A little more than a quarter of the way through the 2013-14 season and the Minnesota Timberwolves sit just outside the Western Conference playoffs at an even .500 record. For a team that’s spent the past few seasons saying, “Just wait til we’re healthy,” this isn’t where they expected to be.
With a healthy, dominant Kevin Love leading the Wolves, a healthy Ricky Rubio directing traffic and new additions Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer clicking with the team, the Timberwolves should be well above .500. The bench has been the problem, and while the Wolves’ stars are healthy, two players who figured to be key players in the second unit have missed extended time. Ronny Turiaf went down early, but his role is as much veteran leadership as it is rebounding anyway. A main missing piece is Chase Budinger, and he’s spent the season rehabbing from knee surgery, but is likely to return soon.
Budinger’s return will definitely make an impact. He’s a proven scorer who can shoot from outside and attack the rim. The Wolves sorely miss offense off the bench, as their best bench scorers are currently J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham, neither of whom average high points per game. Scoring hasn’t really been a problem for the Wolves, though, as they’re third in the league in points per game on the strength of their high-powered starting lineup.
Where the Wolves have really struggled is defense. They allow more points than every NBA team but four, and their inability to get stops has killed them in close games. Budinger isn’t a great defender. He lacks the length and lateral quickness to really be a stopper, but his presence should still help. Having Budinger will allow wing defenders like Corey Brewer and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute more time to rest. Playing Mbah a Moute at the three and Budinger at the two while Brewer and Kevin Martin rest will also allow the Wolves to play their defensive specialist without sacrificing too much offense.
The Timberwolves are still a long way from title contention, but Budinger’s return bodes well for their playoff chances. The “wait til we’re healthy” excuse will soon no longer be valid, and Wolves’ fans have to be happy about that. Budinger should be able to help pull the Wolves above .500 and keep them there, but whether that’s good enough to make the playoffs in the Western Conference remains to be seen.