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Timberwolves 2014/15 Outlook

Another rebuild

Wolves logoToday marks day one in the Timberwolves’ latest rebuild. We are not to consider this a full rebuild because Coach, President of Basketball Operations and part-owner Flip Saunders says it isn’t one. He likes to point out that nine players from last year’s team are back. Top-10 NBA star Kevin Love, however, is not.

It’s a rebuild.

Yet there is room for irrational optimism. Saunders did better than could have been expected when forced to trade Love. Andrew Wiggins is a great prospect and Thaddeus Young is a competent, professional power forward who can step into Love’s spot in the lineup. He is no Kevin Love, but he isn’t Dante Cunningham either.

It is true the Wolves had to take on Anthony Bennett in the trade. He was last year’s surprise number one overall draft pick, but a player who had a historically-bad rookie season (given his top selection).

But let’s put on rose-colored glasses and crank up the irrational optimism.

The roster

PG: Ricky Rubio, Mo Williams, Zach LaVine
SG: Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Shabazz Muhammed
SF: Andrew Wiggins, Corey Brewer, Glenn Robinson III
PF: Thaddeus Young, Anthony Bennett, Robbie Hummel
C: Nikola Pekovic, Georgi Dieng, Roni Turiaf

Laid out as it is above, the roster looks to be more balanced than it actually is. The truth is that Chase Budinger and Shabazz Muhammed are really small forwards (Muhammed may not have a position). Mo Williams will get some run at shooting guard and Zach LaVine probably isn’t ready to play at all, let alone to play the point.

Two of the 15 players will be inactive for each game. When the Wolves are fully healthy these probably should be two of LaVine, Muhammed or Glenn Robinson. But we know Saunders has a lot invested in LaVine and Muhammed, and they will likely get more burn than they deserve. At least until they play themselves out of the rotation.

If the Wolves want to compete, not just develop young players, a trade of Corey Brewer or Muhammed makes a lot of sense. Brewer has more value and might net the Wolves a second round pick or two. If Wiggins contributes and if Budinger continues to look as if he has fully recovered from his knee surgeries, Brewer should be shopped for a professional quality third-string point guard. (He could be traded for a pick; third-string PGs are not hard to find on the waiver wire or in the Development League.)

Irrational optimism

If the Wolves were in the Eastern Conference, I believe they could make the playoffs. Their chances in the Western Conference are slim to none. Closer to none than slim. They need to have a lot of things break their way just to approach last year’s 38-44 mark. But I will put on my rose-colored glasses and paint an irrationally optimistic scenario in which the Wolves finish eighth (last playoff spot) or ninth in the West. Here’s what has to happen:

Ricky RubioWill Rubio make a dramatic improvement with his shot and become the team leader? The Wolves have hired a well-regarded shooting coach, Mike Penberthy, and in a small sample (six preseason games) Rubio shot well. If he can finish at the rim at anywhere close to league average and if he can knock down his jumper consistently enough to make opponents guard him, he can carry this team. Advanced statistics show that he is already a huge plus on both sides of the ball despite his pitifully poor shooting. It is expected that Saunders will give Rubio the keys to the offense in a way that Rick Adelman never did. If this happens and if Rubio stays healthy, plays about 36 minutes a game and shoots slightly below average for an NBA point guard, this team will be fun to watch. It might even win its share of games. Chances Rubio steps up his shooting significantly and takes control of this team: 80%.

Nikola PekovicWill Nikola Pekovic stay healthy and Kevin Martin stay healthy and be effective? Pek and Kmart are this team’s only proven scorers. I suppose Young and Williams qualify as well, so I exaggerate. But Martin will start and has to show that his game has not deteriorated much (some is inevitable) and Pek-and-roll is going to be bread-and-butter for this team. At best, the Timberwolves will feature a lot of guys who struggle to get their own shot and will be streaky from outside. Without a solid 18 points a game from each Martin and Pekovic, this will not be a competitive team. The emergence of Georgi Dieng may allow the Wolves to limit Pek’s minutes. If so, maybe he will stay healthy. Martin is fragile and hope for good luck is all we can cling to. Chances Pekovic and Martin both play 70 or more games: 50%.

Will Young and Bennett be serviceable at the power forward spot? We know Young is a competent player. He is undersized at the position, though, and no better as a rim protector than was Love. He does not rebound well at all. Bennett, on the other hand, was terrible as a rookie last year. Lots of excuses have been made: injury, out of shape because of the injury, bruised confidence, sleep apnea and more. Moreover, Cleveland tried to make him into a small forward (he is less of a small forward than Derrick Williams). I’m starting to believe there may be some validity to these excuses. He certainly looked like a player in the preseason. Chances Young/Bennett are an average PF rotation this year: 65%.

Is Wiggins is the real deal and will he be in the conversation for rookie of the year? He seems to have all of the tools and has the ability to be a plus defender as a rookie. Offensively, he is unpolished but capable. It is very rare for even the best of rookies to have much of a positive impact. Can he? Chances Wiggins outplays last year’s Brewer: 50%.

Chase BudingerIs Budinger healthy and is he the player we thought he was when the Wolves traded for him? He looked good in the preseason. If this wasn’t a mirage, he should play 25 minutes a night off of the bench. Disturbingly, it seems that Saunders may not be sold on him. He could be the wing traded instead of Brewer. To be successful, though, the Wolves will need his ability to spread the floor. Chances Budinger plays regular minutes and shoots 35% or better on threes: 50%.

Will we see significantly better bench play? Budinger and Bennett I have already mentioned. They certainly should outplay last year’s Alexey Shved and Cunningham. Williams is a lock to outplay JJ Barea. Dieng made strides at the end of last season, but is still a weak defender in the post. He needs to improve, but there is reason to hope that he will. Brewer, if he sticks around, will create some havoc for the second unit of opposing teams. More havoc than he creates for his own team? Hard to say. Chances this year’s bench is better than last year’s are the same as the chances that we will see no more of Barea: 100%.

Can Saunders get the most out of this team? I hated it when he hired himself. But, other than George Karl (a coach I did not want for this team), I’m not sure there were great options available and interested in signing on at a time when the Love situation was up in the air. Saunders wanted to hire Memphis coach (and a protege of sorts) Dave Joerger. I think he still does and assumes that he will be available within a couple of years (Memphis’s owner is a flake); Fred Hoiberg is another target (I hope). I’m starting to come around to the idea that Saunders will be a good coach for this young squad this year. Certainly he will be more engaged than last year’s mailing-it-in Coach Adelman. He must show, however, that he is willing to adapt to a game that has changed since he had success a long time ago (in NBA terms). Chances Saunders gets the most out of this team: 70%.

Irrational prediction

Somebody will be this year’s Phoenix Suns. Why not the Timberwolves? If everything I am irrationally optimistic about above breaks Minnesota’s way, this team could knock on the door of the playoffs. This means 40 to 44 wins and just shy of the last playoff spot in the West. Book it. Just don’t bet real money.

Rational prediction

The young pups
The team will be a lot of fun to watch this year. At times. Even LaVine will have some moments. The team may lead the league in steals and it will dunk the ball spectacularly. (It will probably be out-rebounded just about every night.) The roster is filled with the type of players it is easy to root for.

But if Saunders insists on giving LaVine significant minutes, and if Muhammed takes minutes from Budinger, “fun” may be the last word long-suffering Wolves fans will use to describe the year.

What I expect is 33 wins and the sense that this franchise is headed in the right direction.

We will see starting tonight.

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