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Rubio, Love and Flirting with Relevance


An ode to the 2011-12 Timberwolves

@BreakTheHuddle

Technically, the Timberwolves’ season isn’t over yet. They play tonight in Detroit before closing out the season with home games against the Warriors (Sunday) and the Nuggets (one week from today). Officially, there are three games to go.

Unofficially, and in hindsight, I could have written this column on March 9th. Specifically, I could have written it 47 minutes and 44 seconds into the Timberwolves’ game against the Los Angeles Lakers.  That’s the moment when Ricky Rubio crumpled to the floor and left the sellout crowd in the Target Center holding its collective breath. I was there that night, and the intense feeling of dread I felt watching him being carried off the court by his teammates was met with unfortunate news the following day: it was a torn ACL, and Rubio was done for the year.

What’s happened since has been a mixture of good and bad, but mostly bad. And despite the three games the Wolves have left to play, I’m forgoing their input on my opinion of the season. The moment Love went down with a concussion (April 11th versus the Nuggets), the season was more or less finished. Nothing that has happened since should alter our views of the season that was.

It’s time to take a look at what the core of the Timberwolves (Rubio and Love) as well as the rest of the roster did in 2011-12. It’s time to appreciate the Wolves’ newfound sense of relevance. It’s time to look ahead, to see what’s coming, and hope for better things in the years to come. It’s time for some perspective.

Rubio

It’s really hard for me to maintain any sense of perspective when I talk about Ricky Rubio – and I am not alone in this. He is beloved around the league, by both observers and his peers. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated seemed catatonic in a Dan Patrick Show interview immediately after the injury. This followed years of Mannix driving the Rubio bandwagon, calling his passing ability “Magic Johnson-esque” in a podcast just two games into his NBA career. Larry Bird told the Sports Guy (Bill Simmons) that he watches Rubio (and the Timberwolves) “every single night” because he loves the way the team passes the ball when Rubio’s on the floor. When the news broke of his injury, the support that poured in for Rubio (via Twitter, mostly) from players around the league was incredible.

The Wolves were 21-20 with Rubio, and are 4-18 without him. In the 14 games Kevin Love played without Rubio, and before his concussion, the Wolves were 4-10. His importance to the team cannot be overstated. Despite the fact the team has been ravaged with injuries in this condensed season (Nikola Pekovic, Michael Beasley, J.J. Barea, and Luke Ridnour are main contributors who have all missed significant time) there was a clear demarcation, both in style of play and in the results, between the games he played and the ones he didn’t.

His turnover rate was low (for a pass-first point guard), his three point percentage (34%) was  decent, he rebounded the ball very well for a point guard, and he exhibited on the court leadership that belied his status as a “rookie”. He had, after all, begun playing professionally in Spain at the tender age of 14. Once he came onto the court, he was the master of the offense, and wasn’t timid about directing traffic.

Love

Despite being voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player the season before, Kevin Love managed to elevate his game to new levels in 2011-12. He lost a shocking amount of weight (20-25 pounds, but it looks like 40), began driving to the rim more, and improved his outside shot. In March, Love averaged 30.7/13.9/2.1 with 46% Field Goal, 79% Free Throw and 45% 3-point shooting splits. Those numbers are unheard of for an entire month. For the season, his line was 26.0/13.3/2.1 with 45/82/37 percent splits –  making him the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000 to average 26 points and 13 rebounds per game for a season.

He also hit clutch shots late in games – a 3-pointer to beat the Clippers comes to mind, as does another 3 during his 51 point evening versus the Thunder which sent the game into overtime. He doesn’t seem afraid of the moment, which was something that plagued even a terrific player like Chris Webber. Rick Adelman designs plays for him at the end of games, and Love does not shy away from the challenge.

His willingness to improve the holes in his game makes him a terrific leader for this franchise, and the type of guy who deserved (and will earn every penny of) the lucrative extension given to him in February.  While the PR campaign begun by the Timberwolves promoting him as an MVP candidate was a few years’ premature, it’s clear that Love has the potential to win the award in the very near future.

The Rest of the Roster

A diamond in the rough – Nikola Pekovic

The best tattoo in the NBA.

Not to keep quoting Bill Simmons as though everything he writes is basketball Scripture, but in his annual Trade Value column, he ranked Pekovic 51st – FIFTY FIRST – in the NBA. In his mind, at least, there are only 50 people he would trade for Nikola Pekovic. A year ago, the book on Pek was that he was an awkward foul machine. This season, he’s displayed soft hands, deft post moves, shot well from the free throw line, and displayed the best tattoo in the NBA. If his health concerns clear up in the offseason, he should be a force in 2012-13.

You were impressive in spots – Luke Ridnour, Anthony Randolph, J.J. Barea, Wayne Ellington

Ellington is a spot-up three point shooter that actually doesn’t shoot three pointers all that well, yet. But if he ever figures out his stroke, he could be a nice role player for a good team – a poor man’s Mike Miller. Barea is a decent third point guard – he’s a natural scorer who can give you a jolt of energy off the bench when you need it. But when he’s asked to carry the load, well, 11 game losing streaks happen, which is what the Wolves are in right now.

Anthony Randolph never looks happy, unless he’s bolting down the floor with a chance to finish a lob from Ricky Rubio. But again, big men are hard to come by, and Randolph’s skill has never been questioned. A project like him has terrific upside and is worth keeping around, in case he ever figures things out. Luke Ridnour did yeoman’s work this year – he played out of position (at the 2) and never complained, then averaged 14 points and 8 assists as the team’s main point guard after the Rubio injury, battling through injuries all the while… until an ankle injury ended his season. If the Wolves want to contend, they can’t have him in the starting lineup as a shooting guard – but he’s a reliable veteran and a capable backup point guard. He’s definitely a keeper.

