TrueHoop: Minnesota Timberwolves

In return, KG shows Wolves what could be

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
12:38
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McPherson By Steve McPherson
ESPN.com
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It is simply impossible to undersell the hard thrum that began coursing through the Target Center when Kevin Garnett came charging out of the tunnel for the first time in 7½ years wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves uniform. If you knew nothing about Garnett's history with the team, if you were too young or not into basketball, you might not have understood it, but it was impossible to deny it as a felt thing within the arena.

With the four other starters introduced, the screen above the scoreboard fell black, the stands spiked with the stars of cellphones' flashes. Former NBA commissioner David Stern's voice poured out: "With the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select …"

And it hung there, Kanye West's "Homecoming" rising up into the silence as clip after clip of a young Garnett unspooled and the crowd spiked the tense silence with whistles. They were clips we'd seen perhaps hundreds of times: Garnett leaping on the scorer's table, dusting his palms with talcum, his teammates piling crazily on top of him. But stacked one on top of another, with Garnett waiting there in the darkness by the bench, it built into something towering. When fireworks shot out from the stanchions, it was practically redundant. The place was already on fire.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
David Sherman/Getty ImagesKevin Garnett's impact on the Wolves in his return went beyond the box score.
Of course, there was also a basketball game to play, and it did not start promisingly for the Wolves. Minnesota's first basket didn't come until more than five minutes had passed with the Washington Wizards up 13-1. They were, to put it simply, too keyed up -- both Garnett and the young players on the Wolves.

But almost inexorably, they began to pull it together. From the moment Garnett went to the bench, he was in the players' ears, from Andrew Wiggins to Adreian Payne to Gorgui Dieng. On the court, he shouted his teammates into place, and the Wolves defense took a noticeable step up, showing how much one player who knows how to show and recover can anchor the rotations of a whole team.

By halftime, Minnesota had pulled even with Washington at 42, and the second half began with a bang-bang play that had Ricky Rubio running off a Garnett screen, getting the ball back to him at the top of the arc, and Garnett threading a perfect pass to Wiggins cutting past a downscreen from Nikola Pekovic for a dunk.

Garnett contributed directly in these ways, plus brought in eight rebounds to go with five points, but it was his indirect effect on the other Wolves that stood out. Although they had to overcome that early tightness, once they got into the second half, they played hard without tensing up, with an edge. They cut harder, moved with purpose, snapped the ball, jumped out on screens -- all stuff they've been working on since training camp but with a new kind of energy.

It became clearer as they started to push out the lead in the second half of the second quarter. Going back at least to Rubio's sophomore season -- when Kevin Love began the season injured and never truly came back -- this team has been living too much in its head. The pieces -- Rubio's passing, Love's shooting and rebounding, Pekovic's immovability, Martin's scoring -- looked right on paper but struggled to jell on the floor. The team so far this season has flashed glimpses of a promising future, but it's also full of young players struggling to reconcile their innate feel for the game with all that they're learning.

But as smart as Garnett is on the floor, he lives the game farther down in his body, not even in the heart so much as the belly. Whatever he's sparking in these players, it's only just beginning, and there's no guarantee it won't falter or fail to sustain itself.

But in his first game back, he showed the Wolves' players and reminded the Wolves' fans that it's okay to want: to not just hit your marks and do what you're supposed to but in that moment to want to make the play so badly that you want it more than anything else -- to know that you can make that feeling happen when you need it.

This is the magic and the promise of Kevin Garnett. This is the possibility that the move to acquire him was not just fine or even good, but possibly brilliant.

There are many games to go. At 38 years old, Garnett is likely to miss several of them. The Wolves are going to lose a bunch of them -- they even need to if Garnett's return is truly going to lay the groundwork for future growth. They will, after all, need someone to replace him, and there are strong power forward prospects in this draft.

When the season ends, one win over the Wizards at the tail end of February is not going to look like much. It won't stand out amid the wins and losses, the final box score bearing nothing so epic as Mo Williams' 52-point outburst earlier this season or Love's 31-point, 31-rebound masterpiece against the Knicks in 2010.

But it's not a game that will be quickly forgotten by anyone who was there. For one night, the Timberwolves felt like a different team -- one that mattered, even if it was only to themselves. The trick, now, is making that change stick.

Timberwolves buy a round-trip 'Ticket'

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
7:54
PM ET
McPherson By Steve McPherson
Special to ESPN.com
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Kevin GarnettAP Photo/Matt SaylesEight years after his trade to Boston, Kevin Garnett returns to where his Hall of Fame career began.
You ever have a dream where you get back together with your ex? One that’s not even genuinely romantic, but more where you’ve come to understand each other’s flaws and shortcomings and accepted them as indelible and even essential? In this dream, you can move forward into the future together, free from the pressure that broke you in the first place.

This is the dream the Minnesota Timberwolves are trying to sneak their way into by trading for the greatest former Timberwolf of all time, Kevin Garnett.

