Eight Minnesota Timberwolves “What Ifs?”

If anyone has read the new Bill Simmons Encyclopedia The Book of Basketball, you know there is a chapter discussing several “What if?” scenarios in NBA history. While that chapter serves as loose inspiration for this write-up, a Wolves-themed “What if” article is something I have been considering for quite awhile. As it turns out, “What if” scenarios are really all we’ve got, sadly. Every situation we have endured in our time following this team has ended with us on the brown side of a 100% green pasture including, arguably, the tenure of Kevin Garnett. I’ll start with 8 in detail and try to keep these fresh as new ones cross my mind, starting with a few obvious ones:

1. What if the Timberwolves passed on Kevin Garnett in the 1995 NBA Draft?

Considered a risky pick at the time, Garnett was responsible for bringing the Wolves into their only period of somewhat-relevancy. Think back to those times. How much fun was it watching this sure-bet 18-year old grow in his first two seasons? We haven’t seen anything like it since, instead relying on a 5-step Wolves fan reaction to our draft picks for the last 5 years:

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Here is the typical reaction:

1. The new Wolves draft pick struggles through his rookie season.

2. Players drafted in immediate vicinity clearly outperform the Wolves rookie immediately and everyone can see it but us (this year is no different, although Flynn looks like he could be better than several previous picks).

3. Wolves fans become surly, muttering things such as: “you can’t judge a player <reasonable time period> into a season!” (news flash: Brandon Jennings>Jonny Flynn even though nobody would have ever thought so in their wildest dreams, even last month).

4. Wolves rookie doesn’t make (or barely makes) the rookie game or an all-rookie team, resulting in: “sometimes it just takes a season or two for players to truly develop.”

5. Wolves rookie is out of the NBA or traded in a package deal within 3 years, being a forgettable name in the draft. Surrounding players get their 2nd All-Star invites.

Where is this going? The point is, we haven’t seen a draft pick truly succeed here since the mid-90’s. Say McHale had gotten scared and passed on the high schooler? Bryant Reeves and Damon Stoudamire were on the board, along with a slew of franchise killing players such as Shawn Respert and Ed O’Bannon. Given the Wolves’ need for a point guard at the time, I believe the Wolves go for Stoudamire, under-perform again in 1995-1996, take and keep Ray Allen and form a solid 3-player tandem of Ray Allen, Damon Stoudamire and pre-injury Tom Gugliotta. Does this team make the playoffs? Possibly. But consider a mild improvement into the 1997 draft in which the Wolves end up in the 8-10 range, leaving them in position to pick another high schooler by the name of Tracy McGrady. Suddenly things don’t look so bad. One could even argue that the Wolves ’00 decade of misery never happens because Garnett’s salary doesn’t completely destroy our ability to get solid talent around the aforementioned players.

Obviously this is a self-serving prediction, with the more likely scenario being a selection of Respert in 1995, Marbury in 1996 (since Respert would have been our SG at the time), and Adonal Foyle or Tony Battie in 1997. In that case, thank goodness we picked Garnett.

Meanwhile, what of KG? KG potentially ends up in Vancouver, which could have brought enough fan interest to keep the team in Canada. Or maybe he ends up selected by Portland? This one is harder to predict. Either way, even with the Wolves performing well, the “Fire McHale” train starts 5 years early.

2. What if the Wolves had kept Brandon Roy?

The Roy trade was an immediate fail and everyone knew it from the moment it happened. I can’t think of any Wolvesfanstrodomus who thought this was a good deal at the time. In fact, I remember being so upset we didn’t swap Marko Jaric for Darius Miles in the deal I was beside myself (just goes to show you how truly upset people were. That would have made the trade even more of a disaster, which seems like an impossible task). It’s not like we still have a 2011 2nd rounder waiting to be used. All we received in addition to Randy Foye were cash considerations. Sweet.

The big question is whether Roy becomes as successful as a Wolf. Does he? With his early rookie/sophomore injuries, Wolves fans would have been at a loss and impatient. Foye would have probably overachieved in Portland his first year, resulting in a potentially better rookie stat line than Roy in Minnesota, who would have been brought in at a much slower pace. Garnett is most likely still traded the next offseason for the same package, and instead we have a core of Roy, Brewer, Al Jefferson, and based on our likely positioning: Alexander/Bayless, and then perhaps Flynn or Jennings this year.

With Jefferson’s injuries, Roy develops into a damn good player regardless, but the Wolves don’t sniff the 2010 Blazers in terms of talent, still settling for shortsighted moves as McHale would probably be at the helm to this day. Let’s not forget we still have Jaric on the team because the Memphis trade never happens, and thus we have moderate cap space for 2010. Suddenly, again, it doesn’t seem AS terrible.

