Injuries give Timberwolves reason for pause

MINNEAPOLIS – It’s the franchise with the longest playoff drought of any in the NBA, so for the Timberwolves this season, any hope is good enough.

For the first time in years, Minnesota has a legitimate aspiration to grasp a playoff berth – albeit a seven or eight seed – and with every trade or signing last summer, that chance became a bit more real. 

A year ago, there was a lockout to contend with, a new coach, an established star and little else for sure. There was a wild hope borne of uncertainty about a Spanish point guard. The seeds of what’s become real before this season were planted, but it took another overhaul to get there.

Yes, the Timberwolves dismantled their 2011-12 squad, which collapsed at the end of the season under the weight of injuries too many and too high profile. But even after tearing that team apart, they’re left with a core, parts of which were relatively unknown a year ago.

There’s Rick Adelman, who’s as good a coach as ever, and Kevin Love, who could arguably now be the best power forward in the game. Pre-injury Ricky Rubio lived up to the hype, though he wasn’t without his rookie struggles, and Nikola Pekovic emerged as one of the league’s best centers when he was healthy.

So for the first time in years this offseason, the Timberwolves had multiple pieces to build around, and they did. It was unconventional, of course; especially the additions of Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy, but the pieces fit together into what has the potential to be a versatile, dynamic offense.

But the team’s issues now go beyond just making that offense work and improving defensively. On Oct. 17, Love broke his right hand, an injury that will leave him on the bench for the first four to six weeks of the season. Rubio still is recovering from his March ACL tear, and though he’s on schedule in his rehab, he won’t return until December at the earliest.

In order to establish the footing they’ll need in March and April to lock down a playoff spot, the Timberwolves will need to come out strong and capitalize on an easier November schedule, and now they’ll have to do that without Rubio and Love.

Last season: 26-40, did not make playoffs.

Coach: Rick Adelman, (971-656, 22nd year).

Top returnees: PF Kevin Love, PG Ricky Rubio (when healthy), C Nikola Pekovic.

Key additions: SF Andrei Kirilenko, SG Brandon Roy, F Dante Cunningham, SG Alexey Shved, SF Chase Budinger.

X-Factor: Roy. If he truly is healthy and approaches his former All-Star self, this team is a whole different story. It’s impossible to expect such an outcome; better to set the expectations low and let the shooting guard rise as high as he can. Love’s injury will highlight Roy’s importance early – he’s now the team’s best scoring threat – and it’ll be a careful balancing act to make sure he doesn’t overextend himself in November.

All signs so far say he’s healthy and capable, but questions of how capable and for how long remain. The Regenokine injections he had in his knees are hardly a proven remedy, and they’ll last only so long. With his knees, Roy will never be one the game’s best shooting guards again, but he could still be a dynamic threat.

Strengths: Obviously, Love is the team’s biggest strength. Even with a revamped lineup that won’t rely quite so much on him offensively, he’ll still likely be good for something close to 25 points and 13 rebounds per game.

Aside from Love, the team has Rubio and his at times underrated backups, Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea. A slimmed-down, stronger Pekovic has a chance to solidify the reputation he built last season, and Kirilenko and Budinger seem like the perfect additions to Adelman’s offense.

Weaknesses: Injuries and defense. The Timberwolves have a huge challenge in the early months of the season, when they’ll be without both Love and Rubio. There’s also the lingering worry about Pekovic, who had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle, but he seems healthy early. Minnesota knows the sting of injuries too well from last season and can’t allow expectations to sag while its best players recover.

Defensively, the team also will be challenged. It has looked OK in the preseason, and it’ll be better than last year, especially with Kirilenko on the roster. However, the Timberwolves don’t have a great defender to guard the rim, and they’ll hardly be one of the league’s elite in that category.

Outlook: Making the playoffs is hardly a guarantee for the Timberwolves this season. Teams with their kind of losing baggage can take time to rebound, and for now they’re not quite equipped for a Thunder-esque turnaround. But with a Western Conference that’s terrifying at the top but murky from about the four seed on, there’s definitely a chance, especially if the team is healthy.

Love’s injury will cost the team several wins, and beyond that there are questions of Rubio’s health, Kirilenko’s age and Roy’s knee. But what many don’t realize about last year’s team and its struggles was how much the lackluster bench hurt, and this year’s backups are a far more promising bunch. If they can contribute and the starters can play close to their potential, this could be one of the West’s final playoff teams.

Prediction: 43-39.

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