The New-Look Wolves Are Hunting the Playoffs

Why has it been 13 long seasons since the Minnesota Timberwolves last made the NBA playoffs? Do they finally have the right pieces to end the drought?

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

The T-Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, and that just so happens to be the longest active run of futility in the NBA. There are 30 teams in the NBA, and each of the other 29 teams have reached the postseason in the last decade plus—but not the Wolves. Nope, instead the local club has been the face of dreadful basketball for many years now. Their continued failures are highlighted by the fact that their roommates at the Target Center—the Minnesota Lynx—have won four WNBA championships in the last seven years. So as a fan of Minnesota basketball, I have had something to cheer for, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the T-Wolves’ continued inability to win games.

It wasn’t always like this. Prior to the current 13-year run, the Timberwolves had made the playoffs eight years in a row. Those playoff teams of years past were led by future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and featured household names like Stephon Marbury, Tom Gugliotta, Chauncey Billups, Latrell Sprewell, and Sam Cassell. I actually remember watching a lot of games from that era, and I remember being excited to turn on the TV because those teams were consistently good. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some T-Wolves squads in the last 13 years that resembled a respectable team, but let’s be honest, the NBA is a results-driven league. It’s simply been too long since the Timberwolves have produced positive results.

So, what went wrong? Trying to answer that question while considering everything that has gone wrong for the Timberwolves in the last 13 years is tough for anyone to answer definitively. I can, however, start at the beginning—the late great Flip Saunders was fired during the 2004-05 season. Flip Saunders, the winningest coach in franchise history, was handed his walking papers less than a year after he led the team to its first, and only, Western Conference finals appearance. A total of nine coaching changes have taken place since Flip was relieved of his duties. In comparison, Gregg Popovich has been coaching the San Antonio Spurs for 21 years and counting while leading them to five NBA titles. Yes, there are many different variables that go into a franchise’s success, but stability of head coach is paramount.

Trading Kevin Garnett to the Celtics in 2007 has essentially become the face of the Timberwolves downfall. KG went on to solidify his spot in the Hall of Fame while winning a championship with Boston, and the Timberwolves, well you know, haven’t reached the playoffs in a very long time. I recall being devastated that the Big Ticket was leaving the franchise that drafted him out of high school. I was also irritated that the Timberwolves facilitated the formation of the first modern-day “Big 3” by shipping Garnet to play alongside Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Most of all, I was upset because it seemed that the Wolves were throwing in the towel and embarking on the dreaded “rebuild.” They did, however, receive several players in return: Al Jefferson, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, and two first-round draft picks (used to select Johnny Flynn and Wayne Ellington). A casual fan may think a seven-for-one trade would have worked out well for the Wolves, but I could fill a short novel analyzing how bad that trade ultimately went.


Here are some lowlights.

– None of the players from that deal spent more than three seasons with the Timberwolves (Jefferson, Ellington, Gomes each played three seasons).

– The Wolves didn’t win more than 24 games in a season during the three years following the Garnett trade.

– The only players from that deal still playing in the NBA today are Al Jefferson (Indiana) and Gerald Green (Milwaukee).

– While playing for Boston, Kevin Garnett played in six All-Star games. He was also voted Defensive Player of the Year and won the NBA Championship in the 2007-08 season.

– I won’t discuss this next point in-depth because the topic makes my head explode. One of the draft picks Minnesota received from Boston turned into the 6th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. The T-Wolves used the pick to select Johnny Flynn. The problem? Two-time league MVP Stephen Curry was selected 7th that year.

To say that the Timberwolves have had personnel problems, both with the coaching staff and the players, in the last 13 years would be the understatement of the century. Let’s take a look at some more draft picks they’ve whiffed on in that timespan.

2009

Pick 5, Round 1: Ricky Rubio (Career Averages: 10.5 points, 8.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds); Notable Players Not Taken: Stephen Curry, Stephen Curry, Stephen Curry (I will never let it go!!)

2010

Pick 4, Round 1: Wesley Johnson (Career Averages: 7.4 points, 1.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds); Notable Players Not Taken: DeMarcus Cousins, Gordon Hayward, Paul George

2011

Pick 2, Round 1: Derrick Williams (Career Averages: 8.9 points, 0.7 assists, 4 rebounds); Notable Players Not Taken: Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard

Clearly, I’ve become rather bitter during the last 13 seasons, but I want to focus on the present and look to the future.

