By: Sam Ekstrom | KFAN.com
Minnesota lost Ricky Rubio on Friday, March 9th of last season with 25 games remaining. After the rookie phenom went down with a torn ACL, the Wolves limped to a 5-20 finish, including a 1-7 stretch without Kevin Love (concussion) to end the year.
Now the Timberwolves enter a pivotal 2012-2013 campaign without their two biggest stars. Rubio is still in the midst of rehab for his injured knee, while All-Star Kevin Love broke his hand two weeks ago doing knuckle push-ups, sidelining him for roughly a month of the season.
GM David Kahn compiled a much deeper roster over the summer, highlighted by the acquisitions of three-time All-Star Brandon Roy and former Jazz standout Andre Kirilenko. They also added perimeter depth with Russian import Alexei Shved and ex-Rocket Chase Budinger, while shoring up the middle with journeymen Greg Stiemsma, Dante Cunningham, and Lou Amundson.
Management spent the offseason finding quality veteran talent to complement their dynamic duo of stars, but it’s these role players who will now have to carry the load.
The Wolves made a point of adding guys who’ve been around the block. Each offseason pick-up has playoff experience under their belt with the exceptions of Budinger and the rookie Shved. The team also seemed to be reconstructed with high-character individuals in mind, especially in light of J.J. Barea’s “nobody cares” rant following a loss late last season.
With a largely turned-over roster, the hope is that these new Wolves won’t remember the struggles they had when cornerstones Rubio and Love went down last spring. Here are several ways they can avoid an early-season freefall...
-Feed “Big Pek.” Nikola Pekovic was arguably last season’s most pleasant surprise before his foot injury. Pek averaged 15.4 points and 8.5 rebounds as a starter once ‘the-now-amnestied’ Darko Milicic had played himself out of a job. Pekovic then lost weight in the offseason to give himself more stamina and won’t have to play a taxing condensed schedule like in 2011-12. Oh, did I mention he’s in a contract year? Expect Pekovic to turn in his best season yet and then for Portland to offer him a Batum-like offer-sheet this offseason.
-Defense, defense, defense. The Wolves improved defensively in their first year under Rick Adelman, but still have a long ways to go. They were the sixth-worst defensive team last season and allowed 100+ PPG for the fifth consecutive year. Now without their top distributor and top scorer, Minnesota will need to slow games down and play half-court basketball (also consider Brandon Roy’s knees and Pekovic’s feet).
Coach Adelman reportedly preached a defensive mindset in training camp this year, and it was evidenced by his team allowing a league-best 80.9 PPG in the preseason. With a new crop of faces that have a reputation for playing gritty defense, the Wolves have a chance to establish a blue-collar mentality while their stars are absent.
-Give Derrick Williams a chance. The second overall pick admitted that he burned out in his rookie season. He went through an offseason of trade whispers and now emerges with a prime opportunity to prove he can be the third star of this Wolves squad. After having a full offseason to prepare, unlike 2011, Williams now has a chance to get extended minutes while Love watches from the bench in November.
Williams didn’t find favor with Rick Adelman in his first season, but showed enough flashes in his 21.5 minutes per game to give coaches and fans reason to be excited, including a 9-for-10, 27 point performance against the Clippers in February.
With a year of NBA experience under his belt, a natural offseason to train, and an opening at his position, this would appear to be the time for Derrick Williams to prove his worth.
-Let Roy be Roy. Brandon Roy is adamant that his knees won’t inhibit him in his return to pro basketball. The Wolves are praying that claim is true now that they have a month to play without their core. Roy is the kind of player who can carry a team for long stretches, primarily in the fourth quarter (YouTube search “brandon roy game 4 2011 western quarterfinals”).
Logically, Roy’s knees will be freshest at the start of the season. It will be enormous for Minnesota to have a “closer” in Roy, even if it’s just for the season’s first month. You can appreciate the fact that the Wolves are trying to keep Roy healthy for a two-year contract---not just a couple months---and may ease him back into substantial playing time. However, if the game’s on the line in the fourth quarter, Brandon Roy needs to be on the court.
The Wolves open Friday against Sacramento, who lost in their season opener to the Bulls on Wednesday.