Timberwolves preview: Rise of Minnesota, take two

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Wolves roared out of the gate in 2011-12, but fell apart when Ricky Rubio got injured. So, the team added some more pieces and looks to end its lottery streak.

No team was more fun to watch than the Minnesota Timberwolves through the first half of last season. Ricky Rubio arrived from Spain in style, making David Kahn look something like a savant. Kevin Love was at his best, combining excellent post work and one of the most serious long-range threats in the entire league. Nikola Pekovic became a household name (well ...) and Rick Adelman again was pronounced a wizard of the hardwood.

Then Ricky got injured. Then Love got injured. Then it all fell apart. Is it back together yet?

FEATS OF STRENGTH

Tell me if you've heard this one before: Adelman's team was better on offense than defense. Minnesota finished No. 18 on the offensive end, with free throw rate the only elite ranking (No. 5) for the club. Ricky was a double-edged sword on offense: he certainly set up teammates for easy scores quite a bit in that Nash-like fashion, but he was also a completely awful shooter (35.7 percent from the floor) and a turnover machine (3.2 per game). Despite the electric passing and huge assist numbers (8.8 per game), he was wildly inefficient overall, rating an offensive efficiency five points below league average. But Love and Pekovic were proper ballasts. Love is really efficient given his usage rate (1.14 points per possession, 29 percent of Minnesota's possessions when on the court), and Pekovic was one of the most efficient big men in the game, albeit at a lower usage rate (still respectable 22 percent). Having two excellent offensive big men is a rare luxury. This is Minnesota's foundation.

The Wolves did some things OK on defense, too. They didn't foul much (No. 6 in foul rate) and were middle of the pack in rebounding and shooting defense. They force painfully few turnovers, which restricts Rubio's ability to get into transition. Love is a minus defensively, so it may behoove Minnesota to gamble more once Rubio returns to action (or by using Alexey Shved to disrupt). But defensive gains will be made thanks to Andrei Kirilenko, more than anything. The Timberwolves finally have a stopper!, albeit an older one. (Kirilenko is 31.) This should help a great deal, especially when you consider that Kirilenko is replacing Michael Beasley, who ... isn't exactly known for his defense.

There's also the potential that Minnesota added a legit All-Star candidate named Brandon Roy, depending on how his knees hold up. Not every team can say that. For a team on the edge of playoff contention like Minnesota, it's an easy risk to take ... and it has an incredible payoff if it pays off. That might have been the best move of the offseason, except Denver swapping Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington for Andre Iguodala or Miami picking up Ray Allen.

AIRING OF GRIEVANCES

Even with Kirilenko, this team is going to struggle defensively, primarily because more teams than you think are equipped to punish Love and Pekovic inside. Minnesota was No. 19 in opponent field goal percentage at the rim. Replacing Darko Milicic with Greg Stiemsma could help, but the Wolves are unlikely to rise into the top 10 here, and that could be an issue in the West, where there are talented power forwards galore and a number of solid (or better) centers (Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Marcin Gortat, Andrew Bogut, Al Jefferson). The backcourt will also be a defensive question mark. While Rubio is out -- possibly until January -- Luke Ridnour will be manning the point. Rubio-to-Ridnour is a massive defensive drop-off. Shved will have a steep learning curve against quick NBA guards, and Roy ... we'll see. Chase Budinger is a nice player, but he's not stopping too many wings that he'll be matched up against. The chances of Minnesota getting into the top half of the league in defense, even with Kirilenko, seem slim.

FESTIVUS MIRACLES

It will be miraculous if ...

Nikola Pekovic wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Ever.

"Gee, I really miss Darko."

Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio don't have matching tattoos by Christmas.

Alexey Shved totally gets along with Rick Adelman all season long with no incidents to speak of.

"I feel like I really fit in with this group of guys," said Brandon Roy.

David Kahn fails to refer to Chase Budinger as "Manna from Southern California."

Derrick Williams isn't involved in 200,000 trade rumors.

"Luke Ridnour: better than Ricky Rubio?"

THE HUMAN FUND

Let's get sincere.

Team MVP: Kevin Love.

Team X-Factor: Brandon Roy

Team Finish: 4th in Northwest | 9th in West. (This is way more about the depth of the West than the quality of the Wolves -- I expect them to finish over .500. I think Rubio's recovery will cost them enough wins to cost them the playoff spot.)

Best Championship Hopes: League Pass MVPs

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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