Barely a week removed from an impressive showing by the Wolves’ two rookies at All-Star weekend -- where Andrew Wiggins took home MVP honors in the Rising Stars Challenge and Zach LaVine murked the competition at the slam dunk contest -- the Wolves have had the most thrown-back of Throwback Thursdays by moving power forward Thaddeus Young to Brooklyn for the 38-year-old Garnett. Their season-long slogan of “Eyes on the Rise” has been canted toward watching the young players from Wiggins to LaVine to Gorgui Dieng to Shabazz Muhammad develop, growing pains and all. Injuries to starters Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic robbed the team of its early potential, but it gave those first- and second-year players a chance to both stumble and shine under the bright lights. With those injuries healed, the Wolves have shown themselves to be better than their abysmal record, at least.

So why Garnett? And why now?

First of all, this can’t be thought of as a basketball move. There is no way in which Garnett moves the needle for this team on the court, but that’s not where president of basketball operations and coach Flip Saunders’ head is at. Consider: While Rubio was injured, LaVine was given plenty of time at point guard and showed emphatically that whatever the future may hold, he is not ready to play the position at the NBA level. But shortly after Rubio returned, the team traded the only veteran backup point guard they had -- Mo Williams -- to the Charlotte Hornets, opening up more time for LaVine to play point guard. Wiggins is leading the team in minutes per game at 34.5. When it comes to the present, everything must go to make way for the future.

That focus on the future is how the Wolves seem to be making sense of bringing back the past. A few years ago, owner Glen Taylor, who is 73, began to talk about selling the team, but only to investors who would keep the Wolves in Minnesota. Not satisfied with what he found, he instead doubled down, buying out limited partners and bringing in Saunders as a part-owner. Bringing back Saunders was an act of fence-mending. Now this was his chance to bring back Garnett, a player who has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the way things ended for him in Minnesota, but who has also expressed an interest in buying the team.

That’s the backdrop here, but what this points to on a more primal level is a little harder to say. Those steeped in the history of the franchise can look at this and say it’s simple nostalgia, just more of the good old boys’ club that Taylor runs where he makes the comfortable move instead of the more difficult right one.

But if we can give them a little more benefit of the doubt, what they’re looking for from Garnett is a work ethic and an intensity around which their young players can cluster and gel, drawing power as they grow. For all of Rubio’s highlight-worthy dimes and Kevin Love’s stat-stuffing, there was a kind of hollowness at the heart of the Wolves over the past few years. It might have manifested itself in close losses and an extended playoff drought, but it was more pervasive than that. In spite of a young, exciting team, the Timberwolves are 29th in attendance this season. Whether the return of Garnett can provide that heart again is unknown. It’s a risk, a gamble, but at the very least it will bring eyes that can’t help but also see Wiggins and the rest of their young core.

It’s been reported that the Timberwolves are hoping to sign Garnett to a two-year deal, so it seems likely there will be plenty of nights down the road when he’ll appear as he has for Brooklyn this season: as a shell of his former self, a dim reminder of a player who was once one of the most dominant defensive forces the league has ever seen.

Wolves fans have been hungry for some time for a player who could provide the kind of playoff highlights that Garnett once did, both for the Wolves (especially on their run to the Western Conference finals in 2004) and for the Boston Celtics when they won a championship that many Minnesotans felt a part of. Maybe one day Wiggins can be that kind of player: bigger on the inside than the outside, more than a giant stat line, a spirit animal for a fanbase that rallied behind Garnett’s “get on my back” ethos.

When he first sets foot on the floor at the Target Center as a member of the Timberwolves again, the roar will be deafening. No matter how fleeting, everyone in the building will slip into that dream -- the one where what went wrong hasn’t been erased so much as repaired -- even if only for a moment. That can’t be worth nothing.

Steve McPherson writes for Rolling Stone and other publications. Follow him, @steventurous.

Andrew Wiggins is NBA's 'rising star'

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11
12:26
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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David Thorpe, who watches rookies and sophomores excessively, says that while it's a stretch to call many of the players in the Rising Stars Challenge "stars," he's fired up about Andrew Wiggins.

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The legend of Zach LaVine

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
12:51
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The dunker is a big deal on YouTube, but David Thorpe is not a fan.

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Kevin Love's killer plays

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
3:30
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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What the Cavs should be running for Kevin Love, according to David Thorpe.

Young Wiggins vs. Young LeBron

December, 23, 2014
12/23/14
11:36
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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David Thorpe has been scouring video to compare Andrew Wiggins and LeBron James. Some of his findings may surprise you.

The Andrew Wiggins Conundrum

December, 10, 2014
12/10/14
3:06
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Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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ESPN Insider compiled a list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 in the NBA. Amin Elhassan and David Thorpe make the case for Andrew Wiggins.

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#HateHard: How do you lose to the 76ers?

December, 9, 2014
12/09/14
3:10
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Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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They had ONE job to do! But somehow the Wolves and Pistons managed to do the unthinkable: lose to the Sixers.

