Before I get into the nuts and bolts, one quick thing on this week’s latest media-fueled blow-up.
It is the year 2012. No, seriously. 2012. Someone should remind the editorial staff at the Star Tribune that, while racism certainly exists in this world, the idea that a for-profit business, like the Timberwolves, would purposefully sign white players to boost sales is beyond absurd. As a life long fan of Minnesota sports, I can tell you that we, the fans, do not care one iota about the color of a player’s skin. Remember, Kirby, The Kid, and Moss ran this town and were revered. Sure, it’s fluky that this year’s Pups squad has a higher percentage of white guys than an Augusta National board meeting. But, really?! It’s a master plan to put fans in the seats? Such a statement is even too preposterous for the 2013 PST.
Moving on, we have some hoops to preview. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Minnesota Timberwolves –
You cannot preview the Pups and not talk about the devastating injuries to Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Not having Rubio and Love in the line-up is going to make the first month and a half a tough one to predict. The good news: the schedule sets up real nicely, with only @CHI and @BOS looming in November and the first part of December. No OKC. No Spurs. The bad news: this is the portion of the schedule where this young Pups team was supposed to get out to a strong start. With Rubio and Love, a 16-6 start was a real possibility. Now, 13-9 would probably be stealing.
From a personnel perspective, everyone is expecting Nikola Pekovic to make a jump. He has received probably the most buzz, both locally and nationally, to help carry the Pups. Before getting injured last year, Pekovic was putting up 20 and 10 on a regular basis. Because he will be relied on to produce more in Love’s absence, that 20 and 10 is critical to the Pups’ success. Unfortunately, I have to admit I am a little worried about whether or not he can do it without Love on the floor. Yes, he performed well when Love went down with an injury last spring. But last season was fluky because the lockout. I am not sure Pek has the skill set to be The Guy.
I think Pups fans should be more concerned with the play of newcomers Chase Budinger, Andrei Kirielinko, and Brandon Roy. Budinger averaged nearly 10 points a game last year and shot 45% from the floor while hitting at a better than 40% clip from downtown. His man-defense is brutal; but in Adelman’s system, he is smart enough to get to his spot. Kirilenko, on the other hand, is flat out wiley – no two ways about it. He plays great help defense. He can create his own shot (even if it is uglier than a Real Housewife of Any County/City sans make-up). He is an excellent passer (in the ’05-’06 season – he averaged more than 4 assists a game). And, he is bringing back Robin Gibb’s hairdo: here and here. Those two guys are both pretty safe in terms of what you are getting. The wild card is Roy.
When the Pups drafted Roy in 2006 and then traded him immediately for Randy Foy (who graduated from the Troy Hudson school of shot taking), fans were confused. Yeah, Roy had knee problems (we will get back to this), but he was a dude. Over the next four years, he went out and proved it. Every time he eviscerated us with the Blazers, Pups fans got down about the one who got away. Well he is back.
Only a little more than a year removed from retirement, Roy is back to prove, yet again, that his knees are good enough for him to perform at a high level (thank you German steroi…errrrr…scientist guy) . And now, with Rubio and Love out to start the season, that unknown is the most critical question for the Pups. If the hoops Gods have any sense of poetic justice, Roy will average 15 and 6 in a veteran role, be available to take the shot in crunch time, and force defenses to loosen up a bit on Love. Without that kind of presence, the start of this season could be a rocky one for a young Pups squad.
Ultimately, the Pups success this season hinges on how well it can start without Rubio and Love. If the Pups have moderate success, they will push for the last playoff spot in a loaded Western Conference. Because we drink…okay…guzzle the Kool-Aid, we predict the Pups find a way to sneak in as an 8th seed and give the top-seeded OKC (yup, not buying the Lakers hype yet) everything it can handle in the first round, though, the series will be short (think OKC-Miami finals last year).
Milwaukee Bucks –
The Bucks enter the new season as the resident bridesmaid in the Eastern Conference, having finished 9th the last two seasons. To get back into the playoffs, the Bucks will have to rely upon newcomer, Monta Ellis, and Brandon Jennings to lead this team.
Calling Monta Ellis a volume shooter is like calling Sandy a thunderstorm. Ellis has never seen a shot he does not love. The Bucks 2012-2013 season is going to hinge on his co-existence with fellow volume shooter Brandon Jennings.
At the end of last season when Monta was moved from Golden State’s run and gun to Scotty Skiles’ more deliberate offensive scheme, there was definitely an adjustment period. Ellis showed flashes of his former self, but he was rarely the consistent scorer he was in Golden State. And there were times that he and Jennings almost seemed to clash in terms of who was running the show (for the record – Jennings should).
Coming into this season, more than anything else, Monta needs to find some balance with his scoring. When he scored 30 or more points last season, the Bucks were 3-6. When he had less than 20, the Bucks were 5-10. But, when he was taking a page from the 3 Little Bears, and he scored between 20 and 29, the Bucks were 9 -4. Talk about a dramatic difference.
From a bigs perspective, the Bucks are actually still fairly well-stocked, even after trading franchise center Andrew Bogut. Surprise standout Ersan Ilyasova showed real promise at the power forward position. Even if he regresses from the 45% he shot from deep last season, he is still in line to have another solid year.Veteran bigs Samuel Dalembert, Drew Gooden, and Joel Przybilla should provide the defensive presence that Skiles preaches. Even if it does mean that they use 16 of their allotted 18 fouls each game. Puppy bigs John Henson and Tobias Harris have both looked good in summer league and preseason games. Harris actually averaged nearly 21 points a game and earned the starting SF role. With that kind of promise — the kid definitely has skill— there is definite upside in this crew.
Landing a playoffs spot is a real possibility given the state of flux in the middling Eastern Conference. Ellis and Jennings will score, but the secondary talent will need to step up for this team to make the playoffs. Assuming the bigs bring the desired defensive presence and they spot the necessary points when needed, this team should find themselves in the playoffs. Though, like the Pups, a first round departure to a top seed is pretty likely.