The Minnesota Timberwolves look to be a dangerous team in 2013-14. Tonight they bounced back from a two-game losing streak and improved their record to 4-2 with a hard-fought 116-108 win over the Dallas Mavericks.
Coming off a 2012-13 season in which the entire franchise seemed snake-bitten, much has gone right for the Wolves so far this year. The team is healthier than it's been in ages, and Kevin Love is playing like a hybrid of Larry Bird and Captain America.
But when looking for the secrets to Minnesota's success, it's important not to overlook the free agent acquisition of shooting guard Kevin Martin.
Martin has been playing some next-level basketball for Minnesota to start the season. Tonight's 32-point effort against Dallas was his second 30-point effort in his first six games. Only once this season has Martin failed to score at least 20 points in a game. He appears to have wasted no time assimilating into the Minnesota lineup.
A Hidden Treasure on the Free Agent Market?
The 2012-13 season was a wild one for Martin, a nine-year veteran and a five-time 20-PPG scorer. Just as the season was about to begin, he was traded to Oklahoma City for James Harden. Though the trade was a salary dump by the Thunder, Martin was expected to take Harden's place as the Thunder's sixth man.
In Oklahoma City, Martin did everything that was expected of him, averaging 14.0 points per game while shooting the highest three-point percentage of his career. But the perception of Martin's game suffered with the inevitable comparisons to Harden, the man he replaced, who immediately developed into one of the league's brightest stars in Houston.
When Martin became a free agent in the offseason, the capped-out Thunder could only offer him their $6.6-million trade exemption. But other teams came in offering more money, and Martin had to choose between several suitors, according to an interview with Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman:
“It was a pretty hectic first 24 hours,” Martin said of July 1, the first day teams could contact free agents. “Besides leaving school, that's the biggest decision of my career; especially at the age of 30, that could be your last free agent (contract). I did my research. I did it wisely with teams, and I felt like this was the perfect spot, ideal. Just what they need.”
The Perfect Spot
Martin eventually signed with Minnesota for four years and $28 million. That's a healthy chunk of change to hand a 30-year-old guard, but the Wolves were desperate to find a scorer and shooter to pair with point guard Ricky Rubio.
While Rubio has many good qualities, he shot just 31.9 percent on jump shots last year. The Wolves needed a shooter their opponents would respect, and Martin's 42.6 percent mark from three last year seemed like the perfect addition.
So far, the strategy has worked like a charm. Last year, only three guards—Shved, Ridnour and point guard J.J. Barea—played alongside Rubio in the backcourt last year, and of those four, only Shved had a positive net plus-minus rating when paired with Rubio, according to Basketball Reference. But in this year's nba.com lineup tool, the top four Minnesota lineups featuring a Rubio/Martin backcourt all have a positive rating.
Following tonight's win, Kevin Love offered this explanation as to why Martin has fit in so well, so quickly, per Nate Sendell of 1500ESPN.com:
"He knows when to pick his spots," Love said of Martin. "He's a guy who plays great in the fourth quarter down the stretch. He's shot-taker and a shot-maker for us, and I know he's going to be doing that all year for us."
Another Piece of the Puzzle in Place.
Here is a comparison of Martin's career and 2013-14 per-game stats.
Sorry, Wolves fans, but Martin will probably come back down to Earth a bit. He's a fine player, but he's not a 56.7-percent three-point shooter. Neither he and Love can possibly sustain the pace they've set for the season, but Love has the talent and track record to at least stay close to his current numbers.
The most critical aspect of Martin's hot start to the season is that Minnesota has filled a gaping hole in their roster, and a team competing for a playoff spot in the rugged Western Conference needs to have as few holes as possible.
Even if Martin regresses to his career norms, he's better than anything the Wolves have had at the position in quite some time.