Preseason is history, and the Timberwolves’ season opener against Orlando is just three days away. Here’s what we know — and don’t know — from a month preparing these remade Wolves for a season in which they intend to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Five Things They Know
1 This team CAN shoot it
There’s no need to wail or gnash your teeth anymore about the league’s worst three-point shooting team.
Kevin Love and his right shooting hand are back, healed and healthy. Kevin Martin’s arrival means the Wolves finally have a shooting guard who fits his position’s name. J.J. Barea is healthier and more effective than at any time since he signed in December 2011.
And guess who shot better during preseason than any of them? Ricky Rubio, the Wolves’ shooting percentage-challenged point guard who made more three-pointers (six) than he missed (five).
The Wolves shot 37.7 percent on threes during the preseason and weren’t shy about doing it, shooting 23 a game after they made just 30.5 percent last season.
“If we’re open, we’ll shoot ’em,” Barea said about a team still waiting for injured Chase Budinger to return, probably sometime in December. “If we shoot that much, we have to make some.”
2 This team can move the ball
Injuries galore last season forced Wolves coach Rick Adelman to abandon much of that “corner” offense that made him rich, famous and headed to the Basketball Hall of Fame someday. Instead, he was forced to rely too much on the pick-and-roll with the ball mostly in Rubio’s hands.
This season, expect to see more of Adelman’s offense, with Love as well as Rubio used as “facilitator” and Martin, Corey Brewer and eventually Budinger cutting without the ball. In preseason play, the Wolves were second in the NBA in scoring (104 ppg) and, believe it or not, first in fewest turnovers (15 a game).
“The ball movement has been really good,” Adelman said. “We can score points. When we’re playing together as a group, then I think we can be a pretty darn good team offensively.”
3 They’ll rebound
The Wolves have invested $120 million-plus in Love and Nikola Pekovic, a tandem that Flip Saunders, president of basketball operations, calls the “Bruise Brothers.” That combination presents its own defensive issues, considering that neither is a noted individual defender or shot blocker.
But Love is a rebounding savant, and Pekovic is the proverbial immovable object. Together, they anchor a team that Adelman is confident can go get the ball.
“We should be able to do that,” he said.
4 Their bench is improved
The bottom half of their 18-man roster regularly ruled scrimmages during training camp, and Adelman cites his second unit’s play as one of preseason’s most pleasant developments, even if he still hasn’t decided who’s starting at small forward or coming off the bench there.
Barea pushed a second unit during preseason that features Dante Cunningham, Ronny Turiaf and either Brewer or Williams up front and guard Alexey Shved, who despite his still inconsistent shot made 50 percent of his three-pointers (10-for-20) in the preseason.
“I really do,” Adelman said when asked if he thinks his bench is much improved. “It has been one of our strong points all through camp. They’ve played well the whole time. Hopefully, that will give us a lift.”
5 Barea will thrive
Sidetracked by a variety of injuries his first two seasons here, Barea is fit and healthy after an August spent playing with the Puerto Rican national team. He also looks ready to benefit most from last summer’s personnel moves now that, with Luke Ridnour traded to Milwaukee, he knows he’s the second-unit point guard entrusted with changing the game’s pace.
“He’s in great shape, and he’s playing much better than he did last year,” Adelman said. “He’s a difference-maker when he comes in off the bench.”
Five Questions That Remain
1 Can they defend well enough?
The jury’s out after a preseason in which Adelman saw improvement but not enough. The Wolves have assembled a roster of offensive-minded players for an offensive-minded coach but must defend at least well enough so their scoring can win games.
In preseason, they were susceptible to their same old issues: They allowed opposing point guards to penetrate the defense with dribble drives and gave up too many baskets in transition.
“We’re just not as consistent and have a sustained effort there as we need to have,” Adelman said. “That was a concern from the start and still is.”
2 Do they need a real starting small forward?
Adelman experimented plenty in the preseason’s final games looking for the right “fit” at that position. The Wolves surely will scour the waiver wire looking for a veteran cut loose elsewhere who might help them and, less likely, could strike a trade to find a starter that would allow them to bring Brewer (and later Budinger) off the bench.
Adelman said his experimentation doesn’t necessarily mean he has ruled out Brewer as his starter.
“It could go either way, but I have not ruled it out at all,” Adelman said about Brewer, who came off the bench for the 57-victory Nuggets last season. “I really liked him last year with Denver doing that, and he does give you a lot of energy off the bench. It’s something we’ll talk about and figure out what’s best for the team.”
3 What do they do with Derrick Williams?
Pay him, for starters. The Wolves picked up his $6.7 million option for 2014-15 rather than let a former No. 2 overall pick walk away as an unrestricted free agent next summer. But his transition to small forward is incomplete at best, and there’s not much playing time behind Love as a “stretch” power forward, both players’ most natural position. A trade — preferably for a veteran starting small forward — probably is inevitable, whether sooner or later.
4 Will Ricky find his shot?
Rubio led his teammates in preseason three-point shooting at 54.5 percent, yet still shot under 40 percent from the field. The first number is an encouraging sign that might help Adelman sleep better. The latter number indicates his jump shot is a work in progress that Rubio says is improving as his legs get stronger in his recovery from March 2012 knee surgery.
Rubio doesn’t need to turn into John Stockton or Steve Nash, but he does need to make enough shots to keep defenses honest. And if he turns himself into something more than that in time…?
“It’d make a huge difference,” Adelman said. “It really would.”
5 Where’s Big Pek?
The Wolves guaranteed Pekovic $60 million partly because of how he produced — including 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds — last season when Love missed 64 games. But with Love again healthy and Martin aboard, the Wolves offense and Pekovic himself are adjusting.
Saunders said Pekovic needs to get in better shape after a summer spent waiting safely for his new contract. Adelman wanted his offense to incorporate Pekovic better this last week, with mixed results. He finished the preseason averaging 9.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in limited minutes.
“We’ll be fine,” Pekovic said. “Nobody’s greedy about points, about those things, about himself. Everyone’s a team player. We’ll be fine.”