MINNEAPOLIS — A few things are virtually guaranteed during a Minnesota winter. The 10,000 lakes will freeze over. A pickup truck will fall through the ice on one of those lakes during an ice-fishing expedition. The unspeakably disgusting Scandinavian delicacy of lutefisk – dried whitefish soaked in lye – will be consumed in undesirable quantities.
And you betcha that the Minnesota Timberwolves will be hovering near the cellar of the NBA’s Western Conference.
This has been the case for the past eight years, as the Wolves last season continued the longest current streak in the NBA of missing the playoffs. The last time they made the playoffs, in 2004, also happened to be the only time in Timberwolves franchise history that they made it out of the first round.
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So it might come as a bit of a surprise that the optimism surrounding this franchise – despite injuries that will keep the team’s heart and soul, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, out until December – is a good bit less gloomy than in previous winters.
In fact, after a recent practice, second-year power forward Derrick Williams made a bold prediction about this year’s team: that it can compete with the three top-tier, superstar teams of the NBA, the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
“If K-Love’s healthy, Ricky’s healthy, if I’m on my game, if (small forward Andrei Kirilenko) is on his game, we have a lot of role players who can really play as well, we can really compete with anybody,” Williams said. “Last year we played the Heat, we lost by two. We lost to the Thunder in double-overtime. We can compete with any team.”
The landscape of today’s NBA looks like this: There are those three bona fide, dominant superpowers. Everyone else is hustling to get into that second tier of teams. There are teams comfortably ensconced in that second tier, like the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers, very good teams who’d be championship-caliber teams in a universe without the superstar tier. There’s a third tier, full of teams that’ll be fighting to make the playoffs, and a bottom tier that mops up the league’s cellars. The Timberwolves have been in that bottom tier for close to a decade. But this season – once Love is back from his fractured hand suffered a couple weeks ago and once Rubio is fully recovered from his torn ACL suffered in March – the Wolves finally might make a permanent jump into the third tier, playoff teams that can compete with anyone on any given night.
A year ago the Wolves were one of the most surprising teams in the NBA, and with Rubio’s magical passes, one of the league’s most exciting to watch. In early March they were above .500 and looking toward the playoffs. Then Rubio’s left knee buckled with 16 seconds left in a close game against the Lakers, and as Rubio was carried off the court with a torn ACL, the Timberwolves’ season left with him. They went 5-21 the rest of the way and finished 12th in their 15-team conference. They went 0-7 against the Heat, Lakers and Thunder last season, but it should be noted that the Timberwolves were right there in each of those games except one 19-point loss to the Lakers.
The offseason saw the team add a fascinating array of players, including Kirilenko and Brandon Roy, the former Portland Trail Blazers All-Star shooting guard who retired after five NBA seasons with a degenerative knee condition but is trying to make a comeback. It’s an international brand of basketball they play here in Minnesota, with the Timberwolves five international players the second-highest in the NBA.
“Last year the team made a huge improvement, and started to grow from the bottom, step up, step up, and this year it’s more exciting,” said Kirilenko, who played in Russia last season. “Everybody likes how the team looks, but it’s only on paper right now. You have to create the team, and since there are lots of new faces on the team … we have to create that core, find that game we’re going to play.”
This winter in Minnesota, it will be interesting to watch the Timberwolves for reasons other than Rubio’s passing or Love’s rebounding. Can the Timberwolves actually compete? That’s a question that hasn’t been asked by sane minds up here in years. Coach Rick Adelman, whose 971 career victories rank eighth all-time among NBA coaches, knows the first month or two of the season will be a trying time, until their two stars return. But 11 of their first 22 games are against teams that missed the playoffs last year, plus two against the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic. Timberwolves fans hope Love and Rubio will be at full strength by their Dec. 18 game against the Heat, the Timberwolves’ first game against the superstar tier teams. Two days later, they’ll play the Thunder.
The state of Timberwolves basketball right now appears to be optimism leavened with a good deal of uncertainty.
“It’s really not uncertainties – those guys are out,” Adelman said of Love and Rubio. “These guys are the ones we have. So these guys have to step in and play. If we’re going to win games, it’s gotta be the group we got right now. And when we get the other guys back, we’ll be that much better off. But right now we gotta deal with what we have and win games.”