We've seen amazing turnaround seasons before -- four years ago, for instance, the Celtics went from 24 wins to 66 and the league championship in one giant swoop, thanks to offseason trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
But an amazing turnaround season with the same players? That's a new one. And that's essentially what the Minnesota Timberwolves are doing.
A year ago this club won 17 games, and was a laughingstock on multiple levels. They lost their final 15 games, won five road games all year, and were last in Defensive Efficiency. They were a joke, basically, known mostly for a general manager whose name had become its own punch line.
And while everyone up north was cautiously optimistic about this season, a 3-7 start made it seem that, despite genuine improvement, this club was still at least a year away from doing anything important.
Or not. Last night the Timberwolves beat the Blazers for the second time in three games, cementing two important milestones. First, Minnesota moved into eighth place in the Western Conference playoff chase, by virtue of its tiebreaker advantage over Houston. Second, the playoff odds rated their postseason chances as better than 50-50 for the first time since we began this three years ago; the Wolves now rate as a 60.8 percent probability to make it.
And they're still gaining steam. Minnesota has won eight of its past 11 games, and the most recent two against the Blazers mean they clinched the tie-break against their two most likely rivals for the West's eighth spot, Portland and Houston.
The incredible part is that most of the pieces are the same as a year ago. This isn't like Boston getting KG, or the Suns adding Steve Nash and Joe Johnson. Of the 13 Timberwolves to play at least 200 minutes, 10 also played extensively last season, making Minnesota one of the league's more stable teams. Kevin Love, Luke Ridnour and Wesley Johnson are still first, third and fourth in minutes, just like a year ago.
As for newcomers, Minnesota's big free-agent pickup, J.J. Barea, has played only 465 minutes due to injuries. And their first-round draft pick, Derrick Williams, has solid but unspectacular stats while averaging fewer than 20 minutes a game.
Newly arrived Ricky Rubio has made a difference too, but don't get carried away by the flashy passes -- he's played some of his worst ball even as Minnesota has surged. He's dipped to just 35.5 percent shooting from the floor, including missing the rim entirely on an uncontested layup last night, taking some of the steam out of his ballhandling wizardry.
Instead, the Wolves' renaissance is owed largely to two fairly impressive and rare phenomena.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Love has emerged as a legit MVP candidate.
The first is a simple one: They have their best players taking the shots. Imagine. It didn't take a lot of new-fangled spreadsheets to figure out that Kurt Rambis' system was basketball masochism, as a year ago Minnesota force-fed two of the least efficient offensive players on the team while more productive options went underserved.
The neon sign in this case was "go-to" post option Darko Milicic finishing with a higher usage rate than Ridnour, despite Milicic being one of the least efficient offensive players in basketball and Ridnour being well above average.
Darko wasn't the only one, though; Michael Beasley also had one of the highest usage rates in basketball despite creating little for teammates and mostly long 2s for himself. It's as though Rambis thought the contested 17-footer was the pinnacle of offensive achievement. Perhaps he'd just been around Kobe too long.
This season, things are different. You know who leads the Wolves in usage rate? Kevin Love! What a concept! And between Barea, Rubio and Ridnour, most of the touches that aren't flowing through Love are going through a small, quick guard who can create for others. Beasley and Darko still shoot too much, but their roles and their minutes have been curtailed under Rick Adelman.
Meanwhile, Darko's little-used backup from a year ago has suddenly begun to shine. This one can't be pegged on Rambis; as a second-year player, Nikola Pekovic has simply figured out which of his brutish physical tactics he can get away with in the NBA and which will be whistled for fouls. Last year he had the league's highest foul rate -- a spectacular 8.16 per 40 minutes -- but this year he's cut that more than in half to 3.7. Combine it with more touches and fewer offensive fouls and he's suddenly become a huge offensive weapon.
