Kevin Love

NBA season preview: Minnesota Timberwovles

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Last season: What could have been. This was a team playoff bound (or at least in the mix for it) until injuries wiped out those hopes. First was the biggie, Ricky Rubio’s ACL, but then both Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic went down and the whole thing fell apart. The Timberwolves finished 26-40 and back in the all to familiar lottery.

Key Departures: There’s been changes, but coach Rick Adelman isn’t shedding any tears over them. Gone is Michael Beasley, who got a lot of run early until Adelman grew weary of him (then again late out of necessity). Also gone is Darko Milicic.

Actually, a team may be shed over Brad Miller, he was the kind of solid, professional guy every team needs (and teammates really liked him).

Key Additions: Minnesota had a fantastic offseason. They needed help on the wing and they got Andrei Kirilenko, who can help where desperately needed at the three and slide over and play a little at the four spot. They also brought in Chase Budinger who is very athletic and can give them minutes at the three, plus Rubio is going to love him in transition. They brought in Russian Alexey Shved, who looked impressive in the Olympics for Russia at the guard spot and should play both at the point and some two. They have Greg Stiemsma as a big man off the bench now, giving them real depth up front.

Then Minnesota took a smart gamble on Brandon Roy. We don’t know how his knees — the ones without cartridge the forced him to walk away from the game — will deal with the long grind of the season. And he may never be his old All-Star self again. But even the Roy we saw near the end in Portland would be an upgrade on the wing for Minnesota, where they need it.

Three keys to the Timberwolves season:

1) When does Ricky Rubio get back and how well does he play? The Timberwolves have a lot of talent now — Love, Kirilenko, Pekovic, Roy, Derrick Williams — but Rubio is the key. He is the gifted point guard who can make it all fit together, keep the ball moving, challenge the defense and get the ball to the right guy at the right time. Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea and if needed  Shved will man the point (as he has in preseason), but none of them have Rubio’s vision or creative flair.

Minnesota would be a lock playoff team if Rubio were going to be there all season and not get back around Christmas. Without him in a deep West, it will be tight. The sooner he returns and returns to form the better for this season, but Minnesota really needs to think long term here.

2) Can Derrick Williams take a step forward? Coming out of college as the No. 2 overall pick, Williams was considered a guy who could score but the questions were about him rounding out his game. But mostly he looked like a rookie — there were impressive moments but he shot just 41.2 percent over all on his way to 8.8 points a game. His jumpshot was dreadful — he shot 28.6 percent from 10 to 15 feet, 29 percent from 16 feet out to the arc, and 26 percent on threes. He can finish around the rim, especially when Ricky Rubio throws the ally-oop, but he needs to broaden his game.

If Williams takes a step forward the Timberwolves become more dangerous.

3) Okay Kevin Love, you got your help, no you must lead. Kevin Love complained to management, complained to the media — he said they needed more veterans and more talent in Minnesota. He got it. Love said there were some less-than-professional personalities in the Minnesota locker room last year. They are gone.

Love, it’s on you to lead now. This is your team, you have the gold medal, you need to keep putting up numbers on the court and keep the team professional off it. That’s what leaders do.

What Timberwolves fans should fear: That another string of injuries slows the team. Rubio is coming back from an ACL and that can be slow going. Brandon Roy could fade as the season wears on and his knees wear down. Kirilenko has had plenty of injuries over the course of his career. This team’s margin for error is too small for them to deal with a lot of injuries.

Prediction: 46-36 and they get the seven (maybe eight) seed in the West. They make the playoffs. That is a big step and this will be an entertaining team to watch once Rubio gets back. They are a team on the rise but if they are the seven seed and get the Lakers/Thunder in the first round, well, there is an entire new level of learning that comes with the playoffs.

51 Q: Will Tom Thibodeau fast-track the Timberwolves’ ascension?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 05:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is congratulated by Ricky Rubio #9 after he made a basket against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on April 5, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, but few teams have more crowded bandwagons right now, or brighter futures. In many ways, their position isn’t too dissimilar to the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2009 — still a lottery team, but the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was obvious. The Wolves have a similarly promising young core with the last two Rookie of the Year winners, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the latter of whom has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation, MVP-caliber big man and an unbelievable amount of poise and polish for his age.

Young teams take time to come together, but the Timberwolves set themselves up to make a leap with their biggest offseason move, parting ways with interim head coach Sam Mitchell (who filled in admirably following the passing of Flip Saunders before last season) and hiring Tom Thibodeau. Because of this alone, the Timberwolves will win more games than they did last year. That’s what Thibodeau does — he wins games, no matter what his roster looks like. He does this by treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the Finals, and unlike the injury-riddled Bulls teams he got to overachieve, this Wolves group is young, healthy and unproven.

But even though any group with Wiggins, Towns and Thibodeau projects long-term to be in the title race, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect contention overnight. Even Thibodeau, who expects the absolute most out of any group he coaches, is fully aware of that. Here’s what he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in July:

“We like our young core a lot,” Thibodeau said, “and I would say this: We’re also not fooling ourselves. We know we’re in a very competitive conference. We won 29 games last year.”

Short of the kind of offseason haul of superstars that transforms a roster (think the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, or the Cavaliers getting LeBron James and Kevin Love in 2014), going from a bottom-tier lottery team to a contender overnight just doesn’t happen. A more realistic expectation of a best-case scenario for the Timberwolves under the first year of Thibodeau would be the 2009-10 Thunder. After winning just 23 games in 2009, Oklahoma City went 50-32 in 2009-10, grabbed the eighth seed in the Western Conference and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. A playoff berth and a competitive first-round loss to the Warriors or Spurs is only incremental progress, but considering what the starting point is, and the fact that the Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, a similar season would be a resounding success for the first year under Thibodeau.

