ambiguous role.

I would like to see Minnesota move one of the players before the deadline in exchange for an expiring contract, a young asset or a draft selection. It is abundantly clear that there is not a need for both players on this team with Rubio healthy, and I think that it may be a wiser choice to move Barea due to his longer contract and potentially higher trade value. Many contending teams would love to acquire the sparkplug, high-energy role player and he offers an affordable contract to a playoff-bound team in need of bench scoring.

Derek James: 

Well, apparently they already are shopping one or both. Both have similar contracts, but I feel like Ridnour has the most value of the two, and if you want to get a good return, you have to give something. If that’s how they improve their shooting situation, then that’s fine, but Luke is also one of this team’s top shooter’s even when this team is healthy. The thing is, if he’s at least an average to above-average shooter who plays at the off-guard, don’t you have to at least try and get back a better shooter at that position? Otherwise, I feel like you’re trading a proven player on a very reasonable contract for a player who may cost more, and may not be as good of a fit.

John Flesta:

Until this season I have been saying Ridnour.  I’ve completely flip-flopped like Obama or Romney on this one.  (Yes, that was a political reference and please note that I called out both parties.)  I would like to see JJ traded for that more complementary wing player.  This gets us out of the longer contract (between the two of them).  I’m OK with waiting on the trade itself until the summer, where perhaps either one of them are packaged with Derrick Williams for a bigger contract / better player.

I can’t stand the way Barea is playing this year.  Look, Luke has his faults, but you know what you are getting from him when he is out there.  You have no idea what type of mood Barea is going to be in each night and how he is (or is not) going to play within the system.  Throw in how much he has been banged up over the past year and a half and that makes the decision that much easier.

Andy Grimsrud:

I don’t know if this matters too much, except to one or both of those guys if they see their minutes drastically cut.  Between the two of them I’d rather keep Luke because his contract is shorter.

Ben McDonald:

Definitely.  If I had it my way, I’d likely trade JJ.  Barea drives me insane.  I wrote about this dilemma on my blog a week or so ago and in the end I came to the conclusion that, though Barea makes my skin crawl, we deal whoever the teams we are trading with are willing to give the most for.

I can stomach either Ridnour or Barea as our back up point, so let’s get as much as we can for whoever someone else wants.  With Shved we don’t need to carry a third point guard (if we get another shooting guard) since Shved can also play point when needed.  If you can trust the rumors, seems as if Luke is going to be the odd man out.

 

4. Speaking of La Pistola, what is your take on the early results? Are you disappointed with his return or is it unfair to judge the flaws given his return from major knee surgery?

 

Alex Glennon: 

Over the past two weeks, we have seen Ricky take a huge step forward in his game as he is becoming much more comfortable looking for his shot and initiating contact in the lane. The Spaniard has done a great job getting to the free throw line where he has converted at a nice rate, and his abilities as a passer have been on full display as of late.

The blatant flaws in Ricky’s shooting should be taken with a grain of salt as he did not have a proper offseason to improve his stroke. His woes from behind the three-point line have caused frustration when considering he shot a relatively strong 34% last season, but it must be noted that without proper lower body strength, it is extremely difficult to shoot from long range. As he continues to build his confidence and log increased minutes, it is only a matter of time before we see Ricky knocking down his spotted-up looks.

Ricky ended the first-half of the season on a very positive note and I am sure he will only improve from this point on.

Derek James:

Rubio’s struggles returning were to be expected. A lot of fans in Minnesota expected and Adrian Peterson like return, but that is by far the exception, not the rule. What you want to see from Rubio is gradual improvement, and I think that’s what we’re seeing. Everyone just needs to be patient.

 John Flesta:

Here’s where I turn into a homer.  Rubio’s return has been about what I expected.  He has clearly turned a corner over the past few weeks and is playing a lot better.  However, I do want to see him be a little more careful with the ball (way too many turnovers) and start hitting his shot more consistently.  I don’t think the latter will come this season, it is going to take more time and effort in the offseason.  That said, I fully expect it to happen.

