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Wolves' Long Road Trip Begins Long Season

For the Minnesota Timberwolves, it was all good just a week ago. When they began their latest road trip, they were a feisty young team looking to establish a new identity in the post Kevin Love era. Six games and twelve days later, a bruised and battered bunch is limping home, trying to figure out how to remain competitive without Ricky Rubio. For the seven first and second-year players on the roster, the experience was a brutal welcome into the NBA.

The trip started with a splash, a 98-91 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. It was just how they drew it up before the season - Rubio had 12 assists, Kevin Martin had 24 points, Nik Pekovic had 11 rebounds and all five starters were in double digits. They were 2-2 and looking pretty good.

“It’s amazing how fast things can change in one week in the NBA,” said Martin after the last game of the trip, a 131-117 loss to the Dallas Mavericks that dropped Minnesota to 2-7.

Rubio went down during the second game in Orlando, turning the trip from a great opportunity for a young team to bond away from home into a grueling death march with no end in sight. He was the only guy the Wolves could not afford to lose - the face of the franchise, the engine of their offense and their best two-way player. Their roster, which features a number of guys better at finishing than creating, was set up to maximize his ability to create shots for others.

If Flip Saunders was going by the book, he would have started a 12-year veteran like Mo Williams, at least until the Wolves could get home and re-orient themselves with a few days of practice. Instead, he went with a more long-term decision, moving Zach LaVine into the starting line-up and keeping Williams at 6th man. That way Sanders could manage Williams minutes while giving LaVine the benefit of breaking in with guys who could make his life easier.

There wasn’t much time to make an adjustment. Rubio was injured in Orlando on a Friday and they had a game in Miami on Saturday. They ran a simplified playbook with LaVine at the helm, as he was basically getting the ball up the court and then getting it to one of the veterans. They started out flat, but they were able to make a game of it from there and LaVine ended up with a fairly solid line for a rookie - 5 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists on 2-5 shooting.

Dealing with a back-to-back is pretty common for an NBA team, where it gets weird for Minnesota is their detour into Mexico. Instead of a home game that would split up the road trip, they left Miami for Mexico City, where they would be the designated home team against the Houston Rockets. Not only would a game against the run and gun Rockets be played at a blistering pace, they would be playing at elevations above 7,000 feet, higher even than in Denver.

They kept the game reasonably competitive against a Houston team that has been blowing teams off the floor, playing them even until halftime before eventually losing by 12. Corey Brewer, just like he used to do back with the Nuggets, killed the Rockets with leak-outs, scoring 18 points by pushing the pace while everyone else was gasping for breath. If that had been the end of a road trip, the Wolves might have been able to keep things together a little longer.

Instead, the loss was the beginning of a stretch of three games in four nights in three different cities. After a game in Mexico City on a Wednesday, they had to play in New Orleans on Friday and in Dallas on Saturday. This version of the Wolves would have a tough time beating the Pelicans and the Mavericks in almost any situation, much less one like this. They were walking into an execution - the only thing missing was the blindfold and the cigarette.

At the end of the first quarter in New Orleans, they were down 43-19 and things didn’t get much better from there. They ended up losing 139-91 in the type of one-sided thrashing you often see happen to young teams at the end of a long road trip. The good news for both teams is that everyone got to pad their stats - the Pellies had guys like Austin Rivers going 8-9 from the floor while the Wolves rookie duo of LaVine and Wiggins set career highs in points with 13 and 20.

The two lottery picks are the first pair of 19-year-olds to start for an NBA team since Josh Smith and Marvin Williams in Atlanta in 2004. They are insanely athletic, probably the most athletic pair of teammates since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There’s no in the league with legs as fresh as those two. Their shootaround in Dallas was cancelled, but the rookies were still doing 360’s and taking the ball between their legs in warm-ups like it was nothing.

Once the game started, though, they faded into the woodwork. LaVine picked up 2 fouls in the first 2 minutes while Wiggins floated around without racking up a lot of statistics.

“There’s no question that the back-to-backs and the road trip caught up with some of the guys,” Saunders said. “Some of the rookies weren’t really here tonight. They had stars in their eyes.”

There are no back-to-backs in the college game and few road trips, since the players have to “go to class”.

