MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES PREVIEW 2011
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Minnesota endured another season of rebuilding last year and had the NBA's worst record at 17-65, giving up a league worst 107.7 points per game. Despite the terrible record, there were some bright spots. Head coach Kurt Rambis finally figured out Kevin Love was his best player and gave him starter minutes. Love blossomed into a star, and he led the league in rebounding with 15.2 rebounds per game while averaging 20.2 points per game. GM David Kahn also traded a second-round pick before the start of the season for former second-overall draft pick Michael Beasley, and he revived his career by averaging 19.2 points per game.
Still, the third year of David Kahn's rebuilding project didn't gain any momentum. Rambis was fired after the season since there were few players on the roster who improved under his tenure, and Rambis' version of the triangle offense never took off. The bigger blame for Minnesota's inability to improve more likely falls with Kahn's spotty record in the draft. In 2009, Kahn took Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry and traded away Ty Lawson. Many questioned those choices at the time., and Kahn was again much criticized last year when he took Wesley Johnson with the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft instead of DeMarcus Cousins.
However, it looks like he may have finally got a draft pick correct by finally taking the best player available rather than try to prove he's smarter than everyone else in the room. With the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft he took Derrick Williams from Arizona. Kahn was also finally able to sign Rick Rubio (also taken in the first round in 2009), and he joined the club in training camp. While Minnesota's record was terrible, the roster remains young and the team has salary cap flexibility.
New head coach Rick Adelman gives the team an established leader with a track record of developing talent and winning games. As a result, there's a buzz that Minnesota could finally improve and get on track to return to becoming a playoff contender in a season or two. Still, the club is missing a key part at shooting guard and needs to significantly improve on the defensive end of the floor. Once Adelman gets a feel for his roster, there could be major midseason roster changes - especially with Kahn's penchant for making deals.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The T-Wolves enter the season with a glut of swingmen, no established shooting guard and an unsettled situation at center. Kevin Love will get significant minutes. He may start games at power forward, but he'll likely get most of his minutes at center, except against the bigger centers in the league.
Darko Milicic may begin the season as the nominal starter at center, but Adelman hasn't seemed impressed with his play early in camp. As a result, Adelman said the starting center job is "wide open" and that Milicic, Nikola Pekovic and Love will all figure into the mix. Even if Pekovic or Milicic win the starting job, they may still only get 10-15 minutes per game with Love getting most of his minutes at center.
Brad Miller could also be a factor at center when he returns from microfracture surgery on his left knee at some point in January or February.
Power forward is a wide open competition at this point. Derrick Williams should get the most minutes at power forward as the season moves along, but he may be brought off the bench slowly as he adjusts to playing professionally. Anthony Randolph showed glimpses he could be an impact player after coming over in a trade from the Knicks. He had five double-doubles in nine games when playing over 20 minutes. Randolph has always showed glimpses of star potential but disappeared at times, and he hasn't found a coach willing to give him an extended look. It's not clear if Adelman will give him starters minutes, but it remains a possibility since he hasn't really seen him in action.
Michael Beasley will start at small forward and get starters minutes. At this point his playing time and position look perhaps the most stable on the roster, but it's possible Williams and Wes Johnson could emerge with a larger role at small forward. Johnson didn't live up to expectations as the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft as he averaged just 9.0 points in 26.2 minutes per game while shooting 39.7 percent from the floor. It's not clear how he'll figure into Adelman's rotation.
Shooting guard is very unsettled. Johnson may begin the season as the starter, but it's more likely that Minnesota trades for a player to take over the role at some point this season. In the meantime, the early outlook in training camp is that minutes at shooting guard may be divided evenly between several players. Jose Barea and Luke Ridnour may get playing time at shooting guard as well as point guard. Adelman has said he may use two point guards on the court at the same time early in the season to help with defensive matchups and ball handling (the T-Wolves turned the ball over the most in the NBA last season). Martell Webster could also be a significant factor at shooting guard whenever he returns from a back injury (likely to be out a month or more).
Ricky Rubio looks like the starter at point guard, but it's not clear how many minutes he'll play initially with Kahn saying he has plans to keep three point guards on the roster after signing Barea. Ridnour would seem to be the odd man out, but even he could share the job with Rubio if Barea gets significant minutes at shooting guard.
Wayne Ellington, Malcolm Lee and Anthony Tolliver will likely be relegated to smaller reserve roles, but the competition for minutes may be wide open as Adelman evaluates the roster on the fly without a summer of practices and a full preseason.
