The nice thing about preview/prediction posts is that they come at a time when fan interest is high. No matter if you’re a Heat fan, still relishing last year’s title and looking forward to a possible repeat, or a Hornet supporter eagerly awaiting The ‘Brow, if you’re a fan of an NBA franchise, you’re probably excited for the season to begin next week. Preview posts whet the appetite by laying out the issues and a framework for a debate. For talking hoops.
That’s the nice thing about them. The bad thing about predictions posts is that nobody really cares what I (or most others) expect to happen. Frankly, I have no idea what the Wolves are going to do this year. (But please keep reading!) It’s difficult to predict player improvement or regression. Aside from having watched a few preseason games, there are questions about new players–how they fit and how much playing time they’ll see. And most problematic are injuries. Fortunately for purposes of this post, I waited until the Wolves’ best player broke his hand by
punching a wall doing knuckle push-ups. (And that there is the ONLY sentence in which a Wolves fan could possibly combine Love’s injury with the word “fortunately.”) But despite these huge problems that double as caveats, I’ll give er a go, and make some predictions for how this season will shake out. This is Part 1. Part 2 will be Pat’s reaction to mine. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts after this one, or wait until we’ve both put ourselves on the record.
What happens without Love and Rubio?
Love’s injury will reportedly keep him out 6 to 8 weeks. I’ll take a stab at it and say he returns Friday, December 7, at home against Cleveland. If that’s right, he will have missed 17 games. Obviously, Ricky will be out for those games too. Ricky is not yet cutting laterally or doing much jump work. That tells me his road to recovery does not have a clear end in sight, and a January 1 debut might be optimistic. But staying on track, I’m asking about these 17 games without both star players. Can the Wolves survive?
The first order of business is replacing Ricky and Love in the starting lineup. At point guard, that will be Luke Ridnour. As we all know by now, Luke is plenty capable of dribbling up the floor and making an easy entry pass. He can make open shots, even if it requires a dribble or two to shake a closing-out defender. But Luke is not to be relied upon as a generator of offense. He will not attract second defenders. Not off the dribble, in the post, or anywhere else. He is a functional point guard. He’s not Ricky Rubio. Replacing Kevin Love is a different type of task. Love, unlike Rubio, does not set up his teammates with scoring opportunities. He’s not a playmaker in that regard. But he is one of the most productive players in the entire NBA. Love’s absence means 26.0 points and 13.3 rebounds per game are out the door and in need of replacement. How exactly is that supposed to happen, Rick Adelman asks himself.
Love was a team-best +8.0 in net on/off differential last year. The team was 8 points better per 100 possessions when Kevin Love was on the floor compared to when he was off it. For a high-minute player, that’s a huge disparity. Interestingly, it comes entirely from the offensive side of the floor. The Wolves scored 8.4 more points/100 with Love on the floor, and were actually 0.4 points/100 worse on defense with Love on the floor. Adelman might think that replacing Love with energetic defenders (Dante Cunningham, Lou Amundson) could double down on the defensive upside to Love’s absence. “Win with defense” — at least as many games as possible, until Love comes back and provides a big scoring punch. Alternatively, there is Derrick Williams. For those that don’t follow the Wolves as closely, a natural response to Love’s injury would be, “Well, at least Derrick Williams will get his chance.” Maybe not so. Britt Robson (who has been killing it lately with choice intel from Wolves brass) wrote a damning article about Williams and Adelman’s true feelings about the young forward. The juiciest piece from Robson’s piece was this:
During the off-season, [Adelman] presented a detailed report on every player on the roster, sometimes with stipulations on whether or not he wanted that player retained. According to a team source, of all the players viewed negatively by Adelman, only one remains.
