What We Learned About Minnesota Timberwolves During Season's First Half
You could ask 100 fans their opinions on this Minnesota Timberwolves season up to the halfway point and get at least 80 different responses. That is how enigmatic and unpredictable the first half has been for the Wolves.
The biggest positive is that the injury bug has apparently taken his talents elsewhere!
(Knocks on wood)...(does rain dance)...
At 19-21 through 40 games, the on-court product has left plenty clamoring for more. After all the years of rebuilding and relentless jokes about drafting 57 point guards in four years, this team is supposed to be the finished product. Finished products, though, aren't supposed to be the 11th seed.
We knew this team was going to score a ton of points and, at times, give up a lot on the other end as well.
What we did not expect was their 0-11 record in games decided by fewer than four points, a stat that seemingly everyone in basketball has become familiar with lately. No team with three 18-plus point per game scorers should ever have that kind of problem down the stretch.
We have learned a handful of things throughout this season full of caveats. Some of these things unquestionably need to change if the Timberwolves are going to fulfill the lofty expectations set for them prior to this year.
Nikola Pekovic Is Erasing Any Doubt About Giving Him That Massive Contract
Following his breakout campaign last season, Pekovic headed into the offseason ready to cash in, which he did to the tune of five years and $60 million to stay in Minneapolis.
Any thoughts that he may have already reached his full potential or that he couldn't stay healthy for an extended period of time are being put to rest with every beastly performance he continues to put on display.
Pek is averaging career highs of 18.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and even 1.1 assists.
Early in the year, Pek struggled a bit to re-establish his niche in the offense amidst the acquisition of Kevin Martin and the return of Kevin Love. It is safe to say he has found that niche.
The big man has improved every month and is putting up 21 points and 9.3 rebounds on 56 percent shooting in the month of January, while making 82 percent at the line and contributing with blocks and assists as well.
Pekovic's game will always be centered around his ability to throw around opposing centers, but he has continued to improve by showing a more vast array of moves on offense. We have seen more running hooks, fadeaway jumpers and even a few spot-up jumpers from the top of the key. If seeing that godfather-like 6'11" beast knocking down 18-footers doesn't bring at least a smirk to your face, you just don't appreciate basketball.
In a league full of offensively inept centers, Pek's ability to score and his efficiency at the foul line is a huge boost for this team. He may not be the best rim protector, but he is an elite center in this league and will continue to be for a long time.
Rick Adelman Doesn't Have Much Concern for the Future
It is understandable that, at 67 years old, Rick Adelman wants to do everything he can to win.
The past calendar year was very tumultuous for him, with a sick wife and questions surrounding his possible retirement during the offseason. Despite that, he is a very successful coach and a calming presence on this team.
That being said, is he sacrificing this team's future?
A big question this year regards Adelman's propensity to stick to his system and starting lineup at all costs. The bench has not done themselves any favors, but from a fan's perspective, everyone on the roster—outside of Love, Pekovic and Martin—is held to an unbelievable standard and on a very short leash.
First-round picks Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng are stuck to the bench like glue. Even in a recent game against the Jazz where Minnesota was up 30-plus points in the fourth quarter, Adelman emptied the bench halfway through the third. Muhammad still couldn't get off the bench until there were only four minutes left.
It's not even like Muhammad has resorted to his old ways.
All we heard before the draft was about his bad attitude, how he wasn't sure of his exact age and his apparent disdain for the rookie symposium. Muhammad has said and done all the right things and has clearly gotten himself into great shape, though. He recently went down to the D-league without making a peep and humiliated everyone there with 24.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game on 57 percent shooting.
With Ronny Turiaf out, Dieng could never quite crack the rotation, either.
Adelman's solution was to play Pekovic for 40-plus minutes a night and sacrifice the team's defense. Dieng is likely the best rim protector on the team even as a rookie, and he could play a huge role on the team if Adelman had more faith in him.
The Derrick Williams trade was an unfortunate end to an underwhelming tenure for the 2011 No. 2 pick as well. Adelman never had much to offer in support of Williams even when he was playing well in the second half of last season.
The stubbornness could catch up to the Timberwolves, especially if they continue to linger around .500. Love has expressed a number of times that he is not satisfied playing on a losing team, so something has to change before he possibly leaves town. Adelman is on the clock with Love's impending free agency after next season.
