Team Name: Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Year's Record: 31-51
Key Losses: Andrei Kirilenko, Luke Ridnour, Greg Steimsma, David Kahn
Key Additions: Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Ronny Turiaf, Flip Saunders
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Many around the team expected the 2012-13 season to be a breakthrough year for the Wolves, even with Ricky Rubio still healing from his torn ACL. Unfortunately, the bad news started early and kept coming, as All-star Kevin Love went down before the season started with a broken hand, and wing players Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger were lost early in the season. Even so, they had enough talent left to win 31 games, a season high for any non-KG Wolves team (yeah, I know). Still, it was a great disappointment to fans who were starved for playoff basketball.
Early in the off-season, the Wolves fired controversial president of basketball operations David Kahn and replaced him with former coach and GM Flip Saunders. Saunders announced that his primary goal was to fix the Wolves shooting woes, as they were the worst three-point shooting team in the league in 2012-13. Of course, much of that could be blamed on the nearly season-long absences of Kevin Love and Chase Budinger. Saunders re-signed Budinger (3 years, $15M), a Rick Adelman favorite, and engineered a sign-and-trade for shooting guard Kevin Martin (4yrs, $28M), filling a gaping hole in the lineup that had existed for the better part of a decade.
He also let Andrei Kirilenko, one of the Wolves best three players last season, walk so that he could make these moves. It was clear from the beginning that Saunders was lukewarm about Kirilenko because of his shooting weaknesses, but this decision may come back to haunt the Wolves, especially at the defensive end, where AK often took on the tough assignments. He is nominally replaced by the returning Corey Brewer (3yrs, $15M), who will be relied upon to wreak some havoc defensively.
Finally, after a rather drawn out negotiation, the Wolves re-signed center Nikola Pekovic. A rare combination of strength, footwork, hands, and touch around the basket, Pekovic is one of the best offensive centers in the league and a monster on the offensive glass.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
The Wolves now have a healthy (at the moment) and credible core of Love, Pekovic, Rubio, and Martin. That's a decent amount of talent, enough to move the team forward significantly if they come together. This team should be able to score with Love's inside-outside game, Pekovic in the post, Martin shooting the ball, and Rubio orchestrating. It will be even better if Rubio can make even a small step forward with his own shooting.
Rick Adelman is one of the most respected coaches in the NBA, and has been successful just about everywhere he's been. Refocused after last season's difficulties both with the team's injuries and, more importantly, with his wife's health problems, Adelman has talked this week about the ability to install much more of his offensive sets this year with everyone (except Budinger, who will miss the first month or so of the season) available.
They should also be one of the better rebounding teams in the NBA with the combination of Love and Pekovic, both of whom are dominant on the offensive glass, while Love is the best defensive rebounder in the league.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
One of the question marks for the Wolves is how their bench will perform. With Brewer likely starting due to Budinger's injury, the top reserves will likely be J.J. Barea, Derrick Williams, Dante Cunningham, Ronny Turiaf, and perhaps Alexey Shved. Unless Williams takes a significant step forward, this unit could have some difficulties scoring enough to keep the Wolves afloat while they are on the floor.
Last season, the Wolves managed to be 13th in the league in defensive rating despite finishing 24th in opponents efg%. They did this by being good in all other aspects of defense: 3rd in opponents TO%, 5th in opponents FT/FGA, and 11th in defensive rebounding %. Can this continue? Having lost their best (or 2nd best to Rubio) defender, there are major question marks on that end of the floor. They lack a classic rim protector, with Love and Pekovic getting by on strength rather than Hibbertesque shot altering, and other than Rubio don't have perimeter dominators in the Tony Allen or Paul George mold. They don't have the personnel to take away every good shot like the Bulls and Pacers do; instead they will have to rely on team concepts, Rubio's incredible ability to force turnovers, and taking care of the defensive glass to be reasonably successful on defense.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Simply, this team needs to make the playoffs. As difficult as that is in the Western Conference, another year brings them closer to Love's opt out (2015), and they can't afford to wait anymore to make progress. Conventional league wisdom seems to have six teams as locks out West: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors. And then a group of teams fighting for the last two spots including: Nuggets, Wolves, Blazers, Lakers, Mavericks, maybe Pelicans. Regardless of whether it works out this way or not, the Wolves need to be in the final eight. A ten year playoff drought is long enough. There is at least a little buzz around the team this year, but they can't afford to waste it. If they do, it probably means coach Adelman is out the door, and Kevin Love will soon follow.
5. How much has bad drafting hurt the Wolves this century?
This is going to be more of a rant then an answer, so, sorry for that.
One of the frustrations of being a long term Wolves fan is that we've seen management come and go (often not quickly enough), but the same mistakes repeated no matter if it's McHale, Kahn, or Saunders in charge.
The Wolves have struggled to draft effectively since, well, pick a date. What gets the attention is the high-profile, top 10 mistakes. And those have hurt, especially recently. Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson, Derrick Williams. It isn't a good record, and that's just in relatively recent years.
But the hidden issue has been their inability to get help from outside the lottery. They got Nikola Pekovic as the first pick in the 2nd round of 2008, but he was an unusual situation in that the whole league knew he was a late-lottery talent, but he was going to require more than late-lottery money to come to the NBA. He was going to be the first pick of the 2nd round regardless of who had it.
Other then Pek, though, it's slim pickings. The last two players before Pekovic who a) the Wolves drafted outside the lottery, and b) actually helped them on the court are Craig Smith (2nd Round, 2006), and Rasho Nesterovic (17th pick, 1998). That's it. 15 years, three guys, two of whom were fairly marginal contributors. Unless you count Wayne Ellington. He's the next best guy.
This is the hidden problem, and it has led to very thin rosters over the years, as draft pick after draft pick has failed. It also leads to another problem, which is the Wolves absolutely pay full-freight for everything. They have a payroll of around $68M this season, and are locked in to a similar amount next year, because their drafting has left them very little choice.
Classic Wolves example: They are paying roughly $10M a year for the services of the useful but underwhelming duo of Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer. Why? Because they have failed to unearth anyone in the draft who can soak up decent wing minutes, and thus have to pay for it on the market. Consider Budinger: drafted by Houston in the 2nd round, they get three very cheap and reasonably productive years from him, draft his replacement (Chandler Parsons), trade him to the Wolves who are desperate for wing play, and watch the Wolves actually pay him, while they still have Parsons making under $1M a year.
It is the signature failing of what has been one of the laughingstock franchises in the NBA for the last decade. The failure to draft effectively in and out of the lottery has cost them wins, credibility, and money. Hopefully they have done enough this off-season to overcome these mistakes and are ready to return to the playoffs. But either way, I won't be holding my breath for the Wolves to come up with the next Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, or even Chandler Parsons in the draft.