FanShot

West race already looks like a doozy

"Minnesota Timberwolves: This technically puts the Wolves in the eighth spot, and you can consider this a splitting-the-difference ranking. If point guard Ricky Rubio is healthy from his ACL tear on a relatively early timetable, Minnesota — which on Friday completed the Andrei Kirilenko signing and Wesley Johnson salary dump, the latter part of a three-team trade with Phoenix and New Orleans — projects as a clear playoff team. Remember: This team was neck-and-neck for the No. 8 seed in 2011-12 before a heap of late-season injuries, including the capper to Kevin Love, and it contended despite an empty wing rotation, the presence of Michael Beasley and the semi-late discovery that center Nikola Pekovic is way, way better than Darko Milicic. Look, $10 million annually on a two-year contract is a bit high for Kirilenko, who will have to play significant minutes at small forward with Love and Pekovic entrenched as the starters down low. It’s also unclear if Minnesota had any NBA bidding rival for Kirilenko, though we have to assume that the player’s longtime agent, Marc Fleisher, told the Wolves what they’d have to pay to get the 31-year-old forward out of Russia. Kirilenko mostly played small forward in Utah, and with his long arms and rangy perimeter skills, he should be able to fill that role in Minnesota for heavy minutes. But in 2010-11, it was clear that age had robbed him of some quickness, and he couldn’t help and recover as cleanly on the perimeter as he could in his prime. He was still a well-above-average player, however, and he was probably the best player in Europe last season during his lockout respite from the NBA. Kirilenko should fall into 10 points a game by cutting in coach Rick Adelman’s system and taking intuitive passes from Rubio. His outside shooting and off-the-bounce game come and go, but Kirilenko is a good passer (a key for an Adelman big man) who earns an above-average number of free throws, and he’s a monumental step up from every wing player Minnesota featured last season. His ability to play power forward will allow the Wolves to use more small lineups, though it presents a playing-time roadblock for last year’s No. 2 pick, Derrick Williams, another combo forward. The Wolves sacrificed Johnson, the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft, and a first-round pick to clear the cap space to sign Kirilenko, whose deal, while short, stands in the way of max-level cap room next summer. More to the point: This is a team that has already whiffed with first-round picks on Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson (who was traded to Denver for a pick that became Luke Babbit, and then Martell Webster), Randy Foye, Wayne Ellington, one big cascading 2011 first-rounder and now perhaps Williams. The Wolves also dealt the 18th pick in last month’s draft to Houston for small forward Chase Budinger. The signings of Kirilenko and Russian combo guard Aleksey Shved will be big, with Shved providing some insurance for a strange gamble on Brandon Roy’s health. But without any high first-round picks on the horizon and no record of attracting star free agents, what’s the long-term prognosis for growth here as Love’s new contract — which includes a player opt-out after the third year — starts ticking? What if Rubio settles in as a good-but-not-great point guard?" from Zach Lowe at SI.com

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