SPORTS | Stray Observations from Super Bowl 52

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My hometown of Minneapolis hosted the Super Bowl this year and the city was buzzing all week. Sunday was finally the big day. Here are some stray observations about the event which featured a football game between the Patriots and Eagles along with some other stuff.

The Game

My Vikings got steamrolled by the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. No one expected that to happen, especially because the Eagles were playing with their backup QB after MVP candidate Carson Wentz tore his ACL. But Nick Foles sliced and diced the Minnesota defense, proving that head coach Doug Pederson was a QB whisperer and the Eagles were a good team. But could they be expected to hang with the Dynasty Patriots? I thought so and picked them to win the game with something like a 24-21 score. I was half right.

The game turned into the biggest offensive showing the NFL has EVER had and the Eagles walked away with a victory. Foles was the game’s MVP and Brady and the Patriots never had control of the game at any point (even when they led in the 4th quarter).

The Pats tried this trick play where Brady catches a pass, but Brady couldn’t haul in Amendola’s pass.

What’s crazy is that they Pats ran this play against the Eagles back in 2015, only the 38 year old Brady held on back then.

Then, if you needed any more proof that Coach Pederson is a madman, the Eagles tried a version of the same play near the goal line and Foles converted for a TD!

If anyone told you early in the season that Nick Foles would catch a TD in the Super Bowl, you’d have them committed. But he caught 1, threw 3 and won MVP. Insane.

The Patriots pride themselves on finding the other teams strength and taking it away from them, essentially making them play left handed. But the Eagles just are left handed by nature. They were the Pats worst nightmare matchup. They fast and loose, going for it on 4th down and just always finding a way to convert. It killed the Pats defense all night. So even though Brady kept putting points on the board, the defense couldn’t stop Foles and company at all.

Which makes you really wonder about why Bill Belichick never used Malcolm Butler on defense. Butler played on special teams, but his spot on the defense was gone. No explanations were given. It seems like either he was sick earlier this week and Belichick worried he wasn’t healthy or he did something to tick off Belichick and that was that. Either way, many are pointing to that decision as part of the reason the Pats lost the game.

It could also be that the Pats were missing one of their best offensive skill players because he was concussed in the 2nd quarter on a very hard (but legal) hit:

But the Pats also had some other uncharacteristic miscues, like some special teams errors that came back to haunt them later. A missed FG here and a questionable reverse attempt on the final kickoff of the game late in the fourth quarter that set them up for a very long field on their final drive.

The Pats had a chance late to take control of the game and that’s when the Eagles line finally got to Brady and made the biggest play of their night.

Even so, when Tom Brady got the ball again while down 8 with under 2 minutes to go, we all thought this game was headed for overtime. That’s what Brady does – works miracles in the 4th quarter. But his Hail Mary pass failed to connect and the game was over.

It’s absolutely insane to think that that Patriots had 613 yards of offense (most ever by a Super Bowl team), 505 passing yards from Brady (most in playoff history), never punted … and still lost the game. To a backup QB. Brady is now 5-3 in Super Bowls.

Does this mean the Patriots Dynasty is over too? With some turnover coming on the coaching staff, Brady’s age and some reported internal organizational strife, it could be.

The Eagles, meanwhile, have some decisions to make too. Their backup QB just won the Super Bowl MVP award. Do they keep him? Probably. As the backup? Probably. Or trade him? Likely. It will be interesting to see how they work the situation.

All in all, it was a great game! And when the Vikings aren’t playing in it, that’s about all I can ask for.

The Halftime Show

I’ll lump the National Anthem in here too. I don’t like Pink (and I refuse to spell it with a !) and when she came on screen and then pulled gum out of her mouth, I was not pleased. Then she sang an okay version of the anthem with (mercifully) not much flair. Her final note was a little sour. Later I learned that she’d been struggling with the flu all week and that was a cough drop she spit out before the song. As a singer, I’ve totally been there and it stinks. I’m giving Pink some grace on this one. There’s no good time to get the flu as a singer, but before singing on the biggest stage – ouch.

Okay, Justin Timberlake. Pretty pedestrian performance. Literally, he was walking and dancing through a Family Circus map of US Bank Stadium while singing some of his forgettable songs. That’s it. No big set pieces or anything. I think the Super Bowl could have used a little more spectacle.

