The Timberwolves have been in playoff exile ever since we learned Latrell Sprewell can't even provide food for his family while making in excess of $7 million a year. Methinks we can all agree this exile is the result of the bumbling inadequacies of Kevin McHale. By second guessing himself when it came to Sprewell and Cassell and deciding not to pay them - certainly he must have understood at the time he traded for them that they were going to want to get paid if they were successful in helping KG lift the team past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history - he set the stage for the dismantling of a championship caliber team [many people believe that if Sam Cassell was healthy for the Lakers series the Wolves would have represented the Western Conference in the Finals - but I am not one of those people].
Kahn and Rambis envision a running style of play as the primary weapon on offense to be complemented by a read and react, motion offense (the triangle) when they get in the half-court. In order to be successful in the running game, the defense needs to create steals, rebound well, and make quick, crisp outlet passes off of the rebounds and steals.
Much to the chagrin of some former Timberwolves players, such as Al Jefferson, Rashad McCants, and Sam Cassell, just to name a few, basketball isn't solely about offense and you need to be able to stop opposing teams from scoring in order to win games. This off-season has been full of moves that have been geared towards stopping opponents from scoring: drafting Johnson instead of Cousins, trading Luke Babbit for Webster, re-signing Milicic.
Understanding what it is that they want to do to win games, I believe Rambis wants to see the following:
From his Power Forward and Center: help defense, weak-side shot blocking, defensive rebounding, outlet passing, offensive put-backs, and overall offensive awareness to facilitate passing from the high and low posts.
From his Shooting Guard and Small Forward: one-on-one perimeter defense, quick defensive rotations on the perimeter, steals, breakout speed, the ability/know-how/awareness to fill the lanes during fast-break opportunities, and perimeter shooting.
From his Point Guard: be the first man back on defense, one-on-one perimeter defense, quick defensive rotations on the perimeter, steals, the ability to orchestrate the fast break, and perimeter shooting.
So let's examine some of the combinations of players we're going to be playing this season and analyze their strengths and weaknesses.
Milicic and Love: this should be our starting unit at the center and power forward. Milicic is a decent help defender and weak-side shot blocker. He's a little underwhelming on the glass, but his outlet passing is respectable. He's not going to score much on put-backs or when he's got the ball in the low post, but he's a good passer and for a big guy his court vision is pretty good as well. Love leaves something to be desired as a help defender and shot blocker. His defensive rebounding is stellar, as is his outlet passing. He'll hit some shots in the rhythm of the offense without dominating the ball like Al Jefferson did. He's a fantastic offensive rebounder and will score a lot of put-backs. His passing skills and court vision are also excellent for a player of his size. This will most likely be our most effective front court tandem as both players cover up for the weaknesses of the other.
Milicic and Beasley: when these two are on the court together I suspect the opposition will score a little bit more than when Love is teamed with Milicic. Beasley is a bit undersized and plays a little smaller than he is on top of it. He has superior athleticism when compared to Love, but the question will always be whether he will be able to use that to his advantage on the defensive end. His instincts seem to take him in the wrong direction at times. He should be able to provide better help defense than Love at least, but at the expense of giving up some of the rebounds that Love would gobble up. On the offensive end of the floor he seems like he'll be able to team up even better with Milicic than Love does because he's more of a slasher and dribble driver than Love is. All in all this pair should hold their own.
Milicic and Pekovic: this pairing will probably only be used sparingly simply because we're going to be relying on Pekovic to backup Milicic. Pekovic is going to make Love look like an excellent help defender and weak-side shot blocker by comparison. The guy has little to no vision when it comes to defense, and his rebounding skills are simply unpolished. I suspect it will take him a couple years of working with NBA coaches in order to get to a point where he averages even 6 rebounds a game in starter's minutes. He'll look like a complete beast on the offensive end of the floor though. His knowledge of offensive spacing and passing lanes is top-notch; however, it's geared toward having the ball passed to him and ensuring open space for others rather than creating plays by passing to others. Unlike Jefferson though, he's not a ball stopper on offense - he lets the game come to him. He also runs the floor well for a man his size and will look excellent on the secondary break. When the two Euro bigs are together on the floor our wings will have to help out on the defensive rebounding much more, thereby limiting the amount of fast break points we'll see. This pairing will most likely only be used sparingly, and it's a good thing that it will be.
