MINNEAPOLIS — If 22 years in the business have taught Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman a singular lesson, it’s that no two seasons are alike.
Go-round No. 23, though, may present the old innovator’s most unique set of tasks yet.
There’s another new crop of talent hanging in the team’s dressing room, a strong-minded former coach occupying his boss’ chair, and a wife at home months removed from a severe health scare. Opportunities also abound: a restored core, a reenergized fan base, and heightened expectations for a franchise mired in futility for nine years.
It’s a trying yet exciting set of circumstances for a 67-year-old hoops guru who’s already won 1,000 games and taken 16 teams to the NBA playoffs. If there’s anyone cut out to handle them, it’s Adelman, his new supervisor said.
“There’s a reason that he won 1,000 games and he’s still in this league,” said Flip Saunders, Minnesota’s president of basketball operations since May. “You have to be able to adapt.”
There’s plenty to adjust to in third year of Adelman’s reclamation project.
A total of five players remain from the roster Adelman inherited two years ago. Three of them — foundational threesome Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic — spent a whopping 15 minutes on the floor together last season, one of the most vivid illustrations of the Timberwolves’ copious injury woes.
Recreating harmony between those three while tossing new ingredients like Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer into the pot remains high on Adelman’s priority list during training camp, which began Tuesday at Minnesota State in Mankato. Having played for Adelman twice before, Martin is quite familiar with his distinct schemes, but fellow free-agent additions Brewer and Ronny Turiaf and first-round draft picks Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad will require more instruction.
Even so, Adelman expressed enthusiasm about the makeup of his latest charge.
“When I came here two years ago, I tried to see if we could change the culture and get things turned around and head in a positive direction,” said Adelman, whose first two Timberwolves teams went 26-40 and 31-51. “I thought last year we were on that direction until everything happened to the team. Everything just went backwards when we thought we were moving in the right direction, but I think we got the right people this year and I’m looking forward to see if we can make some strides.”
Starting with Love’s hand injuries and knee surgery that cost him most of the season, five everyday contributors sat out at least 18 games with ailments last year. Love, Rubio, Chase Budinger, Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko combined to miss 186 contests.
And that’s excluding the knee woes of Brandon Roy, who came out of retirement and appeared in only five games.
The Timberwolves are already down a man this year after Chase Budinger reinjured the knee that cost him 59 games last season. But he’s expected back at some point this season, and the rest of the roster entered camp at or close to 100 percent.
Seizures suffered by Adelman’s wife Mary Kay also affected his second season in the Twin Cities. The coach stepped away to be with her for three weeks in January and said after the season he had a decision to make regarding his professional future.
It took most of the summer as the family consulted with medical practitioners about how to best prevent future seizures and find suitable medication treatments. All the while, Adelman had a heavy voice in the team’s roster overhaul, constantly discussing prospects with Saunders and talking to a few of them himself.
He was particularly instrumental in landing Martin, whom he coached in both Sacramento and Houston. Coming off one of the worst 3-point shooting seasons in league history (30.5 percent), the Timberwolves looked at other shooting guard options including J.J. Redick and O.J. Mayo but decided the Adelman-Martin connection wound up being too much to pass up.
“Anybody who could make a shot was going to help us, but Kevin I knew so well and I knew that when he would step on the floor, he was going to get you 20 points,” Adelman said. “He was always someone I liked, that I coached, and knew his ability so I think I had a lot of input as far as trying to see if we could get him and compare him to other people.”
When a former coach like Saunders — who directed the Timberwolves during their hay day in the late 90s and early 2000s — takes a front-office leadership position, it’s easy to assume he’ll be peering over the shoulder of his current coach.
Please do, Adelman says.
“If I’m going to worry about that, I’m in big trouble,” said Adelman, who boasts a 1,002-707 all-time coaching record. “If I was 35 years old, I might be thinking about that situation differently, but for me, I want his input even though I’m still going to make the final decision on what goes on with the team. I want his input and ideas.”
Saunders, in turn, says he’ll be happy to give them. But he’s not going to micromanage.
“Just like my hands are right now, we’re together,” Saunders said during a recent press conference, his hands folded. “I believe that our management and coaches and team, everyone has to be together. Everyone has to have the same agenda.”
That includes getting back to the patented Adelman strategies that have helped make him such a revered coach. With so many key attributes sidelined, the Timberwolves had resorted to simple pick-and-roll plays by the end of last season.
Those are only a small component of Adelman’s corner offense, which he says will include more motion-based sets.
Saunders also has expressed a desire to run the floor more frequently.
“I think we have the potential to be so much better offensively,” Adelman said. “Everybody knows we couldn’t shoot the ball from the outside. We had nobody that could do that consistently; even the guys who we thought could shoot didn’t do it very well.
“We are going to try and attack the teams in a lot more ways.”
Stopping them will be a tougher chore.
Aside from Brewer, there’s not a player in Minnesota’s main rotation with a particular knack for matchup defense. Adelman didn’t mince any words when he said team defensive concepts will be a primary focal point during camp.
“It’s the first thing I will tell them: they have to get out of their comfort zone,” Adelman said. “We have a lot of guys who are known in the league for offensive players and I think they’re also smart players. I think this team has the ability to be a good team defensively, not necessarily individuals.”
The question of his wife’s health will continue to lurk somewhere in the background this season, but Adelman said Monday she’s stable and fully supportive of her husband’s endeavors.
He had some serious doubts about returning early on this summer. As the season drew nearer and Mary Kay’s condition stayed the same, though, it became clear what he was supposed to do.
Opening up a bit Monday about all things 2013-14, Adelman expressed appreciation for backing from his wife, Saunders and Glen Taylor heading into what’s poised to be a pivotal year. Count his players among that support group, too.
“I know he means a lot to the team, you know?” Pekovic said. “Last year, when we lost him for a few weeks, it was really tough time for us.”
Said Martin: “I know what kind of support he’s going to want, and I’ll go out there and play the best basketball, and that’s one thing we have to rally around and go out there and play for him. We owe him for coming back in this stage in his life and his wife’s life.”