Let’s talk about the third least valuable franchise in the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves. The woes that many expansion teams suffer in professional sports have hit the Timberwolves early and often. Founded in 1989 alongside the Orlando Magic, the Wolves didn’t taste any semblance of success until drafting Kevin Garnett in 1995. This pick led to eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1997 to 2004. Problem is, seven of the eight appearances ended in the first round – this streak was only snapped in 2004, when the T-Wolves won the division and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
Then the dark days returned, except this time they lasted for 14 years. Minnesota missed the playoffs every season from 2004-2008, and traded franchise icon Garnett in 2007, leading to his only championship with the Celtics. He later returned in 2015 to retire back where it all began, mentoring new star Karl-Anthony Towns and the young Wolves. A brief hint of wildly unstable success came in 2018 when Jimmy Butler helped bring them back to the playoffs for a quick first-round exit (more to come on that later).
The Timberwolves have actually been involved in quite a few blockbuster deals, more than most young franchises. Let’s start chronologically by going back to 2003, when the Timberwolves successfully acquired Sam Cassel and Latrell Sprewell in separate trades. Pairing these two with KG helped the Timberwolves reach their peak in the playoffs, making the Western Conference Finals that same year. In 2007, they traded away Garnett to the Celtics in order to begin a rebuild, netting Al Jefferson among others. This rebuild lasted until 2017 (probably not on purpose), when they traded for Jimmy Butler. Before Butler, the team also traded for Kevin Love and then shipped him away to win a title with Lebron.
The Butler trade, in particular, has to be the most painful though. They traded away the future in Zach Lavine and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen for just one year of Jimmy. The Wolves did end their playoff drought, but at what cost? Not only was the Butler era short, but it ended in a very ugly, public way, with the mercurial star reportedly yelling at teammates and coaches while forcing his way off the team. The latest trade that rocked the NBA world happened this season when they sent disappointing but highly touted wing Andrew Wiggins to Golden State in return for DeAngelo Russell. Most called this trade a win for the Wolves, though it will be interesting to see how Russell fits with Towns, and the Wolves could struggle on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s impossible to talk about this franchise without addressing the infamous 2018 Jimmy Butler practice. The short of it goes like this: Butler was unhappy with the situation he found himself in with the Wolves. No one should blame him for that. At the time, his favorite coach (Tom Thibodeau) was given the job, but he didn’t feel it changed anything. He asked to be traded before camp but the GM and owner of the team hid the news until it was opportune for them. Meanwhile, Jimmy wasn’t practicing at the time. Then, an executive pulled him aside to say, “you’re gonna practice”.
That tone didn’t sit well with Butler, who eventually attended practice and used the second and third-team players to beat the starters and prove a point, yelling at the team’s young stars while doing it. The basketball world was shocked when the news came out from the interview with Rachel Nichols that happened just minutes afterward. He then found himself in Philadelphia and back to basketball, nearly leading the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The current roster should have fans excited. Headlined by Karl Anthony-Towns and Deangelo Russell, scoring should come easy in the 2020-21 season. Towns posted a PER of 26.53, placing him 7th amongst all players in the category while Russell posted a PER of 18.77, which was 7th amongst all SG’s in the NBA this season. Both stars can improve Minnesota’s win total in 2021 if they can post numbers like this together throughout the course of an entire season.
On the flip side, the defense could continue to be problematic for the Wolves. An important defensive stat used to measure a player’s impact in their team’s success is defensive win shares. A metric that measures the number of wins a player produces for his team strictly due to his abilities on defense. Towns played 35 games and posted one of the team’s lowest defensive win shares at .034, not a good sign for Minnesota fans looking to see some improvement from their franchise player on that end of the floor. In terms of all NBA players, that mark puts the Timberwolves star outside of the top 400.
Even so, with almost $20 million in cap space and the #1 overall pick, this could be an exciting offseason for this franchise. Perhaps we see a guy like Fred Vanvleet make his way from Toronto to Minnesota to add some defense and scoring. There will be many possibilities for Minnesota this offseason, so it should be interesting. They’re coached by Ryan Suanders, the son of the legendary Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, and the team is owned by Glen Taylor.