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.

LeBron James rejects Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim

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Through the first couple games of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has put up impressive numbers — he dropped 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Cavaliers Friday night.

But the Cavaliers still have LeBron James.

He had 24 points and 8 assists, leading Cleveland to the win.

LeBron also reminded the Greek Freak just how good a rim protector he is. Few people can slow Antetokounmpo on the drive, but LeBron is one of them.

Is it too early to root for a Cavs vs. Bucks playoff series?

Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry out with fractured wrist

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In their season opener Wednesday, Atlanta second-year man DeAndre’ Bembry came off the bench and played 17:45, scored six points and was +13 on the night. It was a good start to his career.

But now he is going to miss some time with a fractured wrist.

Bembry underwent an MRI, which revealed a fracture in his right wrist, the Hawks announced Friday. He will return to Atlanta with the team (the Hawks lost to the Hornets Friday night) and will meet with team doctors at the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center on Monday. His status will be updated after that.

“We just may play some other guys more, we may use some of the young guys,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told the AP before Friday night’s game. “We’ll just figure it out tonight and as we move forward. I don’t think there’s anything guaranteed for anybody, it’s unfortunate for DeAndre’ and for us.”

 

Danny Ainge says Celtics will apply for Disabled Player Exception

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It’s not likely Gordon Hayward returns this season. His agent said as much, although a return in March is not out of the question. (It’s better PR wise for the Celtics to say he is out for the season, then if he returns early great, it’s better than setting a deadline he doesn’t meet.)

With that, the Celtics are going to apply for the Disabled Player Exception, which could help them land a replacement player, Danny Ainge told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Globe on Friday the club is applying for the Disabled Player Exception, which would provide the Celtics $8.4 million to pursue a player to fill Hayward’s roster spot.

“We’re in the process of doing that,’’ Ainge said. “We have a while to do that. There’s no urgency, but we will apply for that.”

There are limits to what that money can get the Celtics. The money is the same as the mid-level exception, the Celtics can go over the cap to use it, and the player can be obtained via free agency or trade. However, the player must be in the last year of his contract.

It gives the Celtics options. It also does not mean Hayward cannot return, it only means NBA-approved doctors determined he is not likely to return before a mid-June deadline.

Kings hire former WNBA Seattle coach Jenny Boucek as assistant

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The NBA now has a third female assistant coach.

The first was Becky Hammon, who has been part of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs staff for several years (and has coached their Summer League team). The second was Nancy Leiberman, who has been on the staff in Sacramento for a couple of seasons now.

Now the Kings have hired former Seattle Storm coach Jenny Boucek as an assistant coach on Dave Joerger’s staff. She will work as an assistant player development coach.

A former WNBA player in the league’s inaugural season, the past three years she has coached the WNBA’s Seattle Storm (she was fired midway through the last season), and prior to that had been the head coach of the Sacramento Monarchs from 2007-09.