Thursday, April 15, 2010

2009-10 NBA Season in Review: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves represent a messy collection of bits and pieces of the elements from the first three teams in this series: they have a logjam of similar assets like the Pistons; they lack a focused organizational mandate like the Pacers (although I suppose it could be argued that Indiana's mandate is to collect white guys); and they have a large amount of cap space this summer that is most likely going to be squandered, like the Wizards.


Expectations:  At the end of the 2008-09 season, former Executive VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale awaited word from owner Glen Taylor on whether he would be returning as head coach the next season or not.  McHale moved down to the sidelines from his front office position after Randy Wittman was fired following a 4-15 start, basically coaching to keep a job in the organization.  After suffering through losses in his first 8 games as coach, McHale rallied the troops, leading the T-Wolves to wins in 12 of their next 16 and instilling some hope in Minneapolis for the first time since Kevin Garnett was teaming up with Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell.  Al Jefferson, the young power forward acquired from Boston in exchange for KG, began to blossom into one of the best low-post scorers in the game (23.1 ppg on nearly 50% shooting), his already-potent arsenal of moves bolstered by the hands-on tutelage of McHale, owner of the most varied and devastating collection of post moves in NBA history.  Kevin Love, another uniquely skilled young big man (dude can throw an outlet pass like no other), also blossomed under McHale, and a bond began to form between mentor and student.  Any hope for late-season redemption was lost, however, when Jefferson went down for the year with a blown out knee in game 50.  The T-Wolves would win only eight more games the rest of the year, and McHale was ultimately dumped.

Enter David Kahn, the new President of Basketball Operations.  Following McHale's dismissal, a move lamented by Love, Kahn made the bold decision to plow through the draft and most of the free agency period without a new head coach in place.  At the draft, Kahn supplemented Minnesota's pick at #6 with Washington's pick at #5, acquired for the improving Randy Foye (16.3 ppg in 08-09) and for the relatively useless Mike Miller.  While the loss of the two perimeter veterans may have meant a slight dip in wins for the 2009-10 season, it seemed an acceptable sacrifice since the back-to-back high draft picks could be used to fill multiple hopes on the perimeter with players who could develop along with Jefferson and Love.  Unfortunately, Kahn decided to draft Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn, both point guards, and, when no trade was consummated, pundits and fans alike were baffled.  Rubio was insulted by the selection of Flynn directly after himself, and informed the Timberwolves that he would remain in Spain.  So instead of a roster boasting Jefferson, Love, Rubio, and a young wing (DeMar DeRozan? Terrence Williams?  Even Stephen Curry (who could definitely have thrived in a backcourt with Rubio, at least on offense)?), Minnesota was left with a wasted top 5 pick, an undersized point guard whose first inclination is to look for his own shot, and an alienated Kevin Love.  After Kurt Rambis was hired in early August, Kahn inexplicably signed Ramon Sessions--another point guard--despite the fact that Rambis was installing the triangle offense, a system that has little use for a traditional point guard.  Entering the new season, the Timberwolves were a laughing-stock, and were widely expected to fall even further than they had the season before.

Reality:  Sometimes, on the rarest of occasions, reality fulfills all of our wildest expectations.  The 2009-10 Minnesota Timberwolves represent one of those occasions.  Flynn proved to be nothing more than the 3rd guard he was projected to be, yet remained the starting point guard.  Sessions proved nearly worthless, showing very little of the potential he showed playing out the string for a bad Milwaukee team the year prior.  Al Jefferson struggled to come back from his injury, and the on-the-floor clashes between his and Kevin Love's style proved inmalleable, eventually leading Kahn to publicly proclaim that the two couldn't co-exist on a basketball court (and thus robbing himself of any leverage he may have when he tries to deal one or the other).  Kurt Rambis failed to install the triangle with any modicum of success, as well as inspire his squad to play any defense or even care on most nights.

On a more positive note, Corey Brewer finally started playing like a lottery pick following a miserable rookie season and a sophomore season cut short by injury.  Also, Darko Milicic, a seemingly pointless trade deadline acquisition from the New York Knicks, showed flashes of the potential that made him the #2 pick over Carmelo, Wade and Bosh, while also proving that he had no problem playing alongside Jefferson or Love.  The last time Darko played this inspired was the last time his contract was up, which screams RED FLAG to anyone thinking of signing him (especially David Kahn).

Going Forward:

DRAFT-If the lottery ends up in order of how everyone finished (which I seriously doubt has ever happened), the T-Wolves will be sitting at the number 2 spot (although the entire basketball-loving world will be hoping they end up at #1, just to see if they'll take yet another point guard in John Wall), where the obvious choice is Evan Turner.  The Timberwolves also own the Bobcats' (16) and Jazz's (25) number one picks, as well as three second-rounders (which I assume will mostly be used on foreign players to stash overseas, as Kurt Rambis's bench would be pretty crowded if they brought all of these draft picks in).  Players who could be available around 16 include James Anderson, a wing out of Oklahoma State, Hassan Whiteside, a 7-foot tall monster out of Marshall, Xavier Henry out of Kansas, and Damion James, a 6-7 SF/PF tweener out of Texas.        

FREE AGENCY-The Timberwolves will have about $11.7 million in cap space this summer, which isn't nearly enough to attract any big name off the open market to Minneapolis, but could be used to absorb a star salary through a trade.  The only free agent of note is Darko, who seems open to staying in Minnesota after flirting with the idea of going back to Europe.  Sasha Pavlovic is also a free agent, and his performance this season means he probably will be making the trip back to Europe.

PLAN-As suggested above, the T-Wolves will probably have a tough time convincing any free agents worth a darn to take their money, so they would be better served trying to acquire talent through a trade.  With the front office admitting that Love and Jefferson can't play together, one of them has to go, and I would try to move Jefferson.  He is coming off a pretty serious knee injury, his contract is pretty substantial ($13 million in 2010-11), and Kevin Love is just more intriguing to me as a prospect.  Perhaps Golden State, looking to make Stephen Curry their focal point, would part with Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins (and his contract) in exchange for Jefferson.  Ellis gives the Wolves a true go-to scorer, while Bierdrins can try to regain his 2008-09 form away from Don Nelson and the ghosts of his miserable 2009-10 season.  With this trade, the re-signing of Darko, and their draft, the Wolves 2010 opening day roster would look something like this:

PG Jonny Flynn
SG Monta Ellis
SF Evan Turner
PF Kevin Love
C Andris Bierdrins
G/F Corey Brewer
F Ryan Gomes
G Ramon Sessions
C/F Darko Milicic
C/F Ryan Hollins
G Wayne Ellington
#16 Pick
#25 Pick
2nd Round Pick

While this team probably wouldn't be able to hang in the loaded West, they would at least be exciting.  Also, with no Ryan Gomes being the oldest player on the team (at 29), the T-Wolves will be young, so whenever Ricky Rubio finally does decide to come stateside and push Flynn to the bench where he belongs, the rest of the roster will be in their primes, ready to contend.

NEXT: Toronto Raptors          

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