[This is Part 1 of a season review series. This post looks back in time at the season that was. A subsequent post (or two!) will use what we learned this season to take a prospective look ahead at what the Timberwolves should look like in 2013-14 and beyond.]
1. Season Highlight?
Andy G: Win over the Thunder, December 20, 2012
I’ll kick this thing off. The highlight moment of the season is an easy choice for me: the win over OKC on Thursday Night TNT. It was December 20th, Christmas time. Spirits were high with the Wolves moving to 2 games over .500 (the last point in the season in which this was the case) with a 13-11 record. All of Alexey Shved (the lead guard for the Rubio-less portion of the season), Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic were dominant. Pek was pick-and-rolling bigger and stronger than the top team in the West could handle. Love spread the floor with three-point bombs, scoring 28 points along with 11 boards and 7 assists (career high?). He was awesome and looked the part of an MVP candidate. And young Alexey Shved was the orchestrator of everything. Pre-ROOKIE WALL Shved was something to behold and legit reason for Timberwolves optimism. His skillset was on display in that win over Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Shved had a whopping 12 assists that night. Oh yeah, and JJ was GREAT JJ. He killed it during #WinningTime. All in all, that was a major highlight at a point in the season when the team had statewide interest and expectations of a playoff run.
Patrick J: Concur. OKC, December 20th, or “The Proof of Kahncept Game”
The Wolves’ victory over OKC was one the few games this season at Target Center I got to attend–I was back in Minnesota visiting family and had good tickets with Andy G & co to see what I expected to be an overmatched but spiteful Wolves squad take on the best team in the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Good JJ came out in full force that night — the goodest JJ that JJ can be. The rest of the team synced that night, the Wolves snapped a long OKC winning streak. Shved was Olympics Shved, Love owned, and it was basically the team we expected to see in 2012-13, minus Rubio. Imagine the potential of that team plus Rubio. I often do, and it’s a pretty amazing highlight given the way things actually turned out.
2. Season Lowlight?
Patrick J: The K-Love/Woj interview immediately prior to Rubio return.
Remember when Kevin Love sat down with Yahoo! Sports scoop-artist Adrian Wojnarowski to talk about how things were going with the Wolves? So do I. At the time, while still in the moment, I wrote this. With the benefit of hindsight, I feel like my points still stand(!). Love dumped on the organization just before Ricky Rubio’s return from injury, just when the Wolves were beginning to play well, and just when the group as a collective needed to get beyond nonsense like this, which seems to recur semi-predictably several times a year. Love ranted that the Wolves have never made the playoffs during his time in ‘Sota. What he should’ve said, is, the Wolves had never won 30 games during his time in ‘Sota, all while he was ascending toward an annual ranking as one of the top ten players in the League. You can pin plenty of that on poor front office decisions, but if you’re really a top ten guy in the NBA, you’re carrying bad teams to 30 or more wins annually with your eyes closed and a hand tied behind your back (or in a cast). The Woj interview was just one of a series of such incidents, and it’s finally worn Wolves fans thin. If he doesn’t put up next year and show he can win with the fairly decent team that’s been assembled around him, he isn’t a top player and the Woj interview is simply a blight on a continuing disappointing relationship between Love and the Wolves franchise.
Andy G: The January free fall
Kevin Love broke his hand this year. Twice. The first time happened away from the team, apparently whilst doing some knuckle push-ups. I questioned that theory of causation, but whatever — what’s done is done. The first injury was disappointing, but manageable in the short term. The team had an easy opening schedule, a healthy Brandon Roy (for a few games, anyway), Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic. They could manage without Love, and they did, going 5-4 in his surprisingly-short absence.
But when Kevlar aggravated his hand against Denver on January 3rd? Different story. He broke his hand again (if it ever healed in the first place) and decided that enough was enough: he was having surgery. Frankly, I can’t blame him. His shooting was miserable for most of the time he played between hand injuries. Love hit 35.2 percent of field goals, approximately 10 full points below his career average. The reigning three-point contest champ hit 21.7 percent from downtown. He wasn’t the same player.
