The annual tradition continues. Each year TWB participates in a league-wide blog preview purge creatively designed to boost blog traffic provide a daily/weekly dose of NBA for all 30 teams. These are the weekly links you have seen the past few weeks posted here. Today is the day we look at Alexey Shved and the Wolves.
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Team Name: Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Year’s Record: 26-40, 12th in the West, 1st in our hearts
Key Losses (new team): Michael Beasley (PHO), Wuss Johnson (PHO), Dorko Milicic (BOS), Morefail Webster (WAS), Wayne Ellington (MEM), Anthony Tolliver (ATL), Anthony RanDolphLundgren (DEN), Brad Miller (NARP/AMERICAN TOBACCO CO./NRA), TV play-by-play voice Tom Hanneman (FSN STUDIOS)
Key Additions (old team): Andrei Kirilenko (RUS), Brandon Roy (LIFETIME FITNESS), Alexey Shved (RUS/HEAVEN), Chase Budinger (HOU), Greg Stiemsma (BOS), Dante Cunningham (MEM), Lou Amundson (IND), play-by-play voice Dave Benz (COMCAST SPORTS)
1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
Where to even begin? Do we start with the cesspool of ineptitude that was removed, or the fantastic slew of additions? Let’s actually start with the event that may have triggered this all: Ricky Rubio’s injury.
On March 9th, 2012 in the closing minute of a game vs. the Lakers at Target center, Ricky Rubio went down with a knee injury, and with him went the souls of a fanbase that had fallen head over heels in love with this team. It was an unexpected franchise revival that was nostalgic in the Garnett/Marbury sense in a very good way. This was, and still is, a city that craved a good professional basketball team again, potentially more so than the other 3 major pro sports. Vikings fans have been cynical for 30 years, and I’m not even sure three straight super bowls could wake up that downtrodden fan base. The Wild don’t have the history yet, and are locked out. The Twins have a flashy stadium that literally casts a dark shadow over Target Center, which sticks out like a bruised and battered thumb as the former hallmark of 1st Avenue, but other than that they are perennial underachievers. But no matter, it was the Wolves’ turn. Season ticket holders flocked to every game. Upper level seats cost $40 per game on StubHub on a Tuesday night against a middle-of-the-road opponent. A single game Target Center attendance record was set when Jeremy Lin came to town. In the simplest of terms: it was a true spectacle to behold.
Until Rubio went down.
And here we get to a two-step crossroads which could have lead to two very different paths for this franchise. A very big “what-if?” scenario has planted itself within this team over the past seven months.
Now, before you send me anthrax laced with rat poison, in some very small way (hear me out here for a second, then threaten my family if you are still offended), Rubio’s injury could have been a worthy sacrifice for the short/long term benefit of the team. What if Rubio had played out the year? What if the Wolves just nabbed that 8th seed, only to be murdered by San Antonio in the first round? Would Kahn have then used that as an excuse to keep his guys? “Let them develop, Rick!” How would this have impacted the next 3-5 years if Kahn would have kept Wes and Darko, re-signed Beasley and Randolph and essentially kept his ridiculous rotten apple core as-is in this alternate dimension? You see, in a silver-lining kind of way, Rubio’s injuries exposed to the Wolves Front Office, and more importantly to Glen Taylor, that David Kahn assembled one of the worst rosters in league history if not for his coup of acquiring Ricky Rubio in 2009 (his first ever roster move might I add). Enough was enough. Poor Rubio was the sacrificial lamb, who fell down in a symbolic and fitting way trying to draw a charge from Kobe to save his team and, as a result, was potentially the catalyst for the biggest overhaul since McHale added Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell over nine long years ago. Whether the new post-lockout revenue sharing rules, Rick Adelman, Rubio’s injury, Kevin Love’s media posturing, or potential new ownership were responsible for Glen opening the wallet, very few know. But Ricky can and should be hailed as a hero even in a somewhat posthumous-like way for this town in whatever way possible, right? So with that out of the way, let’s get to the meat and potatoes and lose the melodrama.
Kahn’s first move of the summer was acquiring Chase Budinger for the 18th pick in the 2012 draft (initially acquired in the Al Jefferson deal a few summers ago). This was a polarizing move among the fans at the time. I happened to like it because Chase is a very solid producer who shoots the corner three well and played for Rick in Houston. Others saw talent in the first round (since, ya know, every pick is a future star on draft night, including the guy Kahn would have taken: Miles Plumlee, right?). When free agency commenced, Kahn began a very public courtship of Nicolas Batum, kicking off the process by using the amnesty clause on Darko Milicic, who is sure to be booed violently upon his return to Target Center in March, inexplicably as a member of the Celtics. Now, many liked Kahn’s hot pursuit of Nic. It was worth the effort. Many also lauded the three weeks it took as free agent after free agent signed with other teams while Kahn was going after a player he had little to no chance of actually acquiring. In the end, the planets aligned and, due to the odd timing of it all (another big offseason “what if” event), the Wolves ended up staring right into the craggy face of easily the most forgotten free agent of the summer: Andrei Kirilenko, fresh off of a Euroleague MVP season. Again, had Kahn not waited so long, panicked and signed Courtney Lee/Ronnie Brewer, AK47 is signing elsewhere. Fate pointed its finger at Wolves fans this summer.
