It’s hard not to look at Minnesota’s 2011-2012 season and imagine what could have been.
When Ricky Rubio went down for the year, the Wolves were in 8th place in the Western Conference and were surging forward. Behind Rubio’s artistry and basketball IQ, Kevin Love’s arrival as a genuine superstar, and, most improbably, Nikola Pekovic’s emergence as a productive offensive and defensive force, Minnesota was on the fast track to their first playoff appearance since 2004.
Head coach Rick Adelman built an offense around his best players, a revelation for the Timberwolves who spent the past three years shackled by Kurt Rambis’ triangle offense, a disaster for the personnel on the roster. Adelman’s guidance, along with player development, turned the Wolves into a tough, competitive team.
But Rubio crumpled to the floor on March 9, tearing his ACL late in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. His was the beginning of a veritable parade of injuries throughout the end of the season that quickly knocked Minnesota out of playoff contention. Timberwolves players missed over 160 games combined due to injuries, including key contributors like Michael Beasley, Luke Ridnour, JJ Barea, Pekovic, and Love, who missed the last seven games of the season after being concussed by an inadvertent elbow from Denver’s JaVale McGee.
But while Timberwolves nation understandably mourns the loss of yet another snakebitten season, an optimistic observer sees hope in the coming months. Not the usual abstract, conditional hope that Minnesotans are used to, a hope to see players pan out who never cease to disappoint, but real, tangible evidence of a bright future on the horizon.
Rubio’s injury was devastating to be sure, both to the young point guard as a player, and a team that was starting to gel. But the floppy haired Spaniard will return, and his game was never built on his athleticism. Rather, it was built on his incredible ability to see a basketball court as a chess board, thinking three steps ahead of the opposition, and on his long, rangy arms that filled passing lines and disrupted opposing point guards.
Love proved himself to be a go-to scorer, as well as an elite rebounder. In his highest scoring season yet, Love averaged 26 points per game, and kept his name alive in MVP debates until he was sidelined. His post game was noticeably better than last season, and he made 105 three point field goals in 55 games. Love’s defense, though still merely average, also improved under Adelman’s tutelage.
With two young stars like Love and Rubio, and an emerging post presence in Pekovic, it’s easy to imagine that the Wolves could acquire the players necessary to make a legitimate run to the postseason next year. The first priority will be to sign or trade for some reliable wing players. Wolves beat writer Jerry Zgoda recently reported that Minnesota had a chance to trade for Andre Iguodala last year just before the draft, but turned down the deal. A similar marquee wing star could help turn the Wolves around.
And perhaps, this time next year, Minnesota’s season won’t be over.