Timberwolves season preview: A new-look roster (again)
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Head coach: Kurt Rambis (second season).
A season ago: 15-67, good for second worst record in the NBA.
Point guards in Spain that the Timberwolves hold the rights to: Ricky Rubio.
New-look Timberwolves (once again)
In what has become a summer tradition like a Joe Mauer base hit or waiting on Brett Favre to report to training camp, president of basketball operations David Kahn once again overhauled the Timberwolves roster.
The extremely talented but blackhole (when the ball went in, it never came back) power forward Al Jefferson was jettisoned to Utah for a pair of future first-round draft picks and center Kosta Koufos.
Jefferson had become the face of the team since 2007 and was the last remaining piece of the hodge-podge haul they got in exchange for franchise player Kevin Garnett but few argued that it was time for Jefferson to go. Despite being just 25-years old, Jefferson was coming off a torn reconstructive knee surgery, allegedly did not get along with Kevin Love behind the scenes and did not fit the direction the team was heading.
Four more years of Darko
The moves made by Kahn this past summer, as has become the norm, came with mixed reviews.
The question is, was he worth the four-year $20 million contract he got? Milicic was not exactly the prized piece in this summers NBA free agency class, to say the least. In fact, some may argue that the Timberwolves were the only bidders for the former number-two overall pick who seemed content on heading home to Serbia.
On the court, Milicic averaged 8.3 PPG and 5.3 RPG in 25.6 MPG in 24 games after being acquired on Feb. 17th from the Knicks in exchange for Brian Cardinal. Milicic posses good passing skills for a big man, not quite Vlade Divac-esque like Kahn infamously stated this summer, but he does see the floor well. Defensively, Milicic averaged 1.4 BPG a year ago and protects the rim well on defense.
The big question for Milicic this season will be if his latest-greatest 'fresh start' (fourth team in five seasons) will be the opportunity that he finally salvages an NBA career? Or will he be a mainstay in 'Biggest Draft Busts' lists and columns forever?
Rummaging through Miami's fire sale
One off-season move that has gotten approval across the board was the low-risk, high-reward acquisition of forward Michael Beasley. Kahn smartly took advantage of Miami's post-Decision fire sale by shipping two future second-round picks to the Heat for the 2008 second-overall draft pick.
Beasley does come with baggage. His use of marijuana has been well documented in the media and on this radio station—just ask Kahn's bank account. However, giving up two of the stock piled draft picks was worth the risk.
Despite the baggage, the team does have high expectations for Beasley. It is no coincidence he was given the corner stall in the locker room—once inhabited by Kevin Garnett and Al Jefferson.
When his shot is on, Beasley is a scoring machine. In two seasons with the Heat, Beasley averaged 143 PPG while sharing a court with Dwayne Wade. Beasley is an electric player capable of energizing a Target Center arena that had trouble filling the lower bowl last season. This season, he is expected to go back and fourth with Love for the teams nightly high scorer.
Beasley has had most success playing power forward, but with Love already playing the four at a high level, he will be expected to play the three. Beasley has shown this preseason that the new position shouldn't be an issue offensively; in eight preseason games Beasley averaged 13.1 points in just 21.3 minutes. Defensively, however, will be an ongoing challenge.
"That three position in the NBA is a tough position to defend, and he's going to have to get after it. It's going to determine a lot of our success, if he can get after it and play people," Rambis said.
Much like Milicic, this is a big season for Beasley. If he can sort out his maturity issues and produce at the level that made him a star in his lone season at Kansas State University, there is no doubt that he can be a big part of the Timberwolves nucleus going forward.
More draft lottery woes
The Timberwolves continued their 0-for the franchise streak in moving up in the NBA Draft lottery and settled for the fourth pick which they used to select the Big East Player of the Year—Wesley Johnson.
Johnson, 6-foot-7 205, has been suffering from a lingering hamstring injury since Summer League but is expected to play—and potentially start- in the season opener Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings.
It seems oddly fitting that Johnson will start his career facing the Kings and C DeMarcus Cousins. The Timberwolves passed on Cousins, an athletic freak with character issues, to take Johnson, which left many fans scratching their heads. Fair or not, fans that still get sick to their stomach every time they check a Brandon Roy boxscore will be comparing Johnson and Cousins every step of the way. This puts even more pressure on a player the team has high expectations for.
Johnson has had a solid preseason, shooting .524 percent from behind the arc. In seven games (two of which he started), Johnson has averaged 7.9 points in 21 minutes.
One area where he has struggled thus far is creating his own shot. Johnson looks like Larry Bird when left wide open, but when he has to put the ball on the floor he has struggled. This is something that will come with experience—something Johnson is sure to get plenty of, especially now that Martell Webster has been ruled out for at least the first month of the season after having lower back surgery.
One area the Timberwolves have improved on considerably this offseason is depth.
PG Luke Ridnour, a 7 year pro acquired via free agency from Milwaukee, was brought in to be both a mentor to second-year PG Jonny Flynn and serve as a veteran presence on a team whose average age is 24.
Ridnour has filled in admirably for Flynn this preseason, who isn't expected back until mid-November, averaging 9.6 points 4.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds in eight games—all of which he started
Some may argue that Ridnour's poise and consistency should give him the starting nod over Flynn who had a very up-and-down rookie season.
Webster was brought in to provide both veteran leadership and a scoring spark off the bench but had played his way into the starting lineup before having back surgery Monday that will sideline him for 4-6 weeks.
Even without Webster to start the season, this is Timberwolves team is much deeper than the previous seasons.
"I think we're incredibly deep," Rambis said "That ability to have that kind of competition in practice all the time and also to have someone to turn to on the bench is a huge asset for any coach. It is going to help us out and help us win games."
A question of leadership
An obvious challenge of having a roster where the average is 23.6 is who will step up and play of leader—on and off the court. As of right now, there is no obvious choice on the roster that one could point to.
Kevin Love, probably the most obvious choice, just turned 22 and came off the bench the majority of last season.
Michael Beasely, while charismatic and outgoing, has had off the court issues and is even younger than Love.
"Somebody's going to have to step up, I can't anoint (leadership)," Rambis said when asked who he expects to be a leader.Somebody's going to have to grab that and team's going to have to trust them and follow him."
Following whoever steps up in that leadership role should not be a problem for the Timberwolves. It takes just five minutes in the locker room to see this is a group of guys who genuinely do like each other.
"We are loose; it's almost like the Boston Red Sox when they had the idiots. This is kind of how we are. We like to have fun," Love said.
Staying loose and staying positive will be important for a team that cannot get down on themselves during losing streaks, especially early on.
While no one expects this team to contend for a title, Kahn has already stated as much in a full page newspaper add, this needs to be the year this team takes a step forward.
Gone are the days of the previous three seasons where fans could see improved draft position as a silver-lining as loss after loss pile up.
This is the season that all of Kahn's moves need to begin to pan out and not look like they were made just to buy more time.
With Love, Beasley, Johnson and Flynn the team has a nucleus that, while not there yet, has the ability to take the next step.
It is odd saying that this is a crucial season for a team that won just 15 games a year ago, but that is the truth.
In order to finally get Ricky Rubio on a plane to Minneapolis, begin attracting high caliber free agents and to excite a depleted fan base, this team needs to win 25+ games and be competitive night in and night out.
That is might be a large task for a team that was essentially assembled this summer, but if Kahn is to be believed that he has finally put together the team he has been working towards, they should be up for the challenge.