On Sunday, the Oregonian's Jason Quick reported that Minnesota Timberwolves guard Brandon Roy will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after missing the last four games due to soreness dating back to bumping knees with Milwaukee's Drew Gooden during the preseason.
The joke on Twitter has been that Roy took the Blazers' knee problems to Minnesota with him. Roy becomes the third starter the Timberwolves have lost to injury. That doesn't even count his replacement in the lineup, Chase Budinger, who will be out at least three months after surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee. The question now is how much more Minnesota, already playing without stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, can withstand. The Timberwolves, who were one of the league's early surprises, have lost their last two games since a 5-2 start.
Minnesota has also been playing without guard Jose Barea (left foot sprain) and center Nikola Pekovic (sprained left ankle), but those two injuries are relatively minor. Pekovic practiced Sunday and may be able to return Wednesday against Denver, while Barea is considered day-to-day. Their returns will add depth to a roster that has been down to nine healthy bodies.
The longer-term concern is the Timberwolves' wing rotation, which is now without two of the four players expected to be regulars. Minnesota still has the Russian duo of Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, who have helped keep the team afloat early in the season. Kirilenko has been one of the league's most versatile performers, filling up the box score with his usual contributions in rebounds, assists, blocks and steals while also making 61.3 percent of his two-point attempts.
Newcomer Shved, an NBA rookie, has lived up to the hype SCHOENE offered based on his Euroleague translations. Shved has been as enigmatic as expected and has yet to find the range from the NBA three-point line (he's shooting 24.3 percent from beyond the arc, which accounts for nearly half his shot attempts). Nonetheless, his energy and creativity off the bench have been a boon to the Timberwolves, who have played better so far with Shved at shooting guard (+4.7 points per 48 minutes, per 82games.com) than Roy (+2.4).
So that's two spots in the rotation down. Unfortunately, Minnesota needs to find at least one contributor and possibly a second. To keep Shved in the role of sixth man, Rick Adelman has been starting Malcolm Lee at the two. Already, Lee has nearly played half as many minutes as he did during an abbreviated rookie season. The UCLA product still can't shoot--he's made 31.3 percent from the field and 1-of-8 from beyond the arc--but his pressure defense has begun to translate. Lee has done a nice job when paired with Shved. Per NBA.com/Stats, the two players are +8 in 50 minutes of action. When Lee has been on the court without Shved, the Timberwolves have been outscored by 18 points.
The newest option is Josh Howard, the veteran forward who signed with Minnesota as a free agent last week after the team waived third-string point guard Will Conroy. Howard played 14 minutes in his debut on Friday, scoring six points on 3-of-10 shooting. Based on his play since tearing his ACL in February 2010, Howard is nothing more than a body at this point in his NBA career. That may be enough for the desperate Timberwolves, but they'll have to do better on the wing to compete for a playoff spot in the West.
That's where Adelman may soon have the ability to get creative. When Barea returns, he and Ridnour may be able to operate together in the backcourt against opponents without bigger shooting guards. That lineup is extraordinarily tiny and weak defensively, but also potent at the offensive end because either player can initiate the offense. In 189 minutes last season, the Barea-Ridnour backcourt posted a robust 114.0 Offensive Rating, outscoring opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions. Starting Barea and Ridnour together at times would keep Lee and Shved together as the second-unit backcourt, which might make sense given that Barea's playmaking ability is slightly less valuable next to Shved.
Adelman could go the other direction in terms of size when Love returns, which Minnesota is hoping will happen early in the month of December. That will make an All-Star-sized impact on the Timberwolves' current power forward rotation, which currently consists of Derrick Williams and Dante Cunningham. Both players are versatile enough to swing to small forward at times, and last year's numbers showed Williams about equally effective at both forward positions.
Minnesota's situation remains about the same as it was at the start of the season. The team is basically trying to hold on until Love and Rubio get healthy. So far, so good. The Timberwolves have lost little ground in the Western Conference playoff race--their 5-4 record is good for fifth in the West--and have winnable matchups on an upcoming four-game trip to the West Coast. If Minnesota can stay within a few games of .500 by the time Love is back, the team will be in excellent shape to snap an eight-year playoff drought.
Roy's prognosis is less encouraging. He lasted less than five games before knee pain shut him down. Since Roy has no cartilage remaining in his knees, presumably the procedure will clear out debris, as was done during the 2010-11 season. When he was on the court for the Timberwolves, Roy was ineffective, missing all nine of his three-point tries and shooting 11-of-26 (42.3 percent) on two-point attempts. Roy can still find teammates--he had three games with at least six assists--but if he isn't scoring, he isn't worth keeping on the court given his defensive limitations.
Maybe Roy's poor start was due to temporary issues with his knees surgery will resolve, and he'll contribute when he returns. Minnesota cannot count on such an optimistic scenario, however. The Timberwolves have to move forward as if Roy's stint in the rotation is over. That will test the team's depth over the next few weeks, when Minnesota will have little margin for error.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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