3. What if Mike Miller’s game winner against OKC last November 28th had clanged right iron?

I have mentioned this in previous write-ups. Last November in a nail-biter, Mike Miller actually shot the ball and hits a game winner in OKC from the left baseline as time expires. It was awesome at the time. However, upon closer consideration, this shot  was a dreadful event, and could be the only thing responsible for our 2-15 start. Examine the final records of each of the teams following the 2008-2009 season: Minnesota: 24-58, OKC: 23-59. Say Miller misses the shot. The result has little to no impact on the rest of the year, except the Wolves end up 23-59 and the Thunder net out at 24-58. Under this assumption, here is your new top 6 draft order:

1. LAC 2. MEM 3. MIN 4. SAC 5. MIN/WAS (if they made the trade) 6. OKC

Griffin and Thabeet go 1/2, with the Wolves nabbing Rubio at 3 instead of 5. Due to the rookie salary scale giving Rubio a significantly larger salary, he completes his buyout within a month and is currently the starting point guard for the Wolves. Easily. This affects the entire sport of basketball as we enjoy a buzz around Minneapolis, and a nice three guard rotation of Rubio, Sessions (signing still happens in my book) and James Harden/Tyreke Evans (our likely 5 pick assuming we make the Wizards trade). In 2010 LeBron, Wade and Bosh all sign with the Wolves to unite with Rubio and Big Al and we win multiple championships (ok, ok, so maybe I got a little carried away, but Rubio’s presence on the team certainly affects our 2010 free agency in a good way, without question).

Here’s to Mike Miller this Thanksgiving!

4. What if Tom Penn had accepted the GM offer from this summer?

I remember being so proud that I lived near Penn Ave at this point. I was convinced it was a sign on the day it was reported Tom Penn was our new GM. He then spurned us for more money and a better title in Portland and I moved to 2nd Ave, which is our current win total. This also has to be a sign.

The rest is history. Kahn becomes our GM, and the Kool-Aid continues to flow by the gallon.

I’d be curious to see what Penn would have done with the roster. For one, unless he trades up to the 3 spot, Rubio ends up elsewhere at 5, whether it be Washington or another team who traded for the spot (New York). I could have seen Penn go after a guy like Tyreke Evans as a franchise 2 guard a la the Blazers, perhaps losing Foye that way in a trade-up deal with Sacramento. Continuing the Portland philosophy, maybe he shuffles the deck for the foreign mid-first rounder in Omri Casspi. Who knows? He probably wouldn’t have secured the current coaching staff, instead luring his Portland prodigy in Monty Williams.

The Smith/Telfair trade never happens because nobody else in their right mind would ever make such a pointless, stupid trade so Telfair is still your PG. Sessions is still added via free agency because, as much as we think we stole him from the Bucks, Sessions really had no other option. Also important: Pecherov wouldn’t have been lumbering around in the paint against Chicago in the pre-season, preventing Kevin Love from breaking his hand on Stewie’s elbow. At this point, Pech would be on Washington’s injured reserved sporting his best suit from Macy’s Big’n Tall discount rack, and Love would be proving he is the best player on our roster.

More importantly, while not as well-positioned for the future, the team wins a few more games. This keeps fan interest a little more alive, and makes Minnesota a somewhat more attractive destination (then again we always have the 2nd half of this year to prove otherwise with Kahn’s crew). By the way, I’d say this is the worst “what-if” in the write-up in terms of quality of thinking (with the next one a close 2nd). What do you think Penn would have done?

5. What if the “Polars” won the “Name the Franchise!” contest?

Back in the late 80’s in voting fashion, the Timberwolves were chosen as our team “nickname” in a voting process over the Polars. What if Polars would have won? Would we be seeing a giant white snowflake mascot flying around on the Target Center floor? Would our colors be light blue and white, two of the most fearsome colors on the color wheel? Would free agents be even more afraid of the “cold, terrible, desolate Minnesota Polars winters?” Were they shooting for a Polar Bear theme, considering how many (0) inhabit our state? Why not just name the team the Igloos if that is the case? Would the Polars be called the “Poles” for short? Would this result in the dance team being called “The Pole Dancers?”

It would have been interesting. “Polars” kind of sounds like a minor league baseball or an NBA D-League franchise name. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if David Kahn once owned a team called The Polars. If so, I’m guessing the Kool-Aid Man was the mascot.

6. What if the Wolves had re-signed Chauncey Billups?

Better yet, what if Flip Saunders had done the smart thing and promised Chauncey Billups a starting role over Terrell Brandon (this was a significant factor in Billups’ decision to leave Minneapolis)? Now, many can argue that Terrell Brandon was a great player for the Wolves. However, after the 2001 season, Brandon never played another NBA game. It was a no-brainer to offer Chauncey a starting role and give him a long term deal. You still  run into the question of whether Billups would have achieved success on our roster. However, there is little doubt he would have continued to improve while playing along side Garnett as our point guard (he played heavy shooting guard while with the Wolves).

