A 13-15 record is not what the Minnesota Timberwolves' expected through 28 games this season.
The Wolves were supposed to be contending for a playoff spot in the strong-as-ever Western Conference. They still have a legitimate shot to be a lower seed—they're still only two games behind the Denver Nuggets for the No. 8 seed—but they're trending in the wrong direction. At least for the moment.
Minnesota has lost 11 of its last 17, but still, things may not be as bad as they seem.
For starters, the West is extremely competitive. The Wolves have already played 16 road games, the most of any team in the league. Their opponents have combined for a .531 winning percentage, which gives Minnesota the third-toughest schedule in the NBA. They are 1-7 in games decided by five points or less and haven't won one of those since an opening night 120-115 victory over the Orlando Magic.
Luck hasn't been on Minnesota's side either, but there are ways to take positives away from this T'Wolves team, even with its losing record. They would be in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, for example.
Ricky Rubio is still passing with the best of them. As is Kevin Love, who's rebounding better than anyone else in the league while seamlessly throwing up a double-double every night. Recently resigned Nikola Pekovic helps make up one of the NBA's best frontcourts, while new additions Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer are thriving out on the wings. This group not only works well with head coach Rick Adelman, but is starting to formulate a reliable offense through his system.
New GM Flip Saunders has brought in some fitting pieces to surround Love and Rubio; but there's no love lost between ex-GM David Kahn and fans, who was finally fired after mistakenly signing Love to a four-year contract instead of five.
When you look at Minny's core players, there's a lot to like about this team. Actually, the starting lineup has been outscoring its opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions. The issues don't arise until the bench comes into the game.
We're almost two months into the season, and the Wolves have performed slightly below expectations, but playoff aspirations are still completely realistic. But for now, here's a look at grades for the 10 most important players on the Wolves' roster:
How Shved is still in the Wolves' rotation is a testament to how poor the Wolves' bench has been over these first couple months of the season.
Basketball isn't fully a numbers game. It's not like baseball, a sport in which you can often look at a guy's statistics—both advanced and mainstream—add up all the information you've compiled, and develop a relatively educated opinion about that player.
That being said, Shved's numbers are poor enough that it's pretty hard for the narrative to be anything different than "This guy is working his way out of an NBA rotation."
He's shooting a laughable 26 percent from the floor. He's making 22 percent of his threes. He struggles mightily when he has to play off the ball.
Shved looked great in his first month and a half last year, his rookie season. He seemed like he could have been a top-10 rookie but trailed off as the season continued.
That's fine. Guys hit a rookie wall.
But Shved has regressed in immeasurable amounts as a sophomore and it's getting to a point that he can't be on the court when the game is on the line.
He has career averages of 36 percent from the field and 29 percent from three—not even close to good enough to stay in the best professional basketball league in the world.
Seriously, who is this guy?
With Hummel, you have to search far and wide for the positives.
He knows who he is, even if we don't, and what he's supposed to do. That's a positive.
He knows his strengths and weaknesses pretty well. That's a positive.
He doesn't take bad shots—another positive.
That's about it.
From a skill standpoint, he simply isn't what you'd want out of a guy who's regularly in your rotation.
Hummel's role is simple. On offense, he doesn't move away from his comfort zone in the corner. The only thing separating him from a boy scout is he doesn't carry a tent with him every time he camps out beyond the arc.
That's fine. That's what you want out of Hummel: hanging out in the corners, taking smart threes, not handling the ball or worrying about making a play, and only taking catch-and-shoot jumpers off swing passes and kick outs.
The problem is that Hummel isn't hitting his corner threes, only shooting 21 percent. And if he doesn't make those shots at an above-average rate, he can't be a net positive in Minnesota.
It's time for the obligatory Dante Cunningham Free-Throw Watch:
10 attempted free throws.
549 minutes played.
Cunningham is a power forward. Those numbers shouldn't look like that, regardless of how mid-range heavy you want him to be on a consistent basis.
Really, those are unacceptable free-throw numbers. You can't expect a player to maintain any sort of efficiency without ever getting to the line.
That's how you end up with a 44 percent true shooting. Or with a personal worst PER since your second year in the league.
57 percent of Cunningham's points come from the mid-range area. He's 6'8" and 230 pounds. He's a capably skilled player. His style shouldn't be as jumper-reliant as it is, but that doesn't look like it's going to change.
