Last Year’s Record: 22-60
Key Losses: Marko Jaric, Antoine Walker, Kirk Snyder
Key Additions: Mike Miller, Kevin Love, Rodney Carney
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season? Obviously the big move by the Timberwolves this off-season was trading the rights to OJ Mayo for Kevin Love, Mike Miller, and future cap relief. I’ll expound more on that deal later. Right now I’d like to take the opportunity to mention some of the less heralded moves that the Wolves’ front office made.
Bringing back free-agents Ryan Gomes and Sebastian Telfair for bargain basement deals was a huge plus for a team desperately needing some stability. After a tumultuous beginning to the post-KG era, it was imperative for the Timberwolves to improve team chemistry by bringing back some familiar faces. While it’s true that neither of those gentlemen is going to stuff the stat sheet, they’re both quality role players with good attitudes who are only going to get better with age. The signings also clearly show a shift in the front office’s methodology. Instead of desperately throwing bloated contracts at mediocre free-agents in a last-ditch effort to improve quickly, the Wolves have decided to be patient, guard their future cap space, and use reasonably priced players to fill in the gaps.
Kevin McHale and Co. have also learned from their past mistakes regarding draft picks. Instead of tossing them around in trade negotiations like candy on Halloween, the Wolves management has shrewdly acquired its own stockpile of picks and could have up to four 1st round selections in 2009 depending on how various teams end up in the standings. One of the less-mentioned, yet still meaningful off-season moves was the Wolves’ trade with the Sixers for Rodney Carney, Calvin Booth, and a 1st rounder courtesy of Utah. This move was a pure salary dump on the part of Philadelphia to clear the cap space needed to secure Elton Brand. The only thing that the Timberwolves needed to surrender was a protected 2nd rounder that Philadelphia will likely never even get. After years of watching McHale spending team assets frivolously, it’s very refreshing to see deals like this, which have absolutely no downside and only strengthen the Timberwolves’ position to make a big move down the road.
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2. What are the team’s biggest strengths? The Wolves are a young team with many holes left to fill. However, one area in which the team is well-endowed is the power forward position. With Big Al Jefferson churning out 20-10 games on a nightly basis, few teams are going to have an advantage at that spot. Also, assuming Kevin Love is that player he appeared to be in Summer League, the Wolves may just have the best power forward duo in the entire league. Given the Wolves’ lack at center, it’s likely that that Randy Wittman will regularly play Jefferson and Love together, and I personally can’t wait to see how this combo works out. They compliment each other beautifully as they bring two entirely different skill sets to the table. Jefferson is your typical post-monster who can devastate a team down low with his repertoire of moves, while Love’s shooting and passing expertise will likely set up a lot of scoring opportunities from the outside. If the two were only a few inches taller the rest of the league would have real reason to fear this combo, but even as they are, Jefferson and Love will probably give a lot big men fits this coming season.
The Wolves, who could be anemic at times last year, are looking like an offensive powerhouse in 2008. Thanks to the draft day trade, the Timberwolves are now able to come out with a five-pronged attack of Foye, McCants, Miller, Love, and Jefferson. The post-presence of Big Al combined with the outside shooting abilities of the other five could lead to some impressive offensive assaults. When you factor in Love’s penchant for grabbing boards and much-heralded outlet passing ability, the Wolves may also become notorious for being one of the deadliest fast-break teams in the league. I’m certainly not claiming that the T-Wolves will be running up scores into the 110-120 range like Nash’s Suns did in their prime, but I think it’s reasonable for the young team to push last season’s 95.6 points per game comfortably above 100.
At the risk of sounding corny, another one of the Wolves biggest strengths has got to be their attitudes. The fans of Minnesota have spent years watching “me-first” players drive this team into the ground, so it’s extremely refreshing to have a roster filled with enthusiastic young men who all seem to have their head on straight. Last year was definitely a struggle as the youngsters took their lumps, but several of them seem to have really matured over the summer. I’m looking forward to seeing how this newfound experience translates onto the court and am excited about watching their further development into bonafide NBA stars. In a league where all too many players are willing to cash their big check and slack off, a team focused on playing together and giving their all every night can certainly make some noise. I don’t know if we’ll see the 20 game improvement that Kevin McHale is predicting, but don’t be surprised if the Wolves surprise a lot of sleeping teams early and come out of the gate looking strong.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses? Without a doubt, the Wolves biggest area of need is their gaping hole at center. Thankfully, the addition of Kevin Love to the roster allows Big Al to shift over to the five-spot without subsequently creating a vacuum at power forward. For the time being, this stop-gap measure will allow the Wolves to stay competitive, but Jefferson is notably more effective as a forward. Handicapping your best player by forcing him out of his natural position is never a recipe for success, so if the Timberwolves are ever going to really contend, they’re going to need to find a true starting center.
