STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Minnesota entered last season with playoff aspirations, but finished with just 37 wins as the team was ravaged by injuries. Even though the T-Wolves had their largest win total in six years, president of basketball operations David Kahn wasn't retained at the end of the season. Kahn's tenure as the GM was much derided as he had some major misses in the draft (taking Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry as Exhibit A) and often made bold statements in the media that looked dumb on their face, but he had managed to acquire a solid base of talent heading into last season and hired a coach in Rick Adelman that drew near universal praise.
But injuries wrecked Kahn's chance to make the playoffs as the T-Wolves lost lost 341 man-games to injuries last season. Ricky Rubio didn't return from the torn ACL in his left knee until mid-December and was finally set to play with Kevin Love for a full season, but Kevin Love broke his hand in early January and the duo played just two games together. The injuries didn't end there and became almost comical. Chase Budinger played just 23 games after a knee injury. Andrei Kirilenko missed 18 games. Nikola Pekovic missed 20 games. Reserves Josh Howard and Malcom Lee were lost to season-ending injuries early in the year. Brandon Roy wasn't able to come back from chronic knee issues and played just five games. Even head coach Rick Adelman missed three weeks to be with his ill wife.
With Kahn gone, the T-Wolves hired former head coach Flip Saunders to take over as the head of basketball operations. His tenure did not get off to a great start as Minnesota struggled in the 2013 NBA draft. Saunders wasn't able to select a needed shooter in the draft and ended up taking a player in Shabazz Muhammad that he had been critical of just a few weeks earlier. The pick looked even worse when Saunders threatened to send him to the D-League after Muhammad was kicked out of the NBA's Rookie Transition Program for bringing a female guest to his hotel room. The T-Wolves also acquired Gorgui Dieng, but he'll initially be a defensive-minded backup with a limited role.
Saunders also didn't get great marks in free agency. After Kirilenko surprisingly opted out of the final year of his contract that would have paid him $10.2 million, Saunders had some cap room to sign an impact player. The T-Wolves were desperate for outside shooters and any kind of impact player at shooting guard. He was able to sign Kevin Martin to a a four-year, $28 million deal. Martin is a favorite of Rick Adelman, having played for him in Houston and Sacramento, and adds a needed outside shooter and scorer at small forward. To address defensive issues, the T-Wolves acquired Corey Brewer in a sign-and-trade deal with the Nuggets. Nikola Pekovic was also retained, but at a high price, as he agreed to a five-year, $60 million contract. Ronny Turiaf also signed a two-year deal to add depth.
Saunders didn't add a marquee impact player in the offseaon, but that may be less important than the core of Minnesota's roster staying healthy. Rubio, Love and Pekovic played just 15 minutes together last season. If those three can stay healthy, Adelman has been one of the top coaches in the league during his career and may get enough out of the rest of the roster to contend for a playoff spot.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Minnesota's big three should be mainstays in the lineup as Kevin Love will start at power forward, Nikola Pekovic will start at center and Ricky Rubio will start at point guard. The other two spots in the lineup may be in flux much of the season. Kevin Martin should start at shooting guard and log significant minutes, but his defensive limitations could limit his minutes. Corey Brewer will likely start at small forward, but his offensive limitations will limit his minutes. Chase Buddinger figured to get playing time at both swingman positions, but he may miss most of the season with a setback to last year's knee injury. Derrick Williams may get more of a shot at significant minutes at small forward if he can improve his offense. J.J. Barea will back up Rubio. Alexey Shved could find a role off the bench if he can find his three-point shot that he lost late last year. Even Shabazz Muhammad could figure into the shooting guard and small forward mix as a rookie.
