New logo. New court. New team.
2008-2009 Minnesota Timberwolves Season Preview
Last Year's Record: 22-60
Key Losses: Marko Jaric, Antoine Walker, Kirk Snyder
Key Additions: Mike Miller, Kevin Love, Rodney Carney
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
Obviously the big move by the Timberwolves this off-season was trading
the rights to OJ Mayo for Kevin Love, Mike Miller, and future cap
relief. I'll expound more on that deal later. Right now I'd like to
take the opportunity to mention some of the less heralded moves that
the Wolves' front office made.
Bringing back free-agents Ryan
Gomes and Sebastian Telfair for bargain basement deals was a huge plus
for a team desperately needing some stability. After a tumultuous
beginning to the post-KG era, it was imperative for the Timberwolves to
improve team chemistry by bringing back some familiar faces. While
it's true that neither of those gentlemen is going to stuff the stat
sheet, they're both quality role players with good attitudes who are
only going to get better with age. The signings also clearly show a
shift in the front office's methodology. Instead of desperately
throwing bloated contracts at mediocre free-agents in a last-ditch
effort to improve quickly, the Wolves have decided to be patient, guard
their future cap space, and use reasonably priced players to fill in
Kevin McHale and Co. have also learned from their
past mistakes regarding draft picks. Instead of tossing them around in
trade negotiations like candy on Halloween, the Wolves management has
shrewdly acquired its own stockpile of picks and could have up to four
1st round selections in 2009 depending on how various teams end up in
the standings. One of the less-mentioned, yet still meaningful
off-season moves was the Wolves' trade with the Sixers for Rodney
Carney, Calvin Booth, and a 1st rounder courtesy of Utah. This move
was a pure salary dump on the part of Philadelphia to clear the cap
space needed to secure Elton Brand. The only thing that the
Timberwolves needed to surrender was a protected 2nd rounder that
Philadelphia will likely never even get. After years of watching McHale
spending team assets frivolously, it's very refreshing to see deals
like this, which have absolutely no downside and only strengthen the
Timberwolves' position to make a big move down the road.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths? The
Wolves are a young team with many holes left to fill. However, one area
in which the team is well-endowed is the power forward position. With
Big Al Jefferson churning out 20-10 games on a nightly basis, few teams
are going to have an advantage at that spot. Also, assuming Kevin Love
is that player he appeared to be in Summer League, the Wolves may just
have the best power forward duo in the entire league. Given the Wolves'
lack at center, it's likely that that Randy Wittman will regularly play
Jefferson and Love together, and I personally can't wait to see how
this combo works out. They compliment each other beautifully as they
bring two entirely different skill sets to the table. Jefferson is your
typical post-monster who can devastate a team down low with his
repertoire of moves, while Love's shooting and passing expertise will
likely set up a lot of scoring opportunities from the outside. If the
two were only a few inches taller the rest of the league would have
real reason to fear this combo, but even as they are, Jefferson and
Love will probably give a lot big men fits this coming season.
Wolves, who could be anemic at times last year, are looking like an
offensive powerhouse in 2008. Thanks to the draft day trade, the
Timberwolves are now able to come out with a five-pronged attack of
Foye, McCants, Miller, Love, and Jefferson. The post-presence of Big
Al combined with the outside shooting abilities of the other five could
lead to some impressive offensive assaults. When you factor in Love's
penchant for grabbing boards and much-heralded outlet passing ability,
the Wolves may also become notorious for being one of the deadliest
fast-break teams in the league. I'm certainly not claiming that the
T-Wolves will be running up scores into the 110-120 range like Nash's
Suns did in their prime, but I think it's reasonable for the young team
to push last season's 95.6 points per game comfortably above 100.
the risk of sounding corny, another one of the Wolves biggest strengths
has got to be their attitudes. The fans of Minnesota have spent years
watching "me-first" players drive this team into the ground, so it's
extremely refreshing to have a roster filled with enthusiastic young
men who all seem to have their head on straight. Last year was
definitely a struggle as the youngsters took their lumps, but several
of them seem to have really matured over the summer. I'm looking
forward to seeing how this newfound experience translates onto the
court and am excited about watching their further development into
bonafide NBA stars. In a league where all too many players are willing
to cash their big check and slack off, a team focused on playing
together and giving their all every night can certainly make some
noise. I don't know if we'll see the 20 game improvement that Kevin
McHale is predicting, but don't be surprised if the Wolves surprise a
lot of sleeping teams early and come out of the gate looking strong.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Without a doubt, the Wolves biggest area of need is their gaping hole
at center. Thankfully, the addition of Kevin Love to the roster allows
Big Al to shift over to the five-spot without subsequently creating a
vacuum at power forward. For the time being, this stop-gap measure
will allow the Wolves to stay competitive, but Jefferson is notably
more effective as a forward. Handicapping your best player by forcing
him out of his natural position is never a recipe for success, so if
the Timberwolves are ever going to really contend, they're going to
need to find a true starting center.
