The Timberwolves have, for several years, been the laughingstock of the Minnesota sports scene. Their oh-so-close run of 2004, which took them to the Western Conference Finals (and might have taken them beyond, were it not for the balky hip of Sam Cassell) prompted increasingly desperate thrashings by the team to get back to that next-to-glory level. Former general manager Kevin McHale fired two coaches, made increasingly poor trades, and finally dynamited the franchise by dealing Kevin Garnett to Boston - and nothing helped. The Wolves went from 44 to 33 to 32 wins, and then stumbled down into the cellar. Minnesota is 61-185 over the past three seasons, including a franchise-worst-tying 15-67 mark last year.
The Wolves have been so bad, then, that just about every season preview for the past few years has taken on the same tone: "This could be the year they turn things around, because how could it get much worse?" So you'll forgive me when I write something that you've heard before: This could be the year the Timberwolves turn things around.
Below, I present five things you should know about this year's edition of the Timberwolves.
1. You always used to say that [insert player here] was terrible. Well, he's probably gone now.
Eleven players were featured in more than half the team's games last year; exactly four remain. Point guard Jonny Flynn, wings Corey Brewer and Wayne Ellington, and forward Kevin Love are all that's left from the core of last season's 15-win team; the rest (including franchise cornerstone Al Jefferson) are gone, having been shipped out or moved on by President of Basketball Operations David Kahn. Only Brewer has been with the team for more than two seasons. Whatever the faults in Kahn's plan, you have to credit him for a quick refresh of the roster.
2. You've heard of some of the new guys; you may not have heard of others.
You've probably heard of Michael Beasley, the 2008 second overall pick whom Minnesota stole from Miami this summer as the Heat desperately dumped salary for the LeBronathon. You've heard of seven-year veteran Luke Ridnour, who signed up from Milwaukee to split point-guard duties with Flynn.
You've probably also heard of Darko Milicic, the perennial project drafted ahead of a bunch of superstars in 2003, who the Wolves acquired midseason last year (and who immediately became a crowd favorite for playing better defense than Jefferson despite being the size of a Macy's parade float). And you may have heard of Syracuse swingman Wesley Johnson and Marquette shooting guard Lazar Hayward, both of whom the Wolves picked up on draft day.
You may not have heard of swingman Martell Webster, who has averaged 8.5 points per game in five seasons in Portland. You may also not have heard of Nikola Pekovic, an imposing 6-11 Montenegrin bruiser who the Wolves drafted in 2008. Pekovic has played for Panathinaikos in the Euroleague for the past three years, but is making the jump across the pond this year.
3. This team is almost unbelievably young.
Ridnour will turn 30 in February. Not one other rotation player on the Timberwolves will be older than 25 years old this season. This team is so young that offseason draftee Johnson is older than five other players on the team - Flynn, Beasley, Love, Ellington, and backup center Kosta Koufos.
This will make for a mistake-prone team, no doubt. But it also should make for a closer team. Several players have spoken in interviews about a different atmosphere in the locker room. Webster mentioned in a televised interview that the entire team has gone out to dinner together several times. The team bonded on a preseason European trip, playing games in London and Paris and checking out the tourist sights. Kevin Love has been quoted comparing this year's team to the close-knit "Idiots" Red Sox teams of the mid-2000s. And Beasley, frankly, is a goofball. An exchange from Beasley and Webster, on media day:
Webster: I'm addicted to the game. How about you?
Beasley: (deadpan) I like... cheeseburgers.
Young, goofy, and filled with potential - it's a charming team, a puppy amongst the full-grown dogs.
4.While the team may be waiting for Ricky Rubio, this season may provide the verdict on the David Kahn-Kurt Rambis era.
Kahn has spoken often of his plan to get younger and more athletic and to play an up-tempo style of basketball. Rambis is in his second year as head coach, but this is his first full year (and the first in which he's had any kind of fitting talent to work with). There's no doubt that the possibility of draftee wunderkind Ricky Rubio coming over in 2011-12 is, ultimately, the focal point of the team - but if the Wolves show no improvement this year, you can bet that Rambis and Kahn's seats will be smoking-hot. The former has yet to show he can be an effective NBA head coach, the latter has taken enormous amounts of abuse (including, yes, some from me) for his seemingly-directionless wheeler-dealing. If 2010-11 is as awful as 2009-10, the duo may not get much more of a chance.
5. You can bet on a different style of basketball at Target Center.
The days of zero defense are over. Minnesota had the second-worst defense in the league last year, allowing nearly 108 points per game, but the addition of several athletic players (Webster, Johnson, and Beasley, for example) along with two defensively-adequate big men (Darko and Pekovic) should shore up the defensive end. Minnesota showed this off Tuesday by blocking twelve shots against Denver in a preseason game, including a couple of swooping stuffs by Webster.
On offense, the former focal point of the team, Al Jefferson, is gone. The days of dumping the ball down to the low block and watching are over. Minnesota will likely run more, pushed by Ridnour and Flynn, and they'll likely shoot better from the perimeter. (If Corey Brewer continues his bricklaying ways, this may be the end of his time as a useful rotation player; the Wolves may finally have other options.) They're also blessed with three big guys - especially Kevin Love - who can pass, rather than just mesmerize opposing teams with low-post moves.
Now, there's no guarantees that this team will be better than the abomination of 2009-10. For all we know, the whole thing will fall flat. A team this young and without a go-to superstar will lose some close games. There will be some nights where nobody can find the basket and the Wolves lose 109-74. There will be some nights where nobody seems interested in guarding anybody, and the Wolves lose 125-108.
But there is, finally, some potential. For the first time in years, the Wolves could very well be fun to watch. And for the fans in Minnesota, who've stuck with the team through 185 losses in three years - that may be enough.