Wolves were dropping like flies for all of last year. At different points throughout the season, Minnesota lost Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy. Those are impact, rotation players.
It was a lost season in Minneapolis, one that never saw the Wolves' three best players (Pek, Love and Rubio) take the floor at the same time. Imagine if any other team had to do that.
Imagine if Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James never spent a minute together on the floor. Imagine if Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan never once got to ball out all at the same time. Imagine if Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Mark Gasol waved goodbye to each other before the season even started.
That was the problem in Minnesota last year. It wasn’t just the myriad of injuries; it was the timing of them all.
The Wolves were never at full strength—and it was frustrating because that could have been a playoff team. That could have been a team that competed. It was like the basketball gods were giving the Wolves their karmic justice for something they had never even done.
It was relentless. Even players, who signed midseason as replacements for injured players went down. RIP Josh Howard’s knee.
A new year, though, means a fresh start and a fresh start means a healthy roster in Minnesota for the first time in two seasons. The Timberwolves actually have a chance to make the playoffs. Here’s a look at the players, ranked from worst to best, that can help take them there:
15. Robbie Hummel
Everyone is rooting for Robbie Hummel. The sentiment is there, but the timing (and the health) may not be. Hopefully the Wolves take a small risk, giving Hummel some burn after a strong preseason just to see what he might be able t bring to the table, but there's a reason that a man with chronic knee issues is hard to find on an NBA roster.
14. A.J. Price
Price wasn't supposed to make this roster, but he worked his way into the final 15 during the preseason. He has four years of NBA experience and averaged 22.4 minutes per game last year in Washington.
The Wolves were smart to take a point guard as their 14th or 15th player. Barea and Shved can both act as backups for Ricky Rubio, but if Rubio has to miss more time, a team that has a chance to contend for the playoffs might be better off with a point guard who already has some NBA experience under his belt.
13. Ronny Turiaf
There’s one thing that’s a guarantee when you have Turiaf on your team: finger twirling. That’s right, finger twirling.
Turiaf is the king of the finger twirl and even if he doesn’t contribute much on the court, he’ll find a way to work that twirl into every Wolves fan’s vernacular by the end of the season.
12. Gorgui Dieng
Dieng is a solid Louisville product, who is skilled out of the high post. He is an above-average passer and has a passable mid-range game, but he still hasn’t figured out how to finish around the rim.
Right when you think Dieng, an athletic, 6’11” center is going to throw it down, he lays it in. If he wants to get legitimate minutes this year, he has to work on finishing stronger around the basket. That might be his hardest task in his first professional season.
11. J.J. Barea
Barea is crafty enough to find ways to score and isn’t actually a bad passer, but it’s hard to become even an average defender at his size. We all know J.J. isn’t actually 6-feet tall, even though the game program would tell you otherwise.
Just because someone is a disappointment, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad player.
Why do we let 2012 high school recruiting rankings affect the way we evaluate a player in 2013?
Sure, Muhammad was supposed to be the best player (or second-best depending on who you read) coming out of high school, but ultimately, those rankings are just there to give the fans an idea of whom scouts, coaches, and colleges think might be good. That’s it. That’s all they mean.
Muhammad didn't dominate in his one year at UCLA like everyone expected. He didn’t create his own shot well, show off a plethora of moves or play great defense. But don’t say he didn’t do anything well, because that wouldn't be true.
The Wolves are a team that needs—nay, is desperate for shooters. Now, they have one in Shabazz, who shot 40 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers last year, according to DraftExpress.com.
That’s the role Muhammad is going to be in this year: come off screens, move off the ball, catch it and shoot it. If he can succeed as that type of player, he was worth the 14th pick in the draft regardless of where the high school rankings had him a year ago.
It’s important to make a note of guys who are improvers. Those players exist everywhere, the ones who start off slightly unnoticed but continue to get just a little bit better every year until they get to respectability and beyond.
Dante Cunningham is an improver.
The way to find the improvers isn’t just to look at pro careers, but also collegiate ones. It’s a mentality, a lifelong process that usually won’t just happen for any reason.
Cunningham got better every single year he was at Villanova. When he showed up in Philadelphia, he was a relatively incompetent offensive player, and that’s a generous word choice.
