Timberwolves searching for a new identity

December 12, 2012 | noon

The new-look team showcases international players

Sports | Michael Whartnaby for The Clarion

Timberwolves searching for a new identity

Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko's versatility will be key for the Wolves in the 2012-13 season. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Kyndell Harkness/MCT

The days of Kevin Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak are long gone, and the days of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio are upon us. As the Timberwolves try to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004, they are also seeking an identity, and a diverse one at that.

The Timberwolves have been in rebuilding mode ever since missing the playoffs in 2005, constantly shuffling players in and out and never seeing a homegrown player fill the void left by Garnett. However, Love’s development into an All-Star, Ricky Rubio’s elegancy and many complementary international players have created a new dynamic for the team.

Five of the 15 players on the roster represent countries outside of the United States. Originally from Russia, Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved are in their first year with the Timberwolves. Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea have returned for their second year in Minnesota, hailing from Spain and Puerto Rico, respectively. Finally, third-year center Nikola Pekovic grew up in Montenegro, a small European country by Croatia and Albania.

All five of these international players have been acquired within the last three years, with Kirilenko and Shved comprising one-third of this year’s newcomers. Kirilenko, the veteran All-Star and three-time All-Defensive Team selection, has been the best free agent signing for the Timberwolves. He is averaging 13.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Like others, he must pick up the slack as Ricky Rubio recovers from a torn ACL and Kevin Love tries to find his groove after missing the first nine games with a broken hand.

With two of their best players out at the start of the season, the Timberwolves still jumped out to a 5-1 start, leading fans to believe the rebuilding stage was finally over and the success of earlier years would return. However, irony kicked in when Love returned to a 5-4 team. The Wolves dropped three more games and extended their losing streak to six, posting a disappointing 7-8 record.

“They're still in rebuilding mode,” said junior Timberwolves fan Tim Anderson. “They have Love and Rubio, but don’t have the necessary pieces around them to make the playoffs. It also doesn’t help that they are in the Western Conference.”

Other fans, like junior Grant Mitchell, are a little more optimistic. “I think we're a playoff team, probably getting a low seed,” he said. “We have a really interesting dynamic with European guys playing together. They really complement each other nicely, and they are meshing really well with Kevin Love and some of the other U.S. players.”

Only time will tell if this new-look team of many nations will return the franchise to the foreign land of the playoffs, or if the rebuilding period will drag on indefinitely.

Many questions are already looming. Will Kevin Love come close to the caliber of Kevin Garnett? Will Ricky Rubio return to the lineup before Christmas? While Timberwolves fans wait for answers, they should get used to hearing the call, “Kirilenko for three…”

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