In between this period of activity, Kahn also made a bunch of other moves to trim the fat. In order to sign Batum/AK47, Kahn traded the contract of the retired Brad Miller and some 2nd round picks to the Hornets, declined Martell Webster’s 2013 option, declined to extend QO’s to Beasley and Randolph so they could have the privilege of teasing other teams, renounced Anthony Tolliver (who wanted to stay in Minnesota so badly he was working out at Target Center just days before training camp started) and, lastly, traded Wes Johnson and a 1st rounder to Phoenix to clear up cap space for Andrei. During this period, Brandon Roy, Alexey Shved and Greg Stemsma were signed, Kahn traded Wayne Ellington for Dante Cunningham and finally, after Portland matched the offer sheet to Batum, Kirilenko joined the team just before the Olympics. The big move had finally come. It was stunning. The Wolves, in only a few weeks, had assembled a playoff-caliber roster. Nearly 100% competence in, and well over 300% incompetence out. Kahn got rid of the right guys, and made dramatic upgrades throughout the roster. It was, and still is, a cause for rejoice (although we should NEVER forget what Kahn did his first few years leading up this. Unforgivable). Oh, and he signed a Tim Riggins lookalike to replace Tolliver:
2. What are the Wolves’ biggest strengths?
This offseason it felt like Kahn and Krew began making moves with a specific plan in mind that did not involve offering 4 years and $16 million to the first free agent that would take it, drafting the best player available regardless of position, and taking a flyer on a ‘never-was’ or two. Let’s go over what improved and what looks good:
Perimeter Play: For the first time since Sprewell, the Wolves actually are strong on the perimeter. A wealth of producers are available to step in at the 2 and 3 positions: Kirilenko, Roy, Shved (we hope), Chase, and Ridnour himself proved to be a pretty effective 2 starting alongside Rubio last season. Let’s not forget Derrick Williams will have some bright moments as a 3 this year. No one from this group is going to be stopping Kevin Durant or LeBron one-on one defensively, but it is a (insert hyperbole describing a large, positive event) upgrade over last year. Defensively, Kirilenko (and to a smaller degree Shved) is a scrappy, active help defender who will play passing lanes like a pro and give an all-out effort. The ball handling and perimeter shooting is also going to be a huge improvement. Let’s also not forget the passing. Shved, Roy and Kirilenko are all creative playmakers who can open up options throughout games. The unselfishness all three exhibit is going to be a welcome change from watching Beasley break up plays for 25 minutes per game. Roy will also step in as a creative mid-range scorer when healthy, but his knees remain a big question mark. But enough about that, here are some highlights from Shved’s home debut because Shved is the next Goran Dragic. Don’t you just love how he goes left more than he goes right in these highlights? And the scoop shot was just wonderful, worthy of the ever-fabled quadruple DVR rewind:
Energy/Hustle: Lou Amundson (awesome pickup), Dante Cunningham and Greg Stiemsma need a group nickname and fast; and something better than “The Terror Triplets.” These guys will come in and piss people off night in and night out and the fans will enjoy it. This team needed to add some guys this offseason who will get out on the floor and just be….mean. Let’s hope they draw enough technicals from opponents to make up for their personals, because these guys seem to karate chop the &$% out of anything that moves out there.
Post Play: Pek get ball. Pek do fancy move that looks like a travel but isn’t, Pek score or draw foul. Wash, rinse, repeat. Pek is an absolute gem and a terrific parting gift from the Kevin McHale era. Look out, NBA/small children/baby animals. Pek is ready to earn that JaVale McGee contract, and his role this year earns him his very own section in this preview.
Rebounding: Cynical Wolves fans have been downplaying Love’s rebounding since he first started putting up 60 point NBA Fantasy Survivor nights on a game-by-game basis. “Stat whore.” “Rebound hog.” Look, some matter more than others, obviously, but having great rebounders on your team is an excellent asset. Both Love and Pekovic are pros here, especially offensively. In February of last year (when he started to rise), Pek averaged over five offensive rebounds per game, more than his defensive output even. He followed that up with 4 in March before hurting his feet. Then you have Love averaging 4 himself. Laud all you want at the value of defensive rebounds, but having two bruisers in there who have vacuum hands on the offensive glass is a damn fine toy for Lord Adelman to have on the floor.
Coaching: Speaking of Lord Adelman, I like that he likes Shved and so should you. Lord is a stud and the rumor mill claims he has even smiled anywhere between two and four times (source reports vary) since training camp started. Whether these are smiles of approval, or smiles of conceit and scorn has yet to be determined by experts. A 20 minute search yielded proof of this strange phenomenon as Lord dropped a half smile for about .3 seconds in the video used for this screenshot which has since been destroyed:
Photo evidence: Lord Adelman kind of smiling
Lord A returns to the sidelines with a full training camp under his belt and it will be fun to watch this team finally develop fully under the Lord Adelman Offense. However, how much freedom he gives Derrick Williams is going to be a major key to whether or not D-Dub and his new nose make any progressions this year.