And combine a resurgent Pek with Love, and all of a sudden this is the most physically brutish frontcourt in basketball. With apologies to Canseco and McGwire, is it too soon to start calling these guys the Bash Brothers?
Meanwhile, the Wolves' backcourt additions may be more "solid" than "great," but they've allowed Minnesota to ease a lot of unproductive players into lesser roles. Wayne Ellington, Sebastian Telfair and Jonny Flynn all saw major backcourt minutes a year ago; giving that playing time to Rubio and Barea equals a huge improvement. Giving Darko's minutes to Pek and Williams equals even more.
That accounts for Minnesota's rise to the league's No. 13 offense, but the really amazing part is on defense: The Wolves' upgrade here has been spectacular, rising from 30th to 15th. That part is rare enough, but here's the clincher: They've done it despite getting younger. Their major rotation changes all added rookies or second-year players, who historically tend to take their lumps on defense.
Alas, not in Minnesota's case. And here is an example of where coaching is as important as personnel. Adelman is known as more of an offensive coach, but he has the Wolves competing at the defensive end, where they clearly weren't under Rambis.
Additionally, personnel changes have helped here too: Defensively, the younger guys have all been upgrades.
Most notable is Rubio. His offense is overrated, but his defense is most definitely not. A long, ball-hawking, charge-taking pest, he's dramatically improved on the assorted Flynns and Telfairs at the point of attack. Additionally, his ability to defend most shooting guards has also given the Wolves important flexibility and allowed them to gloss over their lack of a real shooting guard on many nights.
Love deserves credit too; he was a major liability a year ago but showed up in dramatically better shape and has played passable defense this season, another piece of his ascension into a genuine superstar. Adelman also made an important adjustment by playing Love more at the 5, especially when opponents go small; Rambis nearly always had Love playing the 4, and he sometimes really struggled to cover floor-spacing bigs.
And again, replacing the dross at the end of the rotation with halfway decent players has made a major difference. Minnesota hoped Darko could be a paint protector, and occasionally he does that, but his defense was as overrated as his offense. And Beasley was just brutal on D a year ago; even figuring things out on the fly, Williams has been an upgrade.
Two key second-year players have figured some things out too. Wesley Johnson remains a mess on offense, but has settled nicely into the wing stopper role on D. And Pekovic can have an impact now that he doesn't foul on every play.
Add it all up, and you have both a tremendous story and a gold-starred coach of the year résumé for Adelman (although Gregg Popovich and Lionel Hollins are giving him a run for his money).
I don't want to get too carried away. Minnesota still has its issues both organizationally and roster-wise, and a playoff berth is by no means assured. But turning from a laughingstock to a playoff contender with largely the same roster is a rare and special feat, and one that deserves more attention than it's getting.
The addition of Adelman was huge along with Rubio. Similar to the old Kings of Webber, J Will, Peja, Divac, and Adelman.
Kevin Love is playing MVP basketball. He is going for way over 20 points and 10 rebounds a night, plus he is draining 3's. I don't
think we have seen a guy like that since Larry Bird. Love is basically a combination of Larry Bird and Moses Malone.
Love is having a breakout season sort of what Z Bo did last year.
What I like about the Wolves is that they are building a TEAM not just Love and Co.
or a collection of stars. They are playing well and making a run at a playoff spot.
I would love to see a Thunder-Wolves first round matchup. I think that Love-Pek-Darko would give the
Thunder some problems inside. If Rubio could slow down Westbrook a bit and if Beasley or Williams could get hot,
it could be one heck of a series.
People kept saying that their draft pick traded to the Clippers was going to be the top overall pick but they have already won more games than last year and that would have been a big accomplishment before the season started. Adelman deserves most of the credit and I would love to see them get into the playoffs. Worst case is they get some playoff experience under their belts but its possible they could steal a game or two from OKC.
I don't want to repeat on anything you've already said, great post. The play of wes johnson, williams and beasley will determine how well the wolves play down the stretch, seems as if everyone else on the roster has been very steady. When they are playing well the versatility of all of them cause real matchup problems.
