2011-2012 Minnesota Timberwolves Mega Preview

Santa Kahn. Kahnukkah. Kahnza. Las Kahnadas. Saint Kahn’s Day. 

The Holidays are here in full force. Kahn is back and is oddly quiet as can be. Rubio is in town being escorted around in his mother’s Tahoe. Kevin Love is looking like a bonafide, athletic NBA player. Beasley lowered his ears. Barea is running around wreaking havoc. Anthony Randolph is confused. Pekovic may have murdered someone. Adelman is grumpy. Darko is sensitive.

The Wolves and their plethora of humorous idiosyncrasies are back in town. And before we dive into this, let’s all relish together in a merry thought we can all agree on: it feels great. 

So where does this team go from here? What is next? After a satisfying pre-season containing a fast-paced blowout followed a few days later by 46 minutes of disaster and 2 minutes of never-could-have-imagined-level Wolves basketball vs. Milwaukee, the only real answer is: I have no idea. This team is tough to predict. 

On a topline level, the Wolves have re-tooled nicely this offseason. Ousting one of the worst NBA coaches in the history of the league (who shall remain nameless) and replacing him with one of the best in legendary Rick Adelman, is a dramatic change previously unheard of throughout Timberwolves history. The team also added three promising rookies and free agent JJ Barea, former x-factor of the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks. But where do we go from here?  Well, there is a lot of be excited about, and some not. We’ll touch on both. More after the jump.

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The Good 

As the season begins, there is a heck of a lot to like about what is about to transpire over the next four months. Here are a few highlights:

1. Style of play: In a general, the Wolves have effectively been built to be a fast paced team, which works perfectly for Adelman’s preferred, improvisational coaching style. By-and-by this team is going to be superbly fun to watch night in and night out. Whether it be slick passing, hot shooting, sick dunks, alley-oops, the team is already being labeled as a League Pass go-to by several national media pundits.

2. Depth: Laud all you want about the Wolves having a glut at every position (and we will address this later), but one important factor remains: the Wolves have capable rotation players two and sometimes three deep on the roster at every position. During a 66-game consolidated schedule this will help tremendously. As much as we dislike or would never impose such a fate on a player, injuries do occur and they will occur on this roster this year to key guys and starters. It will be great to have Williams and Ridnour pick up minutes if Beasley’s ankle flares up again, or if Ricky’s ankle becomes a chronic issue throughout the season. However, long term the front office and coaching staff will have to decide on a pecking order and a set of players to truly build around.

3. Coaching: Need much be said? In any leadership position in most settings, it baffles me time and time again why said leaders use negative reinforcement and forced methods as a means of development, and continue to use carrots as it were, especially when dealing with massive egos at such a high level that no lay-man could possibly relate. Adelman understands a very basic principle that has been proven effective time and time again: understanding strengths of staff and using those to build the best team you can get. If the Wolves stink it up this year, the only people to blame are Kahn and the players. No more square-peg-in-a-round-hole Rambis clusters. We can expect the players to hit the court playing their preferred style of play, which will be very refreshing.

4. Kevin Love: He deserves his own section. Look, say what you will about the unlikely superstar and his defensive shortcomings, but this young man used the lockout in a good way, went to work, and appears poised to make yet another leap in his career. Whether it was a pre-season game or not the other night vs. Milwaukee, Kevin Love absolutely took over an NBA basketball game and rallied the Wolves to a come-from-behind victory from a double-digit deficit with less than two minutes remaining. This is hopefully a sign of things to come. Love is the clear leader of this team. This is his team. He works his tail off and needs to be here long term. Even if it is for maximum salary. End of story.

5. Ricky Rubio: Also deserves his own section. Immediate fan favorite. NBA-ready guard with impeccable vision and passing ability. Extremely active. Extremely likable. We are lucky to have him here, and his rookie year is hopefully going to be a spectacular thing to witness. 

6. Transition Ball: Think back to the Rambis shit-storm-o-fun last year, with Luke Ridnour and Jonny Flynn attempting to run a fast break. How many points did the Wolves give up absolutely flopping fast break scenarios, or attempting low-percentage pullups from no-man’s land? While Luke is an excellent transition shooter, I honestly cannot recall more than a handful of times where a Wolves PG found a wing cutting to the hoop for an easy bucket. With the additions of Rubio and Barea, the Wolves’ transition game is immediately improved exponentially, and the team can now rely on these situations to push the ball and add easy points, which will lead to more wins. To observe, check out this video from the 8:10 mark (and watch the rest for excellent Spanish commentary, most notably the reaction to the Rubio/DWill alley-oop a minute or so later):

http://youtube.com/watch?v=C9mCXyEy_XI

Expect a lot of this.