And something just wasn’t right about the vocal mix. It sounded muddy to the point where I couldn’t understand what he was singing. Or maybe his lyrics are so processed and fast that no one could. I know US Bank Stadium is not the best venue for music, but the P.A. feed to TV should have been nice and clear and it wasn’t.

I really liked the University of Minnesota marching band being included. They were great.

And I totally want one of those mic stands for no good reason.

It was fully expected that he would play a Prince song. Every big act who swings through Minneapolis is seemingly required to cover our hometown hero. JT swore he wouldn’t do a hologram duet, but he ended up with a projection of Prince on a sheet anyway. Technically not a hologram, sure….

And this was cool – but totally a CGI insert.

My favorite was the kid in the crowd when JT went up there to sing. He took a selfie and then immediately got bored with what was happening and started checking his notifications or something.

Yep, cell phones and selfies were pretty much the biggest stars of the halftime show, from JT telling people to put their phones up to his final line of the show “Super Bowl selfies!”

Meh.

The Commercials

David Harbour in the Tide ads won the night in our house. His hilarious “No, Tide ad” was great. And the subversive nature of suggesting that all ads featuring clean clothes are secret Tide ads was brilliant. They even crossed the Proctor and Gamble streams a bit and got the Old Spice guy into one.

The Giants had a bad year and their division rival played against their recent Super Bowl opponent in the big game. That didn’t stop the team from putting out a series of very funny commercials for the NFL.

Another corporate behemoth crossed brands a bit when Doritos and Mountain Dew got into a rap battle with Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman. Picking the right spokespeople can make or break and ad and they knocked this one out of the park.

What I really liked were the movie trailers! Oh, and even TV had trailers now because it’s 2018! The coolest drop was the trailer for The Cloverfield Paradox, a new Clover-verse movie that Netflix scooped up when Paramount got gun shy. Netflix dropped the trailer and released the movie when the game ended. Amazing. This is truly the future. I will watch this movie.

The much-anticipated first look at the Han Solo movie also premiered during the game. There’s a LOT of speculation being thrown around about the quality of this movie and the trailer at least makes it look great. We’ll see if the cast lives up to the hype.

Seriously, some of that looks so, so cool.

The first trailer for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was sort of cool I suppose. This trailer is way, way better.

I’ve always loved the Mission: Impossible franchise and it’s increasingly crazy stunts and action set pieces. Fallout seems to keep the tradition of maiming Tom Cruise going for another day. This will be a fun film.

Logic dictated that a new Avengers: Infinity War spot should be included in the Super Bowl. And yeah, they put one out, but it didn’t have quite the wow-factor that some of these other trailers did. And it probably didn’t have to have it. We’re all going to see this movie.

HBO must believe in Westworld and they probably have to since Game of Thrones is ending next year. They splurged and aired a trailer for season 2 of the messy and weird sci-phi-losophy show during the big game. I’m in.

Hulu is trying to get into the big streaming party by putting out some quality original shows. They decided to generate hype for their mysterious show that’s some kind of mash-up of Stephen King stories. No one is really sure what this show is going to be, but Stephen King is very hot right now so they’ll definitely get some eyeballs on Castle Rock.

And finally, The Rock is in a new movie. He needs to save people again. He needs to go into a building on fire to do it. Oh, and he’s got a prosthetic leg. A PROSTHETIC LEG PEOPLE!!

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SPORTS | This Feels Familiar

After The Minneapolis Miracle, the Vikings seemed to have destiny on their side going into an NFC Championship matchup against Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. There was a palpable feeling that a “home” Super Bowl seemed to be there for the taking. But on Sunday night, the Vikings’ demons emerged and added yet another scar to the franchises legacy and subtracted another year from the lives of the fans. The season may have felt different, but this feels all too familiar.

When I was a camp counselor we would lead youths in team building activities to challenge and grow them. After each activity, we would sit down and help them process what happened using three basic questions called “The What, the So What and the Now What?” Today we’ll do some processing of what happened on Sunday, what it means for the team and what’s next for my beloved Vikings.

WHAT?

By now you know that the Vikings historically great defense got their butts kicked for 60 minutes on Sunday. The stats are astounding compared to the rest of the 2017 season.

