Sleeper Week, Part 1: The Pups

Rubio Love

The Timberwolves were my League Pass team in 2012. I watched them as much as any team besides the Knicks and Heat. Everyone has a team like that; a group of guys you like for reasons beyond their talent. In the case of Minnesota, I fell in love with their passing.

Kevin Love trails only Marc Gasol as the league’s best passing big man. For all we know Ricky Rubio already tops the list of point guards, and Rick Adelman’s system is so conducive to that specific type of player that Wolves games often morphed into instructional videos on team basketball.

It was refreshing. Even if passing has made a comeback since the dog days of the mid 2000’s (when Kobe, Wade, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson joined forces to turn NBA Arenas into playgrounds), you still rarely see the kind movement in an offense that made Minnesota so special. The best part? It was only supposed to get better. Kevin Love was 22. Rubio was 20. The pups needed only another year or two to grow into full-fledged Wolves.

And then Ricky Rubio tore his ACL, cutting his 2013 season in half. Kevin Love wasn’t so lucky, missing almost the entire year. Despite a semi-shocking 31 wins considering the circumstance, it was a lost year. Gone too, was the momentum from 2012.

And my question is… why? They still have Love. They still have Rubio. They have a far richer Nikola Pekovic. The same T-Wolves I fell in love with 18 months ago are alive and well, and in fact should be significantly better than not only last year’s team, but from the 2012 version.

Because unlike in 2012, there’s a cohesive roster built around the big guys. The stars are, debatably at least, in place. There’s certainly an argument to be made for the Rubio-Love-Pekovic triumvirate not being championship quality, but it’s certainly contendable (and yes, I did just create that word).

To win in 2013 we know you need three things besides your stars: shooters, defenders and at least one bench creator to relieve your primary ball-handler. The 2012 Wolves didn’t have those things, but now they do.

Shooters? Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger should be more than enough to spread the floor, especially with Kevin Love a sneakily awesome shooter. They’re never going to challenge Miami’s dominion over threes, but they’re good enough to stretch the defense.

Defenders? Besides Pekovic, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf should handle the heavy lifting. I also have high hopes for Alexey Shved, but that’s based solely on the fact that all Russian NBA players are cagey hard workers. Again, they won’t dominate in this regard, but they’ll get the job done.

The last piece is a bench creator, and if you watched the 2011 Finals you know J.J Barea is more than up to the task.

That leaves Shabazz Muhammed and Derrick Williams as bench floaters. And frankly, you could do a lot worse. Both of them could end up being useless, but either one could break out. You like to have one high-reward guy lurking just in case. It’s the same reason half of the league chased Greg Oden. It boosts your ceiling.

The roster itself is not only as talented as it is deep, but it perfectly fits what Rick Adelman wants to do. Watch the 2002 Kings for a taste of its capabilities. The system is based on ball movement out of the high post (with Love providing a pretty solid Chris Webber impression) and a combination of high screens and pick-and-rolls. The ingredients are all in place, it’s just a matter of navigating the brutal Western Conference.

But remember, no matter how deep the west seems, there’s no Miami looming at the top. Every team is flawed. San Antonio is old. Oklahoma City goes two-deep. Memphis is a powder keg waiting to explode. Houston is integrating Dwight Howard. The Clippers are still the Clippers. And the Warriors are banking on 82 games of health from both Stephen Curry AND Andrew Bogut. What are the odds of that happening? 20-to-1? Less?

I don’t think Minnesota is going to win the West or even come close. I’m merely suggesting that the conference is far from impregnable. There are playoff spots to be had and upsets aplenty waiting for the spring. If you’re looking a young team capable of making the leap to pseudo-contender then stop right here. Maybe they won’t win the West, but you’ll have a lot of fun watching them try.

By: Sam Quinn
Twitter: @SamQuinn23

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