We’re almost to the halfway point of the season and the Minnesota Timberwolves still have no idea of what the anticipated starting lineup is going to look like.
The many injuries have taken their toll on the team, with Kevin Love missing almost half his games and Ricky Rubio playing in just four. Anything that has gone right for the Wolves has been overlooked with all that has gone wrong—but it doesn’t change the fact that the team has undergone drastic changes.
For one, the Timberwolves went just 5-25 after Rubio tore his ACL last March. They’re 15-15 this season despite all the absent players including Rubio, which says a quite a bit about the growth of the team.
In one season, Minnesota’s defense has gone from being ranked 25th to seventh, another huge indication of the franchise moving in the right direction.
For the Timberwolves, any hope of making the playoffs is firmly in the hands of the players that remain on the court. Nikola Pekovic is primed to be huge (metaphorically speaking, he’s already a physical giant), but he left the game on Saturday with a hip strain. Will he be healthy enough to continue dominating the post position?
Ricky Rubio hasn’t done a lot in his four games back, but he showed us enough in his rookie season to make us believe that he can be that 10-point, 10-assist player that the Wolves used to rely on so heavily.
On the court, the players who have already made the biggest difference have been the newcomers from Russia. Former Utah Jazz star forward Andrei Kirilenko and rookie free agent Alexy Shved have already firmly established themselves on the roster, making the case that international scouting was a brilliant move on part of the Wolves' management.
In fact, there haven’t been many duds (aside from Brandon Roy) from the offseason acquisitions. Dante Cunningham has been great taking over for Love, Chase Budinger was brilliant coming off the bench in the few games that he played—it’s been all gravy.
Projected Record: 48-34; Division Standing: Second in the Northwest; Seventh seed in the West
Let’s get something straight: the Timberwolves have consistently won games with or without Kevin Love playing at 100 percent.
Love put up decent stats in his 18 games, but he did so inefficiently. Before Saturday’s injury he was shooting at a career-low 35.2 percent from the field. Frankly, he just hasn’t been a game-changer since he fractured his hand in October.
In case you don’t believe me, the Timberwolves are 9-9 in the games that Kevin love played in. They’re 6-6 in the games that he didn’t.
With that in mind, Rubio is just about to begin playing serious minutes again. His rookie track record speaks for itself: the Wolves went 18-13 in the games that he started in and 5-25 in the games after his injury.
That was also with a team that couldn’t play defense (25th in the league) and had a rather unproductive rotation. Imagine what Ricky can do with a team that is finally ready to win.
With a healthy Rubio back on the court, a 48-win season doesn’t seem too far away—especially coupled with Love’s return in mid-February and Budinger on the brink of coming back.
If the team can consistently win games that they should be winning (i.e., most of their games), then there is absolutely nothing keeping them from overtaking the rather mediocre teams in the Northwest. Obviously it’s a stretch to predict that the Wolves will beat out Kevin Durant and the Thunder, but second place in the division is a realistic projection.
With that, the Timberwolves would claim the seventh seed in the playoffs as it stand right now.
Points Per Game
Without Kevin Love in the lineup until at least mid-February, the Timberwolves don’t have a true 20-plus PPG-type player. Alexey Shved and Nikola Pekovic, as well as bench players like J.J. Barea and Derrick Williams will be expected to carry the team offensively, so they should both see increases in points per game.
That being said, Kevin Love will still lead the team in points per game at the end of the season. As it stands right now, he’s already leading the way with 18.3 PPG. Pekovic is in second with 15.9 PPG, but it’s unlikely that he can overtake Love.
In fact, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to assume that Love will improve his field-goal percentage when he returns. Obviously, he rushed coming back the first time. Let’s see how he is with a completely healthy hand.
Projected PPG leader: Kevin Love, 22 PPG
Rebounds Per Game
As far as rebounding goes, Kevin Love is still one of the elite rebounders in the league. Despite his hand injury, he’s averaged a career-high in rebounds per game (RPG) this season with 14 RPG. With Pekovic being the next best at 8.3 RPG, Love doesn’t need to worry about losing his spot at the top.
Projected RPG leader: Kevin Love, 14 RPG
Assists Per Game
The Timberwolves were dealt a mighty blow when Kevin Love went down with the broken hand (both times), but the good news is that Ricky Rubio will be returning to full strength shortly.
When he does, he’s going to be playing next to players that can actually hold their own offensively. Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, for example, are completely new to the organization. Both of them are easily capable of 15 PPG, and both of them can prove to be dynamic partners with Rubio.
Nikola Pekovic has suddenly become relevant in the West, and it’s fair to assume that his scoring numbers will go up in the absence of Love.
With all of the talent surrounding him, Rubio and his bamboozling (that’s right, I said it) magician-esque passes will have nowhere to go but up.
Projected APG leader: Ricky Rubio, 10 APG
Finally, we come to defensive numbers. For this particular stat, there is only one player that will unquestionably be the leader at the end of the season: Andrei Kirilenko. With his 1.5 steals per game (SPG) and 1.4 blocks per game (BPG), Kirilenko has been the heart of the Timberwolves defensive revival.
Projected defensive leader: Andrei Kirilenko, 1.5 SPG; 1.5 BPG