The Vikings were uncharacteristically bad across the defensive board, getting manhandled in the run game and getting continuously torched by Nick Foles and his receivers in the passing game. Everyone from Harrison Smith to Terrance Newman played poorly. Xavier Rhodes was frustrated enough to get into shoving matches late in the game when the score was already out of hand.

It seemed like the defensive scheme from Coach Zimmer was ineffective from the jump. The Eagles spread out the defense with wide sets and picked on the nickle back a bunch in the early going. As the game went on, they didn’t need to pick on any one specific player as the entire defense got shell shocked. Instead of dialing up his signature exotic blitzes in an attempt to rattle Foles, Zimmer elected to mostly let his front 4 work on getting pressure by themselves – which didn’t yield any results. Credit the Eagles O-line for their ability to keep Foles upright long enough to find his open men downfield. Foles looked like a pro-bowler out there. Of all the things that went wrong on Sunday, the implosion of the best defense in the league was the most shocking to witness.

Then again, the Vikings seem to make a habit of letting their statistical strength disappear in the biggest games. The 1998 offense couldn’t score enough in their NFC championship game and Gary Anderson’s 100% success rate also failed. In 2000, the offense was stellar again, but scored 0 against the Giants in their NFC Championship game. And in 2009, Brett Favre’s incredible regular season and Adrian Peterson’s unstoppable running got the team to the NFC Championship game before an INT and a fumble contributed to the shocking loss.

The 2017 offense wasn’t necessarily the strength of the team, but they were able to limit turnovers and use consistent WR play and solid running to capitalize on the defense’s high level of play. On their first drive, the Vikings looked like they were picking up right where they left off – with a nice drive and a TD to Rudolph. On their next drive however, everything changed.

Keenum’s pick six was so unexpected and rough that it threw the entire team into chaos. The Eagles scored the Blount TD on their next drive and suddenly it was 14-7 Eagles and they never looked back. Foles got aggressive, Keenum got tight and the position players all got nervous. And that’s when the Philly crowd started to become a real factor, whipping themselves into a frenzy and making things even more difficult for the Vikings.

As the game continued to get out of hand, the Vikings had no answers and no adjustments could be made to stop the bleeding. It was another Minneapolis Meltdown. The Eagles will play the Patriots in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

Gross.

SO WHAT?

So what does this all mean? For one thing, it means that the Vikings played their Super Bowl game a few weeks early when they beat the Saints in Minneapolis in miracle fashion. That game took something out of the Vikings and exhausted their supply of fight, it would seem. The coaching staff said they worked very hard to banish the euphoric memories of that game from their players’ minds to get them back to task on the Eagles. Still, I think the Vikings looked past the Eagles a bit by thinking that Nick Foles wasn’t going to beat them and they were headed to the Super Bowl. When Foles got off to a good start and the offense turned it over, no one was prepared for that. That’s on the coaches and also on the player leaders. When you get punched in the mouth, you’re supposed to shake it off and hit back harder. The Vikings just didn’t do that.

It means that Case Keenum is good, but he’s not great. In spite of an almost fairy tale season for Keenum, he showed that he’s not a franchise quarterback yet. Some of his throws were ill-advised and he should have been able to feel the pressure on the strip sack play. Of course some of the blame falls on the O-line for not being able to stop the pass rush of the Eagles. And injuries to the line were also a factor. But Keenum spent his capital against the Saints and went into some debt against the Eagles, raising questions about his future role with this team.

It means that the defense finally got solved a bit, probably by Drew Brees and Sean Payton. When the defense let the Saints back in the game in the Divisional Round, we should have known that something was afoot. We all attributed the comeback to Brees and his Hall of Fame talent, but the truth was there were chinks in the armor of the defense that the Saints found and exploited. The Eagles just watched the tapes and put their own spin on the blueprint. Zimmer will need to spend the next few months figuring out how that happened and how he can prevent it from ever happening again.

And it means that lots of changes are coming…

NOW WHAT?

The Vikings now set their sights a 2018 season that will look vastly different from 2017. For one thing, the offensive coordinator who used Case Keenum to get to the NFC Championship game, Pat Shurmur, is now the head coach of the New York Giants. His ability to pivot when Bradford went down before week 2 AND when Dalvin Cook when down in week 4 got all the teams interested in his acumen. So the Vikings are in the market for a new coordinator and are reportedly considering their long-time QB coach Kevin Stefanski along with outside candidates like Darrell Bevell (who coached here under Brad Childress).

