Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
The Wolves found some sort of equilibrium in week five of the season - but Ricky Rubio is coming back any day now to reintroduce a healthy, valuable sense of chaos.
Week five was not a bad week for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves followed a home win against Milwaukee with a road split on back-to-back nights against Philadelphia and Boston. 2-1, following a 1-6 stretch? That's, well, normal.
The wins were hardly exceptional; against the Bucks, Minnesota followed an 11-point third quarter with a 27-point fourth, breaking a streak of second-half swoons in losses. Against the 76ers, the team's shooting temporarily broke out of a slump, as the team shot 54% from the floor and 52% from distance and won a laugher. The loss, too, wasn't too exceptional; the Wolves shot just 14-30 from the line and lost by ten to a well-rested Celtics team. That's really about what you'd expect.
The Wolves are 8-9 for the year, again hovering around .500. That's the very definition of normal.
Really, without Ricky Rubio, with Kevin Love still coming back from a broken hand, without Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy, the Timberwolves are quite average. They're not bad, certainly. They can cobble together passable guard play, thanks to Love and Nikola Pekovic they win the rebounding battle every night, and they can send out waves of guys - Josh Howard, Dante Cunningham, even Derrick Williams some nights - of guys who are competent hustlers. That doesn't make them good, but it also doesn't mean they're bad.
You can look at this one of two ways, really. On the one hand, you can curse the team's injury bug and rail at the skies, wishing that the Wolves were better than their 8-9 record. On the other hand, you can look back at the last seven, winning record-free years, and think that 8-9 really isn't that bad. But either way, this new normal - this basic competence, this marginal talent, this average team - is only temporary.
Next week - perhaps tonight, though more likely next week - Ricky Rubio returns to the floor. Kirilenko, still battling back spasms, will return as well. And at that point, all of the thoughts about normal and basic and average will fall by the wayside, because the Wolves are really showing the talent to be much better than that.
When the injuries dissipate, Minnesota's main problem will be lack of playing time. Certainly, Malcolm Lee - who's shown flashes of something more than a third-string shooting guard - will struggle to find time in the lineup. So too will Williams, who's fallen behind Cunningham in the rotation at power forward, despite some improved play over the past couple of weeks. But in front of those guys stands one of the best rotations we've seen in Minnesota, maybe in franchise history.
Sure, Rubio may not immediately be his old self, and Alexey Shved is still a little short on NBA maturity, and Love needs to rediscover his shooting form, and Pekovic has to stop missing five bunnies a game. Stare as much at the flaws as you like, but don't ignore the fact that the Wolves have put together a team that's capable of routine wins, that's capable of beating good teams, and that has the potential to be not only a playoff team but a playoff factor.
Schedule: It's a nice, light home week for the Wolves; they take on the awful Cleveland Cavaliers tonight, then have four days off before a Wednesday game against Denver. They'll have to rest while they can; Wednesday's game kicks of a stretch of six games in nine days in four cities.
Health Update: Rubio is rumored to be clamoring to play tonight, but with only a handful of practices under his belt, Wednesday seems a more likely bet. Kirilenko is also questionable for this evening, as he continues to battle back spasms. Roy, meanwhile, has been missing since November 9, and may not return before Christmas - if he does at all.