The roster is mostly set. (C’mon, Pek, sign that dotted line…) The coaching staff seems to be in place, replete with a (David) Adelman for Billy Bayno swap and Shawn Respert proxying for the late Pete Newell as the Wolves new big man coach instead of teaching Ricky Rubio how to make a jump shot.
That said, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Rick Adelman will be back. The Wolves lost a wing, but added a pretty good one to replace him. Two or three actually, depending on how Shabazz Muhammad plays out. Most important, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and others whose major, or niggling, injuries derailed the Wolves’ 2012-13 season are all reportedly healthy for 2013-14.
So now you’re looking at a rotation that might be something like this:
PG: Ricky Rubio, J.J. Barea, Alexey Shved
SG: Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Alexey Shved
SF: Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad
PF: Kevin Love, Dante Cunningham, Derrick Williams (!)
C: Nikola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng, Chris Johnson
Our team should be pretty good.
That’s a nice segue into today’s edition of Punch-Drunk Wolves’ INBOX feature.
Patrick J: Given the above, and that most of free agency has played out and we know where the chips have fallen–*cough, Houston, cough*–how good can these Wolves be?
Andy G: Short answer? They’ll be “playoff caliber.”
Longer answer: Just because they’ll be *good enough* to make the playoffs — unfortunately — does not mean the Wolves will finish in the Top 8. (Though they might!) Assuming Kevin Love’s hand is right, this team should win over 40 games.
I repeated a Zach Lowe point that the Wolves medium-term contending hopes hinge on Ricky Rubio’s development. I stand by that, but let me ask you this:
On what does the Wolves short-term success hinge? What needs to happen, next season, for the Wolves to be substantially better than .500 and *clearly* a playoff team?
Patrick J: Absolutely–they should be much better than that. 50 wins is in the realm of the possible. In fact, the season will be a failure if the team doesn’t win 45 games next year given its newfound “health’–the constant excuse for last season’s woes, largely justified–as well as its newfound roster balance (Kevin Martin is a real, no-shit starting shooting guard!), the depth at multiple positions off the bench, and most of all, a Kevin Love who should be coming into his prime. If the best is yet to come, it should be pretty good. I mean, two seasons ago he put up 26 & 13. Who does that?
Look, K-Love is a NUMB#RS guy.
(Is that Crunch, or a furry, wearing the tilted fedora?)
We might get a good inkling about where he’ll be fairly soon. If he comes into the preseason doughy and slow, as he did last season, instead of lithe and sneaky-quick like he was in 2011-12–well, Houston, we’ve got a problem. Because that means the Wolves probably won’t win many games. And if that happens, the blame should be squarely on Kevin Love. Agree or disagree?
Andy G: Well, to answer your question, AS PHRASED (Should Kevin Love be blamed if Kevin Love comes into the preseason doughy and slow):
But I think I know what you’re actually getting at here: If the Wolves underwhelm next season, is that going to change how Kevin Love’s value is perceived.
The answer to that is an emphatic yes. The pressure is *really* on Love to put up or shut up — at least “shut up to Adrian Woj.” Is he a tier-one superstar? Because if he is, then surroundings of Rubio, Martin, Budinger, Pekovic and the rest should equal at least 50 wins. Probably closer to 60. That’s what you’d see from LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and the like with that caliber of supporting cast.
Neither of us views Kevin Love as *that* great. He is a NUMB#RS freak, and that motivation has thankfully played itself out in mostly beneficial ways. (Exceptions would be the over-aggressive pursuit of free throws that bogs down the offense and prioritizing rebounding above help defense.) But he sure looked like he was in that second tier — a fringe All-NBA type — in that 11/12 season that you mention.
The potential for disaster next season (obligatory “aside from injuries” caveat) lies in team defense. Martin’s bad. Budinger’s kind of bad. Brewer’s energetic but maybe slightly overrated. Pek is fundamentally sound, but slow. Basically, Ricky Rubio is the only sure-fire plus defender that figures to get heavy playing time. With this in mind, there will be SERIOUS pressure on Kevin Love to focus on defensive rotations. It’s far from a certainty that:
a) He’s physically capable of anchoring a quality defense; and
b) He’s mentally invested in that process.
So here’s the thing, I guess: If the Wolves are rotten on defense, Kevin Love will receive a lot of the blame.
Patrick J: Yes and no. Mostly yes. Let’s just look at the likely rotations. Love will play a lot of minutes with Ricky Rubio (great defender), Kevin Martin (horrible defender), Corey Brewer (strong defender, great energy, good help guy–important for a non-help defender like Love), and Pekovic/Dieng (Pek is a non “rim protector” but is reportedly one of the team’s best pick-and-roll defenders; Dieng is a rim protector). The weak link is Martin. The second weak link is Love, not for his position defense (which is strong), but for his mid-range and perimeter defense–increasingly important against the all important (and recently celebrated) “stretch 4” Love will face on many nights. In many cases, the combination of Brewer’s help defense, and others’ high basketball IQ in rotating and switching, should cover up many of the deficiencies both Martin and Love have on D. Dealing with stretch fours via help defense is harder. That’s why having a strong defensive PF–or, in other words, one who can play solid man-to-man defense without much help–is increasingly important. Can Kevin Love be that kind of player? My sense is, unfortunately no. He has neither the physical tools to close well on stretch fours, nor the interest in doing that, because it would cost him his precious rebounding position. All of that is a roundabout way of saying that I think Kevin Love *should* receive a lot of the blame if the Wolves are a horrible defensive team, but I’m not sure whether he will. He works the media quite well. Only the locals (Pat Reusse, Jim Souhan among them, and Britt Robson in his more nuanced way) seem to be willing to call out the problems.
This is Kevin Love’s team. In your eyes, what does he need to do to *earn* the reputation as a tier-1 NBA star this season? And I’m not talking about his continued participation on the Olympic team with his close, personal friend Kevin Durant. I’m talking about the Wolves, this season.
Andy G: Well, he already has that rep amongst some. (WINS PRODUCED!) But yeah, to earn it in my opinion? He has to fully embrace his three-point shooting, improve his willingness and abilities as a passer (no, I don’t mean outlets) and somehow combine energetic, mobile defense with his elite level rebounding. Is that possible? Probably not. Again, though, we’re talking about the upper-level superstar status here. Even if he falls below that, he’s still an All-Star and the Wolves should be a good team; much better than the ones we’ve seen since Kevin Garnett left.