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Andrew Wiggins' special start

November, 25, 2014
11/25/14
1:23
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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David Thorpe can't remember an NBA rookie who combined Wiggins'off-the-charts athleticism with such capable 3-point shooting.


Now this is going to be fun

October, 27, 2014
10/27/14
2:43
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McPherson By Steve McPherson
Special to ESPN.com
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Andrew WigginsDavid Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Wolves may be bad, but with athletes like Andrew Wiggins on board, they'll be entertaining.
In the 25 years of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ existence, 19 have been anchored by a big man: 12 years with Kevin Garnett, two wherein Al Jefferson and Kevin Love played together and the past four with Love. Meanwhile, their wings have been woefully -- and at times almost comically -- unathletic. Their best and/or longest-tenured 2-guards and small forwards have been shooters (Anthony Peeler, Wally Szczerbiak, Fred Hoiberg, Kevin Martin), defenders (Trenton Hassell) and even in some cases point guards in disguise (Luke Ridnour). Aside from Isaiah Rider’s three seasons with the team and Latrell Sprewell’s two, Minnesota has never had a beat-your-man-off-the-dribble-and-soar-for-a-dunk athlete who can make fans swoon.

That’s about to change.

With the addition of electric rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and the departure of Love, the Wolves have not only shifted away from an emphasis on the frontcourt but also made a quantum leap in athleticism on the perimeter. Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft and the dowry in the August trade of Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, may be among the most made-for-TV players in the league, the type of athlete who could one day turn snowy Minnesota and the bottom-feeding Timberwolves into a destination on your League Pass (or even national) dial.

Their arrival also signals a more wide-open approach to roster building. When the Wolves got the chance to get Love in a draft-day trade for O.J. Mayo, they did, even though they already had Jefferson on the team. But a succession of moves valuing fit over talent followed: They dealt Jefferson only to pair Love with a similar player in Nikola Pekovic; they drafted Jonny Flynn instead of Stephen Curry in 2009; they took Wes Johnson instead of DeMarcus Cousins 2010. By drafting LaVine and dealing for unpolished, high-potential youngsters in Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the Wolves seem to be at least be acknowledging the long view. “I think you have to take what’s available,” said Flip Saunders.

But success is tough to define right now. Taking out the idea of what players like Wiggins or LaVine or Bennett might one day become, the offseason was one of the biggest steps back in terms of pure basketball skill the team has ever taken. Ever since Ricky Rubio came over from Europe in 2011, most of the Wolves’ moves have been of the win-now variety: hiring Rick Adelman, J.J. Barea, signing Andrei Kirilenko, taking a risk on Brandon Roy, trading for Kevin Martin, moving Derrick Williams. No matter that none of those things resulted in enough actual winning to make the playoffs; the intention was to put the right pieces around Love and Rubio and Pekovic to contend.

Saunders is, of course, going to keep talking about winning, about contending. As both coach and GM, that’s his job, and when he talks about it to the media, he’s also talking about it to the players. But what are the fans going to get out of this? In spite of winning more games in each of the past three seasons, the Timberwolves’ attendance has fallen from 15th to 21st to 27th in the league. While some of this has to do with ticket price increases, it also has to do with the fact that it wasn’t a ton of fun for the average fan during the Love era.

Sure, there were outlet passes and outliers, like Love’s game-winner against the Clippers and Corey Brewer’s 51-point game. But the 10th-best play of Love’s Timberwolves career is a fairly ordinary dunk -- and that’s not going to put butts in seats. The Wolves only had 17 alley-oop dunks last season; the Clippers had 169. The Wolves often played beautiful, effective basketball the past three seasons, but it was rarely exciting basketball.

Based on summer league and preseason play, that shouldn’t be a problem this year. Whatever LaVine’s shortcomings as an all-around basketball player at this point, however long the road to his being a serviceable point guard at the NBA level might be (which seems to be one of the Wolves’ goals for him), he’s a Phantom Cam highlight waiting to happen.

And Wiggins has shown flashes of what has been predicted for so long: strong defensive instincts, a video game-esque leaping ability, sound shooting form. He’s also looked as if he hasn’t even been trying. If you listen to the buzz, this augurs one of two things: 1.) he lacks the motor or competitive spirit to succeed at the NBA level and will perpetually underwhelm or 2.) one day he will try and the Earth will explode.

We can approach what this team could or should be from a variety of angles, but the more you chop up the idea of a team identity, the less it seems to mean. Faced with the impending loss of their franchise cornerstone, the Timberwolves rolled the dice on getting as much raw athletic potential onto the team as possible. Years from now, the trade that brought Wiggins to Minnesota might look like just the stroke of good fortune the team needed, a gift. But for now, it’s just the present.

Then & Now & Later: Ricky Rubio

October, 8, 2014
10/08/14
10:15
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Foster By DJ Foster
Special to ESPN.com
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Ricky RubioAP Photo, Getty ImagesOnce viewed as a maestro with the ball, Ricky Rubio will get a real shot at proving his PG bona fides.
"Then & Now & Later" is a scouting profile series that analyzes the perception, development and future potential of young players in the NBA. We first tackled New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis. Next up: Ricky Rubio.

