Hollinger's Team Forecast: Minnesota Timberwolves
The good news was Kevin McHale proved he can make the kind of trade that leads to a championship. The bad news was the championship was won by the other team in the trade.
HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS W-L: 22-60 (Pythagorean W-L: 20-62)
Offensive Efficiency: 100.7 (27th)
Defensive Efficiency: 108.9 (27th)
Pace Factor: 94.2 (13th)
Highest PER: Al Jefferson (21.07)
Having to deal Kevin Garnett was unquestionably the low point in Timberwolves history, but last season did at least show that the Wolves got something out of the deal. Al Jefferson emerged as a low-post force, ranking 12th in the league in PER (player efficiency rating) at the age of 23 and establishing himself as a future All-Star. A throw-in to the trade, Ryan Gomes, also had a solid year as a combo forward.
Unfortunately, McHale made enough other hare-brained moves to keep the T'wolves locked in the Northwest Division cellar. Foremost among them was the decision to draft Corey Brewer sixth overall. Though he's a decent athlete, Brewer's inability to shoot or handle the ball was a major impediment at the offensive end, and his year-ending 8.29 PER fell far short of what several players drafted later produced.
He also cut Beno Udrih just before the season after acquiring him in a salary dump by San Antonio; given that he was starting the year with Sebastian Telfair at the point and his projected start, Randy Foye, was out for several weeks with a knee injury, this was an indefensible gaffe.
Two other questionable McHale lottery picks had up-and-down years as they tried to work their way back from injuries. Rashad McCants, in his first full season since coming back from microfracture surgery, had some big scoring outings but struggled in other phases of the game and couldn't hold on to the starting shooting guard slot, while Foye missed the first half of the year with a stress reaction in his left knee and produced middling results as a point guard after the break.
For the season, Minnesota ranked 27th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The offensive number was the more disturbing of the two, as a team with Jefferson on the block really should be able to put up better overall numbers.
However, the T'wolves granted huge numbers of minutes to players who contributed virtually nothing offensively -- Brewer, Telfair, Marko Jaric, Greg Buckner, Michael Doleac and Chris Richard combined for more than a third of the team's total minutes, but none averaged better than a point every three minutes. Throw in the rampant gunning of Antoine Walker (36.5 percent from the floor) and Gerald Green (33.1 percent), and only a handful of players were doing anything positive for the offense.
The other problem was a chronic inability to draw fouls -- Minnesota ranked 29th in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt at just .248, narrowly losing out to Toronto for the distinction of the league's worst. The guards were particularly bad in this respect -- though Foye and McCants were productive scorers, each had shockingly low free-throw rates.
One positive for Minnesota is the offense played markedly better after the All-Star break, when Foye settled in as the starting point guard and at least gave the team some consistent outside shooting from the position. The T'wolves were 18th in offensive efficiency after the break, compared to 29th beforehand; relative to the league, only Denver had a greater increase.
At the defensive end, Minnesota was also 27th, and in this case the frontcourt was the liability. Jefferson was a slow moving help defender from the weak side and there wasn't anyone on the T'wolves capable of making up for it, leaving the interior defense broken down far too often.
The proof is in the sub-categories. Minnesota defended well against the 3-pointer, but was 28th in 2-point field-goal defense at 50.9 percent. Plus, the T'wolves were 29th in the percentage of opponents' shots blocked at just 4.72 percent -- only the pathetic Knicks were worse. Thanks to Jefferson they at least rebounded well, but there weren't many missed shots coming off the board, as the T'wolves were 29th in opponent TS%.
Minnesota was also the league's worst team at forcing dead-ball turnovers, with just 6.32 percent of opponent possessions ending that way. A quick look at the offensive foul stats on 82games.com provides a clue as to why -- Brewer and Jaric were the only players to draw more than 10 on the season.
Biggest Strength: Outside shootingMinnesota was 21st in 3-point shooting last year at 35.0 percent, but I'd expect that to greatly improve this year thanks to the changes it's made since then. The most obvious one is the addition of Miller, a 40.3 percent career 3-point shooter who should provide a strong deterrent to opponents seeking to double-team Jefferson.
OFFSEASON MOVES What roster moves did the Wolves make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider
He won't be the only one, though. McCants shot 40.7 percent on 3-pointers last year and is at 37.9 percent for his career, while Foye hit 41.2 percent in half a season a year ago and replaces one of the team's worst outside shooters in Telfair.
Plus, they added Kevin Love to the mix. He's a deadly outside shooter from the power forward spot, and allows the T'wolves to space four shooters around Jefferson on the block. All four should benefit from all the attention he's likely to get down low, especially as he gets more familiar with attacking double-teams and finding open shooters.
The only drawback is nobody on Minnesota's bench can shoot anywhere near as well as the four players above. It's possible McCants will be a sixth man and allow a better defender to start on the wing, but there still are going to be times when Jefferson is sharing the court with bad shooters.
Biggest Weakness: DefenseThe T'wolves project be a pretty good offensive team, especially if the starting five stays healthy. Defensively, however, they've got some issues. The problems start in the frontcourt, where Jefferson is a liability rather than the dominator he is on offense and the boards. Joining him up front is Love, another strong offensive player who has problems on the defensive end; he'll find it especially problematic when he has to match up against smaller fours that space the floor or attack off the dribble.
The bench doesn't look promising in this regard, either. Smith is another good interior scorer and rebounder whose lack of mobility hinders him at the defensive end. After that come limited veteran options like Collins, Cardinal and Mark Madsen, but the T'wolves are more likely to use Gomes as an undersized four than play any of them.
On the wings the problems may be more severe. Miller and McCants can shoot the lights out, but neither is particularly adept at defending the wings and one of them is going to have to check the Kobes and McGradys of the West. Behind them Carney and Brewer are better defenders, but at a massive offensive cost. Gomes also figures in the picture, but isn't quick enough to guard speedy threes.
OutlookDespite the organizational incompetence and the apparent impossibility of anyone upstairs getting fired, the T'wolves are going to be better. Jefferson gives them a strong building block and could make his first All-Star appearance this year, while getting a full season from Foye should massively upgrade the team's weakest position for a year ago.
Throw in the additions of Miller and Love, and suddenly this team looks like a force offensively with its ability to space the floor and throw it in to the block to Jefferson. Even the bench doesn't look as horrid as it used to, with reasonably solid players like Gomes, Smith and Carney joining an improving Telfair to form a decent nine-man rotation.
That still won't add up to a playoff unit because the Wolves' defense is likely to be far below par, and because the front office isn't going to pull the strings on any deals to make them better between now and April.
But the prognosis is much less dire than it looked a year ago. Minnesota has a go-to star in Jefferson, the beginnings of a playoff nucleus around him, and a strong cap situation going forward. Now if McHale would just step aside before he screws it all up, they might actually turn this thing around.
Prediction: 31-51, 4th in Northwest Division, 11th in Western Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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HOLLINGER'S TEAM FORECASTS
Minnesota TimberwolvesTRAINING CAMP
Sept. 29: Mankato, MN
Oct. 6: at Milwaukee
Oct. 29: vs. Sacramento
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