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Minnesota Timberwolves 2014-15 Preview - Embracing a New Era

The Kevin Love era has officially come to an end in Minnesota, but while it is difficult to lose a player of that caliber, the Timberwolves have constructed one of the most exciting and promising young teams in the NBA.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

The Minnesota Timberwolves are no longer lead by an All-NBA guy like Kevin Love, but that's nothing to be upset about if you're a Wolves fan. Love was no longer happy in a rebuilding situation; these things happen. Minnesota had two choices - let him walk in 2015 and risk losing him for nothing in return, or pull the trigger now and bring in a package of valuable assets to bolster the process of building a formidable squad in the future.

Flip Saunders reeled in one heck of a package. Opportunities to acquire the top pick in the NBA draft don't come along every day, especially in a class as talented as 2014's headed by a potential star like Andrew Wiggins. Landing both number one overall picks from each of the last two drafts via trade is flat out unheard of, especially when you're also getting a veteran like Thaddeus Young to sweeten the deal with a quality stretch-four that can help out right away. Minnesota stumbled upon as attractive of a deal as they could have possibly found, and direction has been established.

Walk with me, basketball fans. Let's take a look at the state of the Timberwolves.

Canis Hoopus - 2013-14 Minnesota Timberwolves Preview - SBNation.com

There are perhaps two sets of goals for this team, and which takes priority will be an interesting thing to watch. Both winning games and developing players are important to the Wolves this year. There might come a point, however, where those goals diverge, and Saunders will have to decide what's more important. It's unlikely that this is a playoff team, certainly, though I do think there are 30-35 wins in there if they want them. But we've already harped on the young talent, and many of those guys will need playing time at some point in order to get better. There is little question that Andrew Wiggins will play, likely as the starter at small forward, but beyond that, it's going to depend on their individual progress and how much Saunders decides to give them minutes even at the cost of wins.

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2013-14 IN REVIEW
40-42
3rd in Northwest Division - 10th in Western Conference

Coming into the 2013-14 season, the Timberwolves had a lot to be excited about and thought maybe, just maybe, they were ready to take the next step. Rick Adelman was entering his third year as Minnesota's head coach, Kevin Love came into training camp healthy after appearing in just 18 games the year before due to breaking his shooting hand on two occasions, and the Wolves were also able to bring in a go-to perimeter scorer by signing Kevin Martin to a four-year, $28 million contract.

The Timberwolves took some baby steps and improved, as they finished just under .500 and ended up posting their best record since going 44-38 in 2005-06, but they once again failed to make the playoffs. Another year, another lottery pick. In fact, Minnesota hasn't sniffed the postseason since Kevin Garnett lead them to the 2004 Western Conference Finals. Since then, the word "potential" has pierced the ears of Wolves fans like fingernails screeching on a chalkboard.

Kevin Love was able to suit up for 77 games and return to form with MVP-caliber statistical production of 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and a career high 4.4 assists per game. On top of that, he buried a career best 190 three-point shots and converted on a more than respectable 37.6% clip. However, everybody and their mother knew that this was going to be his last full season as a member of the Timberwolves. The question was no longer "Will Love stick around?" It was now "Where will he end up, and what can the Wolves get in return?" It was inevitable, and acted as a dark cloud over the city of Minneapolis to the point where everyone was simply ready to move on, especially throughout the second half of the season, but nobody knew for sure when exactly it would happen.

Nikola Pekovic's status was cemented, however, as the big fella inked a five-year, $60 million contract extension with Minnesota prior to the start of the season. That is one heck of a price tag, but relative to some of the other deals less productive players are signing these days, it's not that bad at all. Pekovic responded beautifully, posting a career high 17.5 points per contest along with 8.7 rebounds on 54.1% shooting as he further solidified himself as one of the best centers in the Western Conference.

Ricky Rubio continued to dazzle the basketball world with his impeccable ball skills and completely unfair court vision, but he didn't quite make the leap and turn the corner in terms of taking the next step individually. The third year of a talented prospect's career is usually where people start to expect something more, but the 6'4" Spaniard failed to shoot even 40% from the field for the third consecutive season and even scored a career low 9.5 points per game. He did, however, finish second in the league in steals (2.3 per game) while his 8.6 assists per game was the fourth-best the NBA had to offer, but he didn't quite elevate himself to new heights.

The Timberwolves also brought in a pair of first round picks in the 2013 NBA Draft. Shabazz Muhammad was one of the most highly touted high school stars in recent memory and while he put up 18 points per game in his freshman year at UCLA, his draft stock plummeted. A guy that was once pegged as a top five pick had slipped down to 14, where the Wolves snatched him up and decided to take a flier on his untapped potential. Muhammad would never crack Minnesota's regular rotation and appeared in just 37 games, playing over 10 minutes only 12 times. He even spent a little bit of time in the D-League, where he accumulated averages of 24.5 points and 9.8 rebounds through four games, but was a tad on the heavy side from the physical standpoint and couldn't earn regular minutes for the Timberwolves.

Twenty-first pick Gorgui Dieng, however, was spectacular when given a chance to shine. Throughout the last 18 games of the season, Dieng played over 30 minutes per game and made the most of his opportunities as he averaged a double-double of 12 points and 11.3 rebounds through the home stretch of the regular season. On March 20 in Houston, he even put together a 20-20 performance of 22 points and 21 rebounds to highlight his rookie campaign. Dieng impressed with some of the same attributes he displayed at Louisville, showcasing his relentless activity around the rim, unteachable length and mobility on the defensive end. If the 2013 draft was done all over again, it's safe to say Dieng would be taken higher than 21.

Regardless of some of the bright spots, such as Corey Brewer's shocking 51-point outing against Houston on April 11 that may or may not remind of you of old friend Tony Delk's 50-point game in terms of unlikeliness, the Wolves finished 10th in the west and fell nine games short of Dallas for the eighth seed.