THEN


Like most teen sensations, Ricky Rubio combined the old with the new.

Although Rubio was not even 18 when he burst onto the scene at the 2008 Olympic Games, there was something familiar about the guard from Spain. The Beatles haircut, the wizardry with the ball, the sad eyes. It was as if "Pistol" Pete Maravich was reincarnated to play in a league actually ready for him.

Time was definitely on Rubio’s side. Developing familiarity with international prospects was at one point nearly impossible -- maybe you’d see a guy in the Olympics or in one-off exhibitions, but fans were mostly living and dying with what scout Fran Fraschilla had to say.

Rubio broke that mold, in part because he had been playing professionally in Spain since the tender age of 14. Add the emergence of YouTube and it's easy to see why the basketball world fell in love with him. Rubio's creative passes and showman’s flair went "viral" before the term had really entered the lexicon. Well before the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him with the fifth pick in the 2009 NBA draft, it was clear that his star was on the rise.

But the hype quickly deflated. Rubio opted to stay two additional years in Spain before coming over for the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, and during an otherwise promising rookie campaign, he tore his ACL. But even before the injury, it was still relatively clear that Rubio came largely as advertised: a risk taker with plenty of flash and natural instincts, albeit with an incomplete skill set.

With three NBA seasons under his belt now, it’s still tough to fully comprehend the contradictions that seem to define Rubio’s career.


NOW


On offense:
Let’s not sugarcoat this: Rubio is one of the least efficient scorers we've seen in a long, long time.

In fact, in the past 35 years, no player with at least 5,500 total NBA minutes played has ever put up a worse career effective field goal percentage than Rubio's 40.1. Just think about all the challenged offensive players you’ve ever seen play in the NBA and realize Rubio has shot worse than almost every single one.

And although it may be tempting to blame Rubio’s slow-release, quasi set-shot jumper for those numbers, his primary issues stem from his inability to score at the rim. Rubio's career 32.3 percent 3-point percentage won't bowl anyone over, but it’s serviceable and somewhat indicative of what he can do with his feet set and time to fire.

It’s Rubio’s complete lack of elevation that betrays him on drives to the rim more than anything else, though you’ll see him get the yips and miss wide-open attempts quite a bit as well. A floater or runner in the paint would help tremendously to avoid challenging shot-blockers directly, but Rubio prefers to string out drives as long as possible for potential passes. It's a game of chicken with big men that Rubio navigates well, but the end results often look a lot like a car wreck.

But his offensive game has a yin and yang to it. Rubio isn’t a scorer and shows very little creativity around the rim, but it works in his favor as a distributor. Because defenders know they can give him plenty of space, Rubio’s passing windows are massive and usually pretty clean. He’s an artist with the ball working largely uninterrupted.

That's not to imply that Rubio isn’t capable of threading the needle or working in tight confines. No one can attest to Rubio's ability to fire in passes more than Kevin Love, who spent the past three seasons receiving the full attention of defenses and still finding wide-open layups because of Rubio’s vision.

With that said, it still feels like Rubio and Love were a missed connection. Rubio's seasons spent in Spain and the injuries to both players sapped up valuable time together, and when the two really began to click (Minnesota was ninth in offensive efficiency last season), it was still too late.

There’s reason to be optimistic about Rubio’s development offensively, though, even with the loss of a player with the vacuum effect of Love.

The Timberwolves had a 112.5 offensive rating when Rubio was on the court last season, which would have been the league’s best had he been able to play every minute.

Even though he can’t finish and he’s shooting blind on his jumper (31.6, 31.9, 30.1 percent in his first three seasons), Rubio has shown he can run a highly effective offense with his other senses, so long as there’s talent around him.

On defense:
For all the space his opponents grant him offensively, Rubio isn’t very gracious in return. He crowds ball handlers, making point guards turn multiple times just to get the ball upcourt. He pokes and prods, moves his feet laterally incredibly well and generally has the annoying disposition you want from your guards defensively. It is decidedly not fun to play against Rubio, which is a major asset in a league swimming in scoring point guards.

Even though his value comes almost solely as a perimeter defender, Rubio can pinch down a bit on the defensive glass and help out, which should come in handy with Love gone.

But Love's departure is not all bad news. Thaddeus Young is a big upgrade on defense, and his mobility and rim protection should let Rubio gamble a little more on the perimeter for steals in an attempt to get a younger, more athletic Wolves team out in transition. That’s a scary proposition, as Rubio already led the league in total steals last season.

Although steals is a dangerous stat to put too much stock into when evaluating defenders, it does provide insight on how capably he is playing passing lanes. Rubio is a great on-the-ball defender in the mold of Chris Paul -- his hands are lightning-quick, and he’s not afraid to take a bump. It speaks to Rubio’s effort and instincts that he’s been this effective despite his youth and a major knee injury.

