Making the best of a Love-less early season

Niesen: The Timberwolves can use their best player's absence to build up some key areas.

MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Wesley Love does not walk on water. He's not a saint. He's not perfect, not a genius, not even the best basketball player ever to play for the Timberwolves.

Don't get me wrong. He's a great player, one of the best in today's NBA. He's the backbone of his team and the core of its offense. He's a good guy. (He shaved his head for breast cancer awareness, for goodness sake.) He's elite.

But Kevin Love's broken hand doesn't have to doom the Timberwolves or even radically alter their trajectory, and they need to stop beat, beat, beating it to death. It's partly our fault, the media's, for treating this messianic hand as the key to the Timberwolves' success, and of course it's a tempting assumption that's more than a little bit true.

But a week after the tragic event, the team has gotten itself a little bit past the devastation of knuckle push-ups gone awry. Of course the injury is news, and of course there's a need to talk about how the Timberwolves will compensate. But four weeks of the season without Love is a tiny fraction of the big picture, and it's hard to imagine him taking even a second longer than the minimum time away. That's Kevin Love. That's what he does. He competes, and you've got to know that missing time is killing him right now.

So until the day when Love returns to the starting lineup, the Timberwolves should take their latest blow and try to learn from it. They need to use Love's injury to make themselves better, so they're not just a beefed-up version of last year's team, which was wholly reliant on stars and without any depth to prop itself up.

Here are the areas in which Timberwolves can build without Love:

Derrick Williams: It's hard to pinpoint one area in which Williams can use Love's absence to his advantage because there are so many. Part of it can be a mental thing: He no longer has to feel he'll never get minutes at his natural position no matter how hard he tries. He'll also be allowed to develop the kind of chemistry he'll need in games with guys like Nikola Pekovic, Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, Andrei Kirilenko . . . the list goes on. Last season, Williams was never consistent, so he never earned a consistent role, and so he never developed a rhythm, and so we all pulled our hair out and cursed whoever designated him the No. 2 pick -- it was a self-perpetuating problem that was impossible to address. Love is better. Love gets the minutes. Williams must adjust. Williams isn't ready, or mature enough, to adjust yet.

Williams isn't going to be Love. He's not going to score or rebound at that rate. But he'd be wise to play out of his mind and earn that starting spot for as long as he can hold it because the experience will be invaluable.

Defense: Love is hardly a defensive mastermind. In fact, defense is the weakest part of his game and the biggest impediment to his holding his spot as the league's best player at his position. Last season, the team's defense gave up as many points with Love as without him in the 11 games he missed, so losing him should not affect its game at that end of the court.

In fact, the Timberwolves' defense has been one of the brighter spots of preseason thus far, and it's held its opponents to an average of just 82 points per game. That number isn't going to hold into the regular season; no defense in the modern NBA has ever been that good. But it's a solid start in an area where the team struggled last season, and it would be smart to shift its focus in Love's absence more toward protecting the basket. Why try to compensate for something (offense) that's never going to be at full tilt without Love when you can work to refine something that shouldn't suffer in his absence?

Leadership: Love is the team's unquestioned leader. In just his fifth season in the league, he's the Timberwolves' longest-tenured player, and he's earned every ounce of that status. You don't have a player like Love on your team and not let him lead, unless he's of the Andrew Bynum personality variety. Love has done a good job of establishing himself at the front of his team, and it's right that others defer to him.

It's right, but it isn't always the best thing. Love has never played for a contender. He's only 24. He's competitive and driven to win and has all the qualities a leader should have, but there's no ignoring the fact that he hasn't been there, in high-pressure situations with playoff implications. That irks him, obviously, and the only thing he can do to correct it is to keep working as hard as he had since he was drafted.

Here's the silver lining, though: For the first time in a good while, the Timberwolves have players perfectly equipped to lead, veteran guys who on many other teams would be asked to fill that role. Granted, neither is a particularly vocal presence, but both Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko have played with the best and advanced to the postseason. They're on Love's team now, one a risky comeback case and the other likely beginning the downswing of his career, but that doesn't mean that without Love around, they can't be more. It's their turn to step up, and whatever leadership they cultivate without Love can only help when he returns.


And that's about the end of it. At a certain point, an injury is an injury and a missing star is a real detriment, and that's where the Timberwolves stand. They can't dwell, though, and if Wednesday's game against Detroit is any indication, they're not. It's up to Rick Adelman to spin magic out of terrible luck, and he's done it before. The season is a week away, and this month without Love still has the potential to be the obstacle upon which the Timberwolves build their season. The odds are stacked against them, but since when is that not the case?

What must be different this year is that the team needs to learn rather than wallow, and with a supporting cast that seems infinitely more invested than last year, there's a real chance of perfectly tolerable basketball without Love. It just might not be quite as fun.

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