The nice thing about the NBA, at least for the have-nots of the league, is that the game is rigged to nurse the worst teams back to health fairly quickly. Any team, no matter how badly run*, eventually will accumulate enough high lottery picks to put together a couple of playoff-caliber seasons before sinking back to the mediocrity from whence it came.
(* except the Clippers).
Here in Atlanta, for instance, the Hawks went from 13 wins to 53 in five seasons despite a stewardship under general manager Billy Knight that teetered between garden-variety mediocre and flat-out disastrous. Atlanta used lottery picks to draft Shelden Williams and Acie Law, and signed John Edwards, Esteban Batista, Speedy Claxton and Lorenzen Wright to multiyear guaranteed deals. For much of that span, the Hawks couldn't even settle who owned the team.
Still, they couldn't avoid becoming a playoff squad. There are simply too many opportunities for teams to add talent; no matter what, each franchise will eventually field a competent team.
Which brings us to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Despite being one of the league's worst-run teams during the miserable tenure of owner Glen Taylor, they appear to have landed a young forward combination that could be the envy of the league if all goes right.
The pairing of Kevin Love, 22, and Michael Beasley, 21, had a breakout week, culminating in Love's 31-point, 31-rebound explosion against the Knicks on Friday -- the league's first 30-30 since Moses Malone accomplished the feat in 1982.
The duo, ironically, was formed by a pair of trades by two general managers whose track records rank among basketball's spottiest. Love came to Minnesota in a draft-day swap with Memphis for O.J. Mayo that was engineered by former GM Kevin McHale, and it was one of the few very good moves he made in the dozen years he was in control after hitting the jackpot with Kevin Garnett in 1995.
As for Beasley, he was a value pickup from Miami in a swap that cost the Wolves only two second-round picks -- one of several moves in an erratic summer from current general manager David Kahn and still the only one that looks as though it will provide any lasting value.
So far, Love and Beasley rank among the best lines on each GM's résumé and have ushered in a rare spasm of competence from the cellar-dwelling Wolves. After absorbing a series of savage beatings to begin the season, Minnesota is on a hot streak that's boosted the Wolves all the way up to 29th in the Power Rankings. That's more impressive than it sounds -- five games ago, they were so far behind the other 29 teams that I was going to have to rank them behind a few Big Ten squads.
(Side note: Since the Wolves have played a league-high 12 games thus far, this is also a good place to note that the "past 10 games" part of the Power Rankings will kick in and be in effect from now until Game 40. After Game 40, it switches from the past 10 games to the past 25 percent of the schedule.)
Love leads the league in rebounding despite playing only 30.8 minutes per game, a baffling lack of burn that seems unlikely to continue given his breakout performance against New York. To put his rebounding performance into perspective, consider that he averages nearly a board every two minutes -- 18.6 per 40, to be exact. He's also sporting a healthy 21.76 player efficiency rating and, despite his team's poor record, has to be considered a serious candidate to nab an All-Star berth.
Love ranks second in the NBA in rebound rate because of the prodigious efforts of Toronto's Reggie Evans, but unlike Evans, he's not just diving to the boards on every play. Love often spots up outside the 3-point line, which makes it even more impressive that he still boards 16.4 percent of his own side's missed shots when he's on the floor.
If Love has an issue, it's his finishing skills around the basket. He's converting an underwhelming 54.2 percent of his shots in the basket area this season, and that average is augmented by how many easy putbacks he gets. Love's elevation is the weakest part of his game, and although he has a real nice jump hook move, he can struggle to get enough space to launch it. Sunday's matinee in Atlanta provided a good example, as he had to wipe away Josh Smith with his off arm on one attempt and had another served back to him.
As for Beasley, he's finally evolving into the scoring threat we all figured he could become. And I'm kicking myself for not pushing this storyline more before the season -- my projection system showed him with the league's biggest PER increase, but I couldn't buy it given what a goofball he'd been in Miami.
