Minnesota Timberwolves: 10 Moves That Could Signal a Return to Relevance
The Minnesota Timberwolves have become one of the most frustrating franchises in the NBA over the past few seasons. With Blake Griffin's star on the rise in L.A., they may have already replaced the Clippers as the team the team least likely to inspire it's fans with hope for the upcoming season.
Sure, Kevin Love is good, and will probably be an All-Star candidate for years to come. But outside of him and possibly Ricky Rubio, most fans wouldn't even be able to give the names of the rest of Minnesota's projected starting five.
It's sad to think that just a few years back, Kevin Garnett was leading to this team to the playoffs every single season, culminating in a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2003-04. But a lot of things have gone wrong since, and the T-Wolves haven't been back.
Just like any other team, they could be good again very soon, if the right moves are made and the right pieces are either kept or sent elsewhere to bring in new talent. Here are a few moves that, if somehow accomplished, could impact this teams fortunes in a very positive way in the very near future.
1. Keep Kevin Love in Minnesota
I've heard more than one person say in recent weeks that, as good as he is, Kevin Love doesn't fit in with Minnesota's long term plans. They say that even though he's a great player, he's not worth a maximum contract, but is still going to get paid like a max-contract player.
Others have also said that he's good but not good enough to be a cornerstone-type player on a championship caliber team.
Love has one year remaining on his rookie contract, and has already established himself as a perennial All Star candidate, barring injury. Last season he averaged 20.2 points and 15.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 85% from the free-throw line and nearly 42% from three.
He's a player who can carry his team offensively for long stretches, though he doesn't score quite enough to be considered his teams primary option and still have them winning consistently. He is not very good defensively either but with better perimeter defenders this could become less of an issue.
Overall, he needs to be kept because his team is much better with him on the court than not. The number of extra possessions he earns his team per game (4.5 last season) is a testament to that.
2. Start Ricky Rubio at Point Guard from Day 1
Seems like a no brainer, right?
The Wolves have gone through several point guards in the past couple of years, although Rubio appears to have the most talent and potential out of any of them. With his announcement that signaled his intentions to finally bring his game to the NBA, the Wolves would appear to finally have their long term answer at point guard.
However, it's possible that a team like Minnesota could want to ease Rubio into the NBA experience by bringing him off the bench behind Luke Ridnour to start the season. This would be a mistake.
The Wolves need to see right away if Rubio is capable of stepping in and leading an NBA team, and the truth is that if he can lead this odd collection of talent to maybe double their win total from last season, it would be a success in most people's eyes.
There will be some growing pains along the way, but Minnesota fans want to see if Rubio is as good as advertised, so no time should be wasted.
3. Realize the Milicic/Pekovic Combo Isn't the Answer at Center
At times, it seems like David Kahn is only one or two steps away from becoming Isiah Thomas 2.0 in the circle of NBA General Managers.
In his defense, he hasn't put his small market Wolves anywhere near the luxury tax threshold. In fact, last season's team was over $20 million under the salary cap, something we'll get to in a later slide.
Kahn's problem hasn't been spending too much, but he's still responsible for making bad free agency commitments to veteran players who really don't fit into the teams long term rebuilding plans, and enough medium sized mistakes add up.
Take these two. Last season they combined to average 14.3 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game in about 37 minutes per contest. They averaged about $8.5 million in combined salary, which accounted for nearly a fourth of what was paid out to T-Wolves players.
Either one of these guys could probably hold his own as a solid NBA backup center on most nights, but neither one has done anything to earn a starting job.
And at this point in his career, Brad Miller isn't up to the task either.
4. Implement an Offensive System That Works for the Players
Last season under Kurt Rambis, the Timberwolves attempted to run the Triangle Offense but really didn't do a good job of it. This was mostly due to the personnel that they have, and this next season will be no different.
With the arrival of Rubio in Minnesota presumed to be as soon as the NBA lockout ends, the Timberwolves need to find a system that will work for him and allow him to exploit the talents that he has as a floor leader.
Rubio, at least as of now, is not a spot up shooter. He needs to play in a more up-tempo style that doesn't rely as much on breaking down the defense in a half court set. The Wolves have other spot up shooters that can get the job done when necessary, but they need a system which will consistently compliment the players they have.
