Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Portland Trail Blazers, 3/2/13

20130302-122214.jpgSetting the stage:

The million dollar question at this point is “who is in and who is out?” The Timberwolves conclude their western journeySaturday night in Portland and at the time of writing, we don’t know who will be available for the team. Beyond the “normal” group of players that remain out, will Andrei Kirilenko or Nikola Pekovic be ready for Saturday’s game? As soon as we know more, we’ll drop it into the comments section below.

Our Pups come off a loss on Thursday night to the Lakers, which was the team’s fourth loss in a row, and 20th out of their last 24 games. You don’t need a calculator to know that this isn’t very good. The latest losing streak has dropped the team’s record to 20-35. While still in the hunt for the playoffs, the Blazers have also been in a mini free-fall over the past few weeks and are on a 1-8 slide to close out February. Portland is currently 26-31 on the season and four games behind the Rockets for the 8th seed in the conference, with the Lakers also two games ahead of them for that final seed/spot in the playoffs.

Portland has taken care of the Wolves in each of their three prior meetings this season. While the games have been close and enjoyable to watch, the Wolves have found ways to lose. This includes letting Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews do whatever they want from the Blazers backcourt positions.

Player to watch:

Nicolas Batum – Given Stephen Curry’s 54 point explosion at MSG this week, why wouldn’t there be salt in the wound for Pups fans on Saturday night? Kirilenko has been great, probably the team MVP, but he isn’t going to be around in a few years whereas Batum looks like he is really coming into his own this season. I just expect to see a lot of “what could have been” and “imagine if he was with the Wolves” comments and tweets. While putting up strong performances in the first two meetings between the two teams, Batum really struggled in his last meeting with the Wolves, as AK47 was able to shut him down. Batum finished that game with more turnovers (7) than points (4). I expect to see some type of revenge on Saturday night.

Match-up to watch:

Ricky Rubio vs. Damian Lillard. Rubio just missed a triple double on Thursday night against the Lakers and it seems like he has been flirting with one quite a bit lately. The NBA can hand Damian Lillard the Rookie of the Year trophy right now if they really wanted to. He has been phenomenal for the Blazers this season and has not hit the rookie wall at all. There have only been four games to this point in the season in which Lillard has not reached double digits in scoring.

Given that Rubio now seems to be truly healthy, this match-up should be a lot of fun to watch/monitor and should pack the highlight reel.

Predictions:

I don’t see the Wolves pulling this one off, particularly if AK47 and/or Pekovic are out or severely hampered with their nagging injuries.

Final score prediction: Twolves 86, Blazers 101

Three stars of the game predictions:

1. Nicolas Batum
2. Wesley Matthews
3. Ricky Rubio

Let’s go Wolves!

Minnesota Timberwolves 97 – Portland Trail Blazers 102

Photo Credit: Jim Mone / The Associated Press

Photo Credit: Jim Mone / The Associated Press

Injuries, injuries, injuries. Taking on the division rival Portland Trail Blazers at the Target Center on Saturday night, the Timberwolves were left without team centerpieces Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love in a season that has once again been defined by roster-depleting injuries. Portland has not experienced such misfortune so far this season and has continued to surge under the leadership of rookie Damian Lillard and young veterans Nicolas Batum and Lamarcus Aldridge. Trailing 79-61 heading into the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves nearly stole the game from the Blazers behind some stellar fourth-quarter shooting from Derrick Williams, who fueled a 26-8 fourth-quarter run that ultimately culminated in a 102-97 defeat.

Game Summary

Nikola Pekovic was virtually unstoppable and recorded 21 points (9-14 FG) and 15 rebounds before leaving the game in the third quarter due to a left hip strain. With injuries keeping both Love and Rubio out of the game, the loss of Pek makes Minnesota extremely vulnerable in nearly all areas of their roster. A potential free agent target for Portland heading into next summer, Pek displayed utter dominance on the low block and continues to make his case for a max contract offer next offseason.

The devastating news surrounding Love’s condition came out before the start of the game, and an MRI has revealed that he re-fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand and a timetable for his return has not yet been set. K-Love had previously fractured the third and fourth metacarpals in the same hand October 17, and is set to see hand specialist Dr. Andy Weiland this week. It is blatantly obvious that Love returned far too early following his initial fractures and it was also extremely evident in his decreases in FG%, 3p%, etc. Love will now have to focus on ensuring that his hand is 100% before attempting another return back to the court, and it could be another month before we see our star back on the court.

What an interesting season this has been for Derrick Williams, as he will likely get a second chance at returning to the starting lineup amid Love’s latest injury. The set of circumstances are especially intriguing when considering the vast improvement that D-Will has displayed since his mediocre start to the season which essentially sent him into Rick Adelman’s doghouse of which Williams had a difficult time getting out of. However, with Pek leaving the game due to injury and Love already out, Williams had a spectacular second half performance in which he scored 18 points in 18 minutes, shooting 6-10 from the field and 2-3 from three-point range. One aspect of Derrick’s game that has been greatly overlooked this season has been his defense, and he has rapidly turned into one of the top defenders on the Pups roster, recording 6 rebounds and 2 steals as well last night. Williams currently holds a PER of 15.64, much-improved from the 12.98 PER he held last season, and is now shooting above league-average from three at 38%. The biggest question will be how he can handle more minutes and increased responsibility, and he his ability to maintain confidence will be a major factor in how he is able to fare until Love rejoins the lineup.