Andy Grimsrud:

I’m not at all disappointed with Rubio’s return.  He struggled for a handful of games — particularly with his shooting — but he looks to be quick on defense and in great physical shape.  He played 40 great minutes last night against a good Utah team, nearly posting a triple double.  In the off-season, I hope they perform reconstructive surgery on his jumper (instead of his knee, this time) to get his mechanics fixed and his confidence up.  But so much of his game helps the Wolves that it’s hard to feel anything but impressed by his prompt return to quality point guard play.

Ben McDonald:

He is back!  Ricky was struggling big time up until about 2 weeks ago.  I was very concerned and was starting to wonder if that spark he had would come back this year or ever.  Unbelievably excited that it seems to have fully returned, as I write this he is coming off a 1 rebound short of a triple double performance and over his last 10 games he is averaging 13.1 ppg and 8.6 ast.

This is the guy this franchise needs to be built around from here on out.  I’d lost that belief a bit with his struggles post-return, but the faith is back.  Every organizational decision from here on out needs to be prefaced by the question, “does this work well with what Ricky does?” 

 

5. Injuries have come to define the Wolves this year, but how would you evaluate them as they move forward? Is there enough talent on this team to make the playoffs in the future with a healthy roster, or is this team in need of further re-tooling?

 

Alex Glennon:

Coming into this season, I thought the Wolves were a lock to make the playoffs. Countless injuries later, I consider myself much more of a pessimist towards Minnesota’s chances of landing a bottom seed in the Western Conference. The Wolves’ miserable predicament has absolutely zero reflection on what this team could do when completely healthy, and I wholeheartedly believe that this very roster could reach a playoff berth under more favorable circumstances.

Without Love, much of the Pups hope goes out the window as he has been their go-to guy for the past three seasons and is the team’s national symbol for optimism in Minnesota. His injury situation was a very unfortunate series of events for Timberwolves fans, and it looks like fans will have to wait even longer in order to see what this team can do when healthy together.

Regardless of how the team’s roster may currently look, much is set to change as we draw nearer to summer. If Minnesota decides to match a big Pekovic offer, how will that affect the possible signing of Budinger who is also set to become a restricted free agent? Will Minnesota have 2 first-round draft picks, and if they do, will they use or deal them? Will this team acquire three-point shooters, and can we finally have an actual shooting guard manning the 2?

Derek James:

There is absolutely enough talent on this team to be considered a playoff team, and I think we’ve seen a flash or two of that at certain points in the season. Yet, being decimated by injuries, this has been a bit of a lost season in that regard, to me. People have been so quick to want to trade for someone to fix it for this season when there is already a good team in place that needs to get healthy, and you don’t try to use a permanent solution to fix a temporary problem. Even when Johnson and Gelabale were signed and people were crying out that they weren’t signing “Player X” or “Player Y”; well, guess what? All of the good players are on NBA teams already, and no team wants to trade a top player in their rotation for the Timberwolves’ spare parts. Again, we just have to be patient, even though we’re sick of waiting. But, with what we’ve seen, it looks as if we’ll get there eventually.

John Flesta:

The current roster, if/when healthy, is certainly a playoff team in my honest opinion.  Are they a championship team?  No, they aren’t.  The right steps in the process were finally taken this past offseason with trying to sign Batum, landing on Kirilenko, Shved, and Budinger.  As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, it would have been nice to hear that Kahn somewhat aggressively went after OJ Mayo before picking Brandon Roy.

I wish the Wolves would hire a draft guru because that has clearly been missing during Kahn’s era (and before).  If that were to happen, I would have much more confidence in this team being able to use just the forthcoming offseason to turn itself into championship contender and giving itself a two year window to compete for the title.  I don’t think it would take much beyond the following: good health for a season, resigning Pek, trading Barea and/or Derrick Williams for an above average SG and finding more depth at the wing position via the draft to put into the rotation.  This really shouldn’t be too hard.