As soon as the season ended, the 67-year-old (now 68) Rick Adelman resigned as Minnesota's head coach and announced his retirement after 23 years on the sidelines.

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SUMMER OF 2014

Key Additions - Andrew Wiggins, Mo Williams, Anthony Bennett, Zach LaVine
Key Losses - Kevin Love, Rick Adelman, Dante Cunningham, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alexey Shved

For the past year, roughly 90% of any Timberwolves discussion amongst NBA fans revolved solely around the future of Kevin Love. Everybody knew he wasn't going to sign a long-term contract to stick around, the question was more about where he would eventually end up. There was no way around it. Love was gone.

Following numerous months of speculation, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders finally turned the chapter of the franchise's history book this summer and began a new era of Timberwolves basketball. On August 23, Minnesota, Cleveland and Philadelphia completed a three-team deal that sent Love to the Cavaliers in return for Thaddeus Young and the last two number one overall picks of the NBA draft, Anthony Bennett and 2014 prize Andrew Wiggins.

Not only did this move earn the Wolves a more enticing package than what they received for Kevin Garnett back in the summer of 2007, it answered the call for what the organization was desperately starving for - hope.

The Timberwolves had no choice but to find the best deal possible in return for their 25-year-old superstar, as it would have been beyond foolish to let him walk as a 2015 unrestricted free agent for nothing, but the organization has no reason to be upset about it. Minnesota may have lost the face of the franchise, but they absolutely replaced him with a big time young talent that is potentially capable of carrying that title for a long time going forward. Andrew Wiggins was the top pick in the stacked 2014 NBA Draft for a reason, and he brings Timberwolves fans a restored sense of direction and excitement going forward alongside Ricky Rubio.

Basketball heads are well-aware of Wiggins' star potential, but the Wolves brought in a very intriguing guard with their own lottery pick, as well. With the 13th overall pick in the draft, Minnesota selected UCLA's Zach LaVine, who is simply a jaw-dropping athletic freak of nature. Don't believe me? Check this out. He can handle and shoot the ball, as well, and the 6'5" combo guard has a chance to become a terrific player at the pro level.

Every young team needs some veteran leadership to help them learn the ropes and figure out how to conduct themselves as professionals, and the Wolves went out and got Trail Blazers free agent Mo Williams to take on that role. Williams, a one-time NBA All-Star, signed a one-year, $3.75 million deal to help the youngsters progress and lead by example as the first guard off the bench.

Thaddeus Young will provide veteran leadership, as well, as the seven-year pro has experienced the lowest of lows with last year's 19-63 76ers as well as performing as a key piece on multiple playoff teams. As an athletic and versatile stretch-four, his game complements the post presence of Nikola Pekovic beautifully and Young has always been well-known as a competitor that plays hard on a consistent basis. Thad will step into the starting power forward spot to contribute right away, share knowledge and lead the youngsters by example with his strong work ethic.

Flip Saunders was a busy man this summer, as his obligations would end up going far beyond reconstructing the roster. Over a month and a half prior to sending Love to Cleveland, Saunders hired himself to coach the team after an unsuccessful search to replace Rick Adelman following his retirement. Saunders previously acted as Minnesota's head coach from 1995-2005, where he put together an accumulative 411-326 (.558) record, highlighted by a run to the Western Conference Finals in 2004.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Nikola Pekovic / Gorgui Dieng / Ronny Turiaf
PF - Thaddeus Young / Anthony Bennett
SF - Andrew Wiggins / Corey Brewer / Shabazz Muhammad / Robbie Hummel
SG - Kevin Martin / Chase Budinger / Zach LaVine
PG - Ricky Rubio / Mo Williams / J.J. Barea

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X-FACTOR - Development of Youth
It is pretty clear that this year's Minnesota Timberwolves squad isn't going to make any kind of postseason run, but the pups are loaded with young talent from top to bottom and are in the process of fully embracing a promising youth movement. You can't measure the 2014-15 Wolves by their winning percentage; it's all about the maturation of their young core.

Will Ricky Rubio improve his efficiency and take the next step? Is Andrew Wiggins the real deal? Will Anthony Bennett's body transformation do him any good, or is he going to stand as one of the biggest NBA draft busts of all-time? Is Zach LaVine a legitimate pro or is he simply a freak athlete? Can Shabazz Muhammad carve out a role for himself at the NBA level?

Only time will tell, but Timberwolves fans have to feel a certain level of excitement to watch this team grow as the season progresses. At times, they will probably experience more ups than downs, but that's not what it's about right now. It's about the future.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
In 2014-15, Timberwolves fans can expect a lot of mistakes, growing pains and certainly more losses than victories, but we're also in store for one of the most exciting young teams that the NBA has to offer. Sure, this thing isn't going to turn around overnight and you can't expect a 19-year-old rookie to replace the production of a guy like Kevin Love, but they've finally built a foundation with a definitive direction.

The NBA is a "what have you done for me lately" kind of league and nobody likes to excessively regurgitate terms like "upside" and "potential," but even with that in mind, the Wolves will be fun to watch this season. Flip Saunders has constructed a remarkably athletic roster that is inexperienced, yet talented at each and every position on the floor. On top of that, the fan base's tone has shifted from uneasy and unsure to hopeful and giddy in the blink of an eye. Everybody knew that Love was going to get traded eventually, but the days leading up to the inevitable transaction were more or less depressing for months.

Turn those frowns upside down, Wolves fans, and howl with pride. Things are finally looking up. Exercise patience and enjoy the ride.

PREDICTED STANDINGS
4th - Northwest Division
13th - Western Conference

Keep your eyes peeled for the Detroit Pistons team preview, coming tomorrow morning.