|You know what? The Wolves are actually looking pretty good. (Getty Images)|
I. How they finished 2012: The season for the Timberwolves actually ended Mach 9. At that point they were 21-20 and legitimately in the hunt for the West's eighth playoff spot.
After Rubio's injury, the Timberwolves finished the season just 5-20. They only won one of their last 10. They lost 13 of their last 14, which included an 11-game losing skid. Rubio was the pulse to the engine, a master creator who found perfect pockets for Kevin Love, and helped maximize the production of players like Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, Nikola Pekovic and others. After his injury, the Wolves were back to just praying Love could completely carry them.
Despite the 26-40 finish, it really was kind of an encouraging season. David Kahn's winding, meandering, strange plan appeared to actually have a vision to it and the Wolves took a noticeable step toward something. What would've happened those final 25 games with Rubio, we'll never know. But it was clear that with him, Minnesota was much more than the pushover they'd been the previous four years.
II. Needs entering the offseason: Truly, the Wolves didn't necessarily have a need. If anything, that "need" was more of just doing some housecleaning and clearing a little debris. Naturally, a team that was 26-40 has room to improve in lots of places, but the Wolves didn't need a major overhaul. They're not a team beginning a rebuild. They're hopefully in the back end of one.
They had some leftovers from the 2011-12 team that clearly weren't part of the long-term vision, so the biggest issue facing them in the offseason was removing the distractions and bringing in better-fitting replacements.
So in terms of need, it wasn't as much about the player and his skill set as it was the culture of the roster. The Wolves needed a little leadership, a little character, a little experience.
III. The Draft: The Wolves were without a first round pick, as theirs turned into Austin Rivers going to the Hornets. In 2005, the Wolves traded Sam Cassell and a future first-round pick to the Clippers for Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers. The Clippers then used that pick in the Chris Paul/Eric Gordon trade, which turned into Rivers.
Minnesota did have one pick in the draft, the 58th overall, and used it to select super senior Robbie Hummel from Purdue, who probably won't make the roster this season.
IV. Free Agency: If there's an opportunity to make moves, you know David Kahn is going to be busy.
Minnesota had its expiring deals on the books: Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph and Anthony Tolliver. All three of those were renounced as the Wolves positioned to make a major signing. Kahn had his eye on Blazers swingman and restricted free agent Nicolas Batum. After a little jockeying, the Timberwolves inked him to a four-year, $46-million offer sheet. And to make room for it, they cut Martell Webster and amnestied Darko Milicic, who was once "manna from heaven," according to Kahn.
But it all sort of backfired as the Blazers matched on Batum, leaving the Wolves empty-handed in their offseason search. To Kahn's credit, though, he regrouped with a solid backup plan, signing guard Alexey Shved from Russia and Andrei Kirilenko, who is making a return to the NBA.
They then set their sights on Brandon Roy, who was making an NBA comeback, signing him to a multiyear deal while banking his knees come back as well. They finished their spending by inking big man Greg Stiemsma to a deal to solidify their frontcourt depth.
Kahn, who never hangs up on a trade call, jumped in on a trade sending Wayne Ellington to Memphis for Dante Cunningham, as well as joining a three-way trade involving the Hornets and Suns that sent former top five pick Wesley Johnson to Phoenix for a future conditional pick.
V. Overall grade and accomplishments: A-
The question you have to ask with any team's offseason is, "Is their team better, worse or the same as it was last season?" And with the Wolves, I'm pretty sure they're decidedly better by removing Beasley, Johnson, Randolph, Ellington, Tolliver and Milicic and replacing them with Roy, Shved, Kirilenko, Budinger, Cunningham and Stiemsma. There are certainly question marks surrounding a lot of the new additions, but I don't think there's a question as to if they upgraded, at least on paper.
Shved showed off a lot of ability in London, as did Kirilenko, who appears to be completely ready to re-establish himself as one of the most dynamic and unique forwards in the game. Stiemsma is far more reliable off the bench than Darko, Roy adds a heap of leadership and if he can find any semblance of his old self, the Wolves might have one of the bargain pickups of the season.
Budinger is a quality role player who will fit nicely on their bench, as well as Cunningham, who is a hard-hat forward who does little things for the 5-10 minutes he's on the floor.
Rubio is expected to return sometime in December and with a core of him, Love, Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Derrick Williams, who is poised for a breakout, the Wolves finally have a roster that makes sense. That's been the biggest issue with Kahn's Wolves over the past few years. There was no denying the raw talent of the roster, but the pieces didn't seem to fit. A collection of talent is far different from a team. And the Wolves finally appear to have a team.
I wouldn't even call the Wolves a playoff dark horse at this point because they're clearly in the mix. And not just as a team that sneaks into eighth, but potentially as a team that's competing for a seed, not just a spot. Health is a major question mark and assuming that hurdle is cleared, this is a team that has the ability to compete with anyone. If the Timberwolves can just learn how to finish games consistently, Kahn might just shut everyone up for good.