Some may be sheepish to call Rubio elite on this end since he’s not an overwhelming athlete, but he’s truly been one of the best backcourt defenders in the league. According to ESPN.com, Rubio finished second among all point guards and fifth among all guards in defensive real plus-minus last season. He’s a difference-maker, particularly because he can wear down opponents over the course of a game.


LATER


As is, Rubio is essentially a specialist -- a pass-and-harass point guard.

Those players certainly have value, but having a backcourt who that can’t shoot almost mandates multiple stretch big men in the starting lineup, which can put pressure on a team that isn’t title-ready to perhaps value need over talent when filling the rest of the roster.

That’s something Minnesota will need to consider when negotiating Rubio's next deal, but you’re still paying for potential here. Even though there hasn’t been much foreshadowing in this regard, Rubio could become a much more reliable shooter. Jason Kidd shot over 35 percent from deep in just two of his first 10 seasons, after all, and the 23-year-old Rubio certainly has plenty of room for improvement.

With Minnesota mainstays Love and Rick Adelman gone, Rubio’s evolution this season should be watched with a careful eye. Losing such a well-rounded scorer and brilliant offensive mind obviously hurts, but the added athleticism on the roster will allow Rubio to work on a vertical plane as a passer -- something he’s been able to flirt with only temporarily in the past.

At least for the time being, this is Rubio’s team. Failed contract negotiations or the development of Andrew Wiggins could challenge that eventually, but Rubio will have more opportunity and responsibility than ever before.

It’s hard to predict what Rubio will do with that. His skills are very black-and-white, and his career thus far has existed largely in the gray. He’s simultaneously met expectations and disappointed as well.

But it’s easy to forget that what drew so many to Rubio in the first place can’t be taught or acquired. His vision is a rare and undeniable gift, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll squander it forever by failing to supplement it with more refined skill and scoring, even if he doesn’t need to in order to survive.

D.J. Foster is a contributor to ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network. Follow him, @fosterdj. All stats via NBA.com, basketball-reference.com or ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

A new leader of the pack in Minnesota?

October, 8, 2014
10/08/14
9:30
AM ET
McPherson By Steve McPherson
Special to ESPN.com
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Ricky RubioDavid Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith Kevin Love gone and a young team behind him, is it time for Ricky Rubio to rise in Minnesota?
At the heart of Ricky Rubio’s game is, well, heart. Joy. Generosity. This is a guy who, when he finally arrived in Minnesota in 2011, two years after he was drafted fifth overall, explained his love for passing by quoting Magic Johnson in charmingly broken English: “A basket make one guy happy, an assist two guys happy."

He was just what the Timberwolves needed. Two years removed from trading Kevin Garnett -- the only franchise cornerstone the team had ever known -- the Wolves’ starters in 2008-09 were Sebastian Telfair, Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes, Craig Smith and a rookie named Kevin Love who stepped up when Al Jefferson went down with a torn ACL.

Rubio, though, was a star. At least, that’s what we’d heard for so long. In 2008, the NEXT issue of ESPN the Magazine touted him as “the best point guard you've never heard of.” An Eastern Conference exec didn’t stop there, calling him “the European LeBron James” and “a top-three pick.”

"If I can do some magic,” a 17-year-old Rubio told Chad Nelsen back then, “I do it."

But by the time Rubio arrived, Love had become the face of the franchise, more or less by default. I mean, look at that lineup -- what other option was there? It’s hard not to be sucked in by 31-point, 31-rebound games amid 132 losses (an NBA high) in the two seasons spent waiting for Rubio. By 2010-11, Rubio’s rookie season, Love had turned into a double-double machine headed for his first All-Star appearance. He was a superstar. He was Minnesota’s superstar, and everyone knew it.

Everyone except David Kahn. Instead of offering Love the team’s only five-year maximum contract extension, the Wolves GM infamously handed the power forward a three-year deal with a player option for a fourth. The fallout from that move is well known, with Love forcing his way to Cleveland this past summer for an admittedly attractive package including Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett.

But its impact on Rubio is harder to gauge. At the time, the common perception was that Kahn wanted to reserve the five-year max for Rubio, his own draft pick, rather than Love, who was selected by former GM Kevin McHale. Injuries and the lockout limited Rubio to just 89 games in his first two seasons, and last season, with the Wolves saddled with the pressure exerted by Love’s contract situation, Rick Adelman nearing the end of his coaching career and a combustible roster with a suspect bench, the 23-year-old point guard again struggled to live up to the immense hype once foretold for the floppy-haired teen.

Now two years later and with Love in Cleveland, it’s Rubio who wants the five-year max contract from a GM who didn’t draft him. To earn that contract in a point guard-heavy league, he’s going to have to make a better case for himself not as the best player on the team, necessarily, but as its leader.

