Here’s a new feature on the old blog: The Fixer. In this series, I’ll be outlining my plan for how to fix a variety of things. For the inaugural edition, let’s fix
The Minnesota Timberwolves.
Minnesota has more than it’s fair share of sports-related misery. We vividly remember the cataclysmic Vikings meltdowns of 1998 and 2009. We endured the departure of the NHL Northstars team from the state hockey. The Golden Gopher basketball and football teams have been non-factors forever. The Twins have won World Series, but have failed to get over the hump for years and are now in a prolonged downturn. But perhaps the longest stretch of ineptitude and failure belongs to the Timberwolves.
I’ve been a Wolves fan for as long as the team has existed. It’s been like watching a long-running soap opera as the team finds more and more ways to manufacture drama. Let’s run down the highlights:
After toiling in utter obscurity during the Bulls dynasty runs of the 90’s, the team drafted high school prodigy Kevin Garnett and promised a bright future. Then they drafted a sidekick for him in Stephan Marbury. Together, they were the poster kids for a young and hip NBA. They would play together for years to come and build a dangerous playoff team. Well, Marbury got stars in his eyes and decided he didn’t want to share the spotlight. He forced a trade and set the plan back years. He found little success with other teams and wound up overseas.
Then the Wolves front office got caught in an under the table deal with Joe Smith in which they promised him a fat contract later in exchange for signing a lower deal now – making room for more players under the salary cap. The Wolves were heavily fined, the last year of Smith’s deal was voided and 3 first round draft picks were forfeited. The draft pick forfeiture severely hurt the franchise.
The only glimmer of hope was the 2003-2004 season. They managed to sign two key free agents (Latrell Spreewell and Sam Cassell) and made their first deeper playoff run behind league MVP Kevin Garnett. However, Cassell broke down late and the team collapsed short of the finals (which were won that year by a small, teamwork preaching Pistons team over the larger than life, superstar-laden Lakers) After that, it was all downhill. Cassell and Spreewell left and Garnett was ultimately traded to Boston where he won a title a year in.
Now, after Kevin McHale’s mistakes, after David Kahn’s hubris, after whiffing on drafting Steph Curry, after a number of failed coaches, here’s where the team sits: superstar Kevin Love wants out to play for a title contender and former-coach Flip Saunders is back as part-owner, president and head coach of a ragtag group trying to find their identity.
Let’s fix it!
How can the Timberwolves be brought back and turned into a playoff team once again? Well, it starts with Saunders now. Flip has placed himself in a position of ultimate power and responsibility. Any perceived failures will now be placed squarely on him. Flip has a great basketball mind and some cache with the players, but he has a big mess to clean up at the moment. He needs to take decisive action on the issues on his plate and not dance around them.
So far he’s doing that by standing up to Kevin Love. After hiring himself as coach, his next action items should be to trade Kevin Love immediately. Kevin put in a number of years here and said and did all the right things, but now he’s shown that he’s a selfish and petulant kid. Too many NBA stars are taught that if they just start burning things around them, they will get what they want. Kevin is doing that now – passive aggressively bad-mouthing the team and management and wandering around cities like Boston saying he’s just “getting to know the place”. Cut this guy out right now. Every team would be interested in landing him, so play them all off each other and take the best deal that’s offered – no matter what team it is.
The emphasize on the Kevin Love haul should be young players and picks. That’s right, the Wolves need to do a soft reset on the franchise. They have some pieces, but they should be in long-term build mode now. Cleveland has the #1 pick in this years draft, they should be the first on the list for Love. Get those picks amassed over the next 3 years.
Next, research research research. You cannot afford to keep screwing up draft picks in this town. Flip must show that he has the knowledge (and, let’s face it, common sense) that it takes to out draft David Kahn. No more wasted 1st round picks on players that wash out in 2 years. You must nail the drafts from here on out.
This sets you up to build a strong, young core of players. Make that core of players cohesive and a band of brothers that is loyal to each other. They don’t need to be loyal to the franchise, they need to be loyal to the team. Flip must bring them up to want to win together. Don’t allow ideas of abandonment to fester among up and coming stars. Once the young core is established, veteran players should be brought in as role players and glue guys. Make guys WANT to actually play in Minnesota because of the team mentality that is correctly fostered here.
Next step, make the playoffs. Just ONCE. Once the young core gets a taste of playoff basketball, they will be addicted. This year, the 1st round of the playoffs was by far the most entertaining. This was, in part, because a bunch of young teams made it in and, drunk on the feeling, played out of their minds. Get your young guys in and give them a taste.
From there, tweak the formula and just let your team grow a bit. By this point, the current crop of superstars will be aging. The window may be open for a new long-term success story! Build on the small successes until they are big.
Perhaps the key at this point will be to get a little bit lucky. Hit on a free agent player who thrives in the system and becomes a secret weapon. Draft a guy in the 2nd round who turns out to be a top shelf talent. Avoid injuries during critical stretches of the season and playoffs.
Basically, I’m a proponent of the Oklahoma City and San Antonio models of building a winning team. These are small markets, like Minnesota, that manage to have winning teams year after year. How have they done it? Two things: great front office skill and loyalty to the team. Why hasn’t Tony Parker ever said “I don’t want to share the spotlight with Tim Duncan?” Because he recognizes that they are basically meant for each other. They want the team to win. They are loyal to their coach and to the culture of the Spurs. The Thunder are a bit more dysfunctional, but all they had to do was hit two drafts out of the park (Durant and Westbrook) and the rest fell into place fairly easily. They don’t always have the cohesiveness of the Spurs, but they can beat anybody if all their players are on their game.
I believe the Wolves will be a winning team again. Probably not next season, but who knows? If Flip Saunders can engineer the Kevin Love fiasco into a package of picks and talented young players, things could fall into place rather quickly. It’s a long road for a small market team like Minnesota to become a contender in the NBA, but it’s not impossible. The Wolves are a broken team at the moment, but they can be fixed.