5 Areas Minnesota Timberwolves Must Address This Offseason
Minnesota Timberwolves fans hear every year about how it will be different this time. Every season is a little bit more successful, but come April, they find themselves at home on the couch wondering what went awry this time.
The NBA playoffs are captivating the sports world while Minnesota is still looking for answers. This was supposed to be the year the T-Wolves got involved. They were supposed to be where the Wizards and Trail Blazers are right now, but now sportswriters like myself are left conjuring up solutions to this neverending problem.
The Timberwolves scored points with the best of them. They endured body blows from some of the league's best teams and proved they can play with absolutely anyone, but inconsistency plagued this team from start to finish.
Minnesota lost its first 11 games that were decided by four points or less. Before they exorcised that demon, the Wolves had already dug an insurmountable hole in the ruthless Western Conference.
Kevin Love exploded in his return from a lost 2012-13 season to finish in the top five in the league in scoring and rebounding at 26.1 points and 12.5 boards a night. He also took one huge step forward in terms of making his teammates better by posting 4.4 assists as well.
Nikola Pekovic continued to improve in the paint. Kevin Martin did exactly what he was brought in to do. Corey Brewer's leak outs on fast breaks were nightly occurrences, routinely slamming home flawless outlet passes from Love. Ricky Rubio turned it on towards the end of the year after a long scoring slump. Gorgui Dieng made a thunderous impact in lieu of Pekovic and cemented his status as a vital part of the team's future.
All sounds good, right? Everything surrounding this team seemed great on paper. The Wolves had 16 games over 120 points. They had 12 20-point wins. Aside from Pekovic's wearing down towards the end of the year, the team stayed mostly healthy. All these things are great, but things still didn't click.
The pieces are there to make a deep playoff run, but a few more moves need to be made to make that big leap the franchise has been waiting for. Here is what to look for this offseason.
Find a Coach Who Will Instill Defensive Philosophies
The coaching carousel has begun spinning, and fellow franchises are scrambling to get first dibs on the best coaches available.
The Timberwolves would be wise to play the field and get the right fit. New York and Los Angeles have coach openings, so they likely are going to be the highest-profile locations. Minnesota's roster is in a considerably better position than either the Knicks or Lakers, so the exact right voice could be all it takes to push this team to the upper echelon.
Head of basketball operations Flip Saunders has already taken his name out of the ring before it was ever really in there. He will continue in his current role, but college coaches have had their names brought up such as Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan and former Timberwolf Fred Hoiberg.
All three are leading some perennial powerhouses on the college level, but Izzo is close friends with Saunders and is said to have some interest, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com.
Whether obtaining Izzo is a legitimate possibility or a pipe dream at this point remains to be seen, but he is a name to keep an eye on. He is a voice who commands respect upon arrival, and a guy who knows how to get the most out of his players. His Michigan State Spartans are also traditionally very loyal players in this one-and-done era, graduating notable players such as Draymond Green, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling.
These are the names we have heard tossed around, but another to consider may be newly-fired Mark Jackson, formerly of the Golden State Warriors. He turned a notoriously laughable defensive team into one of the best in just three years. Defense remains Minnesota's biggest problem, so any coach with a propensity for coaching that end of the floor would be a welcome sign.
The Timberwolves appear to have good team chemistry and scored a ton of points no matter who was healthy and who wasn't, besides Love. However, it was rare that they all played well together. When Love, Pekovic and Martin were all healthy, Rubio disappeared and his confidence was visibly shaken. With Martin and Pekovic out, the team was overly reliant on Love and Rubio, and guys like Dieng and Brewer stepped up immensely.
When guys did go down, players truly stepped up to fill in the cracks, which was a great sight to see. On the other hand, there was never a time when all the parts were moving in the same direction.
The main attribute Saunders would ideally like to have in a new coach is simply Kevin Love's approval. The T-Wolves are now in an awkward time period where every move made has to be done with Love in mind.
Love had a great connection with Adelman, and developed into one of the league's best players under him. The new coach has big shoes to fill in that aspect and bringing in the wrong guy could signal the end of the Love era.
How does a team with three guys' combined scoring over 62 points a night miss the playoffs?
Quite simply, the bench is awful.
The Timberwolves starting lineup racked up points in bunches this past year. The team led the league in first quarter scoring, as Rick Adelman would often play Love and Pekovic the entire first quarter.
