Wolves’ sights squarely set on ending playoff drought

MINNEAPOLIS — The trio of basketball intellectuals sat together in Section 106 of the Target Center on Tuesday, conversing intently. On the same end of the gym, Kevin Love took his last round of post-practice jumpers before the first game day of 2013-14.

Milt Newton leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and looked two seats down at an animated Flip Saunders. Rick Adelman lounged a row in front of them off to Saunders’ left, also listening and exchanging words with the only coach responsible for more Timberwolves wins than him.

The franchise’s general manager, president of basketball operations and current head coach convened out of earshot from a group of reporters waiting to talk to Love. Perhaps they discussed the power forward’s sweet, instructional-video-worthy shooting motion, completely unhampered by a broken hand that cost him almost all of last season. Maybe their thoughts centered on how to best attack a rebuilding Orlando squad, which comes into the old barn on First Avenue North for a 7 p.m. tipoff Wednesday.

Each of Minnesota’s three bricklayers must have allowed himself to imagine by now. What would the aging arena — due for a facelift within the next two years or so — look like with a standing-room-only crowd screaming and waving towels this upcoming late April?

Saunders knows what a Timberwolves playoff atmosphere is like; he led the club to eight straight, culminating in a 2003-04 Western Conference Finals appearance.

They haven’t returned since, suffering the longest active postseason drought in the NBA and the seventh-longest one in major American professional sports at the moment. Puzzling personnel moves, financial mismanagement, teen-win seasons and mutterings of a team sale by owner Glen Taylor have been the hot-button topics in Wolves Country for most of the past decade.

No head coach in the organization’s 25-year history, save for Saunders, has remained in place here for more than two years. Adelman will join his boss in that distinction Wednesday as Minnesota embarks on its silver-anniversary season.

Yet the playoffs are the status-quo benchmark following a busy and productive offseason. Players, fans and media see the Timberwolves pushing for a lower Western Conference seed just a year after their eighth consecutive losing season.

What a difference health and help make.

Adelman’s cautious. But not pessimistic.

“We have hopes,” the 23rd-year head man said.

So does a success-starved sports market that sat through another rancid summer across the street at Target Field and has watched in horror as mediocre quarterback after mediocre quarterback cycles through first-team reps at Winter Park. Fans participating in an impromptu Twitter poll Wednesday evening predicted an average of 48 Timberwolves wins this season and a seventh-place finish in the West.

That’s not far off from most national prognostications. Five bloggers predicted a playoff return on ESPN.com. Another echoed the same prediction on CBSSports.com. Hoopsworld.com and Yahoo! Sports have Minnesota winning 45 and 42, games respectively — possibly enough to reach the postseason. ESPN writer Kevin Pelton’s analytical SCHOENE ratings place the Timberwolves’ offense on par with that of the Miami Heat and project a 52-win season and No. 5 playoff seed.

Not everyone — including Bill Simmons, his Grantland.com crony Jalen Rose and CBS’ Matt Moore — is convinced. But the expectations paradigm around here has shifted, swiftly and suddenly.

“We’re going to try to do a great season,” point guard Ricky Rubio said. “We’re excited about it, and we just want to have fun out there, make (fans) enjoy what we doing.”

A league-worst 3-point percentage should be a thing of the past with the free-agent additions of Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. Chase Budinger will be back from meniscus surgery to add further depth from beyond the arc, and Love’s return automatically stretches the floor and boosts Minnesota’s outside effectiveness.

Rubio has worked on his jumper. So has backup guard Alexey Shved, who hit 10-of-20 3-point attempts during the preseason. J.J. Barea can come off the bench and knock down long shots, too.

Love, Rubio and center Nikola Pekovic are back together for their first substantial minutes together since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, when the latter two were rookies still adjusting to the American style of play. Together, the trio forms the backbone of a potentially unstoppable offense.

“We can’t shoot worse than last year, so it’s got to be better,” Barea said. “I think that (Martin’s) gonna space out the floor a little bit better. I think we gonna drive and kick a little bit better. We’ve got some shooters, so we’ll see.”

Some observers mused last year could be Minnesota’s playoff slump-buster before Love, Rubio, Budinger, Pekovic and departed small forward Andrei Kirilenko missed a combined 186 contests. Budinger’s second knee operation in the past calendar year is disconcerting, but there’s not another outstanding ailment affecting the active roster at the moment.

At this time in 2012, Love had already snapped two bones in his right hand during preseason workouts. Rubio was still rehabbing from a torn ACL.

“Last year, we were trying to survive injuries before the season even started, right?” Adelman said. “We lost Kevin in preseason, Ricky wasn’t playing, so we’re obviously healthier, just have Chase hurt. We’ll just see how quickly this team can come together.”

Especially on defense. In recreating the team’s overall mix, Saunders and Adelman sacrificed stopping power for scoring — Brewer is the only noted defender on the roster. Kirilenko met that description but turned down the player option on his contract to join the going-for-broke Brooklyn Nets.

His departure places a premium on help defense, and on pace-keeping scoring when the Timberwolves find themselves in shootouts.

And they will, without a doubt.

“We don’t have any top-three defensive players in the league, but as a unit, we’re quick enough, long enough to actually do some damage,” Martin said.

Even if Minnesota flashes a top-five offense and mitigates production at the other end, terminating its postseason famine won’t be a gimme. The West remains a gauntlet of stacked and varying attacks, even with the aging Lakers’ recent downturn. San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston and the Clippers are all legitimate championship contenders, and Golden State and Memphis aren’t too far behind.

Adelman said as many as 12 teams in the conference could vie for playoff contention. The Timberwolves can’t afford to yield much ground.

“We better be feeling in-sync,” said Martin, a Thunder transplant, “because in the Western Conference, we don’t have two weeks to get in sync.”

Wednesday night in downtown Minneapolis, everyone commencing this journey — players, coaches, fans both passionate and casual, and media — will begin finding out how realistic a return to NBA prominence here really is. If it is, the window may not be open long; Love’s contract expires after next season, the same summer Rubio becomes a restricted free agent.

So you won’t coax any guarantees out of the team’s on-court leader, save for one. “We’re gonna fight,” Love said.

“We all just want to pick each other up and play as hard as we possibly can. I think that’s what the coaching staff deserves, we deserve, fans deserve, so we’re gonna go out there and fight.”

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