The Wolves are honestly a decent team but their match ups is what gets them past better teams. Love is a match up nightmare for any team. A PF who can stretch the floor but also bang down low and go for 20 rebounds on any given night? That's key. Not to mention they're almost looking like their frontcourt depth is unstoppable. Love and Pek to start with Darko coming off the bench for defense and Beasely for offense, not to mention Williams is pretty good at both and is a great rebounder. That's 5 guys they have in their rotation all above 6'9" whichi s definitely a good sign for things to come for them.
Err, we all realize that's a Hollinger article right? A few posts above seem to think this guy wrote it.
Nice post, a lot of people will start to call Kahn a genius, and although the way he did it was unorthodox and garnered a lot of criticism, It's obvious that he did his best to get the best assortment of talent he possibly could. And it's the little things that matter. Think back to the summer of 2010, when the Heat were trying to unload Beasley to make room for the big three. There must've been at least 10 other teams that wouldn've been able to absorb Beasley's salary. Some may not have wanted him, but Kahn jumped on the opportunity, albiet his remarks about Beasley days later were a bit puzzling. And even though Randolph still hasn't gotten his chance, he still reamains a valuable asset, and did shine a bit in the begining of the season when given minutes. When New York was looking for a taker for Eddy Cury, there were probably a couple other teams with the cap space, but the T-Wolves made it happen.
He may not have picked the best players in the draft, but he garnered the perfect players to compliment Love, and are in a perfect position to win, and win now. If they can get in the playoffs and avoid OKC, I would like their chances of pulling off an upset.
And even though Crawford would be an upgrade over Ridnour, I believe people are seriously underating Ridnour's play this season. Sure he's slow and can't take anybody off the dribble, but he's averaging 11.5 points per game on 45% shooting. He has been productive, and even though Crawford is better than him, I don't think it would make too much of a difference. However the aquisition of Crawford would help tremendously in other areas, like they would finally have someone that can create their own shot, and he along with Love would be the go-to guy down the stretch. Not sure why Portland would budge at a Ridnour, Randolph, and a first for Crawford. It would give Portland a bit more flexibility this off-season, but I can see why they'd hold on to Crawford for now.
I hope the T-Wolves don't give up Beasley for a second round pick. I understand the logic behind that, assuming that they have no intention of resigning him this off-season, but I honestly believe they have a run in them this season. They just need Rubio to shoot the ball better, and Love to assert himself more down the stretch, and they just might be able to climb up in the standings. Too bad Wes Johnson has been garbage for them, although he has shto the ball a bit better the past ten games.
If they can get Pek to give them 14 and 8, and get even half of what we saw from Martell Webster in Portland the other night(I hate when guys are only motivated to play against their old team, you should come out like that every night) plus Derrick Williams continuing to show us his talent, it'll be one tough first round matchup, that's for sure. And credit Adelman for the way this team has been playing. He has this team playing hard and smart, and has them running his system. They are playing to their strengths, and if this keeps up, I think he should be coach of the year. At the end, I think the T-Wolves will be around 35-31, hopefully they get in, unfortunatly they may just see 4 or 5 games of OKC, but as the Bulls and Derrick Rose have shown, even a little playoff experience and and early exit goes a long way.
It'll be interesting to see how they fare against the Lakers tommorow, with the Lakers reeling and Kobe mad, and the T-Wolves streaking having won their last three games, it'll be interesting to see how Kobe comes out in this one. With a win tommorow, the T-Wolves would be just one win behind the Lakers in the win collumn, and just two games back of the Lakers. It'll be a tight race down the stretch in the West, and it'll leave at least one good viable team out of the picture, that's for sure.