Viewed charitably, Love led by letting his play do the talking, shouldering scoring and rebounding loads no other Timberwolves player could take on and setting a tone that was stoic yet steadfast. He worked hard -- harder than he’s given credit for -- and did a lot for the organization off the court with his coat drive and other community-oriented activities. Viewed less charitably, Love cared more about his own numbers than the team as a whole and when he led, he did so unevenly, with weeks spent moping followed by a sudden decision to air locker room grievances in public. No matter his words, he set a tone on the court of unearned entitlement, complaining about calls and lagging on defense, particularly in transition. For his part, Rubio often seemed to defer to Love’s seniority and position as Best Player on the Team. But as the team’s relationship with Love frayed over the summer, that changed.

In a much-circulated interview with French station Canal+ in May, Rubio was up front about some of Love’s shortcomings as a leader, while also pointing out problems from the coaching staff on down. “He leads in scoring, in other things,” said Rubio, according to a translation. “But in voice he is not the type of player that wants to be or that can be [a leader], no? Still, it did not have to have been him -- even I can take a step further and start to be the definitive leader."

[+] EnlargeKevin Love and Ricky Rubio
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesAfter ceding control to Kevin Love in his first three seasons, the stage is set for Ricky Rubio to lead.
One of the newest (but also most veteran) Timberwolves players, Mo Williams, thinks Rubio has started to take those steps. “From the time I’ve been here, he’s taken that level,” Williams said on the first day of Wolves training camp. “Yesterday he was reading a book on the way up here and it was in a language I can’t read so I said, ‘What kind of book is that?’ And he said, ‘It’s a book on how to be more aggressive and lead and things like that.’ That lets you know it’s in his mental. He wants to lead and he’s in a great position now. It’s not, ‘Whose team is it?’ It’s his team.”

Rubio’s glaring flaws -- inconsistent midrange shooting and finishing -- might never go away. That might not also matter a bit when it comes to stepping into a lead role with the Timberwolves. The things he does do well were enough to make Minnesota 11.3 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the court last season. As new coach Flip Saunders observed recently, if Rubio scores zero points and the team wins, no one is happier; if he scores 20 and they lose, no one feels worse.

He’s certainly making the effort. The book on leadership, the way he’s tried to shut down any questions about his next contract, the hundreds of shots he takes at practice, his commitment to Spain’s national team: All of it points to someone serious about improving himself. But just as important is finding his way back to the joy that animated his early days in Minnesota.

That pass through the legs of reigning NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki to a waiting Anthony Tolliver as the Wolves sealed a win over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks came in Rubio’s fourth game in the NBA. Nutmegs don’t win championships, but look at the giant grin on Tolliver’s face as he runs back down the sideline after hitting the 3-pointer. A mechanically sound shooting stroke is a fundamental, but the foundation of basketball -- of any game -- is play.

There are things Rubio needs to do better to be a more productive player, but there are already things he does that few players can. To call this upcoming season a fresh start for Rubio is to discount all he’s already gone through in his first three years in the league. But with running partners as athletic as Wiggins and Zach LaVine, it’s a chance to follow his own advice and change his face. To not only be handed a team, but to make it his. To do some magic.

Steve McPherson contributes to the TrueHoop Network, Grantland and other publications. Follow him @steventurous.

Free, Love: The liberated T-Wolves

August, 23, 2014
8/23/14
5:50
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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The only thing we know with certainty is that Aug. 23, 2014, marks the date of the liberation of the Minnesota Timberwolves. We don’t know yet if it will go down as the day the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired their final championship component, or the day the Timberwolves landed the Next Big Thing. Too many variables involved to be sure. But go ahead and rejoice in the freedom of the Timberwolves. They’re freed from expectations, freed from conventional NBA style and most of all freed from that most hellish of NBA locales, the Cape of Mediocrity.

There was all of this pressure to get good or lose Kevin Love. Fret no more. Now they’ve lost him, even though it turned out they weren’t that good with him. Their best record in Love’s six seasons in Minnesota was this season’s 40-42 -- and there’s not much worse in the NBA than being 40-42. That’s not good enough to be a contender, not bad enough to have a good shot at getting a top draft pick in the lottery.

Now there’s no need for them to get good right away. Flip Saunders is in his first year back as coach. He also happens to be the GM. He’s not on the hot seat, he just did the ice bucket challenge.

With Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine flying through the air and Ricky Rubio throwing them lob passes, the Timberwolves have a chance to be the most entertaining team in the league. They never were going to be that with Love. Even though I could spend entire summer afternoons watching this Love outlet GIF -- it’s that mesmerizing -- Love doesn’t make you jump out of your seat and immediately start texting your buddies.

And if the best thing the Timberwolves have to offer is style, maybe they can play in a way that runs counter to the NBA trend of jacking up 3-pointers all the time. Last season they were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA (ranking 26th), but that didn’t stop them from attempting just as many 3s as the league leader in 3-point percentage, the San Antonio Spurs. Love was the biggest culprit, and his 505 3-point attempts were more than all but five players in the league.

