By Joey Cavalier
Last season, watching a Timberwolves game was about as fun as stubbing your toe or stepping on a Lego. This season, however, the T-Pups are one of the most exciting squads to watch in the entire NBA. There is something very special going on in the Timberwolves organization. For the first time since Kevin Garnett was regularly dropping F-Bombs (and countless other vulgarities) in the Target Center, the (quickly growing) fan base is buzzing with optimism.
Although there have been a ton of positive developments with this team, there have been a fair share of disappointments as well.
Let's break down “the good" and “the ugly” through 14 games.
The speculation that Ricky Rubio’s game wouldn’t translate to the NBA can be put to rest. Some rubes loved to point out the “fact” that Rubio’s game was “regressing” in Europe. Yet, Rubio has been spectacular for the Timberwolves, and he looks like a savvy veteran in the heat of the game. Rubio ranks 7th in the league in assists (8.3 per game), he is averaging 11 points per game on 40% shooting and he has more steals than any player in the NBA (39). He is also hitting clutch shots when the game is on the line. Rubio is putting the team on his back, and is a top-notch floor general that the Wolves haven’t had in a long, long time. The future is extremely bright for this kid.
Kevin Love has also been terrific. One can even make a case for Love as the NBA’s best power forward. Currently, Love is top-five in scoring (24.06 PPG), top-two in rebounding (14.1 RPG), top-three in efficiency (26.0 EFF), top-three in points/assists/rebounds (with a 39.9 AVG) and is leading the NBA in double-doubles (15). On top of those gaudy numbers, his defense has improved and he is producing in the clutch (e.g. his game-winning three pointer versus the Clippers). Few players in the world can match Love's work ethic, and he's an essential building block for this young team.
Just like it’s weird to see the Wolves with a capable point guard, it is also weird to see the Timberwolves with a coach who knows what he is doing; Kurt Rambis was plain bad, and Rick Adelman is plain good. Adelman is teaching these youngsters how to play basketball, and he's making the right calls late in games. Going from Kurt Rambis to Rick Adelman is like upgrading from a Geo Metro to a Cadillac. Thank you, David Kahn.
Hard work is a necessary ingredient to any successful NBA team, and unlike last year, this squad appears to understand that. Wayne Ellington, Anthony Randolph and Anthony Tolliver have worked extremely hard off the bench, allowing the Wolves to stay competitive while the starters are resting. This trio of subs has provided an offensive punch while putting forth solid defensive effort. Adelman is getting the role players to buy in and work hard. In contrast, Rambis never even defined role players, let alone got them to work hard. The role players for the Wolves have made a huge difference this season.
Last year the Wolves would get blown out on a nightly basis. This season, the Wolves have been competitive in every game. They haven’t lost a game by more than 11 points all year, due largely to their improved defense. Last season, the Wolves allowed an average of 107.71 points per game. This season, the Wolves are only giving up 93.81 points per game. The Wolves could already score, and with their newfound commitment to defense, they can already compete with the top teams in the league.
Wesley Johnson is starting to concern me. He will flash his potential here and there, but then immediately disappear again. The rip on him coming out of Syracuse was that he had already peaked in college. But the Wesley Johnson we are seeing doesn’t look like the Wesley Johnson from Syracuse. He looks timid and tentative when given the ball. You have to wonder if his lack of growth has stemmed from playing out of his natural position (small forward), but regardless, he's been bad. Currently, Wes is averaging 6.12 points per game on 37% shooting (25% from three-point land), and the Wolves simply need more than that from their starting shooting guard.
Many people are quick to defend Michael Beasley because he scores points, but I am not inclined to do so. When Beasley has been on the court this season he has been a selfish black hole of missed shots. Yes he scores points, but he does so in a very inefficient fashion. This is a problem. The more Beasley hogs the ball, the less opportunities Ricky Rubio has to make something happen. Rubio should be given the ball to make plays, not Beasley. The Wolves really need to figure out what to do with Beasley when he returns. I do not believe he is a good fit for this team. I think it is time to see what we can get for him.
Darko Milicic is not your typical draft-lottery bust. He is a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, and hidden in a labyrinth. One minute he is sinking baby-hooks and blocking shots, while the next minute he is getting burnt and chucking the ball against the backboard. I have never seen an NBA player try so hard in the first five minutes of a game, and then just completely check out for the rest of the game. Darko is clearly gifted, but simply doesn’t possess the will to be a solid NBA center. He has had some big games this year (he put up 22 points against DeAndre Jordan recently), but the Wolves will not be able to depend on him for the long term.
An area in which the Wolves have lacked discipline is in their three point shooting. Wolves average 22 three-point attempts per game (4th highest across the league). Obviously, with Ricky Rubio’s dribble penetration, three-point opportunities will be aplenty, but the Wolves need to choose their shots more wisely.
Another area of weakness for the Wolves is their tendency to struggle early in games. The Wolves have stumbled out of the gates in many games, offensively, and have needed to make valiant comebacks. While it’s nice that they are showing an ability to muster a comeback, you do not want them doing that on a nightly basis. They need to shoot better in the first quarter if they want to be a winning team. Also, while the Wolves defense has improved greatly, they are still giving up too many easy buckets early in games. Opposing teams have gotten out to good starts against the Wolves, and the Wolves have lost a lot of close games… You do the math.
All in all, there is a lot to be excited about if you are a Timberwolves fan. Rick Adelman, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love make this team fun to watch. More importantly, not only are the Wolves fun to watch, but they are showing that they have what it takes to be a winning team in this league—something Minnesota fans have longed for since the days of the Big Ticket.