The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is going to be an uphill battle for the Wolves to break into. Beyond the top tier (Golden State, San Antonio and the Clippers), it seems to be a safe bet that the Jazz, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies will be in the playoffs. The Timberwolves will be one of the teams fighting for the final spot, but they’ll have stiff competition with the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks in the hunt. It’s not hard to picture the Wolves edging those teams out, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Long-term, it’s hard to think of a team with a higher ceiling than this Timberwolves group. In the here and now, though, it’s best to keep expectations in check.

Anthony Davis on New Orleans: “I never plan on leaving here”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 04:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans takes a shot during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Smoothie King Center on February 4, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. On media day, Anthony Davis — who signed a five-year max extension with the Pelicans last summer and cannot hit the open market until 2020 at the earliest — told reporters that he wants to play in New Orleans his entire career.

Right now, I have no doubt that Davis means what he said and wants to stay in New Orleans forever. But it’s worth keeping in mind that virtually every superstar who signed a long-term extension with the team that drafted them said something similar. Matt Moore of CBSSports.com has a few examples from Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom eventually left their teams.

For the Pelicans, it will depend on how the next four seasons go. If they can put a title contender around Davis and not waste the bulk of his prime (a la Kevin Garnett‘s first stint in Minnesota), they have a chance to convince him to stay. But it would be unwise to hold him at his word right now in four years, especially if the next several seasons don’t go the way they want.

Enes Kanter roasts Kevin Garnett following retirement announcement

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Enes Kanter #11 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Enes Kanter has emerged in recent months as one of the most entertaining NBA players to follow on Twitter, with a knack for self-deprecation as well as poking fun at other players. His response to Kevin Garnett‘s Friday retirement announcement did not disappoint: a shot at Garnett’s aging knees and a picture of himself dunking on KG.

You would have to hope that Garnett, one of the NBA’s all-time

Pelicans enter camp rife with uncertainty, but also optimism

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 14:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans watch a three-point basket by Curry go in the basket at ORACLE Arena on March 14, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) The New Orleans Pelicans are rife with uncertainty as they prepare to open training camp this weekend.

Anthony Davis and Co. believe they are poised to improve substantially over last season’s injury-riddled, 30-52 campaign, but a lot of variables have to work in their favor.

It’s unclear when several members of Davis’ supporting cast will return from various injuries – or in guard Jrue Holiday‘s case, a serious family matter requiring leave.

Meanwhile, the club is eager to see how several key offseason acquisitions will fit in, as well as a few players added more for their potential upside than anything they’ve achieved lately.

“We’ll have a different look. We lost some guys that we’ve had for a few years,” general manager Dell Demps said Friday afternoon, referring primarily to guard Eric Gordon and forward Ryan Anderson. “But I like the group that we have right now. I like the approach that we have. We’ve got a lot of guys that made it the hard way, that had to grind their way to have success.”

The Pelicans’ top free-agent pickups included Solomon Hill from Indiana, guard E'Twaun Moore from Chicago and point guard Langston Galloway from New York. They signed Terrence Jones, who won a national title with Davis at Kentucky, and Lance Stephenson to low-risk deals. They also drafted Oklahoma sharp-shooter Buddy Hield and Kansas forward Cheick Diallo.

Some of those players will be relied upon heavily early on, in part because Holiday is on indefinite leave to tend to his wife Lauren, a former international soccer star who was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor while pregnant. Meanwhile, it remains unclear when guard Tyreke Evans and small forward Quincy Pondexter will return from prolonged rehabilitation from knee injuries.

Dell said all three could be back within the first two months of the season, but stressed that Holiday has been told to focus on his family and has no concrete timeline to return.

Coach Alvin Gentry did not specify how the rotation at guard will work out in Holiday’s absence.

“That will kind of take care of itself,” Gentry said. “We’ll do a lot of switching lineups and putting guys in different positions. … You’ll see a lot of versatility in the way we play because we have those kinds of players.”

Evans and Pondexter both have had post-surgery complications, making it tougher to predict when their recovery will be complete.

Evans said he developed a blood clot in his calf.

“I had to take a step back, but I kept working hard in my rehab,” said Evans, who is also in the final year of his contract. “I feel good, but doctors said, `Don’t rush it.”‘

Evans said he’s not aware of any concerns doctors have that clotting will recur.

Pondexter said his leg “still has to get a lot stronger,” after “two major surgeries.

But when asked whether doubt has set in regarding whether he’ll return at all, Pondexter retorted, “Hell, no.”

Davis said he is healthy after missing the end of last season with shoulder and knee injuries, then skipping the Rio Olympics. He said he wants these Pelicans to attack the season with a “blue-collar mentality.”

“We want to be kind of like Boston was last year, not having a lot of talent but guys play hard,” Davis said. “The guys that we brought in want to be a part of this and it’s always good to have guys who are on the same page.”

Added Demps, “When we put this group together, we think it does complement Anthony and obviously everything starts with him.”

The additions of Jones and Stephenson appear to have considerable upside. Jones averaged better than 11 points in two of the previous three seasons, while Stephenson averaged 14.2 points in his final 25 games last season, after being traded to Memphis.

“Nothing was promised to those guys. It’s going to be how they fit in,” Demps said, adding that both players have attended Pelicans voluntary offseason workouts. “They actually both looked good in the workouts and I think we’re hoping to get the best version of themselves.”