As noted last week, tomorrow night mark’s the onset of the 20th season in Timberwolves franchise history as the ‘Wolves host an ordinary Sacramento Kings club. The T-Wolves are coming off a lowly 22-60 season, the club’s worst win total since back in 1994-95. Once that impressive video montage concludes and the players are introduced at Target Center tomorrow, will 2008 offer another sobering flash of disappointing illumination? Or, will we be privy to a young, improved product that is poised to compete among the conference’s top 8 and make the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04?
I’ll opt for the latter. Playoffs? Likely not, although I’ll undoubtedly take the ’Wolves to finish higher in the West than the 12th slot for which they’re predicted to conclude ‘08 via ESPN.com. A .500 mark? That’s likely not to happen either, however something in the 35-win range seems within reason.
The Timberwolves’ first 20 games appear sanguine, with 10 throwdowns at home, and a workable 10 games against ’07 playoff teams, although that group includes Philly which finished below .500. The club showed growth at the closure of last season, going 10-15 in their final two months of play, in stark contrast to their 4-26 mark in the first two months.
With a willing if not overly-loyal owner, a stockpile of future first round draft picks, a cache of periphery talent and one of the NBA’s top-20 ballers in Big Al Jefferson, tomorrow night one of the league’s -- nay the country’s -- most enigmatic franchises begins play yet again. Here are 5 early keys to observe that should prove pivotal:
1. On Point Third-year T-Wolf Randy Foye missed 43 games last year with a bum kneecap, but concluded the season on a healthy note and begins ’08 as the starting point guard. Foye is truly more of a scorer than a distributor, and his 2.08 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked a sad 76th in the league last year for players with at least 39 games played (even Marko Jaric had a 2.43). Foye will have to exercise early restraint and respect in the early going, focusing on getting the ball down low to Jefferson, in transition to Rodney Carney and Rashad McCants, and at the three point line to Mike Miller and Ryan Gomes.
2. Feel the Love Before playing his first NBA game, rookie Kevin Love is already proving one of the most polarizing figures in ‘Wolves history. I’m of the stance that the post-draft trade that sent away high-octane guard O.J. Mayo to Memphis in exchange for Love (among other secondaries both ways) was the right move. The NBA is a player’s league -- anybody who’s given the chance at taking 20 shots can score. But Love is unique. He’s a savvy big man who can pass, shoot from the outside, and will eventually prove a creative positional rebounder -- all tenets that will aid Al Jefferson in time. A slow start may ensue, but give these skills time to develop and this nephew of Beach Boy Mike Love will prove more “Good Vibrations” than “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man).”
3. Big Health Big Al Jefferson is a beast and last year he was one of only four players in the league to average 20 points and 10 rebounds. Furthermore, he was third in the NBA in double-doubles with 55. Jefferson is coming off a right knee sprain suffered last month, although a sound preseason deemed him healthy. Let’s collectively hope said diagnosis is accurate. Without his presence and double-teams down low, the ’Wolves would struggle to 20 wins.
4. Is Defense an Offense? Corey Brewer disappointed last season, and there’s the chance his career could mirror that of mediocre journeyman, “The Plastic Man” Stacey Augmun. Both excelled as full-court players in college, and were crowned national champs with crazy collegiate casts that likely allowed some of their lesser skills to be hidden. Brewer shot just 37% from the floor last year, including a sickly 19% from three-point range. Improvement was shown this preseason with the second-year forward gunning at a 40 percent clip. Improved, sure. But that’s the preseason. This guy’s gonna need to score in real time. He can play top-notch defense, but said value is of greater immediate benefit to clubs that are winning on a regular basis.
5. Witless or Wily? Coach Randy Wittman must be a really nice dude. Perhaps he has an enveloping cologne that draws people near. Maybe there’s a secret plan that he has yet to unleash on the NBA. Whatever his code, Wittman is still the ’Wolves leader despite just a .274 winning percentage with Minnesota and a .333 win clip (96-192) when his record here is met with his pre-LeBron mark in Cleveland. True, this fella has never coached a top-flight club, but there’s just not that many guys who survive in this league with a career coaching mark nearly 50 games under .500. I was somewhat surprised he was brought back, although maybe the consistency factor will mean something as these boys slowly climb a few rungs up the Western Conference ladder.