Is Ricky Rubio-Kevin Love Enough to Finally Make Minnesota Timberwolves Legit?

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Is Ricky Rubio-Kevin Love Enough to Finally Make Minnesota Timberwolves Legit?
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The Minnesota Timberwolves are all the justification hoops fans need to pony up for an NBA League Pass subscription.

Between Ricky Rubio's delicious dimes and Kevin Love's sensational stat lines (31 points and 17 rebounds in the season opener), the entertainment factor is well worth the investment. Consider Kevin Martin's reunion with coach Rick Adelman and unorthodox shooting form as found money.

With a nearly full complement of players around this trio—forward Chase Budinger is sidelined indefinitely while recovering from knee surgery—the Timberwolves enter this season with playoff dreams and the potential to outperform those lofty expectations.

But do they have enough substance to go along with their style? Will Love's starving appetite for success finally be satisfied?

 

Overwhelm With Offense

The Timberwolves invested heavily on the offensive end this summer.

Martin and his career 17.8 scoring average landed in Minnesota with a four-year, $28 million deal. Post scorer Nikola Pekovic got a five-year, $60 million contract to stick around. The Timberwolves spent their first draft pick on scoring guard Shabazz Muhammad.

The Timberwolves didn't completely neglect their defense. Rookie Gorgui Dieng and journeyman Ronny Turiaf added rim protection, and Corey Brewer was brought in to help replace the perimeter defense lost when Andrei Kirilenko opted out of the final year of his contract.

But these were the back-page moves; the headline deals made the message loud and clear: Minnesota planned to form an offensive machine more powerful and more efficient than its opponent.

David Sherman/Getty Images

Was it a misguided strategy? Not necessarily, judging by recent history.

Eight of the league's 10 highest-scoring teams made the postseason in 2012-13, including both the champion Miami Heat (102.9 points per game, fifth overall) and fellow NBA Finalist the San Antonio Spurs (103.0, fourth).

Despite some gaudy point totals, though, not all of these offensive powers could be considered offensive clubs. In fact, three of last season's top-five scoring offenses also finished in the top seven in defensive efficiency (Miami, San Antonio and the Oklahoma City Thunder).

The Timberwolves don't have the bodies to expect similar defensive results. After all, this is the same team that allowed 115 points (albeit in an overtime game) to an undermanned Orlando Magic team playing its second road game in as many nights.

Minnesota, in what very well could be a running theme throughout the season, could not keep Orlando away from the basket. Led by center Nikola Vucevic's 22-point effort, the Magic ripped the 'Wolves for 46 points in the paint.

The margin of error for Minnesota at the offensive end is tiny.

Offensive breakdowns like the one suffered in the 16-point fourth quarter of Minnesota's season opener will sink this team against better competition. As it was, the 'Wolves needed a miracle shot from Love just to force overtime against a team they should have handled long before that.

Love and Rubio will be the ones bailing Minnesota out in tight spots. Whether finishing their own plays or setting up teammates, Coach Adelman told Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Love and Rubio will be called upon in crunch time:

Those are the guys who are going to make the plays for us to win games. That’s what makes the really good teams special: They have guys like that who not only get their own shots but create for their teammates.

Minnesota will suffer through some long defensive nights. That's unavoidable with a Love-Pekovic combo anchoring the middle no matter which players are holding court on the perimeter.

Still, they should give more defensive fits than they'll endure. The Love-Rubio tandem is a nightmare matchup in the half court, and Rubio-plus-anyone is a lethal pairing out in the open floor.

Minnesota's offensive ceiling is high, and it's growing. High enough, though, to crash a crowded Western Conference playoff party?

 

Surveying the Field

Small sample size and all, this season has already unveiled some truths out West.

Box scores and game recaps aren't needed to pencil in the Spurs, Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors for postseason play. And although I have some reservations about the Memphis Grizzlies—seven points in the second quarter?—I don't see them falling from the Western Conference Finals to the draft lottery in one season.

That leaves only two playoff tickets unclaimed, and nine clubs battling for one of those spots.

The Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings aren't quite ready for the big stage, so it's really a six-team race.

The Dallas Mavericks are a near mirror image of the Wolves. Dallas has a sensational stretch big in Dirk Nowitzki, a dynamic scorer on the wing in Monta Ellis and a point guard with superhuman vision in Jose Calderon.

Like the Wolves, though, the Mavs have an uncomfortable amount of defensive matadors, many of them in prominent positions. This team can put up points in bunches (118 in its opener), but Nowitzki's age (35) and Ellis' track record (career 16.8 player efficiency rating) are concerns.

Inside-out combos don't get much more potent than the Portland Trail Blazers duo of LaMarcus Aldridge (28 points in the opener) and Damian Lillard (32). But these two were never the problem.

Portland needs a strong supporting cast, and its revamped bench struggled mightily in its first run (12 points, 23.5 percent from the field). Nicolas Batum (seven points, 3-of-9) has yet to make the leap after five NBA seasons. New starting center Robin Lopez looked a little too much like twin brother Brook on the glass (two rebounds in 34 minutes).

Despite racing out to fast-break points, the Denver Nuggets looked sluggish at the offensive end in their season-opening 90-88 loss to the Sacramento Kings.

It seems to have come full circle now for Denver. After being lauded for its ability to land a tantalizing collection of players for former star Carmelo Anthony, this team now sits in dire need of a go-to scorer. If Danilo Gallinari (still without a timetable for his return from a torn ACL) can't fill that role, the Nuggets may never make a serious playoff push.

The New Orleans Pelicans have shown a little bit of everything so far. There's been the good (69 points combined from Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday in the opener), the bad (a 40-59 second-half collapse) and the unfortunate (Ryan Anderson out one to three weeks with a chip fracture in a toe on his right foot).

The Pelicans largely impressed in their 95-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers, but this team needs time to jell and just lost a valuable chunk of it to Anderson's injury.

The last team in the mix, the Los Angeles Lakers, is the hardest to read.

Not only is this team waiting with bated breath for an update on Kobe Bryant's recovery from a torn Achilles, Mike D'Antoni's team has also produced drastically different results in its first two games. The Lakers knocked off the Clippers in their season opener, then suffered a 31-point shellacking at the hands of the Warriors one night later.

So, while questions still exist with this Timberwolves team, that's not a unique characteristic in this playoff race.

 

Is the Drought Over?

The word drought seems a little too kind regarding Minnesota's steady stream of fruitless seasons. Famine might be more fitting here.

The last time the Timberwolves made a postseason appearance, Kevin Garnett was finishing lobs from Sam Cassell. Needless to say it's been a while, 10 full years come next April.

Is this when the bleeding mercifully stops?

Wolves playoff chances in 2013-14?

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Barring injury—knocking on wood and typing here—this looks like a playoff team.

The defensive holes are present and glaring. But the offensive potential is so great that those holes won't stand in the way.

As this team finds more comfort offensively, that consistency will find its way to the defensive end of the floor. The Wolves won't shoot up the defensive standings, but a similar split to last season's Rockets (sixth in offensive efficiency, 16th on defense) would get the job done.

Minnesota has a bruiser under the basket and shooters all around. This team has depth; any number of players could put up big numbers on any given night.

But most importantly, the Wolves have Love and Rubio. Two unselfish stars focused not on the stat sheet, but on the standings.

Injuries have kept this pair from finding its collective rhythm in seasons past, but this year will be different. This year will be special.

 

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