Doesn't this offseason feel like it has taken an eternity to pass? Last year we at least had Olympic hoops to hold us over for a few weeks in August. This year, we have had to pretend to enjoy baseball for far too long. The Vikings have been an abysmal cesspool of ineptitude, which has provided no solace while in NBA purgatory. The Wolves are back, and hopefully ready to FINALLY enamor the city once again.
Since just about every iteration of every Wolves preview has already been published with a smattering of predictions that the Wolves will finish as a 7th or 8th seed team if healthy, will not be able to defend well, etc. etc. etc., I will attempt to spare the repetition. Maybe. Here are a few quick and hopefully different "keys to success" for the year, several of many, in an effort to not waste your time by repeating the obvious (e.g. Love, Pek and Rubio need to be awesome).
1. Myth: "Ricky Rubio needs to improve his jump shot." This, to me, is easily the biggest myth surrounding Timberwolves basketball (aside from the fact that this team isn't good). This miscast idea that Rubio's future success is hinged on him becoming a better outside shooter. A deadeye jumpshot would help, but it is not the main problem facing Rubio's inconsistent scoring contributions. Rubio has 3 point range. He can hit a few at a passable clip. What makes Rubio so difficult to watch when he is attempting to score is his inability to finish shots near the basket. This is what Rubio needs to improve upon in order to be discussed among the stalwart defensive/distributing PG's such as Rajon Rondo or Jason Kidd, his most commonly cited comparisons. Perhaps this is a bit of hyperbole, but Rubio's inside game is at a high school level of development, or lower. The moves are not there, the touch is not there. He can get to where he wants on the floor despite a lack of explosiveness, but when he gets near the hoop to attempt a shot, even on fast breaks, it is usually accompanied by an awkward, sliding fadeaway to the left that rarely goes in. Think JJ Barea's backdown move/fadeaway from about 2 feet south of the free throw line and the subsequent "Clang" off the front of the rim. Only with Rubio, there is a "thump" as the ball hits the backboard and nothing else, and creates one of several wasted possessions per game. It's bad. And as much as many of us fans are enamored with the kid, I think we can start to come to terms with this dreadfully underdeveloped portion of his game.
To rub salt in the wound, understand that Rubio's inside shooting percentage was 41% last season, which tied for worst in the NBA with former Wolves darling Randy Foye. This is a full 14 percentage points below the league average. He is horrendous in close. If you want an area for improvement, this is most certainly it. Especially considering a lot of Rubio's damage should theoretically be done in the open court on fast breaks, with him often times finishing the break with a layup. Let the jumper come naturally, as it will.
2. The Wolves need to stay healthy, and more importantly, play through some pain. "Wait, this isn't a unique idea!" I know, I know, but it is relevant enough, and too big of a factor to ignore, and related to the next two points.The injury conversation has been discussed ad-nauseum in the Wolves' corner of the internet. It has been the same song and dance for about two years now and if you are reading this, this paragraph is going to be far from insightful (probably one among many, but I had to whip this up quick). The season is once again dependent on whether our oft-injured stars can play more than half of a season. Oft-injured AK47 is out and has been replaced with the also oft-injured Kevin Martin. The story continues.
The good news is, just about everyone is healthy for opening night, which did not happen last year. But understand this: tonight will, in all likelihood, be one of the healthier teams we see at any given point in the season. Pek will miss time. Martin will miss time. Ditto Love and Rubio. These 4 just aren't a durable bunch and I highly doubt this changes much now, most particularly Pek and Martin. But one of the things Flip discussed when he was hired, was determining solutions for players to play through their injuries. It seemed anything as small as a papercut put a player on the scratch list for a week or more last season. The bottom line is, the elite teams of the league aren't guys who trot around the court injury and pain free. A sore ankle isn't something that should keep you out of NBA action. And last year, when little bit injuries like this happened, the lineups the Wolves trotted out were nothing short of unwatchable. Thus:
3. It is imperative someone make a "leap" from the bench unit. This should be Derrick Williams, but let's not hold our collective breath. It could be Shved. It could Barea having a healthy resurgence. Maybe Bazz plays his way into the rotation and continues his plot to become the next Lance Stephenson with his rebounding and inside game. But it has to be someone. Anything less is an instant trip back to the lottery. There are going to be plenty of nights this season where at least one of the "core 4" are out, and we just can't handle situations where the bench guys pull a Greg Stiemsma and get totally exposed while playing starters minutes. The mental toughness has to be there. An encouraging sign was the play of Shved and Barea in the preseason. Both played with their usual warts fully visible, but both shot the ball very well from outside, and Barea emerged as a shockingly efficient scorer in those games. Hopefully he sustains at least a somewhat favorable fraction of this production into the season. For if he doesn't, and the bench continues the deer-in-headlight routine in times of need a la last season, it could get quite ugly. Good teams have players who step up in times of need. For the past two seasons, the Wolves lacked exactly that.
