With the re-signing of Nikola Pekovic to a 5-year, $60 million contract this week, the Minnesota Timberwolves secure their intentions to fight for a first round playoff appearance for the next several years. A big three of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Pekovic could mean just enough wins to be a perennial 7th or 8th seed in the Western Conference.
I am a fan of Pek. He is an old-school, no-nonsense bruiser in the paint who for good measure occasionally runs over smaller opponents like a mack truck. He has a decent jumphook, can finish through contact, and is a reliable free throw shooter (75% for his career). On the other side of the ball, he has a decent understanding of team defense, moves relatively well for his size defending the pick-and-roll and can occasionally use his mass to ward off opponents from entering the lane, but by NBA standards he is a sub-par athlete who offers minimal rim protection. At $12 million a year he will be a little overpaid – particularly if he continues to be troubled by nagging injuries – but so are most useful NBA centers.
Meanwhile, Love appeared on the precipice of superstardom in 2011/12 when he posted averages of 26 points and 13 rebounds per game and scored an iconic walk-off game winner versus the Clippers on his way to making the All-NBA second team. He then raised eyebrows by complaining about his supporting cast and new 4-year $62 million contract with the ink still drying on the paperwork, and subsequently broke his hand doing knuckle push-ups and missed most of last season.
Love has missed 104 games to assorted injuries over the last four years and is yet to make the postseason in his five-year career; in fact, he is yet to lead the Wolves to even a .400 record. He is one of the weaker defenders at his position; he does not cover up for Pek’s lack of athleticism and shot blocking, and according to Kirk Goldsberry’s analytics study is the fifth worst interior defender in the league, giving up 52% on opponent shots on shots within five feet of the basket. With all this in mind, one has to question Love’s ability to both stay healthy and lead a winning team.
Perhaps the biggest key for the T-Wolves is Ricky Rubio, who has already been earmarked for a max contract when he becomes eligible for an extension in 2015. Should Rubio become the elite point guard many believe he has the potential to be, Minnesota’s ceiling rises dramatically. That will not happen, it says here. Certainly, he is an excellent, exciting passer with an innate ability to see the floor and sense a passing lane before it reveals itself. But he cannot shoot. He shot 36% his rookie year… and 36% again last year. And unlike Rajon Rondo, who is a similar non-threat as a jump shooter, the less athletic Rubio is not much of a threat driving to the basket either.
Jason (formerly “Ason”) Kidd is the go-to example of a prominent poor-shooting point guard turned outside shooting threat, but he also may be the only example. And his was a transformation that took 15 years to transpire. Regardless, Rubio will never be in Kidd’s league as a player; Kidd was already a 17-point, 10-assist, 7-rebound guy at age 22 in his second year whereas Rubio was 10, 7 and 4.
Rubio will do well to crack a top-10 active point guard list any time soon, with Rondo, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams, John Wall, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday and Mike Conley all currently sitting firmly ahead of him.
Meanwhile, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer are solid free agent pickups – the former a one-dimensional but efficient complimentary scorer and the latter an athletic wing defender who can shoot the corner three if nothing else. Together they may just about cover for the loss of Andrei Kirilenko, who was the Wolves’ greatest defender and most versatile all-round player by some margin last season. Rick Adelman, we should note, is a good coach who tends to get the most out of his team offensively and will be praying for a clean bill of health for his big three – Love, Rubio and Pekovic have combined to miss 164 games over the last two seasons alone.
Even if injury-free though, what do you get if this trio are your core and you are salary-capped out moving forward? You get a “treadmill” team that will be in the playoff mix every year but will likely not win more than a couple of games in a first round series, much less contend for the title.
There is nothing categorically wrong with being a treadmill team. Contending for a title is not a realistic goal for a team in a small, cold, undesirable market without years of smart roster management and a little bit of luck. So much for that – the T-Wolves picked Jonny Flynn 6th, Wesley Johnson 4th, and Derrick Williams 2nd in consecutive recent drafts. (How’s unemployment treating you, David Khan?)
After years of losing, at some point you have to win some games to remain viable as a franchise. A trip to the postseason would be a welcome change for the fans in Minny, who have not witnessed playoff basketball since 2003/04. This group, for all their limitations, will be fun to root for. Pek is a character, Rubio is a highlight waiting to happen, and a healthy and motivated Love is liable to put up a 20/20 game on any given night.
Making the playoffs would be an achievement this season in a particularly loaded West, though I prefer the Lakers’ chances and believe the Wolves will be battling it out with Brian Shaw’s Nuggets for the 8th seed and the right to lose to the Thunder or Spurs in Round 1 – and doing it all over again the next year. Ladies and gentlemen: your Minnesota Treadmill-Wolves.