Thank goodness for Al Jefferson. Were it not for Minnesota's burgeoning star in the pivot, this team might just fall off the NBA radar completely.
There was a brief instant during this spring's Draft that this team almost found a second note-worthy player in O.J. Mayo but they swiftly traded him away for Kevin Love, Mike Miller and Brian Cardinal. It's as if the team was briefly lavished with too much attention and found a way to scurry back into its hole before the bright lights made them see its shadow.
So now this team enters its six additional weeks of winter - or in NBA parlance, they enter the first of many anonymous seasons. Last year, this team at least had the distinction of being the team that traded away a Hall-of-Fame player in Kevin Garnett for a group of expiring deals and the up-and-coming Jefferson.
This season, this team has so little talent dotting its roster that most NBA fans would be hard-pressed to name the five players likely to start the season for the Wolves. Throw in undistinguished head coach Randy Wittman and the team may have trouble seperating themselves from a D-League affiliate during the cold winter months.
Of course, keeping them from that embarrassment is Jefferson. He was one of only five 20-10 players in the NBA last season and he's locked-in to a contract to keep him in Minnesota until 2013. He is the only player under contract past 2010 (Sebastian Telfair has a player-option for the following season) and he represents not only the cornerstone of this franchise; he represents the entirety of this franchise.
Nothing else about what is going on with this team has even a whiff of the permanence that Jefferson has. While he is surrounded by expendable parts, Jefferson has played his way into a cornerstone role. He's got a killer low-post offensive game (he scored 47% of his points inside last season), he is a beast on the glass and he even managed 1.5 blocked shots per game last year.
Of the top 10 most effective units this team fielded last season, Jefferson was the only player on all ten. He is not only the rudder for this team but he's also the steering wheel, the boat and water it floats on. If he can get his defensive development to start catching up with his offence, he could become the most complete big man in the NBA - but that is a huge 'if'.
Right now, he's a more reliable version of Zach Randolph - offensively gifted and defensively raw - and he's going to have to begin not only rounding out his game but figuring out how to turn himself into a leader at 23 years old. He's got the full backing of the organization and hopefully he can be helped along on his quest better than the man he was traded for.
Of course, that's the real concern here with regards to Jefferson. No one is particularly worried at this point about the player; he's taken on and bested every challenge set at his feet thus far in his career. The real question is if Kevin McHale and his band of cronies can actually surround Jefferson with the requisite talent he'll need to succeed. They'll have no shortage of money to make that happen in the years to come and they'll have no shortage of high draft picks to pair with it, but this team has a horrible track record using either.
Big money deals to guys like Marko Jaric and first round draft picks like Ndubi Ibi leave 'Sota fans squeamish about the future and will continue to until management proves capable of acquiring and developing talent. McHale has long suggested that he'll be ready to step down from his post when he gets the team up to a real level of competitiveness - the fear right now is that day will simply never come.
For now, the Timberwolves have to go about developing their plan of attack. In addition to Jefferson, this team has to look at getting more out of guards Randy Foye and Rashad McCants - especially in terms of consistency. They are going to have to go about helping Corey Brewer unearth any kind of scoring touch. They need to figure out a workable rotation with forwards Mike Miller, Ryan Gomes Rodney Carney, Kevin Love and Brewer. In all they have a lot to discover and they need find out whom they have and whom they want for the future. For today, though, there is Jefferson and that's about it.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - Randy Foye
Randy Foye is a lucky guy. Despite a shaky rookie year and being beset by injuries last season, he's managed to dodge the flurry of comparisons to draft-mate and All-Star Brandon Roy. The two were traded for each other on Draft night and while Roy has gone on to become the apex of the resurgent Blazers organization, Foye has struggled to find a foothold in the NBA. He's not really a point guard, he's a low-percentage shooter and he's a wildly inconsistent player overall. There are those that firmly believe that year-three is the key year for any NBA player and the path for their career. The thinking is that they've had a year of shock at the speed and talent in the NBA, and they've had a year to adjust to it. Generally, if a player doesn't find a groove by their third year in the league than they probably aren't destined to. The clock is ticking, Mr. Foye..
SG - Rashad McCants
There were times last year when it appeared McCants was going to break-out and become a legit running-mate for Jefferson. He got his scoring up to 15 points per game and was hitting threes at a 40% clip. He never really found a consistent groove, though, and his season scoring average is really the result of as many single-digit scoring nights as 20-point scoring nights. Also, when the team started to lean on him more for points in the late winter, he buckled under the attention. He has the tools and versatility to be an offensive force but he needs the consistency to back it up. He'll need that consistency, too, if he wants to keep Mike Miller from overtaking his role in the offense.
SF - Mike Miller
If one wants a test of how well thought out this team's plans are for the future, then they need only follow the season of Mike Miller. He's on the books until 2010 so he's a desirable contract for teams looking to get under the cap for a run at LeBron, Wade, et al. and they should be looking to move him now. He's eating away $9 million per year of their cap and he in no way figures into their long-term plans. If they choose to keep him and feature him heavily in their offense, though, then he represents a stark reminder as to how misguided this team really is. They need to be developing their youth and that isn't going to happen by allowing Miller to dominate the perimeter offense. He's a tremendous and underrated player so this isn't meant as an indictment of Miller, but much like Seattle did last year, this team needs to divest itself of veterans who need the ball so that their youth can learn via playing time and experience. It will also help the team assess the assets they have and the ones they need to discard. Giving Miller heavy minutes each night only proves that he's a solid and reliable NBA player, something everyone has known since he won his Rookie of the Year award in 2001 and the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2006. It also proves that Minnesota has no clue to how pull themselves out of their doldrums.
PF - Kevin Love
Love is a gamble. This team could have used O.J. Mayo and his explosive offense in the backcourt but they opted for Love instead and sent Mayo to Memphis. Love represents one-half of Minnesota's undersized frontcourt. He's a skilled big man who has worked hard at slimming down and improving his repertoire this summer. But he's going to be feasted upon by opposing bigs who will expose his size and lack of mobility - especially athletic forwards like Rashard Lewis, Chris Bosh and Josh Smith. If Mayo turns around and has a killer season in Memphis, then this will be the team that gave up - which is far worse than passing up - two desperately needed backcourt options for questionable alternatives. People may have been willing to look past Foye's production because he could still capitalize on his supposed 'upside', but Love is who he is and a poor rookie season could seriously hinder his stock around the league and could affect his entire NBA career.
C - Al Jefferson
What more can one say about Al Jefferson. It was a mistake when Boston imported Antoine Walker four years ago to eat away at his minutes and strong development, but it didn't hinder his growth. It was lamentable when he missed over twenty games in the '05-'06 season after suffering an ankle injury, but he bounced back and made himself valuable enough to be the centerpiece in the return package for Kevin Garnett. He had the pressure of that trade to live up to and he goes and has a career-year and establishes himself as one of the most promising young big men in the game. This will be the first season that Jefferson has come in with nothing to prove and it will be interesting to see how (or if) that affects his game.