BOSTON - About two hours before the Timberwolves, or what was left of them anyway, took the court against the Celtics salvation was dripping with sweat. There was Ricky Rubio working with assistant coach Terry Porter running a gauntlet of pick and rolls, pick and pops and spot-up jumpers.
Rubio will be back in the lineup soon, possibly as early as this week, and his return can't come too quickly for a Wolves team whose offense has been stuck in neutral without their best playmaker. Injuries have played havoc with a team many predicted would enjoy a breakout season, but while they have been streaky and inconsistent they have also gamely hung around the .500 mark.
"We're OK. We're fine," Kevin Love told SB Nation. "By the time we get Ricky back, we get (Andrei Kirilenko) back, if we can still hover around if not over .500 then we're going to be more than OK. We're not satisfied with where were at, but we're comfortable with ourselves heading forward with our record. We have ten new players. I think we all know each other. We like each other. We fit in well together on the floor, off the floor, but we still have to have time together on the floor."
They thought they were getting a boost from Love who missed all of training camp and most of the first month of the season with a broken hand, but he's clearly not 100 percent as evidenced by his sub .40 percent field goal shooting and unsightly 11-for-51 performance behind the arc. Love did have his best shooting performance on Friday with 36 points in a win over the Cavaliers, but he acknowledged earlier in the week that his injury was still affecting his form.
"When I shoot it feels like the ball is coming off the outside of my hand rather than these two fingers where I like it," he said. "Something will give eventually. I still feel confident shooting it and I'm still going to shoot those shots. Eventually it will get there. Getting the ball to feel right in my hand has been such a struggle. It's been tough."
Tough, but ultimately understandable. Coming off a season in which they were undone by tragicomic play on the wing, GM David Kahn acquired Kirilenko, Chase Budinger and lured Brandon Roy out of "retirement." (Note: We are contractually obligated to include scare quotes around all references to Roy's "retirement.")
Within days of each other, the Wolves lost Budinger for three months to left knee surgery and Roy to another round of arthroscopic probing. The latter was expected, the former not so much. That left it primarily up to Kirilenko who started logging heavy minutes. Now he is dealing with back spasms, although he returned for their win over Cleveland.
"We didn't know at the start of the year what we were going to be," Minnesota coach Rick Adelman said. "We knew Ricky wasn't going to be playing but we didn't know about all these injuries. This is the way I look at it: Are they trying to get better every day? They're trying to get better every day. Their attitudes have been unbelievable and every day, whether it's been practice or a game they're there, they're ready to go."
Even before injuries decimated the offense, Adelman made improving their defense a priority and the results have been positive. Their defensive efficiency has jumped from 25th to sixth this season. Once one of the fastest, free-wheelingest teams in the league, Adelman has slowed the pace to a crawl and demanded effort on the defensive end. It's not flashy or as fun, but his players have responded.
"Guys have bought in and that's been the focal point for us," Love said. "If we're struggling on the offensive end, it's not going to happen every night, but if that's the case we'll be able to get it done on the defensive end."
A .500 record isn't what any of them had in mind, but if Rubio can help restore some balance on offense and Love can recapture his form, the Wolves will be reasonably positioned to make a push, provided they can maintain their focus on the defensive end.
"I think it's going to be sustainable," Adelman said. "It's something from the very beginning of the season in training camp we pushed it and pushed it. We're all young and we've got a lot of new guys. For us to compete and have a chance to win we've got to defend. If they can continue to do that we'll be able to sustain it."
The Orlando Magic are 7-12, which is the kind of record that inspires little reaction. They are not good, obviously, but they are far from terrible, which is something of an accomplishment. It should be anyway, but it says something about NBA culture that being competitive is often viewed as a sucker's play.
Earlier this week they beat Dwight Howard's Lakers, which was a glorious bit of redemption for themselves and schadenfreude for the rest of us. They followed that up with another road win over the Warriors, who were in the midst of a three-game winning streak and a 7-2 stretch. A close loss at Utah where the Jazz are 8-1 came next and then a setback against the Kings in which they looked nothing like the gritty band of overachievers who sliced through the Laker defense. Still, not a bad road trip, all things considered.
But for what? Even in the watered down East, the Magic are not going to the playoffs. What's the point of winning games if you're not going to have a realistic chance of winning them all? Over and over we are told that middling mediocrity is the worst kind of attribute. It's better to be horrible and maybe get lucky in the lottery than try to build anything of consequence in the interim.
This is the Waiting for Godot principle of team building and while it has been proven to work on occasion - like, say, in Orlando - it has also been proven to be a colossal waste of time in others. What if there is actually some kind of middle ground here. What if by being competitive, competent and professional, the Magic are actually laying the groundwork for something better down the line?
It's not a novel idea to try to rebuild from the ground up without going in the tank, but often it comes at the expense of flexibility. That's not true in Orlando. Once Hedo Turkoglu finally, mercifully, comes off the books they won't have any true albatross contracts left. Instead GM Rob Hennigan will have a handful of decent NBA veterans making decent NBA money and a bunch of young players on rookie contracts. He will also have cap space and draft picks to play with. Those are called assets and a good GM will make the most of them.
We don't know if Hennigan is a good GM yet, but it seems safe to say that he was right about shying away from Andrew Bynum and he made a smart coaching hire in Jacque Vaughn. That's not a terrible start to a process that will take years to rebuild. He didn't acquire any players of consequence in the Howard deal, but he assembled enough pieces to field a credible team.
Too often when teams hit the detonate button they simply hand over playing time to raw, unproven players and let them fend for themselves. That's fine if you have a Kevin Durant or a Kyrie Irving, but what good would it do Andrew Nicholson or Nic Vucecic to say, ‘Here's 20 shots a game. Have fun.'
At best, Nicholson, Vucecic, E'Twaun Moore and Moe Harkless will be good role players and maybe solid starters in time. Why waste their development with unreasonable demands and poor habits that will eventually have to be broken? The danger comes when a team overvalues what it has, but the Magic seem to know what they are, and more importantly what they're not.
GENTLEMEN, START YOUR TRADE RUMORS
Although we are still a week or so away from the unofficial opening of trade season - Dec. 15 when players who signed as free agents can be included in deals - there are already a handful of names making the rounds. The SB Nation wire was abuzz with talk of Pau Gasol and Anderson Varejao to name two, but they will be far from the only names thrown around between now and the Feb. 21 non-waiver deadline.
The problem with trading players like Gasol, as our Silver Screen and Roll so ably demonstrated, is it's really hard to get full value and even harder to conjure up teams who would be willing to take a 32-year-old with almost $40 million and another year left on his contract.
It's also oh so predictable that Gasol would once again be made the fall guy for the Lakers' struggles, although it has been hilarious to witness the lunatic Laker fringe convince themselves that Andrea Bargnani would be the answer. The best move for the Lakers is to simply wait and see what it is they have with Steve Nash at the controls.
Now, Varejao is exactly the kind of player any contender would bend over backward to try and acquire. He's younger than Gasol, half as expensive and tearing it up on the regular for the Cavs. Varejao's strengths: rebounding, defense and hustle are the kind of plug-and-play attributes that would fit in any system.
All of which raises the question of why the Cavs would even want to trade him. Cleveland needs everything short of a point guard and unless GM Chris Grant is blown away by an offer - an offer very few contenders can even make - there's simply no reason to trade Varejao, or anyone else, at the moment.