3. What are the Wolves’ biggest weaknesses?
None. Just kidding. But let’s make this section brief and Knicks-fan level homerish for a change!
Injuries/Health: The big elephant in the room as seen at the top of the page. Roy’s knees remain a Kevin-Love-in-2010 sized question mark. He has looked good this preseason, but you just never know. Kirilenko has only played 82 games one time in his career (his rookie year) and has averaged 63 games played his past three NBA seasons and isn’t getting any younger. Greg Stiemsma and Pek have known foot problems. Love gets banged up from time time. Rubio’s knee is Rubio’s knee and Rubio’s knee is out for the first two months. Unfortunately, It is just not going to be a healthy season. The one good thing is that the bench players should all be much better this year at stepping in when injuries occur. I would get used to seeing Chase Budinger in the starting lineup this year, and a lot of Shved at the 2. Not a bad look when you consider Martell, Beasley, Wes and Wayne played many of those minutes last year. You may now slowly remove the spork from your eye.
Lack of Comedy: No more Darko. No more Beasley. No more Tolliver. Will the TimberTrolls lose their magic this year? Most everyone on the team is actually a respectable basketball player and it’s odd. There will need to be a source of comic relief at some point. It is the key to the season, in fact. Are Derrick Williams’ nose job, Pek jokes, and the stale-3-months-ago white jokes enough fodder? Nope. A serious gap remains. Even Kahn is out of the media limelight and has been making good moves lately. What the hell is happening?
Misc: Other than that, with the exception of a lockdown one-on-one perimeter defender, the Wolves have retooled and added players who fit nearly every needed role on a successful team. That being said, it is somewhat difficult to identify potential on-court weaknesses until we see what happens with a near full turnover of the regular rotation. What will be interesting to see is how the Wolves’ interior defense holds up among the starting 5, as Love and Pek are both somewhat weak there against taller offensive players. Both body up very well, though. Consistent bench scoring may prove to be an issue as well against better teams, especially when Roy and Kirilenko are missing games and the reserves are logging more minutes.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Easy answer: make the playoffs. Anything short would be a massive disappointment. The most difficult part will be staying healthy enough to make it happen. The western conference is tough and got a lot tougher this offseason, so maintaining the firepower will be absolutely critical. Luckily Houston, Portland and Phoenix all gutted house which eliminated some contenders for the 7th/8th seedings. The most important teams the Wolves will battle with for the last spots will be Dallas, Golden State and Utah. The rest of the West (LAL, LAC, SAN, DEN, MEM, OKC) is likely a lock barring a major catastrophe.
5. What is the 2-5 year outlook for the current roster?
What are the playoffs really if you don’t advance? The playoffs are, in fact, simply a reward for the 53rd percentile of teams in your respective conference. And when you think about it that way, it really isn’t a satisfying long-term accomplishment, is it? Going back to the Garnett era, remember when the Wolves finally moved the needle and started making the playoffs? Remember how quickly just “making the playoffs” became stale well before the 7-season first round exit streak ended? When performance rises, the expectations of the fans rise even quicker. The seed seems to have officially been planted for that pattern to occur again. While some of the west teams are starting to age (Dallas, San Antonio, the Lakers), I fear the new CBA could prevent the Wolves from adding additional pieces from here on out to make that next and crucial jump. Pek is due for an 8-figure per year deal if he plays well this year, hindering flexibility. It will pretty much have to be the development of Rubio, Love and Pek as a new big 3, which will be fun to watch. But how high can this team go? Certainly not championship level barring events outside of the team’s control (keep a keen eye on OKC’s cap situation and how they handle Harden). And let’s not forget Love’s opt-out is just three short years away. Either way, the shorter term future is brighter and will be a refreshing change of pace from concentrating on lottery odds more than the score of a game.
6. Lastly, ten miscellaneous bulleted, random predictions for fun (because who doesn’t love bullets?):
- Roy plays more games than Kirilenko
- Rubio returns to form nearly immediately, and is back on the court as the ultimate Christmas/Kwanzaa gift in December (Hanukkah may be a bit early, unfortunately). In his absence he will have improved his shooting.
- Love declines a bit from last year, and continues to kind of be more than a tad unlikeable to this fanbase. His extension will continue to be as distracting as his ever-inflating ego.
- Pekovic averages 15 and 10
- Barea is traded before the deadline for a can of private label peanuts
- Cunningham/Amundson are taking Derrick Williams’ minutes by December
- Shved makes an all-rookie team
- The Wolves shock the world and advance to the 2nd round of the playoffs
- Malcolm Lee does not play a game for the Wolves again
- Budinger gets invited to the 3 point contest and beats Love for the crown
- (your prediction here)
Final Record: 45 – 37, 7th seed in the Western Conference