Worse yet, Chauncey’s departure resulted in us bringing in a young prospect from the Orlando Magic by the name of Troy Hudson. Hudson played a few solid years with the Wolves, and was given a ludicrous contract extension that just came off of our payroll this last offseason. Hudson was last seen being schooled at the Eden Prairie Lifetime fitness while attempting to break triple digits on his CD sales.

Billups and KG form a winning duo (and we’d still be able to make a big trade with Brandon’s expiring contract) in Minneapolis that achieves greater success, and Hudson stays in Orlando and cuts his career in half.

7. What if the Wolves moved to New Orleans in the early 90’s?

We all know the story, Glen Taylor from Mankato kept basketball in Minnesota during the 11th hour, preventing a move to New Orleans. Considering we probably would have never fallen in love with the sport without a team, I guess we do owe the man a thank you. But what-if the Wolves had moved to the Big Easy in the early 90’s?

A brief history lesson: The Wolves expanded in the same general time period as the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets and the Miami Heat. Of the 4, the Wolves can kindly be termed the red-headed step child, having had little to no success in their 21-year existence. The Florida teams have been happy and content. The Hornets, however, ultimately relocated to New Orleans in 2002.

Had the Wolves moved, one of three things could have happened: The Charlotte Hornets move to Minneapolis, the Bobcats start their inaugural season in Minneapolis in 2004 (perhaps being named the Polars), or nothing at all. Glen Taylor buys the team either way, just a decade later than planned.

No matter which way you put it, despite the cold and the stereotype, Minneapolis is an underrated media market, ranking ahead of most NBA teams on the Nielsen scale. We have seen tremendous support of a basketball team when times are good. People here want a good basketball team and will pay money to see it is the product meets basic fundamental standards. Remember, we just haven’t seen that in a few years, when tickets were difficult to come by. If the Wolves manage to attract a marketable name within a few years, we will see Target Center full again in a heartbeat. Heck, Friday’s game against Phoenix was a packed house and the team had lost 14 in a row coming in.

So had the Wolves moved? It may have been a test of patience, but my guess is we are currently watching Chris Paul in Target Center playing for the Minnesota Hornets. Outlandish? yes, but a more exciting thought that the third option above.

8. The most important “What if”: What if the Wolves had re-signed Tom Gugliotta in 1999?

After much thought, the non-resigning of Tom Gugliotta (ok, in addition to Garnett obviously) could be considered the major turning point in Timberwolves franchise history, for better or worse. Let’s take a step back:

In fall of 1998, Gugliotta, Garnett, Marbury and the Wolves were having their first sign of chemistry problems. Marbury’s days were numbered, and Googs was the first of many talented players to “not get along” with Kevin Garnett.  Marbury is traded midway through the year, and come 1999 offseason, the Wolves make a last ditch attempt to re-sign Googs just before the pre-lockout season (after he had missed 1/2 of that season due to injury). Googs balks at the Wolves offer and ups with Phoenix for a 6-year $60 million dollar contract and plays out his years averaging about 40 games a year along with 8 points and 5 rebounds a game over 6 years as a result of an injury he just couldn’t shake.

Today, this whole scenario seems like a total win for the Wolves. However, days after Googs leaves for Phoenix the Wolves sign free agent forward Joe Smith, a move that was met with fanfare at the time, to replace Googs. Smith plays well, but ultimately becomes involved in one of the largest scandals in sports, signing an under the table agreement with Wolves front office personnel, costing the Wolves millions, Joe Smith himself, and what ended up being 3 first round draft picks. So, this has slowly turned into a “would-you-rather?” question:

a. Would you rather have signed Googs to a comparable contract, assuming 2 additional years of solid production, but eating the monster salary until 2005? Keeping in mind this potentially prevents us from the Cassell/Sprewell seasons (maybe not?). This also ties up the money used to sign Troy Hudson to his contract extension in 2004, or better yet, results in us moving Brandon early and re-signing Billups after all. Also assume we keep our draft picks, keeping us on position to acquire what would have most likely been: Jason Collins in 2001 (You have to assume McHale doesn’t reach for Gerald Wallace and Tony Parker for realism reasons), John Salmons in 2002, and Anderson Varejao in 2004? Plus a series of other moves that may have never involved any more 6-year extensions?

b. Let Googs walk, but bring in Joe Smith, waive 3 first round draft picks, ignite the rage of the karma gods, and essentially spearhead every move that followed leading us up to today (which, with exception of a few years earlier this decade has been a pretty worthless 21 years)?

It honestly is a difficult decision for me considering re-signing Googs cancels the Joe Smith scandal, which was one of the darkest days in Minnesota sports history. It may have been worth it.

There are several honorable mentions to consider. What are your big “What Ifs?” in Wolves history?

wallyworld

About wallyworld

Mike has been writing for TWB as a hobby since the Kahn era, and currently resides in a Dallas suburb where he can often be heard loudly arguing with his neighbors about his strong dislike for JJ Barea. When not working, Mike enjoys playing the drums and pretending to like other sports.

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