Pekovic and Love: intuitively this would seem like a great pairing because one doesn't rebound very well and the other does, and one doesn't bang in the post very well while the other one does. I'm concerned about the complete absence of help defense and weak-side shot blocking when these two are on the floor. All of Love's rebounds will be prevented from leading to fast break points if Brewer and Johnson have to leave their assignments to try to protect the rim the entire time these two are together on the floor. Even though the offense will probably run incredibly well in the half-court when these guys are together, I don't want to get too excited over their pairing because of the matador defense they've shown.
Pekovic and Beasley: this pairing should be able to provide a slight upgrade over Pekovic and Love on the defensive side of the ball. The trouble will be that the opposing team will see a lot of second chance points against them, and our running game will slow down because the wings will need to stay back to help rebound. On the offensive side, these two should be able to play really well off of each other. Pekovic knows how to seal off his man to prevent him from protecting the rim. Beasley should get plenty of baskets when playing opposite Pekovic. And Beasley has never really been a low-post banger in the NBA, so he'll be happy to let Pekovic work his magic down low.
Johnson and Webster: both of these guys can fill it up from long range. Both can run the floor pretty well also. Webster has a reputation for solid perimeter defense, and Johnson has a knack for getting his hands on the ball whether it is in the form of a steal or a block. Unfortunately neither guy is much of a slasher, and they both have trouble creating their own shots. Don't look for these guys to be able to break down a defender and get to the rim or to the free throw line. Rotation defense might be a little bit of an issue for Webster, but Johnson knows how to do it because of all the time he spent in that Syracuse zone during practice. I believe this will most likely be our starting tandem on the wing and we'll see a lot of them together.
Johnson and Brewer: ridiculous length and athleticism on the perimeter. Between the two of these guys they should be able to make up for a lot of the mistakes on defense with their weak-side shot blocking. Like Johnson, Brewer knows how to rotate defensively and he's a pretty good rebounder. These two will run the floor like gazelles on the fast break and get a lot of easy flushes. Brewer's shot is improving, but it still has a long way to go. Brewer's been in the offense for a year now so he should be comfortable this season. But again, neither of these guys is someone I'm comfortable giving the ball to when we absolutely need a basket.
Brewer and Webster: on the defensive end I feel like Brewer and Johnson will be more or less interchangeable. Brewer is more of a slasher on offense though, and I feel that will help keep Johnson and Webster open from deep range by taking one rotation defender out of position. As with the previous pairings, neither of these guys is an isolation type go-to scorer.
Beasley and Johnson: when Beasley is being defended by a smaller player he should be able to score pretty much at will. He won't run the floor as well as the other guys, but he probably makes up for it by being that go-to type scorer we seem to lack with the other combinations on the wing. The benefit of playing Beasley on the wing is that even if he gets burned by a smaller, quicker player there will be two big men behind him to protect the rim. Unfortunately, only one of our big men other than him plays any real help defense or protects the rim. At least when he's teamed with Johnson (or Brewer) someone other than Milicic may be able cover for him after he gets torched. Johnson's shooting stroke will look nice opposite Beasley on the offensive end. This may be our best pairing on the wing at the end of a close game.
Beasley and Brewer: I don't like the pairing of these two on the offensive end. Beasley is a take it to the hole kind of scorer and Brewer isn't much of an outside shooter. I feel like they'll get in each others way a little bit. But at least with this pairing Brewer will be around to help erase some of Beasley's defensive lapses.
Beasley and Webster: what we gain on the offensive end of the floor having Webster playing instead of Brewer will likely be offset on the defensive end because Webster won't be able to help out quite as much. Altogether not a bad combination though.
I believe Ellington is still another year away from getting significant minutes. Although I do like the attitude we saw him exhibit during summer league. If he continues to work towards being able to create his own shot at will, he could grow into being that go-to scorer this team will need come crunch time.
As for everyone's favorite Timberwolves player, Cap Space, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that we trade him around the deadline for Ben Gordon. Gordon fits the description of a go-to scorer in crunch time, and he'll be alright with coming off the bench. After all, he's been doing it for most of his career even when his team really had nobody in front of him. I don't like his contract, but I think he's going to be the best guy available to us at the deadline. There may be better players available, but I don't think there will be one that fits our team and its needs better than Ben Gordon does.
As far as my prediction for how many games the Wolves will win this year, I'll say 28. 28-54 accounts for the upgrade in talent and athleticism, while still remaining realistic about the struggles the team will have winning close games and the subconscious desire to have a bad enough record to keep our first round pick from being shipped off to the Clippers as one last reminder of McHale's bumbling.