Sunday, October 12, 2014

2014-15 Season Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
40-42
Northwest Division
Coach: Flip Saunders
Power Ranking: 25




The future is underway in Minnesota, as 2014-15 will be the first time a season starts without Kevin Love on the roster since 2007.  Love was dealt to the Cavaliers over the summer, in return for Thad Young, Anthony Bennett, and most importantly, the hope of the franchise: Andrew Wiggins.  The first overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft will be charged with leading the franchise into the future, as life after Love begins to take shape (sorry, sorry).  The Wolves are hoping that Wiggins can blend into the roster with Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Young and Nikola Pekovic, in order to avoid a full-on rebuilding project.  They're also hoping that Bennett, the first overall pick in 2013, can reconfigure his career after a horrendous NBA debut last season.  Bennett was a laughingstock with the Cavaliers, only playing 663 minutes and struggling to make any positive impact.  Nonetheless, the Kevin Love issue will no longer be the defining story for the Wolves.

With the Kevin Love issue resolved, the Wolves now move on to figuring out how to handle a contract extension for Ricky Rubio.  They'll also have to make a decision next summer on what to do with Thad Young, who will be an unrestricted free agent.  How this season plays out will likely have an effect on those decisions, as the Wolves aren't locked into either player right now.  The good news is, they did a great job handling the Kevin Love trade and received, in my opinion, top dollar for their best asset.  Whether that pays off in a playoff berth down the line, will be determined by what they can do to build around Wiggins.


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STATISTICAL ANALYSIS
Off. Eff.
Def. Eff.
FTr 3PAr TS% OReb.% DReb.% TOV%
105.6(10th) 104.1(14th) .321 .245 53.5% 27.4% 74.4% 12.2%

The Wolves were better than their 40-42 record indicated last year, as they had one of the league's top ten offensive units and finished in the middle of pack in defensive efficiency.  Despite finishing below .500, the Wolves finished the season with a +2.7 point differential.  How much of their production from last season matters is debatable, as Kevin Love is now in a Cavalier uniform.  One of their positive indicators, the league's second-best Turnover Rate, should remain the same; aside from the risk-taking Rubio and J.J. Barea, the Wolves high usage players do a good job taking care of the ball.  Minnesota's 6th ranked OReb% may also remain solid, as Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng are solid in that respect.

On defense, it's hard to say that the loss of Kevin Love will hurt too much.  Love has a reputation as being a poor defender.  With Young taking his place, the impact will likely be positive, all else equal.  However, Love was easily the team's best defensive rebounder, finishing third in the league in DReb%.  For a team that finished 16th in the league in DReb%, they'll need a group effort to fill in for the loss of Love's production on the defensive glass.  Thad Young is nowhere near the rebounder that Love is.  The bright spot on defense that figures to remain is the team's ability to force turnovers.  The Wolves ranked sixth in the league last season in opponent TOV%, spurred by Ricky Rubio's quick hands (2.6 STL/36).  The Wolves did that while being the league's best at defending without fouling, producing an opponent FTr of only .177, indicative of being the league's worst shot blocking team.


STYLE OF PLAY

The Wolves played at the league's 4th-fastest pace last season (97.3 possessions per game), a number that doesn't figure to change much in 2014-15, despite the transition from Adelman to Saunders.  As evidenced by Saunders' six-point philosophy, pace is a big part of what they do:
"We want to be known as a fun team to watch, one that plays an up-tempo offense combined with solid team defense. Our offense is predicated on ball and player movement."
The Wolves have the personnel in place to live up to that this year, as Wiggins makes for an excellent target for Ricky Rubio lobs.  With Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer also on the wing, the Wolves have enough to get up and down the floor.  They also like to speed the game up by creating turnovers, which is also a strategy that is tailored to their roster.  In order to come anywhere close to last year's offensive efficiency, the Wolves will have to open things up by creating easy baskets with their defense.  Flip Saunders' expertise with the match-up zone figures to help the Wolves take advantage of their length and athleticism around the perimeter, and hopefully minimize their lack of interior defense.

When the offense is forced to play within half-court sets, Saunders will likely utilize Nikola Pekovic's scoring ability.  Pekovic shot 54% on two point attempts last season, en route to 17.5 PPG.  There are worse guys to hand the reins over to.  As stated above, Saunders will also like to utilize movement.  He'll have the personnel in Wiggins and fellow rookie Zach LaVine to create opportunities for slashing wings.  With Rubio being able to find anyone at any time, if Saunders can keep the players focused and the offense running precisely, the fall-off from Love may not be severe.  
PERSONNEL
Acquisitions: G Zach LaVine (13th pick), SF Glenn Robinson III (40th pick), G Mo Williams, G/F Andrew Wiggins (1st pick), F Anthony Bennett, F Thad Young 
Departures: F/C Kevin Love, G Alexey Shved, F L.R. Mbah a Moute, F Dante Cunningham


PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
PG: Ricky Rubio
PPGPERUSG%TS%AST%TOV%
9.5
15.4
16.4%
49.1%
37.8%
21.8%
Rubio isn't the best at taking care of the ball, but he does enough creating on the defensive end that he's worth keeping around.  It's weird to say for a guy who isn't a great shooter, but he may need to shoot more threes, because as a 38% career two-point shooter, it's not worth it for him to shoot inside the arc when there's no chance of drawing a foul.  His .422 FTr last season was great.
SG: Kevin Martin
PPGPERUSG%TS%3P%FTr
19.1
16.3
25.0%
55.3%
38.7%
.332
Martin is still the same player he's always been: good-to-great three point shooter and an all-around reliable scorer.  At only $7M per season, he may be trade bait if things aren't going well for the new look Wolves.

SF: Andrew Wiggins (college stats)
PPGRPGAPGFG%2P%3P%
17.1
5.9
1.5
44.8%
49.3%
34.1%
Despite being extremely productive at Kansas last season, many thought that Wiggins underachieved.  With established veterans on the roster, there may be less pressure on him in year one with the Wolves.  Wiggins needs to shoot efficiently from the outside to keep defenders honest so he can take advantage of his insane athleticism.

PF: Thad Young
PPGPERUSG%TS%TRB%3PAr
17.9
16.6
24.1%
51.2%
9.5%
.228
I'm not sure it's even worth going too deep into these numbers after the Sixers broke his spirit last season.  There's no reason for Thad Young to have a 3PAr as high as his was in 2013-14.

C: Nikola Pekovic
PPGPERUSG%TS%TRB%FTr
17.5
20.7
22.9%
58.2%
15.3%
.355
Pek should carry the offense this season, a task he's built for at 6'11, 285.  How he reacts to being the go-to guy in half-court sets should be fun to watch.  With Love no longer around to snare rebounds and his easy buckets, a 20-10 season isn't out of the cards.


BENCH
PG: Mo Williams
PPGPERUSG%TS%AST%3P%
9.7
11.8
20.5%
50.7%
26.7%
36.9%
Williams will make for a much better backup to Rubio than J.J. Barea has the last few years.  He may be the second best shooter on the team.

SG: Zach LaVine (college stats)
PPGRPGAPGFG%2P%3P%
9.4
2.5
1.8
44.1%
49.4%
37.5%
LaVine is the definition of a hit-or-miss prospect, with tantalizing athleticism and major question marks about how he puts it to use.  Wolves fans should take it as a promising sign if he can earn major minutes.

SF: Corey Brewer
PPGPERUSG%TS%2P%STL/36
12.3
12.7
16.5%
55.0%
55.2%
2.1
Brewer fits well on this team with the up-tempo offense and the aggressive defense.  If he can re-discover his shooting stroke, he's the perfect bench wing for this team.  If he can't, he's expendable and could lose minutes to the younger Shabazz Muhammad.

PF: Anthony Bennett
PPGPERUSG%TS%TRB%2P%
4.2
6.9
20.3%
42.5%
13.1%
39.0%
Bennett needs to bounce back in a major way this season.  Nothing that he did last season indicated that he was worth being a first round pick, let alone first overall.  He has the talent to contribute in the league, but he needs to put in the work.  If the talk of his improved conditioning and shape is true, he's made the right first step.

C: Gorgui Dieng
PPGPERUSG%TS%TRB%BLK/36
4.8
16.5
16.8%
53.4%
20.0%
2.2
Dieng had a great final third of the season last year, including ten double-doubles, two 20 rebound games and a 20-20 game.  He followed that up by averaging 16 PPG and 11 RPG during the FIBA World Cup this summer, and leading Senegal to a surprising quarterfinals appearance.  Another season of starter-quality ball and he may be the subject of trade talk.

SEASON EXPECTATIONS

Put the Wolves in the Eastern Conference, and maybe they're in contention for a playoff spot.  However, they play in the West and the unkind Northwest Division.  Even with Kevin Durant out for two months, division matchups with OKC, Denver and Portland don't favor the Wolves.  Wolves fans can't have reasonable expectations of a playoff berth, seeing as Love never even got them there.  What they should be looking for are signs of stardom from Wiggins and development from guys like LaVine, Muhammad and Dieng.  If things go right, the Wolves may be in line to win about 35 games, if they don't, they'll likely fall in the 25-30 range.


SUMMARY

Moving past the Kevin Love era won't be easy, but the front office has good pieces in place.  The trade for Andrew Wiggins may give the struggling franchise its third superstar in the last 20 years; more than most small market teams will see in half a century.  However, that alone doesn't get you into the playoffs.  Flip Saunders has his work cut out for him, but the future isn't all that dim.  So long as Andrew Wiggins shows why he's been hyped since he was a high schooler.

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