The Minnesota Timberwolves will have to deal with a challenge they haven’t had for quite some time: high expectations.
They had it a little last year after people saw what happens when you put Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love on the court together, but it gets magnified with the big contract given to Nikola Pekovic, the signing of Kevin Martin to fill a gaping hole at the 2 and bringing in old friend Corey Brewer to help with the perimeter defense.
There is reason to believe that Minnesota not only could compete for a division title this year, but also [stops huffing glue] at the very least have a winning record and get into the playoffs.
That does not mean that the Wolves will not face challenges, often foreign, this season that they must overcome in order to be successful. The three main ones are dealing with the hype of being considered a playoff team, avoiding the injury bug and getting newcomers Shabazz Muhammad, Brewer and Martin comfortable with their new team.
Dealing with the Hype
Fans will no longer show up to the Target Center at the beginning of the year going, “Who is playing for the other team? Who do I get to see tonight?”
Yes, that question will still be pondered, and attendance will likely be higher when the team is playing LeBron James and the Miami Heat or Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets than, say, when the Wolves are playing whoever the hell is on the Orlando Magic, but basketball fans in Minnesota can now go to games knowing they are watching three stars—Rubio, Love and Pekovic—who are among the league’s best and capable of (dare I say it?) winning championships together.
It doesn’t matter who the Wolves are playing: As long as they stay healthy, they will always be worth watching in 2013-14.
That means that they will have to deal with being under the microscope, however, and fans will quickly become ornery if they start losing. In past years, the people that went to the Target Center were just there to enjoy basketball at its highest level and hoped to see a couple of stars or sweet plays. Now they’ll get quite vocal if the home team isn’t winning.
Additionally, opponents are going to coming to Minneapolis expecting a challenge. No longer is this a confidence-booster for a team on the playoff bubble or a borderline exhibition for a contender. The Wolves game will be a barometer for Western Conference teams to judge themselves against.
It’s a new challenge, one that will present itself immediately when the season begins.
The Injury Bug
This one sucks because there is little that anyone can do about injuries. Every team endures them in some capacity, but Minnesota seems a little more cursed than the rest of the league.
Last year every key contributor—Love, Rubio, Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, et cetera—except for Luke Ridnour and Derrick Williams suffered an ailment of some sort. Rubio and Love, the two poster boys, missed significant chunks of the season.
Maybe it is bad karma from the Joe Smith under-the-table signing, maybe it’s because the team traded Ray Allen for Stephon Marbury on draft day, or maybe it’s because the team traded Kevin Garnett for cents on the dollar.
Whatever it is, this team appears to have a lot of bad luck when it comes to player health.
Everyone has had a chance to rest in the offseason, though, and the shaken-up roster consists, for the most part, of players in their prime. This should help the cause in some capacity.
Minnesota might also have to treat its more injury prone stars like position players in baseball, giving them days of rest every now and then to ease the grind of an 82-game schedule. Paying customers might complain and David Stern might fine Rick Adelman, but the two of the smartest coaches in the league, Miami’s Eric Spoelstra and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, sat their stars throughout the course of the season and reached the Finals last season.
It’s something that Adelman should definitely consider.
Integrating the New Guys
It’s pretty obvious what Martin and Brewer are going to offer, but Muhammad is a complete mystery.
Martin, 30, has been in the league since 2004. He has already built a relationship with Adelman and knows exactly what is going to be expected of him this season.
Wolves fans are intimately familiar with his game because he spent last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder as a replacement for James Harden. He’s going to deke defenders with his pump fake, draw a lot of fouls and drop bombs from long range.
It’s also addition by subtraction: OKC loses one of their best players.
Brewer is an old friend, of course, who comes back with better defensive instincts and should help along the perimeter—a department Minnesota was seriously lacking in last season. He should start immediately and should be receive a warm reception in Minneapolis.
Muhammad, on the other hand, needs to avoid becoming the next Michael Beasley. Everybody knew how talented Beasley was when he came over from Miami, but they also knew that he probably smoked more weed than Mark Wahlberg in Ted.
Like Beasley, Muhammad has already gotten in trouble at the rookie symposium and he joins the team after news came out that his father falsified his age so he was a year older than everyone thought as a freshman. Bazz has also been seen sulking when his teammate hit a game-winning three instead of passing him the ball, and his defensive play left something to be desired.
He is still an immensely talented player, and it would be nice if he could contribute in his rookie season, but there is no way that the Wolves, with their playoff ambitions, are going to let any shenanigans weight the team down.
Minnesota fans are expecting a lot out of the team this year, and for good reason, but the Wolves will have to show they can get past a few barriers before everyone really buys in.
How they handle the hype, injuries and the rotation will go a long way to determining whether this team is the real deal early on in the 2013-14 season.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.