Can the Minnesota Timberwolves Survive with Kevin Love Injured?
It never gets any easier for the Minnesota Timberwolves, does it? Last season, their dark-horse pursuit of a spot in the Western Conference playoff picture was derailed by Ricky Rubio's torn ACL and a knock to Kevin Love's noggin, along with the emerging Nikola Pekovic's bum ankle.
This time around, the T-Wolves' push for postseason play may be over before their campaign even tips off. According to the team's own PR, Love is slated to miss the next six-to-eight weeks with a broken hand:
Simply put, there's no replacing Kevin Love. The two-time All-Star blossomed into an MVP candidate last season, when he finished fourth in scoring, second in rebounding and fifth in player efficiency rating (PER) while establishing himself as the best power forward on the planet. He's a true inside-out force on the offensive end, with the ability to shoot threes (37.2 percent for his career and the reigning champion of the Three-Point Contest) and operate in the low post with equal proficiency.
What Love lacks in length and sheer athleticism, he more than makes up for in intelligence and understanding of space and time on the court. Few in the NBA today understand rebounding fundamentals as well as Love does, and though he'll never be a shot-swatting terror on the defensive end, he knows how to use his bulk to push and keep opposing big men off the block.
Love was in tremendous shape during the 2011-12 season and seemed primed to build on that success this time around, after playing a pivotal part in Team USA's sprint to the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Unfortunately for the T-Wolves, all of this will have to sit idly on the pine until Kevin's third and fourth metacarpals heal up.
In the meantime, the forecast wouldn't appear particularly sunny in Minneapolis. Minnesota went 2-9 without Love last season, though six of those losses came after Ricky Rubio was rendered out of action.
If the current six-to-eight-week timetable holds, then the Wolves won't expect to see Kevin back in uniform until December. Surviving the first 15-to-20 games of the season without the team's best player will be no easy task for Minny, though having nine dates against the expected dregs of the league (i.e. the Kings twice, Raptors, Magic, Bobcats, Trail Blazers, Bucks, Cavaliers and Hornets) during that span figure to soften the blow to its win-loss record.
So, too, will the reinforcements at Rick Adelman's disposal. Pekovic should provide much of the same bruising physicality on the interior that Love would've added as his power-forward partner-in-crime. New arrivals Dante Cunningham and Lou Amundson will add plenty of energy, intensity and toughness on both ends of the floor off the bench.
Andrei Kirilenko, whom the T-Wolves signed via free agency this summer, has shown in the past that he can man the "4." He's not the scorer that Love is, but his high-post playmaking will be valuable to the T-Wolves' attack, as will the confidence with which AK-47 is brimming after a starring stint overseas.
But the most intriguing (if not the most important) option to fill in for Kevin is Derrick Williams. The No. 2 pick in the 2011 NBA draft endured an uneven rookie season in the Twin Cities, putting up 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 21.5 minutes while shooting 41.2 percent from the field, including an abysmal 28.7 percent on long twos and an even-more-ghastly 26.8 percent from three.
Williams' poor performance isn't entirely surprising, considering how difficult it was for a "tweener" like himself to find comfortable minutes in Adelman's rotation. Love and Michael Beasley soaked up most of the playing time at power forward, Derrick's more natural position, while the rookie struggled to keep up with even the likes of Wesley Johnson and Martell Webster on the wing.
As such, Williams committed himself to shedding weight and strengthening his ball-handling this summer in an effort to slide into the "3," with Beasley, Johnson and Webster all long gone.
Not that he won't or shouldn't relish the newfound opportunity he'll have to show off his bolstered abilities and prove his worth at power forward. The T-Wolves will need Williams to hold his own (and then some), particularly as a scorer and pick-and-pop option, if they're to stay afloat in the deep Western Conference.
Chances are, much of the scoring slack left behind in Love's absence will also be thrown to Brandon Roy, for better or worse. The former All-Star shooting guard has looked good in preseason play so far, though concerns remain over the viability of worn-down knees that had Portland push him into retirement prior to last season.
The Wolves would be loath to overload Roy with responsibility, lest they jeopardize his health and entrust a starting spot to Russian import Alexey Shved or oft-injured sophomore Malcolm Lee.
Which player will be most important to the T-Wolves in Love's absence?
But that's a risk Minny just might have to take if reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2004 is to remain a realistic goal.
As well it may be once Love's hand is back to normal. He and Rubio are scheduled to return around the same time, with Kevin perhaps stepping back on the court a bit earlier. Luckily, Love's injury isn't the sort that requires intense rehab or inhibits his ability to work on his conditioning in the interim.
Ricky's is another story entirely, as ACL tears tend to take a year or two from which to fully recover. But, unlike last season, the T-Wolves have a deeper well of talent to draw from beyond their two biggest stars.
Should they weather the storm—with Pek, Kirilenko, Williams and Roy sharing the added burden—the Wolves may find their odds of postseason success getting better all the time once Love and Rubio are back in the fold.
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