Playing without their 3 core players, the Wolves will now return to a lineup that is very similar to that of the beginning of the season. Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved will have to be major contributors in the offense and the success of the team will heavily rely on defense and passing, as there is no clear first option scorer that is healthy. Shved had an off-night shooting last night, finishing just 1 for 11 from the field despite tallying 7 assists and 3 rebounds in 30 minutes. Although Shved is technically labeled as a rookie, he is in a much different situation than other rookies in the NBA in that he has been playing professionally since his teenage years. The biggest thing that Shved needs to change is his shot selection in the pick-and-roll. He needs to take harder angles when running off picks, because he tends to make his movements more laterally than vertically which allows his defenders to stick with him easier while keeping Shved farther away from the hoop. I believe that Shved is a very good shooter and has yet to gain a rhythm thus far in the NBA, but he must allow himself higher percentage looks instead of settling for contested jump shots when running off screens.

AK-47 and Dante Cunningham each had efficient games and both were +4 on the court in 42 minutes played. Both players have been highly consistent this season and were tremendous pickups in the offseason, being near perfect fits for the Adelman offense. Kirilenko finished with an oh-so-characteristic line of 15 points (7-13 FG), 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 2 turnovers. Cunningham added 10 points (5-13 FG), 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks.

JJ Barea got another technical foul and made another critical late-game turnover that solidified Portland’s win, but had a pretty nice game despite his crucial mistakes. In 26 minutes off the bench, Barea finished with 14 points (5-13 FG), 7 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 turnovers.

Three Stars of the Game

  1. Damian Lillard: This was a tough pick, because it was pretty much a toss-up between Lillard-Batum-Matthews for who had the best performance. Lillard was a game-high +16 on the floor, whereas Batum (+1) and Matthews (+7) fell a bit short. The thing that amazes me the most about Lillard is his seeming lack of nerves on the court; he simply looks like a kid playing the game he loves without any worries in the world. The Blazers rising star absolutely terrorized Minnesota’s guards and used his size and explosiveness to dissect the Pups halfcourt defense. A favorite for Rookie of the Year, Lillard has given Blazers fans a reason to be highly optimistic for the next decade, and new GM Neil Olshey truly hit a home run in last summers draft. 
  2. Nicolas Batum: It is performances like these that made Wolves GM David Kahn dish out the $46 million offer sheet last summer that put Portland in a serious pickle. While he had previously been marked by injuries and inconsistency, Batum has enjoyed a career year and was nearly perfect last night against our Pups. In 38 minutes, Batum scored 26 points on 9 of 11 shooting, including 5 of 6 from three. He also recorded 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks and only 1 turnover in what was arguably his best offensive game of the season.
  3. Wesley Matthews: Matthews played remarkably similar to Batum last night, knocking down 5 of his 7 three-point attempts and scoring 26 points in 36 minutes on the floor. As a team, Portland shot 16-24 from beyond the arc and put on a shooting clinic on the road against a division rival.

Are the Portland Trail Blazers the T Wolves first Legit Rival?

Well, friends, here we are in the midst of another hectic summer of NBA free agency and our Timberpups just cannot seem to catch a break. For starters, the Trail Blazers matched the Wolves offer sheet to Nicolas Batum worth 4 years and roughly $46.5 million, ending the dream of nabbing the 23-year-old rising star who can shoot, defend, and play both shooting guard and small forward (both positions of significant need). Despite signing Kevin Love to a max contract earlier this year, the Timberwolves are loaded with cap space after the amnesty of Darko, trade of Brad Miller, waiving of Martell Webster, while watching both Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph sign elsewhere after being non-tendered. This years crop of free agents was not the greatest in recent memory, but there was no doubt that there were plenty of serviceable players that the Timberwolves could realistically sign.

The Batum saga lasted for approximately 18 days, ultimately culminating in Minnesota fans getting their hopes up followed by an inevitable, oh-so-familiar Minnesota sports letdown. The time that Minnesota spent attempting a sign-and-trade with Portland for Batum was not without its opportunity cost as potential free agent fits OJ Mayo, Lou Williams, Jamal Crawford, Landry Fields, Chauncey Billups, and most recently Courtney Lee found new homes. The sting of losing out on Batum was only made worse by seeing other viable wing options fill the needs of contending teams, while limiting Minnesota’s remaining options in free agency. The failed pursuit of Batum not only yielded Portland retaining one of their core pieces, but also contributed to the brewing rivalry between the Timberwolves and Portland.
[Read more…]

T-Wolves Sign Nicolas Batum to Offer Sheet

After several failed attempts at a sign-and-trade deal for Portland SG-SF Nicolas Batum, the Wolves officially signed Batum to an offer sheet worth $46.4 million over 4 years. The deal includes incentives that could potentially push the total dollar amount to over $50 million, and the general consensus of sports minds believe that Portland will not allow Batum to walk for nothing. As a restricted free agent, the Trail Blazers now have until Wednesday night to match the offer sheet.

