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Updated: November 1st, 2012 6:53pm
Wessel: Wolves' long playoff drought expected to finally come to end

Wessel: Wolves' long playoff drought expected to finally come to end

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1500ESPN.com

There really is no other way to spell it out for the Minnesota Timberwolves as they open the 2012-13 season: The only way for this season to be a success is if they make the playoffs.

Say what you want about a torn ACL, a broken hand, and two creaky knees that just came out of retirement, this franchise needs to end a playoff drought that dates to the 2004-05 season or there will be a lot of tough questions to answer.

It won't be easy for the Wolves.

There is Kevin Love's aforementioned broken right hand and the still-mending anterior cruciate ligament in Ricky Rubio's left knee. Then there are Brandon Roy's repaired knees.

Sure, David Kahn, the Wolves' president of basketball operations, and coach Rick Adelman have improved the roster, but a number of Western Conference teams upgraded this summer.

The Wolves, however, aren't making excuses for themselves now and they likely won't start come April if they are on the outside of the playoff party looking in. The added veterans have stabled this once young, immature ship and they know better than anybody that it's playoffs or bust this season.

Right pieces in place

This wasn't the way the Wolves drew things up to start a season that begins Friday night against Sacramento at Target Center.

If Rubio's absence was all they had to deal with that would be one thing - and that would be tough enough - but losing Love for six-to-eight weeks means that the Wolves' top two players will begin the season in the training room.

Forecasting how the season will shake out for the Wolves really isn't that complicated. A lot of it comes down to how well the able-bodied Wolves can do in the first two months, while waiting for Love and Rubio to return and save the day.

A season ago, the Wolves were in no way capable of handling the absence of Rubio and the rash of injuries that followed. As guard J.J. Barea hinted at during that time, and Love confirmed on media day, many in the locker room last spring were looking forward to the end of the season.

Since then, the roster has been gutted. Michael Beasley is in Phoenix and already was benched in the second half on Wednesday night. Darko Milicic is in Boston, not getting off the bench.

Barea put it best earlier this week when he said, "We have winners now," when asked about a locker room that quit last season.

Added Love, "I think in years past, we probably would have been in trouble (without Ricky and I)."

Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko are proven winners in the NBA. Adelman showed during his time in Houston that he can guide a team that has lost its superstars when he has players that want to win.

The Wolves have their easiest portion of the schedule to open up, but that just means it will be that much more difficult when Love and Rubio return.

The biggest key to surviving until the Big Two is back on the floor will be avoiding any more injuries.

Point guard Luke Ridnour already has dealt with back spasms and Roy suffered a knee-knock in practice. Losing either of them, Kirilenko or center Nikola Pekovic could prove devastating.

The Roy gamble

It was just before NBA training camps opened last winter, following the lockout, that Roy announced he was retiring from the Portland Trail Blazers. He had been attempting to play despite lacking cartilage between the bones of both of his knees and finally decided it was too much.

Roy, however, underwent the same platelet-rich plasma procedure Kobe Bryant had and announced in June he was coming back. The Wolves were more than happy to make room for him. 

The good news for Roy was that he was able to get through the preseason without any real setbacks. He was shut down for precautionary reasons for two days after knocking knees with another player in a game against the Bucks and again the next day at practice.

"It was a good preseason," Roy said. "I was able to get in every game. That was my goal because I wanted to try to shake some of that rust off. I think I played in as many preseason games as I ever had, beside maybe my rookie year. So it was good to get that rust off, get acclimated with the team, so I feel good."

Now comes the question everybody has been asking since Roy signed a two-year $10 millon contract this summer. How much does he have left and what can he do to help the team?

Preseason is one hurdle. There will be plenty more now that the games count, the action is more intense and you play on consecutive nights. Adelman said Roy will be a starter and estimates he is going to play him around 30 minutes a game while constantly monitoring his progress.

One trap that Adelman and the Wolves can't fall into is relying on Roy to pick up the scoring slack without Love while literally running his knees into the ground. It will be tempting to overuse Roy, especially early. But Adelman has been around the block enough times to know that winning an extra game or two in November and December isn't worth sacrificing the season.

Improved chemistry

The debate on whether or not locker room chemistry is important has raged for years and isn't going away anytime soon.

If you saw how awkward and uncomfortable things got in the Wolves locker room the past two seasons while losing streaks started matching guys jersey numbers, you would understand why chemistry is critical.

There was clearly a divide last season. It was hinted at when things started to go south in March and those who remain have acknowledged the issues.

A repeat simply can't happen this season and the Wolves know it.

There needs to be a level of respect that was lacking in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign.

Veterans like Love and Barea realize the importance of this, already having organized team dinners. Barea said there are more on the way.

There is adversity in every NBA season from the champions down to the lottery contestants. Michael Jordan once punched a teammate in practice the season the Bulls won a title. There will be adversity early on with the Wolves as they begin the season without their two best players.

Kahn and Adelman took great strides to rid the locker room of dead weight and get guys in Minnesota that want to win and want to do things the right way. It is imperative there are no more fractures from the inside.

Bottom Line

There is no question that this is a franchise at a crossroads. This easily could be the season that people point at years from now where things finally turned around. Or conversely, this could be viewed as the season the franchise proves, once and for all, it is cursed.

Love has said he wants to make the playoffs, or else. Pekovic's contract is up after this season. Rubio is not locked in long-term. Kirilenko isn't getting any younger, and Roy's knees aren't magically producing more cartilage.

This needs to be the season the Wolves finally end their playoff drought.

And that should happen.

There is too much riding on this season for this group to not get into the postseason. But also, there are too many things working against them to guarantee it. They will get into the top eight in the Western Conference, but barely.

The big step forward for this franchise? You'll have to wait for 2013-14 for that to happen.

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