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Enemy: Minnesota Timberwolves
3SOB Forecast*: 39-43

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn / US Presswire

What’s the story in the Twin Cities?

A member of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ organization must have punched a mirror, walked under a ladder, seen a black cat, left their keys on the table, or something of the sort, because they were at the hands of Murphy’s law to the fullest extent in 2012-13.

Still looking for their first above .400 season since Kevin Garnett laced up his Minnesota blue kicks — let that sink in for a moment — the Wolves were primed as the next big media darling, projected to finally take the leap back to the playoff discussion.

Instead, they met the ugly fate of disappointment, in large part thanks to the loss of this generation’s franchise Kevin, Kevin Love, for the majority of the season due to a twice-broken right hand and a troubling knee problem that ultimately required surgery. As a result, Wolves fans were forced to see a lot more of Derrick Williams and former Grizzlies’ fan favorite Dante Cunningham, than they likely ever wanted to.

Love was not alone in the Minnesota pool of poor fortunes, though. Ace point guard Ricky Rubio struggled mightily to reacquaint himself to the NBA grind after missing the first month and a half of the season with the tail end of an ACL injury. Additionally, the team gambled on the knees of Brandon Roy last summer; and lost, free agent acquisition Chase Budinger tore his meniscus just seven games into his debut season with the Wolves, and big man Nikola Pekovic was sidelined with a strained abdomen and contused calf, among other things, at different points throughout the year. Heck, even Coach Rick Adelman had to disappear for eleven games, while tending to his ailing wife.

Their luck continued into the off-season, when Swiss (or should I say Russian) army knife forward Andrei Kirilenko decided to bolt via free agency to a team that will pay him less than a third of what his contract in the Twin Cities was primed to write his check for. He was replaced on the roster this summer by the equally lengthy and comparably defensively proficient Corey Brewer. Brewer is a bit more limited on the offensive end, but will wear out the welcome of a green light to shoot, if given the liberty.

If there is a silver lining to the outlook, it is rooted in two things: 1) belief in reversion to the mean, in that luck will sway back to their favor, that those whom are finally healthy will stay healthy, and 2) the fact that they were able to resolve the contract dispute with Pekovic. The five-year $60 million contract that the Serbian monster was locked into may turn out a bit steep, but for the time being it is important that management does whatever it can to prove a commitment to winning for not only the sake of it’s fans, but to keep Love and Rubio happy — and present — for as long as it can.

Who are they cooking with?

PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Kevin Martin
SF: Chase Budinger
PF: Kevin Love
C : Nikola Pekovic
6 : Shabazz Muhammad

Even though the landscape of the roster remains largely the same as last season, the fact that the Timberwolves’ cornerstones Rubio and Love spent an entirety of three games on the court together makes the overall team performance statistics provide a pretty inconclusive look into the future. As such, we are limited to a more traditional analysis of the roster going forward.

It would seem fitting then, to begin with Rubio and Love.

Rubio continued to pass the ball well in 2012-13, but with a revolving door of a supporting cast, was exposed for the weak scoring and shooting weapon that he is. His shot chart was basically dreadful from anywhere other than the corners — a place where a point guard with the ball in his hands at most times rarely finds himself the opportunity to camp out. His most trusted running mate on in the backcourt for much of the year was Russian rookie Alexey Shved, who had his moments as a potential dynamite scorer, but on the whole maintained a turbulent 37.2% field goal percentage on the season.

Love played a meager eighteen games last year, but in his limited sample showed his continued ability to be an animal on the glass, with a rebound rate rivaled only by Reggie Evans (23.3% of missed shots). To the contrary, his shooting numbers were far off-base, at an abysmal 35.2%, but I would opt not to put much stake into it, as he was never really able to settle in.

The also-returning Pekovic is likely to be a major determinant of the team’s success in his own right. Pek caught the league by surprise in 2011-12, but opposing defenses were sure to have him on the scouting report last season. Combine that with the lack of Love, and his scoring efficiency dipped a little, but he still continued to improve his game in other aspects. His turnover ratio, rebound rate, and propensity towards fouls are still all trending in the right direction, and he boasted a strong PER of 20.26.

