MINNEAPOLIS – The countdown stands at four: four days until the Timberwolves open their season against the Kings on Friday. They’re one of the last teams to debut this year, and Friday’s matchup will in fact be the Kings’ second game – they open up in Chicago on Wednesday – which will give the Timberwolves plenty of time to rest and plan.
Whether that’s too much time remains up for debate. Coach Rick Adelman said he’ll never frown upon practice time, which was obviously in short supply last year, but players like Derrick Williams and even Brandon Roy have admitted the drawbacks of the schedule. To Roy, the extra practice is good, but it’s hard to know what the team has until it’s in a game that means something.
Roy sat out Monday’s practice after “banging” his knee, in Adelman’s words, but the coach stressed that he’s fine and will be scrimmaging with the team on Tuesday. Other than that, it’s status quo with injuries. No decision has been made definitively about Luke Ridnour’s back, but he practiced, and Nikola Pekovic’s hand issue seems like a thing of the past. Kevin Love will rejoin the team Wednesday, most likely, although he’s still a few weeks from returning to the court.
A bit more on the preseason: The NBA released its compiled preseason stats for every team, which revealed that the 80.9 points per game that the Timberwolves allowed were the fewest of any team in the preseason. The Bulls gave up an average of 87.1 for the next-best mark. In addition, the Timberwolves’ +11.6 point differential was the best of any team; the 76ers were next-best with +11.0.
But to put all this in context, the Lakers had the worst point differential of any team, -15.3, and the Timberwolves have had plenty of recent preseason success before losing seasons. That shows exactly how much stock one can put in the preseason. Without a lock-down defender, the Timberwolves are capable of being competent on defense but won’t lead the league in the regular season, and their offense will have to improve from its seventh-worst ranking in terms of preseason scoring.
Other categories in which the Timberwolves ranked high within the league: defensive rebounding (sixth-best), rebounding (ninth-best) and steals (fifth-best).
The importance of Kevin and Ricky: Yeah, yeah, I know this isn’t what you want to hear now, with another two-ish months until the Kevin-Ricky tandem takes the court together. But before descending into a fit of self-pity borne of Kevin Garnett abandonment issues from 2007, know this: With Ricky Rubio and Love healthy, it was pretty good last season. With this year’s improvements, it can be even better.
Last season, the Timberwolves best-performing five-man unit on the court consisted of Love, Rubio, Wes Johnson, Ridnour and Pekovic. With the exception of Johnson, who was obviously the weak link of the bunch, the group remains intact and will be a viable option for the Timberwolves come December or January. That lineup played 267.7 minutes together last season, the most of any combination, and of the nine most-used lineups, it was the only one with a positive plus-minus.
In fact, of all the lineups with positive plus-minuses, only three did not involve Rubio and only two involved neither Love nor Rubio.
Here’s another thing to chew on (or cry over): The Timberwolves’ best lineup only played together for those 267.7 minutes. The Thunder’s best combination (Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins) saw 664.0 minutes together on the court, and its second-best unit (sub in Harden for Sefolosha) played 408.7 minutes. There’s the destructive power of injuries.
Think about this, now: The Love-Rubio-Ridnour-Pekovic group will still be around this season, and with, say, Andrei Kirilenko or Chase Budinger in the mix, it should perform significantly better than when Wes Johnson occupied the small forward spot. There will also be more versatility (Roy at shooting guard rather than Ridnour, for example) and combinations, so the core group will be able to rest or play to its strengths based on matchups. Last season, to take it out was to downgrade significantly – the second most-used lineup had a winning percentage of 40.0, down from 57.8 with the first – whereas this season, the discrepancy should hardly be so big.