Another position where
the Wolves may find themselves overwhelmed this year is at point guard.
Fortunately, the Wolves aren't nearly as destitute at the point as they
are at center and can at least trot out a respectable starter and
backup. That being said, I have a hard time believing that either Randy
Foye or Sebastian Telfair are the team's long-term solution for a #1
point guard. Though the Wolves front office seems bound and determined
to force this square peg into a round hole, Randy Foye has proven time
and again that he's much more suited for the shooting guard role.
Perhaps an off-season of work and a full recovery from last year's knee
injury will be enough to prove me wrong, but I'm certainly not buying
the notion that Foye is our point guard of the future until I see some
legitimate results on the court.
Perhaps the biggest weakness
overall is the team's defensive ability. To be quite honest, there's
not a single player on the entire Wolves roster that I would label a
"good" defender. Last year's defensive performance from the guards was
particularly atrocious as opponents could seemingly breeze by Randy
Foye and Rashad McCants at will. Even Big Al was a liability down low,
although to his defense, he's much more suited towards guarding
forwards than centers. The good news for the Timberwolves is that
everybody knows how big of a problem the defense was last season and
the team is making a dedicated effort towards improving this glaring
flaw. I don't expect the Wolves to have turned themselves into a bunch
of Bruce Bowen clones over the summer, but I would be surprised if
there wasn't a noticeable improvement come opening night. Let's face
it: it's not like the defense could have gotten any worse.
4. What are the goals for this team?
I'd like to say that the playoffs are the goal for this team. I think
if you went around the locker room that's the answer that most players
would give you. However, given that this team is largely the same as
the squad that went 22-60 last season, that we still don't have a true
starting point guard or basically any center, and that we're still
being coached by Randy Wittman with his mind-boggling 96-192 record,
I'm going to hold off on declaring Minnesota a contender for the West's
8th seed. I'd love nothing more than to drink the McHale Kool-Aid and
be preparing for a 42-40 finish, but I just can't bring myself to it.
personally like to see the team turn the corner and plant the seeds of
a winning culture. I'd like the players to stop having potential and
start showing real results. I'd like to see Randy Wittman establish a
clear pecking order and once and for all determine which of our glut of
young guards are keepers and which ones can be sent packing. To sum
things up, I'd like this team to show some unquestionable improvement
and start heading in the direction of a team that's going to contend in
a few years down the road. In an ideal world the Wolves would win
enough to create some buzz and finally get the people of Minnesota
interested in their basketball team again, yet lose just enough so we
don't send our 1st round draft pick to the Clippers. If we're not
making the playoffs, we may as well finish in the bottom ten which
would allow the protection to kick in on the pick we owe them from the
Cassell/Jaric trade. Finishing 11th to last would be akin to shooting
ourselves in the foot.
5. Draft picks, expiring contracts, and young talent.
A little over a year ago, the Boston Celtics were sitting in the NBA's
basement with only those three assets I think we all know how things
turned out for them. I'm not saying that the Wolves are going to
recreate the perfect storm that lead to Boston's bounty, but there's no
reason to think that Wolves can't pull off something similar down the
road. If anything, the Timberwolves actually have more assets than
Boston ever did. As I alluded to before, the Wolves could potentially
have four 1st round draft picks in 2009 - their own, Boston's, Miami's,
and Utah's. That is some serious ammunition for getting a big trade
done considering guys like Iverson and Garnett were swapped in deals
involving only two picks. The Timberwolves are also ripe with young
talent as players like Foye, McCants, Brewer, Gomes, Telfair, and Love
all have their best years ahead of them and have reasonable contracts.
Adding more fuel to the fire is that fact that the T-Wolves will have
nearly $17 Million in expiring contracts heading into the 2009-10
season with Mike Miller and Brian Cardinal's deals set to come due. I
haven't gone team by team and done my homework, but I'm fairly
confident that there isn't' a single team in the league with more
assets stockpiled than Minnesota.
What does all this mean?
For starters, any team looking to jettison their superstar ala Memphis
with Pau Gasol is going to have Kevin McHale on speed dial. Also, any
team looking for a third party to facilitate a transaction will be
putting out their feelers towards the Wolves as well. We've seen how
well that turned out with the Sixers and Elton Brand. Finally, as the
big 2010 free-agency period inches closer teams that are a bit nervous
about their ability to retain their big star might see the Wolves'
stockpile as a tempting alternative to losing that player for nothing.
The best part of it all is that should none of these situations play
out, the Wolves can simply make their picks, decide which of their
youngsters they want to keep, and walk into 2010's free-agency with a
solid $20 Million or so in cap space of their own. With a stacked
young nucleus and a bona fide All-Star to partner with in Al Jefferson,
somebody is going to be taking Minnesota's money.
I know this
last section has had very little to do with the Timberwolves' 2008-09
season, but it does go to show how the Wolves' "quiet" off-season has
actually set them up for a major pay day down the road. As they look
towards the future, this young team's present focus should simply be on
improving day by day and laying the foundation for the big times to
Predicted Record: 33-49