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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It was a new day in Minnesota basketball, with Ricky Rubio throwing lob passes and Kevin Love stuffing the stat sheet in front of sellout crowd after sellout crowd.
And just when it appeared the Timberwolves had finally turned the corner from one of the league’s most woeful franchises to an exciting, up-and-coming group, Rubio’s left knee buckled, and so did one of the most exciting seasons in the franchise’s mostly nondescript history.
A 21-19 start gave way to a 5-21 finish, and now the Timberwolves plunge headlong into a crucial summer with Love and coach Rick Adelman telling anybody who will listen that big changes have to be made.
Team president David Kahn said Friday he plans to be aggressive this summer in trades and free agency to supplement a promising young core with veterans, and he made it clear that only Rubio and Love are untouchable as he tries to bring an end to a seven-year postseason hiatus.
“They’re cornerstones of what we’re doing here, and my fervent hope is that each of them retires here,” Kahn said of Rubio and Love. “But after those two, and not that anybody else needs to be on watch, and there are a lot of other players on the team that all of us, coaches, management, front office, everybody likes. We just have to be very aggressive this year to make this team all that it can be and satisfy ourselves that we’ve done everything possible to do that.”
That Kahn did not include center Nikola Pekovic or No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams in that group of untouchables speaks to his openness to consider all options. Pekovic had a breakout season, averaging 13.9 points and 7.3 rebounds to emerge as one of the top offensive centers in the league. Williams showed some promise as a scorer, but wore down as the season dragged on and both players are on the books for an affordable $9.6 million combined next season.
“I think we have to be very aggressive in what we’re doing,” Adelman said earlier this week. “You can’t wait. You hope your young people get better. But that’s not a given. Other people in free agency and trades are givens. We’ve got to be aggressive in all those areas.”
Rubio had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left knee in March, and the team is hopeful that their precocious rookie point guard will be ready to go by the start of next season. In his first season after coming over from Spain, Rubio was everything the Timberwolves hoped for and more, setting the tone on both ends of the court, becoming a major box office draw and injecting the team with some much-needed charisma and energy.
“I think that’s the one thing that I underestimated when he got hurt,” Adelman said. “You knew you were going to be missing something, but he had a huge impact on the way our team was and their personality and the way they played. Just the way he was, I did not realize how much we’d miss him and what a gap there was all of a sudden.”
Love missed the final seven games with a concussion, Pekovic missed 19 games primarily because of an ankle injury, Luke Ridnour missed the final 11 games with a sprained right ankle and JJ Barea only played in 41 games because of various leg injuries.
All the injuries opened up more opportunities for Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph, Martell Webster and Wes Johnson, but none of them were able to respond. Beasley missed time with a toe injury and the other three players were far too inconsistent for Adelman’s liking.
“We have some young players that I think right now … that need to demonstrate how serious they are about this endeavor,” Kahn said.
The Wolves will have some decisions to make and likely will decline making qualifying offers to Beasley ($8 million) and Randolph ($4 million). The Wolves could also decline the team option on Webster’s $5.7 million deal and look to buyout or amnesty Darko Milicic to create even more cap room this summer.
“If we want to have room, we can have room,” Kahn said. “There’s no question about it.”
That would be welcome for Love, the 23-year-old who finished the season fourth in the league in scoring and second in rebounding. He signed a contract extension in January that allows him to opt out in three years, so the heat is on to surround him with talent that is capable of winning now.
“I do hope that we are aggressive,” Love said. “I do hope when the time comes that we do pull the trigger on some moves. That’s going to be up to David Kahn and our owner. That’s really on them. If I could make decisions, I would, but I can’t.”
The biggest needs are playmaking ball-handlers on the perimeter and a shot-blocking presence in the paint.
“I’m going to lobby for some key veteran guys. I know there’s going to be a lot of good free agents that we can go for so hopefully we’ll go out there and try to get them. Anything that is going to help this team, I think most of these guys want. We just want to continue to get better.”
Kahn said he expects this team to make the playoffs next season if everyone stays healthy, and Love didn’t see any reason to disagree with him.
“I feel like people know we have the making of something special,” Love said. “We have the money to spend. We have valuable assets so this can happen.”
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