In the opening minutes of Thursday’s matchup against the visiting Portland Trail Blazers, I looked upon a quiet but emblematic scene. Having brought the ball up, Ricky Rubio deferred ball handling duties for this possession to Kevin Martin on the wing. Surveying his options, and rightly passing up a possible 18-foot Nikola Pekovic post up, the ball is shifted to Corey Brewer at the top of the key and continues around the court to Kevin Love, situated on the left elbow. Guarded by the emerging mammoth of the West, LaMarcus Aldridge, he runs a little screen action with Brewer only to leave himself isolated with his Trailblazing counterpart. Assessing the court, he pivots on his left foot, raises up and finds Pekovic in the low post with a simple entry pass over Aldridge, Pekovic duly spins away from a trailing Robin Lopez and lays it in. Minnesota took the lead and never relinquished it against the in-form outfit of the Western Conference.
Spanning the whole width of the court and involving the entire starting 5, the play was a fitting representation of the basketball Rick Adelman envisioned from this roster. Ball movement, simple passes and easy shots. It’s easier to watch but more complex to execute, but it’s exactly the kind of cohesive unity in their play that has been missing in recent years. Something we will have to see much more of to see a successful march into the postseason.
The Wolves are lurking. At .500 they stand, the embodiment of neutrality in a Western Conference loaded with storylines. Amongst a rising Trailblazers team, the Doc Rivers-led Clippers, Dwight Howard arriving in Houston and the surprising playoff potential of Phoenix, there is little air time for the Timberwolves to be given their due. That’s all without mentioning the perpetual drama ever unfolding in Los Angeles amidst the joints in Kobe Bryant‘s left leg, a story that took another twist Thursday. Minnesota lies at a crossroads. Not just in their season but in their long term future.
Having faced the 2nd most difficult schedule in the league thus far – their average opponent has a record of .558, the equivalent of playing a 6th seed every night – the time to make a run has to be now. They have established a positive point differential (+3.8) which is indicative of a team far better than one lying outside of playoff contention. Playing at the pace they do (second-fastest in the league) is unlikely to be conducive to sustained success on the road, so they should reap the benefits of a lighter travelling schedule in the next few months. This would allow the record closer to what the stats are telling us. Boasting an offense and defence just outside of the top-10 in points per possession screams playoffs. The numbers could change in the future, but if the performances remain similar and the Gods of Health look kindly upon the state of Minnesota, there is no reason not to aim for a sixth seed.
There is no certainty in turning projections and potential into actual wins, but the next 15 games on the schedule contain three games against excellent sides (at Clippers, Spurs and a home game against OKC), with every other game standing not just as an eminently winnable but as a series of matchups they should be expecting to win. They won’t win them all, but a 10-5 record is really going to be a necessity if Minnesota is to realize the potential that seems to have gone to waste for every year since Kevin Love emerged as one of the NBA’s finest. Which leads us to the biggest issue here.
It was 2004, when the Timberwolves enjoyed the refined air of the postseason, losing in six games to a Los Angeles Lakers side that played Karl Malone 40 minutes a game. Needless to say, this was a long time ago, Peja Stojakovic was second-team All-NBA, Jamaal Magloire and Brad Miller were All-Stars (All genuine factual information).
The importance of making the playoffs this year is not solely confined to ending the longest playoff drought in the years (a run of ineptitude close to contending on a historic level). Ending the drought does take a weight of pressure off the franchise as they look to shake the label as an inept organisation, however, there is a bigger prize at hand and he is playing power forward. Kevin Love is one of the finest players in the NBA — a possible first team All-NBA forward at this rate — and as any moderate fan of the team will know, he can opt out of his contract after next year as part of the deal he signed under the David Kahn regime. This contractual caveat still weighs upon the team from beyond Kahn’s proverbial grave, so despite the decent offseason work done by president of basketball operations Flip Saunders (acquiring Martin/Brewer, re-signing Pekovic/Chase Budinger), this team’s future is still set in its recent past.
Be wary of the Lakers in the background, as cap space looms in their horizon, with all the money and prestige in the world to lure the All-Star into Purple and Gold. The Knicks too, may be in disarray for now but are set to have an open roster in 2015 with many slots to fill and lots of money to fill it.
Many other teams will move small but not insignificant mountains (or cap holds/salaries) to secure the services of multiple stars who hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of ‘15 (Aldridge, Roy Hibbert, Rajon Rondo). Love will be in that mix and may well be the prize of that selection, in which case, the Wolves will be facing an uphill struggle to keep the second-best player (and second-best Kevin) in franchise history against the lure of the big markets.
Case in point, the next two seasons will have to be playoff seasons if Minnesota stands a chance of convincing Love that the Midwest is a place to build a winner. A Loveless future at this point is an oncoming storm cloud, still years away, but for Minnesota basketball it’s the biggest and darkest storm cloud in years. So next time he’s situated at the elbow, face-to-face with his the men who he will be measured against, will he be content with the teammates he has to call upon? It’s possible he will look across at the defense and see the supporting casts of his rivals and note the injustice at play, how the odds are not stacked in his favor.
It looks like Rubio, Martin and Pekovic have 18 months to prove they are sidekicks worth staying for, and the incremental improvements need to start right now, this month, not just this year but the next half-decade may well rest upon it.