When people say the NBA schedule is too long, they are thinking of games like the one between the Mavs and Wolves on Saturday. It was over before it even began and there was little entertainment to be had. With the exception of Kevin Martin, who shot over smaller defenders like Monta Ellis (6’3) and Devin Harris (6’3) as if they were the chairs, no one for Minnesota had a good game. Dallas had 131 points and they could have had 150 if they really wanted too.

The Wolves lost the last three games of their road trip by an average of 25 points. They have talent, but they aren’t very deep and they didn’t have time to adjust after Rubio’s injury. They would have been much better served practicing for a few extra days, rather than being rushed back into the fray to squeeze a few more games into the schedule. Pekovic only played 11 minutes on Saturday - if he got injured, Minnesota could be in even more trouble than they are already in.

Basketball is a physical and demanding sport that is really hard on your body. Doing that multiple times a week for 6 months is a grind, much less when you are criss-crossing across the North American continent on a nightly basis. After the loss to Dallas, Wiggins smiled and said “definitely” when asked whether the road trip was more travel than he had all of last season at Kansas. Corey Brewer told reporters “he never wanted to be back in the snow so bad.”

After such a long trip, most of the players seemed happy to be returning home. In the post-game press scrum, a fairly relaxed Saunders looked at the bright side. “Considering the circumstances, I was happy with what they did,” he said. “We gave better effort and we had more energy [than on Friday].” As the rare coach who doubles as his own GM, he doesn’t have anyone looking over his shoulder who can overrule him and generally making his life miserable.

He’s certainly not afraid to march to the beat of his own drum. Saunders took LaVine in the lottery even though he started only two games at UCLA. LaVine was a total YOLO pick - he was a back-up without consistent stats, but he showed enough tremendous upside potential you were intrigued anyway. Not many GM’s would have taken him high and even fewer coaches would have started him. Flip is not a guy worried about being second-guessed.

He does have an eye for talent. Even in a loss like the one to Mavs, you saw flashes of inspired play - a spin move to the front of the rim from Wiggins, LaVine exploding into the lane and drawing an and-1, Gorgui Dieng banking a shot off the glass. Anthony Bennett and Shabazz Muhammad had their moments too and Glenn Robinson III at least looked the part in warm-ups. In five years, most of those guys will still be playing in the NBA. The question is where.

For Wiggins and LaVine, the next few months are about survival. The hope is that they put up statistics that can keep them on the floor and allow them to play through their mistakes. People aren’t sweating their stats too hard yet, but there’s enough of a sample size for them to start jumping to conclusions. There’s a reason that very few rookies are playing significant minutes in the first few weeks of the season - it’s a big jump and their teams are trying to win games.

That’s not easy to do if you play a bunch of players who are just entering the league. As a rule, young players struggle to play defense and execute on offense and the refs don’t respect them either. The whole thing is a recipe for disaster - if you can’t score in the half-court, the only way you are going to score is running off the other team’s misses. So if you can’t make the other team miss, you can’t score and you give them the chance to run the ball back at you.

That basic scenario is what happened in the Mavs last two home games, where they were +67 against the 76ers and the Wolves. They don’t have much time to celebrate their success, though, as they play three of their next four on the road, including a game at Washington and one at Houston on the second night of a back-to-back. That’s life in the NBA. Last week, the Mavs were reeling from an 11-point home beating from the Heat that wasn’t even that close.

The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s always another game - can’t get too high, can’t get too low.

“Everybody says it’s a process. You have to have a short memory in this league,” Wiggins said in Dallas. “You have to prepare for the next game.”

His career is less than a month old and his team is already in crisis. In late December, they play at Cleveland, at Denver, at Golden State then at Utah. This road trip is the first of many such learning experiences.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Northwest Division, which doesn’t feature markets that have traditionally attracted big-name free agents. In recent years, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Kevin Love have all departed the division on less than friendly terms. As a result, almost every team in the Northwest has committed itself to building through the draft, with varying levels of success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder represent the gold standard for that model. Not only have they built an elite team almost entirely through homegrown products, they have remained committed to the draft even as they contend for titles. The Thunder have seven different guys on their rookie deals and their ability to take the final step in the playoffs will depend in large part on how well those players can grow into bigger roles over the course of the season. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the Utah Jazz, who have six recent lottery picks on their roster but appear no closer to getting out of the basement in the Western Conference. Some have seen their games stagnate as they move into bigger roles while others have struggled to find a role that allows them to maximize their skill-set. Dante Exum might be the future, but he is still a 19-year-old who played high school basketball in Australia last season. 

