The T-wolves open 2012-2013 pre-season play tonight with hopes high. No less than Kevin Love says that he believes in this team and that we'll make the playoffs for the 1st time since 2004, 9 long years ago! Is his optimism justified?
Well, of course, we don't know. But first, let's look at those roster moves. Did they really improve this team?
Nicola Pekovic came to camp light but stronger, and should be poised to go from solid to stardom. Last year he was the T-wolves #2 scorer with 14 ppg based on 56 percent shooting, and was also the #2 rebounder with 7 per game. all in just 27 minutes per game, the team's 4th best, on the floor.
The roster move here was to replace Darko Milicic with Greg Stiemsma as Pek's bad boy back-up. Milicic scored 5 ppg in 16 minutes, Stiemsma 3 in 14 minutes, so it's hard to see a big improvement there. The improvement will be Pekovic and it will be significant.
Center: Improved a bit
Here again, Kevin Love returns. But unlike Pek, it's hard to see the guy improve a whole hell of a lot. He is already the best 4 in the NBA. Last year he clocked in art a team high 39 minutes, 26 points and 13 rebounds, on 45 percent shooting.
Here the improvement will come from the back-up, presumably Derrick Williams. Last year the #2 pick from the 2011 draft scored 9 points with 5 rebounds on 41 percent shooting in 21 minutes of play. He was considered a disappointment, playing somewhat aimlessly, good minutes followed by long periods in which he would disappear. He's come into camp, like Pekovic, slimmed down, and he has said that he intends to be more aggressive, and he has played that way to date in the fall camp.
If it doesn't pan out, the Wolves have 2 new bodies to throw into the breach. Lou Amundson scored 4 points with 4 boards in 12.5 minutes at Indiana last year, while Dante Cunningham scored 5 points with 4 boards and an assist in 18 minutes at Memphis.
But while Williams expects to improve, are Amundson and Cunningham really an improvement over Beasley, Randolph and Tolliver? Don't know. But, frankly, if Love and Williams play as expected, it might not matter. There may not be any minutes available to Lou and Dante, and that would be fine with me. If Williams fails to earn coach Rick Adelman's confidence again, well, then one of the two will have to step up and, let's be honest, they're not savior types.
Power Forward: Improved a bit
Here's where things start to get interesting. Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger will share the spot this year and--whaddaya know--it is their natural position. Last year it was shared mostly by a bunch of power forwards, principally Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams, but also by Wes Johnson and Martell Webster, for whom this was their natural spot. They scored 32 points with 16 boards in 91 minutes. (Most of them played other spots on the floor as well.)
Kirilenko and Budinger combined for 21 points, 9 boards and 4 assists last year (actually 2 years ago at Utah for Kirilenko, who sat out last year)(and at Houston for Budinger). So on paper there's not a big improvement. And Kirilenko is old enough that one wonders if he's still got it after sitting out a year, except that he seemed just fine playing for Russia in the Olympics this past summer.
This is addition by subtraction as much as by addition as things sometimes ground to a halt with Beasley out there. Chances are that Kirilenko and Budinger will be where coach wants them on the floor about 50 more often than last year's duo, and will hit their teammates with crisper passes, and move without the ball a bit more. So they may not be better than Beasley and Williams, but their teammates will be better with them out there.
Small Forward: Improved a bit
Now, here's where it gets really interesting. Ricky Rubio contributed 11 points, 4 boards and 8 assists in in 34 minutes. This year, who knows when he'll return to the floor, and at what percentage of full speed, after a devastating ACL injury last spring?
It will again be Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea filling in in Rubio's absence. Will the T-Wolves again be a totally different and lesser squad with them out there instead of Rubio? If that's the case, then this season and Love's promise of a play-off birth will be lost before Rubio is back.
Well, the one hope is that Alexei Shved will be the one filling in for Rubio and he'll be a stud out there. But the expectation is that the 23-year-old will need at least 1 year to get comfy in a new league and to become Ricky's back-up.
The other hope is that the improvements at the other positions will put us over the top even with Ridnour and Barea out there. But even then, it will feel like treading water. The Wolves need Rubio back in the worst way, and he will have to be at his best.
Point Guard: Regressed with Rubio recovering from a bum knee
Now things get really really interesting. I mean, Brandon Roy and Malcolm Lee in place of Wayne Ellington, Wes Johnson and Ridnour and Barea whenever one of the two was not occupied at the 1 spot. Ellington and Johnson scored 12 points in 42 minutes. Each shot 40 percent,
Meanwhile Roy, the former all-star, has sat it out for a year due to a bum knee. In fact, he had retired until Adelman gave him a call.Two years ago he scored 12 points with 3 boards and 3 assists on 40 percent shooting. Previous to that, of course, he was a 20 point scorer. Is there any way he is a 20 point scorer again? No, I didn't think so. The likelihood is he is Ellington and Johnson with 12 points and 40 percent shooting.
Meanwhile, Malcolm Lee scored 3 points in 13 minutes of play and shot 39 percent. Is this not the real Malcolm Lee?
Shooting Guard: Trouble.
So the Wolves have perhaps improved a bit at all 3 front court positions, but the guard spots will be a problem until Rubio is back. Is that a much improved team?
Of course, the real idea is that Adelman now has players who suit his game plan, and the whole will be so much greater than the sum of the parts.
And let us acknowledge that, yes, as the T-Wolves seek to upgrade, the fact is they've already upgraded at coach, they've already got the best game coach not named Bill Musselman that they've ever had, and probably therefore the best all-around guy ever.
Still without Rubio, this is more like the team that went 9-23 down the stretch. And when Rubio returns, they'll be more like the team that went 17-17 to open the season.
So just for the sake of symmetry, let's say it's 42 games before Rubio is at full strength (last year he played 34 games and then missed 32) and 40 games with him back in the saddle. For the 1st half, .500 is too much to ask, I think. A bit of an improvement from 9-23 makes 'em 17-25 at that point. Then over the final 40 games, a bit of an improvement over .500 equals, say, 25-15. Total record 42-40. I can't imagine anything better than that, can you? Historically in the West that's pretty borderline for the playoffs. Sorry.
But, yes, they'll beat Indiana tonight.