MINNEAPOLIS — Kings and pawns, captains and crew members, cornerstones and building blocks.
Rick Adelman saw the picture clearly when previous Timberwolves president David Kahn coaxed him out of hiatus in 2011: Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio working in harmony, with the rest of the pieces falling into place around them.
The first part of the veteran hoops sage’s vision came to fruition during that lockout-shortened campaign. Love had the best season of his career, and Rubio worked his way into rookie of the year consideration before a March 2012 ACL tear crushed that sentiment.
Without a viable supporting cast for its burgeoning tandem, Minnesota won 26 games and finished fifth in the Western Conference’s Northwest Division. By the time Rubio returned to action last year, his running mate had broken his hand and was well on the way to missing 64 games, and the Timberwolves’ doormat days continued.
Now, back together and fully healthy, Love and Rubio remain the unquestioned leaders of the newest Timberwolves pack.
“They’re young, and they’ve been here the longest, so they’re taking full control of their team,” shooting guard Kevin Martin said. “It should be an exciting time in their careers, to be faces of the franchise.
“We’re just here to support them.”
And that’s the biggest difference as Rubio and Love embark on their second real journey together; there are a few more dogs on their side of the fight this time around.
That reality starts within. Rubio’s knee and Love’s hand are both 100 percent, Adelman has said. Both stalwarts spent the summer undergoing strenuous training workouts — Love on the shores of California, Rubio in the mountains of Spain.
Rubio worked on his shooting. Love focused on regaining strength and stamina.
Bare-minimum requirements for termination of the Timberwolves’ nine-year playoff absence, the NBA’s longest at present.
“Kevin’s got to come back and play like he did a couple years ago,” Adelman said. “Ricky’s got to continue to improve. … You look at our players, and we’re fairly young at most of the spots. They’ve got to continue to get better, and that’s what makes your team.”
That, and some additional help.
Free-agent pickups Martin and Corey Brewer give Minnesota a pair of wing options that should improve its league-worst 3-point mark of a year ago and, consequently, open up the floor. The Timberwolves re-signed small forward Chase Budinger, who’s capable of doing the same once he returns from a meniscus injury. Interior force Nikola Pekovic provides the third wheel in the organization’s penultimate threesome — a staple of today’s successful NBA rosters — and returns after landing a hefty contract extension.
Love and Rubio still form the foundation, but new president of basketball operations Flip Saunders came in this summer and bolstered the second facet of Adelman’s plan: auxiliary assistance.
“You can say that, Ricky and Kevin,” said Brewer, who spent the past two years as Denver’s sixth man. “You’ve also got to think about Pek. Pek’s a big part of this team, too. And when you have a guy like Kevin Martin, he’s gonna score a lot of points for us. Those four guys can really play offensively.
“Other guys, we’ve just got to fit in where we can fit in.”
Martin saw it work in another Western Conference mix last season. The nine-year veteran came off the bench for the first time since his second season and learned the value of letting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook carry the heaviest load, then filling in the gaps as they arose.
He’ll have a more prominent scoring role with his third team in three years, but the mentality’s the same: know your place.
“It’s a blessing just to be in the NBA,” said Martin, who still start at two-guard Wednesday in the Timberwolves’ opener. “I’ve been in all phases. Last year was a great year playing Kevin and Russ, now here playing with Kevin and Ricky. It’s just fun.”
So is teaming up with Rubio once again after a rocked-by-the-wayside 2012-13 season, Love said.
“Just getting back out there with him, I’m really looking forward to it,” Love said. “We didn’t have much time out there on the floor, so between Pek and Ricky and myself and everybody included, we’re looking forward to playing together.”
With Love and Rubio’s centrifugal status comes increased responsibility for locker-room cohesion. Rubio said he tries to lead by example, while Love’s made more of an effort to communicate and spend time with his teammates this year, per returning reserve guard J.J. Barea.
“Those two are gonna be our leaders,” said Barea, Rubio’s top backup. “They’re the ones that are gonna be playing the most time, so they’ve got to be ready to go.”
But transcendence doesn’t equal exclusivity. There’s an awareness that Love and Rubio, for all their talent and core contributions, can’t do it all on their own.
Rubio can’t be an assists machine if his fellows aren’t finishing. Love’s not nearly as effective when opposing defenses don’t have other scorers to attend to. Minnesota won’t get stops unless all five players on the floor defend tenaciously.
Love is 25 years old. Rubio’s 23. So they don’t have sole authority — Martin, Brewer, Ronny Turiaf and other vets command just as much respect.
“I think it’s everybody’s team,” Love said. “Everybody is in a position to speak up. Everybody’s in a position to lead by example. We all just want to pick each other up and play as hard as we possibly can.”
And while no two players’ combined performances will impact this season more, they’re not the only ones on whom Adelman’s counting in his third year here.
“It’s just not them; I think all these guys have to get better,” Adelman said. “Once in a while, you grab a hold of a trade or something that happens that kind of gives you, really, a shot, but along with that, your main guys, your core guys get better every year, and that’s what we’re hoping (after) all the injuries, that these guys are going to improve all season long.”
Love and Rubio’s chance to make something special happen together won’t last forever. Love has a player option on his contract for 2015-16, the same year Rubio becomes a restricted free agent. If the Timberwolves don’t finally turn out a winner, one or both of them could be gone two summers from now.
What happens in Wolves country between now and then, though, is largely up to them.
“Now, we have a chance to do it, because last year, we were hurt,” Rubio said emphatically after a recent practice. “Now, it’s time to do it.”