By: Sam Ekstrom
Sure, it’s just one victory. But Monday’s comeback win against Brooklyn put the Wolves at a 2-1 record for the first time since the KG era.
For Minnesota, beating a quality opponent in the second game of a back-to-back, not to mention in comeback fashion, exemplifies a resilient attitude that fans haven’t seen in quite some time. The fourth-largest comeback in Wolves history began at a juncture when teams of the past would have already been mentally sitting on the plane back home.
Maybe the change in fortune is due to Minnesota’s newfound depth. The 33-point second-half swing against the Nets was led by Chase Budinger (7-for-10, 16 points, 6 rebounds), Dante Cunningham (11 points, 11 rebounds), and Alexey Shved (10 points)---all new faces to this year’s team.
It appears like these Wolves, in contrast to last year’s squad, are more capable of mixing and matching to find the formula for success. Without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, Minnesota will be running a “closer-by-committee” of sorts. The Wolves had a different leading scorer in each of the first three games, as well as in five of the seven preseason games. In the short term, it may very well be a different player every night who steps up.
The 2011-12 Wolves weren’t built to handle life without their stars. Rubio’s injury took away one of the only pass-first mindsets on the team, and Love’s concussion eliminated the one offensive talent who could be successfully selfish. What remained was a mixed bag of high-usage, shoot-first players (i.e. Beasley, Randolph) who were more interested in taking “heat checks” than charges.
This year’s product hinges on role-playing and balance. The Wolves are conceivably 12 or 13 players deep right now without Love and Rubio, creating a plethora of options for Rick Adelman. Though most prognosticators---and Tubby Smith critics---would look down on excessive player rotations, I think it works with this particular group.
The roster is constructed with interchangeable parts at every position: four true point guards who are flexible as off-guards (Barea, Shved, Ridnour, Lee), four “big men” if Minnesota wants to create mismatches down low (Pekovic, Stiemsma, Cunningham, Amundson), and a bevy of combo players who can bridge the gap and act as a “2” or “3” (Budinger, Roy) or a “3” or “4” (Kirilenko, Williams). With this many different skill sets, a strong personnel-manager like Adelman has the ability to try different pieces until he finds the fitting combination.
Another component of this year’s approach is the low-profile nature of the roster. The Wolves made a point of dumping bad contracts and unmet expectations in the offseason. By getting rid of first-round picks Michael Beasley, Wes Johnson, and Wayne Ellington---not to mention Darko Milicic’s awful contract---the Wolves rid themselves of the obligation to try and make those players work.
Instead, management brought in a crop of unassuming talent that’s willing to concede they aren’t going to wind up on the all-NBA team. Of the 13 players currently active, only four were first-round picks: Roy, Williams, Kirilenko, and Ridnour. Roy, Kirilenko, and Ridnour have a combined 24 years experience and zero championship rings---no self-serving motives to be seen. That leaves Derrick Williams as the one player who might try and force himself into a box score, but the jury is still out on whether or not the #2 overall pick has the ability to be All-Star caliber.
The 2012-13 Timberwolves are designed so each player is a complement to the bigger picture. Without the top two players on the roster, those complements are now being asked to band together and find a way to get things done, knowing that they’ll eventually be allowed to slip back behind the scenes where they’re most comfortable.
While fans sit patiently in waiting for Rubio and Love to return, they won’t see anything flashy. The November version of the Wolves will show us what team basketball is, and though their style may not light up highlight reels, it could provide the cohesion needed to make things click when the stars return.