Wolves slouch into the break

When it comes to the Timberwolves, it make little sense to mince words. After consecutive pleasant surprises against New Orleans and Houston last week, the Wolves’ final four games leading into the All-Star break were pretty disheartening. These games were wrapped in an aura of grim defeat. Physical and emotional fatigue permeated the air.

But let’s please be a little bit generous with our Wolves. These losses were the culmination of an exhausting string of injuries and absences, in which the depleted Wolves struggled–admirably, for the most part, if futilely–to craft some coherence from the ruins.

And so I’m not prepared, on the basis of those four unpalatable losses, to call this season an unmitigated disaster. This is not rock bottom. The truth is that, win totals notwithstanding, this team is an improvement over last year. They have played competitive basketball against some of the best teams in the league. They are more energetic and athletic; they are more creative. They can usually shoot the ball pretty well; sometimes they even engage in the kind of sublimely unconscious ball-movement that is the hallmark of the Triangle offense.

But don’t get any big ideas. As Kahn and Rambis often remind us, this is an extraordinarily young team; as such they will certainly continue to improve. Still, the Wolves rank 27th in the league in defensive efficiency and 24th in offensive efficiency; grave transformations are needed on both sides of the ball. As the season wears on, many of Kahn’s most significant moves–the Wes Johnson pick, the Martell Webster trade, the Darko and Pekovic signings, even, to an extent, the Michael Beasley acquisition–begin to look less and less impressive. And the Wolves’ problems begin to look less like inevitable functions of inexperience and more like significant structural defects.

How, for instance will the Wolves ever improve their continually rotten defense? Their two best players, Love and Beasley, are mediocre defenders at best. They have nearly $30 million invested over the next three seasons in two centers who are beginning to look either temperamentally (Darko) or physically (Pek) unable to play sustained NBA D. Johnson, although more than willing, is years away from basic defensive competence. Webster’s stiff back still appears to hamper his lateral movement. How will this transformation happen? Trading for Anthony Randolph? Signing Ricky Rubio? Making use of all that cap space (to sign who again? Greg Oden? Tayshaun Prince? Jamal Crawford?) which, by the way, may no longer even exist after the next Collective Bargaining Agreement?

As the mediocre decisions slowly accrete, as the Wolves continue on this path to sustained averageness, it is beginning to seem that Kahn is hoping to transcend it all with that one magical move that will give shape and sense to this still undefined roster. But this isn’t really how it works. Rubio is too small a vessel for such outsized hopes. And there are only so many ways you can arrange Corey Brewer, Jonny Flynn and first-round draft picks; short of moving Love or Rubio, it doesn’t appear that the Wolves have the players to make a really decisive move. So I want to know: just how is this going to get better?

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