Love’s injury will test young Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS – For the Minnesota Timberwolves, hope has been a fickle mistress.

Since last March, hope has hinged on one thing: the recovery of Ricky Rubio from his torn ACL. It’s been growing in recent weeks, with the point guard’s presence in Minneapolis and continued updates verifying that he is on schedule with his recovery. On Tuesday, it peaked when Rubio began shooting jump shots for the first time in months.

But not even 24 hours later, that hope took a massive blow. It wasn’t Rubio or the knee so many eyes have been trained upon for months. This may be worse. It was Kevin Love, who was absent from practice before the team announced he’d broken the third and fourth metacarpals in his right (shooting) hand while working out earlier in the morning.

For a team that built itself around Love this summer and has been using the All-Star power forward as its tether to relevance and potential for the past four seasons, the injury comes as a huge setback, both to its hopes of amassing a winning record without Rubio and its morale.

Love is the unquestioned leader of the Timberwolves. He’s the reason this team has a chance to win this season, and now he’ll have to sit and watch for at least the first four weeks of games. Right now, his projected recovery time stands at between six and eight weeks, which projects a return anywhere from Nov. 28 to Dec. 12. If that timetable holds, he’ll miss 14 to 18 games.

Relatively speaking, the Timberwolves are fortunate. Love’s injury comes more than two weeks before the Nov. 2 season opener against Sacramento, and November is without question the team’s easiest month. Minnesota faces just six teams that made last season’s playoffs in its 15 games: the Magic, Pacers, Bulls, Mavericks, Nuggets and Clippers. Of those teams, only the Nuggets have made significant improvements, and of the rest, all but the Clippers should be weaker than they were last season.

Still, it’s fair to wonder how the Timberwolves will win without Love. He missed 11 games last season, and they went 2-9 without him.

Here’s the thing, though: that team is not this one. Not that this year’s Timberwolves have a championship-caliber roster, but it’s better. Much better. The additions are nearly all upgrades, from the obvious (Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy) to the lesser-known (Dante Cunningham, Chase Budinger, Lou Amundson). Plus, in the bulk of the games Love missed last season, Rubio was injured as well, and center Nikola Pekovic was playing with bone spurs in his ankle. Without Love, there were few options. At the end of the season, it would have been tempting to say there were no options. That’s no longer the case.

On this side of the injury, Love’s insistence all summer that the team rebuild its roster lest he bolt has a darkly comedic bent to it. Unwittingly, he may have saved its November without him, or at least improved it. Until Love’s injury, the team had almost an embarrassment of riches – or at least of potential – at power forward.

In Tuesday night’s win over Israeli Super League team Maccabi Bazan Haifa, 2011’s No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams played just 14 minutes. He was hardly effective, scoring just one point, and it looked as if he’d be engaged in an uphill battle all season for playing time. Now, he and Dante Cunningham are looking like the most viable options to pick up most of Love’s minutes.

“Big challenge,” coach Rick Adelman said of Williams’ chance to earn big minutes on Wednesday, before Love’s injury. “Really, we have with (Pekovic) and Greg (Stiemsma) and Lou, and then you’ve got Kevin, Dante and Derrick, and I haven’t even slid Andrei to the four spot yet, which I think he can do. Derrick can play with Andrei, too.”

Now subtract Love from that equation, and the fact that there’s still an equation at all should be comforting to the Timberwolves. Last year, Anthony Randolph was given the majority of Love’s playing time by little more than default, and now, just six months later, there are multiple competent players vying for his time. Kirilenko could slide to power forward at times, and with Roy apparently healthy at shooting guard, the team can rely on him to lessen the scoring drought.

And then there’s Williams, who might, like Randolph last year, be given more time simply because he’s there. But unlike Randolph, Williams has shown flashes of greatness, as recently as in training camp. He’s been plagued by inconsistency in his year in the league, but he’s only just turned 21, and he has plenty of time to develop. Now, that development just needs to be put on fast-forward.

In the coming days, there will be plenty of pressure put on the team, not to replace Love but to compensate. It’s a bitter pill just one night after the projected starters – minus Rubio, who will return in December or January – played as a unit for the first time, but the Timberwolves will need to learn to play damage control not only on the court but in the locker room. This injury will be felt just as hard there, and now that this team already has a rapport that last season’s never did, it will need to make a conscious effort not to lose it.

When Rubio was injured last year, he was rarely around the team and never in the locker room. This year, though, he’s back on the bench and in the gym, and his presence is felt. With the relatively short scope of Love’s recovery process, it would make sense if he were with the team for most of it, and if he is, he’ll be contributing just a little.

The Timberwolves need their leaders. They need their faces. They need Love, even if he’s sitting with Rubio behind the bench.

This injury doesn’t doom them, but it makes what was already a tough task even harder. For two months last season before Rubio’s injury, they did so much with so little. Now, they’ll have to do it again, down another star but with a much better supporting cast.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.