Darko Milicic: He looked like a productive center after he was traded to Minnesota from the Knicks at the end of the 2008-09 season, averaging 8.3 ppg, 0.8 spg and 1.4 bpg while getting 26 mpg. As a result, the T-Wolves signed him to a four-year, $20 million contract. However, he failed to improve even though he finally had the stability of a starting job. Millicic averaged just 8.8 ppg and 5.2 rpg. He was a fantasy asset in the blocked shots category by averaging 2.0 per game. Millicic may begin the season as Minnesota's starting center, but he's likely lost his chance to be a focal point of the offense and may be relegated to a smaller situational role.
Nikola Pekovic: In his first season in the NBA after playing in Europe, Pekovic struggled to adjust to the foul calls in the NBA and was frequently in foul trouble. He was limited to a reserve role and averaged 5.5 points per game in 14 minutes per game. At 6-11, 243 he's a big body but has some finesse with his shot. Once he gets more comfortable with the NBA game, he still has the talent on the offensive end to emerge with a larger role.
Brad Miller: Miller underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in May and hopes to return in mid-January. He averaged a career low 16.9 minutes per game last season in Houston, and it's not clear how much he has left in the tank at age 36. He'll likely be trade fodder for a midseason deal since he doesn't factor into Minnesota's long-term plans. However, Rick Adelman has expressed his love for big men who can pass, so it's possible he could carve out a role if healthy.
Kevin Love: Of all the players in the NBA who took a jump in fantasy value last season, Love might have made the biggest leap. A solid mid-round investment after his first two productive seasons with the Timberwolves, Love has developed into a fantasy stud that will be selected in the top-10 of nearly every draft this year. Powered by a streak of 53 consecutive games with a double-double, Love posted averages of 20.2 points and a league-leading 15.2 rebounds, making him the first NBA player to average 20 points and 15 rebounds since Moses Malone accomplished the feat during the 1982-83 season. While Love is an absolute monster on the glass, he doesn't do well in the other traditional big man stats, as his 47.0 percent from the floor and 0.4 blocks per game leave a lot to be desired from a power forward. Fortunately, Love makes up for his lack of production in those areas by posting a strong free throw percentage (85.0) and hitting 1.2 three-pointers per game. His strength in scoring, rebounding and three-pointers already make him a first-round option in fantasy, and if Love can ever develop his defensive game, he could one day challenge to be at the top of the heap.
Michael Beasley: The former second-overall pick was given the starting small forward slot at the beginning of last season, and he used the opportunity to post career-best numbers in nearly every category. Through 73 games played, Beasley averaged 19.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 three-pointers, 0.7 steals, 0.7 blocks and 2.7 turnovers in 32 minutes. Despite a glut of swingmen on the T-Wolves, he should get most of the playing time at small forward with Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph and Williams seeing most of the playing time down low.
Derrick Williams: The second overall pick in the 2011 draft put together a great season for the Arizona Wildcats, finishing with averages of 19.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.1 threes while shooting 59.5 percent from the floor and 56.8 percent from downtown. He has the size and strength to play the four but also handles the ball and has an outside game good enough to see significant time at the three. Head coach Rick Adelman said he'll focus on Williams playing power forward initially. He should emerge with a large role in the offense and could even become the focal point, but he may be brought along slowly off the bench.
Anthony Randolph: Randolph began last season with high hopes he'd find a regular role with the Knicks, but his inconsistency frustrated head coach Mike D'Antoni and he was soon relegated to the bench. He was later traded to the Timberwolves as part of the Carmelo Anthony deal but didn't land a consistent role. He averaged a career high 11.7 ppg, but started only three games and averaged 20.1 minutes per game. He did produce when given minutes as he he had five double-doubles in nine games when playing over 20 minutes. It's not clear where he fits into Minnesota's plans this season, but it's possible he could win significant minutes at power forward. He's a tremendous athlete, runs the floor very well and has excellent size (6-10). He'll just be 22 years old this season, so there's still time for him to develop into the star we've seen glimpses of so far his career.
Anthony Tolliver: After averaging 12.3 ppg and 7.3 rpg in 32.3 minutes per game with Golden State in 2009-10, Tolliver signed with Minnesota but was reduced to a smaller role. He missed a month with a sprained MCL, but it didn't appear to impact his role with the team. He runs the floor well and is multi-dimensional on offense. That skill set had upside when the T-Wolves wanted to be an up-tempo offense under head coach Kurt Rambis. With Rick Adelman taking over as head coach, Tolliver may be reduced to a minor role off the bench, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him traded at some point.