After Love’s second injury the season pretty much went to hell in a hurry. The improbably escaped that specific game at Denver with a win; just 1 of 3 home losses for the Nuggets all season. But after that, and after an adrenaline-fueled win over the Hawks a few nights later the Wolves went on to lose 11 of their next 12 games. Seven of those losses were by double digits with most of them being blowouts. We attended the game at Verizon when Bradley Beal and Martell Webster made Mickael Gelabale look like… well, Mickael Gelabale. (Just ask Ricky Davis. See footnote 1.) Goodbye playoffs. Hello, three months of meaningless basketball yet to be played. What a bummer that was. Derrick Williams got the green light to show us something and… well, we’ll probably get to him later in this post, so let’s just move it along. The late-January slide was the season’s low point for me.
3. Team MVP
Andy G: Andrei Kirilenko
This isn’t an easy choice. I think a case can be made for Nikola Pekovic. He led the team in total points and rebounds, as well as in advanced metrics like win shares per 48 and PER. A case can also be made for Ricky Rubio, whose floor leadership, passing, defense and contagious energy allowed the team to play competitive, late-season basketball for the first time in ages.
My vote, though, goes to AK47.
For the chunk of the season that the Timberwolves were a relevant NBA team (read: in playoff contention) Kirilenko was the best player on the team.
He defended the opponent’s best scorer. He made passes and cuts that allowed an injury-plagued team with minus-athleticism still find a way to get some easy buckets. And he used skills and smarts to draw fouls; adding pressure to opposing lineup decisions and getting his own team some efficient points. The numbers from November and December show support for my pick. The Wolves were 14-13 when the ball dropped at Times Square. Of those 27 games AK played in 23 of them. He led the team in field goal percentage (51.6), was second in per-game rebounding (excluding Love who had missed way more games) with 6.9, led the team in steals per game (1.7), scored a respectable 13.3 per game and assisted a very-solid (for a forward) 3.2 baskets per game. The best support for my pick is his net +/- for those first two months, which averaged +2.3 per game. That was best on the team, excluding Chase Budinger who played in just 6 games.
Over the course of the year, Andrei missed time with injuries. His overall level of play maybe even dropped off. I’m not entirely sure that he fits well with Ricky Rubio in the long-term. But this year, when the Wolves were winning more than they were losing, Andrei Kirilenko was the biggest reason why, and he gets my Team MVP vote. I should also add that if the league has a sportsmanship award, he should win it every year and they should name it after him when he retires. It’s almost funny how much this guy wants everybody — teammates, fans, refs and even opponents, to be happy during a Timberwolves game.
Patrick J: Ricky Rubio
I have to go with Ricky Rubio here. I know he didn’t play that many games, couldn’t make a shot to save his life, and had a relatively long, frustrating adjustment period after returning to the court from his knee injury. His numbers weren’t as good as Pek’s, and he didn’t do as much stuff overall as Kirilenko. (Who I’d say were a tie for runner-up to Rubio for the PDW Wolves MVP Award.) What Ricky did was reinvigorate an ailing, lagging, lifeless team in his usual Ricky ways and with his usual Ricky smile and usual Ricky flair. He knows how good he is, and even when his shot isn’t falling, he’s hawking the passing lanes and picking up teammates and playing selflessly and within himself. No one else does that. As tough as Pek and AK47 are, they don’t really do that (though AK is an undeniably invaluable mentor for Shved and a nice presence for the team). JJ is a natural leader, but his fatal flaw is a hot head and an inability to reel in his emotions in the most tense situations – that is, when momentum is swinging one way or another in a fashion that can lead to the game-winning run, whether in or against our favor. Coming into this season, I’d have bet on either Love or Brandon Roy as the team’s MVP. Rubio might be its heart and soul, I’d have said, but you’ll get your production and veteran leadership from those guys, I’d have predicted. Not so, it turned out. Neither provided much leadership, which was especially disappointing in Roy’s case given that that’s all he could really offer, after the injury.
