Can the Wolves make it to Christmas?

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

A look at if the Timberwolves can survive life without Love long enough to make the playoffs

Remember the days when the only players we had injured were our draftees in their second years? Good times. Sure miss them.

True to form, The Wolves once again lost a sophomore for the better part of his season: Ricky Rubio will be out until January....at least....following in the sad, ironic footsteps of Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, and Jonny Flynn.

But did he have to take Love down with him?

Ok fine, those things aren't actually related in any way except freakish coincidence, but it sure makes a blogger long for the days when Puppy wounds were contained and predictable. After spending the last three months wondering if notoriously brittle players like Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko would be healthy for the season, it's something of a kick for Rubio and Love to be the two guys who are actually out.

The Wolves went into this season with one goal and one goal only: make the playoffs. But now they're going to have to start that journey without their top two players, in a conference (and especially a division) that is flooded with quality talent.

So what next? Well, I don't know about the Timberwolves, since they're run by this Adelman guy who's not me. But here on Hoopus, we're going to do what we always do when faced with outlandishly absurd circumstances that can only be accurately described as the darkest possible timeline....


....we're going to try and predict the future to find a silver lining that could possibly make us feel better about ourselves.

SO....

The Distance: Christmas

Chances are Love will be back a little before them, but for the sake of simplicity...and to hedge the bets safely...we'll write down Christmas as the date we'll have to survive without him. That's 26 games...a full 1/3rd of the season.

The Mark: 16-10

Last year, Utah made the 8th seed in the west with a record of 36-30. That's 45-37 over a full 82 game season, and the West has only gotten stronger this year. The 8th seed will probably make it with an actual record of slightly less, but I think 49 wins is the mark that you have to aim for to safely say you'll be in.

For reference, every west 8th seed since 2002 has had to win at least 42 games to get in, including a couple staggering years where the number was a lot higher. In 2008, the Nuggets had to win 50 games to make the playoffs, which was a record that had to be repeated in 2010 by the Thunder.

49 wins. The Wolves have only reached that mark four time in team history, and those were all Kevin Garnett-led squads. This year, they'll have to do it led by two guys who haven't made the NBA playoffs ever, and who won't be back until at least Christmas.

Should probably start making those ground rules for the Alexey in Space drinking game. We might need it by the end of this one.

Proportionally speaking (an imperfect metric, but as good a one we'll get without Ms. Cleo the Psychico) the Wolves will need to win 16 of their 26 pre-Christmas contests to stay on track for a 49 win season.

The Team:

Like Abed Nadir, I mainly see the world through the lens of pop culture references I can associate with it. Unfortunately, unlike Abed Nadir, I am not a human supercomputer. Therefore, I've decided to do the Troy thing and cry...


....uhhhh, I mean...

I'm going to split this into four, somewhat broad and easily understandable groups: teams the Wolves should beat (category 4s), teams the Wolves can beat (category 3s), teams the Wolves will really struggle to beat (category 2s) and teams the Wolves have no chance against (category 1s).

Here's your reference sheet. This weapon is now your life. Memorize it. Love it. Never let the changling shoot it out of your hand as you try and slice the ceiling off her flying car. Yeah.

Player Nikola Pekovic Dante Cunningham Chase Budinger Andrei Kirilenko Luke Ridnour Brandon Roy Alexey Shved Derrick Williams JJ Barea
WS/48 .170 .147 .111 .109 .090 .077 .060 .059 .056
PER 21.4 14.9 14.9 16.6 13.6 13.9 13 12.9 14.9

I went with the 9 guys I think are going to see rotation minutes on a regular basis until Love returns. A couple guys, like Steimsma and Amundson, can make solid contributions when they play, but I didn't get the indication from Adelman's preseason rotations that either will see big minutes.

A couple wild cards are in the mix still.

Kirilenko's and Roy's numbers are from two seasons ago, as neither played in the NBA last year. Further, AK-47's were, I believe, skewed down artificially by the Deron Williams/Jerry Sloan thing that blew up on Utah mid-season (always a challenge when the head coach and roster drastically changes), and Roy's reflect his state as basically half a player, because of his injury. Three seasons ago (the last 'normal' season for them both) Kirilenko was at a .171 WS/48 and 18 PER, Roy posted a .180 WS/48 and a PER of 21.

