Niesen: Without Love, Wolves need identity
MINNEAPOLIS – Eight to 10 weeks from now is mid-March. It's long past the time when a team declares itself as a postseason contender or just another wannabe, long past the point when a star can make a pervasive statement. That's when Kevin Love is slated to return, and by then, the Timberwolves' fate will likely have been decided.
Right now, coming off a four-game, four-loss road trip, that fate looks very much like another lost season and another cause for Minnesota fans to lament their cursed, doomed, fruitless team. There's plenty of time before Love returns – that's the issue, right? – but in that time, with a trade or an uptick or a miracle, the Timberwolves could keep treading water. Maybe not to the point of a playoff spot, but enough to post a winning record, perhaps. To do that, though, the team needs more than just output and a few well-timed surprises. It needs an identity, one that doesn't include its elite power forward, at least for now.
The Timberwolves have been Kevin Love's team since 2010, maybe even before that. They've been his to lead, his to nag and push to the next level, built around him and for him. Last season, for a bit, it was Ricky Rubio's team, too, with the idea that he was the second piece in a young, talented duo of the future – the near future, even, with playoffs perhaps in 2012, maybe not until 2013.
And then Rubio tore that ACL, and the Timberwolves were the team that was waiting for him to get healthy. Then Minnesota rebuilt around the point guard and Love, and it was a revamped squad, a playoff contender, finally up to snuff for the two talented stars. But then there was that hand injury on Oct. 17, the chatter about how it happened, the weeks of waiting, waiting, waiting, first for Love, then for Rubio, then for everything to magically click and become as thrilling as promised.
Only it never did. Only there was a torn meniscus (Chase Budinger) and a pair of knees without cartilage (Brandon Roy) and another, much, younger busted knee (Malcolm Lee). There was a torn ACL on a November addition (Josh Howard) and a bout with back spasms (Rubio), a poked eye and a bruised thumb (Love) and then the worst, that re-broken right hand that was surgically repaired Tuesday morning in New York.
Up until now, the Timberwolves' identity has been that of a team lying in wait. Love was going to be back. Then he was going to be back to his prior form. That's no longer happening, though, at least not until long after it would need to in order to matter this season.
Rubio was going to be back, too. Then he was. Then he was out again. Finally, now, we wait as he eases in – it's not quite struggling, not after what he went through – as we weigh how much of a team he can carry on his 22-year-old back.
But the waiting has to stop. The injuries can't be what this team is known for, even if they're there. Even if they're the reason the playoffs are looking more and more like a pipe dream and the locker room seems so eerily spacious. There has to be something else.
Early this season, the Timberwolves looked capable of being defined by a stellar defense. At the end of November, they were giving up an average of 92.6 points per game to opponents, a mark that put them at fifth-best in the NBA. In December, they were a bit worse, giving up 97.0 per game, but still in the top half of the league, at 12th, on the month. It looked like a natural and minor falloff, and as the year turned, Minnesota's scoring defense was still sixth-best overall on the season. In January, though, the team has so far given up an average of 104.6 points per game, fifth-worst in the NBA, and with that, it's fallen off to 15th in the league.
Defense, now, is markedly not this team's calling card. Neither, though, is scoring (its 42.9 percent field-goal shooting mark is 26th in the NBA), or 3-point shooting (29.7 percent, dead last), the natural remedies to a defensive breakdown akin to this one. Rebounding, maybe, could be a defining skill – the team is fourth in the league averaging 45.2 per game – but without Love for the long haul, staying ranked that high is a fleeting wish.
So who exactly these Timberwolves are remains to be seen. They're noticeably exhausted above all else, and that's hardly something to blare through the PA system. Ladies and gentlemen, your bone-tired, wishing for a nap and an ice bath, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES. They're spunky, and hard-working and doing everything within their power to defy the limits of the human body and redefine what a team that's really just two thirds of a team can be capable of, but none of that is going to work for much longer. In fact, it has appeared to have ceased working in the past week.
Unlike last season, though, when the bench was devoid of anyone, save J.J. Barea, who might step up and provide some leadership – and when the team still had its de facto leader in Love – this year's team has plenty of players who should be able to claim it as their own. There's Andrei Kirilenko, who'll tell you as a rule that he's no vocal leader, but his example goes a long way, and young players look up to him. There's Rubio, who should take on some more responsibility without Love, and who likely will. There's Luke Ridnour, too quiet to be the team's face but with enough experience and poise to provide a model, and Barea too. There's Nikola Pekovic, stoic, but with a work ethic that's impossible to overlook; he'd play with a broken leg if the training staff would let him.
There are plenty of players to lend a character to this team, talent enough to create a distinguishing brand even without Love. But they're too shorthanded right now for anything to shine through, so injured that the energy, chemistry and pluck that's appeared in most of their wins is now buried until tired muscles and frustrated minds.
No personality, no character, no rallying point is going to emerge among these beat-downs of late. It's not that a losing team can't create an identity for itself, but under the weight of these crumbling expectations and growing powerlessness, the Timberwolves are struggling to do so. Right now, when so much is going wrong, when there's no shooting and faltering defense and the sense that any time a player hits the court, he's broken, sprained, strained, the team needs to pick one thing to focus on. It needs one thing to do well, one thing pervasive enough to make a difference.
The Timberwolves can't fix the injuries. They can't fix all of the myriad problems. But they have done a lot of things well, and they can make an effort to renew some of it, to get back if not to those early days of November, than at least to where they were in December.
For now, this is no longer Kevin Love's team, no longer one with a decent chance at a playoff berth. It is not who it thought it was, and that can be jarring. But the Timberwolves need to assume nothing and go from there, to stop waiting and in the process figure out exactly who they are.
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