7. Shooting: Minnesota is a team absolutely loaded with elite perimeter shooters. At any point during a game, while at a more-than-slight sacrifice to defense, the team can toss out a 5-man lineup that can shoot from anywhere on the court. For example, a lineup of Ridnour, Ellington, Beasley, Williams and Love is about as versatile as it can get for scoring opportunities all over the court. While this lineup will probably give back just as many points on the other end, it is is going to be very interesting to see how opposing defenses react to this unique 5-man skillset.

8. No Tanking Necessary: While the Wolves are unlikely to make the playoffs, I’m going to spin our loss of a 2012 lottery pick into a positive, because it is the holidays, and the damn thing is a sunk cost at this point. Look, the Wolves are going to be trying to squeeze out every win possible until the season ends because they have no lottery position to fight for. It will be nice to hopefully see competitive ball for all 66 games, and end the ‘tank for (player)’ campaigns. The loss of the pick is a killer, of course, but it is going to be a nice distraction to avoid. And one more ludicrous rationalization attempt? We do not need any more young….okay, fine, losing this pick is going to be a disaster.

9. Assets: With a slew of young talent and a continuous cache of draft picks, this team has been kahnistently prepared to capitalize on trade opportunities. And while cap-space is a thing of the past (and it went unused on anything truly meaningful), Kahn has assembled a roster full of intriguing prospects he could package for an established NBA player at any time. But does Kahn have the ability to do it? Eh…this seems like a good time to flip the coin.

The Bad

None of the above optimism comes without a set of consequences currently affecting the team both on and off the court. Disclaimer: those wanting honeymoon optimism as the season starts, I suggest you close this page. Seriously. No? Ok, then no whining about negativity in the comments.

1. Too Many Prospects: Since 2005, the Wolves basketball masterminds, whomever it may be at the time, have done their best to add as many young prospects as possible to the lineup. And while the youth movement mainly started in full after the Garnett era, it has not stopped since. Over the course of the past 3-4 seasons, fans have been subject to draft pick after draft pick, young prospect after young prospect, with the Wolves consistently being the youngest team in the entire league. Now, this has been a great call up until now. Youth is great in a rebuilding situation and a surplus of prospects is never a bad thing so long as there is a clear core and identity driving future success. However, looking down the roster, the team seems to be about two or even three deep with unproven prospects at nearly every position. David Kahn seems to have this confusing idea that there is some unsung Kevin Durant hidden on the roster when, the reality is, the majority of the team’s prospects just don’t seem to have stardom showing up anywhere in the crystal ball. At one point, hopefully soon, before Anthony Randolph and Michael Beasley are free agents, the team would be best served making a trade for an established NBA player who can team with Love, Rubio and one of either Beasley or Williams to lead this team to immediate, playoff level success. A playoff team would capture a destitute market, with a notorious fair-weather fan base sick and tired of following losing teams year-round. Adding a vet of the Andre Iguodala mold would pay immediate dividends to team ownership and potentially make the Timberwolves the instant hot ticket in town. How is this not a fantastic opportunity?

2. Positional Redundancy and Lack of Identity: On a macro-level the Wolves are built very well to be a fast-paced, exciting team. But looking into the depth chart you will find a roster yielding a confusing mess of a rotation filled with mismatched skillsets and positional redundancy, especially in the frontcourt. As touched on above, the Wolves seem to be a team built little on skillsets and fit, but on youth and age alone. It’s as if the current plan is to throw a bunch of young prospects onto the court just to see what sticks. A multi-year audition that is just getting old, and resulting in numerous missed opportunities to actually create a winning, well-built team. While this creates a bit of excitement by virtue of uncertainty, this is a strategy that, plainly, will not win in the NBA. It is great to collect assets for a big move, but David Kahn has proven time and time again that he does hardly anything with that value in the long run and misses countless opportunities to truly upgrade the roster. I fear that Kahn will not be able to consolidate/sell his youth for the right talent and fit when the time comes and the roster will be set with this group of muddled early-20-somethings. That is nice if you have a Kevin Durant on the roster, but this roster is unlikely to click unless a major change is made to address its major holes at the shooting guard and/or center positions.

3. Defense: While it is still a work in progress, and likely to improve over last season, the team lacks an above average defender at all five positions. Adelman will have his work cut out for him in developing a team defensive scheme that works in order to make up for the lack of one-on-one skills. He can start by closing out on 3-point shot attempts, a concept Rambis was against which was, needless to say, highly confusing. 

4. Tough Early Schedule: In previous years, the Wolves have started out with a relatively easy schedule that has allowed for a few early-season wins. This year, the Wolves are doomed to face top teams immediately with a new system to boot. Oklahoma City, Memphis, Miami, San Antonio and Dallas highlight five of the first six games of the season, with a trip to Milwaukee being one of the only realistically winnable contests sprinkled in for good measure. Pulling off an opening night upset tonight against Oklahoma City will set the tone very well for the season, but the team would need a minor miracle to squeeze out a win. The rest of the early season opposition, outside of the Bucks, the Wolves will simply be outmatched. The Wolves are not touching Miami or Dallas. Getting through this early tough stretch with their heads held high will be a difficult and frustrating task for a young roster with high expectations. Luckily the schedule becomes a breeze pretty quick.

