Analyzing How The Timberwolves Stack Up In The Western Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota Timberwolves 89, Golden State Warriors 105

Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports

Game Summary:

Playing in Oakland on Monday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves took on the Golden State Warriors who were playing to clinch a playoff spot with a win on their home floor. A win for the Warriors would symbolize the organization reaching only their second playoff berth over the past 19 years.

The matchup featured a showdown between the top three-point shooting team in the league against the worst in that same category. Minnesota, now without team leader and top scorer Kevin Love for the remainder of the season as he gets some scar tissue cleaned up in his knee, had a very difficult time competing in the interior against the Golden State frontcourt of David Lee and a healthy Andrew Bogut.

The Warriors size advantage was impossible to ignore from the tip, as Warriors head coach Marc Jackson put 6-foot-7 Klay Thompson on Ricky Rubio, making penetration tough for the Spaniard off the bat.

The reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, Nikola Pekovic entered the game averaging a dominant 22.7 points and 10.9 rebounds over his past seven games. The Warriors game planned well and Bogut did a very good job of denying Pek the ball on the low block. With Minnesota doing a poor job of finding ways to get the ball to their center in the paint, the Wolves were forced to focus the offense on scoring from the perimeter – something that they usually struggle mightily with.

It was Klay Thompson who provided the majority of Golden State’s points early on, as he was red-hot from beyond the arc. Shooting an impressive 40% from three in only his second NBA season, Thompson hit his first four shot attempts and he led the Warriors with 10 points with the Warriors leading 20-17 with 2:55 remaining in the first period of play. Minnesota looked for backside cuts for much of their offense and went into the second period tied 26-26.

Thompson continued to light it up from all over the floor in the second quarter as he stayed perfect hitting his first 8 field goal attempts with 5 of them being three-pointers nearly halfway through the second. Despite the superb performance Thompson was giving for Golden State, Minnesota held a 40-39 lead with nearly seven minutes remaining in the first half. Stephen Curry had a difficult time getting in a rhythm and was mostly passive throughout the first half and even had to be careful on the defensive end as he picked up his third personal foul with around 3 minutes left in the second quarter.

Having a hard time gaining separation from Thompson, Ricky vied for open jumpers dribbling off screens but his shot looked very flat and he shot 0-5 in the first half. With Rubio unable to create offense for himself and the Warriors baiting him to take longer jump shots, the Pups fell right into Golden State’s gameplan as the Wolves worst shooter continued to brick shots off of the rim while Nikola laid hungry on the low block.

A late run in the first half highlighted by a transition dunk by Harrison Barnes gave the Warriors a 55-54 lead entering halftime. The first half was essentially the Klay Thompson show, who put on an absolute clinic shooting the ball as he went 9-11 from the field on his way to 25 first half points. The Washington State product certainly played a critical role in keeping the Warriors afloat providing nearly half of the team’s points in the opening half of play.

In the second half, Golden State continued their initial game plan of denying Pekovic on the low block while baiting Ricky to shoot jump shots. After averaging such prolific numbers over the past seven games, Pek was unable to get into any sort of rhythm in the paint while facing very impressive interior defense.

With the game only separated by six points, Luke Ridnour and Thompson got into a small shoving match which ultimately resulted in a technical foul against Luke causing a shift in momentum in the opponents favor. From that point on the Wolves started their collapse as the Warriors fed off of each others energy in transition leading to a 19-4 run for Golden State. With Rubio ice cold and unable to score on anything besides free throws, the Warriors gained significant control of the game with just less than four minutes to play in the third period as they led the Pups 78-64.

Not only was Pek held in check scoring-wise, but he was also unable to contribute on the offensive glass as the Warriors did a fantastic job of getting multiple bodies on the 290-pound monster. This inhibited the Timberwolves from creating second chance opportunities and the Warriors held a large advantage in the rebounding battle. Stephen Curry began to heat up in the third period scoring 13 points in the quarter. Chase Budinger was able to provide a spark offensively off of the bench as he scored 10 points in first 12 minutes on the court. However, Golden State controlled the perimeter and interior battles and led 86-70 heading into final period of play.

