MINNEAPOLIS Chase Budinger is a living, breathing and now shooting representation of what the Minnesota Timberwolves are missing. To watch him rehab can be encouraging, depending on your perspective, or utter torture.
The swingman tore his meniscus Nov. 10 in Chicago, so early in the season that when he hobbled off the court, supported by head athletic trainer Gregg Farnam and point guard Will Conroy, one could almost hope that nothing was wrong, that it was, just as the team first suggested, simply a twisted knee. It was a simpler time, before Andrei Kirilenko suggested lighting candles for his team and the word cursed became an acceptable description. Since then, we've learned that these Timberwolves don't tend to twist or bruise. They tend to strain and sprain and miss weeks or even months.
Now, Budinger is two to three weeks away from making his comeback, he says. That's not precise, not by any means, but it's a reasonable hope. He's finished with in-person appointments and has only an over-the-phone consultation with Dr. James Andrews left before he's cleared to go. That consultation will come next week, when Budinger hopes to be permitted to participate in full-contact practices and increase his jumping, cutting and lateral movement.
Every knee injury is different, obviously, but to compare timelines, it took Ricky Rubio 17 days between being cleared to practice on Nov. 28 and making his debut Dec. 15. Granted, Budinger's injury was not as severe as Rubio's and he's actually ahead of schedule in his rehab, but it's not unreasonable to expect him to follow a similar path.
Budinger said Wednesday that he's still working out the kinks in his game and that the biggest obstacle thus far has been mental. He's learning to trust his knee and to know he can do more with it, and to him, apparently, that's more of a concern than the fact that he was dripping with sweat after a workout that would have left him barely winded in October.
"I'm feeling good," Budinger said. "Knee's feeling good. A couple days ago, I actually jumped off it and had a little dunk, so that was a good little mental hurdle of mine."
Budinger did stress the need to get back into game shape, but that's a problem that's often impossible to solve before players actually get back into games. It's difficult to simulate the physical beating of a game, during which players accrue more than a mile of running at a sprinter's speed, and so for now Budinger will shoot, and jog and do whatever the trainers tell him.
There's a certain irony in watching him these days. He's with the team at practices and shootarounds, participating in 5-on-0 drills and working on his shot. Much of the time, Budinger is hovering at the 3-point line, rotating around its arc, shooting shot after shot after shot and often making shot after shot after shot. It's encouraging to see that he hasn't lost his touch, that his long-range shot has the right arc, that he's comfortable with the jump necessary to launch the ball.
But, if you consider the bigger picture, it's also kind of cruel. The Timberwolves are currently shooting 29.7 percent from 3-point range, which was supposed to be and apparently still is, based on what he's shown Budinger's specialty. Minnesota is the worst in the league from long-range, and by a wide gap; the Suns, at 29th, are shooting 32.8 percent. In fact, the Timberwolves of 2012-13 are on pace to go down in history as epically bad, with only 14 teams having accrued a worse 3-point shooting percentage in the history of the league. (That's among teams that attempted at least 500 3-pointers in a season.)
And so Budinger shoots from beyond the arc, over and over and largely successfully, and it's easy to wonder what could have been.
"I watched Chase up there shooting the ball," Rick Adelman said Monday, "and I said, If you're going to stand there and just make every shot, I don't even want to watch you. Wait until you can play, and then do that.'"
But that's not how things have worked, not for these Timberwolves. You can't blame their problems solely on Budinger's knee or Kevin Love's hand or any of the multitudinous other faulty chunks of flesh and bone that have plagued the team. You can wonder, though, and now, maybe, look a little bit forward. Budinger will return this season, if only to boost his stock in free agency this summer and give a hint of what his team could have been.
As much as that seems unfair, it'll have to be enough, and no amount of shots Budinger might make in March or April will undo the pervading sense of what could have been.
Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.