Two seasons ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves were one of the worst teams in the league, and Kevin Love was one of the best players in a non-playoff NBA team. Apart from Love’s surprising rise as an All Star, the team suffered 17-65 record to finish last in the Western Conference.
A season later, now reloaded with the exciting Spanish rookie Ricky Rubio and getting positive production from rookie Derrick Williams as well as Montenegrin giant Nikola Pekovic, the T-Wolves improved dramatically; so dramatically that they equaled the number of wins from the previous season (17) just about halfway into the new season, which was a lockout shortened. A lot of credit for this improvement went to new head coach Rick Adelman.
Unfortunately, their incredible turnaround was stunted when point guard Ricky Rubio suffered a torn ACL in March, causing him to miss the rest of the season. Minnesota stumbled to a 26-40 record, missing the playoffs yet again but gleaming with a sense of optimism about the future. They had great young players, players who were talented enough to win them games against the big boys and exciting enough to make the cover of SLAM Magazine. And these guys were only going to get better.
But behind the surge of positivity, was there something stunting their growth? As you may have heard by now, the Timberwolves have enjoyed quite an interesting off-season, sending out a few players and bringing in some others. Soon after some of their rotation players officially left the squad – Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Anthony Randolph, Martell Webster – the team’s leader and best player Kevin Love decided to finally tell it like it is.
Even after the drastic improvement, the optimism following Rubio’s early season success, and the leadership of an great coach, Love still felt that the squad was suffering, that there was ‘bad blood’ rotting its core. Over-shooting one-dimensional disappointment (and former second pick) Beasley could’ve been the target of his snide remark. Or it could’ve been their other former second pick, Milicic.
Whoever to blame, it seems that Love – who is currently serving the USA national men’s team at the London Olympics – and the Timberwolves can both look forward to the squad for the 2012-13 season. General Manager David Kahn, he of strange ways and questionable decisions in the past, has been aggressive in revamping the lineup for this season. The Timberwolves brought in a couple of players not seen in the NBA radar recently: former retired Trailblazer Brandon Roy and former Utah Jazz and CSKA Moscow forward Andrei Kirilenko. They also signed Greg Stiemsma, the big man who proved valuable off the bench for the Celtics and proved to be a more than adept shot blocker.
If all goes well – and that means if Rubio returns to full health and explosiveness, if Roy turns out to be even 50 percent of the player that he once was, if Kirilenko justifies half of his two-year 20 million dollar contract, if Derrick Williams (another former number two pick) continues to improve into the projected star, and if Love becomes even better following his Olympic adventure – then this could be a really, really fun team. The Timberwolves new starting line-up would be Rubio, Roy, Kirilenko, Love and Pekovic, and they’ll feature JJ Barea, Luke Ridnour, Williams, and Stiemsma as part of a solid bench.
At one point last season pre-Rubio injury, the Timberwolves had a sniff at the Western Conference playoffs and the audacity to believe that they could somehow sneak it. The optimist may believe that this year – if all goes well – that they may finally do it for the first time since 2004 when Kevin Garnett won the MVP award.
But what if all the pieces don’t fall as planned? There are a lot of questions surrounding the ‘new wolfpack’. It’s difficult to recover quickly or to full strength from a torn ACL like the one Rubio suffered from: will we see him play with the same flair and explosiveness again? Will Love develop into a true leader on both ends of the floor or continue to be focused on stat-stuffing? Will Kirilenko be able to handle a return to the NBA? Is Derrick Williams a bust?
And perhaps most intriguingly, will Brandon Roy be worth anything? Remember, Roy is still only 28 years old, but the injury-plagued shooting guard hasn’t been the force that he once was since 2010. He’s a three-time All Star, a former Rookie of the Year, and the player supposed to best in the ‘best shooting guard race’ with Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Instead, he retired from the NBA in December 2011 and was waived by the Trailblazers. After completing a Kobe-like knee procedure, Roy gained confidence that he could play in the NBA again, and the Timberwolves won his free agent sweepstakes. Shuffling between the likes of Martell Webster, Malcolm Lee, Wesley Johnson, Wayne Ellington, and even Luke Ridnour at the shooting guard position didn’t really work out for the T-Wolves, and Roy could be the upgrade they need.
The off-season is an exciting time, because everything we know is conjecture and hypothesis, and thus an optimistic fan can choose to believe that everything will be right until proven wrong. Love, Rubio, Roy, Kirilenko and others could end up becoming another failed David Kahn experiment. Or the new wolfpack could live up to their potential and make the 2012-13 Timberwolves one of the most exciting teams in the league.