The Timberwolves playoff push ended Thursday night with a 95-82 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s odd (or maybe fate) that the team to mathematically eliminate the Wolves was a boisterous Clipper team that was 0-3 against Minnesota coming in. But I think we can all agree that the Wolves’ season was over weeks ago.
What seemed like a turnaround season really ended on March 9 when rookie point guard Ricky Rubio collided with Kobe Bryant in the final seconds of a loss to the Lakers, which resulted in a torn ACL for the Spaniard and a shot through the heart for Wolves fan. At the time, Minnesota was a ½ game back of eighth place and Rubio was enjoying a very nice rookie season. In fact, if not for Kyrie Irving’s stellar campaign, Rubio would have likely been the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.
Unfortunately, Rubio suffered what has become an all-too-common injury for athletes today and was the first blow to Minnesota’s postseason hopes. Meanwhile, the injuries piled up, culminating in Kevin Love’s concussion, which was the final defeat as the likely season-ending injury finished off any hope Love had of garnering significant MVP votes.
But let’s not dwell on the negative. The (albeit shortened) 2011-12 season was a solid stride in the right direction for the Wolves. Some had an idea it was coming. Some didn’t.
Here’s what I wrote for a First Pitch column before the season:
Dec. 23, 2011
Bear with me, but the Minnesota Timberwolves have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs this season.
Yes, the same Timberwolves who finished with the worst record (17-65) in the NBA last season and the second-worst mark (15-67) the previous season.
Yes, the same Timberwolves who were 6-33 last season in games decided by single digits, including 4-16 in games decided by five points or less.
Yes, those Minnesota Timberwolves.
Granted, it would be absurd to think that Minnesota could make a push for a top seed. The level of talent and depth simply isn’t there right now for a team of this caliber to be mentioned in the same sentence as Oklahoma City, Dallas or Los Angeles.
But it’s not out of the question to expect a young, athletic team like the Wolves to take advantage of a rapid, 66-game schedule and make a bid for an 8-seed – even if it does take a perfect storm of events.
The schedule itself does not favor older teams with journeyman or oft-injured players that typically see significant minutes. High profile teams like Boston, San Antonio and both Los Angeles squads are likely to hold back minutes on certain nights (namely those during the dreaded back-to-back-to-back stretches) to preserve players for a playoff run.
Now, nobody expects those same teams to not make the playoffs. However, a logjam schedule and long road trips certainly open the door for teams with young talent and a faster recovery time – teams like Indiana, Utah and, yes, Minnesota.
Aside from trying to outlast veteran teams throughout a grueling schedule, the Timberwolves have the talent to not just push teams on a nightly basis, but actually win games.
The long-awaited coming of Ricky Rubio gives Minnesota a seasoned and fully capable point guard to run the offense, which means a lot less of Luke Ridnour and that’s never a bad thing.
The addition of first-round draft pick Derrick Williams will likely cut into Michael Beasley’s minutes, but it gives Minnesota immediate scoring and rebounding off the bench.
Meanwhile, Beasley himself showed glimpses last season that he’s capable of being a leading scorer, although he’s still incredibly short of the lofty expectations when Miami drafted him in 2008.
And everyone has seen what Kevin Love is capable of.
It might be a lot to ask of the league’s worst team from a year ago to make a push for a playoff spot. But under the right circumstances, seeing the Wolves play meaningful games down the stretch isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Look at that. A free article that you didn’t have to pay for. Moving on.
Let’s stick with the positives:
* With six games remaining the Wolves have already won 25 games – their best mark since 2006-07 when they won 32 games. Also, those 25 wins came during a 66-game season so if you want to dig a little deeper, Minnesota could account for it’s best win percentage (.424 so far) since 2004-05 (.537) when Kevin Garnett was in his prime.
* Rubio lived up to the hype and made David Kahn look a little smarter than what he probably is. Then again, when you have two picks in the top 10, it’s not hard to find a gem (paging Johnny Flynn). Regardless, Rubio dazzled this season and gave Wolves fans a glimpse of how a real point guard can make anyone look like a playoff team. Aside from the flare, Rubio worked well within Rick Adelman’s defense, helping the Wolves hold teams to 96.6 point per game prior to his season-ending injury. Since then, Minnesota is surrendering 112.8 points per contest during a 4-15 skid.
* Kevin Love was a legitimate MVP contender. I have a rule when it comes to guys who have breakout seasons like Love did in 2010-11 – show me you can do it again. Love did, which is why I’m sold on him. That sentence sounds silly now, I know, but it wasn’t at the beginning of the season. Admittedly, it’s hard to consider a guy on a losing team for MVP, but Love proved this season that he’s the best power forward in the league and a top-10 player in the league (somewhere after LeBron, Wade, Durant, Kobe and Rose and between Howard, Paul, Westbrook, and Deron Williams). I watched him drop 50 in Oklahoma City last month and was nothing short of amazed with everything he’s capable of. Oh yeah, and he won the 3-point contest.
* Rick Adelman was the right coach for this team. There’s plenty of potential with this group and Adelman was the best general to guide a young team that needed discipline in order to flourish. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of strides, if any, the Wolves make next season.
* Beasley, Williams, Pekovic and Ridnour were nice complements to the Love-Rubio combo. Pek was an especially pleasant surprise, finishing second on the team in ESPN’s Player Efficiency Rating. Minnesota still needs to find another weapon, though.
If nothing else, the Wolves hopefully piqued your basketball interest, which is saying something considering the season almost didn’t happen, and when it did there was so much distaste for the league that I was certain fringe followers would drop off.
Nevertheless, success is different for every team in the league. For some, it means championship or bust. For others, like the Wolves, it meant regaining some respect around the league, and there’s no doubt they’ll walk (or limp) away having done so.