Whoever the new coordinator is will also have to work with Coach Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman to decide who their QB will be in 2018. This is a big one. This year the Vikings seemed to have 3 QBs who could potentially start: Bradford, Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater. All 3 of these guys are now free agents. The Vikings need to decide if any of them are worth investing in and whether they should consider attempting to sign one of the bigger veteran names like Drew Brees, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins or even inquiring about trading for Alex Smith (whose time in KC may be up). It’s a real conundrum and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. With a defense that was otherworldly for most of the year and young talent on offense, a good QB could be the thing that gets them to the Super Bowl.

My sense is that the Vikings will have conversations with Keenum about returning, but not at the salary hit that he probably thinks he’s earned. Bradford is likely gone – who wants to deal with his injury history at this point? I could also see them being open to bringing Teddy back as a backup with incentives if he’s pressed into the starting role at some point. The Bridgewater comeback story is just too warmhearted to throw away.

But maybe Zimmer and Spielman realize that the window for the Super Bowl isn’t going to be open very long before these defensive stars need to be payed big, big money. Maybe they let all 3 of these guys walk, make a play for Kirk Cousins, keep Kyle Sloter in the organization (the upside practice squad guy they paid good money for) and draft a QB. Those moves would signal an “all in” for next year whereas retaining 2/3 of this years QB room would tell us they believe small changes are all that are needed (which I’m not convinced of).

The rest of the open questions surround the two lines. The offensive line was much improved this year, but depth was clearly an issue. Many lineman were asked to play out of position to cover the loss of another starter and that had very diminishing returns. On the defensive side, Everson Griffin played hurt for the second half of the season and had trouble producing. On the other side, Danielle Hunter didn’t make his presence felt as much as he should have. The schemes and personnel should be evaluated afresh because they NEED to have more pressure than they were getting in these last two games. They got the opposing quarterbacks very well when they were at home and they did very poorly on the road.

Oh, and we need to get better at the nickle back position. Mackenzie Alexander is decent, but was targeted far too many times because he’s been a weak spot compared to Rhodes and Waynes. I’m assuming Terrance Newman will hang it up (along with Brian Robison), so there’s room to add some fresh legs with talent for underneath coverage. And even though Andrew Sendejo was one of the most improved players this year (per Zimmer himself), there will always be talk of finding a new safety to compliment Harrison Smith (who some call the best player in the NFL).

At its core, this team is still young. Unlike the 2009 squad which featured some “last ride” type players, this team is poised to keep winning for a few more years. In fact, this will probably be the off season that Spielman will need to offer some contract extensions to these guys to keep them in the fold for future Super Bowl shots. It’s definitely going to be an intriguing off season.

As Mike Zimmer said on the radio this week:

“We keep knockin’ on the door, at some point we’re gonna kick that son of a b*tch down.” – Coach Mike Zimmer

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Thanks for a great season, Vikes. I’m mad it ended the way it did, but I’m not giving up. We didn’t make it to the top of the mountain this year, but in the end every team is back at the bottom putting a new plan together. Even the team that wins it all is back at the bottom, they’re just the team that got to walk down under their own power. One of these years, we’re gonna kick that door down and the 2017 season’s failings (joined by the myriad of historical failings) will only make that success sweeter.

I like how Brian Robison put it into perspective:

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Been trying to gather my thoughts and emotions to say what I need to say….. Well this has been one great ride this year. It still hurts very much so and it’s hard to talk about or even think about how close we were. Even though we weren’t able to accomplish our final goal there are so many good things that created memories for a lifetime this season. Number 1, I want to thank God for the opportunities, the people and the gift of eternal life that I have. Number 2, I want to thank my family, friends, and everyone else who has supported me so graciously. •••2a••• thank you to the fishing world for showing such amazing support throughout this season Number 3, I want to thank the @vikings organization for putting together such an amazing Team and the opportunity to be here for it. Thank you to my teammates for putting up with me and being an extension of my family! I’d go into “battle” with you anyway! Number 4, I want to thank the Viking fans for being in full force this year and showing us so much support. I’m sorry we didn’t get it done for y’all this year as you deserve to be called champions. Last and definitely not least, I want to thank my wife and kids. You make it easy to go fight everyday for me to go out and strive for more. Y’all are my why and my everything for being who I am and doing what I do. I love y’all No one knows what the future holds, but one thing I know is I’ll cherish this season not only for the wins and losses, but for the men and women I shared it with. #nfl #minnesota #vikings #football #family #reelemin

