Timberwolves near long-awaited return of ailing starters
MINNEAPOLIS — Reinforcements are coming.
That’s been a constant reminder around the Timberwolves locker room since early on this season. It’s served as a motivating factor for guys who otherwise wouldn’t be playing as much. At times, coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders contends, it’s been a cause for passivity — a waiting game while Minnesota’s three missing starters rehab from various injuries.
The end of those individual roads to recovery is in sight. For Monday’s matinee at Charlotte, shooting guard Kevin Martin was upgraded to questionable (he didn’t play); he’s missed the past 29 games with a fractured right wrist. Big man Nikola Pekovic (30 games, wrist and ankle) remains listed as doubtful but could make his return any time. Point guard Ricky Rubio is another story. Out since the Wolves’ fifth game with a severely sprained ankle, he continues to work mostly on his own during practices.
But even 2/3 of the missing pieces would burgeon a team hemmed into last place in the Western Conference. And Rubio won’t be out forever.
Their returns would mean altered roles at nearly every position:
Point guard: With Rubio out since Nov. 7, the one spot has been a two-man juggling act between veteran Mo Williams and rookie Zach LaVine. Originally, Saunders had hoped to limit 32-year-old Williams’ minutes by keeping him out of the starting lineup and inserting LaVine, the 13th overall pick who barely played the point and started just one game at UCLA. But 21 starts and a 7-32 record later, Saunders has gone back to Williams and brought LaVine off the bench. When Rubio returns, it’ll be back to Plan A: Mo as the primary backup, and young Zach — whom the front office projects as a viable combo guard — playing spot duty at the one and the two.
Shooting guard: Which brings us to Martin’s spot. Once Corey Brewer was traded, the primary two-guard role went to Shabazz Muhammad (13.7 points, four rebounds and 1.2 assists per game this season). But he’s out for at least another week with an outer oblique strain, which has left Chase Budinger or Andrew Wiggins — depending on the frontcourt rotation — to start in Muhammad’s stead. Martin’s return would put an end to the carousel, with him starting and Budinger, Troy Daniels and LaVine coming off the bench behind him. It’ll be interesting to see if Saunders gives LaVine more minutes than Budinger, who’s had a disappointing season, in an effort to further build for the future.
Small forward: The top of this particular heaps remains unaltered, and that’s thanks to Wiggins, who in his first NBA season has been as good as — maybe even better than — expected. After averaging 11.6 points on 40.1 percent shooting, 3.7 rebounds, one assist and 1.1 steals during his first 15 games, the 19-year-old Canadian has tallied 17.4 points on 44.9 percent shooting, 4.7 boards, 2.3 assists and one steal per contest in 24 games since the start of December. With Martin returning at the opposite wing, any combination of Muhammad, Budinger and Robbie Hummel could fill in at the three when Wiggins needs a breather.
Power forward: Unless 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett breaks out of the shell that continues to encase him in his second season, he’ll remain slotted behind Thaddeus Young despite Young’s disappointing first — and perhaps only — campaign in Minnesota. Young, whose numbers are down all across the board, can opt out after this season and has been the subject of recent trade rumors as the Wolves continue to rebuild. The return of higher-end talent to join him in the starting lineup — Rubio in particular — should increase Young’s productivity, however. Bennett’s still the top backup, though Saunders hasn’t been afraid to go to Hummel, who’s played every spot on the floor at one point or another this season.
Center: When the oft-injured Pekovic finally returns, the necessity to play 6-foot-8 Hummel at center can officially dissipate. It mostly has since the signing of Serbian big man Miroslav Raduljica, who inked his second 10-day contract with Minnesota over the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. Gorgui Dieng has been a sturdy starter in Pekovic’s stead with 10 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game to his credit. Saunders may even start Dieng ahead of Pekovic for a while to make sure the latter is healthy, but ultimately, a one-two punch of Pek, then Gorgui (with Raduljica as insurance) looks like the club’s most suitable option at center.
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