The fourth quarter was much of the same as the Wolves continued to struggle shutting down any of the Warriors several weapons, and the countdown to the final buzzer was on for much of the fourth quarter. With the clock ticking down, Warriors fans received the 105-89 victory with chants and cheers as they witnessed their team secure a playoff spot for only the second time in 19 seasons. As hard it was to watch Golden State cap off their impressive season with a playoff berth while the Timberwolves are in the midst of finishing their tumultuous 2012-13 campaign, it was a good sight watching a small market club cheered on by a sellout Oakland crowd overcome significant adversity to ultimately grab a playoff spot in the upcoming NBA postseason. While Timbewolves’ fans know that it coulda been, shoula been us, we must continue to look to the future and have confidence that our bit of luck has yet to come.

 

Keys of the Game:

Rebouding - The Warriors out-rebounded the Timberwolves 60-44 while holding a 12-6 advantage on the offensive glass. Lee, Barnes and Bogut each recorded at least 10 rebounds while Greg Stiemsma led the Wolves with 9.

Interior Defense - The Warriors held Minnesota’s starting frontcourt duo of Williams and Pekovic to a collective 10 points on 4-16 FG and 7 rebounds. Bogut recorded 3 blocks and together he and Lee posted 17 points and 26 rebounds.

 

Three Stars of the Game: 

  1. Klay Thompson - Thompson was unconscious in the first half knocking down his first 5 three-point attempts and his first 8 field goals in total. The long shooting guard was two points off of his career high for scoring as he finished with 30 points (10-19 FG, 6-10 3Pt) to pair with 5 steals in 36 minutes on the floor.
  2. David Lee - Golden State’s workhorse in the paint continued his tremendous 2012-13 campaign and recorded another double-double of 15 points (6-12 FG), 12 rebounds and 5 assists in 33 minutes. Lee has been arguably the Warriors most important player this season and he will finally get an opportunity to compete in the playoffs after eight NBA seasons.
  3. Stephen Curry - After a subpar first half, Curry got hot in the third quarter and ultimately finished with 24 points (9-21 FG, 2-9 3Pt), 10 assists and 4 rebounds in 39 minutes. Curry has done a great job of staying on the court this season after several arthroscopic ankle surgeries over the past few seasons. It is no question that Golden State is a fundamentally different team with Curry in the lineup than when he is on the bench with injury.

Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Golden State Warriors, 2/24/13

Photo Credit: Adidas

Photo Credit: Adidas

Our Pups return home after a high scoring affair Friday night against the OKC Thunder to take on the vastly improved Golden State Warriors Sunday afternoon. While the Wolves season has fallen apart, the Warriors are meeting or exceeding expectations to this point in the season. Minnesota comes into Sunday’s game with a 20-32 record, while the Warriors come into the game off of a big, overtime victory Friday night against San Antonio, improving their record to 32-23 on the year.

Before Friday’s game, the Warriors announced that Andrew Bogut would miss another indefinite amount of games due to problems with his back. This has to be frustrating for Warriors fans as the team has climbed to the six seed in the conference largely without their starting center. One must wonder “what could have been” if Bogut was able to stay healthy, particularly in an effort to avoid the Spurs and/or Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. That said, I don’t think the Warriors will get many pity points from the Timberwolves or their fans given what has transpired this season for our Pups.

These two teams have not met since November, when the Warriors handed the Wolves two losses over the span of eight days. Golden State took the first match-up 106-98 at the Target Center and then the second match-up in the Bay area 96-85.

Finally, in case you missed it, the Warriors launched a new jersey in Friday night’s game on ESPN – the Spurs-Warriors game followed the Wolves-Thunder match-up on ESPN’s doubleheader. The jersey is more t-shirt vs. jersey and is certainly an interesting mix into the lineup. The cynic in me suggests that this type of “jersey” makes it an easier transition for the NBA to start putting brand logos and advertisements on their apparel.

Player to watch:
David Lee – Lee had two solid performances against the Wolves in those November meetings, putting up 18 points and 13 rebounds in Minnesota and 17 & 8 in the following match-up. Without Kevin Love again, it will be important for Minnesota’s frontcourt to keep Lee off the boards as much as possible and to stay in front of him in the isolation sets, not allowing him to fly by the defender and/or having a second defender backing up whoever is matching up against Lee directly.

Match-up to watch:
Ricky Rubio vs. Stephen Curry. The could-have-been teammates are the primetime match-up in Sunday afternoon’s meeting. About the only positive topic the Wolves have going right now is the on-going improvement in Rubio’s game as he continues to build/gain confidence in his knee. Curry is having a career year this season, coming into the game averaging a career best 21.1 ppg, 6.6 apg, and 4.0 rpg. He also has a 19.8 PER, which is good for fifth highest in the league among PG’s.