Cunningham couldn’t make his free throws, he couldn’t handle the ball, and he couldn’t even craft his way into scoring. He was a kid with 10 thumbs and none of them were opposable.
By his senior year, he was a legitimate threat offensively. He had started to develop a strong mid-range game. He had become a 70-percent free-throw shooter, after looking unable to hit anything from the charity stripe as a freshman.
Cunningham’s career cycle started all over once he got to the pros, but four years into his career, he’s a legitimate eighth or ninth man off the bench. He's gone from making 39.4 percent of his free throws as a freshman at Villanova to making 39.4 percent of his shots from 16 feet out to the three-point line last year, taking more jumpers from that area than in any other year of his career.
That’s the thing about improvers. They keep improving, and don’t bet on Cunningham to stop doing just that.
Watching Shved play for coach David Blatt was one of the best parts of the 2012 Olympics. That Russian team was fun, a highly disciplined, always intense squad that perfectly reflected the personality of its coach.
Shved excelled on that team, taking on plenty of the ball-handling responsibilities and helping run the offense. He took some of that mentality into last year when Ricky Rubio started the season in a suit after tearing his ACL. He averaged 15.6 points and 5.2 assists per 36 minutes on 40-34-82 shooting numbers in his first 17 games, but fell off after that.
Shved just isn’t quite as good playing off the ball. He’s not as aggressive. He doesn’t move as well—and it shows.
Still, he has played only one NBA season and doesn’t turn 25 until December. Young, smart players can learn to adjust, and that’s exactly what Shved will have to learn to do in the upcoming season.
In some ways, Brewer was one of the more curious signings of the offseason.
That’s not because he can’t contribute to a winning team. We saw just the opposite just last year in Denver. But the Timberwolves were a team that finished dead last in the NBA in three-point percentage last year and Brewer isn’t a wing that will help with that predicament.
Brewer made 29.6 percent of his threes last season. That was right in line with his 29.8 percent career percentage from three, but for some reason, the Florida alum keeps chucking up those long balls even after six years of missing.
Brewer averaged 3.7 three-point attempts per game last year. Granted, he played on another team, the Denver Nuggets, that generally struggled from beyond the arc. Still, Brewer’s 3.2 three-point attempts per 36 minutes in his career is far too high.
The Wolves grabbed Brewer for his feisty perimeter defense. Whether it was poor forecasting or not, Minnesota didn’t properly line up a replacement for Brandon Roy last season. So this offseason the Wolves went nuts with shoring up their shooting guards. Cue Brewer and Kevin Martin.
Brewer can compliment Martin nicely if only because he’s his mirror image: a subpar perimeter shooter that will exhaust opposing wings as a defender. If Minnesota was looking to stack up with complementary shooting guards, it accomplished that well.
It's time to steal the lede that I used for Shabazz Muhammad: Just because someone is a disappointment, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad player.
The Timberwolves selected Williams with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, but he hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations in his first two NBA seasons. He hasn’t shot the ball particularly well (42-31-70 shooting splits in his first two years), has looked clueless at times defensively and needs to work on his off-ball movement. But still, Williams hasn’t been all bad.
Just about all of Williams’ numbers improved last year: the scoring numbers, the efficiency numbers, the PER, the turnover rate, everything.
We expect such immediate results from a second-overall pick, but is that really fair from someone who could’ve been in his senior year at Arizona last year? Williams is still only 22 years old. I repeat: 22 years old.
Let’s not write off someone as athletic as him just yet.
Budinger missed 59 games last year and now he’s starting 2013 off on the wrong foot—or the wrong knee.
Another year, another knee surgery for Chase Budinger. Again, meniscus surgery will force Budinger to miss significant time to start the season. This time, it’s not as bad—doctors removed only a quarter of Budinger’s meniscus.
Only a quarter—as if a basketball player having three quarters of a meniscus is just fine and dandy.
It’s not an appendix. For basketball purposes, it's not even a kidney. It’s probably safe to say that having all the cartilage in your knee is preferable. Somewhere, Brandon Roy is furiously nodding his head in agreement.
Martin has changed his style of play over the past few seasons. He used to be a guy that went to the rim and got to the line all the time, but that player doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
Last year in Oklahoma City, Martin averaged a career-low 4.1 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes. The year before that, his final year in Houston, he averaged 5.1 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, his lowest total since his second NBA season.