Wesley Johnson: Johnson didn't live up to expectations as the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft as he averaged just 9.0 points per game despite getting 26.2 minutes per game and shot just 39.7 percent from the floor. He'll likely begin the season as the starting shooting guard, but his hold on the job is tenuous. Still, he had games where he showed a spark on offense, and his development may have been stunted by playing for the worst team in the league.
Ricky Rubio: Minnesota took Rubio with the fifth overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft, but he elected to play professionally in Spain the past two seasons. He's been a professional player since age 14 and played for Spain in the 2008 Olympics and won a silver medal, drawing raves from NBA players in the competition for his passing ability. He's seen as a pass-first point guard with great court vision, but questions remain about his ability to shoot. Amid speculation he'd demand to be traded away from Minnesota, he finally signed a contract to play in the NBA in June. Though it's sometimes hard to translate production in European leagues to projected production in the NBA, it's worth noting that Rubio is coming to the NBA with a lot of question marks in his game. Through 54 professional games in 2010-11, Rubio shot under 33 percent from the field (including under 25 percent from beyond the arc). In 20 games with Regal Barcelona, he averaged just 6.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 23 minutes. One bright spot in his stat line is the 1.7 steals he averaged in those limited minutes. He's a candidate to hit the rookie wall and hit it hard at some point. Though he's been playing professionally since the 2005-06 season, Rubio has never averaged more than 23 minutes per game over the course of a season. Head coach Rick Adelman has been impressed by his play early in training camp and he'll likely begin the season as the starting point guard. However, he may be inconsistent given his age (just 21) and as he adapts to the NBA.
Martell Webster: Webster underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back before the start of last season and it remained an issue all year as he missed 36 games. When healthy, he showed he could be the outside shooter the team has been lacking (.417 from three-point range). The T-Wolves are again in need of a consistent scorer at shooting guard and an outside shot, so Webster has upside to win a bigger role. However, he had the same back issue again which required surgery and he's currently out indefinitely. It's not clear if he'll ever be healthy enough to be a regular contributor.
Jose Barea: The diminutive point guard proved to be a sparkplug for the Mavricks last season and even started a game in the NBA Finals. He then signed a four-year, $19 million contract with Minnesota in the offseason. Barea is a great ball handler and hustles on defense. He could be the backup point guard to Ricky Rubio in Minnesota, and head coach Rick Adelman has even talked of using him at shooting guard. He's an average shooter and his 5-11 height will limit his upside, but he could see increased playing time with his new team.
Luke Ridnour: Ridnour took over as the starting point guard last season when Jonny Flynn was sidelined after hip surgery and started 66 games. He averaged 11.8 ppg and improved his three-point shooting by making 44 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. However, he'll likely have a reduced role this season with the signing of Ricky Rubio and Jose Barea. Ridnour could fall to third on the depth chart. It's also possible Ridnour could be traded once Rubio is ready for more minutes. Either way, it looks like Ridnour's fantasy value will take a hit, although it's possible the point guard position for Minnesota could be unsettled early in the season.
Wayne Ellington: Minnesota had hoped Ellington could provide Minnesota with a consistent three-point threat off the bench. While his three-point shooting has been above average (39.7 percent last season), it's not elite. He'll likely have a limited role this season again.
Malcolm Lee: Lee was taken by Chicago in the second round (43rd overall) in the 2011 draft and then traded to Minnesota. The Timberwolves think so highly of him that they signed him to a guaranteed contract, which is rare for a second-round pick. He can run the floor well and plays good defense, but he needs to improve his shooting. He'll likely come along slowly, but he could surprise since Minnesota has minutes in the rotation up for grabs.
Ricky Rubio: Except for Love, and maybe Beasley, almost every player on Minnesota is a sleeper since expectations are low and playing time can be had. However, Rubio could be a bargain in deeper leagues. It looks like he may start at point guard right away, and coaches have raved about his passing ability. It's not clear if he can shoot, but he may be a decent source of assists and get more minutes than initially expected.
Luke Ridnour: With the investments Minnesota has made into Ricky Rubio and Jose Barea, it seems unlikely his role will even approach the 66 starts and 30.4 minutes per game he averaged last year. He'll likely be relegated to a smaller backup role, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him traded early in the season.