MINNEAPOLIS (AP) –The Minnesota Timberwolves spent the entire summer trying to prepare themselves for starting the season without star point guard Ricky Rubio.
Andrei Kirilenko. Brandon Roy. Dante Cunningham. Greg Stiemsma. Lou Amundson. The additions gave coach Rick Adelman a more versatile, better ball-handling, more experienced roster that could handle some adversity the way last year’s young team could not.
Then Kevin Love broke his right hand and will miss at least the first month of the regular season. Now the Wolves’ mission has changed from keeping themselves in contention to survival.
“Well, my first reaction is when I heard about it, you say ‘why us?'” owner Glen Taylor said. “With Ricky out and Kevin of all people. And then I guess I thought about it and just my own personality I don’t always look at the negative and I say, ‘How can we turn this into something positive?'”
They certainly weren’t able to do that last season, and Adelman still has a hard time figuring out what the heck happened to his Timberwolves when Rubio went down.
An up-and-coming team that was in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference simply fell apart when their charismatic rookie point guard tore the ACL in his left knee. They lost 20 of their last 25 games, a young team tumbling and unable to pull out of a tailspin.
“He created an atmosphere around our team that gave everyone a belief that they had the chance to win, no matter who we played or where we played,” Adelman said. “When we lost him, it was almost like the balloon just deflated.”
Not just offensively, where Rubio made the seamless transition from Spain to the NBA and looked like he’d been playing here for 10 years. His unselfish approach, electric passing and infectious enthusiasm got the young Wolves rolling up and down the court.
But he was also a catalyst for remarkable improvement on defense, with fast hands, sharp instincts and tenacity at the point of attack setting the tone for the Wolves. When he went down, the effort and energy went with him, and the Wolves regressed once again to one of the worst defensive teams in the league.
While the Wolves were ecstatic at how quickly Rubio became an impact player in his rookie season, they were also troubled by how deeply it affected the team when he was injured. David Kahn, the president of basketball operations, set out in the offseason on yet another facelift, looking for experience and depth to help the team overcome Rubio’s absence early this season.
The Spaniard has started running, but isn’t scheduled to do agility drills until sometime in November. A date for his return hasn’t been set, but those in the organization are hopeful he can return by mid-December. That means another six weeks or so without him, and the Wolves feel much better about the roster this time around.
Kahn signed Roy, who is making a comeback after sitting out last season because of chronic knee issues, and Kirilenko, who spent last season playing in his native Russia rather than dealing with the lockout-shortened NBA season. He also signed Stiemsma and Amundson, and traded for Cunningham to add some grit and maturity to a team lacking all three last season.
So even though they will begin the season without their two best players, the goal of achieving the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2004 remains.
“I just feel like it’s time,” Love said. “The players deserve it. The coaches deserve it. The organization deserves it. But most of all the fans deserve it. We sold out a lot of games last year. It was awesome. If we can do that, the Twin Cities, Minnesota, they’re ready for a team to breakout and have someone to really cheer for. They’re ready and I hope it’s us.”
A lot of their success will hinge on three knees — Rubio’s left and the two that turned Roy from one of the bright young stars in the game in Portland to a player the Blazers sent packing with the amnesty clause because he wasn’t able to tolerate the bone-on-bone pain in both knees.
Roy had a procedure this summer to try to address the problem and said he experience immediate results. He’s been practicing full speed and playing in preseason games with little or no discomfort. The Wolves will badly need his shooting and decision-making in the fourth quarter.
The new look has put the curmudgeonly Adelman in a lighter mood leading up to his second season on the Wolves bench. He’s smiling more, joking with players before they run conditioning drills in practice and speaking positively about the increased ball-handling, shot-making and basketball I.Q. this group has in comparison to last season’s team.
“There’s a lot of potential in this group,” he said. “They play well together at both ends and it’s going to be interesting to watch them go.”
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