Martin is taking way more threes than he used to, which is fine. Actually, it’s more than fine, considering how efficiently he’s making those shots, sinking 39.6 percent of his threes over the past two years. But when a player decides to take more threes, he usually will eliminate some part of his mid-range game, which breeds a more inefficient style of basketball.
Martin though, has stopped taking shots close to the basket.
Over the past two years, only 15.1 percent of Martin’s field goal attempts have been at the rim. It’s hard to blame Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Martin's one year in the Thunder system for that one considering he attempted only 10.9 percent of his field goals at the rim in his final year as a Rocket.
This is new for Martin. Over the previous three years, he took about 20 percent of his shots at the rim—remember, plenty of those shots didn’t go into the scorebook as field-goal attempts because he was fouled. He averaged 8.9 free throw attempts per 36 minutes over that three-year span.
Martin might as well start paying rent to the landlord of the perimeter. Just under a third of his career shot attempts were threes heading into the lockout season, but 48.8 percent of his shot attempts have been threes since then.
Kevin Martin has changed. Sacramento Martin doesn’t exist anymore. For the most part, Houston Martin doesn't exist anymore, either.
We haven’t really noticed because he’s become such a good jump shooter, but what happens on those nights when the jumper just isn’t falling? What happens when he doesn’t get as good looks on his jumper as he did when he was playing with Durant and Westbrook? Will he be able to produce at the same rate?
We’re about to find out.
I know you’re probably angry about Rubio falling behind Nikola Pekovic in the rankings, mainly because you have a soul and you don’t think the NBA’s golden boy should be ranked behind the NBA’s Ivan Drago. But this is happening.
There are so many things Rubio does well. He and Steph Curry are possibly the two most fluid offensive players in the game today.
Some players can pass. Ricky Rubio can nutmeg. And he doesn’t do it because he has to—he does it because he wants to.
There are times when you think Rubio might be the most beautiful basketball player you’ve seen in Minnesota since Kevin Garnett—and then you see him shoot the ball and you realize why Drago has moved ahead of him.
There isn’t any particular spot on the floor from which Rubio shoots well. He made a below-average 44.8 percent of his shots at the rim. He shot only 34.6 percent on mid-range jumpers, according to NBA.com.
Until Rubio becomes even an average shooter, he probably can't pass Pek in these rankings, but his passing, pesky defense, and lovable face keep him as high as No. 3 for now.
Pekovic is perennially one of the most underrated players in the NBA and like most players who call Minnesota home, a lot of the disrespect comes the fact that he doesn’t really stay on the court.
Pek can play. That we know. He’s arguably the best offensive rebounder in the league (yes, his 4.6 offensive boards per 36 minutes over the past two seasons means he deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Zach Randolph and Co.) and he has legitimate offensive moves to finish around the rim.
The question again remains, “Can the Timberwolves’ center stay healthy?”
Pek missed 19 games in the lockout-shortened season. Then, he missed 20 last year. The fact that Pekovic, Love and Rubio never saw the floor together last year means something. It’d be ridiculous to propose that the Wolves would face injuries at such an historic level again this season, but health is always something to look out for with a group of players that has struggled to stay healthy in the past.
It’s probably safe to bet that Love won’t be doing many knuckle pushups this season. Love’s knuckle-pushup injury started off 2012 for him and he never quite returned to full form, playing through an injury-riddled season in which he only appeared in 18 total games.
Let’s get something out of the way right now: Love wasn’t bad last year, even though some might tell you otherwise.
Sure, he had an out-of-character 45.8 percent true shooting percentage, and he shot only 21.7 percent from three, but he was still an elite rebounder and one of the best and most-willing passing bigs in the NBA.
People forget that Love is the best power forward in the NBA when he’s healthy—and that’s regardless of his inconsistent defense. In the previous two years before his injury, he averaged 22.0 points and 14.0 rebounds per 36. He did all that while casually throwing up a 58 percent true shooting percentage and a 24.8 PER.
Love can play, he can board, and he’s a legitimate best player. Now, all he needs to do is stop the knuckle pushups.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in 5th grade, but he maintains that his per 36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
(Unless specified otherwise, all statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com.)