Minnesota’s amnesty of Darko Milicic, waive of Martell Webster, and trade of Brad Miller have given the Wolves plenty of cap space to fit Batum and his large contract into their payroll, and even gives them additional room to potentially sign a few free agents that most likely include Brandon Roy, Alexey Shved, Greg Stiemsma, Jordan Hill, Courtney Lee, OJ Mayo, and Ronnie Brewer, among others. Many free agents have held off signing with teams until the Batum situation plays out, and Roy and Shved have already verbally agreed with the Wolves until they can officially sign with the team as they await Portland’s decision on Batum. If Portland matches, the Wolves will shift their focus on signing Stiemsma and targeting free agent shooting guards Lee and Mayo. Lee previously played under Timberwolves Head Coach Rick Adelman in Houston, and would be a great fit on both ends of the floor.
[Read more…]

Timberwolves Waive Martell Webster, Trade Brad Miller

[media url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRz0hfakFAw”]

As the hope for a sign-and-trade with Portland for Nicolas Batum dwindles, the Timberwolves were busy yesterday clearing cap space with the casualties being Martell Webster and Brad Miller. Webster was waived and bought out for a total of $600,000, ending a mediocre tenure on Minnesota. Bothered with multiple back surgeries spanning his 7-year career, Webster was originally acquired by Minnesota for the 16th overall selection in the 2010 draft. Originally taken with the 6th overall pick out of Seattle Preparatory High School, the hyper-athletic swingman was unable to live up to his lofty expectations while primarily serving as backup to Brandon Roy, and David Kahn saw him as worth the gamble. Fortunately for Minnesota, Luke Babbitt, Portland’s end of the 2010 trade, has averaged a miserable 3.7 PPG thus far into his short NBA career. If the Wolves would have not bought out Webster, he would have been due a $5.7 million team option, a price tag his 10.02 Player Efficiency Rating is undoubtedly not worth.

Minnesota also sent Brad Miller packing to New Orleans along with two future second-round draft picks in exchange for one conditional second-round pick. The picks Minnesota sent to the Hornets are the Nets’ 2013 second-round selection along with Minnesota’s own 2016 second-round choice. Although Miller has stated that he will not play another season and will retire this offseason, he was awaiting a $848,000 buyout before filing his retirement paperwork. The Wolves apparently did not feel comfortable keeping that buyout money on their payroll, and likewise sent out two second-round picks to cover the cost, a price some would feel that is excessive.
[Read more…]

Darko Gets the Amnesty Clause

The Timberwolves, in an effort to free up enough cap space to sign Nicolas Batum to an offer sheet worth $46.5 million, have agreed to waive C Darko Milicic via the amnesty provision. The clause, as a part of the most recent CBA, allows a team to waive one player while eating the remaining salary on the respective player’s contract. However, the amnesty provision removes the waived players salary from the team’s official salary cap number, giving that squad more flexibility in free agency and in trades.

Darko’s release comes as no surprise as he was not able to earn the respect of Coach Rick Adelman and hardly saw the court during the last half of the season. Possibilities to replace Darko as backup center are Jordan Hill and Greg Stiemsma, both of whom have met with the Timberwolves and have expressed interest in signing with the up-and-coming Timberpups team. The Wolves, who were unable to complete a sign-and-trade deal with Portland for Batum, now must wait three days for Portland to either match the restricted free agent or watch him walk. The chances are slim that Portland will allow Batum to leave for nothing, and the Pups may need to look to other Plan B options to fill their need on the perimeter. Viable options at SF are Courtney Lee and OJ Mayo, and both players would likely receive significantly less money than Batum.

Photo Credits: Getty Images

Timberwolves: Implications of a Batum Signing

The Timberwolves began NBA free agency in frenzy as the clock struck midnight on July 1, commencing their quest for veteran additions to their current nucleus by scheduling meetings with SG-SF Nicolas Batum, C Greg Stiemsma, former Portland SG Brandon Roy, and PF-C Jordan Hill. The Timberpups also reached out to the likes of SG Jamal Crawford, SG OJ Mayo, while remaining extremely active in trade discussions with the Los Angeles Lakers in hopes of landing PF Pau Gasol.

It appears that the Pups are as dedicated as any team in the NBA to land multiple high-profile players NOW, greatly reflecting their urgency to “win now,” as Minnesota head coach Rick Adelman is 66 and is likely in the middle of his final contract of his life, while Pups owner Glen Taylor is 71 and wants to see how far his current core group of players can take him before he sells the team in a few years. Whatever the sole cause, it is very uncharacteristic of the Wolves to be so very active in free agency while placing such great importance on attracting marquee names to the land of 10,000 lakes, and the Minnesota front office and coaching staff deserves much credit for their persistent efforts thus far. [Read more…]