Timberwolves feeling the Love...
(The Sports Network) Injuries are not an excuse in sports.
It seems like an annoying mantra, but blaming your team's struggles on injuries is a cop out. Every team has to deal with players getting hurt. It's part of the game.
Just don't tell that to Minnesota.
The Timberwolves limped through 2012-13 more than any team in the NBA. The franchise that hadn't made the postseason since trading Kevin Garnett to Boston in the summer of 2007 went into the year with a talented young core of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic.
The trio played just two games -- and 13 minutes -- together a season ago.
Rubio missed the early stages of the year while rehabbing from a torn ACL, which he suffered midway through his rookie campaign in 2011-12. Love was in and out of the lineup battling through a twice-broken hand and played just 18 games, while Pekovic missed time with a thigh injury.
Who's In/Who's Out
Additions: Kevin Martin, Ronny Turiaf, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng
Losses: Luke Ridnour, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy, Greg Stiemsma, Malcolm Lee, Mickael Gelabele
Injuries aside, Minnesota had trouble shooting and defending 3-pointers last season. The Wolves ranked dead last in the NBA, hitting just 30.5 percent from behind the arc, while opponents knocked down threes at a 36.9 percent clip.
Two key offseason acquisitions, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, will help address those issues. Martin is a notorious marksman who has made a career of knocking down shots. The 30-year old out of Western Carolina made 42.6 percent of his outside shots a season ago while playing with OKC, good for 10th best in the league and fourth among players who made at least two triples a game.
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Brewer, a respectable shooter in his own right, brings good size and athleticism to the small forward spot. His ability to defend perimeter players will help make up for the loss of last year's best defender Andrei Kirilenko, who signed with Brooklyn this offseason.
Minnesota also needs the 2011 No. 2 pick Derrick Williams to make strides from last season. Unsure whether he should play the role of stretch four or big, physical three, Williams has been wildly inconsistent in two seasons in the league.
But at the end of the day, the Wolves will go as far as Rubio's brilliant passes, Love's inside-outside dominance and Pekovic's assertiveness on the block will take them.
Expectations are high in Minnesota for the first since Garnett's departure. Now they have to capitalize.
The strength of this team, both literal and figurative, lies on the mammoth-sized shoulders of its starting frontcourt. Love has been a double-double machine since joining the league, posting averages of 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per contest in five seasons.
Pekovic, a 27-year old Yugoslavian native, was an early second-round pick of the Wolves in 2008 before debuting with minimal results in 2010-11. Pekovic emerged last season as one of the league's most powerful interior scorers who routinely causes defenders fits. If his talent ever meets his physical attributes, the rest of the league should be on alert.
Rubio began his professional career in Spain at the age of 14 and became a YouTube sensation shortly after thanks to his dazzling passes and ball-handling ability. Fast forward eight years, and Rubio is one of the most electric floor generals in the NBA. Still a dynamic passer, Rubio has improved his on-ball defense every year and has added a respectable jumper to his offensive arsenal.
Martin and Brewer will play similar roles for the starting unit. Neither will be asked to create much with Rubio and Love on the court, although Martin is certainly capable. Expect both to move relentlessly off the ball to find space so that Rubio, who will make sure they get their share of open looks from outside, get them involved.
The loss of Chase Budinger, who inked a three-year extension with the club this summer, is a big one. Budinger is a high-flier and prolific outside shooter who had nearly one-quarter of his lateral meniscus removed and will miss a large chunk of the season. His injury opens the door for rookie first- round pick Shabazz Muhammad to play minutes immediately.
Two key members of this bench unit are guards J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved. Barea made a name for himself helping the Dallas Mavericks beat LeBron James and the Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals, and has brought a grit and savvy to the Wolves. Despite being listed at a generous 6'0, Barea routinely find ways to score on bigger opponents.
Shved brings international experience to Minnesota. Returning for his second season, the combo guard hopes to build off a positive rookie campaign in which he netted 8.6 points per game to go with 3.7 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 23.9 minutes of action.
Williams will also be leaned on heavily. Entering the last guaranteed season of his rookie deal, the time is now for Williams to prove he belongs in the Wolves' rotation.
Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf are stable veterans who bring mid-range shooting and toughness, respectively, to the second unit. Anything Minnesota can get from rookie Gorgui Dieng will just be a bonus.
What To Expect
If Love or Rubio go down for an extended period of time, it will certainly be an uphill climb to the postseason. But the optimism surrounding the Wolves is real. This team has a balanced starting unit, versatile reserves and a coach who knows what it takes to win in this league.