|Kevin Love's hand is broken for the second time in three months. (Getty Images)|
Heading into training camp, the organization and its fans had high hopes of a return to the playoffs. Since a spirited run to the 2004 Western Conference finals, the team has missed the playoffs every season, often being eliminated well before the final month. But this season was supposed to be different.
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The Wolves had revamped their roster, bringing in talent from all over in an attempt to boost the supporting cast around Love and Ricky Rubio. The only question seemed to be whether the Wolves could be good enough, quickly enough to buy time until Rubio returned from his ACL rehab.
Then, on Oct. 17, Love broke the third and fourth metacarpal bones in his hand doing knuckle pushups at his home -- under the supervision of a personal trainer. Instead of the hope of enduring one injury to the team's second-best player, the Wolves had to figure out how to win without their two best players until a projected date of some time in mid-December.
Incredibly, the Wolves did just that. They started 5-4 before Love surprised everybody, including many within the organization, by coming back roughly three weeks early from his tentative return date. He had 34 points and 14 rebounds in his season debut against the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 21. Since then, Love has endured a frustrating stretch.
After Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports published an article with inflammatory quotes from Love about management of the Wolves, the franchise player heard the ire of many frustrated fans who thought the comments were unnecessary and immature. Love was surprised at the tone of the article, saying he said a lot of great things about his team that were never printed, but the damage in the public eye had been done.
Love has averaged 18.3 points and 14.0 rebounds in 18 games this season. Those aren't bad numbers by any stretch. But his 35.2 percent shooting from the field, 21.7 percent from 3-point range and 70.4 percent from the free throw line are frustration-inducing "success" rates that have been hard to swallow for both himself and the fans.
On Thursday night against the Nuggets, Love got tangled with Kenneth Faried on a seemingly harmless play and re-fractured the third metacarpal bone in his shooting hand. After all of the waiting for the team to get healthy and that attempted patience for Love regaining the form that earned him multiple All-Star games, a four-year max contract, and a spot on the All-NBA Second Team last season, the organization is once again waiting for an injury to heal.
The Wolves are also figuring out how to replace a player whom fans have wondered even belongs on the team moving forward, especially if he's planning on opting out of his contract in 2015 and heading to a contender. Wolves coach Rick Adelman thinks the idea of the team being better off without Love is pretty ridiculous.
"Yeah, right," Adelman said before Saturday night's loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. "You don't replace someone like that. You might be able to do it over a quarter and a half. But you try to do it over a five-week period, and it becomes a different animal.
"They should try coaching a team without him."
The confusing part of this latest injury is now it's really impossible for the Wolves to make any moves to improve the roster moving forward. With Love out probably another six-to-eight weeks, the team will attempt to tread water right up until the trade deadline, trying to figure out where they stand (when healthy) in the loaded Western Conference.
It's such a dicey situation because the Wolves have cap and roster flexibility, but it could easily go away next summer when restricted free-agent Nikola Pekovic hits the market. There are several teams in need of a scoring big man who is fantastic on the boards. It would be very easy for a team like Portland to throw a lot of money at Pekovic in an offer sheet and force the Wolves to either match the deal and hurt cap flexibility going forward or risk him leaving to a division rival.
Love and Pekovic have formed quite the duo on the boards since Pek's emergence as a legitimate starting center in the NBA last season. But is this really a duo that you can have inside when it comes to building toward a title contender? Most would say no but don't have the pressure of their opinion on it affecting the future of this franchise. The Wolves will be forced to make a decision and have very little evidence to use toward their decision.
This presumably puts a lot of potential/rumored trades on hold, too. Can the Wolves move Pekovic for Anderson Varejao or Derrick Williams and various pieces for J.J. Redick without Love in the lineup? Can you risk depleting front-court depth or even negotiating deals with other teams seeing the desperation?
What if Rubio continues to struggle with both his health (missed four straight games with back spasms) and his play? Can you move parts of your point-guard depth knowing his minutes and comeback need to be restricted while he gets his conditioning up to speed?
The pressure of keeping their star happy by putting a winning team around him has just grown that much more with this latest injury. The Wolves must figure out if what they have around Love is the right combination of talent and execution. That's hard to do when your centerpiece is missing a month or longer twice in a season.
They'll just have to do what they've been doing all season long: dealing with injuries and asking players to step up.
"When someone like that goes out again, we're putting people in positions they're not really used to doing," Adelman said. "And now you're moving someone else to take over their responsibility. The whole thing shifts."
The shift in the attack of the Wolves is asking Pekovic to fuel future contract negotiations by becoming the focus of the offense. Williams must start showing consistency to prove that he's either a part of the puzzle in Minnesota or useful as trade bait to acquire the necessary pieces to round out the rotation. Dante Cunningham goes from being the backup forward of energy off the bench to the starting power forward who must extend his effectiveness over more minutes.
And the guards have to figure out how to supplement the scoring punch that they're losing without Love. Love will see Dr. Andy Weiland, a hand specialist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, this week. We should then learn just how long the Wolves have to patch together a contingency plan without their best player.
"We're going to have to find a way," Adelman stated. "And it's not just his position. It's everyone on the team that has to find a way."
Until Love is back, Minnesota has to wait on figuring out how to improve the roster and trying to find a return to the postseason.