So get used to Cunningham hanging around the floor 19 feet from the rim, waiting for the ball to come to him. It's the only type of offense in which he prefers to participate.
Mbah a Moute has pretty much been what you'd expect since the Wolves traded Derrick Williams to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for him. He's a quality defender who isn't a total dud on the offensive end. But there has actually been a change in Mbah a Moute's style since coming to Minnesota.
The kid isn't taking as much jump shots as he did in Sacramento and Milwaukee.
Back in the day (about two weeks ago), Mbah a Moute took too many mid-range shots, didn't make many of them, and didn't show much of a liking for finishing at the rim. Now, playing in a transition-centered offense that ranks second in the league in pace, he's getting shots at the basket a little bit more.
Since joining the Wolves, just 12 of Mbah a Moute's 41 shots (29 percent) have been jumpers. Now, it's just 41 shots, but hopefully will become a trend.
It's only been 11 games so we can't say if the new Mbah a Moute is here to stay or if this is just a fluke due to a small sample size, but there might be something to this. At least, it's something to continue to watch in the coming weeks.
Slow starts eventually end.
The question to ask about Barea is when does his slow start end? And if it doesn't, at what point does this become a bad season?
The Wolves' backup point guard is posting some of the worst statistics of his career, shooting only 38 percent from the field and 32 percent from three. Lately, though, his fortune has started to change.
Over his past five games, he's averaging 11 points on 48 percent three-point shooting. His jump shot has been better, as well as his passing. And most importantly, he's actually running the Wolves' offense effectively.
His transition passing on Wednesday night's win against the Portland Trail Blazers was especially great. It seems like he's finally starting to get into a rhythm. If he is, that is a big-time help for a pitiful Wolves bench.
As winter gets colder, so is Brewer's game.
After averaging 13.7 points per game on 45 percent shooting over his first 22 games of the season, Brewer has failed to reach a double-digit point total in his past six games. Meanwhile, he's averaging just eight points per game on 31 percent in December.
This might not be just a slump. There's been a stylistic change in the way teams play against the Timberwolves over the past 10 games or so.
The Wolves love to run—we know that. Early in the season, that's all they did. They ran, they got out in transition and they exhausted teams out of the gym.
Now, teams are actually planning for Love and company. Timberwolves' opponents are becoming more cognizant of stopping Minnesota in transition. The offense is much worse when it works out of the half court—not good for Brewer.
He gets his points in transition. And that makes perfect sense considering how fantastic he is at running the floor.
We've seen the full-court passes from outlet-passer extraordinaire Kevin Love this season. It's beautiful. But now defenses aren't crashing the offensive boards as hard, and instead are getting back in transition quicker. Brewer sometimes leaks out to the open court, something that is now more ineffective than at the start of the year.
Brewer can still defend and he adds value on the perimeter; but considering his consistent struggles as a three-point shooter, he doesn't do a whole lot on the offensive end without the ball. If his transition game is limited, he becomes more of a weak spot for the Wolves going forward.
When I went through these grades for the Wolves back in November, I ended up giving Rubio a B-. Basically, he had been Ricky Rubio: a point guard with superb court vision, feisty on-ball defense, and little-to-no perimeter shooting.
Today, Rubio is still that—just more exaggerated.
He's averaging just eight points per game over his last six, and is coming off a 0-of-4 shooting performance against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night. Meanwhile, he's shooting just 26 percent from the field over that six-game stretch.
The shots just aren't falling. Ever.
He's down to 28 percent on jumpers this season and teams have essentially decided not get in his face at all when guarding him. He's like Rajon Rondo but to an even greater extreme. It's hard for a point guard to be as effective as he should be when defenses can play that way against him.
It's hard not to love Rubiame is (not mockingly) adorable. You feel like if there were a player who could style a fedora in the middle of a game, it would be him.
He's trendy, fun to watch and makes some of the most incredible passes (and nutmegs) that you'll see all year. There's no debating that. But until Rubio develops a reliable jumper that defenses have to respect, he won't be close to as effective as he should be. And for basketball lovers everywhere, that's disappointing.
Similar to Brewer, Martin's hot start has also cooled with the Minnesota weather.
After averaging 23.1 points per game with ridiculous 43-45-93 shooting in his first month, he has regressed to 14.7 points on 39-31-92 shooting in December.
Realistically, Martin's early eye-popping numbers weren't going to keep up for an entire season. He's not that type of player. He's not Steph Curry.
