The Wolves struggle with their footing against the West's elite so far this year. /USA TODAY sports
As we've come to the 34% mark of the season, or the first trimester of the season, I think several storylines have taken shape and will continue to mold the narrative of the Wolves the rest of the season. Collectively, I think the general mindset of the fan base is that the Wolves have shown many signs of progress, yet still seem maddeningly disappointing at times. The disappointment has been irrational at times, but I think its more due to the fact that the Wolves looked like the hope that was going be the start of the resurrection of Minnesota professional sports which frankly has overall been tepid at best, dismal at worst over the past five years. The Twins haven't or won't be relevant for nearly a half decade now due to organizational mistakes ranging from the bad, the worse, and the ugly. The Vikings save for two fluke years have been disappointing for a half decade now due to organizational mistakes. The Wolves were dismal for a good half decade plus due to organizational ineptitude before finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, albeit one that is still appearing longer than expected. Full disclosure: I'm not a hockey guy, but from what I've seen and heard it has been mediocrity for the Wild in the same span as well. I think this overall frustration is making the optimism of the Wolves coming into the season more disappointing that at the third way mark, they sit at 13-15, 11th in the West, and currently are still being eluded by that much needed playoff berth that many of us expected.
The storylines so far have been thus:
Kevin Love is playing like an MVP, averaging 26/14/4 a game on 46/38/83, good for a 27.9 PER, .265 WS, and generally playing the best basketball of his career at an elite level.
Ricky Rubio still cannot shoot. As pointed out by the excellent Zach Lowe, Rubio is on pace to be one of the worst shooters ever. He can't finish, and lately his confidence is definitely being effected by the inability to consistency make a basket. I'm not as worried about it as he's only had one true offseason, the others marred by lockout and an ACL recovery, but there are some real concerns, and I think until his shooting percentage jumps in the forties the max contract talk can be permanently shelved. Don't forget though that Jason Kidd's first four years looked as such: 38.5, 38.1, 40.3, 36.9, roughly averaging 33% from deep and 69% from the line. Not far off from Rubio's 35.7, 36, 34.7, and 32% from deep and 80.8 from the line. The most troublesome part of Rubio's game this year has been the decline in his FTAs. He's never been adept around the rim, but he used to be better at getting to the line. The fact alone that he's good at the line gives hope that in five years he'll be a decent if not above average spot up shooter from deep, but early results are worrying and hopefully aren't the start of a trend.
The noise about a Love-Pekovic pairing on defense not working. This is true, although I do suspect if the team had a big man worthy of 20 mpg and capable of blocking a shot and a half in that span would eliminate a lot of this noise. The team just doesn't have it yet.
Early schedule has been BRUTAL. It'll be interesting to see how many national writers clue into this when the Wolves record improves in January and has them making some noise in the West standings and pundits power rankings.
Corey Brewer's red hot/ice cold fast breaks and play. The outlets were fun, but without them, Brewer has become far more ordinary lately. I suspect that once Budinger is healthy, he'll eventually take the starting role, finishing more of those threes Brewer needs to make. I actually think Brewer going back to the bench will be beneficial as he'll play less (20-25 as opposed to 30-35), and against worse players might be able to regain some of his fast break mojo back, especially times where Love is the only starter on the floor.
Lastly, the bench is the last storyline that is the most disheartening and threatens to be the chief reason this team fails to reach its potential. The Wolves starting five is the offensive version of the Pacers last year, and faces the same problem of no bench. Just adding one scoring wing and a shot blocking big to the bench and honestly this team is looking pretty set. But lacking these items is hurting the Wolves badly, and combined with the brutal early schedule and some poor shooting overall that is buoyed by quantity over quality they sit where they currently do at 13-15.
For those who like awards, MVP: Love (RU: Wolves broadcasting team this year); LVP: Shabazz (RU: Shved)
A look ahead to the second trimester:
The schedule. Boy, does it loosen up a tad here finally. Six of their next eight are at home, where they sit at 8-4. Looking at their next 13, it goes Wash, @ Mil, Dal, NO, OKC, @PHI, PHX, CHA, @SA, SAC, @TOR, and a home and home with Utah. Only two back to backs in that stretch, and the second games are @MIL, and Utah, the two worst teams in the league. Realistically, it should go W, W, W, W, L W, L, W, L, W, W, W, W. I think they are better than Phoenix, but they will lose a game or two they shouldn't. Dal and @TOR wouldn't surprise me if they became an L, but the Wolves should be the favorites in all these games save for OKC and SA. So at minimum they go 8-5 and sit at 21-20 nearly one month from today, and potentially could be 23-18 if things go right and the team builds confidence. Hope is around the corner. That said, if were still sub .500 after this stretch, well I think we are what we are at that point then. That said, the point differential of this team suggests that it's better than it's record and that come end of the season, it will be between the Wolves, Denver, Dallas, Golden State, LA Lakers and Phoenix for the final three spots in the West. I think the Lakers fade quickly this second trimester, and Phoenix ultimately fades, although I think Denver will as well and more so than Phoenix. This would mean GS, Dallas, and Minnesota sneak in which is what I ultimately think happens. As bad as it has seemed at times, the Wolves only lie two games out of the 8th seed as it currently stands with a lot of basketball left.
Growing pains. Remember this is the first real stretch this team (Love, Rubio, Pek) have played with Adelman and now with Martin too. I think the longer they can play together the better they'll get. Look what reps and consistency have done for teams that have stayed together lately. Indiana, Miami, Memphis (until recently), SA, OKC, etc etc. The point is time and the ability to grow are still in the relative infant stages with this core 5. Still haven't been fully supplemented by the right role players either.
Think Rubio's shooting improves slightly, as does Brewer's confidence, but will still be ongoing concerns throughout the year. Love continues to play out of his mind, Pek continues to be reliable and finds more of his late game misses start going in. Martin will only play as well as his knee lets him. This low lying storyline could get bigger here if the offense, and him continue to struggle. JJ remains JJ, Budinger helps, Turiaf may help, and things generally will be looking up come this point at the end of the second trimester.
Predicted record: 17-11; 30-26 overall, 8th in the West. (Briefly looking ahead, 15-10, 16-9 looks likely for the third which would be 45-46 wins. Is that enough?)
Just for fun for the holidays, a few gift music links since I love music, love to share it, and this CH community seems to be about music and sharing it and appreciating it as well.
Foals - My Number (via Foals)
Arctic Monkeys on Jools Holland - "R U Mine?" (via imdefnowriter)
Pusha T f. Kendrick Lamar "Nosetalgia" (Audio Explicit Version) (via Def Jam)
Definitely three of my most played tracks on Spotify this year. Enjoy, and hope everyone has a safe holidays and a Merry Christmas.