Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
It seems that there are three or four teams in contention for the final two playoff spots in the West. Of course, we all know that's a little absurd. Every season holds surprises, breakouts, injuries, and collapses. Portland was a surefire playoff team entering last season. The Jazz were destined for the lottery. Anything can happen over the course of a season. But the common logic is that there are about six team that are locks for the playoffs, and then three or four contenders for the last two spots. And the Minnesota Timberwolves are a common preseason pick to grab one of those two spots. It's easy to understand why. It's a team that looks fantastic on paper. It's a team with a good coach. It's a team that's fun to watch and root for. Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced.
I should note that I really enjoy watching the Timberwolves. Anyone who has been around the site for a few years knows that I've long been a fan of Ricky Rubio. Kevin Love is great, Nikola Pekovic is too terrifying to speak ill of, and how can you not get excited about the idea of a Brandon Roy comeback? But it feels like, for this team to truly make the leap and enter the playoffs, too many things need to come together a little too perfectly. And we've unfortunately already witnessed the first piece falling out of place. Injuries derailed Minnesota's playoff hopes last season, and I worry the same might happen this year.
Kevin Love's broken hand will keep him out for the first month of the season. For the team's leading scorer and rebounder, it's a difficult setback to overcome. Ricky Rubio will also be out early in the season as he continues to recover from last season's torn ligaments in his knee. Love and Rubio are the two most important players to the success of the Timberwolves, and even once they return they'll need to try to regain whatever position they've already lost.
Is all of this to say there's no way Minnesota can make the playoffs? Of course not. I just don't think it's as likely as many would like to believe. But Andrei Kirilenko, making his return to the NBA, could fill in at power forward until Love returns. Or the Wolves could keep Kirilenko at small forward, and give Derrick Williams an opportunity at the four. The Wolves have a lot of interesting pieces, and the season could play out a lot of different ways.
The key position to watch for Minnesota is shooting guard. With the Wesley Johnson experiment over, the Wolves are hoping for a resurgent Brandon Roy. Should Roy falter, the Wolves will hope they've found another international gem in Alexey Shved. In reality, the Wolves could have both, or neither. Roy never relied on his athleticism, so it's not unreasonable to expect him to be almost as good as he once was. The question is how well his left knee holds up. The Wolves don't need Roy to the be the star, but I wonder if Roy is truly ready to let go of the idea of being a star. That, to me, what was derailed him in Portland. He never accepted a limited role, always wanted to push himself, to prove he was still as good as he had been. I'll be watching to see if Roy is willing to fit in.
Shved, meanwhile, likely needs some seasoning before he's ready to step into the starting role. In the Olympics he demonstrated flashes of brilliance, but at times he looked lost. He'll probably mirror that in his first season in Minnesota. Long term, I like the pick-up. And he's really in an ideal situation to transition. He's got friend and teammate Kirilenko, and Pek will be able to relate if Shved struggles adjusting in year one. Assuming, of course, Pek speaks to teammates. I'm not positive if this happens, or if he communicates strictly through instilling fear.
I see the Wolves missing the playoffs, but not by much. If either Rubio or Love experience setbacks in their recoveries, that distance from the playoffs could grow quickly.