Nikola Pekovic: The Montenegrin Mountain built on his surprising breakout from the previous season to establish himself as a legitimate fantasy option in 2012-13. Cemented as the Timberwolves starting center, Pekovic averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting an efficient 52 percent from the floor and 74 percent from the charity stripe in 32 minutes per game. The hulking (6-11, 290) center doesn't possess the athleticism to match most of his counterparts, but he uses his brute strength and surprisingly deft touch around the rim to finish at a high clip. His production on defense remained lackluster in his first full season as a starter, but Pekovic could start creeping towards or above that 1.0 average on steals or blocks as his understanding of NBA defense shows minimal improvement. Minnesota has an intriguing mix of skilled players on the offensive end of the court, but many of those options are perimeter-oriented which should lead to Pekovic being the focal point for most of their low-post attacks. With Kevin Martin joining the mix and Kevin Love returning from injury, there may be fewer shots for Pekovic, but he'll still see enough touches to be a valuable option to plug into the center position of your fantasy squad.
Gorgui Dieng: The 21st pick in the 2013 NBA Draft will be used in a reserve role, but could be a nice fit for the T-Wolves. At 6-11 with a 7-4 wingspan, he was a strong shot blocker in college (3.8 blocks per 40 minutes), but also improved his mid-range shot his senior season and had good passing skills for a big man (which fits nicely with Minnesota's current big men who can pass). He may not play many minutes as long as Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are healthy, but he's a player who could develop into a productive backup quickly.
Ronny Turiaf: Turiaf averaged just 1.9 points and 2.3 rebounds in 65 games last season, and while he's unlikely to have a fantasy impact in most leagues, he'll provide the Timberwolves with a much-needed high energy backup for the frontcourt. He saw just 10.8 minutes per contest with the Clippers last season, but could see a modest increase in playing time, particularly if Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic struggle with injuries again.
Chris Johnson: Johnson was incredibly efficient from the field, shooting for 64 percent, but he took few shots away from the basket and isn't seen as having a strong offensive game. He was originally signed by the Wolves from the D-League when Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Dante Cunningham were all injured. He averaged 17.2 minutes and 9.2 points during his first five games. However, his playing time quickly decreased. He averaged only 7.6 minutes during February, 9.2 minutes during March and 5.2 minutes during April. He may have been released but former president of basketball operations David Kahn surprisingly signed him to a guaranteed contract for 2013-14 before he was let go as the team's GM. Johnson may be stuck on the bench as he's far down the depth chart as a result. He'll battle Ronny Turiaf and rookie first round pick Gorgui Dieng for minutes as a backup center.
Kevin Love: Love battled through injuries with his hand and wrist, limiting his efficiency and ending his season early. In 2011-12, the forward averaged 26.0 points (45 percent from the field), 13.3 rebounds and 1.9 three-pointers made. While he managed to play just 18 games last season, he finished with averages of 18.3 points (35 percent from the field), 14.0 rebounds and 1.1 three-pointers made. News regarding his recovery status over the summer has been optimistic for the most part, and it would not be unreasonable to expect Love to have a monster bounce-back season. His lack of contributions in traditional power forward categories such as field goal percentage and blocks are well made up by his magnitude of points and rebounds, along with his ability to hit three-pointers. Love should be considered a first-round pick in almost all fantasy formats, and as long as he can remain healthy, he should return to being the elite fantasy option he once was. With fellow teammate Ricky Rubio manning the offense at the point guard position, and with rising center Nikola Pekovic forcing defensive pressure down low, Love will get enough touches and opportunities to put up strong fantasy numbers overall.
Corey Brewer: Brewer is the favorite to be the starting small forward for the Timberwolves after Chase Budinger had arthroscopic knee surgery. He's known more for his defense than his offense, but he had the second best year of his career last season with the Nuggets, averaging 12.1 points per game while playing in all 82 games. Brewer returns to the team that selected him seventh overall in the 2007 NBA Draft a much more refined player, especially on the defensive side of the equation. While he played all 82 games for only the second time in his six years in the league in 2012-13, he knocked down a career-best 1.1 three-pointers in a run-and-gun offense, which supplemented nicely his remaining line - 12.1 points (on 42.5 percent shooting), 2.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.4 steals in 24.4 minutes. Brewer should provide nice support to Kevin Martin (and Budinger if he returns) on the wing, while taking on a fairly similar workload to the one he held with Denver. While it's possible Budinger could steal the starting small forward job when he returns, there has been some talk that Brewer would have the starting job even if Budinger were healthy.