Kirilenko I think can get close to that form....probably in the .15 WS/48 and 18 PER range. He doesn't appear to have lost much....if anything, the season away from the NBA seems to have helped him. Roy, though unlikely to be back to an All Star level of playing, can probably hit at least the league averages of .1 WS/48 and 15 PER, provided he stays healthy.

Also, Pekovic will probably be markedly better than even this, considering that last year's numbers were dragged down artificially by the fact he was only getting token playing time for the first 4 weeks of last season. You can probably expect him to be more of a .2 WS/48 and 23-24 PER guy this season.

And finally, Shved's numbers are a best guess based on looking at the figures of other Euro players with roughly the same position and playing style. Guys like Goran Dragic and Juan Carlos Navarro. He's maybe the wildest of the wild cards, because whereas Kirilenko and Roy have to be viewed as hopefully not bad, Shved is most accurately viewed as potentially very good.

That said, if you account for the fact that the average WS/48 is .100, and the average PER is 15, you immediately notice (per the chart) that the Wolves, sans-Love and sans-Rubio, are basically only fielding two guys who are markedly above average in even just one of the categories, and only one of those guys is going to be playing starter minutes. That's rough. That makes staying afloat a rather daunting prospect.

The Competition:

Minnesota plays 22 different teams in the 26 games between now and Christmas. Again, I've gone with the 9 players on each roster most likely to play impact minutes for their respective team.

A # means that player missed last season, so I've used the last full season he played in the NBA.

A player with - in his columns is a rookie.

The teams are:

Sacramento - 2 games

Player Isaiah Thomas Jason Thompson DeMarcus Cousins Marcus Thornton James Johnson Tyreke Evans Aaron Brooks# Jimmer Fredette Thomas Robinson
WS/48 .124 .114 .104 .103 .070 .059 .040 .012 .-
PER 17.4 16.4 21.7 17.4 14.5 16.4 13.2 10.8 -

Well, by the charts, the Kings' best player is a 5'9" point guard selected 60th overall in his draft. Not a great place to start.

But they also have a lot more guys with above-average PER than the Wolves, with one in particular (Cousins) who could potentially dominate the paint every bit as well as Pekovic. They've also got some pretty good wings in Thornton and Evans (when he remembers basketball is a team sport, not a one-man-army kamikaze mission). Sacramento is fairly top-heavy, with a lot of good players vying for burn at just two positions (even if you don't count Robinson, who will play a lot), so Thornton is a big key for them. But they are most certainly, at the least, on par with our diminished Puppy squad.

Cat 3.

Toronto - 1 game

Player Kyle Lowry Jose Calderon Amir Johnson Ed Davis Andrea Bargnani Landry Fields Linas Kleiza DeMar DeRozan Jonas Valanciunas
WS/48 .157 .136 .122 .121 .104 .085 .066 .054 -
PER 18.9 16.7 14.4 14.2 17.9 12.0 12.4 12.8 -

Well, the Raptors' best two players play the same position. And Amir Johnson and Ed Davis basically do the same thing and split backup 4 duties evenly, so you can effectively consider them one single player at this point.

In terms of going up against the Wolves, they have a huge advantage in the tornado known as Kyle Lowry, and Bargnani could potentially be a lot of trouble if his shots are falling. Valanciunas has shown he'll be at least a competent NBA center who will really rebound, but he's not at a point where he'll be very effective containing Pek yet. But between Lowry and Bargnani, they're in the Wolves' orbit.

Cat 3.

Brooklyn - 1 game

Player Joe Johnson Kris Humphries Gerald Wallace Brook Lopez# CJ Watson Deron Williams Josh Childress Andray Blatche Marshon Brooks
WS/48 .145 .118 .113 .105 .101 .099 .092 .053 .022
PER 18.4 17.9 17.2 19.3 13.3 20.3 11.1 16.9 12.9

Like Toronto, the Nets have a big, big advantage at point guard with Deron Williams (who's WS/48 I'd expect to rise back to near his Utah level...something around .150 or so) Unfortunately for 'Sota, they have a big advantage in a lot of other places as well.

A healthy Lopez can more or less play Pek to a standstill, and the Wolves' collection of 3s and 4s will have to really battle to keep from being overwhelmed on the glass by Crash and Kris Kardashian. And that still doesn't yet address having to deal with Joe Johnson.

Yeah. Cat 2.

Orlando - 2 games

Player JJ Redick Aaron Afflalo Jameer Nelson Al Harrington Hedo Turkoglu Ish Smith Glen Davis Moe Harkless Nikola Vucevic
WS/48 .142 .121 .099 .088 .060 .060 .057 - -
PER 15.1 14.7 14.6 15.3 11.7 13.1 13.2 - -

Our Nikola beats their Nikola.