There is a lot of buzz surrounding the Timberwolves this year, and it’s well deserved. Tom Thibodeau is now in his second season leading the T-Wolves as the head coach and president of basketball operations. Remember, continuity is a good thing. Coach Thibs has lit a fire under the Wolves and put his fingerprints all over the team in the last 18 months. A blockbuster trade and several free agent additions defined the T-Wolves this last offseason. Take a look at the starting five in the 2016-17 season opener compared to this year.

2016-17

PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Zach LaVine
SF: Andrew Wiggins
PF: Karl-Anthony Towns
C: Gorgui Dieng

2017-18

PG: Jeff Teague
SG: Jimmy Butler
SF: Andrew Wiggins
PF: Taj Gibson
C: Karl-Anthony Towns

The most glaring addition is that of Jimmy Butler, a true superstar in his prime who played for Thibodeau in Chicago. How Thibs was able to pry Jimmy Buckets away from the Bulls for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and a draft pick may never be coherently explained by Chicago management. In my opinion, the trade was an absolute robbery by Minnesota. Another Chicago transplant, Taj Gibson, was a huge free agent addition that gives the team veteran leadership, defensive toughness, and some much-needed rebounding. Perhaps most importantly, Gibson’s addition allows long-time Wolves standout Gorgui Dieng to come off the bench and help the second unit. Jeff Teague was another big-money free agent signing who was brought in to replace the recently traded Ricky Rubio. Teague adds two things that Rubio sorely lacks—scoring, and to be more specific, the ability to consistently make 3-point shots. The addition of one of the greatest 6th men of all-time, Jamal Crawford, was another excellent addition by the Timberwolves. Crawford has been a scoring machine during his long career, and he should pay dividends when the Wolves need a spark off the bench.

What’s potentially most important to Minnesota’s future success is the continued maturation of two of its franchise pillars—Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Wiggins just signed a five-year deal worth almost $150 million to stay with the Timberwolves. Locking up a budding superstar like Wiggins for the foreseeable future is absolutely huge. The former first-overall pick is only 22 years old, and he’s coming off a season in which he played all 82 games while averaging 23.6 points, over two assists, and four rebounds. Since he was acquired in 2014 via a trade for Kevin Love, Wiggins has marveled fans with his athleticism and scoring prowess. Wiggins has just begun to scratch the surface of his potential, and I for one look forward to seeing just how high his ceiling really is.

The Big KAT is already widely regarded as one of the game’s best big-men and he’s only just starting his third season in the league. Towns is a rare physical specimen—not only is he a legit 7-footer, but his absurd athleticism makes him a monster on both ends of the court. He’s comfortable playing in the post either face-up or with his back to the basket, and if that wasn’t enough, he’s quickly developing range out to the 3-point line. He was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in college, followed that up by winning NBA Rookie of the Year, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be a part of the NBA MVP discussion for years to come.

So, with all of that said—will the Timberwolves break the streak and reach the playoffs this season?

Obviously, I can’t say for certain without a magic crystal ball, but I’m willing to bet the farm on the T-Wolves breaking the streak and making the playoffs this year. Why do I say that? A team featuring Wiggins, Towns, and Butler simply has too much talent to be denied entry into the postseason. Combine those three with key contributors like Teague, Gibson, Dieng, and Crawford and you’ve got the makings for a potent team that can match-up with the league’s best. I also love the fact that this group is led by coach Thibs—now in his second year of establishing his system and creating a culture of hard-nosed defense. As I write this article, the Wolves are hovering above .500, and that will need to continue for them to qualify for the playoffs. I was originally willing to give them some slack to start the season—after all, this roster underwent radical changes and I figured the players would need some time to build chemistry on the court. To my surprise, their team chemistry has actually looked great to start the season with impressive wins against Oklahoma City, Utah, and New Orleans. The team has the potential to get even better and should be firing on all cylinders by the All-Star break. It’s time to forget the last 13 seasons—I look forward to Timberwolves playoff basketball returning to the Twin Cities in April.