MINNEAPOLIS Happy New Year, and welcome to 2013 in the NBA, where Tuesday's games mean as much as Monday's, where win streaks remain and losing streaks linger and today looks about the same as yesterday. The New Year in basketball is little more than semantics, its only value being that the playoffs are one day closer, the season that much more advanced, identities that much more crystallized.
Welcome to 2013 in Minnesota, where the 14-13 Timberwolves are closer to relevant than irrelevant, where Kevin Love has been some nights an afterthought, where Andrei Kirilenko might be the team MVP, where game-winning plays are drawn up for a 23-year-old Russian no one had heard of until July. Welcome to the longest current playoff drought in the NBA and the team that wants to end it, a team that has 55 more games to do so.
This season for the Timberwolves, though, isn't going quite how anyone imagined. Love and Ricky Rubio were supposed to be the stars. Brandon Roy's knees were supposed to be better (at least the optimists said so, anyways). Kirilenko was not supposed to be this good. Alexey Shved was supposed to be a nobody. Chase Budinger was supposed to be the team's sixth man. Supposed, supposed, supposed. But supposed doesn't always work. In the case of the Timberwolves, supposed was doomed from Day 1. That's why it's taken until close to Jan. 1 for the team to even establish a clear-cut rotation, and that, too, will change once Rubio is worked in. But at least the Timberwolves have a personality, an identity, now, besides just their injuries. As they go into 2013, the goal is easy: Become a playoff team, not just a team that talks about how it's on its way to becoming a playoff team.
They're not there yet. Not even close. According to Basketball-reference.com's playoff probabilities report, the results of which are generated based on 1,000 simulations of the remainder of the season, the Timberwolves have just a 33.2 percent chance of making the postseason as of Dec. 31, based on their performance thus far. According to the prediction, they'll finish the season at .500, which a best-case record of 53-29 and a worst case of 29-53. They have a better chance, at this point, of winning the lottery (0.3 percent) than winning the Western Conference (0.1 percent) or the NBA Finals (0.1 percent).
As much as I hate predictions of any sort, that all sounds reasonable to me. That is, reasonable for Dec. 31. Anyone who knows anything about the Timberwolves has known since March 9 of last season that this team wasn't going to be stellar from Day 1. Any Rubio skeptics jumped on that bandwagon in October when Love broke his hand, and anyone left hoping for a fantastic start was no doubt put in his place by Budinger's injury, or Roy's, or Malcolm Lee's, or Josh Howard's you get the picture.
Just like last year, when it took a good 20 to 30 games for the Timberwolves to jell (a jelling that was undone in one fell swoop when Rubio tore his ACL), it's going to take time with this new bunch that's perhaps finally stabilizing after injuries. They have the coach. They have the star, even if he needs to get back into fighting form. They have the sidekick who might eclipse the star, but he, too, is a long way from back to normal after ACL repair. They have a solid supporting cast, something they were sorely lacking last season, a strong defense and a stagnant offense with the ability to improve. They're still solidly mired among the middle of the pack in the NBA, and though it's doubtful they can push themselves out of that middle, they can rise through it, at least closer to the top of the pack.
Right now, the Timberwolves are worse than the league average in every offensive category but free throws attempted, turnovers and offensive rebounds. Their shooting is subpar, their 3-point shooting borderline atrocious. Defensively, though, they're better than average across the board, among the best, indeed, in many categories. They're doing all that while one of the league's best offensive players, Love, struggles, aside from the fact that he's also a defensive liability at times. Do you know what that spells?
Potential that is, if the Timberwolves can start doing the things they need to do on offense and continue doing the things they weren't supposed to be able to do at the other end of the court.
There are a lot of ifs involved in the Timberwolves' goals, a lot of breaks that need to go their way, and we all know that Minnesota hasn't exactly been a breeding ground of basketball luck. But unlike past years, this team is built on a foundation that at least makes a modicum of sense, and it has leadership and talent alike.
The Timberwolves laid the first brick in this process on Dec. 20, when they beat the Thunder. Even their near-miss in New York three days later was another step. Becoming a playoff team is more than forecasts or calculations or detailed odds. It's about a feeling, a sense, and two weeks ago, it was hard to imagine this bunch beating a team of any consequence. To be a playoff team, it must be able to at least imagine an upset, an eight seed winning a game or two against a one seed, a six or seven seed upending its first-round matchup. And until recently, the Timberwolves weren't there. Until recently, all they had on their resume was a double-digit loss to the Heat, which is not the kind of thing that breeds fuzzy playoff-confidence feelings. But no longer, not after these past two weeks.
So if the Timberwolves should have one New Year's resolution, it's this: To stop looking to the future, pointing to the day when they can be what they hope to be. They have to realize that the time is now, no matter the unexpected setbacks. They have the pieces, in spite of injuries and disappointments, and the days when every win felt like something stockpiled for the future are gone.
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