Minnesota Timberwolves: 5 Reasons the Team Is a Playoff Contender

Jeff Bell@@JrayBellCorrespondent IOctober 22, 2012

Minnesota Timberwolves: 5 Reasons the Team Is a Playoff Contender

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    Fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves probably haven't thought much about the playoffs since Kevin Garnett was on the team. But the 2012 version has little in common with the struggling teams of the past.

    They have the best power forward in the NBA in Kevin Love. They have a rising superstar at point guard in Ricky Rubio, who may be among the best passers in the league already. Derrick Williams had a promising rookie season after being selected as the second overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft.

    And perhaps the most intriguing storyline is the return of Brandon Roy, who retired from the Portland Trailblazers after his career was derailed by injuries.

    Despite the regular season being more than a week away, things aren't off to a swell start. The Timberwolves announced that Love suffered a hand injury earlier this week and would miss 6-8 weeks.

    And Rubio, who was injured last season, may not be back until early January, according to an interview with USA Today.

    Even with two of their stars out of the lineup to begin the season, the Timberwolves are a contender in the West. Here are five reasons why they'll find themselves playing playoff basketball.

1. Growth of Nikola Pekovic

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    The T-wolves are going to rely heavily on their frontcourt to shoulder the burden of Love's absence in the early part of the season.

    Some could point to Derrick Williams development as the solution for survival. But I think the real surprise will be the play of Nikola Pekovic, a third-year big man who saw significant growth from year one to year two.

    In Pekovic's rookie campaign, he averaged five and a half points a game to go along with three rebounds. Those numbers were more than doubled this past season, and the minutes went up as well.

    The 26-year-old has the size (6'11" 290 lbs.) to hang with the league's best centers. And when he gets to the free throw line, he's shooting nearly 75 percent.

    If you haven't heard of Pekovic, you aren't alone. If you aren't convinced about his talent, you probably aren't alone there either.

    But Pekovic will play a very important role in the early going for Minnesota. If he can get help from Williams and veteran forward Dante Cunningham, the team will be in great shape when Love returns.

2. The Return of Brandon Roy

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    I understand if you've forgotten about Brandon Roy. A lot has happened in the NBA since he left the league. Lebron James won his first ring, Dwight Howard was traded to the Lakers, and the Nets moved to Brooklyn.

    But those who remember Roy when he was healthy will remember one of the league's best young players, and a guy who could do it all.

    On offense, Roy has a silky smooth game that allows him to get to the hoop in an effortless manner. He can create his own shot as well as anyone, and his production in the clutch was becoming legendary.

    But bad knees derailed his career and he decided to retire from the game altogether.

    Fast-forward to 2012, and we find Roy trying to give it a go once more. Only this time, he'll don a T-wolves uniform. Ironically, it was Roy who was originally drafted by the team before being traded to Portland for Randy Foye.

    Roy has looked good in the preseason and he clearly has the skills to play in the NBA again. But can he return to All-Star form? And if he does, how long will it last? Are his knees healthy enough to keep him around for more than a few years?

    If Roy looks anything like the guy who scored 52 points in a game for Portland, the Timberwolves will have found themselves another star to go alongside Kevin Love.

3. Depth at Point Guard

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    Point guard looks like another position of concern for the Timberwolves until Ricky Rubio returns. But despite what Rubio's absence does to this team, I think the position will be a strength early on.

    Consider the veteran leadership brought on by both Luke Ridnour and Jose Juan Barea. Ridnour has been in the league for nine years now, and Barea for six.

    Neither will find themselves on an all-star roster anytime soon, but they can provide enough leadership to help this team win without its two stars.

    It's hard to describe Ridnour's game as anything other than solid. He may not have the physical gifts of a Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose, but he knows how to run an offense. He's a terrific mid-range shooter and can pass the ball well.

    Barea brings a unique style to the court. He's quick and somehow finds himself in the lane quite often for a guy barely six feet tall. You may recall his playing days with the Dallas Mavericks, where he played feisty defense and embraced the role of spark plug off the bench.

    Both Ridnour and Barea have their weaknesses, but I think they'll help out the team in a major way until Rubio returns to the hardwood.

4. When Love and Rubio Return, Watch Out!

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    There's no doubt that the T-Wolves are going to struggle a bit until Rubio and Love return. But if they can manage not to fall behind too far in the standings, they'll be ready to rock and roll once their stars are healthy.

    The team hasn't had much success in recent years, but they were two games over .500 and headed toward the playoffs last season before Rubio went down.

    Kevin Love has become a dominant force in the West, grabbing rebounds and scoring from all over the court. Having a power forward with post moves is nice, but having one that can also step outside and bury the three is even better.

    Rubio is just 22 years old. In his first season he up put over ten points and eight assists per game. What will his second year have in store?

    Love and Rubio will be missed early on. But this team, at full-strength, can challenge anybody. They may be a couple years from making a deep postseason run, but getting to the playoffs is possible.

5. A Manageable Early Season Schedule

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    It's crucial for Minnesota to hold steady in the standings until Love and Rubio return to the lineup. Luckily, their schedule in the months of November and December is manageable.

    Out of the 27 games they'll play before New Year's Day, 14 are against playoff teams. That may not sound like a good thing, but with half of the teams in the NBA making the playoffs, it could be worse.

    You also have to consider that two of those games are against Orlando, who won't be nearly as challenging without Dwight Howard.

    They don't play the Lakers at all before January, and they get the Oklahoma City Thunder at home.

    The longest road trip in the first two months is four games, but three of those games are against the Portland Trailblazers, the Golden State Warriors, and the Sacramento Kings. The fourth is against the Los Angeles Clippers.

    The T-Wolves have just one other road trip lasting four games, but it takes place in January (when the team will presumably be healthy) and includes the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Thunder.

    The schedule isn't ideal, but it gets more difficult in the latter stages of the season, when Love and Rubio should be back.