But Martin hasn't been the type of player he's been in December, either. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Are you ready for this? Prepare yourself for a shameless plug:
In November, I wrote about Martin's shooting and why he had been so effective with the Wolves on such a high volume of shots. The Wolves were speeding up the pace and Martin was finding the spots on the floor he liked out of instinct. Immediately, Rubio was finding him beyond the arc.
The Martin-Rubio chemistry was instantaneous.
Now, it's not that the chemistry is gone—it doesn't work like that. But the Wolves haven't been quite as dominant in transition as they were at the start of the year. With that in mind, Martin, who is 16-for-32 on transition threes this season, according to MySynergySports, is finding fewer open looks.
For the Wolves, it all starts in transition, but their fast-break game isn't working quite as well. That, along with his own regression, plus an overall team slump means a huge drop off for Martin in December.
Eventually, the slump will end, the regression will stop, and everything will be right in Kevin Martin's world. But for now, especially after his two game-altering turnovers in Sunday's overtime loss to the Clippers, Martin is somewhat of a weak point in the Timberwolves offense. And hopefully it won't last.
Do you see that picture up top? What a monster.
Pek is the type of guy that would make you want to cross to the other side of the street if you saw him walking toward you on the sidewalk.
Don't mess with Nikola Pekovic. Never mess with Nikola Pekovic.
The Clippers learned that Sunday night. Pek and Love combined for 79 points and 33 rebounds.
Sure, the Wolves couldn't hold onto a late lead. And sure, Pek missed a right-handed hook that would have tied the game with five seconds left in OT. But it would still be hard to find any flaws in the Wolves' frontcourt after a night like that.
We know what Pekovic and Love can do on the glass. We know what they can do from a scoring standpoint. In that aspect of the game they are great, one of the best big combinations in the NBA. But it's still a wonder if a Pek-Love frontcourt can anchor a championship-caliber team.
The Wolves may be better than their 13-15 record shows, but they're still a long way off from contending for a championship. That title will come with a stronger bench, the improvement of Ricky Rubio and more reliable play on the defensive end. Defense is the part of the game in which Pekovic and Love matter so much.
Can a Pek-Love frontcourt ever anchor a top-seven defense? That remains to be seen. Even if Saunders complemented the duo with three dominant perimeter defenders, you could poke holes in the logic of a lineup like that.
If the Wolves wanted to get optimum value for him and want to make a move in regard to the future, they could; but there's no reason to make that move now. Pek is locked up for four more years after this one—but it's something that could happen down the line if the Wolves can keep ahold of Love.
Realistically, this is all you're getting out of Pek. He's 27 years old and his style is seems set—and that's fine. He's one of the best centers in the league, no question. But the question remains: is Pek the right long-term complement for Kevin Love?
Pekovic is as skilled of an offensive center as we have in the Western Conference. He's a tremendous offensive rebounder. And again, you're crossing to the other side of the street if you see him coming at you.
We get it, Kevin Love. You're good. You're really good.
Now just leave the rest of the NBA alone.
How is there still doubt that Love is the best power forward in the NBA?
LaMarcus Aldridge is having a fantastic season. But he's no Kevin Love.
Blake Griffin is developing at a significantly higher rate than people give him credit for, but he's still not Love.
Anthony Davis is becoming an All-Star, but he's only 20 years old.
Dirk Nowitzki is still an All-Star player. But he's on the wrong side of 30.
Love will set you free. Live by that, and you'll be happy.
Just ask the Timberwolves.
The Wolves' power forward is averaging 25.9 points and 13.9 rebounds through 28 games. He's shooting 38 percent from long range while draining 2.5 threes per game. Seriously, these numbers aren't supposed to exist.
If you want any reference as to how incredible Love truly is, look no further than the aforementioned game against the Clippers from Sunday night, when he finished with 45 points on 23 shots, 19 rebounds and six assists.
It was a perfect game from a guy who's becoming a perfect offensive player.
His defense is overly criticized. Love is a decent post defender who knows how to use his strength. He isn't particularly quick so he'll get beat on occasion. Give him a center who can clean up his messes, and he'll look like a much better defensive player.
Love won't get anything other than an A in any Timberwolves grades this year. He's that good. At this point in his career, all we should be doing is admiring one of the best players in the entire league.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth 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.
(All statistics valid as of December 23, 2013.)