Just two years removed from complete basketball irrelevancy and playing the role of Ricky Rubio’s spurned foreign lover, the Minnesota Timberwolves have suddenly assembled one of the most interesting, versatile, and perhaps promising rosters in the NBA. GM David Kahn remains the butt of the most popular league-wide Sci-Fi parody, and his lottery selections of departed players like Johnny Flynn and Wesley Matthews as well as public pimping of Darko Milicic give that thinly veiled criticism weight. But just as confoundingly impressive as some of his other moves are comical is how he shored up Minny’s depleted wing rotation in this wild off-season with the signings of talented question marks Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko, and Alexey Shved. Even the Wolves’ first major move of the summer – trading their first-round pick to Houston for Chase Budinger – comes with a sense of the unknown. As the only member of Minnesota’s new perimeter quartet that played in the NBA last season, Budinger’s career trajectory is still anything but definitively linear. This woebegone organization’s direction as a whole, though, is trending up despite the seemingly endless array of queries for this coming season and those following.
Most important to the Wolves’ development is the health of Rubio, their sophomore wizard of a point-guard who tore his ACL mid-way through last season. Minny was poised for an unexpected playoff spot in 2012 with him in the lineup, and even after his injury stayed afloat longer than anyone anticipated. Rubio will miss the first few months of this season and projects to play again sometime after the new year, so this new roster will be molded without him at the beginning. He should make a relatively seamless transition as point-guard of the New Timberwolves once healthy, though, his infectious personality and playmaking on both ends of the floor easy to integrate. Rubio has his flaws, obviously, and needs to improve as a shooter, but it’s safe to say Minnesota is in good hands as long as he’s the one driving.
Of course, Rubio’s health and the Wolves’ new collection of wings wouldn’t matter without Kevin Love. Maybe the best power forward in the world, Love is the the player this franchise has been longing for since the departure of Kevin Garnett in 2007, a dominant (if limited) force on the court and an extremely marketable personality off it. Love’s game deserves criticism and has a way to go to be considered one of the league’s true best on either end, but is the always necessary bed-rock for a team on the rise like Minny. And with behemoth paint-scoring savant Nikola Pekovic by his side, the Wolves have a young frontcourt tandem to build on. They’re challenged defensively, yes, but with the proper pieces around them it’s easy to imagine Minnesota winning multiple playoff series with Love and Pekovic manning the interior.
These are the Timberwolves’ answers, the value, merits, and potential of young and supremely talented players like Rubio, Love, and Pekovic. The questions? They’re endless, far-reaching, and will ultimately decide just how good this team can be over the next several seasons.
This maze of free-agent moves mostly began with Roy, so it makes sense to tackle his role for Minny first here. We all know Roy’s story – from rookie of the year to franchise to player to multiple knee surgeries to twenty-something has-been to premature retirement following 2011 – but what we don’t is what of it to extrapolate to his future as a member of the Wolves. His days as an All-Star are long gone, we surely agree, so will Roy be comfortable playing the part of a supporting piece for the Wolves? Will he even be okay with coming off the bench, the most sensible choice for a player with his fragile body? His recent comments – “… it’s always hard to keep me out of the starting lineup” and “… [I'm] ready to play at a high level” – cast doubt on both of those likely scenarios and thus how happy he’ll be his first days in Minnesota. Roy has value – his knack and skill is superb and should be unaffected by balky knees – but does he know his true and present worth as a player? Time will tell.
Kirilenko is the newest member of the Timberwolves, agreeing to a two-year, 20 million dollar contract last week after Minnesota moved Wes Johnson and other financial considerations to clear the cap space to sign him. Once one of the NBA’s best all-around talents and five-by-five innovators (at least five points, rebounds, etc. in five box score categories), he played in his native Russia last year with CSKA Moscow after going back abroad during the lockout. Kirilenko won the Euroleague equivalents of MVP and Defensive Player of the Year during his short foreign sojourn, but nonetheless faces a myriad of questions regarding his effectiveness in the NBA. As a 31 year-old with well over a decade of experience playing professionally, it remains to be seen how a player that relied so much on his rare combination of length and athleticism at his peak will adjust. He’ll guard multiple positions effectively and is a sure upgrade on Wes Johnson, Martell Webster, or any other journeyman Minny played on the wing in recent years, but is still a risk given his age and lack of shooting ability.
Shved, Kirlenko’s teammate for CSKA Moscow and the Russian national team playing in the Olympics, has never played in the NBA but has been known as a promising international prospect for years. A 23 year-old combo guard with size and athleticism, Shved should help make up for Rubio’s absence as a playmaker but won’t help much spacing the floor for Love and Pekovic. He’s been erratic from behind the arc as a pro and shooting has always been the part of his game most lacking. Like Kirilenko, though, he’s a net positive talent-wise in relation to Timberwolves reserve guards of the past as is and still has room to grow. How he will transition to the pro game is anyone’s guess, but his physical profile encourages in that regard.
Budinger, too, is better than Minny’s wing options last season and is in line for big minutes due to his deep shooting prowess and ability to run the floor with Rubio. He’s more a known commodity than the trio of new Wolves above so we won’t go dwell on him here, but it’s still unknown whether he can start in this league or is merely a bit player off the bench. Minnesota is probably counting on him as somewhere in between, and it will be interesting to watch him respond.
Roy, Kirilenko, Shved, Budinger. Four new perimeter options for Rick Adelman to juggle and manage, each a far different player than the next, and each with natural talent or skills to burn but major adjusting or developing to do, too. And it all starts without Rubio before he’s thrust back into a leading role in early 2013, and – almost just as important – without a defined role for former second overall pick Derrick Williams, a combo forward blocked by the presence of Love and Kirilenko.
Where the Timberwolves ultimately end up is hard to project and impossible to do so with any confidence until we see this team, this new, cobbled together collection of chess pieces playing together in Spring of next year. But what’s for sure is that Kahn and his fellow front office brass have shown tenured players (the always perceptive Love in particular) and fans that this organization is committed to winning sooner instead of later and willing to take major financial risks to have that chance, a major and drastic development for a franchise so inconsequential to the NBA landscape at the turn of the decade.