4. Most pleasant surprise of season?
Andy G: Ricky Rubio’s improvement despite the ACL recovery
If I could divide the season in half and only focus on the part of the year when the Wolves mattered (I guess *I could* do that, since I did it with the MVP choice!) then the answer would be Alexey Shved. But he struggled for a REALLY long time after the proverbial “rookie wall” hit him like a 2 x 4, and I have more questions than answers about Shved.
With Ricky, there was real question how effective he’d be after coming off an ACL tear in his rookie season. These questions were magnified when he shot 29 percent from the floor for the entire months of January. But he improved fast, upping that FG% to 38 in February, along with 9.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game in his second full month of the season. In March, the improvement continued with 41 percent shooting. There was an April regression (he shot about 30 percent) but that was due to noticeable fatigue, both mental and physical. His season numbers were better than his rookie year, which is impressive when you consider the early struggles associated with returning from severe knee injury. Ricky made his point to fans: He’s back, he’s better than last year, and there is every reason to believe he’ll be a dynamite point guard for years to come.
Patrick J: Terry Porter confirming that he isn’t fit to the Wolves’ next head coach
Rick Adelman may not be coming back next season. There’s good reason to think he won’t. He’s old. His wife is sick. He has plenty of money. The Wolves’ immediate prospects aren’t Finals-contention level. There appear to be no major personnel acquisitions on the horizon for next year. Getting Kevin Love back will help, but can Adelman credibly expect that to mean a playoff run deeper than the first round? Open question, but that means there’s likely at least some doubt in his mind.
Before Adelman went on his leave of absence, the Wolves were exactly .500 (15-15). The team went 2-9 under Terry Porter. It just wasn’t pretty, and despite the injuries you could see the difference the coach made — as in the January 23 loss when JJ had a nuclear meltdown and was never taken out of the game, which doubly pissed off The Franchise, Ricky Rubio, who inexplicably rode the pine through the remainder. Here’s hoping Adelman returns in 2013-14.
5. Biggest disappointment of season — not including the injuries, which is the obvious answer?
Patrick J: Derrick Williams. Without a doubt.
Yes, he scored more (because he played more). But watching him proved all the weaknesses we feared plagued his game actually do plague his game. The only quality that exceeds initial expectations is his dunking. (Dude does a mean 360.) He ended up averaging 12 ppg and 5.5 rpg, with a PER of 14.55 — just below League average. To be fair, his per minute averages pretty much improved across the board, but were still sub-par in what was celebrated as an improved campaign in a season without many reasons to be sanguine.
Much of my frustration with Williams can be summarized simply by looking at his shot chart. D-Thrill never figured out how to make shots around the rim, often failed to draw fouls, and when he did, only shot 70.6% from the charity stripe.
Derrick Williams’ shot chart:
In contrast, look at Andrei Kirilenko’s shotchart – a player without Williams’ physical size or athletic ability, but who keeps the ball high and performs a catch-and-layup quickly when the opportunity presents itself. Given his sheer physical and athletic traits, Williams should be the better finisher inside. But Kirilenko shot over 8 percentage points better than D-Will at the rim (!). Yes, that’s reason for monumental disappointment.
Andy G: The unsustainability of SHVEDSANITY
MAN THAT WAS AWESOME WHEN SHVED WAS AWESOME.
(Sorry, caps lock stuck.)
It was though. Shved was the coolest player the Wolves have had in a longgg time. Maybe he still is? We just aren’t as sure because he hit the rookie wall and never really got back up. His seemingly-premier floor vision and passing did not reek of SMALL SAMPLE SIZE THEATER! After a cold start, his jumpshoot looked legit too.
After Ricky got his groove back, Shved lost his. They never clicked together. I guess that is my biggest disappointment that doesn’t include the injuries. Had Shved sustained his early-season level of play for the remainder (and had Derrick Williams played like a legit scorer, see above) the team would’ve maintained competitiveness throughout the loss of Kevin Love and Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger. Would they have made the playoffs? No, probably not. But they’d have at least continued the tease beyond January, and maybe even February.
Part 2 will shift gears and look into the future…