Whether they’re willing to admit it openly or not, the bitter memories of last year’s lost season will always linger somewhere in the mind of every Timberwolves player and coach that endured it.
Some, including the team’s ringleader, choose to ignore them.
“That’s the beauty of this world, is you get fresh starts,” said superstar power forward Kevin Love, who played in 18 games due to a broken hand and campaign-terminating knee surgery. “You live to fight another day, and you just continue to move forward.”
For others, fuel.
“It was frustrating,” said point guard Ricky Rubio, who wasn’t used to postseason inactivity during his Spanish professional tenure. “It was my second year without playing playoffs. I’ve been playing playoffs since I remember.”
The survivors of an injury-riddled, 31-51 year that had the makings of a franchise about-face gained invaluable lessons, one of them noted.
“I got a lot of fourth-quarter experience, took a couple end-of-game shots, things like that,” said forward Dante Cunningham, who averaged 25.1 minutes per game last year. “Things like that are learning experiences, so that’s what we need to take from last year, not necessarily motivation.
“Our motivation is just moving forward and being a great team this year.”
Said Love: “It’s a new year.”
In so many ways, the All-Star stretch four is spot-on.
A (mostly) healthy and more balanced roster. Fresh front-office leadership. An influx of talent. And with it all, renewed hope that the NBA’s longest active playoff drought could meet its long-awaited demise.
“I’ve never been so excited to play some basketball,” Love said with a sideways smirk, “and stop hearing about last year.”
But chatter will persist regarding 2012-13, and the fan-maddening eight years before it, until Minnesota proves that this time is truly different. That this time, injuries can be compensated for, losing streaks snapped, and adversity usurped.
What tangible milestone solidifies that reality? Playoffs? Meaningful games in April?
That’s looking too far ahead, most players cautioned at Monday’s media day, about 24 hours before the real question-answering commences at training camp.
Before they can consider the big picture, the Timberwolves must eclipse several short-term objectives — key items of discussion during Monday’s gathering with reporters.
— Stay healthy: It’s the overarching, high-pressure must for a team that was completely ransacked by injuries last year. Love’s back healthy from his ailments, Rubio says his ACL feels better than ever, and center Nikola Pekovic doesn’t plan to let nagging strains and pains sideline him like they did last year.
Yet Minnesota’s physical mettle has already been put to the test. Small forward Chase Budinger, who was expected to content for a starting gig, is out indefinitely with cartilage damage in the same knee he hurt last year.
There’s been little internal response.
“I haven’t heard anything about it,” free-agent get Kevin Martin said. “I had to find out on the Internet. So that’s just a process in guys’ minds, I think now: Injuries happen, and the next guy has to step up.”
Love, too, hasn’t been wont to discuss his injuries, swingman Corey Brewer said.
Past hurts aren’t a focal point; only avoiding future ones.
“I don’t want it to be a trend,” coach Rick Adelman said. “Last year it seemed to be. It all snowballed as soon as we had an injury. We don’t want to see that.”
— Gel offensively: So manifold were Minnesota’s health problems that the core trio of Love, Pekovic and Rubio barely spent any time on the floor all together last year. Getting those three back on the same page, and working in Martin’s 3-point shooting and Brewer’s transition skills, all while succumbing to Adelman’s clearly-defined system, will take some time.
It’s a staunch lineup that can score in many different ways, provided it functions as a single unit.
“I think we have the potential to be so much better offensively,” Adelman said. “It’s just not adding the new people, it’s getting some of your old people back.”
— Stop somebody: Aside from Brewer, there’s not a proven fulltime defensive presence on Minnesota’s roster.
That doesn’t mean the Timberwolves require triple-digit scoring night in and night out, Adelman says. Just strict adherence to his principles.
Defend as a team, succeed as a team, the 22-year coach contends, even while allowing it’s a potential source of struggle.
“The biggest thing we’re gonna have a problem with — and the team’s gonna have to address it — is defensively,” he said. “We have to have guys step out of their comfort zone and realize they’re gonna have to be better at that end of the court to give us a chance to really win.”
Adelman thinks it can all be done. He may not have returned for his third year at the helm if he didn’t.
“When I took this job, like I’ve said before, I felt there were some pieces here and we could turn the thing around and we could put the franchise going in the right direction,” said Adelman, who was forced to weigh retirement or at least a hiatus in the wake of his wife’s health issues. “And things just happened over the two years that was out of everybody’s control. So yeah, if possible, I wanted to finish it.”
So do Love and Rubio.
The former spent the first few years of his career dabbling in the art of flying solo, benefiting from his supporting cast on a limited basis. Then Rubio hopped across the pond, and Love had a sidekick to set him up on offense and lock down portions of the perimeter on defense.
Heading into last season, it was expected the fusion of those two with a seasoned Pekovic could orchestrate a turnaround, or at least the beginnings of one. But Love’s woes rendered him a nonfactor, Rubio’s torn ACL from his rookie year kept him out of the season’s first quarter, and Pekovic was too banged up for his or any other team stakeholder’s liking.
Now, those three return, reportedly in full health and with a mind for resurgence.
Unfinished business, Love calls it.
“I think a lot of us feel the same way about that,” Love said. “I think myself included, we all know what happened last year, and we just want to move forward and take care of that unfinished business. I know a lot of us that have been here previously . . . I think throughout our whole lineup, the coaching staff, everybody that’s with us day-to-day is ready to take that next step. That should come as no surprise.”
Said Rubio, fresh off three weeks spent representing Spain at EuroBasket 2013: “I was talking with friends back home, and it was exciting to come because it looks like we can do something big this year.”
But folks around here, despite all the signs of potential improvement, aren’t often so easily convinced. A decade of ineptitude and a still-strong Western Conference field — even with the Los Angeles Lakers’ recent demise — will outweigh any reasons to believe until they’re visually validated.
Pekovic gets it, even in partially-broken English coursed over by his Montenegrin tongue.
“We always want to fight for playoffs, that’s for sure, and I think we’ve got a team for that,” the big man said Monday, “but we’re not even to the beginning of the season, beginning of the training camp.
“I know what we want, but wishes are one and possibilities are different.”