Another position where the Wolves may find themselves overwhelmed this year is at point guard. Fortunately, the Wolves aren’t nearly as destitute at the point as they are at center and can at least trot out a respectable starter and backup. That being said, I have a hard time believing that either Randy Foye or Sebastian Telfair are the team’s long-term solution for a #1 point guard. Though the Wolves front office seems bound and determined to force this square peg into a round hole, Randy Foye has proven time and again that he’s much more suited for the shooting guard role. Perhaps an off-season of work and a full recovery from last year’s knee injury will be enough to prove me wrong, but I’m certainly not buying the notion that Foye is our point guard of the future until I see some legitimate results on the court.
Perhaps the biggest weakness overall is the team’s defensive ability. To be quite honest, there’s not a single player on the entire Wolves roster that I would label a “good” defender. Last year’s defensive performance from the guards was particularly atrocious as opponents could seemingly breeze by Randy Foye and Rashad McCants at will. Even Big Al was a liability down low, although to his defense, he’s much more suited towards guarding forwards than centers. The good news for the Timberwolves is that everybody knows how big of a problem the defense was last season and the team is making a dedicated effort towards improving this glaring flaw. I don’t expect the Wolves to have turned themselves into a bunch of Bruce Bowen clones over the summer, but I would be surprised if there wasn’t a noticeable improvement come opening night. Let’s face it: it’s not like the defense could have gotten any worse.
4. What are the goals for this team? I’d like to say that the playoffs are the goal for this team. I think if you went around the locker room that’s the answer that most players would give you. However, given that this team is largely the same as the squad that went 22-60 last season, that we still don’t have a true starting point guard or basically any center, and that we’re still being coached by Randy Wittman with his mind-boggling 96-192 record, I’m going to hold off on declaring Minnesota a contender for the West’s 8th seed. I’d love nothing more than to drink the McHale Kool-Aid and be preparing for a 42-40 finish, but I just can’t bring myself to it.
I’d personally like to see the team turn the corner and plant the seeds of a winning culture. I’d like the players to stop having potential and start showing real results. I’d like to see Randy Wittman establish a clear pecking order and once and for all determine which of our glut of young guards are keepers and which ones can be sent packing. To sum things up, I’d like this team to show some unquestionable improvement and start heading in the direction of a team that’s going to contend in a few years down the road. In an ideal world the Wolves would win enough to create some buzz and finally get the people of Minnesota interested in their basketball team again, yet lose just enough so we don’t send our 1st round draft pick to the Clippers. If we’re not making the playoffs, we may as well finish in the bottom ten which would allow the protection to kick in on the pick we owe them from the Cassell/Jaric trade. Finishing 11th to last would be akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.
5. Draft picks, expiring contracts, and young talent. A little over a year ago, the Boston Celtics were sitting in the NBA’s basement with only those three assets I think we all know how things turned out for them. I’m not saying that the Wolves are going to recreate the perfect storm that lead to Boston’s bounty, but there’s no reason to think that Wolves can’t pull off something similar down the road. If anything, the Timberwolves actually have more assets than Boston ever did. As I alluded to before, the Wolves could potentially have four 1st round draft picks in 2009 – their own, Boston’s, Miami’s, and Utah’s. That is some serious ammunition for getting a big trade done considering guys like Iverson and Garnett were swapped in deals involving only two picks. The Timberwolves are also ripe with young talent as players like Foye, McCants, Brewer, Gomes, Telfair, and Love all have their best years ahead of them and have reasonable contracts. Adding more fuel to the fire is that fact that the T-Wolves will have nearly $17 Million in expiring contracts heading into the 2009-10 season with Mike Miller and Brian Cardinal’s deals set to come due. I haven’t gone team by team and done my homework, but I’m fairly confident that there isn’t’ a single team in the league with more assets stockpiled than Minnesota.
What does all this mean? For starters, any team looking to jettison their superstar ala Memphis with Pau Gasol is going to have Kevin McHale on speed dial. Also, any team looking for a third party to facilitate a transaction will be putting out their feelers towards the Wolves as well. We’ve seen how well that turned out with the Sixers and Elton Brand. Finally, as the big 2010 free-agency period inches closer teams that are a bit nervous about their ability to retain their big star might see the Wolves’ stockpile as a tempting alternative to losing that player for nothing. The best part of it all is that should none of these situations play out, the Wolves can simply make their picks, decide which of their youngsters they want to keep, and walk into 2010′s free-agency with a solid $20 Million or so in cap space of their own. With a stacked young nucleus and a bona fide All-Star to partner with in Al Jefferson, somebody is going to be taking Minnesota’s money.
I know this last section has had very little to do with the Timberwolves’ 2008-09 season, but it does go to show how the Wolves’ “quiet” off-season has actually set them up for a major pay day down the road. As they look towards the future, this young team’s present focus should simply be on improving day by day and laying the foundation for the big times to come.
Predicted Record: 33-49