Do Minnesota Timberwolves' Free-Agency Moves Make Them Playoff Contenders?

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Do Minnesota Timberwolves' Free-Agency Moves Make Them Playoff Contenders?
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been plenty active in retooling their roster since the end of the 2012-13 NBA season.

But, as the late, great John Wooden once said, "Never mistake activity for achievement."

We won't know for some time what general manager Flip Saunder's reshaped roster will achieve; however, the pieces appear to be in place for the T-Wolves to make their first playoff appearance since Saunders' last full season as the head coach in Minneapolis.

That 2003-04 season saw Kevin Garnett, the league's MVP, carry Minnesota to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the last of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

Such a dramatic leap out of the lottery would be too much to expect from the motley crew Rick Adelman will have at his disposal. The T-Wolves, as currently constructed, sport only two players—the newly re-signed Corey Brewer, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, and 2013 draftee Gorgui Dieng—whose calling cards can be found on the defensive end, after Andrei Kirilenko opted out of the second year of his deal.

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Flip Saunders is back with the T-Wolves, but will his moves pay off?
Not that the T-Wolves will necessarily be hopeless on that end of the floor. They finished a respectable 14th in defensive efficiency last season, despite suffering through a rash of injuries that even Moses wouldn't have summoned to torment his enemies.

If all goes according to plan, this team shouldn't have any trouble scoring points. That's the beauty of having a preternatural passer like Ricky Rubio handling the distribution duties and a super-skilled, sweet-shooting power forward of Kevin Love's caliber carrying the biggest scoring load.

The addition of Kevin Martin (four years, $30 million) and the return of Chase Budinger (three years, $16 million) should add ample perimeter shooting to a group in need of some outside of Love. The roster was already replete with shooting-deprived slashers, from Rubio and J.J. Barea to Alexey Shved and incoming rookie Shabazz Muhammad.

The spacing provided by Love, Martin and "Air Bud" will be crucial now that Luke Ridnour, a solid shooter, is on his way out—according to Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune—and Nikola Pekovic is set to stay by way of a four-year, $50 million pact, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. Pek's emergence as a bona fide low-post nightmare stands as arguably the only bright spot from a 2012-13 campaign that was otherwise a waste for the T-Wolves.

Figuring out a starting five from this group, which will miss Kirilenko's versatility, could be a chore for Adelman. At this point, Rubio, Love, and Pekovic would appear to be the only surefire guarantees for pregame introductions. Martin would make sense as well, given his salary and shooting ability as well as the lack of high-level experience between Shved and Muhammad.

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There might not be quite so clear a choice for the other wing spot.

Does Adelman give Derrick Williams another shot to prove that he wasn't a bust as the No. 2 pick in 2011 after all? Or do the T-Wolves throw in the towel on "D-Will" (for now, at least) to clear space for Budinger, who missed all but 23 games last season on account of torn cartilage in his left knee?

Or does the serially streaky Brewer sneak his way in on the strength of his defensive chops?

If shooting is the need, then Budinger, a supposed three-point specialist (with a career mark of 35.8 percent from beyond the arc), makes more sense than does Williams, who improved in that regard in 2012-13 to 33.2 percent. But if athleticism and attacking ability are chief on the agenda, then D-Will's gig may be safe after all.

In any case, Adelman will have some interesting pieces at his disposal to bring off the bench. A second unit of Barea, Budinger, Brewer (the Killer B's?), Shved and Dante Cunningham, with Muhammad and Dieng considered sparingly for minutes, should allow Minnesota to put up points even with Rubio and/or Love on the bench while bringing a bit more of a defensive flavor.

On the whole, there are still serious concerns to be addressed on the defensive end, especially as they pertain to the two Kevins. Love is plenty strong but lacks the quickness and athleticism to handle most modern-day stretch 4s. Martin, meanwhile, is probably one of the 10 worst defenders in the entire league.

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That being said, the cupboard isn't bare on that end, and good NBA defense isn't about individual talent so much as it is about effort, attentiveness and smart coaching. Adelman is sharp enough in that respect.

His specialty, like that of his team, will come on the offensive end. The T-Wolves could wind up as one of the elite scoring squads in the NBA, depending on how healthy they stay and how well their corps of shooters comes together. That alone could slot Minnesota into the seventh or eighth seed in a loaded Western Conference.

Frankly, projecting the T-Wolves any higher than that would be unrealistic at this point. The top five spots out West figure to be occupied by (in no particular order) the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. The Golden State Warriors have the requisite talent to challenge for consideration as well.

Which leaves the T-Wolves to duke it out with the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets and to a lesser extent the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers (pending a full-on tank-a-palooza) for one of the final two seeds. Minnesota might actually be the strongest of that group, especially now that the Nuggets can add the departures of Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer to a list of grievances that includes Danilo Gallinari's bum knee, general manager Masai Ujiri's flight to Toronto and George Karl's ouster.

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That still leaves the T-Wolves well short of winning a round against one of the very best the West has to offer, even with a full complement of players—which, after the disaster of last season, might be too much to expect.

But simply making the playoffs after a decade spent in the doldrums of the draft lottery would be achievement enough for the T-Wolves after an active offseason under the auspices of Flip Saunders.

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