Of the newcomers, lifetime Grizzly killer achievement award winner Kevin Martin stands out as the guy that can change the game for the Wolves. He may not be a go-to scorer anymore, and the tightening on the refs to swallow their whistles on the rip move has neutered his ability to draw trips to the stripe, but his automatic shooting ability does not figure to leave him any time soon. This alone will make him a very welcomed and dangerous target for Rubio to dish to on the perimeter. Martin will also be re-united with Coach Adelman in Minnesota, who presided over his most productive years as a scorer in Houston.

He’ll be joined on the wings by offensive-oriented rookie Shabazz Muhammad, who arrived at UCLA as a lock at the top of the draft, but saw his stock drop mightily when he was no longer a dramatic physical mismatch for the opposition in college.

How do the good guys stack up?

Photo: Nikki Boertman / Commercial Appeal

Josh Coleman

If if if. That was the story for Minnesota last year…and it remains the dominant theme heading into this year. If they can stay healthy, and if Rick Adelman can mold them the way he has other squads in the past, and if the Rubio/Love pairing can live up to their incredible potential. Honestly, the Timberwolves were one of my favorite League Pass teams last season before the injuries took their toll and ultimately derailed them.

The Timberwolves are another team that match up well with Memphis in terms of personnel. Love/Pek are right there with ZBo/Marc in every way. Conley vs. Rubio is the stuff video games are made of. The T’Wolves lone weakness is a questionable bench, although they have certainly improved that area this offseason. With four games slated, we will get a chance to see how they compare to one of the elite teams in the West. I think their talent level is enough to net them one win at of the two home games, possibly even both of them. I’ll say the Grizzlies go 3-1 in this series.

Lee Eric Smith:

On paper, the Timberwolves pose a significant threat to the Bears of Beale Street. As always, the Kevin Love/Zach Randolph matchup will be worth the price of admission by itself. Then again, so would Ricky Rubio/Mike Conley. And Nicola Pekovic won’t be bullied around by Marc Gasol either. Meanwhile the Wolves have also landed Kevin Martin from Houston and he almost always gives the Grizz headaches. And with guys like Corey Brewer and Derrick Williams on the wings, the Wolves squad is deep, and well-coached by Rick Adelman.

Every year, it seems like there’s a team that is the proverbial “better than their record,” and it feels like this year it’ll be the T-Wolves — always in the game right down to the end. The proverbial “fighting for a lower seed” in the Wild, Wild West, but would have home court in the East. I think this matchup will come down to a handful of possessions, and tough defense. Assuming everyone stays healthy, I see a series split, 2-2.

Mark Remme (of the Minnesota Timberwolves):

Now entering their third year under coach Rick Adelman, the Wolves are finally hoping a more traditional, non-injury plagued season has arrived. In his first year, Adelman had the Wolves eighth in the West before Ricky Rubio tore his ACL in March. Last year the team lost 341 man games to injury—including a combined 123 for Kevin Love and Chase Budinger and 43 more for Rubio and Nikola Pekovic. But this offseason was tailored toward regaining health and reloading talent.

Love was at full strength and resumed basketball activities by June. The Wolves hired the franchises’ all-time winningest coach, Flip Saunders, as their President of Basketball Operations in May, and he proceeded to balance the roster by dealing for shooting guard Kevin Martin, signing Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer and adding veteran depth in the front court with Ronny Turiaf. And in mid-August, they re-signed Pekovic to a contract that ensures they’ll have a bruising force in the paint for the foreseeable future—the perfect complement playing alongside Love, a double-double machine who can score both inside and beyond the arc. Aside from injuries, Minnesota’s biggest trouble last year came on the perimeter. Defensively they were undersized—point guard Luke Ridnour, traded to Milwaukee as part of the Martin deal, was their most used starting 2-guard—and offensively they were statistically the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the league over the past 10 years. Adding Martin coupled with Love and Budinger’s health should help beyond the arc. After missing the playoffs for nine straight years, the Wolves expect 2013-14 to be the year they return to the postseason. If this team stays healthy, that’s certainly an attainable goal.

When and Where do they square off?

December 15th: 5:00PM at the FedEx Forum
January 31st: 7:00PM at the Target Center
March 24th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
April 2nd: 7:00PM at the Target Center

For more Timberwolves content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at A Wolf Among Wolves.

*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.

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