Yeah....only way Orlando can win is if Big Baby goes off, or Derrick Williams lets Al Harrington use him like a turnstile again. Neither is likely to happen with Adelman around to monitor things.

Cat 4.

Indiana - 1 game

Player Danny Granger Roy Hibbert George Hill Paul George David West Ian Mihimni Tyler Hansbrough Gerald Green DJ Augustin
WS/48 .155 .154 .152 .148 .147 .144 .129 .072 .018
PER 18.6 19.3 15.7 16.5 17.8 13.5 14.7 15.8 14.1

Even if Granger is still out by this game, Indiana has the Pups fairly outmatched across the board. Every rotation player is above or just barely below the average PER, and they all, except for Green and Augustin, are well above the average WS/48.

The only advantage is Pek, but when he's going up against a guy who's 7'2", 280 lbs with pterodactyl arms, even that becomes a battle. They aren't completely unbeatable, but they're above the Wolves' level.

Cat 2.

Chicago - 1 game

Player Joakim Noah Carlos Boozer Taj Gibson Luol Deng Nate Robinson Rip Hamilton Nazr Mohammed Marco Belinelli Kirk Hinrich
WS/48 .223 .187 .167 .132 .111 .092 .090 .072 .063
PER 19.6 19.7 16.9 14.1 18.0 13.2 11.0 11.9 12.3

Hinrich played last season, but was recoving from a torn labium, so I went with his 2010-2011 season instead.

The bad news is, even without Rose, the Bulls have us statistically trumped. The good news is the numbers there don't necessarily translate to production on any given night, particularly when they're missing their point guard and best player. Noah does a lot of stuff on the court, but he's not a scoring threat and he'll be battling Pek. Boozer has wildly inconsistent performances, where he's sometimes just inexplicably bad, and Gibson's no more of a scoring threat than Noah.

Without Rose, the Bulls are pretty weak on the wings. They'll battle it out on defense like always, but as long as Minny can effectively keep Boozer in check, Chicago is beatable. There's just not much firepower here.

Cat 3.

Dallas - 2 games

Player Brandan Wright Dirk Nowitzki Elton Brand Darren Collison OJ Mayo Roddy Beaubois Shawn Marion Vince Carter Chris Kaman
WS/48 .215 .175 .168 .098 .094 .092 .092 .090 .024
PER 21.6 21.7 18.0 13.6 14.7 15.3 15.0 13.6 15.3

I have no idea what to make of this.

For starters, Brandan Wright is not better than Dirk. He played signifcant enough minutes for those to not be freakish outliers, but yeah...that makes him look like Kevin Love. He's not Kevin Love.

Second, Dirk will miss our first tilt with them, but will probably play in the second. That obviously drastically changes the outlook.

Third, I don't know what to do with Roddy. Those numbers are from 2 years ago, and even that was only a partial season. He's healthy again now, but hasn't shown anything even remotely close to even that level yet. So subjectively speaking, it might be most practical to just wipe it all out and treat him like a rookie.

Finally, Kaman's WS/48 is abnormally low, because New Orleans was just that bad. He contributes more than that indicates.

Gut feeling: Dallas without Dirk is beatable. Dallas with Dirk, not so much. So....

Cat 2.5....?

Charlotte - 1 game

I'm not even going to bother charting this one. If you can't beat the Bobcats, you might as will give up on the season now.

Cat 4.

Golden State - 2 games

Player Carl Landry Stephen Curry# Jarret Jack David Lee Andrew Bogut# Brandon Rush Richard Jefferson Klay Thompson Harrison Barnes
WS/48 .139 .128 .119 .113 .112 .099 .085 .050 -
PER 18.2 19.4 17.9 19.7 16.7 15.2 11.1 14.9 -

Curry and Bogut just both played in the Warriors' season opener, so if we go into this assuming they'll both play against us....well, then this gets a lot harder.

Without either of them, the Warriors are 100% beatable. With them, the Warriors more or less wash out our one big advantage and claim a big one of their own.

I still think they're beatable, but they'll be heated contests, with Pek needing to really come through big, and our 3s and 4s needing to battle it out with David Lee. And there's always the danger Curry might go nuts and score like, 40.

Cat 3.

