MINNEAPOLIS – The opening training camp practice of the season for the Minnesota Timberwolves lasted a little more than three hours. The day closed with a spirited scrimmage between the starters and the second unit.
Sixteen minutes into the scrimmage, the Timberwolves core of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic had already spent more time on the floor together than they did all of last season.
That's right. The young core that is supposed to bury nine years of futility this season and get the Timberwolves back to the playoffs this season spent a grand total of 15 minutes on the floor together as a group last year. Love only played in 18 games because of a twice-broken hand, Rubio didn't get going until the middle of December while recovering from the torn ACL in his right knee suffered the previous March and the bruising Pekovic missed 20 games throughout the year with a variety of injuries that come from banging in the paint.
"It's great to play with those guys," Rubio said. "They have a lot of talent. It's easy to play with them. We just have to get back our chemistry that we had. Last year we couldn't play a lot of minutes because of the injuries. But we are on the same page, and that's going to help."
It better. The Wolves haven't made the playoffs since Kevin Garnett led them to the Western Conference finals in 2004.
They signed Pekovic to a five-year deal worth $60 million this summer, showing that they believe the trio can eventually become a championship-level core. But there is a sense of urgency. Love can become a free agent in 2015, Rubio is under team control for two more years and coach Rick Adelman is 67 years old and considered retiring in the offseason to be with his wife, Mary Kay, who is being treated for seizures.
"We all know what happened last year and we just want to move forward and take care of the unfinished business," Love said.
Here are five things to watch with the 2013-14 Timberwolves:
ORNERY LOVE: After struggling with so many injuries and occasionally getting booed by home fans last season, the once-affable Love has been a little surly with the media this fall. He prefers to take questions sitting down with his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him. Love said he is happy with new president Flip Saunders and the changes to the roster. But he has decided to take a more all-business approach with the media and enters the season with a chip on his shoulder, looking to reclaim his spot as the best power forward in the game.
THE FLIP EFFECT: Saunders is still very much in the honeymoon phase upon his return to the Wolves, the team he coached for 10 years. His predecessor, David Kahn, inspired little confidence within the walls of Target Center and angered Love during contract negotiations. Saunders is much more adept at relating to players, coaches and team employees, and the result has been a galvanizing from the top of the franchise down.
SHOOTERS WANTED: The Timberwolves were by far the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season, a problem that was exacerbated by Love's long absence. When Saunders took over, his biggest priority was to upgrade the shooting around Rubio, the pass-first point guard who struggles from the outside. "I really believe you can't win a championship without good 3-point shooting," Saunders said. So he signed Kevin Martin, who shot 42.9 percent from 3 last year, and also brought in Corey Brewer, who is reliable from the corners. And with a healthy Love back in the mix, the Wolves figure to be much better in that department.
INFIRMARY: The Timberwolves thought they were in position to end that dubious playoff drought last year. But injuries to every key player wreaked havoc on the team's expectations. This season is off to an ominous start on that front, with swingman Chase Budinger out indefinitely with a knee injury and Martin was limited in the preseason by a sore Achilles. For a snake-bitten franchise, that's not a good sign.
DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE: The Timberwolves' long-struggling defense actually showed significant improvement last year, thanks in large part to Andrei Kirilenko's versatile and tenacious presence. But Kirilenko signed with the Nets in the offseason, leaving behind a roster that should have no trouble scoring but could have all kinds of problems keeping the opponent off the board. Pekovic isn't a shot-blocker. Love and Martin are considered subpar defenders at their position. Adelman said the key will be team defense in the absence of a true stopper.
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