Early-Season Injury Woes Mask Minnesota Timberwolves' Potential

By Alistair Hughes
Jesse Johnson – US Presswire

When Ricky Rubio went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament on March 9th 2012, you could feel any hopes that the Minnesota Timberwolves had of sneaking into the low seeds for the 2012 NBA playoffs vanishing. Kyrie Irving may well turn out to be the best all-around player at the point guard position from last year’s rookie crop, but there is no doubt who fits the bill as the best traditional, pass-first point. That award goes to Rubio, who had finally made his bow in a Wolves shirt last season, a full two years after he had been drafted. Rubio more than lived up to the billing. His numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the full story of what Rubio’s promise means to the franchise. Rubio is the reason that Minnesota’s All-Star power forward, Kevin Love, has re-signed with the team for the foreseeable future. You could see it when he stepped on to the floor with Love and the rest of his team, they all loved playing with him. And it was just as easy to see the concern and anguish on the faces of his teammates as Rubio stayed down following contact with Kobe Bryant in that fateful game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

That night represented far more than an injury to a budding star, however. Prior to that night, Minnesota was right up there with any of the promising young teams in the league. Love was taking the next step toward the upper echelons of NBA stars and the Wolves had a guy who looked like the next Stockton-esque point guard poised to take the NBA by storm. The Timberwolves were outstandingly fun to watch last season when both Love and Rubio were on the floor. They had great chemistry, they both played with a smooth, fluid style, they both gave 100% every moment they were on the floor and they were lethal. Rubio averaged 10.6 points and 8.2 assists per game, Love put up 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game, and earned an All-Star Game appearance for his trouble. For a while, the Wolves flirted with that eighth seed and hovered around .500 in the win column.

Until March 9th 2012.

Going into that game against the Lakers, Minnesota sat at 21-19. Including that game, they finished 5-21 for a 26-40 record. Perhaps it was the inevitable flameout of a young team with a lot to learn, but it’s hard to believe that Rubio’s season-ending injury didn’t have something to do with the collapse. No offense to J.J. Barea or Luke Ridnour, but neither of them are as proficient in directing an offense as Rubio. And when Rubio went down, all eyes turned to Kevin Love to help bring the Wolves that elusive playoff appearance. For the rest of March, Love went on a scoring tear, averaging 30.7 points per-game for the month. But the burden of carrying the offense appeared to take its toll down the final stretch of the season with Love’s production dramatically tailing off in almost every statistic. It’s easy to see why. He had been used to receiving passes such as this one:

Rubio behind-the-back to Love

All of a sudden he didn’t have his sidekick delivering buckets on a silver platter for him and he had to work much, much harder for his points. In the end, you saw that take its toll.

Yet optimism in Minnesota remained. ACL injuries aren’t as permanent as they once were, Rubio would be back for the 2012-13 season and he and Love could pick up where they left off. Obviously his rehabilitation would take time, and he might have to miss the beginning of the season, but the point was that he would be back. That gave reason for hope among Timberwolves fans, who haven’t had a team this fun to watch since the Kevin Garnett – Stephon Marbury days. And while they waited for the flashy Spaniard’s return, they would still have Love, Barea and second overall pick in the 2011 draft Derrick Williams. Even better, general manager and running punchline David Kahn got busy in the offseason, bringing in some nice complementary pieces to the tune of: Andrei KirilenkoBrandon RoyDante CunninghamChase Budinger and Stiemsanity himself: Greg Stiemsma. Wolves fans had every reason to feel good about this incarnation of their team.

Until October 18th 2012.

That was the day that news broke of Kevin Love’s mishaps doing knuckle pushups. Their star had broken his hand and was going to miss at least the first five weeks of the new season, meaning that he and Rubio would have similar return dates, but also that the Timberwolves were going to have to rely on Williams (who doesn’t really know his best position), Kirilenko (who had spent a year away from the NBA to play back in Russia with CSKA Moscow) and whatever might be left of Roy’s knees. Suddenly the Wolves had gone from waiting on Rubio’s return to a full fledged injury crisis, and the potential dashing of their playoff hopes before the season had even got off the ground. Then news broke Sunday that Roy needed yet another knee operation and would be out for at least a month. Suddenly this promising basketball team began to resemble an infirmary.

So that is where the 2012-13 Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves. Currently, they sit at 5-4 thanks to some industrious play from the likes of Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic and newest of the new additions, Josh Howard. While it’s hard to see those guys setting the NBA alight, it is something of a testament to Minnesota’s depth that they have managed to keep their heads above water thus far. And that’s what they will continue to attempt as they bide their time, waiting for the real firepower of their roster to return. Coach Rick Adelman is something of a genius when it comes to cobbling together a ragtag band of players and making them average-to-competitive, so Minnesota should be just fine in that regard. What remains uncertain is how quickly Rubio, Love and Roy can transition back into playing regular basketball. They’ll be jumping right into the meat of the NBA season with virtually no preparation when compared to those who began the season healthy. It’s a commonly held belief that ACL injuries can take up to two years to fully recover and, in Love’s case, he has an appointment Tuesday just to see if his hand can be cleared to begin shooting again. Scary stuff when you consider that both of them are expected to return by mid-December.

Rubio has begun some light practice in 5-on-0 drills while Love has been attending the instructional portions of those practices, and according to all reports, both are progressing well in their rehab. They’re young guys and they are both renowned for their work ethic so it’s not unreasonable to think that they’ll be ready to play. The question is: how effective can they be when they’re involuntarily pulling a Shaq and trying to play their way into full game shape in the middle of the season? Both are supremely talented players, but they are not inhuman. If they are a step behind, they could well struggle. Adelman, however, believes that any time spent on the court by his star point guard is beneficial:

“Ricky’s so smart. He knew everything, every play we had and where everybody should be. That’s just who he is. The more we get him on the court, even if it’s five-on-none and doing some shooting, it’s good for the team.”

Now that I can get behind. Minnesota made a name for themselves last year as “League Pass Heroes.” This year, they’re hoping to move up into prime time–they’ll just have to wait a little bit for Messrs, Love and Rubio before they can feasibly turn that into reality.

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