The Minnesota Timberwolves have been defeated in 19 of their last 20 games. For math wizards, this is pretty close to losing 25% of the season in one fell swoop. Other than a terrific and exciting game on Wednesday vs. the Phoenix Suns, the Wolves have been exceedingly difficult to watch for a myriad of reasons that you are well aware of: Thaddeus Young has been a massive disappointment, Zach LaVine can barely function as an NBA point guard, the Wolves’ league-worst defense is a haphazard disaster, Anthony Bennett has shown a pulse in two games in the last month….and so on. If you have been paying close attention throughout this tough period you know what’s up and so offering only a sprinkling of salt on a stubborn wound that just won’t heal will suffice here.
If we are talking in degrees, I assure you it has been worse, and recently. Back in 2009-2010, David Kahn assembled arguably the worst roster in team history on purpose in an effort to rebuild through the draft. That team, coached by a man who was heralded as quickly as he was loathed in Kurt Rambis, closed out that year with a stunning 29 losses in 31 games (wait, are we heading there?), a stretch that included a 16 game losing streak. The year ended only a smidge worse than it started. The first game that year was a thriller that involved a Damien Wilkins game winning shot and was immediately followed by a 15-game losing streak. So, not only was that season worse in terms of losing longevity, the current losing streak was exceeded twice over in a single season by that clown show of a team. I assure you there have been darker times if you measure your view of the team by stretches of losses. The difference, however, comes down to the expectations implied by the respective rosters of each team, and the front office moves that preceded each season (or in this case of this season, lack thereof). More clearly, tanking away this season was never even remotely part of the plan.
When Owner/POBO/Coach/Diamond Salesman/”Use the same trainers as the Wolves and go to Mayo” spokesman Flip Saunders began this season, the plan may or may not have been to make the playoffs, but I think it is perfectly reasonable to suggest he wanted to avoid a singular stretch where his team was losing a quarter of its season before it was half over. This is, of course, why he acquired Thaddeus Young, opted not to move Kevin Martin and others, and create what, at the time, felt like a situation worth buying into: a high upside prospect at all 5 positions, with a proven veteran producer ahead of him in the depth chart. This would help ease what by-and-large was a roster with probably one or two too many prospects for this coaching staff to realistically handle and focus on, into the rotation bit-by-bit as they became comfortable in practice. Then, in time and with improvement, he could trade some of those veteran players to better situations for cap relief, more prospects and draft compensation to help finalize the long-term identity of his team. This, actually, made a lot of sense to me at the time. But now that this season has fallen into more than a bit of a disarray, I am starting to see why some folks didn’t buy into that at the time, as it has left the Wolves with a downtrodden roster of overpaid veterans who are becoming more and more difficult to move. I also missed the big picture in that this team, as constructed in its entirety today and much like the Love era, had a very limited ceiling with no margin for error/injury in an impossible conference, even with Wiggins exceeding expectations.
Considering the long term trajectory of this roster, the draft is the obvious silver lining. While we have been down this road ad nauseum, when you consider what David Kahn was attempting to do to rebuild the Wolves 5 years ago, he actually had the right overall course in mind: rebuild through the draft, acquire assets, and keep the cap sheet low so you can rent space and capitalize on opportunities. His problem, of course, was when he made a move or drafted a player, the choice was almost unanimously the incorrect one. I won’t pain you with the names again, but Kahn really did have a chance to build a Western Conference powerhouse (which would have occurred if a fan vote decided the picks) very quickly. This summer we appear to be heading towards a 4-player draft: Jahlil Okafor, Karl Towns, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Miles Turner. One of those three big men may be critical piece that could finally redefine an era that should have been when Kahn was the boss. It is probably a higher upside gamble than the alternative, which begs to question whether it was all that great of an idea in the first place when you consider the maximum talent level it would have yielded.
This summer when Flip acquired Thaddeus Young, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Most folks who cover the team liked it as Thad was a pretty productive player for the Sixers, had tremendous character and never mailed it in. An analytic-minded and generally intelligent basketball mind named Brad in a Western Conference Only Fantasy League I participate in paid $44 out of a $200 cap for him in the auction draft and it really was only just a THAD crazy (heh) at the time. Hopes were pretty high. In terms of production, he was likely to outperform a mid-first rounder despite the massive salary difference. While Young could have a big turnaround in the second half of the season, it is approaching a point where we can safely call that move a moderately costly mistake. Even with a functioning point guard, Young has never seemed to find his groove shooting the basketball, often is stripped driving, cannot rebound, and has been consistently overmatched defensively in the tougher Western Conference. Trade-wise, instead of a potential top 15 first round pick, a far more valuable trade piece than Young himself, the Wolves now have a $9 million salary (with an option for next year that could go either way to change this dynamic), a chronic underperformer attached to it, and at least one crabby Fantasy GM named Brad. More painfully, the team is still saddled with several other poor contracts from the summer of 2013: three and a half more years of Nikola Pekovic on an 8-digit salary, two more years of Budinger, and three more years of Martin (though I think he is movable upon his return). The Wolves have backed themselves into a tough, inflexible corner that should be rectified accordingly whenever the opportunity may strike, and hopefully that is before the start of next season.
When you consider that a healthy roster clearly has a few more W’s in the win column today, but ultimately is probably far out of the playoff race, you begin to see where the talent gap between the Wolves and the rest of the Western Conference starts. While a few more wins may have yielded a better short term result, shorter losing streaks, and a slightly more affable fan base, in reality the ceiling of this team would remain low from a holistic perspective. By and large, this is generally the team we are likely to watch for the rest of this season and next as a result of the tough contracts already mentioned. Had the initial plan been executed without major injury, with no major assets or cap room to inject talent this summer, then what? You are in the worst possible position of having no real chance to add key talent while being decidedly and perpetually mediocre. While the events of this season were unplanned, I see their merits and that they will ultimately result in the Wolves having the best chance of injecting meaningful talent that will hopefully make a difference down the line. And while this season has been tough to stomach, hopefully the payout is far better than what Kahn attempted, or what would have transpired with the Wolves picking 10th as a capped out team for another season.
There are other burning concerns, such as whether Flip Saunders is the answer as coach, whether this losing, and general lack of development is good for Wiggins and the rest of the youngsters, whether this office can manage a cap well, among many other things to gripe about. But the saving grace of that narrative has been Wiggins who, after a disappointing start, has shown dramatic improvement since Christmas and has been a reason to tune in and attempt to see the bright side of things. While just one game, his play against Phoenix on Wednesday was marvelous. He was focused, zoned in, and is clearly getting more comfortable offensively. While his recent shooting may not be sustainable, you have to be encouraged by the 19 year old’s offensive trajectory from all areas of the court. Be excited. And be more excited when he will, hopefully, have a real running mate out of the draft when all is said and done. First year KG and Marbury redux. The best of times. Fingers crossed.
Currently the Wolves are 6 wins behind the LA Lakers, who stand at 26th in the league. While masochism isn’t encouraged, hopefully deep down we can understand the merits of that gap staying the same, the Wolves can pick up a few wins here and there and maintain this position for the rest of the season. The caution the staff is showing on injury returns suggests that is well part of the plan. It makes it difficult to watch at times, but in my view it is currently the only path to any real relevancy the way this team is assembled today.