Wiggins wasn’t a stellar 3-point shooter in college and Anthony Bennett made only 10 as a rookie last season. They should be attacking the hoop and leaving the 3s to Kevin Martin. Scrap the layups/3s/free throws model the rest of the league operates under and go for dunks/dunks/more dunks.

Minnesota’s good luck should be our good luck ... and it all starts with Cleveland’s good luck. Has anyone ever benefited more from someone else’s good fortune than the Timberwolves? Usually premium talent becomes available because something went wrong. Clashes with management, attitude issues, contractual stalemates. In this case Minnesota had a chance to cash in because so much went right for Cleveland. The Cavaliers landed No. 1 pick after No. 1 pick, and then the best player in the game returned because he got homesick. So the Cavaliers had the motivation to accelerate their winning window and the means to get Love with that ultra-rare offer of back-to-back No. 1 picks.

I’d much rather have rookie contracts than expiring contracts (which is primarily what Minnesota sent to Philadelphia, along with a first-round pick from Miami, to get Love fill-in Thaddeus Young). If the Timberwolves so desire, they can have Wiggins and Bennett for a combined $53 million over the next four years. Compare that to, say, Eric Gordon on a $58 million deal over four years.

When the Timberwolves first came to grips with the likelihood they’d have to trade Love they couldn’t have imagined they would end up with the top pick in the most anticipated draft in years. They’ve got a player with the talent to become a star. Even if Wiggins’ potential goes unfulfilled, at least the Timberwolves are unburdened.

Another Love lost for Minnesota

August, 12, 2014
8/12/14
1:07
PM ET
By Ross Marrinson
ESPN The Magazine
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LoveBrace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsLike all good Minnesota sports stars before him, Kevin Love's departure was only a matter of time.
We knew this was coming. Minnesota sports fans always know it’s coming. Watch one of the local teams long enough, and you'll see it: the bitter departure of a franchise superstar to a better, more functional team.

Every market has its losers -- look at the Knicks -- but in Minnesota, we've come to expect it from every pro franchise. We're consistently asked to believe in management that rarely, if ever, warrants it, and we’re consistently asked to believe in meaningless words such as “potential” and “future.” It’s the booze they feed us. And it’s the booze we guzzle.

In the past decade-plus alone, the Minnesota Twins attempted to coach David Ortiz to be an opposite-field bloop hitter, only to watch him carve a Hall of Fame career in Boston. The Vikings traded Randy Moss to Oakland for Napoleon Harris and a first-round pick that became Troy Williamson, who was so inept the team thought he had vision problems. The Twins sought a bidding war between the Red Sox and Yankees for two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana -- whom they of course decided they couldn't afford even though the owner, Carl Pohlad, was worth a reported $2.6 billion -- only to have both teams decide the price was too high, leaving the Twins with a Mets package led by then-35th-ranked prospect Carlos Gomez, who was so terrible in Minnesota they traded him to Milwaukee for shortstop J.J. Hardy.

The worst departure of them all, of course, was Kevin Garnett, whose career with the Timberwolves came to an end after 12 seasons of Kevin McHale’s criminal mismanagement, which included, in no particular order: horrible drafts, horrible signings and attempting to illegally sign Joe Smith -- Joe Smith! -- to an $86 million deal.

So the story of Kevin Love’s departure didn’t begin in May, when he reportedly told the Wolves’ brass he intended to opt out of his deal after the 2014-15 season. That happened some 3 1/2 years earlier, when Love signed a four-year, $62 million max deal to stay in Minnesota.



In Love’s first season, coach Randy Wittman demanded Love stop shooting 3s, even though the 6-foot-10 forward had shot 35 percent from outside in college. After the 24-58 campaign, the fourth consecutive season with fewer than 35 wins, Wolves owner Glen Taylor finally fired McHale and hired David Kahn, somehow replacing the worst general manager in the NBA with an even worse one.

In his second season, after Love topped all rookies in PER (18.3), led the league in offensive rebound rate and posted a per-36-minute line of 15.8 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, coach Kurt Rambis, whom Kahn hired before the season, refused to start Love. It was a 15-67 season that began with the draft in which, yes, the Wolves selected four point guards, one of whom wouldn’t arrive in the country for two years.

Then came the 2010 draft, when Kahn drafted 23-year-old Syracuse wing Wesley Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Paul George and others. A starting lineup of Luke Ridnour, Johnson, Michael Beasley, Love and Darko Milicic (whom Kahn had signed to a four-year, $20 million deal) led to a dramatic two-win improvement. The 22-year-old Love? Merely 20.2 PPG, a league-leading 15.2 RPG, a PER of 24.3 and a 42 percent 3-point percentage.

In 2011-12, Love’s contract year, he was even better, averaging 26 and 13 with a PER of 25.4, trailing only LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant. At 23 years old, readying for his first max contract, Love was a superstar. A No. 1 piece on a championship team. A cornerstone.



