The Minnesota Timberwolves have been impressive over the first three games of the season. Going 2-1 to start the season off is admirable, especially considering just how revamped the roster is compared to last season.
The players have played very comfortably with each other—which is a huge step forward from last season when the team virtually fell apart without Ricky Rubio and/or Kevin Love on the floor.
The upgrades have already begun to pay massive dividends. Veteran Andrei Kirilenko has shown why the Wolves made a point of pursuing him, and rookie Alexey Shved is already proving that he belongs in the NBA.
The early success of the team makes one wonder just how good the Wolves are going to be with their star players Love and Rubio on the court.
For now, though, focusing on the areas that will keep the Wolves alive until the stars come back will be the trick. With a roster as competent as the one that the T-Wolves have put together, I’m going to review the ways that will make the team a bona fide success.
Even though the Timberwolves enjoyed relative success while rookie sensation Ricky Rubio was on the court last season, big changes were made to the roster to ensure the team's survival without him.
Brandon Roy was not brought into Minnesota with the idea of him being a role player. Although forced to retire and miss last season due to injury, he’s back now, and he hasn’t shown any problems in his recovery thus far.
In his injury-free years with the Portland Trail Blazers, Roy averaged 20 points per game (PPG). He’s no slouch.
Over his first week with the Timberwolves he’s only put up 6.6 PPG. He has shown obvious rust—but then, it’s only natural to show rust after missing an entire season. As the season progresses we’ll see more of Brandon Roy. When he’s at full strength, he’s a force to be reckoned with.
The Wolves worked hard to acquire Andrei Kirilenko for situations exactly like the one they’re in right now.
Nobody currently playing for the Wolves has the leadership or veteran qualities that Kirilenko has—he’s the glue-guy. Night in and night out, Kirilenko is relied on to score, pass the ball and play defense. In the absence of team leader Kevin Love, Kirilenko is the guy the Wolves will look to fall back on.
Not many people knew of Alexey Shved when the Timberwolves acquired him. There were rumors that he could be talented, but most wrote him off as a player who would be unable to convert his game to succeed in the NBA.
We haven’t seen much weakness from him yet. In fact, he was one of the key players responsible for the massive comeback versus the Brooklyn Nets.
The fact that he’s a combo-guard is one of the more interesting aspects of his game. He can play the role of the scorer—he shot 49 percent from behind the three last year in Russia—or he can play facilitator. It’s a bit early to decide whether or not he can succeed as an NBA point guard, but his passing style is very well suited to the NBA.
Not only that, but his defense is actually very solid. One of the biggest criticisms that he received prior to joining the NBA was that he wouldn’t be able to play defense at a high level. Over the first three games, though, he’s proven that idea to be very wrong.
Utilizing Shved's talents is something that the Wolves and Head Coach Rick Adelman need to make sure they do. His talent on both sides of the ball can't be overlooked, especially while missing Rubio and Love.
Dante Cunningham was one of the underrated acquisitions made over the offseason. With superstar Kevin Love injured for at least the next month, Cunningham has been given the opportunity to prove just how good a player he really is.
Second year player Derrick Williams was anticipated to be the player that would benefit the most from the absence of Love, but Cunningham is making a major push to take over the starting role until Love returns.
His defense is stifling, he hits mid-range shots, makes big plays, grabs big rebounds—his game is exactly what the Wolves need to compliment the offensive style of play that Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic provide.
Simply put, the Timberwolves were far from being an efficient team last season. The biggest example of this was the fact that they were ranked 25th in the league in defense last season (courtesy of basketball-reference.com).
This year, they look to change that number. It’s a bit early to decide that they have turned over a new leaf, but through the first week they’re ranked seventh defensively.
Most of this change is due to the new players they’ve brought in. Andrei Kirilenko is obviously the biggest new contributor in defense, but the additions of Greg Stiemsma and Dante Cunningham also solidify the defensive depth.
The new additions have further molded the team INTO one of the best rebounding teams in the league, and they’ve made major strides towards becoming a better passing team.
They were ranked 24th for total assists last season, despite the emergence of Ricky Rubio. Helping to resolve that obvious issue is Brandon Roy and Alexey Shved, who are both known as facilitators.
Making the team as efficient as possible is the most important step the Wolves can make to ensure that they stay alive until Rubio and Love return. The changes in personnel were vital to the overall efficiency of the team, they’re set up quite nicely to be a scrappy team.
Watching the Timberwolves last season, you got the idea that the majority of the team didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. Starters like Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley really didn’t have a set role on the team anyway, which affected the team's chemistry—especially when both Love and Rubio ended up missing big chunks of the season.
That’s why rebuilding the team was such a big deal. Finding new players who could fit in the system and actually mesh was a big goal.
The players they brought in were carefully picked—and it’s paid off so far. Obviously, Brandon Roy is a huge scoring threat as well as facilitator, but less mentioned additions Chase Budinger and Alexey Shved are set to make an impact as well.
As I said before, Alexey Shved averaged 49 percent from beyond the arc last season in Russia. That’s a phenomenal number, but only time will tell if he can keep that up in the NBA.
Also, the Wolves acquired proven forward Chase Budinger. Last season with the Houston Rockets, Budinger averaged a 40.2 percent three-point shooting.
Along with Brandon Roy’s pure shot, the Wolves present a massive threat from outside—with or without Kevin Love. They need to show confidence in that fact, because it’s inevitably going to become a big weapon for them.
They also have a high-energy team. Whether it’s J.J. Barea or Derrick Williams, the team is fueled by scrappy players who just don’t stop. New additions like Dante Cunningham and Chase Budinger are both extremely capable of revving up the crowd, and we have yet to see just how exciting Shved really will be.
At the end of the day, sticking to what they do best will continue to make the Minnesota Timberwolves a threat even without their superstars.