The Minnesota Timberwolves have the opportunity to be the surprise team of the NBA next season. Now that may seem shocking as they have been one of the worst teams in the league recently, but there is more to their story.
The Timberwolves may be the most unlucky team in the league. In each of the last couple of seasons they have been poised to make a run for the playoffs only to be derailed by injuries.
Kevin Love has all the makings of a dominant force. Last season he averaged 26 points and 13.3 rebounds, but only played in 55 games. This season he has been plagued by injuries and has only played in 18 games.
Ricky Rubio is a talented playmaker but also has been hit by the injury bug several times. The team has had 19 players suit up for at least four games this season, the most in the NBA.
The injuries have taken down promising teams over the last several seasons which have kept them below 30 wins and far from the playoffs.
So how can the Timberwolves be next year’s surprise team?
Kevin Love can help the Timberwolves make a big leap next season. (Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com)
The team resembles a poor man’s version of the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs. While the Spurs were further along at that time then the Timberwolves are now, the building blocks are in place.
The mid-1990s saw the Spurs became a regular 50-plus-win team and a regular playoff competitor. They suffered from questions and criticisms as to if they could win it all, but were slowly amassing parts that would eventually help them win the title. While the Timberwolves have not reached those win totals, it has been due to injuries as they have been adding players that can get them there.
The Spurs already had David Robinson but added Sean Elliott, Vinny Del Negro, Avery Johnson and Chuck Person to the roster. The 1996-97 season looked very promising, then injuries derailed it. Many remember that Robinson missed most of the season as he only played in six games but, the Spurs injury list was even longer.
Charles Smith missed 65 games, Elliott 43 games and Person missed the entire season. This led the Spurs to manage only 20 wins that season.
It may end up being the luckiest season in team history. After a bad 3-15 start, coach Bob Hill was fired and Gregg Popovich took over. At the end of the season they won the draft lottery as they landed the top pick, which became Tim Duncan. Those moves are two of the biggest reasons that the Spurs have won four championships since then.
Nikola Pekovic is having a career season. (Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com)
The Timberwolves are in position to make such a jump next season. Love is one of the best big men in the league. With him out this season, Nikola Pekovic is having a career year, as he is averaging 15.9 points and 8.8 rebounds. While the duo cannot compare to all-time greats Robinson and Duncan, they will form one of the more formidable frontcourts in the league.
They have role players already in place as Luke Ridnour, Alexey Shved, Derrick Williams and Jose Barea provide a solid core. After several declining seasons, Andrei Kirilenko seemed rejuvenated before an injury
Chase Budinger was showing promise until a knee injury wiped out his season. Rubio, while not a scorer, has increased his average from 8.7 points to 13.3 points over the past 14 games. Adding these players to Love and Pekovic provides a very solid team and one that should make the playoffs.
What they need is a pure scorer. Rubio and Barea can fulfill the setup role while Pekovic and Love will patrol down low. Adding a scorer at either the small forward or shooting guard will vault this team up the standings. While there will be several intriguing options in free agency, their best option may come via the draft.
If they can win the draft lottery and add that one dynamic scoring piece they can really start to push for an upper tier playoff spot. Here they are in a better position than the Spurs were back in 1997. Only two other players from that draft would become All-Stars. It was pretty much an all or nothing draft.
This year’s draft will feature several players who could immediately help the Timberwolves. Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, Gary Harris, C.J. McCollum, Otto Porter, Shabazz Muhammad or Alex Poythress could each jump into the lineup and fill a need at either small forward or shooting guard.
Combining any of these players with Love and Pekovic down low and Rubio setting them up would provide an immediate impact. While these rookies would be expected to contribute, the weight of the team would not be entirely on them as if often the case when a high pick goes to a bad team. Taking that pressure off should allow the player to shine.
While this does not immediately jump them up to a championship contender, it would make them a serious threat and a team just below the top contenders. It did take San Antonio two seasons and some final tweaks before the Duncan pick paid off in a championship.
While things look bad now for the Timberwolves, they do have a chance to get better and quickly. Of course all of this hinges on the team actually making it through the season healthy and re-signing Pekovic in the offseason.