Somewhere in the middle are the Portland Trail Blazers, who shot up the standings last season with a starting line-up better than the sum of its parts and the Denver Nuggets, who are still looking for an identity after dumping George Karl and falling out of the playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who are in the very beginning of a new rebuilding plan, can only hope that their path looks more like Oklahoma City than Utah in the next few years. 

- Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams

The scariest part about where the Thunder go from here is how much room they still have to improve. Over the last three seasons, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NBA while giving Kendrick Perkins 20-25 minutes a game. He has some value as a post defender and a guy who quarterbacks the defense, but imagine if they had a guy with more size and athleticism than Perkins back there who was not a complete non-entity on the offensive end?

Even if Adams never develops a post game, his ability to catch and finish around the rim makes him an upgrade over Perkins. He shot 50% from the field as a rookie, a number Perkins hasn’t matched since his time in Boston. He probably won’t start for another season, but as he improves on both sides of the ball and earns more playing time, the Thunder will be even better than they are now. Where will they be when Adams is at 30-35 minutes a night?

- Portland Trail Blazers: Will Barton

After two seasons on the fringes of the rotation in Portland, Barton could be poised for a breakout year in his third year in the NBA. With Mo Williams gone, there’s room in the rotation for a guard to assume a bigger role on the second unit, which has been one of the biggest weaknesses for the Trail Blazers over the last few seasons. Portland has three young guards on their bench - Barton, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe - and one of them needs to step up. 

The key for Barton is his outside shot, which improved between his first and second seasons in the league. If he can consistently knock down the 3, his ability to get to the rim and find the open man will give him a leg up on the other two, who are more pure shooters. This is a big year for Barton - if he can’t crack the rotation, he’s probably not long for Portland, as few NBA teams keep second round picks on the end of their bench for four seasons.

- Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried

No player had a better summer than Faried, who followed a breakout performance in the World Cup with a $50 million contract extension. The move signals Denver’s commitment to Faried as they try to move forward in the post Karl era. Faried is the only under-25 player slated to have much of a role on the Nuggets roster this season, so their ability to move up the Western hierarchy will depend in large part on how much room he has left to grow.

The key question with Faried is how to build a team around him - is he better off with a shot-blocking center who can protect him on defense or a stretch 4 who can open up the floor for him? Coach K solved the dilemma by pairing him with Anthony Davis, but guys with his skill-set do not grow on trees. If Faried can improve as a perimeter shooter and a defensive player, he will give Brian Shaw more options in terms of how he deploys his frontcourt.

- Minnesota Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng

After being glued to the bench for most of his rookie season, Dieng exploded in the final few months, taking advantage of an injury to Nik Pekovic to establish himself as a legitimate NBA center. Not only was he a nightly double-double threat, he displayed a skill-set that has been in short supply in Minnesota in recent years - a shot-blocking center who could anchor a defense while also providing quality play on the offensive end of the floor.

With Pekovic likely to be the featured option in a post Kevin Love universe, it’s unclear how many minutes will be there for Dieng. Can he operate as a power forward in a Twin Towers configuration or will he be be siloed into a role as a backup center? One of the big questions for Flip Saunders is whether he can figure out a way to use Pekovic and Dieng together or whether he would be better off flipping one of his C’s to improve the rest of the roster.

- Utah Jazz: Trey Burke

There are a lot of guys who could be featured here, as there a number of talented young players in Utah who haven’t quite figured out who they are in the NBA. None will be more important to the team’s success this season than Burke, the second-year PG who will have to shoulder a huge burden on the offensive side of the ball. Not only will he need to figure out how to score more efficiently, he will have to be able to create easy shots for everyone else too.

As a rookie, Burke shot 38% from the field, struggling with the size and speed of the NBA game. At 6’0 190, he is one of the smallest PG’s in the NBA and he will need to use every bit of his offensive creativity to survive against the longer and bigger defenders he will face on a nightly basis. The key for him is becoming a knock-down shooter - a guy his size will have a hard time surviving in the lane and he has to take advantage of any opening he can create.

Top-5 Non-National Teams For 14-15

While we are still about a few weeks away from regular season NBA basketball, it seems like a fair time to start thinking about the teams and storylines that could dominate the landscape for the upcoming season. After years of writing the Non-National Games of the Week column for RealGM, I have a sense of what teams will be on my NNGW radar to start the year. My non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

While I have removed teams with heavy national profiles from consideration for this column in other years, I made every team eligible this season and none of the chosen six play even thirty games on ESPN/ABC, TNT and NBATV.

