If anything has been learned from the first seven games of the season, it’s that the Minnesota Timberwolves are much stronger now than they were last season.
If that fact wasn’t evidenced by the Timberwolves' hectic offseason and the new names that we see in the starting lineup, their 5-2 record has made it clear that they’re serious about being cellar-dwellers no longer.
A big part of getting to this point is the fact that the Timberwolves are heading into the 2012-13 campaign with just seven of the players that they ended the 2011-12 campaign with.
It’s not like they just replaced the benchwarmers, either. With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love out for at least another month, the majority of the players that are seeing significant playing time weren’t even on the team last season.
David Kahn and the rest of the Wolves' management did a fantastic job of picking players that are going to help the talent level—as well as the chemistry level—of the team skyrocket.
With the injuries stacking up for the team, however, the flexibility and overall strength of the roster is going to be heavily tested. The big-name acquisitions are going to have to prove their worth without the help of Love and Rubio.
It’s trial through fire.
I’m going to review the players that need to step up while Love, Rubio and Chase Budinger recuperate. Even with these injuries, the team is still impressing. That should be a major indication of just how good this team really is going to be when May and the playoffs roll around.
And bear in mind, any of the following numbers and stats are through the first nine games of the season.
If healthy, Brandon Roy could actually be the most talented player on the team even when Love returns from his broken hand. In his first four years in the NBA (the injury-free ones), he averaged 20 points per game (PPG) and passed the ball for a very healthy 4.9 assists per game (APG).
The games that he has missed due to soreness in his right knee indicate that his problems with injury and degenerative knees aren’t completely gone—but you never know. Unless the knee soreness turns out to be a major issue, it's likely that he will return within a week.
Especially while Love and Rubio miss time, an active Brandon Roy means a big-time offensive weapon.
As it stands right now, Luke Ridnour is the only healthy “true” point guard on the roster. Alexey Shved and Malcolm Lee have both played point, but they’re both combo guards at best.
Ridnour has big shoes to fill. Ricky Rubio took the league by storm last season with his ability to make plays and keep the rest of the team involved.
Before he injured his foot, J.J. Barea was splitting time with Ridnour. The mixture was potent, as Ridnour provided stability, and Barea provided an offensive spark and excitement off the bench.
Now that Ridnour will be the primary ball-handler, he needs to assert himself as an offensive threat. In the first nine games of the season, he's averaged 11.1 PPG and a very modest 3.9 APG. Getting the rest of the team more involved is the first step Ridnour should take towards upping his offensive intensity.
Making sure that they fully utilize Ridnour will benefit the Wolves, especially with the point guard spot as injury ravaged as it has been (Barea and Rubio are both currently injured).
With all of the forwards that the Wolves began the season with, Dante Cunningham was the forgotten addition in all of the offseason frenzy.
The Timberwolves made an extremely smart move when they brought Cunningham to Minnesota. It was all part of the plan to create a balanced roster. Cunningham brings defensive savvy to the otherwise offensively minded big-man stable of the Timberwolves.
His offensive game hasn’t looked shabby, either, as he has averaged 8.5 points per game in just 22 minutes a night for the Wolves. (Stats courtesy of NBA.com)
Kevin Love’s injury opened the door for him to make a difference for the team, and he’s done his best to assert his place in the lineup.
Derrick Williams' job is simply to play consistently. Everybody knows that he can be an explosive force off the bench, but we have yet to see him play at a consistent level.
With Kevin Love and Chase Budinger injured, D-Will’s role has expanded to the point that the Wolves need him to play to his potential in order to win games.
If he does, Williams is a great player. He plays defense well, he scores the ball well and his playmaking ability remains high. As a rookie last season, he posted 8.8 PPG coming off the bench, as well as 4.7 rebounds per game (RPG).
Given that he is currently scoring just 8.6 PPG to start the 2012-13 season off, his offensive numbers have actually decreased so far this season—even with increased playing time.
With all of the injuries that have occurred for the Wolves, Derrick Williams has no choice but to raise his threat level—and for Williams, that starts with becoming consistent.
No player on the roster is under the scrutiny that Alexey Shved is. Coming to the Timberwolves as a rookie from Russia, he really wasn’t anticipated to have the impact that he’s ended up having.
First off, nobody was really sure whether or not he could make it at the NBA level. He was good in Russia (49-percent three-point shooter), but he also had questions surrounding him.
So far, he’s crushed it. Defense was supposedly his greatest weakness, but he’s impressed so far. With his size at the combo guard position, opponents are finding it difficult to have success against him. If any significant defensive problems are there, they sure haven’t surfaced yet.
Not only that, but his offensive game started off strong and has shown improvement as he grows more and more comfortable in the NBA and the Wolves system.
In the absence of both Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger against the Mavericks on Monday night, Shved came alive for the Wolves, posting 16 points and five assists, as well as three blocks.
He grabs rebounds (3.3 per game so far this season), facilitates the ball and makes plays when his team needs him to. With Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger injured, Shved is providing ways for the Wolves to win games.
One of the biggest reasons that the Wolves are having so much success without Love and Rubio is that Nikola Pekovic has been absolutely tearing it up at the center position.
His game has its flaws. His defense isn’t perfect, and his outside game needs work. That said, his power and surprising quickness keeps opposing big men on their heels.
Even without Love in the game, Pekovic’s offensive game just keeps on churning. He’s averaging 14.5 points per game to go along with six rebounds per game so far this season.
He left the game on Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks with what appears to be a left ankle sprain. The Wolves desperately need him to stay healthy, as he’s currently the cornerstone of the team's offense.
An ankle sprain isn't a major injury, but it's very possible that he'll miss a few games.
What can be said about Andrei Kirilenko that he hasn’t shown us this season? He does everything, and he does everything well.
Defense is his forte, but Kirilenko has done a lot of everything for the Wolves. He has been asked to play both forward positions, and he hasn't disappointed yet.
He's scoring 12.3 PPG, and he's shooting a career high 57 percent from the field. Not only that, but at 3.9 APG, his assists are currently the third highest that they have ever been in his career.
With Love and Rubio sidelined (as well as Brandon Roy, J.J. Barea, Chase Budinger, and now Nikola Pekovic), Kirilenko has taken the challenge of stepping up and holding down the fort.
As the leader of the team, Kirilenko has also done a great job of managing the floor. The Timberwolves will have to rely heavily on him to be successful—even after Love and Rubio return.