Building Minnesota Timberwolves' Ideal Starting Lineup Post-Kevin Love Trade
Buh-bye, Kevin Love.
Work needs to be done on the heels of acquiring Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett. Rotations must be solidified. Roles need to be hashed out.
The ideal starting lineup must be built.
Fortunately for president and coach Flip Saunders, this is a good problem to have. Luckier still, we have him covered.
Figuring out who the Timberwolves must start on opening night isn't incredibly difficult. Short-term goals demand they field the right blend of talent, experience and potential to play beside one another.
Long-term aims might manipulate that focus later on, but for now there are five guys—new and old—ready to give Minnesota a taste of the ideal.
Point Guard: Ricky Rubio
Years Experience: 3
2013-14 Stats: 9.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.3 steals, 38.1 percent shooting, 15.4 PER
Ricky Rubio could not have asked for a better supporting cast to start the post-Love era.
The Timberwolves—who ranked fourth in possessions used per 48 minutes last year—are built to run even more. There isn't necessarily a point guard in the league better suited to pilot Minnesota's new core, and he's already on the team.
While still raw on the offensive end—his jumper remains weak, and he's not one to look for his own shot in general—Rubio's calculated incisions perfectly complement Minnesota's newcomers. Fast breaks should be a staple in this offense, allowing Rubio to push the tempo as much as he wants.
There's value in Rubio's defensive performance as well. He can take too many chances and is rarely able to catch up with those who beat him off the dribble, but he has quick hands that force steals in volume.
This Timberwolves team is Rubio's. Darren Wolfson of 5 Eyewitness News says the point guard's agent wants a max contract extension for his client. Though unlikely no matter what happens, this is Rubio's opportunity to showcase his value, legitimize his ceiling and assume control of what is now, for better or worse, his team.
Shooting Guard: Kevin Martin
Years Experience: 10
2013-14 Stats: 19.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 43 percent shooting, 16.3 PER
Kevin Martin isn't going anywhere.
Had Klay Thompson been forced to shop for turtleneck sweaters and thermal underwear, there's a chance Martin would be trying to sneak into R-rated movies with Stephen Curry by now. But Love is with the Cavaliers, so according to Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Martin will stay put.
It's not hard to see why, either. Of all the things these Timberwolves are built to do—run, pass, run, run, not protect the rim, run, defend on the perimeter, run, run—converting three-pointers isn't one of them. Shooting from anywhere on the perimeter figures to be tough.
The Timberwolves ranked 26th in three-point percentage last season, draining only 34.1 percent of their bombs. That was with Love and Martin putting in at least 37 percent of their long balls.
Sans Love's outside touch, the Timberwolves need Martin. He's their most established scorer at this point, more so than Nikola Pekovic or Thaddeus Young.
Expect him to get some serious reps up as the team's starting shooting guard and lone semi-accurate chucker.
Small Forward: Andrew Wiggins
Years Experience: 0
2013-14 Stats (College): 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks, 44.8 percent shooting, 21.4 PER
Some see Wiggins as a shooting guard, but standing at 6'8" and armed with unparalleled athleticism, he's really a small forward—especially on this Timberwolves team.
Wiggins is the reason Love was sent to Cleveland. Without him and his fortune-turning potential, the Timberwolves would have had little to no incentive to entertain the Cavaliers' interest.
And for all the talk about his weaknesses—specifically that of his on-court passivity—the Timberwolves have still acquired someone whose basement beats out most ceilings. There's justification behind believing he's a work in progress, but the potentially great easily outweighs the imminetly bad.
Wrote blogger VJL110 of Canis Hoopus:
There is real reason to be concerned about Wiggins, so it is too early to pencil him in as the next superstar to eventually leave the Timberwolves. However, Wiggins is an impressive prospect with the ideal combination of physical tools and inchoate ball-skills. Wings like this do not come around often.
Get excited. This may actually work.
Immediately inserting him into the starting lineup is the way this should work. Throw him into the fray. Baptise him by fire. Make him adjust to Rubio and develop his jumper and hone his defensive acuity against the NBA's best.
There's no point in doing anything else. The Timberwolves don't exist to win championships at the moment. They're playing for the future. Rubio may be their foundation now, but Wiggins is the reason Minnesota is here, without Love, trying to get its rebuilding strategy right this time.
Starting Wiggins and gleaning insight into who he is as quickly as possible is the only way to effectively hit reset and move on.
Power Forward: Thaddeus Young
Years Experience: 7
2013-14 Stats: 17.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 45.4 percent shooting, 16.6 PER
Young isn't in Minnesota to replace Love. There is no replacing Love. There is only hoping Young can begin to fill the void Love left behind for more than just next season.
Free agency is a factor in Young's future with the Timberwolves. He can reach the open market by exercising his early termination option next summer, at which point he could leave Minnesota.
"Young probably deserved a better fate," writes FiveThirtyEight.com's Neil Paine, "but his skill set and still-in-his-prime age means he’ll either help a fledgling Wolves team buck those odds, or he’ll be sought-after in next summer’s free-agent market."
The best way for the Timberwolves to gain the inside track on his return—aside from owning his Bird rights—is to use him, rely on him. Start him alongside Rubio and Wiggins and hope he enjoys the high-octane offense Minnesota should run.
Value him in ways the tanking Philadelphia 76ers clearly didn't.
"I'm ready to get to work," Young said at his introductory presser. "I'm ready to get this team back to the playoffs. It's been too long."
Although the decade-long playoff drought doesn't figure to end right away, Young's commitment, in-the-moment as it seems, means the Timberwolves may have found yet another building block with Love's departure.
Young is experienced enough to make an impact now but still at a point in his career where he can help headline what happens later.
Center: Nikola Pekovic
Years Experience: 4
2013-14 Stats: 17.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 54.1 percent shooting, 20.7 PER
Continuing to unleash The Pekovic from the jump is the only option Minnesota has. Right now.
Pekovic isn't the ideal center for these new-look, athletically inclined Timberwolves. He's big and strong and can certainly score, but his slow feet don't fit the bill for a team that should be running and gunning.
He's also unlikely to help out defensively. The Timberwolves continue to lack an actual rim protector, as it's become abundantly clear Pekovic isn't that guy. He ranked 69 out of 77 in opponent's field-goal percentage at the rim among players who faced at least five iron attempts per game last year.
In the interim, though, Pekovic makes the most sense. This team isn't heavy on dependable scoring post-Love. Players such as Rubio, Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine are wild cards.
Pekovic is essential at the beginning if the Timberwolves' offense wants to be watchable, or if they still plan on running pick-and-rolls. He ranked in the top 15 of pick-and-roll efficiency as the roll man last season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Plus, maybe Pekovic proves to be a more valuable defender within a design that (hopefully) won't call for the Timberwolves to actively avoid fouling.
Hey, you never know...until you try.
Which, right now, the Timberwolves must.
Perception of the ideal stands to change in Minnesota.
The aforementioned five should be locks to start opening night, but as the season wears on, changes could be made.
LaVine and Gorgui Dieng are two players who should arguably supplant Martin and Pekovic. They're younger and keep more in theme with Minnesota's rebuilding efforts.
But Saunders cannot justify benching Martin just yet on a team nearly devoid of shooting. He cannot sell benching Pekovic for a sophomore like Dieng when the former's owed nearly $48 million over the next four years.
Eventually, maybe. Trades could be brokered. Roles could change. The Timberwolves could be better or worse than expected, then go from there.
For now, Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, Young and Pekovic offer a nice balance between inexperienced and established.
When the regular season starts, so too should they.