Honorable Mention. Philadelphia 76ers: They will be absolutely terrible but Nerlens Noel made enough plays in Summer League to make Philly the early leader for my first quarter Eastern Time Zone team.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves: Unlike the Sixers, most of Minnesota’s fun young players should get at least some playing time this season and the team should be somewhat competitive. Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng have larger roles to play, but both Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine should get enough burn to make the Wolves worth paying attention to. Plus, any team with Ricky Rubio gets my attention, at least for now.

4. Phoenix Suns: The Suns came out of nowhere and ended up being my favorite League Pass team on the aggregate last season. They were fun to watch and played games of importance despite eventually missing the playoffs. While there are numerous factors which may lead to a more deflating campaign, Jeff Hornacek’s squad deserves this spot based on their large overall continuity.

3. Golden State Warriors: After deciding to keep their roster largely together despite some compelling offers that I am still not over, the Warriors did change their head coach and should have a much more effective and engaging offense to show for it. I also hope we get to see more of Draymond Green playing with Stephen Curry as well as a potential rejuvenation for Harrison Barnes after a wholly disappointing sophomore season.

2. New Orleans Pelicans: An absolutely huge test year for Anthony Davis. The Brow got muscle behind him in the form of one of the best defensive Centers in the entire league in Omer Asik. The full-strength Pelicans will be intensely fun to watch and give us a much better idea of what the next few seasons in New Orleans will look like. Plus, the three-headed PF/C monster of Davis, Asik, and Ryan Anderson causes matchup problems in each iteration and we may also see some minutes with all three sharing the court, which could lead to my favorite potential situation of the entire 14-15 season: Anthony Davis guarding Small Forwards. If Monty Williams puts Davis on Kevin Durant for 5+ minutes during some game, it would be must-see TV for basketball fans.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Amazingly, the Cavs get the #1 spot on this list for a second year in a row. Let’s hope it turns out better for them this time around. This year’s Cavaliers are the great experiment of this NBA season because their three best players were all better offensively than defensively last year and their only true rim protector on the roster has quite the injury history. Add in the intrigue relating to who starts at shooting guard and figuring out the SF/PF rotation and you have a team worth watching in both big and small moments.

A Superstar Is Not Enough Out West

After years of failed lottery picks, the Wolves finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA.

The Law Of Small Numbers

While taking a quick glance at the market for Kevin Love around draft day could have led to confidence for the Warriors, any concept that letting the string play out would be to their advantage would be deeply misguided.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

With the Cavaliers, Bucks, 76ers, Magic and Jazz owning the first five picks, we can begin to examine what will go into the decision-making process of the the first 14 selection.

Identifying What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6’10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Mason Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers in college, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling.

The Utter Nightmare Of Minnesota's 2011 Draft

A bad draft can happen in a variety of ways: poor selections, bad trades, or taking options off the table for no reason. All three hit David Kahn and the Wolves at the same time.

The Western Conference At The Deadline

The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Top-Five 2nd-Favorite Teams

In an NBA so rich with talent and intriguing storylines, how can you limit yourself to just one team? These five squads deserve second billing in your hearts and remote-holding hands.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

How Many Players Teams Acquire At Each Trade Deadline On Average

The Kings, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder and Cavaliers have been the most active teams at the deadline over the past decade, while the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Lakers and Pacers have made the fewest deals.

The Uncertain NBA Career Of Derrick Williams

Derrick Williams isn’t just a reserve forward for the Timberwolves, he is only 18 months removed from being the second overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft and that makes the first 80 games of his career so enigmatic.

Kirilenko's NBA Departure And Return

Andrei Kirilenko talks to RealGM about his experience with CSKA, winning the bronze in London, the impact of Mikhail Prokhorov on the Russian game and his initial days with the Wolves.

Leroux's 2012-13 NBA Tier Predcitions

While the drop-off from the Heat to the rest of the Eastern Conference is severe, the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder have quick company in the second and third tiers.

Leroux's 30-Team Offseason Review

The Nuggets, Lakers, Heat, 76ers and Nets were amongst the teams with great offseasons, while the Bucks, Magic, Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers and Bulls were in the bad column. Here's how all 30 teams have fared in the 2012 offseason.

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