These final, fading weeks produced a one-victory April and clearly revealed, particularly to Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman, just how much work must be done with a youthful roster that has a small, promising core group of players but little else.
"It really gives you an idea of the depth you have," Adelman said of a season-ending spiral in which the Wolves lost 13 of its last 14 games.
Six weeks ago, the Wolves were 21-19 and seemingly chugging toward the playoffs with Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic leading the way.
Then Rubio suffered a season-ending knee injury with 16 seconds left in a March 9 game against the Lakers, Pekovic limped toward season's finish on an ankle that will need bone spurs removed from it in May and Love missed the season's final eight games with a concussion.
Even Rubio's replacement, Luke Ridnour, got hurt and missed the season's final three weeks.
The Wolves went 5-21 after Rubio was lost for the season.
They finished 26-40 in the lockout-shortened 66-game season, which still is nine more games than they won in a full 82-game season a year ago.
"That's the one thing I underestimated when he got hurt," Adelman said of Rubio. "You knew you were going to be missing something, but he had a huge impact on the way our team and their personality and the way they played. Just the way he was. I did not realize how much we'd miss him and what a gap there was all of a sudden. Then we started losing people here and there. All of a sudden, you've got three of your top players sitting on the sideline and there weren't a lot of answers."
Now the Wolves will enter a summer when they need to improve a team that lacks experience and mental toughness, not to mention a dependable shot blocker, bench depth and most noticeably, players who can handle the ball, create plays and make shots from both wings positions.
"It's going to be a really big summer," Adelman said. "I don't think we can be non-aggressive this summer. We have to strike and see who we can add to this group. I really believe if we come back healthy -- that's a big thing -- and you add a couple pieces, then we're in the mix because we were in the mix before all these injuries."
For all the questions that remain about the team's depth, this season most proved that the Wolves have two transformational players to build around: Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, two uniquely gifted players who could be their bedrock for the next decade IF Love doesn't opt out of his contract and leave in summer 2015 and if the Wolves can re-sign Rubio that same summer. Yes, Rubio can't shoot, but his playmaking and pass-first mentality completely changed a team that had won just 32 games its previous two seasons. Love, meanwhile, came back this season 20 pounds lighter and took yet another leap after winning Most Improved Player last season, this time turning him into one of the league's top scorers by scoring both inside and outside, often seemingly at will.
March 9, 16 seconds remaining in a home game against the Los Angeles Lakers. That was the moment Ricky Rubio converged on Kobe Bryant, attempting to double-team the Lakers superstar near the sideline right in front of the Wolves' bench. He planted his left leg in a stop intended to block Bryant's path. His knee buckled slightly and he collapsed to the court, clutching his knee in pain. Torn anterior-cruciate and lateral medial ligaments, season gone. At that point, the Wolves were 21-19. Without Rubio, they lost that game in the final seconds and went 5-20 the rest of the way.
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