Ouch. Adelman was recently asked if Williams would replace Love in the starting lineup, to which he replied, “Why would people assume that? He’s certainly one of the guys that has to play there, but it’s going to be him, Dante, Lou, Andrei may play some there. That’s what we’re going to have to find out the next three games and the practices, what’s the best way to go.” Why would people assume that? Uhh, BECAUSE HE WAS THE SECOND OVERALL PICK IN THE DRAFT?! Adelman isn’t a Williams fan, and we shouldn’t expect that Love’s injury will change that. I suspect Cunningham will start at the 4 on opening night, and Kirilenko will fill in with smaller-ball units as well. Williams’ minutes won’t be affected much by Love’s injury and he will probably be traded before he ever fulfills his (big) potential in a Wolves uniform.
How many of its 17 (give or take) games can the Ridnour-Roy-Kirilenko-Cunningham-Pekovic starting five win? The opening schedule is actually on the easy side. There are home games against Sacramento (season opener), Orlando and Charlotte. I hope we can mark those down as wins, right now. We play at Toronto, at Dallas (will be missing Dirk due to arthroscopic knee surgery), at Portland and at Sacramento. We can probably–I hope–assume at least 2 more wins out of those 4 games. There are a pair of Warriors matchups, a road game at Chicago, and a home game versus Milwaukee. Can we pencil in 1 more? That gets us to at least 6 wins. The rest are matchups with bona fide playoff teams that are not currently dinged up like the Bulls and Mavs. There are games against the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Pacers, Sixers and Celtics. I’ll optimistically assume that we can assume 1 win out of those 6 games. All of this adds up to a worst-case record of 7-10 after 17 games. Most likely case is probably better than that, something like 9-8. This is mostly due to an easy schedule and the influx of talented veterans that replace the shakier rotation players of last season. If the Wolves can survive the Loveless stretch above .500, they’ll be positioned to make a push for the playoffs.
Who will be traded?
Some important facts to consider: First, there is no need to make an immediate trade. The Williams-Love redundancy doesn’t exist when Love is sidelined by injury. The Rubio-Ridnour-Barea point guard trio, whose pressure was relieved last year by the two-guard crater that allowed them extra minutes, is only a duo when Ricky is rehabbing his knee. Another fact is that the trade deadline is on February 21, 2013. Most trades happen between All-Star Weekend and the deadline, in February. So there is plenty of time, and games to be played, before a trade would likely happen.
I predict a trade goes down involving Derrick Williams and one of Luke Ridnour or J.J. Barea. Probably Barea. I don’t need to go in depth on why Williams would be traded–just read Robson’s piece. But another factor to consider is that Nikola Pekovic is a free agent next summer and will command a big salary. Portland’s general manager, Neil Olshey, was obviously pissed off at the Timberwolves for jacking up Nic Batum’s price during last summer’s free agency courting period. Batum is now overpaid, thanks to ‘Sota. Expect revenge from a division rival that just so happens to have room at the center position next to LaMarcus Aldridge. While LMA plays well at the 5, he doesn’t prefer it, and that combination of length/athleticism/jumpshooting (LMA) and brute strength/low-post skills (Pek) sounds pretty awesome to me. If Blazers brass is FEELING SAUCY, it might just make a max offer to Pek. In that case, the Wolves will want its books cleared as much as possible to match. By trading away both Williams and Barea, the team would clear about $10 Million off the books for each of 2013-14, and 2014-15. Even if Kahn the Basketball Mind has a love affair with Williams’ potential, Kahn the Pragmatic Fiscal Mind can see how an opportunity to ditch Barea’s Kahntract helps the team long-term. Of course, as the introduction to this post makes clear, this is all speculation. But I think there’s a reasonable chance that some variation of this trade goes down in February, with an eye toward next Summer. Depending on the health of the team in February, the other eye might be toward the upcoming playoffs. An expiring veteran at a position of need could be the target. Speaking of Playoffs…
Will the Timberwolves make the playoffs?
