By: Sam Ekstrom
As the NBA regular season moves toward its final month, the Wolves find themselves in an all-too-familiar situation.
Inevitably set to miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year, Minnesota hit a new season-low with their loss to Dallas on Sunday, putting them at 18 games under .500. Their 21 wins are the fewest in the Western Conference.
But the team will have a decision to make in the coming weeks. As a number of their core players return from injury, should the Wolves make a push to win meaningless games down the stretch and risk losing a higher lottery position?
There is one train of thought that would encourage Minnesota to rack up some wins—they may potentially have three or four weeks to see if the lineup they constructed last offseason is worth keeping together.
Two weeks ago, Kevin Love declared that he would like to play 15-20 games this year, which indicates his return in the next week or two.
Shooter Chase Budinger stated on Sunday that he’s eying a return in two to three weeks, giving him 12-15 games to play in.
Andrei Kirilenko will return next week from a left calf strain, and Nikola Pekovic said there’s no longer any pain in his abdomen, meaning he could be back in the lineup within a week, too.
Even Brandon Roy is seeking to make a late-season appearance to test his battered knees for perhaps a final time.
If everybody comes back as expected, Wolves management would get its first glimpse of what their injury-marred team would look like healthy.
Stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio only overlapped for three games in late December before Love broke his hand for a second time. However, one of those three games was a nationally-televised win over the Oklahoma City Thunder to snap OKC’s 12-game winning streak. The win showed how potent the Wolves could be with all their pieces in place.
That success was short-lived as players went down and the Wolves frequently played short-handed, even resorting to D-Leaguers Chris Johnson and Mickael Gelabale to spot minutes.
Currently, the Wolves have the eighth-worst record in the NBA, but are merely 1.5 games away from the third-worst record. If the Wolves held off on the returns of Love and Budinger, it may set up an attractive top-five draft pick, but with GM David Kahn on the hot seat, Rick Adelman not getting any younger, and players and fans already disgruntled at the losing record, it might behoove the Wolves to prove they are capable of winning when the reinforcements return.
Besides, the Wolves have proven in the past that the draft is not a fix-all. Of their last seven top-10 draft picks, only two could be considered “hits” (Kevin Love via trade and Ricky Rubio). Four of the other five (Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Jonny Flynn, and Wesley Johnson) are no longer with the team, and Derrick Williams is still experiencing some growing pains in his second season.
Plus, as far as lottery position is concerned, a bottom-three record doesn’t guarantee lottery luck. In the past eight lotteries, only two teams have drawn the number-one pick when their record was among the three worst in the league.
It should be noted that the Wolves aren’t a lock to have Budinger, Pekovic, Roy, or Kirilenko in their possession next year. Budinger and Pekovic are restricted free agents, with Pekovic due for an eight-digit payday somewhere. Minnesota is unlikely to take another $5 million gamble on Roy, and Kirilenko has a player-option that he may opt out of in search of a long-term deal, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe.
This makes the season’s final weeks all the more critical to future decisions. If the Wolves think they are able to win with this core group, they will likely invest substantial dollars toward keeping the squad together. That’s a decision that could backfire long-term if the investment doesn’t pay off, which is why the final 10-15 games need to provide indicators of future success.
The Wolves look good on paper, but still need to see it translate to the court.
If ever a losing team has needed momentum heading into the offseason, it’s the 2012-13 Timberwolves.