 Andy Grimsrud:

It’s difficult to evaluate the Wolves as a potential playoff team because we have yet to see them at full strength.  Certain statistical models had this team (assuming only Rubio’s injury) winning north of 50 games before this season.  Injuries to Kevin Love and to a lesser extent Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger obviously changed that.  I think the Western Conference is loaded with good teams and any spot above a 1/8 matchup with Oklahoma City means a realistic chance at advancing to the 2nd Round.  Are the Wolves that good?  I think they could be, but it’s impossible to predict with any confidence because of the strength of the West.  In the East, a good team can be sure it’s making the playoffs.  Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way in the West.  What CAN be guaranteed is a competitive season with 70 or more games that are enjoyable to watch.  We were going to get that this year, until the injuries came on.

In terms of whether the team should re-tool, I’d say no; not right now.  Obviously that could change if some unforeseen trade offer lands on David Kahn’s desk, but from the outside looking in I’d rather they get healthy and try again with the Rubio/Kirilenko/Love/Pekovic core, with some Shved and Dante Cunningham sprinkled in.  Some internal improvement (Ricky’s continued rehab, Shved refining a few of his weaknesses) should happen with a young team and “just getting healthy” might prove to be the only remedy this team needs.  A Derrick Williams trade might make some sense, but I don’t know if he has much value to bring back helpful assets.

Ben McDonald:

Every team needs further re-tooling.  Look again to the best, Miami didn’t rest after its championship last summer; they re-tooled around their base and may have gotten better.

Moving forward this season I think there are a few things I’m looking to get out of what is no longer a playoff hunt:

First, I want to find out if a trio of Rubio/K-Love/Pek is going to be our foundation or not.  Getting Love back healthy for the remainder of the year and keeping Rubio/Pek healthy at the same time will be necessary for this to happen.  If it looks like we are a mid level western conference playoff team with everyone healthy for the final 12-15 games of the season, then we ensure we get Pek back and look to fill in the holes around the big 3.  If not, maybe we let Pek go and look elsewhere for that third cog.

Second, I want to see if Derrick Williams fits in with everyone back and healthy.  This entire year you couldn’t tell how D-Will would fit in with everyone healthy due to Love being out and AK also missing time.  If he doesn’t fit in, then the Wolves need to look to make a deal this summer using Williams and getting a player who more aptly fits our needs.  Williams is such a key to me because of the players we’d likely trade (unless you believe Love is on the table) he has the highest value. Therefore, D-Will should not just rot on our bench until Love breaks his hand again next year buttering his toast.  Mix in some milk K-Love!

I do believe this team has the overall talent to make the playoffs currently on the roster and am hoping to see that potential met if we can ever get everyone on the court at the same time before this season is over.  Kahn will have a real difficult time with offseason decisions if he doesn’t know how this team would play as it is currently put together.  It will be a small sample size, but even a few games would help.

 

Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed our discussion. The Timberwolves begin the second half of their season as they host the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday.

Minnesota Timberwolves 100, Cleveland Cavs 92

Photo Credit: MN Timberwolves

Photo Credit: MN Timberwolves

Game Summary

Finishing up the second half of a back-to-back series in Cleveland, the Pups came into the game a team on the ropes taking a flurry of punches from the opponent.  The latest four game skid moved the team’s record to 18-30 on the season and aspirations for the playoffs are essentially dead.  While the Wolves stumble, the Cavs look to be heading in the opposite direction, winners of six of their last nine heading into Monday night’s match-up.  So naturally those two trends came to a crashing halt for an evening as the Wolves picked up an impressive win in Cleveland (just like I predicted in our preview … or not).  Here’s how things progressed over the evening.

No changes for the Wolves starting lineup Monday night – Rubio, Ridnour, Gelabale, Williams, and Pekovic.  The Cavs opened up with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, and Tyler Zeller.  You weren’t going to see this game nationally broadcast to the masses, that’s for sure.