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SKOL

SPORTS | This Feels Different

In 2014, I made a rather ill-advised prediction: that one of Minnesota’s four major men’s sports teams would win a championship within the next 4 years. Since then we’ve seen the Minnesota Lynx win some WNBA championships and become a real dynasty (appearing in the finals 6 times and winning 4 championships since 2011!), but there had been little movement for the Vikings, Timberwolves, Twins and Wild.

But ladies and gentlemen,

“I come back to you now … at the turn of the tide.”

Yes, the past year has featured some very exciting developments for the big four Minnesota teams. With time winding down for my prediction to come true, how are we looking? Let’s take a quick run around the Minnesota sports landscape for some updates.

Minnesota Wild

For a while it looked like the Wild were our best hope for a championship. The “Skate-riots” (a play on Patriots) were a budding NHL super team that would surely deliver some deep playoff runs and maybe even an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Well, the hype-train got switched to a much slower track and the buzz surrounding this team has turned into a murmur at best. They’re in the midst of a middling season again now and it would seem that our hopes for a Cup are not going to be realized this year without a significant turnaround. And that’s the extent of my attention on this team.

Minnesota Twins

Going into the 2017 season, a rebuild was underway. The Twins got some new front office voices and shopped some of their talent while betting on the futures of some great young players. It was the right thing to do after a disastrous 2016 season. Then something peculiar happened – this iteration of the Twins turned out to be good! Despite some lingering pitching trouble, the young players like Byron Buxton ascended to incredible heights and veterans bounced back from rough 2016 seasons. They even made it to the Wild Card play-in game, where they lost to the Yankees. Still, it was a completely unexpected success story of a season, giving hope that the retooled front office had a plan that would work rather quickly. Was the season a blip on the radar or an actual first step towards relevance? Next season will help answer that question. Could the Twins win it all in 2018? The odds are definitely not in their favor, but the future is a lot brighter than it was a year ago.

Minnesota Timberwolves

I wrote last year about the furious, win-now moves that Tom Thibodeau enacted in the off season. Bringing in a super star like Jimmy Butler and some grizzled veterans like Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford signaled that Thibs wasn’t ready to concede the next few years to the Warriors and Cavs. He thought his young guys just needed some more positive peer pressure to buy into his master system. So far, the season has proved that the plan can work at least in the short term. The Wolves are sitting in the 4th spot in the tough Western Conference and it seems almost assured that their long, long playoff drought will finally end this season. That in and of itself is a huge success for this franchise. But Thibs certainly won’t be satisfied with a playoff berth and a first round exit. He believes that this team can contend for a title and soon.

Based on the season so far, it’s clear that they are still a work in progress. They’ve dropped games to lowly opponents from time to time and streaky shooting and foul trouble have hampered Wiggins and Towns. Injuries have also be a bit of a problem in this young season. Still, as the team gradually begins to see Butler as their centerpiece, they will only get better. I see them reaching the playoffs (for the first time in TWELVE YEARS!) as a 4 or 5 seed and winning their first round series. From there, the rest of the West might be too tough to break through without an injury on the other side. I’m not predicting a Finals appearance this year, but it’s certainly on the table for 2-3 seasons from now.

Which brings me to the actual best hope for nailing my prediction by the end of 2018:

Minnesota Vikings

As a Vikings fan, I’m always ready for the other shoe to drop. This franchise, for whatever reason, has a way of dangling some hope out there and then knocking the wind out of you with a lead pipe to the gut when you finally decide to reach out for it. But this season feels different.

The team opened the season with a masterful win over the Saints led by Sam Bradford, the player we acquired at great cost last season after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic, non-contact knee injury in training camp. Bradford looked ready to pick up where he left off last year with pinpoint accuracy in his passes and no mistakes. Plus, rookie running back Dalvin Cook carved up the Saints and looked like a rookie of the year candidate. But it didn’t take long for the Vikings to slowly reach for the pipe in their back pocket. Bradford’s knee became a problem and he hit the IR, leaving the team in the care of technically 3rd string QB Case Keenum. Then Dalvin Cook tore his ACL on a non-contact play in a week 4 loss to the Lions at home.

