MANKATO – As much as Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman endured last season, you’d think nothing else would surprise him anymore.
He more than anyone knows how his team has been decimated by injuries his first two seasons on the job, but even Adelman seemed a little startled when he learned just how much the foundational threesome of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic played together last season.
Or rather how little: 13 minutes.
That’s right, 13 mere minutes spread over three whole games.
The three surpassed that mark on the first day of practice in Mankato this year before the Wolves took their first water break on Tuesday.
“Much longer,” Adelman said of that first-day practice feat.
Now all three — and their teammates, too — must prove they can stay healthy after the trio played just 26 games together their first two seasons because of injury.
Rubio missed the final six weeks of the 2011-12 season and the first six weeks of last season after he tore ligaments in his knee. Love missed all but 18 games last season because of a hand broken not once but twice. And Pekovic missed 19 games two years ago and 17 last season because of everything from bone spurs, sprained ankles and a strained hip to seven games when Adelman simply chose not to play him.
“I knew that number wasn’t high,” Adelman said about the 13 minutes played, “but I didn’t know it was that.”
During the few minutes they did play together last season, statistics indicate they were a dominant rebounding team with numbers that would lead the league in any given season as well as a team proficient in drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line.
The three played 23 games together two years ago, but so much has changed since the start of the 2011-12 season to a team that now defines those three men as its core, both by their talent and their paychecks.
The Wolves have committed their future to Love and Pekovic to the tune of $120 million-plus and are ready to add Rubio to the club come summer 2015.
More minutes in preseason
Now they just have to become reacquainted on the court, even though Love and Pekovic have played on the same team since 2010.
Adelman promises he will play those three — and the other two starters, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer — together plenty this preseason, more than he normally might just so they all can get back on the proverbial bike together.
“It makes sense because we’ve probably played … how many minutes did we play together last year?” Love asked. “It makes sense for him to do that. We’re three unselfish guys, and we’re a pretty unselfish team. We’ll figure it out. It’s going to be sooner rather than later.”
NBA title contenders usually have played years together, the 2008 Boston Celtics with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen gathered in their first season together being a recent exception.
A decade ago, new Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders assembled Garnett and newcomers Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell together and in their first season coached them to the Western Conference finals, a springtime run that might have gone even longer had Cassell not gotten injured.
Saunders suggested that 2003-04 Wolves team had more questions about how it would come together.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be that major with this team because all of their roles are very much defined,” Saunders said. “In 2004, we weren’t sure if Sam was going to be a scorer or a point guard and was Sprewell going to be a defender, a slasher, scorer, three-point shooter, the corner three? Everyone knew what K.G. was going to be.
“On this team, I really believe their roles are pretty defined. When your roles are defined and you start playing together, it doesn’t take long to mesh in those roles.”
Playing their roles
Pekovic is the bruiser who creates space for others because of his punishing low-post game and the way he rolls aggressively to the basket on pick-and-roll plays. Love is the game’s best “stretch 4” forward, a unique inside-outside combination of freakish rebounding big man with a guard’s three-point touch.
“Not a lot,” Adelman said when asked how many big men have the kind of perimeter game Love does. “That’s what really hurt last year when he broke his hand, came back and shot 20 percent or whatever it was. It just wasn’t the same. When you’ve got Pek rolling down the middle, you’ve got to honor that, and then Kevin gives you another dimension. The other team really has to make a decision.”
And then there’s Rubio, the maestro with the ball in his hands.
“I think it will be easy because we know each other, even if we didn’t play a lot of minutes together,” Rubio said. “I think we all play together. Pek is good in the pick-and-roll. Kevin, I think I had a feeling with him, the kind of player I like to play with. He’s so good that you can do a lot of things wrong and he’s going to make you look good.”
The big question is defense, and particularly whether Pekovic at center and Love at power forward can be the foundation of a contending defense because neither is a shot blocker or a notable individual defender. If the Wolves are going to win, they must position themselves properly and be willing to draw charging calls.
“I believe most of the good teams, especially defensively, are the ones that set the tone,” Adelman said. “They’re the ones who are talking. They see everything coming at you. Those guys have to be more vocal and have to be in the right spot early for us to get better. Big people have to do that. Dante [Cunningham] is very active, but those guys have to do the same thing.”
The Wolves spent four days in Mankato getting to know each other, with Love, Pekovic and Rubio reacquainting themselves on the floor while welcoming Martin and Brewer as well.
They have seven preseason games — including four in six days starting Monday against CSKA Moscow — to learn each other in a process that certainly will take much longer than that.
“It’s going to take time,” assistant coach Terry Porter said. “Last year and the year before, they’re all different players now. There’s a lot of difference in confidence for the three of them. I think they have a better grasp of our offense and now it’s just a matter of getting those guys on the court and working through all the nuances of what this offense can do to help these guys be successful.
“It’s something that will be an ongoing process. Whenever you talk about those three guys being the core of our offense, it’s timing and it’s rhythm and it takes time.”