That hasn't been the case up north. Instead, he's basically become Carmelo Lite -- a high-scoring 3 who can move up to the 4 with middling percentages and low assist rates. Historically, he's played better as a 4, but Beasley showed up in dramatically better shape this season and seems to be moving much better. Better yet, he's lookin' rad with long braids and a samurai bun up top.
The improved conditioning is a big factor, because it's made him much more viable as a 3 at both ends of the floor. Or perhaps it's the samurai bun. Whatever the cause, his defense may have improved as much as or more than his offense -- on Sunday in Atlanta he checked Joe Johnson and didn't embarrass himself, while Monday night he matched up against Charlotte's Gerald Wallace most of the evening.
I still think Beasley's best long-term spot may be as a spot-up 4, but with Love around, it's best if he can adapt to the 3. And with the versatility of these two forwards, Minnesota also can play small ball as well as anyone by shifting Love to the 5 and Beasley to the 4.
Of late, Beasley's eye-popping scoring numbers are getting even more attention than his 'do. He's scored 42, 35, 25 and 28 points in his past four games and is averaging 26.9 points per 40 minutes. As with Love, his per-game averages have been sullied by playing fewer minutes than one would expect for a player of this caliber -- just 31.5 per game so far this season.
At either the 3 or the 4, he's a matchup nightmare. Beasley is huge for a 3 and can elevate right over smaller wings for his jumper, a weapon that has looked absolutely deadly in the early part of the season. Against 4s, however, he can use his blinding quickness going left to get easy looks at the rim.
As our Kevin Pelton noted recently, Beasley's success has been heavily dependent on a jumper that's unlikely to continue to find the net quite as consistently. He's shooting 52.4 percent on long 2s and 50 percent on 3s -- there's no way he'll keep up those numbers.
But part of the reason he won't have to is that opponents will adjust to his improved perimeter game. It's the same reason no player shoots in the 50s on midrange J's for long -- eventually, you start crowding the Nowitzkis of the world and forcing them to beat you in other ways. Beasley's jumper has looked amazing -- you think every one is going in -- but opponents also have conceded the face-up 20-footer to him, and that will cease very soon, if it hasn't already. Witness the close of the game in Charlotte on Monday night, when the Bobcats' Stephen Jackson crowded him to take away the jumper and then forced a key turnover when Beasley tried to put it on the deck.
That will be a problem only if Beasley continues to settle for the J. At the moment his right hand is strictly ornamental, but he's so quick to his left that he still can get to the basket and finish. More drives would help him improve upon a middling free throw rate that has his true shooting percentage at a ho-hum 54.2.
Additionally, Beasley needs to fill in the other parts of the box score. Although he's making the right pass when the play is there, he opts to face up for a jumper so often that his assist rate remains poor. That could change as he gets more double-team attention. His rebound rate is also a concern, down to a paltry 8.6. Although that can be blamed partly on Love swallowing up every rebound in sight, it's a below-average number even for a 3, let alone a 4.
Nonetheless, the Wolves' new tandem provides the one thing that the league's forlorn franchises find most difficult to sell: hope. There's real foundation here in Minny, and the Wolves should have a decent offense once they stop starting Sebastian Telfair at point guard and punting 10 possessions a game on post-ups for Darko Milicic.
(Seriously, Sota, I don't get it. Milicic is shooting 30.8 percent, nobody doubles him and he never draws fouls. He's a career 45.1 percent shooter, and he's not getting better. You're just taking away touches from your two best players. This needs to stop, like now, or I'm taking Tom Hanneman hostage.)
The Wolves have been quietly ravaged by injuries as well -- rotation players Luke Ridnour, Nikola Pekovic, Martell Webster, Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn all missed the trip to Atlanta and Charlotte -- which makes it even more impressive that they were able to put up a good fight in these past five games.
I don't want to get too optimistic here -- it's still likely to be a long winter in the Great North. As coach Kurt Rambis noted before the game in Atlanta, it's not as though everything's suddenly fine now; this team still has plenty of issues. But with Love and Beasley emerging as two of the league's brightest young stars, the foundation is in place for the Wolves to recover quickly from their current malaise.