When we last left our heroes, Ricky and Bud-winkle had led our Wolves to a season ending victory over the soon to be Western Conference Champs. Ricky urged young Boris Shved to “Change his face” and Owner Glen Taylor kicked Clueless Leader (David Kahn) to the curb. Now that order had been restored Ricky and Bud-winkle rode off to enjoy their summer vacation.
Ok, so maybe it wasn’t quite like that, but much has changed since we last left our favorite cagers on the hardwood. What started out as a promising year in the preseason, with a peak at what could be with a Gold Medalist in Kevin Love, a rejuvenated Brandon Roy and a Swiss Army Knife of a player in Andrei Kirilenko ended in one of the most injury riddled seasons in recent memory. Last year’s disappointment was filled with knuckle push up-gate, terrible three point shooting, and at least 19 different players seeing game action because of previously mentioned injuries.
After missing the playoffs for the ninth straight season and an injured star player who was not happy with David Kahn, owner Glenn Taylor made the right decision to let Kahn go. However, mortally wounded, Khan activates Genesis, which will reorganize all matter in the nebula including the Enterprise, er Timberwolves. Spock, I mean Flip, goes to the engine room to restore the warp drive, I mean Timberwolves roster. Hmm, maybe I watch too much TV. Regardless, Flip came in and made some changes to the Wolves roster in attempt to correct the laco of three point shooting and overall depth to the team. First Flip made a reasonable offer to Kirilenko, Kirilenko declined and headed to Brooklyn to play for Mother Russia, er I mean the Nyets, oops Nets and their Russian Billionaire owner. Next the options on Roy and Steimsma were not picked up and Gelabale was not retained. Flip’s next moves took place at the draft, where Flip turned the 9th pick into the 14th and 21st picks. With those two picks the Wolves took UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad and Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng respectively. The Wolves later traded away the 26th pick and Malcolm Lee into a 2014 2nd round draft choice. There have been mixed reviews of how the draft went for the Wolves, but in an instant gratification society, fans don’t want to wait long to see their new rookies blossom into what they potential could be.
After the draft the Wolves set out to fill their remaining holes through free agency. Their big catch was obtaining the services of Kevin Martin, a scoring wing who was also very familiar with Coach Adleman’s system. However, ironman Luke Ridnour needed to be traded back to his previous team, the Milwaukee Bucks, to accomplish this financially. They then needed to add to some depth at the Small Forward position after Kirilenko left, so the Wolves resigned Chase Budinger and brought back former Wolf Corey Brewer. The Wolves were able to retain the services of fan favorite Nikola Pekovic at what is becoming a reasonable price for a quality big man at approximately $12 Million per season. The team rounded out their 2013 – 2014 roster by signing veteran big man Ronny Turiaf, point guard A.J. Price and former Wolves 2nd Round pick Forward Robbie Hummel.
What do all these resigned and new parts mean to this team? Most importantly the team is starting the year healthy. Oh wait, Chase Budinger got hurt again and is out indefinitely. Now don’t worry Wolves fans, it should only be a temporary situation. As someone who has undergone multiple knee surgeries it could be much worse, Bud will be fine and I hope back on the court sooner rather than later. The Wolves have added a shooting guard that is an efficient scorer, shoots well from deep and he also moves well without the ball. From what little I have seen from him in the preseason Martin should be just what the Wolves need on nights when the first team offense goes into catatonic mode. For the first time it what seems like forever, the Wolves have a legitimate starting shooting guard that is over 6’ 2”. Now I know the scouting report on Martin does not speak highly of his defense, but lets be honest Luke’s defense, while admirable consider what he was asked to do, wasn’t exactly Defensive Player of the Year material. The Wolves defense is less about having individual stoppers but having a good team defense. While the Wolves may not have a lockdown defender, they can play within this team concept. The additions of Brewer, Turiaf and Dieng will add to the defense of the team. Brewer is a pest to opponents wings while Turiaf and Dieng will add that shot blocking element that left with Stiemsma. The Wolves should, scratch that, will be better from the three point line. Martin is a career 38.5% three point shooter, Brewer has improved his three point shooting since he left the Wolves, and the return offormer three point contest champion Kevin Love will only increase on last years league worst 30.5% three point shooting.
What did the preseason tell us? Although only three games were shown on TV, it appeared that as time has gone on the first team continues to gel. After hearing reports that the second team was beating the starters in team scrimmages and viewing the Wolves come out flat and not shooting well it raised some concerns with this team. If this team doesn’t get into the flow offensively I could see that affecting their defensive intensity. Basketball is a sport that sometimes your offense helps to fuel your defense and I think the Wolves are one of those types of teams. The key for this team to making the playoffs and even advancing in the playoffs will be getting defensive stops on nights where they can’t simply outscore opponents.
Most nights this team will be moving the ball around quickly while making cuts in Adleman’s corner offense that we all know and love, but when that doesn’t happen what do you do? Add in instant offense, JJ Barea. I know I have been hard on him before and found myself yelling at the TV while watching him, but when he is used correctly he can be very dangerous. By all accounts he played very well this preseason after playing well in the Tournament of the Americas. If JJ is not counted on to be the guy on offense and more of a change of pace guy off the bench he is very useful. JJ can be paired with Shved in a combo of two guards that can play either guard position. As long as JJ is not required to be the go to scorer he is much more of asset than a detriment.
What do Wolves fans need to be concerned about? I wish I could say nothing, but as most Minnesota sports fans know, there is always something bad waiting to happen around the corner. Maybe there isn’t, but it often feels that way. The main thing that could derail this team is the same thing that derailed the last two seasons, injuries. We know Pek will probably miss some games, it happens each year, but with the reserves and potential to play small ball the loss of Pek in the short term could be minimized. However, if there was an injury to Ricky or Love that could really destroy this teams playoff hopes.
Another concern is how this team is constructed and how their “Big Three” matchup with opposing teams. The wolves front court have two extremely talented big men, however certain players can give them fits. The long athletic shot blocking types, which affect a lot of players, can negate the strength that the Wolves bigs utilize. Maybe it’s just me but does Pek’s wingspan seem pretty average? Maybe its just how big his muscles are, but he doesn’t seem to have the reach of other players. He does utilizes his strength and footwork to create space that allow him to get the shots he wants, of course he needs to finish those little rolling shots.
The last thing to watch is Ricky’s shooting. When Ricky started his rookie year his shooting, and especially three point shooting, was better than most people anticipated. Last season after not being able to consistently work on that shot due to recovering from ACL reconstruction it seemed to revert to what most expected. That coupled with Ricky not being able to finish around the rim caused concern that teams would back of Ricky and force him to shoot. I think that losing so many players last year forced Ricky into scorers mode, which will ultimately help this team. Whether it be shooting threes at a percentage the defense needs to respect or getting to the rim to draw fouls or finish Ricky needs to look to score. Being a threat to the defense will force teams to guard him more closely and that in turn will help open up and space the floor better for his teammates.
Looking at the offseason moves, the relative health of this young team and the potential they possess it looks to be a very exciting season for our Wolves. Based on what we have seen from individual players like Love, Pekovic and Rubio, this team can be very very good. Will they be good enough to make the playoffs? I believe they will. Let’s face it, the Western Conference is loaded. To get the 7th or 8th playoff spot may not seem like a great landing spot, however the 7th or 8th seed could win as many as 50 games. I know most Wolves fans would love to be a 50 win team again. It’s been a long time since the Wolves have been relevant but the time is now and it all starts Wednesday vs the Magic. So don’t miss the next episode of Ricky and Bud-Winkle, it’s called “Run, Run Scoring is Fun” or “Catch Us if you Can!”