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.
This year it seems as though the race for Most Improved Player has more legitimate candidates than any race in recent memory. Jeremy Lin, Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Pekovic, Ryan Anderson, and Greg Monroe are only a handful of the names in the conversation. But there is one candidate that is getting no ink (at least on this topic): Kevin Love.
That’s right, last year’s Most Improved Player should be in the running for this year’s award as well.
Wait a minute, is that even possible? Can one player really improve so drastically from one season to the next and win the award, only to improve once again the following season in a similarly extreme manner? It seems impossible…and that’s exactly why Love should be in the running for the award.
Love improved his numbers from 14.0 ppg and 11.0 rpg in 2009-2010 to 20.2 and 15.2, respectively, in 2010-2011. Love made the quintessential leap from average player to very good player, a move that most often garners attention for this award.
However, the fourth year player up in Minnesota has made an even more impressive leap this season: the one to franchise player.
Last year, when Love won the award, I thought Love was a damn good player, but he had plenty of faults. He had reached his ceiling. He was putting up great numbers, but for a terrible team. He was not the kind of player a franchise could build around.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Instead, he is 4th in the league in scoring at 26.5 and 2nd in rebounds at 13.5. He put up numbers in March that the NBA has never seen before, averaging 30.7 ppg and 13.9 rpg all while shooting 45% from 3.
Love is one of the most difficult players to defend in the league. His game can single-handedly change the shape of a game. His mere presence on the court makes countless others better. Sure, he doesn’t make his teammates better in terms of traditional measures, but just ask Pekovic, Wayne Ellington, Luke Ridnour along with Love’s other teammates what kind of effect he can have on their games. I guarantee they would tell you that the focus defenses put on him has led to infinitely more quality shots for everyone on the team.
Last year, Love put up great numbers on a horrendous team. This year, he is putting up once-in-a-generation numbers for a team that would be in playoff contention if not for its losing battle against the injury bug.
He has carried the Timberwolves from worst team in the league to playoff contender, all while he transformed from good to great.
The real problem is that, for whatever the reason, this transformation, arguably the toughest to achieve in sports, is rarely one that garners a player votes for Most Improved Player. Of course, Love is certainly getting his fair share of publicity, with several pundits listing him in the top 3 in the MVP race. And that’s the crux of the problem here: it is unthinkable that a player who is now considered one of the best in the game could really have improved that drastically…TWICE.
Believe it or not, it’s happening in front of your eyes and there is no indication Love is slowing down. Let’s just hope voters catch on in time for the voting for next season’s award.