5. Speaking of Expectations, A fan base with high expectations, (and a bit of a semi-related rant): ‘Playoffs’ ‘+.500 ball.’ Those are some of the early season musings heard around town for this team. Whether it started with two solid wins against the Bucks, the Rubio addition, or the Adelman addition, this fan base (at least in part) is operating under the likely wildly inaccurate assumption that the Wolves are set to make the leap. Realize this: the vast, vast majority of minutes played this season will be by players who managed 17-wins a year ago, including, in all likelihood, the same starting five we often saw last year. Simply put, expectations of drastic improvement are too high. While this team is going to improve for obvious reasons, until the front office swings a few deals to put a sensible, well-fit team on the floor, the Wolves will have a tough time competing for a playoff spot. The talent gap is too big relative to other teams, the roles and skillsets on the roster are mismatched and confusing, and the team is too young and inexperienced. However, one major move, one major player, acquired from a package of Johnson, Beasley, Pek and a pick or two (for example), could be the move that takes this team to the next level almost immediately. 

Not done yet. What is especially interesting is the general backlash I have received on the TwolvesBlog Twitter account while attempting to send such a message (that consolidation of youth is practically mandatory for meaningful on-court success…..the should-be only goal after 7 years of rebuilding). There is a large faction of fans who really want to keep the current core as-is, to see what they can do. I do understand this point of view, but what is the point? I am eager to check in with that group in 2-3 months when this team is not playing playoff-level basketball.  I just cannot even begin to fathom what the downside is of trading some youth for an experienced player, especially on the wing, that is a better fit. Even if it is a four-year maximum return on a veteran player (Pau for example), how is this not worth it? Would the Clippers EVER have made a leap (which they will) had they not traded a few quarters for Chris Paul? Would the Celtics ever have won a title in ’07 had they not traded a slew of young ‘potential’ guys to the Wolves for Garnett four years ago? Absolutely not. Even if the Celtics’ window is closing, how on earth is this not worth it? Why stay overattached to ‘potential’ guys when the reality is what we see is what we will probably get out of most of these young guys? It is maddening, the odd over-attachment based on nothing but draft position, age, or pre-NBA basketball accolades. The Wolves have been rebuilding for seven years. Put a winning team on the floor already and go to work. I doubt anyone would complain Wes Johnson was traded after witnessing a few weeks of contending basketball. 

Still not done. The problem is David Kahn has shown little-to-no ability to make a ‘push’ trade. Throughout his tenure he has devalued valuable assets, used cap space on average players, and has only been able to complete ‘pull’ trades where he helps facilitate larger deals, or absorbs a once-heralded prospect who has been disappointing at the NBA level. Though Kahn has only been part of two of them, with McHale screwing up the third, isn’t it semi-interesting that the Wolves as a franchise have played a major role in the facilitation of three of the largest trades or free agency acquisitions in modern NBA history (taking Beasley from Miami, absorbing Eddy Curry from New York, and the Hornets acquiring our unprotected first for Paul), with only Beasley and Randolph to show for it?

And with that, sorry for the pessimism. In summary: this team has a heck of a lot of promise, an elite coaching staff and will have a ton of flair and excitement that will make this season a good one. This team is surely, finally, on the rise, despite its holes. 

Season prediction: 25-41 (a .378 win percentage, or 31 wins in an 82 game season) …but with a heavy disclaimer that this team is just one quality move away from playoff contention.

I want so badly to see a playoff team on the floor, but sadly, I just don’t see it happening this year. Not with the vast majority of the minutes on this team coming from a group who pulled out 17 wins out of 82 last year. Adelman is a brilliant coach, but he is not God, Santa Clause or (insert cultural holiday diety here).  He can only do so much. The above record is a major improvement over a year ago, so bear that in mind going into the season opener. It is a 17 pt improvement in win %. Nothing to sneeze at. Realistic improvement with such a similar roster and the only player upgrades being more rookies and a bench guard. As for specific reasons? This isn’t a shot at youth directly, but I just don’t see the point (anymore, after this many seasons of losing) of just tossing a team full of mismatched young prospects out onto the floor with nothing more than a good coach and a few sets of crossed fingers. I look at the roster and  see a team built by virtue of age, not on fit. The roster is just not ready to make ‘the leap.’ Yet. But one move? Yes. Again, while Adelman will put a dramatically improved product on the floor, I do not anticipate a playoff team until the front office ends its confusing, stubborn youth movement and builds a team based on fit and specific skillsets. Maybe this will come sooner rather than later. The clock is ticking on yet another world-famous Kahn “singular window of opportunity.”

Oh, and this is neat and should get you excited, since this probably didn’t:

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