Denver - 2 games

Player Kenneth Faried Kosta Kufos Andre Iguodala Ty Lawson Danilo Gallinari JaVale McGee Corey Brewer Wilson Chandler# Andre Miller
WS/48 .212 .163 .158 .157 .140 .127 .085 .079 .078
PER 21.9 17.3 17.6 19.4 16.5 19.9 13.7 14.6 14.8

This was kind of a hard chart to make, because the Nuggets actually have three more quality players in Anthony Randolph, Jordan Hamilton, and Timofy Mozgov. But...yeah....

Denver has us beat, straight up. The only thing keeping them from being a Cat 1, to me, is that they don't have a consistent, dominant scorer. So on any given night, they're susceptible to a collective bad shooting performance.

Cat 2.

Portland - 1 game

Player LaMarcus Aldridge Nic Batum Jared Jeffries Wes Matthews JJ Hickson Damian Lillard Meyers Leonard No idea... No idea...
WS/48 .169 .127 .109 .104 .066 - - - -
PER 22.7 17.3 10.9 14.1 14.9 - - - -

Lillard will be an average-to-above-average point guard and a dynamic scorer, so expect that. But no doubt, this is a thoroughly beatable team. In terms of established standout production, LMA was the third-highest scorer among power forwards last season, and that's about it.

I also have no clue who the 8 and 9 guys are on this team. Portland crowdsourced everything after Leonard in preseason.

Cat 4.

LA Clippers - 1 game

Player Chris Paul Blake Griffin Chauncey Billups# DeAndre Jordan Matt Barnes Jamal Crawford Caron Butler Grant Hill Lamar Odom
WS/48 .278 .185 .166 .150 .142 .069 .059 .055 .014
PER 27 23.4 18.7 16.4 15.5 15.7 11.7 12.3 9.2

The Clippers have the best point guard on the planet by a wide, wide margin. They also have, with Love out, the NBA's best power forward. And this list leaves out Eric Bledsoe, who will also see big minutes.

Also, I have a feeling Odom will get back to form. His WS/48 and PER last year were by far the worst of his career. Which followed on the heels of his best (.184 and 19.4 respectively) the year before. If he gets back to his Lakers level of around .150 and 17, well...yeah.

But most importantly, an engaged Odom, healthy Billups, and timeless Hill means this team might actually play respectable defense.

They aren't just totally out of our league, because none of them have a prayer of stopping Pek. But they're still close to it.

Cat 2.

Milwaukee - 1 game

Player Ersan Ilyasova Mike Dunleavy Jr Samuel Dalembert Drew Gooden Brandon Jennings Luc Richard Mbah a Moute Monta Ellis Joel Pryzbilla John Henson
WS/48 .184 .146 .137 .116 .114 .112 .059 .034 -
PER 20.5 16.6 16.9 18.8 18.4 13.9 17.5 6 -

The numbers here are a lot less intimidating than they look, because the bulk of this teams points are scored by two of the guys who are the least efficient on the team at scoring them.

Ellis and Jennings make for an interesting long-term story, but it makes them a beatable team in the short term. That, and they don't have anyone to stop Pekovic. Ilyasova could be trouble, but I have faith Adelman can check him by using Kirilenko. The Bucks aren't a team we'll definitely beat, but they certainly aren't a team that will definitely beat us.

Cat 3.

Philadelphia - 1 game

Player Andrew Bynum Thad Young Spencer Hawes Lavoy Allen Dorell Wright Jrue Holiday Jason Richardson Evan Turner Nick Young
WS/48 .183 .171 .152 .124 .099 ..092 .084 .068 .053
PER 22.9 18.9 18.1 12.7 15.0 14.7 13.3 12.6 12.9

It's unknown whether Bynum will play in this one or not. It's a month away, so I'd assume yes, but his official status is 'out indefinitely', so...

At any rate, this is a better than that us. No Bynum just means more of another guy who's still above average, and they have us beat in a number of other areas. This is a game where missing Love will really hurt, beacuse the Sixers are most vulnerable at the 4.

Cat 2.

Boston - 1 game

Player Kevin Garnett Paul Pierce Brandon Bass Rajon Rondo Jeff Green# Jason Terry Courtney Lee Leandro Barbosa Jared Sullinger
WS/48 .178 .161 .122 .121 .095 .092 .085 ,060 -
PER 20.4 19.6 14.1 17.5 12.9 15.7 12.6 14.0 -

Avery Bradley will miss this game, but with the Celtics' newfound depth on the wings, it won't matter. But this is another game where not having Love will really, really hurt. It's basically the difference between Boston being very beatable and not being beatable at all.

