MINNEAPOLIS — Thanks to an interesting scheduling quirk, the Timberwolves embark Monday on leg No. 3 of their segmented preseason escapade.
After opening training camp in Mankato, four games in six days marked the second stage of preparation for 2013-14. Minnesota has an entire week before its next outing and, according to coach Rick Adelman, there’s plenty to improve upon between now and then.
Such an abundance, in fact, that Saturday’s home loss to Toronto had him questioning the entire mental makeup of his revamped squad to this point.
“The only good thing about tonight is it gives us things to look at in film,” the longtime coach said. “They’ve got to figure out what they want to do as a team. … What kind of year do you want? What kind of season do you want? It’s really up to us to make what we want.”
There have been some bright spots, namely the play of up-and-comers fighting to make the 15-man roster. But a 2-2 record with a pair of home losses precipitated by slow starts leaves a handful of bottom-line questions about this franchise with the regular season 15 days away.
They’ve got what amounts to a second camp this week to excavate for answers.
After four exhibitions, here’s what we do know:
There’s some rust: Minnesota’s starters have been iffy at best, allowing the Timberwolves to fall behind early in three of their four preseason games to date. Kevin Love is rounding slowly into form but suffered a couple lackluster shooting nights, Ricky Rubio has passed well but shot poorly, and Nikola Pekovic has been noticeable, but not dominant. Those three pillar players have yet to regain complete comfort with each other; they barely played all together last year due to a slew of injuries. Love, in particular, requires some time to get his legs back under him — last Monday’s game against CSKA Moscow was his first since Jan. 3. But this isn’t a starters-only problem; in its last two outings, Minnesota has shot less than 40 percent from the field.
Hard to stop: This one’s not shocking anybody. A team loaded with offensive stalwarts hasn’t done much to shed its stereotype as defensively challenged. CSKA Moscow and Toronto (Saturday, not Wednesday) both shot better than 50 percent, largely a product of knocking down open jumpers allowed by a Timberwolves breakdown. There’s only so much a lineup with one prime stopper starting — small forward Corey Brewer — can do, but Minnesota needs to at least contest more shots and exhibit more disdain for open passing lanes. The opener against CSKA, a Russian club also readying for its regular season, was particularly shoddy: eight of its 10 players that saw the floor Monday scored in double figures.
On the cusp: Guards Othyus Jeffers and A.J. Price are looking more and more like candidates to crack the final roster when it’s announced at the end of the month. Both boast NBA experience — Price three years with the Pacers and one with the Wizards; Jeffers brief stints with Utah, San Antonio and Washington — and have wrangled themselves some minutes in crunch time. Price nearly engineered a comeback in the fourth quarter against CSKA and finished with 14 points and scored 10 in a win against Milwaukee. Jeffers’ best showing came against the Bucks in Sioux Falls, S.D., too: a team-high 13 points in 25 minutes, 28 seconds of playing time. Those two and second-round draft picks Robbie Hummel (2012) and Lorenzo Brown (2013) were invited to try and earn Minnesota’s final roster spot. The four may be competing four two, now, as center Chris Johnson — who has a $916,099 guaranteed contract this year — has yet to play and could be waived. Brown hasn’t played much either, but Hummel has done some good things in his limited minutes.
Here’s what we have yet to find out:
Wing rotation: This seemed like a sure thing a week before the Timberwolves’ opening practice Oct. 2 at Minnesota State. Then Chase Budinger had his second meniscus surgery in the past calendar year, and free-agent shooting guard Kevin Martin missed the better part of three preseason games with a sore Achilles tendon. Neither injury is expected to keep the sharpshooting wingmen out for too terribly long, but their absence means much more shuffling on Adelman’s part. In an ideal world, Martin’s in at the two and knocking down four or five 3-pointers on the way to 20 points, and Budinger’s either starting or the first man off the bench and hitting some 3s of his own. In reality, Derrick Williams has played more three than four (the plan coming into the year was to use him at both), Alexey Shved’s out of his more natural guard position at the top two (he, too, will be counted on as a flex), and more focus has shifted to rookie Shabazz Muhammad’s development. Martin and Budinger’s absences are certainly causes for concern but they also open opportunities for Williams, Shved and Muhammad. How it all shakes out will hinge upon their ability to play multiple positions, and the statuses of Martin and Budinger.
Keeping up: Holding teams to a shade under 90 points like the Timberwolves did last week at the Air Canada Centre and the Pentagon may represent the ceiling for their defense. It’s the NBA; opponents are going to score, especially against a group geared toward doing the exact same thing. Putting up enough points, then, becomes just as imperative as generating a few more stops. If he stays healthy, Love is going to drop 20 most nights. They’ve asked Martin to chip in no less than 18. Pekovic’s one of the best scoring centers in the league. But it can’t stop with those three. Rubio can’t go 0-for-7 as he did against Toronto Saturday. Brewer has to balance his defensive focus with scoring in transition and hitting 3s. Someone else — Budinger? Williams? J.J. Barea? — must provide an additional spark off the bench. There are going to be shootouts, and Minnesota needs a lot of firepower at the ready to keep pace.
How bad is it?: Or is it bad at all? Four preseason games present the observer a modest, unrevealing sample size. The Timberwolves have been together a total of two weeks. The second- and third-tier players are running and working their tails off, while the starters, Love admits, have eased their way into practices and exhibitions. What you see in exhibition play is rarely what you get when things get going for real. But Adelman hasn’t minced words in expressing his angst; there are some real problems arising that require correcting.
That’s the task ahead the next two weeks. At around midnight Wednesday, Oct. 30, following Minnesota’s opener against Orlando, we’ll know a whole lot more.