Enemy: Minnesota Timberwolves
Coach: Rick Adelman
Potential Starting 5: Ricky Rubio*, Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Other Key Players: Derrick Williams, Chase Budinger, Luke Ridnour, JJ Barea, Greg Stiemsma
Threats: Shooting, Rebounding, Off-the-ball offensive play
Grizzlies 2011-12 Record vs.: 4-0
I’ll start off by noting my belief that fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves must be thrilled to no longer have to act out their best “mother of a 3 year old” impression on a nightly basis, yelling “Michael no” and “Michael please” at their television sets. That is “Michael no” as in, “no don’t shoot” and “Michael please” as in “please pass the ball”. The guy makes Z-bo look like Jason Kidd. Okay, not exactly, but you get the point. All kidding aside, though, Michael Beasley is a talented player. At that, he is one that the Timberwolves acquired for pennies on the dollar from the Miami Heat fire-sale, at a time where their franchise was desperate and clutching for anything that could lure bodies into the seats at the Target Center. Two years ago, Beasley was just what the Wolves needed. However, in Minnesota times are not quite as desperate, anymore, for guys that have any lick of ability, but rather for guys that can help the team win games. Given the ever-shrinking window for teams to keep their big ticket stars content in today’s NBA, the Wolves are going to have to win, and do so sooner than later. Thus it was time to let Mr. Beasley off on his merry way, and put the next foot forward towards fielding a competitive team. Last season was the first step in the right direction for the Timberwolves, as they enjoyed moderate success, media accolade, and were knocking on the door of a playoff berth prior to their campaign being derailed by the injury of rookie phenom, Ricky Rubio. But the past is the past, and it’s time to look ahead. After failing to succeed in their aggressive push for Trailblazers forward Nicolas Batum, the Timberwolves were still very proactive in their efforts to improve this team. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just say that they made a myriad of offseason moves, leaving a net loss of Beasley, Wes Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Anthony Tolliver, Brad Miller, Anthony Randolph, Darko Milicic, and Martell Webster, coupled with a net gain of Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko, Greg Stiemsma, Alexy Shved, Dante Cunningham, and Chase Budinger. By observation there has been a good deal of upheaval in the middle of the roster, but Rick Adelman has been doing this for a long time, and should be able to handle the effects of changing faces.
Through the lens of scrutiny, one may be quick to point out that it is 2012, and banking on key acquisitions Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko to recapture their respective states of effectiveness is like “banking on the Minnesota State Fair to go fat free” (Credit to Minnesota state resident and friend of mine, Steve Werdick, for that one). However, we’re talking about two very smart, veteran players, who do not need to make regain all-star form to help their team win. Don’t get me wrong, Roy’s hang-up is in fact a pretty big deal. The guy should have trouble merely walking given the state of his knees, let alone hold up over the grind of the 82 game season. Personally, I hope that he does get through it, because he seems like a stand-up guy, and was truly a joy to watch before the injuries forced him away from the game. Kirilenko, on the other hand, had seen his production gradually decline in Utah for a few seasons, before spending last season back home, in Russia, and experiencing somewhat of a revival with his nation’s team in the Olympics. If he can prove to again be as tenacious a defender as his back tattoo is fearsome, he can provide a Tony Allen-lite spark to this previously lackluster defensive unit. More source of concern for the Timberwolves comes from the Ricky Rubio front. His injury will likely keep him out of action until at least December, and they are definitely going to need him healthy if they want to make a serious go of it. Looking at the rest of the acquisitions, they figure to play spot minutes and lower rotation slots, unless some real breakthroughs occur. As for the returning players, Nikola Pekovic hopes to carry over inertia from last year’s breakout success, and Derrick Williams would like to prove to fans that Wolves’ brass did not swing and miss with the second overall selection in the 2011 draft (talk about a hit-or-miss draft spot). Coach Adelman is fantastic at running offensive schemes that focus on moving without the ball and getting the most out of his players, so you have to like the chances of all these guys to excel. Finally, though, it will all rest on the broad shoulders of the emerging Kevin Love, and whether or not he can reach the next level of stardom. He has shown that he can elevate his own play to stratospheric levels, evidenced by his eye popping stat-lines, but needs to show that he can lead the team and elevate those around him, in order for this team to propel into the playoff conversation.
As lady luck would have it, the Grizzlies are not scheduled to have their first meeting with the Timberwolves until February. What this means for us is that it is unlikely that we have the luxury of playing the Wolves sans Blond Ricky, who is due to return before then. Regardless of whether or not Rubio plays, however, this subset of our schedule will come down to the duel of workhorses in the paint: Kevin Love vs. Zach Randolph. In the past, Zbo was able to keep K-love off his game, and in turn keep the whining about the fact that we traded away Love’s draft rights at bay. Last season, without Zbo at full strength, Love was able to take advantage and put up some very good lines against us. Love’s consistently improving ability to stretch the floor to 3-range is going to make him an increasingly difficult cover for us. The prognosis for the rest of the matchups is looking a bit cloudy at this point, as there are a multitude of variables that need to be addressed. Worst case for the Grizzlies, Brandon Roy’s still got it, swiss army knife Kirilenko puts up another 5×5, and Dante Cunningham bursts off the leash to grind for the other side. Best case for the Grizzlies, Zach and Marc wear Love out all game, our point guards control the pace, and Wayne Ellington comes off the bench to drop 30 revenge points against his former team. In conclusion though, even with the Timberwolves squad at full strength and firing on all cylinders, I don’t see any threat that they pose that we don’t have an adequate answer for, and would be very surprised if they found a way to take the season series from us. Defensively, I don’t think that they have the chops to take us down, but I’d Love to see them try.