Minnesota Timberwolves Photo Credit: Icon SMI
“You got to build and you got to start from nothing. But I feel in a couple of years, we’re going to be there. We’re going to be one of the top teams in the West, too. We coming — most definitely.” – Al Jefferson
The most unexpected NBA success story of 2009 has been the Minnesota Timberwolves. After celebrating the Martin Luther King holiday with a 94-86 win over the Clippers in Staples Center they’ve now gone 7-1 since the New Year. Their lone loss was a tight 96-99 affair against playoff-bound Miami in a game when Al Jefferson, dealing with a cut on his hand, shot an uncharacteristic 4-14 from the field. Dating back to Christmas Minnesota is now 9-3 and one of the hottest teams in the NBA. What’s going on here?
One significant change in 2009 has been going from Rashad McCants to Rodney Carney as their sixth man. McCants has been benched since the calendar flipped for partying in Las Vegas the night before a New Year’s day practice and presumably showing up looking like, well, like a guy who had partied in Las Vegas the night before. He’s only played a total of 13 minutes in two games since and the removal of McCants from the lineup has proven to be addition by subtraction.
In his three-plus seasons in the league the 14th overall pick from 2005 has proven to be little more than a selfish cancer who happens to get hot every third or fourth game. All he does is score, but this season Rashad is shooting a career-worst 36% from the field. The decision to select him over Danny Granger in 2005 is looming larger and larger. Meanwhile, Carney has stepped up to the plate, providing a spark of offense and energy off the bench.
But as much fun as it is to dump on McCants, credit must also be given where credit is due. There are three young Kevin McHale draft picks stepping up in a major way over the last few weeks.
Why the Timberwolves are streaking, after the jump…
More important than that development has been Randy Foye, as he is wont to do, flashing on-court brilliance that makes his draft-night swap for Brandon Roy sting a little less. He’s finally found his stroke and is playing exceptionally well after finding a home at the two guard position. In January Foye is shooting an impressive 50% from the field and 90% from the line and, even more impressive, a smoking 51% from three-point range. Throw in his 4.3 assists, 3 boards and 1.5 steals with just 1.6 turnovers a contest and you start to see the well-rounded guard out of Villanova McHale traded for in 2006. On a team with a severe lack of leadership, Foye is also taking, and making, big shots.
Up front Al Jefferson has been his usual steady self on the offensive end, putting up 20 points and 12 boards (3.5 offensive). He’s combining with Foye to make Minnesota, who are in the top-ten in points and field-goal shooting, one of the better offensive teams in the league. Slowly but surely, Big Al’s defense also seems to be coming around. He’s well over a block and steal per game in 2009 and getting into foul trouble less.
Jefferson’s new counterpart up front, Kevin Love, has also been extremely effective – especially on the glass. I’ve been critical of him since day one, but Love is showing the form of an excellent backup big man. That’s not exactly what you want out of your third-overall pick, but it’s something, and he has room to grow. Love is averaging a double-double in 2009 with 11.4 points and 10.6 boards in just 23 minutes and he’s shooting 48% from the field after an abysmal 2008 in which he shot 38%. The biggest positive Kevin brings is his offensive rebounding, up to 3.9 per in 2009, which would place him in the NBA’s top-5 if he had been doing that all season.
Without question, plenty of changes still need to be made. Minnesota needs to find a tall, long defensive presence to play center alongside Jefferson. Along with McCants they also need to move Mike Miller, who has been startlingly ineffective in December and January and whose age doesn’t fit with the rest of the core. They also need to identify or acquire a long-term solution at the three and to pair with Foye at guard.
Minnesota is still a long ways from playoff contention in the West. Their recent hot streak puts them in tenth place, but the standings drop of precipitously after Dallas at nine, who they are 10 games back of. But looking at the field out East you have to think the Wolves would be in the running for one of those playoff spots, and that’s progress – it’s been a few years since they stacked up against a playoff team of any kind. All of the sudden Minnesota is at least looking competitive. Finally.
– Why Kevin McHale Still Doesn’t Get it and Kevin Love Won’t Fit in Minnesota
– Sometimes Love Hurts – Minnesota Timberwolves 2008-09 Season Preview
– The Five Worst Teams in the West – Minnesota Timberwolves