Let's hope he can make some adjustments and get this team going in the right direction.
It Might Be Time to Accept That This Team Just Cannot Win Close Games
The late-game failures have become the big fat elephant in the room with this team. You can't even talk about the Timberwolves anymore without bringing up their horrible execution during crunch time.
Kevin Durant dropped 23 points in the final period to overcome a 10-point fourth quarter deficit at Target Center. The Wolves blew a six-point lead with less than a minute left, blowing a game against the Suns on Gerald Green's game-winner. They let go of a four-point lead with 18 seconds left in regulation to lose in overtime against the Clippers. The night before that, they were outscored 9-0 in the final 3:18 to blow a game against the Lakers.
All of that happened in their last 14 games.
Yes, we know. They are 0-11 in close games. That stat hurts bad enough standing alone, but the Timberwolves also lead the league by having 10 games with 30-point leads and having nine wins of 20-plus points.
It is hard to even decipher what causes the late-game woes.
One thing that certainly doesn't help is that Ricky Rubio hasn't made a shot in the fourth quarter since December 15. The Timberwolves have three elite offensive options down the stretch, but there are far too many times when they have just totally collapsed in the fourth quarter.
If only they could play fourth quarters like they play first quarters, where they lead the league in scoring.
Kevin Love's Departure Is Becoming Increasingly More Inevitable
We have to stop turning the other cheek. As great as it would be to see a superstar stay in a small market and continue to try to lead his team to a title, the writing may already be on the wall.
Love continues to put up inhuman numbers and has gotten better and better. This season had the makings of a very decisive year for the Timberwolves. We all remember the publicity that Love's interview with Adrian Wojnarowski of YahooSports got prior to last season when he claimed he was running out of patience and needed to get over that playoff threshold.
It was widely believed that if this team could stay healthy, all other problems would fix themselves. At 19-21, though, that is simply a farce.
If this is good as it is going to get, what sense does it make for Love to stay?
Trading Love now would be cashing in while his value is at its highest. He is in the top five in the league in scoring and rebounding and is now averaging four assists. Teams would be lining up in droves to try to bring him into the fold.
"They should trade him," one Eastern Conference executive told Ken Berger of CBS Sports. "No one thinks he's staying. Everyone knows he wants to go to the Lakers."
Hopefully, Flip Saunders has established a good enough rapport with his star that Love will consider staying.
Financially, it will also be difficult. The original reason Love ended up in this situation was because previous general manager David Kahn was saving the max deal for Rubio. Pekovic now has a five-year $60 million deal counting against the cap.
Hopefully this ends well for Minnesota. Realistically, it doesn't look good.
Ricky Rubio Has Lost His Mojo
Boy, oh boy. Where did that smile go?
What happened to the kid who created an unreasonable amount of hype for himself, then came to the NBA and immediately became the league's darling? Where is that maestro who saw the game two steps ahead of everyone else?
Rubio looked to really establish himself in the second half of last season and had us all prepared for a fantastic breakout campaign. With so much offensive talent around him, it was believed that with a full offseason of perfecting his shot and honing his craft instead of rehabbing a knee injury, this would be the year he came into his own.
The exact opposite is true so far.
Rubio is averaging a paltry 8.5 points per game on 34.6 percent shooting. He was never a huge scoring threat in his first two years, but when you are not a scorer by nature, a decrease of two points per game feels like much more.
His other numbers are mostly even with his career averages, and he continues to lead the league in steals. The difference is on the court. The nightly jaw-dropping highlight plays are not happening. The overzealous infectious confidence has not shown up.
He worked on his shot all offseason, but it is still as flat as ever. The fact that one of the most exciting players in the league who was once known for his boyish love for the game is now doubting himself is just sad to see.
“It’s basketball. I love it,” Rubio told the Associated Press via CBS. “But I’m just not having as much fun as it used to be. I know it has to be professional. But I just want to have fun. It’s hard to find it right now.”
We mustn't forget that Rubio is still just 23 and has only played 138 NBA games. This was the first year he came into the season as the unquestioned starter at point guard.
Hopefully the old Ricky resurfaces sometime soon. His erratic and sometimes putrid play to this point has had a huge role in this team's mediocre first half of the season. The best thing that could happen to this team might simply be to get Rubio to start having fun again.