The Pups got off to a real slow start, as they were held scoreless for the first two and a half minutes of the game.  The lowlights included multiple turnovers on bad passes by the back court, Derrick Williams picking up two quick fouls, and Pekovic missing a number of FG attempts due to going up soft around the rim.

Thankfully, the Cavs looked almost as bad early on.  They did show an ability to get easy points on the fast break and in transition.  Going into the first timeout of the game, the Wolves held a 14-10 advantage.  The remainder of the quarter was filled with turnovers and missed shots on both ends.  At the end of the 1st quarter, the Cavs held a 27-25 lead.

Midway through a poorly played 2nd quarter, the score was only 37-33.  Thinking about this in another way, the Cavs and Wolves combined for 18 points through six minutes of basketball.  With under four minutes to go in the half, the Wolves got a little hot going with a three guard set, led by Rubio and Shved.  After taking a 47-41 lead in the quarter, the Wolves let down their guard (again) as the final minute of the quarter ticked away.  I continue to be amazed at how poorly this team is at closing quarters.

At the half, the Wolves held a 49-46 lead.  Here are my HT thoughts through a Wolves lens:

  • The Wolves seemingly made the commitment of getting Pekovic the ball in the paint tonight and he didn’t reward the team with a lot of points.  Very active half for Pek, but he missed a lot of shots in the paint, including having a few blocked by the Cavs.
  • Same thought again tonight – why doesn’t Chris Johnson get any early burn?
  • I would like JJ Barea off this team.  Have I mentioned this before?

In the 3rd quarter, the Wolves were led by Derrick Williams offensively.  After picking up the two early fouls in the 1st, Williams made a few nice adjustments to stay on the court and helped lead the offense.  This felt like a nice response from the 2nd year pro.  (Naturally, Williams didn’t see the floor in the 4th quarter …)

Not to be outshined by the player selected immediately after him in the ’11 draft, Kyrie Irving did most of the damage for the Cavs in the 3rd quarter.  The Cavs scored 19 points in the quarter and Irving either scored or assisted on all but one basket for the team.  At the end of the 3rd, the Wolves held a 72-65 lead.

The 4th quarter couldn’t have been much more different than the first three quarters.  Both teams executed on the offensive end of the floor and were hitting their shots, leading to an entertaining final twelve minutes.  The Wolves were able to build a 9 point lead with four minutes left in the quarter.  In their quest to make every game interesting, the Pups let the Cavs cut the lead down to 3 points with just a few minutes left in the game.

Losing streaks be gone, as the Wolves were able to close out Monday’s game and win on the road in Cleveland!  The team shot 12-16 from the field in the final frame and left Cleveland a 100-92 victor.

Keys of the Game

  • Shooting percentages – A standard key to the game for the Pups this year, but this time the team comes out on the winning end!  Over 50% from the field and from 3PT range on Monday night and 14-17 from the FT line to boot!
  • Muscle in the paint – Without Varejao, the Cavs had no answer in the paint for Pekovic, but also gave up a lot of rebounds to Williams and Gelabale.
  • Byron Scott – I’m not sure who gets the credit here, but Dion Waiters was 6-6 from the field in only 21 minutes of time on the floor and was matched up against a terribly undersized group of guards on the Wolves.  This should have been exploited a lot more.

Three Stars of the Game

  1. Luke Ridnour – A very nice night from Luke shooting the ball (9-14 for the game) and particularly strong in the 4th quarter when the Wolves have collapsed many a time this season.
  2. Mickael Gelabale – The Cavs were clearly not ‘ready for this Gelly’ tonight!  The SF was 3-3 from long range and a game high +16 in +/-.  Mickael continues to impress as he picks up more minutes in Kirilenko’s absence.
  3. Nikola Pekovic – Pekovic gets the nod over Rubio due to being a menace against the Cavs in the paint and logging a game high 40+ minutes.  Pek put in 16 & 10 and was active all night.