Wolves Season Preview, Part 2 of 2

Can Andrei Kirilenko really be the key to this year’s team? Who knows! The season hasn’t started yet!

In Part 1 of our Wolves preview, Andy G delved into several issues that will have key implications for the team’s success this season. I come back with my takes on these topics, as well as a few other things he didn’t look at closely.

Find out what below the fold.

Issue 1: What happens without Love and Rubio?

First off, this is a rough situation. It looked like AdelKahn had many of the right pieces lined up, and the guys who get paid to write about basketball were projecting the Wolves to win up to 58 games this season. That seems like centuries ago–Rubio’s recovery notwithstanding, KnuckleGate and K-Love’s absence changes everything, mostly for the worse.

Rubio is easier to address. Andy G hit the key point in his preview post: look for Ridnour to fill in. You know the rest. He will be solid. But not spectacular. Mediocre. He won’t hurt you, but he won’t really help you that much either. He’ll make a shot once in a while. That’s awesome. He’ll make those shots off the dribble when the ball’s in his hands, or off a kick out from a teammate when it isn’t.

This is key.

Last year when Rubio went down, we were looking at Ridnour/Webster/Wes at the 1/2/3 positions, with some Barea sprinkled in. With this group, Luke was the only guy who could dribble and make plays. JJ can dribble but can’t be trusted. He’s too unreliable. He isn’t bad, but he just isn’t a reliable starting point guard whose hands you want the ball in for very long. Neither Martell nor Wes could dribble and merit no further discussion. We’ve moved on.

In Martell’s and Wes’ place this season are Brandon Roy, Alexey Shved, and Andrei Kirilenko. Let’s leave AK aside for a bit and focus on Roy and Alexey. These guys can dribble. These guys are better when they initiate the offense. These guys can put pressure on the defense and set up teammates or get and make their own shot. They’re the bizarro Martell and Wes.

I have a ton of respect for Luke Ridnour, but I think the Wolves are a funner and likely a better team if you hand Roy or Shved (with the second unit) the ball and tell him to make plays. Roy has had a nice preseason, but looks hamstrung standing on the wing waiting for a pass from the top of the key so he can start working an iso with the shot clock already winding down. He’s more effective when he starts with the ball, putting the defense on its heels from the get-go of each possession. It’s exhausting and difficult to contend with a dynamic combo like that, and there aren’t many: Wade, Westbrook, Harden, LeBron (from the 3 or the 4), Pierce (from the 3), Kobe (sort of – his role in the Lakers’ offense has always been as a lead, and has some similarities but is different from the aforementioned combos), and Roy have been the best over the last half-decade.

So why isn’t Adelman playing Roy to his strength and giving him the ball to initiate the offense? Unlike Rubio, Ridnour can make corner threes. Both are better off, and the offense is more dynamic, if Roy’s essentially given the point on offense and Ridnour taken off the ball, and each could guard his own positiion on D to avoid mismatches.

Same with Shved. He’s versatile and can play the 2, and he can play the 1, but what this means is that he’s really a combo. And not a Randy Foye kind of combo who’s not really a combo but an undersized 2 – he’s a legit, 6’5’’ baller who runs the pick ‘n roll like a dream.

Is Shved turnover prone? Of course. At least somewhat. Is Barea? Who do you want making things happen? I’ll take Shved eight days a week. One of the most disappointing things about the preseason seems to be that with Rubio and Love out, Adelman isn’t putting key guys whom he needs to step up and provide production – namely, Roy and Shved – in a position where they naturally thrive. Keep an eye on whether Adelman adjusts if the backcourt struggles early on.

Kevin Love. That’s a more difficult injury to deal with. The Wolves just don’t have the kind of depth at the 4 that they do in the backcourt, which I never would’ve expected to write at this time last season. Derrick Williams has created more questions than answers about whether he can fill in, even temporarily, for Love as a starter. Meanwhile, fans clamor for Dante Cunningham and Lou Amundson is in the spotlight, parlaying his newfound status as Wolves role player discussions about forming a Bieber-esque boy band with K-Love tickling the ivories (maybe after his hand heals – in the meantime, Royce White may be able to stand in for K-Love since he doesn’t appear ready to be a factor for a bad Houston team.)

To the extent Andy G’s predicted record until Love and Rubio return is bullish, I’m less bullish than he. I expect us to be pretty bad. We’ll struggle to rebound and score. Pekovic will have a ton of burden placed on him. So will Roy. Will they respond? Will the efforts of others be able to compensate for the gaping hole at the 4? I’m not suggesting disaster, but Andy’s “worst case” prediction of 7-10 after 17 games is more like my baseline expectation, with a lower chance they’ll be a game or two better or worse.

