Harper: How good can Wolves be this season? Five keys to the season
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
By: Zach Harper
With the NBA season starting, we're all left wondering if this will be the season in which the Minnesota Timberwolves will finally make it back to the playoffs. While I'm picking them to secure the eighth seed in the Western Conference, it certainly isn't a lock by any means to think this team will be bound for the playoffs.
Here are five things to keep track of this season as we see just how good the Wolves can be:
1. Live by the three and you won't die by the three
The NBA hasn't become a perimeter-oriented league because there aren't any dominant big men any more; it became a perimeter-oriented league because the competition committee changed the rules to open up the game. Because we no longer have hand-checking in the league, it means it's easy to get past your defender. Since you can get past your defender so easily, it means help defenders have to play off their man and rotate over, which opens holes in the defense. If you can send the defense scrambling and stay a step ahead of them, that's how you end up creating the best perimeter shots for your team.
The San Antonio Spurs do better this than anybody and there's a reason they've been one of the top offenses in the league for years. The Wolves can do this too if they're disciplined in their approach. Any pick-and-roll play with Ricky Rubio can send the defense scrambling with his passing brilliance. From there, it's on the rest of the team to pass up good shots if it means getting a teammate a great shot. This is what all of the great perimeter teams do.
While the Wolves flirted with historic futility from the 3-point line most of last season, they added Kevin Martin (42.6 percent from three last season). He knows Adelman's system and he can find the best spots on the floor to find shots. He's a professional scorer and having guys that excel at shooting the ball will get lesser shooters better shots when the defense is scrambling. Not to mention, the team also added Kevin Love to their artillery this season.
2. Let's welcome back Kevin Love with open arms.
The Love you saw last year was an aberration and should be forgotten. Yes, he still grabbed rebounds at an incredible rate but his shooting hand didn't allow him to do what he does. What we're going to see this season already looks a lot like what we saw in 2011 when he came into camp in unbelievable shape. That year, the Wolves were heading for a playoff berth before Ricky Rubio went down. Love was talked about as an MVP candidate (although unlikely to win) during the first two-thirds of the season.
Yes, he probably pissed you off because of his comments in a Yahoo! Sports article, but the target of those comments - David Kahn - is gone now. With all parts of the organization supporting Love, we'll probably see him return to being the best power forward in the NBA. This means one of the best scorers and the best rebounder. As we saw with a team that finished 25th in offensive efficiency last season (points per 100 possessions to adjust for different paces around the NBA), the Wolves could use that scoring. And when they have that scoring, it opens up the floor and sends the defense scrambling.
3. The bookends of the defensive game plan are really good.
There are legitimate concerns about the Wolves defense going into this season because Love, Martin, and a few other key members of the Wolves do not look like they're exactly adept at stopping the opponents. The leadership on the defense will have to start at the top of the defense and have a ripple effect to the anchor of the defense. Rubio is one of the best defensive point guards in this game and his ability to deflect the ball and stall the opposing offense from initiating could have a wear-down effect throughout the course of the game.
Nikola Pekovic seems slow and unable to block shots, which makes people assume he's a bad defender. He's actually pretty good on that end of the floor. It's true he's not going to block shots and his pick-and-roll defense can be slow at times. However, he understands angles and positioning, which is as important as sending a layup attempt into the opponent's forehead. Marc Gasol just won Defensive Player of the Year because he's better at angles and positioning than any big man in the league. Pekovic isn't going to be that successful with it, but that's the model he should strive to be.
Rubio and Pek just need guys like Love and Martin to figure out how to consistently get back on defense quickly and get in the way of opposing offenses.
4. How long will the Wolves survive the wing issues?
Chase Budinger being out really hurts the depth on this team. They'll rely heavily on Alexey Shved, who had a horrendous finish to his rookie season. If Derrick Williams can't successfully play the small forward position, the Wolves will either pour the minutes all over Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer or look elsewhere for help. The problem with this idea is Martin has only played in at least 70 games in four of his nine years.
Minnesota may need to find a trade partner to add some depth on the perimeter or hope one of the less experienced players steps up.
5. Rebounding could be the Wolves' saving grace.
Having Love and Pekovic as your defensive bigs may not seem ideal in terms of being fleet of foot on defense, but their ability to end possessions with superior rebounding abilities could be the key to this defense being good enough for the playoffs this season. One of the best ways to track how good a team is at rebounding is offensive rebounding rate. That's the percentage of rebounds an offensive team secures throughout the course of a game.
The Wolves have no excuse not to be a top-5 team in securing offensive rebounds and preventing the other team from getting offensive boards. Last season, the top 5 teams in preventing offensive rebounds by their opponent were the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Knicks, and Magic. Only the Magic didn't make the playoffs. The top 5 teams in grabbing offensive rebounds were the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Nets, Pacers, and Bulls. If the Wolves attack the glass like they should, it could punch their ticket to the postseason.
Editor's note: Zach Harper is a basketball columnist for 1500ESPN.com. Harper is also an NBA writer for CBSSports.com and contributor to the Wolves blog, A Wolf Among Wolves.