5. Use the Salary Cap Space Available to Them
This slide goes back to an earlier point, which is that last season, the Timberwolves were $21 million under the salary cap. This is in stark contrast to pretty much any other NBA team, most of which were either near or over the salary cap level.
Minnesota needs to spend it's available money, but not just for the sake of spending. There are several good reasons why they were hopelessly bad last season, one being that they haven't spent to acquire quality players in recent seasons.
It's true that Minnesota isn't a favored free agent destination like Miami or New York, so it may put them at a bit of a disadvantage for acquiring a marquee free agent. However, by making smart trades, they can acquire the right players to build around and avoid spending $20 million on the likes of Darko Milicic just because they have it.
Good teams don't necessarily have to pay the luxury tax, but they do need to spend to be competitive.
6. Improved Drafting and Rebuilding Strategies
The title of this slide is pretty forgiving in my opinion, since pretty much anything would be an improvement over what they have been doing. Sometimes it seems like they are trying to model the Celtics or Spurs by acquiring assets, either through the draft or by acquiring unwanted yet talented veterans through trade.
This is an admirable strategy when well executed, but in the T-Wolves' case, they have been acquiring assets that other teams don't really seem to want. This defeats the purpose of the entire strategy since a team full of unwanted assets is not really a team and won't get you more than 25 or 30 wins at best in any given season.
One of the biggest things they could do to improve their team-building strategies would be to focus on building chemistry together between players, rather than simply collecting assets; this will be the focus of the next slide.
7. Stop Duplicating Medium Level Talent
This builds off the previous slide, but deserves special consideration of it's own. The T-Wolves have been struggling with this over the previous couple of seasons, drafting multiple players at the same positions without regard to how they fit together in a team context.
A couple examples: in 2009, they drafted Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, all in the first round. What do these players have in common? They are all guards! Four guards, three of them at the point, in one round by one team.
In addition, Luke Ridnour, who is still on the team, and Ramon Sessions, who has since been moved elsewhere, have also been on the roster in the past couple seasons. This type of talent duplication is unnecessary and unacceptable for an NBA team that wants to compete.
Another example: over the past two seasons, they have acquired forwards Wesley Johnson, Luke Babbitt (who was later traded for another small forward), Derrick Williams, Donatas Motiejunas, Michael Beasley, and Anthony Randolph. Does this make sense? Not really, especially since Kevin Love is locked in at the power forward spot for the foreseeable future.
The Wolves need to decide on a rotation and stick with it if they want to develop the chemistry and consistency necessary to compete in their division.
8. Turn Assets into Quality Pieces
Going along with a theme I've already discussed in some detail throughout this slideshow, the Timberwolves have been attempting to implement a team-building strategy that centers around stockpiling various pieces which would in theory be turned into established players who can help the team win more quickly, in the mode of the Boston Celtics.
However, the strategy hasn't seemed to work for the Wolves up to this point. They appear to be very good at sending out pieces to acquire more pieces, but haven't yet mastered the ability to trade out those pieces for the players they really want.
Some of this is out of their hands; if other teams don't want to trade with them, then they can't do much. But if they can put together a sweet enough offer, then they will eventually have success. The problem is that they are now several years into the post-Kevin Garnett rebuilding era, with very little effective rebuilding to show for it.
At some point, they either need to adopt a new strategy, or modify the existing on in order to start seeing results.
9. Hire an Established Coach Who Can Develop Young Players
The past four head coaches of the Minnesota Timberwolves have all been first time head coaches. This doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, but with a young, inexperienced team that has become entrenched in a losing culture, it can easily be too much for a rookie head coach.
The Wolves need someone who knows how to motivate young players, to break the cycle of losing, and to get them to play hard on defense every night. The offense will come with this group.
Rick Adelman has apparently been talking to the team as of late, and would seem to be a good fit, given how few good, available options there are at this point.
10. Acquire Players Who Are Proven Winners
This goes along with the previous point, in that the whole culture of the team needs to be changed. Something can always be said for acquiring good, talented players, but those players also need to be winners. They need to be a positive source of energy for the team and for the fans.
I'm not saying they should just get rid of everyone and start over. But team management needs to start thinking in terms of one or two players that they can bring in, most likely well established veterans, who can help to change things in the locker room by being leaders and positive influences over the younger guys on the team.
The Wolves do have a lot of players with a lot of potential. Now they just need to focus on making a hungry, competitive team out of what they have.