Silver Linings from Minnesota Timberwolves' Disappointing Season
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Once again, the snake-bitten Minnesota Timberwolves franchise heads into another offseason full of questions and not many answers.
Rick Adelman may step down as coach. General Manager David Kahn's future is uncertain. Key cogs Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger all could leave via free agency.
Despite the unanswered questions that will inevitably shake themselves out, there was a lot to like about this season. For the first time in a long time, this roster has more positives than negatives.
Their win totals over the past four seasons show an upward trend, so even though playoff aspirations went out the window after everyone caught the injury bug, there are a lot of things to hang your hat on as a fan.
Many aspects of this season leave hope that next season could finally be the year they stay healthy and put it all together.
Overall Team Defense Was Markedly Better
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Minnesota is currently allowing 98.2 points per game, good for 15th in the league. This will likely be the first season since 2006 in which they allowed less than 100 per night.
Just two short seasons ago, they ranked dead last in the league, surrendering just under 108 points a game. Clearly they have come a long way, and defense is no longer a huge liability.
Going forward, this team will need to keep up its defensive intensity if they are to improve even more. Without Love, Budinger and Roy for most of the season, Minnesota was not built to shoot teams out of the gym.
The fact that they were able to hammer down and win tough games on the defensive side of the ball is something that has been lacking for the better part of a decade.
It all starts with Ricky Rubio. His persistence on tearing through passing lanes and swiping balls away from players on the low block has had a domino effect on the whole team. He encourages all of them to contest shots and get out and run the break alongside him.
Because of Rubio and Kirilenko's ability to disrupt offenses, the T-Wolves are second in the league in forcing turnovers at 15.4 per game, just .1 behind the Clippers.
The change in style of play has to be encouraging heading into the offseason. The culture is different, and lackluster defense is no longer acceptable.
Nikola Pekovic Has Become a Legitimate Force
Pek has put himself in the conversation amongst the best centers in the league
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Two years ago, Nikola Pekovic was a marginal bench player who averaged almost as many fouls as rebounds.
Now, after refining his game and getting an opportunity to start, the 6'11" beast has turned himself into a dominant force. He is already easily the most talented center the franchise has ever had.
Heading into free agency, Pekovic has earned himself a big payday. He has also said he has no desire whatsoever to leave Minnesota, and David Kahn would be foolish to let him jump ship.
There are very few centers in the league who can truly bang with Pekovic in the post. He has proven that he really cannot be stopped from going wherever he pleases in the paint, and moving forward this team definitely needs that rock.
The T-Wolves may be strapped for cash, having been built around Love and Rubio, but Pekovic is absolutely crucial to their success. They are just 4-14 without him this season.
Overall, his offense is anything but pretty, but ever so effective. His defense has picked up considerably, and while he may never be much of a shot-blocker, Pekovic sealed off lanes and boxed out wonderfully all season. His brute strength alone is enough to deter opposing centers from testing him too much.
Pekovic has turned himself into one of the best centers in basketball. He is one of the brightest spots of this past season, and if all goes as planned, he will continue to make fans happy at Target Center.
Derrick Williams Is Starting to Live Up to His Draft Pick
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Let us not forget that Derrick Williams is still only 21 years old.
It is a foregone conclusion that big men take longer to develop in the NBA than guards do.
This season, Derrick Williams came into camp considerably lighter and ready to take over the reigns as the team's small forward. The Kirilenko signing threw a wrench in that plan, but Kevin Love's broken hands left the door wide open for him to strut his stuff.
D-Will improved his numbers across the board this season, including 11.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. When given roughly 30 minutes a night as a starter throughout February and March, he truly exhibited what made him such a highly touted prospect.
Last season, Williams appeared tentative. He never really knew his place on the floor, and aside from the occasional outburst, he would largely rely on Rubio's alley-oops and wide open threes to get his points.
This year, he showed a boatload of confidence. D-Will was more decisive with the ball in his hands, attacking the rim when necessary and showing no hesitation in nailing mid-range jumpers that he never took last season.
Of course, he never forgot his bread-and-butter as Rubio's favorite lob partner.
As D-Will continues to round into form, having Rubio and Love around to divert attention and help him out will only speed up his development. He has that killer instinct that will only push him to get better and better.
If Kirilenko does in fact leave, Williams must seize the opportunity and earn that starting small forward spot. Teaming with Pekovic and Love on the front line will put this team in a position to punish teams on the boards like no other.
We saw much more of this during the season than in the previous year. Fans should be salivating over the possibility of Derrick Williams continuing to improve and eventually dominating like he did at Arizona.
T-Wolves Are Currently Slated to Pick 9th in the Draft Lottery
Could Shabazz be taking his talents up north in a few months?
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Although this is an all-too-familiar place, the Timberwolves will once again have the luxury of picking in the top 10 of the draft.
While winning the lottery is unlikely, (it has never happened in franchise history), the team is currently in position to select ninth. Everyone knows this team needs a shooting guard, and Shabazz Muhammad out of UCLA or Victor Oladipo out of Indiana would be way too perfect.
Nbadraft.net currently has Minnesota selecting Muhammad, the star-studded controversial guard out of UCLA with dynamic athleticism and scoring ability. Either of the two shooting guards would be a massive upgrade over the incumbent Luke Ridnour.
As the roster stands, shooting guard is really the only position that needs to be improved upon. Ridnour is a solid backup point guard, but for him to be starting at off-guard next to Rubio is laughable. He gets burned on a nightly basis by opposing guards, as he is not strong enough or fast enough to slow them down. Too many times, Ridnour has been forced to resort to slapping at the ball, trying to knock it loose after his man torches him on the way to the rim.
Either of Muhammad or Oladipo would fill a gaping hole on the team. Alexey Shved showed promise at times during his rookie season, but he does not lack the mentality or the defensive fortitude to hold it down as a starter. Both these guys are battle-tested and would look great catching lobs and nailing threes off of beautiful feeds from Rubio.
Stats don't lie, and Minnesota is currently dead last in the NBA in three-point percentage. While much of that can be attributed to the long absences of Love and Budinger, the fact of the matter is that this team needs guards who can knock down shots confidently.
Minnesota stands to get considerably better, provided they don't swing and miss in the draft again. They even have a second first-round pick if they choose to trade up.
The team is prepared to win now. Selecting a shooting guard capable of stepping right into the starting lineup could push this team over the top.
Ricky Rubio Has Transformed into the Leader the Team Needs
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Regardless of Kevin Love's ascension to superstardom, this team was built around Ricky Rubio.
David Kahn sat back and watched his team flounder while awaiting Rubio's arrival from Spain. Last season, fans finally got to see what all the fuss was about.
This kid can play.
Not only is he a dynamic talent on the court, he has turned the mentality of this franchise around. His positivity and contagious smile, along with his burning desire to win, has inspired his teammates.
This team fell flat on their faces when Rubio went down with his torn ACL last season. They missed his youthful exuberance and his upbeat personality just as much as his jaw-dropping passes.
This season, he has really stepped up in the wake of all the injuries. Rubio refuses to let losing become a habit, as he showed when referees missed a potential game-tying foul call against the Lakers last month.
Of course, there was this heartwarming moment that further exemplified just why this guy is so lovable.
Rubio's shot still needs some work, but he has shown no hesitation to take big shots with the game on the line. He knew that with Love out, he needed to step up, and he has done exactly that by elevating his play throughout the season.
No one would have blamed this team if they had rolled over and given up with all the injuries. Rubio simply did not allow that to happen this year.