The enigma – Derrick Williams

More on him in a bit… suffice it to say, Williams holds the key to the Timberwolves’ success in 2012.

Rick Adelman loves you, and who am I second guess him?- Martell Webster and Anthony Tolliver

Drafted straight out of high school, this was Webster’s seventh season in the league already. In the past, he’s been a smart defender who shot well from distance – but this was a down year for him. Despite that, there seems to be a belief that he can contribute to winning basketball in a reserve role. I don’t believe it – but the Wolves seem to. Another guy I am not sold on, but who is a coach’s favorite, is Anthony Tolliver. By all accounts, he’s one of the nicest guys in the NBA and one of the sport’s hardest workers. According to Adelman, he gets minutes because “he listens”, which is apparently not as common as it ought to be. That means he’ll probably be around in 2012-13… thought it’s hard to feel anything but ambivalent about it.

It’s been real, it’s been fun, but it hasn’t been real fun… Darko Milicic, Michael Beasley, Wes Johnson

Darko can defend big men, and though Pekovic has developed nicely this season, he has some faults on the defensive end. The trouble is, that’s all Darko can do – defend, and he’s not exactly an elite defender. The real issue is that he has the worst set of hands in the NBA. He’s a complete lost cause on the offensive end. And through no fault of his own, since he was once drafted second overall (ahead of Carmelo Anthony), he’s a league-wide symbol of disappointment.

Michael Beasley could be a bench scorer for a playoff team. He could be a valuable asset to someone. He could embrace his role and understand that he isn’t a starting NBA player playing a reserve’s minutes – he’s a career backup, unless he devotes himself to basketball. His talent alone gets him paychecks. The problem is, he seems like a malcontent. He’s spacey and doesn’t seem to “get it”. Winning teams don’t usually have guys like Beasley.

You're nice and all... but this ain't working out.

Wes Johnson has the opposite problem from Beasley – seems like the nicest, most coachable kid on the planet, with one problem: he doesn’t do anything well on a basketball court. Nothing. According to 82games.com, of the 180 players who qualify, Wes ranks 178th in SIMPLE rating (the basketball equivalent to WAR). He doesn’t shoot well (40% FG, 30% 3P%), doesn’t rebound (less than 3 per game) and doesn’t defend well, despite having a size advantage (he’s 6’7) over just about every shooting guard he plays against.

If all three (Darko, Beasley and Johnson) found new homes next season, I’d be happy. My guess is, however, that Darko and Johnson hang around for one more season. And I’ll weep.

 

Closing: Three Offseason Questions

1.       Can Derrick Williams play Small Forward?

A Timberwolves frontcourt of Williams, Love and Pekovic would have matchup issues all over the place. But that configuration requires Williams to play Small Forward, and he’s looked out of sorts when he’s been asked to do that this season. He has the size and athleticism to do it, but had trouble playing out of his ‘natural’ position. Williams actually performed okay, considering he wasn’t allowed to have contact with the coaches until two weeks before the first game (due to the lockout).

A normal offseason and a normal training camp ought to benefit him greatly for next year. Hopefully, the Wolves don’t abandon ship on him just yet – the trade rumors don’t seem to go away – and he can show some improvement in his second season. As the Celtics learned the hard way with Chauncey Billups, it usually isn’t wise to abandon lottery picks before you give them a fair chance.

2.       Can the Wolves find a Shooting Guard?

A backcourt combination of Rubio and Ridnour do some impressive things on the offensive end. The team’s passing is at an elite level if that combination is on the court. But neither one can handle defending shooting guards on a nightly basis, and neither can score with enough regularity to keep pace with the opponents’ 2-guards.

The answer might lie in free agency, where the Wolves have plenty of cap space. The top shooting guard available is Eric Gordon of the Hornets, who has significant upside, but has been injury prone. Giving him a big contract would be a considerable risk. Ray Allen will be a free agent, but it’s unlikely he’d come here. O.J. Mayo would be an interesting scenario – he was drafted by the Wolves and traded to the Grizzlies for Kevin Love – but it’s hard to see that one playing out either.

The possibility – Jamal Crawford, who the Wolves were rumored to be interested in at the deadline. He has a $5.2 million option for next season with Portland, and if he declines it, he’d be a decent fit at a position that is scarce right now in the NBA.

3.       Will the team’s defense improve in 2012-13?

This is the big one. Just about every measurable statistic has the Wolves near the bottom of the NBA in defensive rankings. They’ve allowed the 5th most points per game in the NBA, blocked the 6th fewest shots, are 25th in steals per game, and have allowed the 12th highest opponent field goal percentage. The thing they do well, rebounding, is offset by the fact that they also give up the 8th most rebounds in the game.

The great teams in the NBA – the Thunder, Bulls, and Heat – are all superb defensive teams, led by their superstars. Look for Kevin Love to devote this offseason to his defensive game. He’s been polishing his offensive prowess the past couple of offseasons, and has become one of the league’s best at that end of the floor. But if your superstar really “gets it” – and it seems as though Love does – he’ll continue working tirelessly to improve.

He won’t ever be Kevin Garnett, but at least if he sets the tempo, the team will follow. If the Wolves can add some defensive-minded role players this offseason,  and Love comes in leading the way during next year’s training camp, the team could make the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04.

A playoff appearance is a completely reasonable expectation – and it’s permissible to dream about a first round victory in 2012-13. For the first time in a long, long time, there are reasons to hope for the Timberwolves… and it feels really, really good.

 

IF YOU MADE IT ALL THE WAY TO THE END… Thank you! Let me know what you think – BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, leave a comment, find me on Facebook, or hit me up on Twitter @BreakTheHuddle.

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