What Love deserved, what he desired, was a five-year deal (not the four-year deal he signed), the same one Russell Westbook, whom Love had outproduced in almost every raw and advanced statistic through their first four seasons, had signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder just a week earlier. (What he got, reportedly, was an offer sheet thrown at him by Kahn in the trainer’s room after a loss.) Love wanted to stay in Minnesota longer. A young star wanted to sign a maximum deal to stay in this cold, small market, the snow-swept Midwestern city we’re told no one wants to visit, let alone reside in.

[+] EnlargeLove & Rubio
Brad Rempel/USA TODAY SportsDavid Kahn's early commitment to Ricky Rubio was perhaps the final straw for Kevin Love in Minnesota.
But Kahn, perhaps viewing this as his last chance to save his job, supposedly preferred to save that five-year deal for Ricky Rubio, who, by the point Love signed his extension, had played a grand total of 18 NBA games and was known more for charming grandmas across the upper Midwest. We didn't even know if Rubio could shoot yet. (Spoiler alert: He can’t.) But it was his five-year deal. His “franchise player” designation.

Sometime during all of this, Wolves owner Glen Taylor -- who in 2007 accused Garnett of “tanking” -- said Love wasn’t a star because he hadn’t led the team to the playoffs, a sentiment so delusional it begs the question of if Taylor had ever looked at his own roster.

If you were Love, and you saw your franchise value unknown potential and floppy-haired adorableness over known superstardom, and show absolutely no aptitude for franchise-building in four noncompetitive seasons, wouldn't that leave you wanting something more? Wouldn't you have demanded that player option after Year 3?

To blame Love for this -- the departure of the team’s second franchise player in seven years -- is as unfair as it is disingenuous.

But that’s Minnesota sports. We like the future. Potential. Flying under the national radar. Kitten photos on Instagram. We're flyover country. We're Midwesterners. We're uncomfortable with stars and attention.



In May, Love informed Taylor and new coach and president of basketball personnel Flip Saunders that he planned to opt out after this season, forcing the team to once again entertain the notion of trading its best player, this time a 25-year-old entering the prime of his career. And there was Love, smirking his way across the country, visiting the likes of Boston and claiming intrigue at the thought of joining the moribund Knicks, as if either of those franchises were closer to winning than his own.

And now, some three months later, a deal seems to be in place to send Love to another small, snow-swept Midwestern market, Cleveland, for No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, 2013’s No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round pick.

It’s unquestionably the best haul the team could’ve received, and Saunders handled the situation perfectly, waiting patiently to increase the price of his most-prized asset. The process, shockingly, seemed measured -- controlled, even.

So are we excited about Wiggins? Sure. Will we embrace him? Of course we will. He plays defense, seems like a hard-working kid and has a nice smile. We love that stuff. And whatever Wiggins ends up to be -- a Tracy McGrady or a Corey Brewer or somewhere in between -- the Wolves win: If he’s close to the top of that range, they’ve got yet another chance to build around a franchise player, and on the cheap for the next five seasons. If not, if he’s an energetic sixth man, they'll once again find themselves at the top of the draft -- familiar territory for a team that’s made 20 lottery picks in its 25-year history.

It’s a win-win for the Wolves.

Except it’s not. In reality, they've already lost.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Ross Marrinson is an associate editor with ESPN The Magazine. Follow him @RMarrinsonESPN

Cavs fan gets tattoo of Love and LeBron

August, 4, 2014
8/04/14
10:34
AM ET
Rovell By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com
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Cavaliers tattooCourtesy of Nick GrossmanKevin Love and LeBron James could be sharing the same frontcourt soon; for now, they share a back.
An impatient Cleveland Cavaliers fan couldn't wait for a Kevin Love trade to be consummated, so Sunday night he had the Minnesota Timberwolves forward join LeBron James -- on his back.

Nick Grossman, 16, said he was walking the Virginia Beach boardwalk when he saw a shop that made henna tattoos of NBA players. When Grossman saw both James, available in a Heat jersey, and Love, available in a Timberwolves jersey, the lightbulb went off.

"I asked if they could put LeBron and Love in Cavs jerseys instead and they said they could if I showed them what the jersey looked like," said Grossman, who is from Richmond, Virginia, but grew up a Cavs fan (his father's family is from the Cleveland area).

Thirty minutes and $60 later, Grossman brought LeBron and Love together on his shoulder blades.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that it's likely that Love gets traded to the Cavaliers on either Aug. 23 or 24. Cavs rookie Andrew Wiggins, who is expected to be part of the deal, is first eligible to be traded on Aug. 23.

If somehow the deal doesn't work out, the best part is that the tattoo is temporary, but Grossman doesn't think of it that way.

"It lasts up to a month, so it still should be on by the time Love gets traded to Cleveland," Grossman said.

Even though Grossman said he knew the Cavaliers had retired No. 42 for Nate Thurmond, he noted that UCLA had retired that number for Walt Hazzard and Love still wore that number after receiving permission from Hazzard.

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