March 9, 2012.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were 21-20 and in the playoff hunt. The edge was back. The team had a swagger about it. Anything seemed possible.
But one knee buckle and the season took a 180-degree turn.
That buckled knee belonged to rookie sensation Ricky Rubio, who served as the foot to a franchise in dire need of a kick to the backside. Rubio tore his ACL on that play while guarding Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, in a game the Timberwolves lost 105-102.
March 9 was the date the Timberwolves' season went down the drain. The T-Wolves weren’t the same team without him, finishing 26-40 on the year (5-20 without Rubio) and 10 games out of the postseason.
It was the eighth consecutive season the franchise missed the postseason since losing to the Lakers in the 2004 Western Conference Finals.
During his rookie campaign, Rubio averaged 10.6 points, 8.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game and teamed up with Kevin Love (26 points, 13.3 rebounds per game) to form one of the game’s best pick-and-roll duos.
While their record may imply it, not all was bad with Rubio out. During his absence fellow European Nikola Pekovic demonstrated why he was such a highly touted prospect prior to the 2008 NBA draft.
Pekovic finished the season averaging 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, including a five-game stretch in March where he averaged 22 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. After a dismal rookie season in 2010-2011, he showed the offensive skills that scouts drooled over in 2008.
This all leads me to my point.
Pekovic, 26, Love, 23, and 21-year-old Rubio compose a young trio with each player having an All-Star caliber future in front of him.
Minnesota locked up Love for the next four seasons and have Rubio for the next four seasons, too. It’s Pekovic the franchise needs to lock up next, and his contract expires after next season.
It’s Minnesota’s job to keep that nucleus intact and to develop or acquire talent around it.
There are pieces on the roster that management can fit around the “big three,” but the front office CANNOT trade any of those three players this offseason. Anyone else on the roster is fair game.
The Timberwolves have an extremely young roster with only one player (Luke Ridnour) who’ll be over the age of 29 when the season starts.
That puts pressure on the front office. It must find a balance between sticking with the youth movement and acquiring veteran talent, all while trying to build a contender.
My advice: Stick closer to the youth movement than the acquisition of proven veterans. This is a team that can grow together like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
When a team grows together its players have more faith in one another. When a roster is full of players who trust each other it creates chemistry, and when there is chemistry a talented team is more likely to win than a talented team without chemistry (a la the 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks compared to the Miami Heat).
The future is bright in Minnesota. It’s the front office’s job to build around its own “big three.”