Alas, things will get much, much better – and fast – when our two best players come back in January.

Issue #2: Who will be traded?

Derrick Williams, probably. He’s a fish out of water in Minnesota, and it’s a shame, because you can see he isn’t hopeless like Wes Johnson or Darko were – he always looks like he’s on the cusp of turning the corner and translating his physical talent and ability into productive play. But he rarely does, and his confidence is as low as I’ve ever seen it. It’s a far cry from the rave reviews that came flooding out of training camp about how Williams was a new player, both physically and mentally. Thrill may be a few pounds lighter, but it doesn’t matter unless he’s able to stop over thinking every single action he takes while on the floor. Dude needs a few hours of therapy with John Wooden’s ghost if he’s gonna become a productive starter in this league.

Andy G suggested Barea is a clear candidate to go. I agree. Not much to say about this. If the right deal comes, you take it. JJ never meshed well with teammates or fit into Adelman’s offense. If you can offload JJ’s Kahntract, bring back an ASSET, and free up minutes for Shved, that’s a win-win-win.

Issue #3: Will the Wolves Make the Playoffs?

Yes. Despite the Gloomy Gus prediction about the season’s start, the finish could be epic. And that means momentum. And momentum makes for a dangerous playoff team, even if it isn’t a highly seeded one. Much more on this to come in our forthcoming NBA preview post.

Miscellaneous Stuff

Andy offered up some provocative food for thought here: Adelman winning Coach of the Year, Shved making an All-Rookie Team, and late-season matchups against Utah being both interesting and even having playoff implications.

A lot to digest there: I’m agnostic on Adelman, in agreement on Shved, and amused by Utah. Good stuff, that.

*Brandon Roy will win Comeback Player of the Year. (Wait, is that even an award in the NBA? Oh well, if it isn’t he’ll be the honarary recipient.) Given that he’s a feel-good story and that he’ll have to take on an expanded role due to circumstance, Comeback Player of the Year is a foregone conclusion for Roy. Unless, you know, his leg simply falls off on one of his reckless drives into the paint, and has to be reattached at halftime in the locker room. That would change everything, and not for the better.)

*Fans will miss Mike Beasley. Okay, maybe only a little bit, and maybe only occasionally. But Beasley could play the 4 – hell, that was his position – and right now, he’s objectively better than anything we have to throw out there. If I were in the front office I’d have gambled on Williams over Beasley too, but it was clear all last season that Mike was better than Derrick at the end of the day. Adelman apparently couldn’t stand Beasley and doesn’t think much more of Williams, so maybe they should’ve stuck with the guy he could at least tolerate if not respect – ANTHONY RANDOLPH! (Just half-kidding. Grains of salt shall be taken aplenty!)

*Fans walk away relieved at signing Kirlienko, not Batum. Batum was a big thing for Kahn and co. I get a headache when I think about what they were prepared to give up for this guy. And I like him. But I like Kirilenko too. Like Batum, he plays excellent D and plays the 3. No, he doesn’t shoot it like Nic, but he’s got a toughness and swagger that I want in a playoff series. Batum doesn’t have that. Kirilenko had it on full display in the Olympics last summer, and apparently last season too, when he was playing overseas, given that he won the league’s MVP. He has intangible qualities that none of the Wolves’ other marquee players – Love, Rubio, even Pekovic – have. Part of it is toughness, and part is unselfishness. Even with the awkward NUMB#RS stuff around Love, I don’t think any of these guys are selfish, but I do think none have shown the kind of grit and self-sacrifice that means doing things to help teammates that involves an opportunity cost that isn’t helpful to your own numbers. Kirilenko does this innately. I wouldn’t be a fan of his on a team where he was supposed to be, say, the #2 guy, but he’s a huge force multiplier on a young team like ours where he’s a #4 guy who’s likely to make his teammate better and tougher.



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12 responses to “Wolves Season Preview, Part 2 of 2

  1. Cynical Jason

    You ignore Pek at your peril. You mentioned him twice, but his impact will be felt all over the offense. His defense might still be restrained to man-on-man, but you almost completely ignored the 6’11” 280 pound elephant in the room.

