Moving past a lackluster draft, aggressively reaping a bountiful free-agency haul and expecting their core back fully healthy, the Minnesota Timberwolves appear to have adopted a playoffs-or-bust 2013-14 outlook.
Adding substantial wing depth to a team that already had Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio and re-signing one of the NBA’s best centers in Nikola Pekovic led to such expectations. Plucking a couple interior plan-B pieces solidified them.
The schedule is out, so official conjecture about overall record, postseason seeding and such is allowed to fly rampantly.
As NBA fans go, these are restless times, about a month before training camp when professional hoops tend to avoid the national radar.
For Minnesota to deliver on its pledge to break the league’s longest playoff drought — nearly every player available to the media this summer mentioned that as the primary objective — it will have to successfully meander through a schedule that ESPN’s relative percent index ranks the league’s sixth-toughest.
Per the NBA scheduling matrix, it includes a top-heavy divisional slate and a taxing out-of-division Western Conference lineup. The Timberwolves will play all 29 other teams in the league, but the following eight conference adversaries and their frequent presence on the other side of the box score stand to present the most challenges.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season: 60-22, lost 4-1 to Memphis in the Western Conference Semifinals
This season vs. Minnesota: Nov. 1, Dec. 1, Jan. 4, Feb. 5
The heavy favorites to seize the Northwest Division crown for a third year in a row, the Thunder’s biggest offseason move was to anticipate the return of a healthy Russell Westbrook, whose right-knee meniscus tear cost him participation in Oklahoma City’s shorter-than-hoped playoff berth. They did draft mammoth center Steven Adams and swing man Andre Roberson and signed former Timberwolves power forward Ryan Gomes. But their most prominent transaction involved a sign-and-trade that sent unrestricted free-agent guard Kevin Martin to the Twin Cities. The Thunder will miss his 14 points per game and career-best 42.6 3-point percentage, but the tandem of Westbrook and MVP candidate Kevin Durant will continue to give Minnesota and the rest of the West nightmares.
Last season: 57-25, lost 4-2 to Golden State in the Western Conference first round
This season vs. Minnesota: Nov. 15, Nov. 27, Feb. 12, March 3
The Nuggets look a lot different than they did March 9 in their final 2012-13 meeting with the Timberwolves. A new coach (Brian Shaw) and a new general manager (Tim Connelly) are in, while 2012 All-Star wing Andre Iguodala is out courtesy of a three-team trade. So is defensive pest Corey Brewer, whom Minnesota snagged in free agency. The Iguodala deal brought in former Minnesota guard Randy Foye, and Denver also added big man J.J. Hickson (12.7 points per game, 10.4 rebounds per game and 40 double-doubles last season), who is only 24 years old. Free-agent point guard Nate Robinson joins the fold after a productive year in Chicago where he helped fill in for Derek Rose, giving Shaw some balance to work with. It’s likely not enough to make up for Iguodala’s absence, but the Nuggets haven’t regressed to the point where the Timberwolves can afford to overlook them.
Portland Trail Blazers
Last season: 33-49, did not make the playoffs
This season vs. Minnesota: Dec. 18, Jan. 25, Feb. 8, Feb. 23
The Blazers battled with the Timberwolves in a dubious race for fourth in the five-team division but, like their Northwest counterpart to the east, had a busy and productive offseason. Six new faces on the Portland roster all stand to make an impact. The Blazers drafted 3-point stalwart C.J. McCollum and signed Mo Williams and Earl Watson to firm up their backcourt and added some size up front — Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson — to make up for the departure of Hickson to the Nuggets. That’s all good news for the legs of reigning NBA rookie of the year Damian Lillard, whose 38.6 minutes per game tied Kobe Bryant for second in the league. With him directing a group that’s much deeper than it was a year ago, Portland could rival Minnesota as one of the league’s most improved clubs. We’ll find out this winter when the teams clash three times in a span of less than a month.
Los Angeles Clippers
Last season: 56-26, lost 4-2 to Memphis in Western Conference first round
This season vs. Minnesota: Nov. 11, Nov. 20, Dec. 22, March 31
Minnesota and the rest of the Western Conference would’ve been tickled to see unrestricted free agent Chris Paul somehow slip to the other side of the league — and that was before the NBA schedule czars tabbed them as one of the Timberwolves’ cross-division opponents they’ll see four times. But the Los Angeles front office would have none of that, as they spearheaded a lucrative summer by agreeing to terms with their star point guard early in free agency. But that wasn’t their only play this offseason, as J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Byron Mullens and first-round draft pick Reggie Bullock joined the fun out west. The Clippers also have a guy named Blake Griffin, who sources say is fairly talented at basketball.
Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 45-37, 4-0 to San Antonio in Western Conference first round
This season vs. Minnesota: Nov. 10, Dec. 20, Feb. 4, March 28
As long as Kobe Bryant is dressed in gold, the Lakers will remain a hindrance to teams in the West like the Timberwolves seeking a breakthrough. Dwight Howard’s exodus doesn’t do any good, either, as Minnesota will also see him and the Houston Rockets four times (see below). Los Angeles is, however, in the midst of a flux period while it prepares for one more Bryant-driven title run, which leaves it more susceptible than it has been in recent years. The Lakers’ biggest free-agent addition was Dallas center Chris Kaman, boosting a frontcourt that already includes Pau Gasol. They aren’t the juggernaut they once were, but they’re still enough to cause Minnesota problems, particularly in the post.
Last season: 45-37, lost 4-2 to Oklahoma City in Western Conference first round
This season vs. Minnesota: Nov. 23, Feb. 10, March 20, April 11
The Rockets’ victory in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes gives Minnesota center Nikola Pekovic four shots at going toe-to-toe with maybe the game’s best center (when Howard wants to be). James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin return hoping to shift the Rockets from a first-round see-ya-later to an NBA Finals-caliber club — a dangerous bunch provided they can all say healthy. The league was wise to schedule the maximum number of Houston-Minneapolis matchups, as Rick Adelman and Kevin McHale both face organizations they used to direct and Martin and Timberwolves forward Chase Budinger take on their former team.
Last season: 56-26, lost 4-0 to San Antonio in Western Conference Finals
This season vs. Minnesota: Nov. 23, Feb. 10, March 20, April 11
After having its season engulfed by injuries, Minnesota’s chief route back to the postseason is remaining healthy. The Timberwolves, then, may want to keep a few extra ankle-tapers and ice packs around for four meetings against the gritty Grizzlies, who only added physicality in signing big man Kosta Koufos. They brought back shooting guard Tony Allen, keeping intact the core of a team that reached the conference semis and knocked the snot out of most opponents in the process. New coach Dave Joerger, a Minnesota native, represents an interesting addition to the mix, but Memphis is expected to be just as dangerous — and tough — as it was a year ago.
San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 58-24, lost 4-3 to Miami in the NBA Finals
This season vs. Minnesota: Dec. 4, Dec. 13, Jan. 12
The Timberwolves’ only “home” game against the defending Western Conference champions and league-wide gold standard for organization construction comes in Mexico City just after the calendar turns to December. The 2012-13 campaign may have represented the largest window for an aging Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but R.C. Buford and Greg Popovich had enough confidence in Ginobili — even after a horrid finals showing — to bring him back for another try. Big guy Tiago Splitter re-signed, too, Gary Neal as the Spurs’ only significant departure. But that’s salved by the expected growth of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Minnesota lucked out when the NBA scheduled it to play San Antonio only three times, though two trips to Texas and another even further south aren’t exactly favorable.