For roughly 10 years, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been a never-ending work in progress. Even when a strong paper roster has been pieced together, the results have been inconsistent, at best, for this embattled franchise.
The 2013-14 NBA regular season has been no different for the T-Wolves. Despite garnering hype as a preseason favorite to overachieve, Minnesota is currently 28-29 and 5.5 games behind the Phoenix Suns for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
The question is, which T-Wolves players must step their game up for Minnesota to make a push for the postseason?
For a majority of the season, J.J. Barea has been the Timberwolves' lone source of offense along the second unit. Due to a slew of injuries and a general lack of emphasis on providing the starters with depth, Barea has been required to bite off more than he can chew.
As a result, his 8.9 points and 3.5 assists in 18.2 minutes per game begin to lose their value due to a field-goal percentage of 40.9.
Fortunately, Minnesota is returning some of its injured reserves and providing Barea with the help that he needs. His numbers are up to 10.6 points in 16.7 minutes on a field-goal percentage of 43.6, but that's simply inadequate.
The T-Wolves need Barea to be something that the starting point guard is not: a source of consistent scoring.
Barea, a career 35.1 percent three-point shooter, is only converting 33.1 percent in 2013-14. That's a critical number for a Minnesota team that ranks 25th in team three-point field-goal percentage.
If Barea's shot falls consistently, Minnesota will have a legitimate opportunity at making a push for the postseason. If it doesn't, the surge itself will be hard to come by.
One of the hottest names at the 2014 trade deadline was Chase Budinger. In the end, he remained in Minnesota, but the demand that was placed upon the 25-year-old displays that general managers still think highly of the injury-prone swingman.
He's performed well recently, and with an average of 27.0 minutes over the past seven games, he'll have the opportunity to continue to step it up.
Budinger's athleticism is intriguing, but his greatest value to the team is as a three-point shooter. He's converting 41.0 percent of his attempts from distance during the month of February, draining at least one attempt in nine of 11 appearances.
As previously alluded to, that's a valuable skill for a team that's this poor at shooting the deep ball.
Budinger is rapidly emerging as the team's true sixth man, and that's a promising sign. Barea is a quality player, but Budinger is a long and athletic wingman who can shoot the ball and attack in transition.
In order for Minnesota to truly pursue a postseason berth, Budinger will need to be at his best in future weeks. So far, so good.
Shabazz Muhammad turned heads on Tuesday, February 25, when he scored a career-high 20 points in 24 minutes in a road win over the Phoenix Suns. His scoring outburst helped Minnesota earn a tough road win and has many intrigued about what he could do in future outings.
Muhammad was once a candidate to go No. 1 overall in the 2013 NBA draft, and that performance reminded the basketball community why.
Muhammad has his flaws, but head coach Rick Adelman has displayed elevated levels of trust in recent weeks. In that time, Muhammad's displayed prowess in attacking the glass and has used his length and physicality to make an impact on games.
His jumper is a serious work in progress, but there aren't nearly enough slashers on Minnesota's roster.
Muhammad won't score 20 a night from here on out, but if he can be a consistent source of offense in his opportunities, the bench will see a dramatic improvement. Both he and Chase Budinger have positional versatility depending on the lineup used, and together, they make ideal complements to Corey Brewer.
It looks like Muhammad's time in the D-League was well spent.
Ricky Rubio is one of the best young point guards in the NBA, and it's not hard to see why. Rubio's already a top-tier ball hawk and facilitator, which is paired with his tenacity on the boards and respect as a young floor general.
So what weakness keeps Rubio out of virtually every "best point guard in league" debate above all else? Jump shooting.
Downright shameful jump shooting.
In terms of his outside shot, Rubio is shooting a respectable 34.4 percent from beyond the arc. That's up from 29.3 percent in 2012-13, which displays progression.
Rubio also makes a very strong 81.7 percent from the free-throw line. Unfortunately, Rubio's in-between game is one of the worst you can find for a guard of any caliber.
According to NBA.com, Rubio is shooting no better than 37.50 percent from any mid-range area. In fact, his shot chart is either red or yellow—meaning below-average or mediocre—in every area but the above-the-break three from the right side.
That includes a surprisingly inefficient 43.48 percent shooting mark in the paint.
If Rubio doesn't improve his jumper, opposing defenses will continue to play him loose and limit drive-and-dish opportunities. If he can shoot better from mid-range, defenders will be forced to press up on him and allow potential slashes to the basket.
It's time for Rubio to prove that he can be a franchise point guard on a postseason team. If he does, Minnesota will make noise in the race for the playoffs.
In the eyes of his supporters and stat sheet followers, Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves is the last player who needs to step up. Love is having a statistically masterful season and has convinced many that he's a top 10 individual player.
The truth of the matter is, Love has as much to prove as any other athlete in the NBA today.
Love may have flashy statistics and impressive accolades, but he's yet to lead the Timberwolves to a single postseason appearance. It's hard to place that blame on an individual player, but as the franchise centerpiece, Love is supposed to step up in moments like this.
Minnesota is 5.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, and if it's going to crack the postseason, Love will be the reason for its success or failure.
No one can question his overall statistics, but NBA.com reports that Love is shooting 39.9 percent during the fourth quarter of games. Love is also converting worse than 40.0 percent of his field goals during qualified clutch situations, per NBA.com, which paints a very clear picture.
Thus far, Love hasn't been able to close out games like a true superstar is supposed to. The talent is in place, the leap to superstardom is rapidly approaching and it's only a matter of time before he makes the playoffs.
If Minnesota is going to end its playoff drought in 2013-14, however, Love needs to make that jump right now.