For some teams it’s time to start thinking about the 2012-2013 season. Surely the Bobcats, Wizards, and Hornets, to name a few, have been looking ahead to next year for several months. And then there are teams that have slowly begun to realize that they are going to miss the playoffs.
But there is one team in the league that went from dreaming of the playoffs to planning for next year in a matter of minutes: the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The second that Ricky Rubio’s knee buckled against the Lakers on March 9th, all the Wolves’ hopes of reaching the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-2004 season vanished. The momentum the team had been building all year suddenly crumbled to nothingness and the team’s 4-14 record since that game points to just how devastating the injury truly was.
So the question now must be asked: what one thing do the Wolves have to do to make the playoffs next year? Pray that Rubio returns to form after rehabbing his knee? Ensure that Nikola Pekovic continues to improve as a reliable offensive contributor? Develop Wesley Johnson’s confidence and scoring ability? A full training camp together for this young team could certainly do wonders with a teacher like Rick Adelman.
Obviously, all of these would be huge for development of this franchise. However, the story of how the Minnesota Timberwolves can become a contender begins and ends with Al Jefferson. That’s right, if the Wolves want to be a serious contender for years to come, and not just a threat to make the playoffs, then they need the Jazz to make the playoffs this year.
Because of the Al Jefferson trade from two years ago, the Wolves own Utah’s first round pick in this year’s draft, so long as it’s not a lottery pick. Now throw in the fact that Minnesota’s own first-round pick is on it’s way to New Orleans and how difficult it is to lure top free agents to the Twin Cities and you see just how important this is for the Wolves.
The Jazz making the playoffs, and thus surrendering their first round pick, represents Minnesota’s best chance for improving this offseason.
Just imagine who would be available to the Wolves if they had the 16th pick in this year’s draft. Austin Rivers, Terrence Ross, Doron Lamb, and John Jenkins all come to mind as players that could upgrade the Wolves at their biggest need, shooting guard.
Minnesota desperately needs another player who can spread the floor by knocking down 3s and get his own shot from time to time. A scoring wing man would be the perfect complement to the inside scoring of Kevin Love and Pekovic and the play-making ability of Rubio.
And what if the Jazz don’t make the playoffs and the Wolves are left without a first-round pick? Well, they are then looking at a future similar to their Western Conference foes, the Houston Rockets.
Ever since the 2003-2004 season, the Rockets have been battling to make the playoffs year after year. Unable to attract a big time free agent or land a high lottery pick, the Rockets haven’t been able to make the move from average team to contender.
Thus, the Wolves have this one chance to break free from mediocrity. In a year where the draft class is considered to be the deepest it has been in years, where the No. 20 pick in this year’s draft is akin to having the No. 10 pick any other year, the Wolves have a chance to make that leap. Surely a rookie won’t elevate them to championship contenders next season. But several years down the road, if all the players, including this fictional rookie, develop correctly, the Wolves have a chance to build around the best power forward in the league, Love, and one of the most promising young players, Rubio.
There in lies the hope for the Timberwolves franchise. It may be a precarious position to be in, but the Wolves have to sit back and root for the Jazz to make a run to the playoffs.
In fact, the schedule-makers did the Wolves a favor by pitting them against the Denver Nuggets, currently 1.5 games ahead of the Jazz for the 8th seed, in the final game of the season. Wouldn’t it be something if the Wolves could knock off the Nuggets in the last game of the season and thus thrust the Jazz into the postseason?
It may be that the Wolves will have a hand in their fate after all, rather than putting the future of their franchise in the hands of Jefferson and the Jazz.