But this season just feels different!

The Vikings didn’t crumble under the weight of these problems like they did last year. Case Keenum put together the best season of his career, doing his best Bradford impression with accurate passes and few mistakes, plus mobility that Bradford only dreams of. The re-tooled offensive line played extremely well and WR Adam Thielen broke out in a big way. And then there’s the defense, which is probably the best unit front-to-back that we’ve ever seen in Minnesota. The Vikings rang up a 13-3 record and earned a first round bye in the playoffs along with the Eagles (who became very vulnerable when star QB Carson Wentz tore his ACL late in the season).

And it just so happens that the Super Bowl is in Minneapolis this year.

Something about this season just feels different!

The Vikings defense is the best in the game, from the line to the safeties. The offense is coolly efficient with a thunder/lightning RB combo, smart and athletic WRs and a QB on a hot streak. The fact that the Super Bowl is in their home stadium is just another incentive to get there and make history.

So I refuse to be the Minnesota sports fan who can’t enjoy the success because he’s bracing himself for a hit to the stomach.

These are not the 1998 Vikings (Gary Anderson missed FG at home against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2001 Vikings (41-0 loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2009 Vikings (Favre interception / 12 men penalty against Saints in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2015 Vikings (Blair Walsh missed easy FG against the Seahawks at TCF Bank Stadium in the Wild Round).

In the words of Kylo Ren:

These are the 2017 Vikings!

And they just might be headed to Valhalla.

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SPORTS | The New Wolves Order is Officially Here

NBA Draft Night 2017 didn’t take long to get crazy. There had already been a trade atop the draft with the 76ers and Celtics swapping top three picks. All week there were rumblings that more moves were coming and that top shelf talent like Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and Indiana’s Paul George would be changing jerseys. Then a major chip fell:

My Wolves splashed! As far back as last year’s draft there were rumors that Chicago and Minnesota were close to pulling the trigger on a trade like this. It took a full year, but it finally came to pass. Coach Thibs stole one of his former players from the Bulls and handed over some building blocks in a “win now” move. And the NBA is sent spinning again.

The Wolves were streaky last year, but showed definite signs of improvement. Drafting Kris Dunn threw the future of Ricky Rubio into question, but Rubio had one of his best seasons ever. Meanwhile, Dunn struggled mightily in his limited minutes (while 3rd PG Tyus Jones showed some real flash at times). Wiggins and Towns were solid all year and Lavine was showing some breakout potential before he tore his ACL. What the team was really missing was a veteran scorer who could also provide some legit defensive play. Thibs seemed convinced that Jimmy Butler was that missing piece, but surely the Bulls would demand a king’s ransom for him, right? It was always somewhat assumed that Wiggins plus parts was the asking price. Still, when the trade was finally announced, it was the 7 pick/Lavine/Dunn for Butler. No Wiggins! I was a little worried as that deal started popping up on Twitter. But then it came out that the Bulls’ 16th pick was also part of the deal and everything changed. This was a lopsided deal in favor of the Wolves.

Here’s the thing about the NBA in 2017: the Golden State Warrior exist. In the ’14-’15 season, they won it all. In the ’15-’16 season, the Warriors posted a best-ever 73-9 regular season record, but ultimately collapsed in the Finals to LeBron James and the Cavs. After that failure, they added Kevin Durant – one of the top 3 players in the NBA – and gave up very little to get him. From that moment, it was almost assumed they would win the title in ’16-’17 – and they did, losing only 1 playoff game in the process.

All of that led up to this off season where teams needed to decide how they were going to compete with one of the most dominant NBA teams ever. How do you beat a super team? With another super team? The Cavs are clearly the next best team, having three extremely good players in James/Irving/Love, but they just got beat. So do they add another all star? Actually, they started by firing their GM. Not a good look. How about the Celtics? They were angling for Jimmy Butler, but lost out. Will they add a big chip like Paul George? The Spurs? Will they move Lamarcus Aldridge and try to add a piece? That’s not really their style, is it? Who else even has a prayer?