The drop-off once the bench trickled in was startling. Anyone who witnessed a Timberwolves game this year undoubtedly saw a number of instances where Minny would blow early 15 or 20-point leads in a matter of minutes because the bench was so severely inept.
Dante Cunningham, A.J. Price and Robbie Hummel are all free agents this offseason, and Minnesota should make no effort to bring any of them back.
Furthermore, the Wolves are also on the hook to dole out over $4 million a piece to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, J.J. Barea and Chase Budinger, as well as another $3.2 million for Alexey Shved. None of them should be brought back either.
Adelman's overwhelming faith in Barea cost this team games throughout the season, particularly by standing by idly while Barea relentlessly launched threes in the fourth quarter. It was hard to blame him since there were no other scoring options on the floor because Adelman was so strict with his rotations.
Rookies Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad were sadly the most reliable and consistent contributors off the bench, and their slowed development was a contributing factor to Adelman's exit. He was notorious for having little to no faith in rookies, and these two both proved that they had the ability to help the team immediately. Dieng was much more developed offensively than once thought, and his defense was a great asset. Muhammad foiled away as the only guy on the bench capable of creating his own offense while Shved and Hummel launched ill-advised threes ahead of him on the depth chart.
Chase Budinger is also a questionable prospect, as he is owed $5 million next year and showed zero semblance of being the player he once was last year after another knee surgery.
All of the aforementioned players underperformed tremendously this past season and held this team back more than anything else. If Saunders can trim the fat and clear up some of this dead weight, it would go a long way towards finally getting to the playoffs next year.
Reinforce the Backcourt
Minnesota's backcourt is slightly unsettled heading into the offseason, particularly on the bench.
Primarily, Ricky Rubio is still a below average scoring point guard—an issue that was not adequately counteracted by J.J. Barea backing him up.
Barea is regarded as a sparkplug off the bench who provides instant offense, whereas Rubio gets pegged as a historically woeful scorer. Barea's shooting percentage was actually just fractions of one percentage point higher than Rubio's this past season.
The bottom line is that Barea has to go. Minnesota needs a point guard behind Rubio who can still move the ball around and score efficiently when need be. It would help if he could hold his own on defense as well. Barea did not excel in any of these areas in 2013-14.
As far as Rubio is concerned, he continues to quietly knock down open threes with some decent regularity. He hit 33 percent this past season, with his success mostly coming off the ball in that aspect. His issue remains finishing in the paint.
For the second straight year, Rubio really hit his stride in the second half. Analysts were calling for his head in the first half where he appeared to somehow regress offensively, but he attacked the rim much more willingly after the All-Star Game and shot a borderline respectable 41.5 percent after the break. He was much more aggressive with the lane opened up sans Pekovic and has to continue to develop that part of his game.
Kevin Martin was Kevin Martin. He scored the same way he always scores, converting threes and free throws in bunches. He occasionally held his own in one-on-one defensive situations, and he contributed little in any peripheral categories. He gave Minnesota exactly what they knew they would be getting.
The improvement has to come from the bench. One player who Minnesota clearly missed this past year was Andrei Kirilenko. He consistently strapped up the opposing team's best player and was able to mask a lot of the defensive inefficiencies of Pekovic and Love. His no longer being around stressed the need that this team needs its own version of Tony Allen.
A lock-down perimeter defender and a reliable backup point guard are two things this team needs. The other thing they could really use is a legitimate sixth man. J.J. Barea was not the type of instant offense that a playoff team needs. Minnesota needs a combo guard of sorts who can create for himself and carry the team through offensive lulls, particularly in the fourth quarter or other times when the bench is faltering.
Figure out the Pekovic/Dieng Dilemma
Minnesota has invested a massive sum of money in its cinderblock of a center. Nikola Pekovic is one of the biggest mismatches in basketball down low and a tenacious offensive rebounder that is going to be a big part of what the T-Wolves do for years to come.
The Timberwolves caught a lot of flack for investing $60 million into a 290-pound player who plays as physical as Pekovic does. He has yet to prove that he can stay healthy throughout the course of a season. Pek was proving any doubters wrong, averaging 18 points and nine rebounds while playing in every one of the team's first 44 games. Then, an Achilles injury popped up and lingered throughout the rest of the year.