With Love, we have the kind of scoring punch to offset Boston's perimeter and allow Pek to take Garnett 1-on-1 (KG just doesn't have the legs to make up for his lack of bulk anymore) But without Love, Bass and Sullinger can sink in on defense, while the Celtics' brigade of shooters on the wings can run their advantage.

I won't put them as a category 1, because Pek could score 40. But they're like a category 1.000000000001

Cat 2.

Cleveland - 1 game

Player Tristan Thompson Anderson Varejao Kyrie Irving Alonzo Gee CJ Miles Daniel Gibson Luke Walton Dion Waiter Tyler Zeller
WS/48 .146 .131 .125 .063 .063 .028 -.050 - -
PER 12.2 18.9 21.4 13.2 12.4 9.2 3.4 - -

Neither Thompson or Varejao are scorers, so it basically comes down to who can score more points: Irving with the lower 2/3rds of his roster dragging him down, or Pekovic. I like Pek's chances in that one. The only chance the Cavs will have is if Waiters figures it out really really quickly.

Cat 4.

New Orleans - 1 game

Player Ryan Anderson Eric Gordon Robin Lopez Jason Smith Greivis Vasquez Roger Mason Jr Al Faroq Aminu Anthony Davis Austin Rivers
WS/48 .219 .120 .115 .110 .064 .059 .044 - -
PER 21.2 18.5 15.2 16.6 14.2 12.1 10.6 - -

Well...

Ryan Anderson, it appears, will only be half the player he was in Orlando, away from Dwight Howard's defense-drawing presence. And Austin Rivers is struggling to adapt, as we expected.

But...

Anthony Davis is undoubtably the real deal, and Vasquez is proving to be a very competent point guard. So if Eric Gordon is healthy for this game....well, sad to say, this could end up being a pretty tough game to win....

Cat 3.

Miami - 1 game

Yeah. We lose.

Cat 1.

Oklahoma - 1 game

Yes, they dealt away James Harden. But guess what? They still dominate. I started putting together an actual chart because I thought it might give us a tiny glimmer of hope, but after Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Martin, it was just making me sad and I realized there wasn't any point.

We lose again.

Cat 1.

New York - 1 game

Player Tyson Chandler Steve Novak Carmelo Anthony Marcus Camby JR Smith Ronnie Brewer Jason Kidd Iman Shumpert Raymond Felton
WS/48 .220 .181 .160 .127 .122 .113 .104 .068 .042
PER 18.7 15.9 21.1 16.2 15.2 12.3 13.1 10.8 13.4

Gah. I hate to admit this, but the Knicks have a formidable roster. Which actually might be made better without Amare. They have plenty of scoring, and plenty of defensive bigs to throw at Pekovic.

I won't say they're category 1, but without Love to provide points and exploit their weakness at the 4, it's going to be hard to conquer New York's firepower on the wings.

Cat 2.

Houston - 1 game

And finally, we play Houston on Christmas, and as S-n-P already detailed, they're a team definitely at the same level we are. James Harden dominated his Rockets debut last night (37 points, 6 rebounds, 12 assists, 4 steals), but they don't have much in the paint or off the bench.

Cat 3.

So the final tally is...

Catergoy 1 2 3 4
# of games 2 9 10 5

...that equals 26, right...? %%%

Mark down the 2 cat 1s as loses, and the 5 cat 4s as wins. That puts us at 5-2.

The cat 3s, I say split down the middle. If they're games that could go either way, then statistically, it's fair to go 50-50, right? So that puts us at 10-7.

And so now you see the challenge. To make the 16-10 mark that would keep us on track for a 49 win season, we'd have to win 6 of the 9 games against teams that are significantly better than us. That's tough. Assuming we win even 1/3rd of them (which, considering the specific teams, I think even that would be generous), we'd still be 3 games shy at 13-13. Not terrible, for missing your top two players, but in this Western Conference, every win counts.

So the best bet is going to be winning a majority of those cat 3 games. If 'Sota wins say, 8 of those 10, then they only have to pick up 3 of those cat 2s to make it to 16....not easy, but doable, with some inspired play.

Very long story short, the Wolves have a lot of work cut out for them between now and when Love returns, if they want to be in a good position to make the playoffs.

Rules for Alexey in Space:

1: ....

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