What’s really fascinating to me is how teams decide if they should try to win now against teams like the Warriors and Cavs or if they should quietly build a young core and time it to explode as the Warriors and Cavs are aging out. The problem is that some teams might feel like their young core could compete now with a little help and then they might mortgage part of their future to take their shot now against an almost unbeatable superteam. The question boils down to this: how much do you believe in your young stars? For Coach Thibs – he believes.

By all accounts, as the dust settles a bit, the Wolves should be a near-lock to end their playoff drought next season (the longest active playoff drought in the league). That alone is exciting. But Coach Thibs wouldn’t have made this deal if he didn’t think this group could actually challenge in the West at some point in the next few years. He’s cutting the fuse on this bomb and accelerating the timetable. It’s a bold move, but when you’re giving up the 7th draft pick in a year when there are 6 players considered sure things plus an underwhelming PG and an injured sparkplug guard – you don’t hesitate.

I’ll surely miss Zach Lavine. He was a great player and a great guy. I’ll be rooting for him to splash in Chicago. That’s the one bittersweet part of this deal for me.

But I’m excited about the future of the Timberwolves with Butler on board along with Towns and Wiggins! It’s been a long road since Garnett/Spreewell/Casell lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in 2004. We’ve suffered through a LOT of tough times.  We’ve watched Al Jefferson and Kevin Love move through as our franchise stars without reaching the playoffs. We’ve endured David Kahn’s incompetence (which cost us Steph Curry). We’ve celebrated Kevin Garnett and Flip Saunders returning to the franchise and then mourned the Flip’s death and seen KG retire in a huff. Has it all been building to this moment?

I sure hope so. I can’t wait for next season!

 

RAISING WOLVES

How a rollercoaster year for the Timberwolves led to the dawn of a new era of hope


The last time I sat down to write about my beloved Timberwolves, it was spring 2014 and our best player was Kevin Love. We had just hired back Flip Saunders as the leader of a new era of basketball operations and it seemed like things were finally looking up for the long-beleaguered franchise. Since then, everything (and I do mean everything) has changed. It has been an absolute rollercoaster ride with some amazing thrills and some crushing depths of pain. As the franchise emerges from the tunnel, it seems poised now to finally (finally) become interesting and relevant again in the NBA. It’s a story that will make for a fantastic 30 for 30 documentary someday. But it’s not over yet. The best is yet to come.


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Flip Saunders

In the spring of 2014, things were changing for the Timberwolves. Kevin Love was our superstar player, but he was showing signs of dissatisfaction with the direction of the franchise and with his contract. Around this time, a much-needed front office change brought back the Timberwolves prodigal song Flip Saunders as team president and de facto coach as well. Saunders had been fired years ago after the most successful team in franchise history started to crumble with age and a hard reset seemed inevitable. Saunders had bounced to Detroit and then DC and experienced some decent success in both venues. Now, he was being tasked with casting a vision for the future of Minnesota professional men’s basketball. First on the agenda, figure out what to do about Kevin Love. Soothe and keep him? Or cut bait and try to trade him for future stars?

Then the NBA provided a catalyst to get things moving. LeBron James decided to leave this team in Miami and return to Cleveland! It was a long-rumored move that people still couldn’t quite believe would happen. But LeBron, for whatever reason, decided Miami had run its course and he wanted to win a title for his hometown. LeBron returned to a Cleveland franchise that had up and coming Kyrie Irving and the #1 pick in the 2014 draft! But would LeBron want to wait for these young players to ascend or would he rather flip those future assets into a more immediate return?

In the June draft, the Cavs kept their #1 pick and drafted Andrew Wiggins out of Kansas. They signed him to his rookie deal in July and it seemed like maybe LeBron was going to war with the young guns. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, used their 13th overall pick on raw SG prospect Zach LaVine.

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Kevin Love and Andrew Wiggins

Still, behind the scenes in Minnesota, Flip Saunders was resolute. He wanted to trade Kevin Love, but not for just any deal. Saunders was already eyeing Wiggins and waiting for LeBron ask for Kevin Love. In August, the Cavs and Wolves discussions began. And in late August, the deal was struck. Wiggins and Anthony Bennett were shipped to the Wolves and Kevin Love got his wish to abandon the Wolves and hitch his wagon to the best player in the league (or so we thought in August of 2014). The Cavs became the new super-team in the NBA and odds-on-favorite to win the 14-15 title. The Wolves gained a highly promising player and some salary cap flexibility. And Flip’s patience paid off in a very big way.