Adelman has to be the most under appreciated great coach in NBA history. Wherever he goes his team drastically improved.
ha yes I did not write this. I thought it was obvious I didnt. I really think the Wolves could pull off an upset in the first round or at the very least provide a fun and entertaining series. Look at the Wolves record against the top 10 western conference teams:
- Thunder: 0-1 We lost 104-100, it was a very close game and before Rubio was starting
- Spurs: 2-0 We won by a combined 18 points and it wasnt really that close
- Memphis: 0-2 We lost by 4 with Love and lost by 5 without Love
- Clippers: 3-0 Won 2 close games and another double digit game
- Lakers: 0-2 Lost by 5 with Love and got destroyed without him
- Dallas: 2-1 Destroyed them twice and then lost by 7
- Denver: 0-1 Lost in OT
- Houston: 3-1
- Portland: 2-0
Total: 12-8 against the top 10 teams in the west
I know the playoffs is a whole different animal, but from those stats it looks like we might have favorable matchups against the clippers, spurs, and Mavericks. If we are healthy, we can play with any team any night. We might not win, but we can play them tight. We are 8th seed, but we are only 2.5 games away from the 3rd seed. It is very possible that we could move up or move down.
^The record against the Spurs might be a bit misleading, assuming Manu wasn't there and that he hasn't quite rouded into shape yet. The Spurs in my opinion are legit, and with a healthy manu and a rested Timmy D, they are just as dangerous as any team other than the Thunder.(And on a sidenote, Damn! Memphis is third! I didn't see them sneaking up on us like that. And they haven't even gotten Z-Bo back yet. They'll be another team to look out for)
Back to the topic, I believe that you guys can beat any slow paced team. Despite the two losses to LA, I like your chances against them and the Mavs. The Nuggets' place in the standings is very misleading. They've were without Gallo and Nene for about three weeks, and Aflalo has been hot as of late. If Wilson Chandler signs there, I'll put them ahead of the Spurs. The West is so tough, but I feel you can beat the Clips, Dallas, and LA, and when I say beat, I mean that it would go down to the wire, a toss up. I hoestly think that any team up till Houston(Portland is a mess, but you have to be carefull with them too, cause they could put it all together and move up too) can beat each other, and whoever comes out of the West will be tired as hell.
Why is Rick Adelman so underrated as a coach? Everywhere he goes he turns the team into a playoff team. First Sacramento, then Houston, then the Wolves. Why does he get no love?
I believe Manu suffered his injury against us in the first game and then the 2nd game he did not play. Yes I agree, the west is crazy. So many good and even teams in this conference.
Usually the East is a Cupcake while you have to win 50 to get in in the West, but that isn't the case this year. Other than Boston and NY (Both who are capable of huge runs) each team is at least 6 games above .500, and has at least 23 wins, although it looks like Boston and NY can limp into the playoffs looking at the bottom 7 teams. But 1-6 will be a mad scramble. And in a year like this, 3-6(and possibly 7 if NY lives up to its talent level) will probably be seperated by 2 games at most, however Orlando may fall off if Dwight leaves, but who knows, maybe they get a Denver like deal for Dwight and stay in it. Can't wait for the playoffs. I'd put my money on at least one of the top 2 seeds in each conference to get upset in round one with the way the picture is looking right now.
I wish the same thing would happen to my Kings. : (
^Don't worry, you're Kings can only go up from here. I don't think many people realize just how great of a future Cousins has in front of him. I believe that within 2 years, he'll be the second best center in the league right behind Howard.
Tyreke is a great player but needs to decide this off-season whether he's gonna be a wing player or a ball handler. Once he gets a position, and a steady jumper, he can easily be a 21-6--5 type of guy. Isaiah Thomas is your point of the future. Might not be the 20 and 7 guy you want him to be, but 14 and 6 seems reasonable. Hickson and Thompson have some potential as role players. And Jimmer is still developing. Add Anthony Davis or Harrison Barnes to this group, and that is a squad. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins? In the same front court? The odds of that happening is litterally probably 8% or somthing, lol, but that would be one dangerous front court