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Even though opening night is still nearly two months away, there is no denying that
certain teams have already done enough to merit “dark horse” status.
While free agency and trades obviously factor in, often times young teams can significantly improve simply by staying intact and adding another year of seasoning. Every week, we will profile teams on the cusp of making the next jump, either from lottery to playoffs, or lower seed to contender.
You could make a strong case that Minnesota would have been a playoff team last season had Ricky Rubio avoided injury. With Rubio, they were an exciting .500 team that could score enough points to hang with the Thunder one night, and then lose by double digits to Milwaukee the next game.
Even though the latest reports suggest that Rubio won’t be back until at least December, and even then, recent history suggests that most players take two years to fully recover from ACL injuries, Minnesota’s immediate future still looks unusually bright. Here are a few reasons why.
Addition by Subtraction…sort of
We are as high on Beasley as anyone (pun intended), but sometimes too much talent at one position can stagnate a young player’s development. Last year, Minnesota became the tweener capital of the basketball world, with Anthony Randolph, Derrick Williams, and Beasley all vying for playing time. With Beasley and Randolph both out of the picture, Williams, the second overall pick two years ago, will have more of an opportunity to show what he can do. It’s similar to what Philadelphia did with Evan Turner last year and that certainly paid off.
Kirilenko signed with the Timberwolves two days before the London Opening Ceremonies. For the Timberwolves, the timing couldn’t have been better. His contract (2-years/$20 million) initially looked like another example of Kahn overspending, but after Kirilenko dominated in London, while displaying the kind of multi-faceted skill set that only a few players in the world possess, it suddenly looked like one of the bargains of the summer. Kirilenko’s presence as a rim deterrent and defensive force will improve the Wolves significantly. In many ways, he offers the same skills as Nicolas Batum, but for less than half the price.
The Obvious Reason: Kevin Love
Since you already know about his ridiculous rebounding, let us focus on his under-appreciated scoring ability. Love improved his points per game by an average of more than five points per year from his first year to last year (his fourth). We aren’t saying he’s going to score 31 per game next year…but 28 or 29 certainly isn’t out of the question. Coming from a guy pulling down a dozen or more boards a night? Nine letters: F-R-A-N-C-H-I-S-E
Another Year for Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams, and Rick Adelman
Before going down with an injury, Rubio was (sort of) giving Kyrie Irving a run for his money as Rookie of the Year, averaging the 6th most assists per game league wide, putting up more than 10 ppg and shooting a respectable 34% from downtown. Though he might never live up to the epic hype surrounding his entrance into the league, Rubio has certainly established that he can be a solid starting point guard in the league, and could well develop into one of the league’s most elite distributors. For Rubio, another year within Adelman’s system, and the NBA as a whole, should equate to steady and significant improvement.
Way back during Kevin Love’s rookie season, when he averaged just 11 points per game and often looked overmatched, many analysts were ready to chalk up the Love pick as another incompetent move by
David Kahn and the Wolves. Instead, the team carefully developed Love into the All-Star player he is today. As an organization, the Wolves simply don’t care what you think. They knew they had a gem in K-Love, and were happy to allow him to develop on their own schedule.
Derrick Williams should follow a similar development curve, even if he never caps out quite as high as Love. His averages during his rookie campaign were less than impressive, but his playing time was limited and he was often forced to play the small forward in lineups next to Love and Pekovic. A more natural, if undersized, player on the block, Williams should excel in smaller lineups playing as a power forward both in relief of and alongside Love. The kid showed himself to be a winner and a team player in college, coming up huge in the biggest moments. Tweener or not, any player with the mental fortitude Williams has already proven himself to have is a keeper.
(Editors Note: The following paragraph was not included in the original post due to…wait for it, editor’s error. 08/22/12 – 5:09 PM EST )
The X-Factor (Brandon Roy):
No sane person expects Brandon Roy to return as a full-time starter for an entire season. With that caveat out in the open, at $5.2 million a year, the risk/reward makes sense. If you didn’t watch Game 4 of the Portland – Dallas series in 2011 (and you WOULD know if you did), take 5 minutes out of your day to watch this clip. Not two years ago this man put a team on his back in a way that few NBA players ever could, and carried them back from a 23-point deficit (late in the 3rd quarter) to tie a series at 2-2 against the eventual NBA champions. If he can be 80% of his old self for 12-15 minutes a game, his signing will look genius.
Dare we say it…front office competency?
Then there was the savvy Nicolas Batum offer that wound up seriously pissing off Blazers management and hurting the cap space of their division rival. The Kirilenko signing as we mentioned earlier, the sneaky Greg Steisma acquisition, and turning the team over to Adelman…Almost enough to make you forget that they didn’t get Kevin Love to agree to a long enough contract, and that they traded Terrence Jones (the 18th pick of this year’s draft) for a ginger former volleyball star (Chase Budinger.) But other than that, Kahn has stepped his game up and for now, the Wolves appear to be in good hands. Of course, that can change overnight if Kevin Love starts feeling homesick and begins looking for another team closer to the Pacific Ocean. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yet.
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You know those mind-numbing water cooler discussions about weather, pets and weekend activities? That soul-crushing small talk would be far less demoralizing if it included something you actually cared about.
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