Chase Budinger: Last season, Budinger was supposed to add a needed outside shot and veteran savvy from a player experienced with head coach Rick Adelman's system, but he missed 59 games with a torn lateral meniscus. He had a setback before training camp when swelling developed in the same knee and he needed a second surgery. While it was a major operation, only a quarter of his meniscus was removed, which could result in a reduced recovery time compared to last year. If healthy, he's a talented and efficient scorer. He struggled with his three-point shot with the T-Wolves last season at just 32.1 percent, but it was a small sample size (81 attempts) and he hit 44 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 77 percent from the line the previous season in Houston. Still, it's possible he misses most or all of the season with his knee injury.
Derrick Williams: Williams followed up a less than desirable rookie season in 2011-12 with a decent season during 2012-13. He averaged 12.0 points and 5.5 rebounds, but never took over the kind of substantial role you would expect from a No. 2 overall draft pick even with the Timberwolves suffering a rash of injuries. He saw modest improvement form last year's number but did increase his three-point shooting percentage to 33.2 percent from 26.8 percent the previous season. Part of the issue may be that he's always been an odd fit on Minnesota's roster as his size (6-9, 250) is more fitting of a power forward, but with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic on the roster, Minnesota has wanted him to play small forward. To that end, Williams worked hard during the offseason to lose some weight to better adapt to the small forward position. With Chase Budinger out indefinitely after knee surgery, Williams has more of a chance at significant playing time at small forward. He likely needs a strong preseason as the T-Wolves have until Oct. 31 to make a decision on a $6.3 million option for the 2014-15 season. Normally, extending a rookie contract to a fourth year for a No. 2 overall pick is a no-brainer. However, that the T-Wolves have to think about the decision shows his status on the roster may be precarious. He's a candidate to be traded at some point during the season if he doesn't take a big leap as a result.
Dante Cunningham: Cunningham enters the season as the primary backup to Kevin Love at power forward. The former Villanova star averaged 8.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals in a career-high 25.1 minutes per game last season. He emerged as a versatile forward who can play both inside and outside, as well as defend multiple positions. However, his offensive skills are limited as he doesn't have a good mid-range shot. However, he doesn't make many mistakes, has few turnovers and seen as a hard worker. That may give him an edge for backup minutes in the front court over Derrick Williams.
Kevin Martin: Acquired by the Thunder in the blockbuster James Harden trade just days before the regular season, Martin stepped in as a de facto replacement for Harden as the team's sixth man. Unburdened from the strain of serving as the Thunder's primary perimeter scorer like he was in Houston, Martin benefitted from more open looks with defenses focusing their attention on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. While his scoring expectedly fell from 17.1 to 14.0 points per game with his new team, Martin nailed 158 three-pointers at a career-best 43 percent clip, while his 45 percent accuracy from the field was his best output since the 2007-08 campaign. Martin parlayed the strong season into a four-year, $28 million contract with the Timberwolves, where he'll be asked to more or less reprise the role he held with the Rockets as the team's top scoring threat in the backcourt. Expect Martin's counting numbers to rise as a result of the added playing time he'll see with the Wolves, though it will almost certainly come with a drop-off from the improved shooting percentages he posted with the Thunder. Never regarded as a strong defender and coming off a season in which he averaged just 3.0 rebounds per 36 minutes, Martin can't be counted upon to contribute much outside of the offensive categories.
Ricky Rubio: If "fun to watch" was a fantasy category, Rubio would be a top-five player. His creativity on offense, his ball-handling and his pinpoint passes have made him a big favorite in the NBA blogosphere. But his actual production – in fantasy terms, at least – has a ways to go before it catches up to his reputation. He's an excellent source of assists (7.3 apg in 2012-13) and steals (2.4), and a better-than-average rebounder (4.0 rpg) for his position – but he can't shoot. Rubio's field goal percentage from the floor last season looked like other guards' shooting from three – and his three-point percentage was in John Wall territory. The return of Kevin Love should help Rubio's numbers; due to a variety of injuries, Minnesota's two biggest attractions only appeared together in five games last year.