4. The "Relative Depravity" bit among the fanbase. I have been casually reading Malcolm Gladwell's newest book David and Goliath which is an interesting read about why underdogs tend to succeed, and why we may have advantages in certain situations where we appear to have a disadvantage, and vice versa. One of the examples in this book is how high school academic prodigies attend Ivy League schools, and after a dozen years of academic triumph, develop feelings of inadequacy as a result of taking on the toughest and most challenging course loads in the world, and not seeing the success they saw in high school. As a result, certain folks in certain fields get overwhelmed with this false sense of relative inadequacy, and change to an easier major. The argument here is that this wouldn't have happened had they, say, attended a less competitive school, where the course loads are more manageable. This is called "relative depravity." Being an Ivy League graduate (if you make it through) may not appear to be as advantageous as one might think, vs. being one of the smartest students at a less prestigious university. Sort of like how Kevin Love blew up on an awful Timberwolves team a few years ago.
The key here, as it applies to the Wolves, is that the fanbase (me definitely included) tends to seem a bit more downtrodden and discouraged coming into this season than last year. So many injuries to this squad (which lead to actual starting lineups of Rubio, Ridnour, Gelebale, Cunningham, and Stiemsma in professional basketball games) have lead to a bit of a mischaracterization of this team as being not very good. Since we are so used to seeing awful lineups go up against healthy teams, we think we are worse than we are. Some seem to expect similar results, or modest improvement, this year even if the team is healthy. This just isn't true. Remember early 2011. This was pretty much the only time our "big 3" played together consistently and it was easily one of the most exciting times in T-Wolves history. These 3, with a vastly inferior supporting cast than we see today, beat teams like a then-good Dallas, San Antonio, and LAC on the regular. While the defensive issues will keep this team from getting very far into to the playoffs, with good health, the Wolves are absolutely poised to be the surprise team of the Western Conference. IF the health is favorable, and IF someone from the bench unit makes a significant leap in their game this season to help spell the inevitable, hopefully short-term, injuries that will occur. These are two big "if" statements, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic and not think too deep into last season's almost comical barrage of injuries which is simply the only reason the Wolves ended up back in the lottery.
Tonight vs. Orlando:
So, all of that being said, we are finally here, and playing what should likely be yet another another exhibition-level contest against a team that is in the midst of a tank, and also began its season against the Pacers last night. Now, after being physically dominated by the Pacers, they have to play against what could very well be one of the most up-tempo teams in the league. I don't love the Magic's chances tonight.
Keys for tonight:
-Trap Jameer and Afflalo. Keep Jameer from distributing and deny Afflalo 3 point shot attempts. Luckily this isn't a game where Love and Pek have to work too hard defensively to deny their matchups opportunities, so keep Harkless from being active from the mid range, and stay tight on Afflalo from outside and the starting unit should have little difficulty controlling the game early.
-Keep Vucevic off the glass. Luckily there is nary a better rebounding duo than Pek and Love in the league ready and hungry to thwart one of Orlando's limited NBA advantages.
-Prevent Oladipo from having his first of many breakout games. Luckily his outside shot still needs work, and Turiaf has shown he can adequately and surprisingly defend well at the rim. Keep him out of the lane where he does his finest work and Shved hopefully won't look like too much of a defensive liability as the backup 2. It would seem VO is on a 20 minute limit to start the year, but if he comes in and lights up the Wolves bench early, he could be the x-factor for Orlando tonight in keeping the game close.
-Beat them offensively. This is going to be a common theme for the Wolves this season. All too common. The Wolves are armed with vastly superior offensive weapons than Orlando and the Magicians shouldn't fare well attempting to keep up with the Wolves on the scoreboards. This should be an easy win.
Final prediction….6th seed in the West. 50-32 record. Because why not be optimistic and bet high? The playoff picture never ends up how we imagine pre-season; the mighty fall (here is looking at you Grizzlies and Spurs, my "mighty will fall" picks) and the little guys rise. The Wolves are the Warriors of this season. I believe!