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October 28, 2012
Timberwolves
Impact of Kevin Love's Injury

by Bradford Doolittle

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The team's news release was short and term, and it's the exact kind of thing you hate to see pop into your inbox during preseason:

"The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced that forward Kevin Love suffered a fracture of his third and fourth metacarpal in his right hand. The injury occurred this morning while working out. Love is expected to be out approximately 6-8 weeks."

Heading into his fifth NBA season, Love was poised to become an MVP candidate. At 24, he's still at an age of ascension. SCHOENE, our projection system at Basketball Prospectus, had Love forecasted for the fourth-most WARP (wins above replacement) in the league, behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.

Perhaps just as important when you're talking about MVP candidacy, SCHOENE liked Minnesota as the breakout team in the league. This was the case even after accounting for the uncertain recovery of point guardRicky Rubio from his torn ACL. With Rubio's playing time forecast slashed, SCHOENE still saw the Wolves as a 56-win team, slotting them third in the West.

Now we have to reconfigure those predictions.

Every game Love misses is going to be damaging to Minnesota's place in the playoff hierarchy because the Western Conference figures to be exceedingly jam-packed at the top. If you carry out the numbers out to a decimal point, there were just .7 wins separating the top projected seed (Denver Nuggets) and the fourth (the Los Angeles Lakers).

Based on the time estimate quoted in the release, we've downgraded Love's playing time projection from 74 games to 59 games. We don't know how much of a lingering effect the injury has on Love's effectiveness, but since it's hand injury, Love will be able maintain his condition and hopefully ramp up to full effectiveness fairly quickly.

That 15-game drop costs Love 3.5 wins off his WARP forecast. Instead of fourth in the league, he's now pegged at seventh. That doesn't sound so severe, but there was a big drop-off after the top four after our initial rankings.

The real question now is what impact will Love's absence have on the Timberwolves' hopes for a breakout season?

Second-year pro Derrick Williams figures to get a bump in playing time with Love out, with Dante Cunningham likely slated for a bit bigger role. Williams was the second pick of the draft just last year, but some of the shine has come off his star as he's struggled to find a positional niche in the NBA.

The biggest difference between Love and Williams is obviously in the rebounding department, but Love also has the advantage across the board. Overall, he's about 6.5 points per 100 possessions more valuable on offense, plus another 1.1 points on defense. That 7.6-point gap is enormous, and it gets worse when Cunningham is on the floor.

Williams could obviously smooth matters by getting better, and this would be a good time for him to make a second-year leap. Rick Adelman also has better wing options than he did last year, one of the joys of overseeing what might be the deepest roster in Timberwolves history. Adelman might opt to play Andrei Kirilenko at the 4 to spell Williams, with Chase Budinger getting the run at 3.

W-L (West)	Off. Rating	Def. Rating
56-26 (3rd)	114.7 (1)	109.1 (14)
52-30 (5th)	113.6 (3)	109.3 (15)

The bottom line is this: After knocking down Love's games-played projection and beefing up the same for Williams and Cunningham, the Wolves now project to 52-30 and finish fifth in the West. Even that might be a bit optimistic, because there is no way to know how much lag time will be involved with reintegrating core pieces at two separate times during the season. It's not an ideal scenario for a team with so many new faces.

There is a silver lining, though. If Williams were to blossom with the bigger role, it might portend a huge uptick in the production of Adelman's second unit. Williams won't have to play out of position with Love out, and while he'll go back to a swing role once the All-Star returns, it might just be possible that Williams finds his foothold in the NBA.

But make no mistake about it: Love's injury hurts, and a four-win drop in this year's Western Conference could be huge. Of course, Minnesota fans would be thrilled with 52 wins and no one (besides us) is really predicting that kind of season from the Timberwolves. If SCHOENE is right, Love and Rubio might be stepping into a feel-good story already in progress.

Check out our Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 homepage for more details and to order our annual guide to the NBA, available now in both PDF and paperback format.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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