ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Last season: Once again, the Timberwolves went into the season appearing to have the talent to make a playoff run, and once again they fell short, finishing 40-42. They couldn’t catch a break in close games, going 6-13 in games decided by four points or less (including an 0-11 start in close games). Some of that was bad luck, but ultimately, offseason signings Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer weren’t a strong enough supporting cast for Kevin Love. It’s hard to blame him for wanting out.

Signature highlight from last season: Let the record show that “The Corey Brewer 51-Point Game” was a thing that happened.

Key player changes: Nothing major. Just the biggest game-changer of a summer blockbuster trade since Dwight Howard was traded to the Lakers in 2012. Flip Saunders sent Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in return for the No. 1 picks in the last two drafts, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. As part of the same deal, the Wolves turned Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute into veteran Sixers forward Thaddeus Young. With their own lottery pick, Minnesota took high-flying UCLA guard Zach LaVine. They also signed veteran point guard Mo Williams for some scoring help off the bench. Head coach Rick Adelman retired; after flirting with Memphis’ Dave Joerger, Saunders replaced Adelman with…himself.

Keys to the Timberwolves’ season:

Can Anthony Bennett contribute? Wiggins was the headliner of the Wolves’ return in the Love trade, but Bennett is still a total mystery. In Cleveland, he had the worst rookie season for a No. 1 pick since Kwame Brown, but he was recovering from a shoulder injury suffered at the end of his college career that kept him from working out last summer, which contributed to his poor conditioning. He looked considerably better in July playing with the Cavs’ Summer League squad, and the Wolves have every reason to believe last season’s struggles were more a product of circumstance than of a lack of talent. Still, Bennett is very raw and what he’ll show this season remains to be seen.

What is Ricky Rubio’s ceiling, and can he reach it? This is a pivotal season for Rubio. If the Spanish point guard isn’t signed to an extension by Halloween, he’s set to hit restricted free agency next summer. Even after three years in the NBA, it’s tough to get a handle on what exactly Rubio is as a player — his torn ACL midway through his rookie season wiped out much of his effectiveness the following year. Last season, he proved himself to still be a gifted passer and above-average defender, but he shot an abysmal 38.1% from the field on 8.2 attempts per game. This season will make or break Rubio’s future with the Timberwolves — if he can’t turn his scoring woes around, the team may decide to go in another direction when it’s time to re-sign him.

Does Saunders have the patience to see this rebuild through? Months before trading Love for Wiggins and Bennett, Saunders used his authority as team president to appoint himself head coach. This arrangement may work out, but things can get complicated when the guy building the roster and the guy coaching it are the same person. As a GM, Saunders did a terrific job of leveraging Love into high-level prospects. But as a coach, he will have to understand that Wiggins, Bennett, LaVine and promising 2013 first-round pick Gorgui Dieng aren’t going to learn the NBA game overnight. It’s not worth rushing that process to chase a shadow of a chance at a playoff berth that wouldn’t amount to anything. If Saunders the coach is willing to play the long game with the development of the young talent Saunders the GM brought in, the franchise is in good hands.

Why you should watch the Timberwolves: They won’t be good, but they’ll be the most fun bad team in the league. Wiggins, LaVine and Brewer turned loose in transition with Rubio throwing them lobs? Yes please.

Prediction: 25-57. As soon as the Timberwolves traded Love, they pretty much tossed any playoff aspirations out the window. This is a developmental year, and it’s not exactly going out on a limb to say that Minnesota will be at or near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. The rewards won’t come for a few years at least.