What We've Learned About the Minnesota Timberwolves After the First Month

Ben ScullyContributor IIINovember 28, 2012

What We've Learned About the Minnesota Timberwolves After the First Month

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves have given us a good taste of both the good and the bad so far in the first month of the season, but both of those are nothing compared to the unexpected.

    It was unexpected when Kevin Love broke his hand a week before the regular season began. It was unexpected when the Wolves lost two more of their anchor players (Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy) within the first two weeks of the season.

    Finally, though, it was unexpected that the Wolves dropped three straight games since the (unexpectedly) quick return of Kevin Love from his injury, before finally defeating the Kings.

    So no, the Wolves didn’t spend the first month of the 2012-13 season by dominating the Northwest division.  

    They haven’t given anybody a reason to decide that they are serious contenders yet, or even just playoff worthy. They’ve won just one out of four games with Kevin Love back playing, even though he’s put up double-double’s all four times that he’s been on the court.

    But that’s just the bad of it.

    True, Kevin Love missed games, but the Timberwolves didn’t start the season off having a problem making up for the lack of a superstar scorer—in fact, far from that.

    Andrei Kirilenko has proven to be well worth the money for the Timberwolves, Shved has been a great rookie surprise and Dante Cunningham has been one of the only solid pieces of the team. After watching every game of the season for the Wolves so far this season, I’m going to go over what I’ve noticed from them.

    Note: All stats are accurate as of Wednesday morning (Nov. 28).

Resiliency Without Stars in the Game

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    The anticipated lineup for the Minnesota T-Wolves would feature Kevin Love, Brandon Roy and Ricky Rubio. Any one of those three players would be considered a star if healthy, and all three of those players missed considerable chunks of the first month—and actually, Rubio hasn’t returned yet.

    Also, not that I would consider any of these players stars (yet), but Chase Budinger was gone within the first two weeks of the season with a knee injury, Nikola Pekovic missed several games with a sprained ankle and J.J. Barea missed valuable time with a sprained foot.

    With the roster that was absolutely devoid of any superstar life, the Wolves braved on through the month of November. And believe it or not, they did quite well. Before Love made his return, the Wolves had an impressive 5-4 record.

    They showed resiliency without the help of a superstar to bail them out, and that alone is a tremendous change from last season when they went 5-20 after Rubio tore his ACL. 

Alexey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko Have Been Huge

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    I spoke of the newfound resiliency of the team, but I didn’t nearly do justice to the players that are largely responsible for the turnaround. Enter Team Russia.

    When it was announced that Andrei Kirilenko would be signing with the T-Wolves, there was a lot of speculation as to whether or not it was a deal that would pay off.

    For one, he’s never been considered a superstar. He’s been a great defender, a hustle player, a rebounder, a guy that can put points on the board—he’s been a lot of things. But assuming that he would be the team leader while Love and Rubio missed time was a stretch, especially in his first season with the Timberwolves, much less his first season back in the NBA.

    As it turns out, Kirilenko has been just that. It’s been said that 13.0 points per game (PPG) isn’t elite, and/or that his defense has slowed down a bit going into his eleventh year in the NBA (plus last year as a pro in Russia). And to those accusations, I object.

    Kirilenko has been the go-to guy for the Wolves—nay—Kirilenko is the go-to guy for the Wolves. He’s averaged 13.0 PPG, but he has also shot 52 percent from the field, as well as 38 percent from behind the three. He has also grabbed an average of 7.8 rebounds per game (RPG) so far this season, which happens to be the third highest in his career.

    His defense is still very much a powerhouse, made obvious by the fact that he has earned 1.8 blocks per game (BPG) and 1.5 steals per game (SPG). Those are some solid numbers, people.  

    Now we move on to Kirilenko’s former Russian teammate, Alexey Shved. Shved came to the Timberwolves as an undrafted free agent, and quickly has established his worth with the team.

    Coming off the bench, Shved has averaged 9.5 PPG and 3.9 assists per game (APG)—those are pretty good numbers for a guy that was passed up by every single team in the 2012 NBA Draft. He’s also been steadily improving throughout the month, and has a style similar to Ricky Rubio’s. When Rubio returns, it’s going to be fun watching the two of them together.

    All in all, the Russians have been a substantial part of keeping the Wolves from sinking due to all of the injuries. Once they get their chemistry with Kevin Love moving along, the T-Wolves are going to get nasty—we saw some of that against the Kings, and it’s just going to keep getting better. 

Too Much Reliance on Kevin Love

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    Unfortunately, we can’t have the good without the bad. Despite Kevin Love returning to the lineup and immediately having an impact on the stat sheet, the Wolves find themselves in the familiar situation of not being able to win games that they should easily win.

    It’s obviously not Kevin Love’s fault. Not directly, that is. Love is one of the best scoring big men in the league, so why aren’t the Timberwolves winning easy games? It all starts with the team placing too much reliance on Kevin Love.

    The Chicago Bulls were faced with a similar situation last season, when Derrick Rose exited the playoffs early with a torn ACL. In spite of having several great players like Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls couldn’t beat Philadelphia to stay alive. That’s because they placed too much reliance on Derrick Rose to win games, and it burned them when he wasn’t around anymore.

    To prove my point, Andrei Kirilenko was averaging 14.1 PPG before Kevin Love arrived, and is now averaging 10.5 PPG. That could be credited to the fact that Love takes the pressure off Kirilenko to provide points, but Kirilenko has also been shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 11.1 percent from behind the three—as opposed to his season average of 51 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from behind the arc.

    Put simply, Kirilenko has to maintain his role as the team leader. Never mind the fact that Kevin Love is the best power forward in the league, Kirilenko was brought in to add veteran leadership to the team, and he needs to continue to deliver on that. Especially while the new members on the team acclimate themselves to Love, Kirilenko needs to remain consistent.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Kevin Love is by any means causing the team to fail, the rest of the team just needs to remain scrappy. While Love may be the best option on the floor, that by no means give the rest of the team an excuse to fall off the radar.  

    When Rubio returns, he’ll balance out the offense. Until then, however, it is up to Ridnour and Barea to keep everybody involved.

Williams Bad, Cunningham Good

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    I thought the title of this slide sums up the situation pretty nicely. Derrick Williams has been rather forgettable so far this season, while Dante Cunningham has been a staple of the new look Timberwolves.

    So far this season, Williams has averaged a decent 10.3 PPG and 5.1 RPG. He shot 37 percent from the field, and passed for 0.8 APG. More importantly than those numbers though, he has played a whopping 11 minutes since Kevin Love returned from injury.

    Although he has shown flashes of brilliance, his inconsistency and bad decisions make him a liability for the team. It’s still early in his career to label him a bust, but Williams hasn’t done a lot to shed that idea.

    On the other hand, Dante Cunningham has done nothing but exceed expectations since he came to Minnesota. So far this season he has averaged 8.2 PPG and 5.2 RPG. Good stats, and they’re also accompanied by 53 FG percent.  

    It can’t be emphasized enough just how huge Cunningham has been for the Wolves. Even with Kevin Love back in the game, his defensive presence and the energy that he brings to the court make him a key member of the team.

    It’s evidenced by the fact that Williams isn’t getting minutes that he’s probably not going to be a member of the team moving forward. If the Wolves attempt to trade him away before the season is over, it wouldn’t come as a surprise.