    • Pek didn’t get enough coverage in these previews–so I’ll quote one of the best, Zach Lowe: (http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8540932/the-miami-heat-offense-james-harden-contract-more-bold-predictions-2012-13-nba-season)

      “He won’t make the [All-Star] team, not with all the starry big men in the Western Conference, and he’ll never be able to protect the rim at an All-Star level. He also won’t shoot 56 percent with both Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio out with injuries. But Pekovic scored as efficiently, and as often, with Rubio on the bench last season as he did with Rubio on the court (the same was true of Love), and he figures to work long stretches as Minnesota’s top offensive option to start the season. He averaged about 17 points and nine rebounds per game once he started getting heavy minutes last season, and he led the league in offensive rebounding rate. Pekovic looks to be in great shape, and he’s going to put up huge numbers.”

      • Cynical Jason

        I’m just so Pek-centric that I felt like I had to interject. You guys both covered the team well.


        • More Pek? That’s kind of like saying, “more cowbell” – the answer’s always yes! Andy and I have some Pekovic speculation (“Pek spec”?) up our sleeves, so check back for that.

    • @Cynical Jason: You got me. Pek is easy not to write about in preview pieces like this because he seems like the one certain piece the Wolves still have in place – the rock. We like to focus on where questions still remain, and which things could swing the pendulum from success to failure and back, or wins to losses (or the reverse) and so we pick around the margins. Truth be told, Pek is such a non-question mark that you almost take him for granted as a constant in an equation whose other parameters you’re trying to estimate. Yet we’ve only seen one really great stretch from Pek. Last season was shortened, and his impact didn’t begin right away. I have little doubt this guy is the Real McCoy, but some questions remain about how he’ll adjust to increasing demands on him to play longer minutes, foul less, rebound more, and not get hurt. We may have to do a standalone post to get at these second-order questions (that is, the ones that go beyond, “Oh crap, Love and Rubio are out, do we have anyone on the squad we know is really good? Yes, yes we do – Nikola Pekovic”.

      • Cynical Jason

        No worries. I’m, as usual, just giving you a hard time. This is good work.

        • Gracias, Jason – glad you’re chiming in.

          Question: Are you as ready for the regular season as I am? I don’t know if I could take many more no-TV Fargo/Winnipeg pretend games. After last year’s post-lockout sprint, this preseason feels like molasses.

  2. Eric in Madison

    Good stuff Patrick. Except this: “Fans will miss Michael Beasley.”

    I won’t. He isn’t “objectively better then anything we have to throw out there.” I would much rather run both Kirilenko or Cunningham out there at the 4 then Beasley.

    With Love out, more and more I am seeing Roy as the key to the first 2 months of the season. I don’t expect him to stay healthy all year, but if he can be good early, serve as one of the 2 central offensive forces on the squad (with Pekovic), and be good in that role, it might see them through until Love and Rubio return.

    • I anticipated some pushback on the Beasley point, and you didn’t disappoint. Softer language – “(Some) Fans (Who Didn’t Think It Possible) Will Miss Michael Beasley” – might’ve been the right hook. Then it would be true almost by definition. But what fun is that?

      To be blunt, while I’m really, really worried about our situation at the 4 until Love comes back, I’m not sure I disagree with you about Beasley, but for the price tag – an 5.25 million over 3 years or $1.67M/year – I do think there’s a non-trivial possibility that Anthony Randolph is and will be a better value than Cunningham, who’s making just over 2M on a 2-year deal. I get Randolph’s limitations and agree with most of the criticism he’s gotten, but I think those who watch the Wolves as closely as the group that reads this site regularly have inflated their expectations of Cunningham enough based on a few nice preseason games that they’re setting themselves up for disappointment once he regresses back to his good ol’ 8th or 9th man self. That’s not a knock on the fans or Cunningham – it’s a natural psychological response when a new player does unexpectedly well – but I do think we’ll regret shedding at least some of the depth we had last year at the 4, be it Beasley, Randolph, or even AT.

      • Eric in Madison

        Well, you might be correct on Cunningham, though I’m not expecting huge things. He played very well last year, though. What he does is he doesn’t do a ton of things to hurt you. Low turnovers, good defense, good offensive rebounder. He’s low usage, and they will need usage from somewhere with Love out, but Cunningham is a useful guy.

        What Beasley and Randolph do is make you notice them, but often in bad ways. Look, losing Love is a big problem, no matter who else is on the roster. I think it was the right decision to jettison players like Randolph and Beasley in favor of guys like Kirilenko and Cunningham, but none of them were going to solve the problems inherent in the Love injury.

        • Sadly for all Wolves fans, you’re 100% right about the bottom line. It’s barely worth quibbling about the margins when the big issue is Love’s 2-month hiatus and how badly it might hurt the team.

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