J.J. Barea: Barea is set to backup Ricky Rubio at point guard. While his totals from last year were nearly identical to the previous season (he averaged 11.3 ppg in both 2011-12 and 2012-13), he was somewhat inconsistent as he had 16 games where he scored five or less points. He also saw his assist-to-turnover ratio decline slightly. Barea can be an offensive spark plug off the bench and got playing time at shooting guard amid Minnesota's many injuries last season, but he may have a more limited backup point guard role this season with several new swingmen in the mix.
Alexey Shved: Shved will try to rebound from an uneven rookie season that saw him struggle in the second half of the season. He was seen as a strong shooter coming out of Russia who was able to knock down open shots more than creating his own opportunities. That proved true over the season's first two months as he was given more minutes initially than expected due to injuries and he responded by scoring 10.0 points per game with 4.7 assists per game over 28.4 minutes per game along with shooting 37.7 percent from the field and 31.4 from three-point range. However, he seemed to hit the rookie wall and tire in the second half as he shot just 25.8 percent from three-point rage after the first two months and averaged just 6.2 points per game. He'll need to improve his outside shot and bulk up so that he can be an efficient defensive player. Still, there's hope for improvement since he may have had a tough adjustment to playing overseas. And with Minnesota's swingmen playing time in flux, Shved could carve out a role off the bench.
Shabazz Muhammad: Minnesota acquired Muhammad, the 14th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, in a draft day trade and he'll compete for minutes at shooting guard. Muhammad entered his freshman season at UCLA with the hype of being one of the top recruits in the nation, but had a an up-and-down season. He averaged 18 points, five rebounds and one assist while shooting 44 percent from the field and 37 percent from three-point range. He missed three games at the start of the season for taking $1,600 in impermissible benefits, which raised off-court concerns. Those character concerns were magnified when he was was kicked out of the NBA's Rookie Transition Program for bringing a female guest to his hotel room. The T-Wolves threatened to send him to the D-League if he doesn't learn to follow team and league rules as a result. If he can avoid off-court issues, Muhammad could provide offense off the bench as he posses an ability to get to the basket and make shots, especially in transition. However, he looked one dimensional as he wasn't much of a passer or defender and he continued that trend in the NBA summer league. He'll need to score at a very high rate and improve his outside shot to carve out a regular role. However, the T-Wolves are desperate for outside scoring and the swingmen roles are in flux, so he'll have plenty of opportunity.
Lorenzo Brown: Brown, the 52nd overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, is physically impressive for an NBA point guard prospect, standing in at 6-5, 186. However, he is an average athlete and appeared to regress in some areas during his junior season at North Carolina State, in which he recorded 12.4 points (on 41.9 percent shooting), 7.2 dimes, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.0 steals in 34.2 minutes per outing. Considering how deep the T-Wolves are at point guard, Brown will more than likely toil in the NBA's D-League in his rookie year.
A.J. Price: Price received increased playing time at the point guard position with starter John Wall missing significant time with a knee injury at the beginning of the season. He resumed backup duties upon Wall's return. Health concerns also plagued Price in the 2012-13 campaign, as he missed time with hand, thigh and groin injuries over the course of the season. He'll try to win a role as the third point guard, but he may not make the final roster and won't get many minutes off the bench without injuries if he sticks.
Corey Brewer: He improved his offense last season and has an opening for significant minutes with Chase Budinger's knee injury. Since Brewer is one of Minnesota's few strong defensive players, even a slight improvement with his shooting or passing could result in an uptick in minutes and fantasy value.
Derrick Williams: He hasn't found a role with the Timberwolves nor established himself as a consistent part of the offense. He's likely to be a trade chip if he can't crack the lineup early in the seasonm and he may be a better fit as a power forward with another team.