If you've read an NBA Season Preview by any nationally syndicated columnist, you've already been informed that the Minnesota Timberwolves are in for another rough season. Such an outlook would no-doubt have called the Wolves bottom feeders, a team in turmoil, and hopelessly overmatched, before going on to deride a team that drafted for need rather than talent, undervalued their existing assets by failing to maximize their trade value, and offered multi-year contracts to or traded for long-decided draft busts. Such is the NBA's National Beat Writer's Cliff's Notes version of a 15-win Midwest basketball squad. But for any fan who (reads this blog or) has watched the Timberwolves go from within one Sam Cassell injury from the NBA Finals to today's group of Kindercore Cast-offs has seen its teams in various states of turmoil, malaise, and, last year, overmatched hopelessness. This version of the Wolves isn't any of them. Let me explain...
Out: Ramon Sessions
In: Luke Ridnour
If your squad runs an egalitarian offense like the triangle, you need space to create passing and driving lanes. If you want to create space, you need shooters. Ramon Sessions made 1-15 three point attempts all of last year. A shooter, he was not. Luke Ridnour's attempts numbered 69-181, good for 44th in the league at 38%. It is beyond safe to say that Sessions, though a good player, was never a great fit. The fact Ridnour was considered a potential target of another squad who runs a notably successful version of the triangle in Los Angeles speaks volumes to the value of this upgrade.
Out: Damien Wilkins
In: Martell Webster
Similar to Sessions, with his 61 attempted threes last year, Damien Wilkins found creative ways to turn down open perimeter jumpers and drive into traffic. Martell Webster is a former #6 pick out of high school who has been alternately spoon fed and crowded out of playing time for the Portland Trail Blazers. Starting, backup, shooting guard or small forward; no matter the role Webster eventually falls into, he is an upgrade over the steady handed but ultimately non-threatening Wilkins. His 332 three point attempts last season show his bashfulness from behind the arc will not be an issue and his youtube highlight reels show Corey Brewer will no longer be the only player capable of throwing down a dunk in traffic. A definite upgrade in shooting and athletic ability.
Out: Oleksiy Pecherov
In: Nikola Pekovic
Comparisons between last year's undersized-at-center, logjammed-at-power-forward frontcourt and this year's euro-centered, logjammed-at-power-forward version don't start or end with Oleksiy Pecherov's list of accomplishments or expectations. Both were light and tended to throw up threes way early in the shot clock. Nikola Pekovic carries significantly more weight and is the first legitimate bruiser the Wolves have rostered since Tom Hammonds left to play with racecars. No more will Shaq or Dwight Howard force the Wolves to dust off a seldom-seen big from their bench, carrying per-game averages of 1.8/2.3 point and rebounds, whose job exists for the sole purpose of that night's contest being on the schedule. Pekovic will already be in the Wolves frontcourt mix and he will happily meet another team's bigs in the middle.
Out: Ryan Hollins
In: Darko Milicic
Starting centers for the Wolves historically have the lowest expectations of any local sports position short of Joe Mauer's backup. There simply are no requirements beyond place holding. The spectacular running and leaping of UCLA track star Ryan Hollins lent itself to highlight reel alley-oops, follow-up dunks, even the occasional blocked shot. His athletic ability allowed him to recover quickly enough that you (and possibly he) never realized how out of position he was to begin with. Hollins' eternal surprise of uncontested players driving towards his defensive position and his delayed reaction to defend that position was the Wolves interior defense's gift that just kept giving last season. Interior defense is by no means a one man job, but after ceding playing time to Darko Milicic late last season it was plain to see what a properly positioned center could do to improve a Wolves defense that still had many, many other problems. Milicic's signing has been pointed to as an example of foolhardy contracts signed this summer, but the going rate for competent middle men in their mid-twenties is what it is. Darko is it now and has the untapped potential to be more, still. Stop laughing, you'll see.
Out: Ryan Gomes
In: Michael Beasley
Ryan Gomes is the definition of a glue guy, the doer of little things, and many should be sad to see him go. Like mortar to bricks, those little things don't add up to much if the building blocks aren't in place to be held together in the first place. Gomes' biggest contributions would fall under the category "court awareness." His ability to create space and to cover for teammates are great characteristics to have, but not if those teammates aren't worth the space created for them -- meaning they can't do much with it. Michael Beasley has the potential to be one of those building blocks. After playing in the shadow of his own off-court shenanigans and the league's premier 0-guard, Dwyane Wade, Beasley is a prime candidate to break out and showcase the scoring ability that made him the #2 overall pick in 2008.
So before seeing the turnover and calling it turmoil, take a look at what's taking shape. This offseason, the Wolves replaced a lot of mismatched personnel with more capable shooters to stretch the triangle wider, more athletic slashers to exploit that space and get out in the open foor and longer, more bruising bangers to anchor down low. Sounds to me like the forecast calls for a more competitive season with a chance to watch some kids come into their own.