This story ran prior to the Wolves' 2013-14 season opener in October
The Timberwolves spent $120 million last summer to add pieces around charismatic stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio in a league in which, more often than not, you only go as far as your best players take you.
They signed Corey Brewer for his energy and defense, Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger for their shooting and Nikola Pekovic for his muscle and low-post scoring, all in an attempt to finally reach the playoffs after a long decade away.
But if the Wolves indeed are headed that way for the first time since Kevin Garnett wore their uniform, it is Love and Rubio who will lead them with a two-man game — part old-school sensibilities, part new-school invention — that unsolicited teammates and opposing NBA coaches compare to a modern Stockton-Malone combination.
“That’s a pretty bold statement,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said, taken aback at the mention of the Utah Jazz greats, point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone. “I coached against those guys and those are two Hall of Famers who played together for 18 years. They invented, I guess, the pick-and-roll between the two of them.”
That’s not to say anyone is forecasting enshrinement for either Love or Rubio just yet or even that they will play more than a few seasons together, not with unrestricted free agency looming for Love in the same summer of 2015 that Rubio’s rookie contract expires.
Such a comparison is more likely made by some because each pair is — or could be — considered as much one entity as individuals because of their complementary skills, their emphasis on know-how over sheer athleticism and the possibility for a long, successful marriage together.
“They are almost like one deal, the Karl Malone-John Stockton kind of stuff,” teammate Ronny Turiaf said, volunteering the comparison. “They fit together. Their skills and strengths just fit together.”
But the Jazz made the playoffs all 18 seasons that Stockton and Malone played together. They won 50 or more games eight times, and 60 or more games three other times. They also made the NBA Finals twice, in consecutive years in the mid-1990s.
“For the first time I’m not compared to another white guy,” Love said with a grin. “It’s a blessing to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys. But we still have not only a lot to prove, we just have to get on the floor together.”
The right stuff?
Rubio is the imaginative, selfless, pass-first creator with an inefficient shot whom Milwaukee coach Larry Drew calls a “throwback” in a league populated with scoring point guards. Love also has old-school spirit, what with those bulky practice knee pads, a middle name given to honor old-time NBA star Wes Unseld and a game played definitely below the rim. But he’s also redefining his position, a “stretch” power forward who combines relentless rebounding with a three-point threat unlike anyone yet seen in the pro game.
“Those are the guys who are going to make the plays for us to win games,” Adelman said. “That’s what makes the really good teams special: They have guys like that who not only get their own shots but create for their teammates.”
But neither Love nor Rubio has yet sniffed the playoffs, and so many questions remain about them because of their young ages and short time together, major injuries sustained by both in their first two seasons together and undeveloped portions of each man’s game:
Can they defend well enough to someday transform the Wolves into an elite team? Are they explosive and athletic enough in a league where players such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant dominate? Can either one create his own shot and learn to win games when three seconds are left and the outcome is on the line?
Can they, in short, carry the Wolves toward not only the playoffs but title contention during their time together in Minnesota?
“I think they can be, I really think so,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “John Stockton and Malone weren’t athletic, but it seemed like anybody who wanted to go anywhere in the West had to go through Utah every year. I see those two, they’re not exactly Stockton and Malone but they could be that duo-type: not athletic, but they’ll beat you with their brains.”
Others are unconvinced.