Predictions:
The Warriors are coming off of a solid win against the Spurs Friday night, so there is a chance of a letdown here at the Target Center. However, I won’t go on record predicting one.
Final score prediction: Twolves 104, Warriors 112

Three stars of the game predictions:
1. Harrison Barnes
2. David Lee
3. Nikola Pekovic

Lets go Wolves!

Minnesota Timberwolves 85 – Golden State Warriors 96

Mathew Sumner – Associated Press

Another game, another loss. In the second game of their road trip, the Minnesota Timberwolves fell for the fifth game in a row, and the third loss in a row since the return of Kevin Love. Led by Stephen Curry’s 5 three-pointers, the Warriors dropped the Timberpups by a score of 96-85.

K-Love had his worst shooting night of the season as he went only 6-20 from the field while attempting a mere 4 free throws. Love had a very tough time with his right hook shot, which is usually his bread and butter on the low post. In the second half, Love threw his protective black glove to the sideline, in an obvious signal that he feels that it is restricting him on his shot. Timberwolves medical personnel states that he can no longer do any more damage to the hand by not wearing the glove, except the fact that it remains more vulnerable to injury should he fall on it or hit it against someone. Regardless, it appears that Love is done with the black glove, and hopefully that will correlate with more made field goals.

The Timberwolves three-point shooting woes were on full display last night as they converted only 5 of their 27 attempts (18.5%). Although Golden State shot an uncharacteristic 6-21 from long-range, they once again outshot the Wolves from the field (42%-38%) and relied heavily on Curry who carried the Warriors throughout the second half to yet another second-half comeback victory over the Pups.

Carl Landry was fantastic off the bench for the Warriors, who recorded 18 points and 9 rebounds while sinking all 10 of his free throw attempts. Andrei Kirilenko had yet another poor shooting night as he scored 11 points on 4 of 13 shooting, including missing all 5 of his three-point attempts.

Despite outscoring the Warriors in the paint by a tally of 46-36, Golden State won the rebounding battle (48-39) and was very active on weak-side rebounding. Draymond Green, David Lee, and Harrison Barnes all caught their Wolves defenders sleeping at times and exploited poor block-outs to create second chance opportunities all game long. Klay Thompson, who is generally considered one of the top three-point shooters in the league, went a miserable 1-8 from beyond the arc, but made up for it with his mid-range game on his way to scoring a game-high 24 points.

Derrick Williams, having received two consecutive DNP-CD, played just about as good of an 11 minutes as he has all season. D-Will looked very sharp on both ends of the floor, and appeared as if he was not over-thinking things as he previously has been this season. He flowed with the game and did not hesitate when given an opportunity to score, and scored 10 points while hitting 2 of his 4 three-point attempts. On defense, Williams blocked 2 shots and recorded one steal while turning the ball over once. D-Will was one of only two Timberwolves to have a positive +/-, with the other being Dante Cunningham. Cunningham brought tremendous energy off the bench and scored 6 points (3-5 FG) while snagging 2 steals on defense. Dante received a relatively smaller role given that D-Will saw the floor, but the two of the together were ultimately effective and were one of the only bright spots for the Pups.

Nikola Pekovic finished with another solid line of 17 points (7-13 FG) and 6 rebounds in 30 minutes, but had a much bigger first than second half, as the Warriors really turned it up on their low-post defense.

The Timberwolves starting backcourt had yet another poor showing, as Luke Ridnour and Malcolm Lee shot a combined 1-10 from the field while getting thoroughly outplayed by the Warriors guards. The Pups backup guards once again outplayed the starters and subsequently Alexey Shved and JJ Barea received more minutes than both Ridnour and Lee. Shved had a nice night finishing with 9 points (3-7 FG) and 5 assists while Barea ended with 8 points (2-6 FG) and 10 assists. All in all, the Wolves are in desperate need of three-point shooting from both of their guard units as the guards shot an unacceptable combined 2-12 from three-point range.

The Timberwolves lack of players who can create offense for themselves has been a main highlight during their current 5-game skid, and they will need to start hitting more three-pointers and playing tougher defense if they are to break the losing streak. It is also important that this team continues to learn how to operate with Kevin Love in offensive and defensive sets, as it has fundamentally shifted the way this team plays. The Timberwolves next matchup is on the road in Sacramento on Tuesday night, and here are tonight’s three stars of the game.

  1. Stephen Curry
  2. Harrison Barnes
  3. David Lee