MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Timberwolves know the story.
They know that no one expects them to be very good this season. After all, they just traded the face of their franchise and remade their core around some very dynamic and very young players.
Yes, Kevin Love is in Cleveland, teaming up with LeBron James to try to win a championship. And the Wolves are left to build around 19-year-old Andrew Wiggins, the centerpiece of the three-team trade that sent Love to the Cavs.
But Flip Saunders believes the step back from last season's 40-42 mark won't be that dramatic at all. For as young as they are with Wiggins, 19-year-old Zach LaVine, and 21-year-old Anthony Bennett, there remains some seasoned veterans all around them.
Point guard Ricky Rubio is entering his fourth season. Big man Nikola Pekovic is entering his fifth, shooting guard Kevin Martin is in his 11th season, and another important piece of the trade — power forward Thaddeus Young — is 26 years old. They also have veterans Corey Brewer, Mo Williams and Chase Budinger coming off the bench, so the Wolves aren't as green as they might initially appear.
"The national media has a total misconception of our team," said Saunders, a part-owner, president of basketball operations, and now the head coach, as well. "They feel we're in a rebuild because we traded Kevin Love. Now Kevin's a great player, but when you have 11 of your top 13 guys back and basically you're looking at a situation where that team won 40 games in a tough Western Conference, it's not a rebuild. We're building with those guys.
"So we're adding pieces to those guys. We're hoping that some of the pieces we already had continue to get better and better."
Still, there are going to be bumps in the road early while Wiggins and LaVine get their bearings, starting with the season opener on Oct. 27 in Memphis. And when you play in the West, learning on the job isn't conducive to immediate success.
"I think when you just see those guys, you're first impression is their potential," Martin said. "They're talented kids that don't even know what's going on. If you ask them how to spell Spalding on the side of the ball, they probably wouldn't even know how to spell it. That's just how young they are. I think we just have to be there for them every step of the way."
Here are some things to watch from the Wolves this season.
RUBIO'S FUTURE: Rubio and the Wolves are in the middle of a drawn-out negotiation for a long-term contract extension. Rubio's agents are pushing for max money from a team that just gave up its most marketable asset in Love. The Wolves so far haven't been willing to go that far. If a deal is not reached by Oct. 31, Rubio will become a restricted free agent next summer.
SAUNDERS RETURNS: Saunders replaces the retired Rick Adelman as coach of the Wolves, marking his second tour with the team. He previously coached the Wolves from 1995-2005, leading them to eight straight playoff appearances and a berth in the Western Conference finals in 2004. He was fired the following season, and the Wolves haven't been back to the playoffs since.
PEKOVIC'S HEALTH: The burly big man from Montenegro signed a five-year, $60 million contract before last season, and the Wolves put him on a different workout routine to try to keep him healthy. It didn't work. Pekovic missed 28 games last season with various ailments. The Wolves hope limiting him to 25-28 minutes per game and playing second-year C Gorgui Dieng more will help reduce the wear and tear on Pekovic's body.
BOUNCE BROTHERS: That's the moniker that Wiggins and LaVine have adopted. Both are high-fliers with vertical jumps over 40 inches. Their athleticism and ability to get out into the open court for dunks should make the Wolves one of the more entertaining watches this season. That athleticism fits Rubio's strengths as a lob passer, as well, so the highlights, if not the wins, should be plentiful. LaVine hasn't been shy about wanting to compete in the dunk contest on All-Star weekend.
BENNETT'S DEVELOPMENT: The forgotten man in the August blockbuster that sent Love to Cleveland, Bennett is a former No. 1 overall draft pick coming off a horrendous rookie season with the Cavs. Injuries caused him to miss summer league and much of training camp last season, and he spent all of last year trying to get back into shape. Bennett slimmed down this summer, and Saunders said he has been the biggest surprise of camp with his overall athleticism and instincts on the boards.
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