MINNEAPOLIS A funny thing has happened at the Target Center over the course of the past week. Maybe it's Kevin Love's return to Minneapolis that sparked it. Maybe it's Chase Budinger's workouts, in which he's strapped to what appears to be a human-sized leash and drags physical therapist Andr Deloya around the gym. Maybe it's just the change of month, January to February, the sense that spring is coming even if, in Minnesota, it's still eons away.
But it's happened, and they're starting to say the magic words. Kevin will be back soon. Chase will be back soon. Players have dared to utter it, in passing and almost discreetly, as if it isn't what they've been waiting for for months.
And that, in an easy-to-miss, holding-their-breath phenomenon, is why the Timberwolves need this All-Star break. They need it because it's a full six days without games, a full six days that would likely have brought three or so losses, depending on scheduling, and an even deeper hole.
I suppose you could say that at this point it doesn't matter how deep said hole is, that they're not going to emerge, not 21 games out of first place at the All-Star break and 7.5 out of the eighth playoff seed. And they're not, not without some crazy run the Timberwolves look incapable of stringing together. But it still matters, this week that brings them closer to comebacks and closer to the team they were supposed to be.
The Timberwolves need as many games as possible with Love and Budinger back this season, and Kirilenko, too, who will likely return next week. Those late-season, post-comeback games will be proof however gut-wrenching in terms of the what could have been that this team was competent in its as-built form, before the injuries and disappointment. Any games back closer to full strength, even if they come when the season is decided, will let the Timberwolves end on a high note, with hope for next year and the potential to at least play the role of late-season spoiler in the West.
This season was supposed to be the opposite of last. That was the sentiment going in, when 2011-12 became the lost season that stunk of an ACL tear and general apathy. What we remembered in October about the spring before was Rubio's fall and J.J. Barea's all-too-true comments that his teammates didn't care. We remembered the postmortem after that last loss, when president of basketball operations David Kahn and coach Rick Adelman obliquely hinted at blowing up the supporting cast and building around Love and point guard Ricky Rubio.
So everyone wanted this year to be the opposite, to be a foundation upon which the team could build, to be the first winning season in years. Opposite, opposite, opposite that's all you could demand after a season that ended like the last, with just one April win.
Now, though, the Timberwolves should hope to get the true opposite of last season, because at this point, that's the most they can salvage. The true opposite involves looking a little closer at the year that was, at what happened prior to March 9, when Rubio tore his ACL and the team was in eighth place in the conference. How easily we forget just how well things were going then, how the team looked to be poised to only improve and to very possibly make the playoffs.
Last season, things built and then collapsed. This year, they've collapsed, for certain, with the team 12 games under .500 at the break. But the true opposite would mean that they'd now build, maybe only from the team's current .380 winning percentage closer to the .394 it achieved last year but build nonetheless.
The way a season ends can color it, almost to a fault. Last year is a key example of that. When Portland was in town last week, Nicolas Batum talked about his summertime desire to play for the Timberwolves, citing all the things that were (note: past tense) appealing about the team last season: Adelman, Love, Rubio. Upon hearing his explanation, it was hard not to pause for a moment after being almost conditioned this offseason to want anything but what went on in 2011-12. But Batum was right. There were appealing things about that team, and it wasn't all bad, and now the Timberwolves need to prove the same thing about this year's bunch if they hope to be an attractive destination this coming summer.
It's hard to say what's to come when things begin again next Wednesday against Philadelphia, only that somehow the team needs to swing an uptick in its play, however futile it might be. It could be weeks until Love and Budinger return, or a full month, or there could be a setback or two that ruins those plans. Regardless, here are five things the Timberwolves should hope happen in the season's final two months:
1. Kevin Love returns, gradually this time, and builds toward playing like his former self. I almost don't want to see Love playing 35 minutes and scoring 30 points from the outset. Last time he returned, in late November, the team's playoff dreams were very much alive, and so Love had to keep shooting, keep pushing, perhaps too hard, for his touch. This time, you have to hope his recovery will be more paced, with the team relying on him for little more than leadership and whatever he's realistically capable of bringing.
2. Same thing for Chase Budinger. He'll be back, and the team would be wise to ease him in, as well, without throwing too much on his back. Budinger proved his value in just six games with the team, and he's been a consistent player over his short career, so the team should be interested in signing the free agent this summer.
3. Nikola Pekovic remains healthy and gives the Timberwolves an even more compelling reason to sign him. Pekovic will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and with the shortage of big men in the league, he'll command a price that might be steeper than his actual value no matter what he does to round out the season. (Barring a major injury.) Of course the Timberwolves should be interested in re-signing him; he's had two breakout seasons and has proved not only a talented player but a hard worker. With other teams expressing interest, it's going to take quite the check to keep Pekovic, a check the Timberwolves will likely offer. So here's hoping he takes his play up a level for the rest of the year and avoids the smaller, nagging injuries that have caused him to miss handfuls of games at a time over his career. Here's hoping he makes whatever check the team cuts and offers him worth it, makes it so there are no questions when it comes to the cap hit that keeping him will likely take.
4. Ricky Rubio continues to look more and more like Ricky Rubio. The second-year point guard was asked on Wednesday whether he was finally feeling like his former self, whether he felt he had any more room to improve. It was a silly question, in a way, because no player is going to say he feels he reached his ceiling at age 22, and that's exactly what Rubio said: he's pleased, and of course he wants to get better. But Rubio has been looking like the player he was last winter, averaging 13.1 points and 8.6 assists over his past 10 games, and there's reason to hope he'll continue, if not improve. If Rubio can remain consistent throughout the rest of the season and work more on his shot, there will be no way to call this quite a lost or rebuilding season for the point guard.
5. Derrick Williams and Alexey Shved continue their development. Both players have different things to work on: Williams, his aggressiveness, Shved, his physicality and ability to adapt to opponents. Still, though, they're in similar places developmentally, Shved after just a few months in the league and Williams in in second season. One might be a No. 2 pick who looked more and more like a bust for a long time, the other a surprise free agent pickup from Russia, and it's true, the two couldn't be more different. That said, they could be important pieces for the team to build around going forward, and any positive signs from them as the season progresses would be welcome.
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