This should have been the time of the season for Minnesota Timberwolves to start playing like a playoff team.
The stars were beginning to finally align. Kevin Love was supposedly recovered from his broken hand, Ricky Rubio was finally back from his torn ACL, the only thing holding the Wolves back was getting back into the groove of things.
Then Love re-fractured his hand.
Even if Love was slumping, try taking 20 points and 14 rebounds a game away from a team and see what happens.
In all honesty, though, the Timberwolves have consistently won games without Love. Before Love’s most recent injury, the Wolves were 10-10 with him on the court and 6-6 with him off.
He hasn’t been the same impact player that he has been in seasons past. He still is an elite rebounder, but his presence under the basket isn’t felt as heavily as it has been. For now, we’ll chalk it up to his broken hand. After all, he did return the first time in just over three weeks—which isn’t nearly long enough for his hand to have fully healed.
At any rate, the Timberwolves shouldn’t be losing games like they have been. It’s not yet time to give up on the team, just time to see some adjustments made.
Last season, you knew what you would get from Ricky Rubio game in and game out. You’d get stellar defense, several highlight-worthy assists, and energy that would raise the bar for the rest of the team.
We saw that in his first game back from his ACL tear when he put up eight points and nine assists in a Timberwolves victory over the Dallas Mavericks. Since then, however, he simply hasn’t had a game worth mentioning.
His minutes have gradually increased, with 26 being the most that he’s played in a single game this season.
After appearing in 10 games, it’s time for Rubio to start getting back to the way that he played in his rookie year. That means that he’s going to need to start, and it means that he needs to play aggressively.
Even without Kevin Love for the next two months, Rubio still provides enough firepower and energy to keep the Wolves alive in the playoff picture, but he needs to go back to playing like the high-energy baller that we saw before his ACL tear.
Dante Cunningham has been absolutely great in his role with a healthy Timberwolves team. His energetic, defensive minded presence is exactly what the Wolves need from him.
That said, Cunningham hasn’t exactly shown us that he can be a legit option starting in place of the injured Kevin Love.
In the six games that he has started since Love went down, he’s scored an average of nine points in 35 minutes per game. Not bad, but probably not indication that he is the type of player that can take over a game when needed.
Second year forward, Derrick Williams, on the other hand, has been exactly that player.
He tends to be somewhat inconsistent, but he’s still a potentially explosive offensive weapon. Since Love’s injury, Williams has averaged 12.5 points per game in just 24 minutes coming off the bench—that’s substantially less than the 35 minutes per game that Cunningham has averaged.
It’s evident how differently Williams plays when Rubio is on the court, both of them are vastly improved by the others presence.
The entire team is, in fact. This season with Williams on the floor, the team has shot an average of 60 percent from the field. With Cunningham on the floor, the team averages 47 percent.
Cunningham is great coming off the bench as a defensive stopper, but Williams should be the one starting in place of Kevin Love. The Wolves have had difficulty providing offense as of recently and Williams is a legit weapon.
Watching Nikola Pekovic with the ball in his hands under the basket is like watching a tank fight a Tonka truck.
You know he is going to win that battle, Pekovic knows he’s going to win that battle, and the defender knows that he will inevitably lose that battle.
Simply put, giving the ball to Pekovic in the post is the easily the most efficient way for the T-Wolves to get two points.
Pekovic could easily average 20 points per game in the absence of Love, making him the best scoring option for the Wolves.
Especially with the assist-happy Rubio back playing big minutes, It wouldn’t be strange at all for Non—er—Pekovic to take over as the leading scorer in Minnesota.
Rookie Alexey Shved was the big surprise of the Timberwolves offseason. Nobody expected much from him, but he made himself relevant when he stepped up in a big way in the absence of Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger and Malcolm Lee.
However, Shved has also been the model of inconsistency. In the six games since Love’s injury, his points per game have ranged between two and 18 points.
In the last two games, he’s gone just 1-14 from the field. It’s true that he’s one of the best playmakers on the court for the Wolves right now, but he desperately needs to shape up his game.
With Rubio back in the starting lineup, Luke Ridnour can go back to being a combo-guard like he was last season. If that happens, Shved may be relegated to being the sixth man again.
If Shved can play at a more consistent level then we truly haven't begun to see what he can offer. We do know that he could easily provide 15-20 points per game, especially playing alongside Rubio and Andrei Kirilenko.
Shved is a fantastic player—when he’s hitting his shots. He obviously needs to work on several aspects of his game (i.e., making smart passes, overall efficiency), but all of his issues are very coachable.
To conclude, Shved needs to shape up or be forced back into the bench. There's no doubt that he can be a star in the NBA, but he needs to start playing like it.
The Timberwolves had a terrible defense last season, evidenced by the fact that they were ranked 24th in the entire league for defense.
This year, the coaching of Head Coach Rick Adelman and the defensive leadership of Andrei Kirilenko has paid off.
At least up until recently, the Timberwolves were ranked in the top ten, a huge upgrade from past years.
Unfortunately, their defense has been slipping. Over the last four games, the Timberwolves have given up an average of 107.2 points per night.
That number is ridiculously terrible, and it’s going to have to change if the Wolves want any shot at winning without Kevin Love.
And let’s be honest, it’s not like Love is any sort of defensive anchor.
Especially while Love misses games, the defense has to improve. If the Wolves can get back to their former energetic ways, then there shouldn’t be any problems—especially with Rubio soon to be back in the starting lineup.