Yes. Why? First, as I laid out earlier, the early-season schedule will help the team survive the losses of Love and Rubio. Second, the team added capable veterans to plug the holes of last season’s roster; most notably Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson and Darko Milicic. [Note: As a fan, I hope Beasley figures out how to hone his skills and play away from his weaknesses. I'm not sure if I expect it to happen. Darko is a lost cause and will ride the Boston bench.] With Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko, Dante Cunningham, and Lou Amundson, the team has quality role players to surround the core of Rubio, Love and Pekovic. The team, once healthy, should see improvement in the win/loss column. I opened ESPN the Magazine’s NBA Preview and was shocked to see that Basketball Prospectus predicted a 58-24 record if Rubio plays 60 games, and a 56-26 record if he only plays 20 games. Of course, this was before Love’s injury, but still… that’s shockingly optimistic, I think. John Hollinger, before Love’s injury, predicted a 45-37 record. Looking at it now, he’s updated it to 44-38, good for 7th in the West (Insider). Perhaps the most important reason to predict a Wolves playoff appearance is Dirk Nowitzki’s knee surgery. Dirk is a one-man wrecking crew, as we all know. If you’ve followed the Mavs’ offseason with any interested, you noticed that they let Jason Terry depart for Boston, replacing him with O.J. Mayo. You also know by now that Tyson Chandler, the defensive anchor of the championship Mavs, is now a New York Knick. Without Dirk, the Mavs will struggle mightily out of the gates. Knee injuries are not hand injuries, either. Dirk will have an adjustment period and the Mavs might just tank this season away to get a high draft pick to go along with likely free agent pickups, next summer. If that happens, a window opens up in the West for the Warriors and Wolves to fight for. But the Dubs are dealing with injuries too. Stephen Curry’s ankles are a sore subject for Warriors fans:
In preseason, I brace while watching Steph Curry like he's running over landmines that only his feet can trigger—
Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) October 18, 2012
And wouldn’t you know it, he sprained his right ankle in a recent preseason game. Curry and Andrew Bogut are both shelved for the rest of the preseason with ankle issues. It’s reasonable to expect lingering problems with those two oft injured stars. With that in mind, you have to give the Wolves the nod over the Warriors in two important areas: coaching (Adelman versus Mark Jackson is, at this point, laughably in the Wolves favor) and depth. I continue to view the Western Conference Playoff Race as one that includes 6 locks, and a 4 for 2 race between Dallas, Minnesota, Utah and Golden State. As I write this on October 21, I predict Utah and Minnesota to win that race and make the playoffs. If we’re getting greedy, I hope the Wolves can avoid a first-round matchup with Oklahoma City or LA (Lakers). But playoffs would be a monumental showing of progress for a team that has sputtered for several seasons in a row after its run to the 2004 conference finals.
With the big-ticket items out of the way, I’ll wrap this up with some bullet predictions to hopefully generate some discussion in the comments below:
* Rick Adelman will win Coach of the Year. The Award often goes to coaches whose teams show improvement, and bonus points are awarded for surviving injuries. (The Bulls won 62 games in 2010-11 despite missing Boozer for 23 games and Noah for 34 games. This was rewarded with a Thibodeau Coach of the Year and Derrick Rose MVP.) Adelman has somehow never won this award. That factor also points toward him receiving it as a prize long overdue to one of the all-time greats.
* Alexey Shved will make one of the All-Rookie Teams. Shved has looked solid in preseason and there will be minutes available to a shooting guard backing up the meniscusless Brandon Roy. If Alexey can be a regular rotation player on a playoff team, he’ll make All-Rookie.
* The April Utah matchups will have playoff implications. Either for seeding or a spot itself. Two of the Wolves final four games are against their division rival from Salt Lake. How fun will that be? [Note: Is this irreconcilable with my prediction that both Utah and Minnesota make the playoffs? Maybe. Who cares? Not you, if you're reading this far.]
* Northwest Division matchups are going to be awesome this year. K-Love is sick of losing to his friends from Oklahoma City. Thankfully, his hand injury shouldn’t keep him out of those matchups, as the first goes down on December 20 (Thursday Night on TNT!) Love dropped a cool 51 points in his last Thunder matchup. Expect similar excitement this year when the Wolves take on the Thunder, Jazz, Nuggets and (now enemy?) Blazers.
Pat, the ball is in your court. Agree or disagree with these predictions? I look forward to finding out in Part 2. Everyone else, chime in below and share your thoughts.