A question now being thrown around is something that nobody would have considered prior to this past All-Star break. Is this team better off with Gorgui Dieng as the long-term center?
In Pek's absence, Dieng made a league-wide impact. He was fresh off anchoring Louisville to a National Championship and was deemed too raw to have a big impact in his rookie year. Once Pekovic went down, and he was forced into action, he turned his playing time into a well-deserved Rookie of the Month award in March.
Dieng threw down a 20-20 game with four assists and no turnovers in his third career start. He had a double-double in nine of his 15 starts down the stretch and fit alongside Love like a glove. He is more versatile than Pekovic, and his passing from the high post was an added dimension to the offense.
The main difference between Dieng and Pekovic is that Dieng is an above-the-rim threat who can protect the paint on defense. Since Love is not good on that end, having a rim protector at the center spot is vital.
This is a delicate situation that needs resolving. Pekovic's contract and injury history likely makes him unable to be traded. Dieng's upside makes him too valuable to be traded. Pekovic is a buzzsaw on offense who chews up opponents and spits them out unlike any other. Dieng is a potential brick wall on defense who sports a unique and versatile skill set on offense that perfectly complements Love and Rubio.
What to do...
The best thing that can happen is that Minnesota keeps these two, which is likely. The Timberwolves are not good enough to ship out valuable assets. The best thing for Minnesota's success is to mix Dieng in enough to have a profound impact on the combined weakness of the Love/Pek duo defensively.
Adversely, it has to be accepted at this point that Pekovic is not completely reliable to stay healthy. His style of play is too brutal to hold up over 82 games. Limiting his minutes slightly will keep him healthy throughout the year, and now that Minnesota has a more than capable backup center, the new coach would be remiss not to flex that muscle.
Keep Kevin Love Happy
If part of keeping Kevin Love happy entails allowing him to retain his Super Mario-esque mustache, then so be it.
Kevin Love did the unthinkable in 2013-14: he got even better.
Love started in his first All-Star game, averaged a career-high 26.1 points and 4.4 assists, drilled 190 three-pointers and logged a career-best 65 double-doubles as well as his first three triple-doubles.
Minnesota swung and missed on at least two post-Garnett rebuilding efforts before Love and cannot afford to strike out. The team has invested a ton of money and time into a supporting cast that hasn't yet gotten it done. Minnesota has young guys such as Rubio, Pekovic and Dieng and has snagged guys like Martin and Brewer and Budinger in free agency all to build around its superstar.
If Flip Saunders doesn't have another trick or two up his sleeve, Love may walk right out that door and leave the Timberwolves high and dry, and nobody would blame him.
Love may have his defensive inefficiencies, but everyone has known this for years. He is a legitimate foundational superstar in this league, and the Timberwolves are very far down this rebuilding road even though they have not yet cracked the playoff barrier.
Pundits are already believing Love is a certainty to leave, yet Saunders has no intentions of trading him. Love himself has been unusually quiet, so any conclusions on this whole scenario are strictly speculative at this point.
At some point this offseason, some conversations must be had between Love, the front office and whomever the new coach is about his future. The team has steadily improved over the past handful of years, but it isn't enough for the fans and it isn't enough for Love. These conversations have to gauge Love's commitment to the franchise, and how he feels about where things are headed. If he has stipulations, Saunders has to consider trading him, because if he simply walks in free agency, it will set this team back for years.
Minnesota does have room to improve. Saunders has a lottery pick in a deep draft at his disposal, a hopefully new and energetic coach, and ideally a new powerful bench. Rubio is also 23 and has a great rapport with Love. He should continue improving as well. Minnesota is most definitely a team still trending upward, but Saunders has to be pressing forward and doing everything to make this team a contender right now.
Judgment day has been on fans' radar since the day David Kahn slighted Love with his insulting contract. That day represents the time where Minnesota realizes it is at a crossroads with its superstar and has to decide if it can continue building a contender around him, or it ships him to a bigger market for an extraordinary return.
The Timberwolves have the longest playoff drought in the NBA, and it would be extremely difficult to pitch another rebuilding effort to a success-craved fan base. Keeping Kevin Love happy in the near future and ensuring he is committed to this team long-term are far above and beyond any other priority for the Wolves this offseason.