The 2014-2015 Wolves season was another disappointment as far as wins go, finishing a paltry 16-66 (their 2nd worst season of all time). Still, the young players were given plenty of playing time by Flip Saunders and Wiggins (rookie of the year) and LaVine (winner of the dunk contest) in particular showed some real talent. And, midway through the year, Flip Saunder made a deal to bring back the best player in Wolves history: Kevin Garnett. It was fun for fans, but certainly didn’t add any wins. Still, it seemed that KG wasn’t acquired to win games, he was acquired to shows the youngsters how it’s done in the NBA.

This set up the Wolves for a very good lottery draft pick in the next draft. But the Wolves have never had the #1 pick in the draft, nor have they improved on their projected draft position. Ever.

Meanwhile, the LeBron and Kevin Love led Cavs cruised in the Eastern Conference and made it to the NBA finals, where they faced the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors beat up the Cavs with their amazingly efficient offense and three-point shooting and won the title behind the newly unstoppable Steph Curry (MVP that year). LeBron’s quest to bring a title to Cleveland wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. And Kevin Love had a bad Finals as Timberwolves fans grimly smiled. Did the Cavs actually get fleeced in the trade?


On draft lottery night 2015, something incredible happened. The Wolves won the #1 in the 2015 NBA draft! It was another sign that things in Minnesota were changing. There was plenty of discussion over which player the Wolves would select. It seemed the two choices for Saunders were Karl-Anthony Towns or Jalil Okafor. In the end, Saunders selected Towns, who most analysts agreed was the correct choice. With a young core of Towns, Wiggins, LaVine and Ricky Rubio at point guard, Flip Saunders had assembled a great young roster to play with. Many wondered if he would step down from coaching at this point and hire someone else, but Saunders saw himself as the best option for these kids and decided to continue coaching them.

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Karl-Anthony Towns

In August of 2015, just 2 months before the season was to begin, everything changed. Flip Saunders announced that he’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was undergoing treatment. He was upbeat about it and continued working and guesting on radio shows as his treatments continued. He said this was the more treatable form of this cancer and he intended to keep working as long as he could. That point came far too quickly as complications from treatment forced Saunders into the hospital in September. It wasn’t clear at the time how serious the complications were, but soon after his hospitalization, the normally communicative Saunders camp went very quiet. Wolves owner Glen Taylor announced that assistant coach Sam Mitchell (a successful head coach in Toronto at one time) would coach in Saunders place. Then, on October 25th, just days before the regular season would begin, Flip Saunders passed away.

It was a huge shock to the Timberwolves, the NBA and the Twin Cities community. I was listening to the Vikings game on the radio as I drove home from church that Sunday and they broke in with the announcement of his passing. I was crushed. Flip Saunders was a great, great person and a huge part of Timberwolves history. Wolves players were understandably shocked and saddened by the passing. The team would sport FLIP patches on their jerseys for the duration of the season and wear special warmup uniforms honoring their late coach. Many players across the league mourned, saying that Saunders was the one that believed in them first and gave them their big shot in the NBA.

I thought back to all the memories I had of him stalking the sidelines in the late 90’s and early 00’s with his goofy haircut and bagged eyes, shouting and pointing to KG and Sam Cassell. He loved basketball and he loved Minnesota. He always wanted to be in Minnesota, which is rare when it comes to sports figures. And I wondered what this meant for the future of the franchise. Saunders was the architect of the current, promising squad. What would happen now?

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Flip Saunders 1955-2015


Sam Mitchell did his absolute best trying to coach up the team, but there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst the older players on the team. Mitchell showed signs of being overly cautious with Towns, resting him at the end of games where he clearly could have made a difference. Was he trying to make Town earn it? Maybe, but Towns was quickly establishing himself as maybe the best player on the team (and clear-cut Rookie of the Year). In fact, his measurables were putting him some very rare air with the likes of Shaq and Duncan. As the season went on, the losses kept piling up but the buzz kept growing. Then, late in the season, the Wolves put together some very, very good basketball and even beat the almost unbeatable Starkiller Base of the Golden State Warriors late in the season! The Warriors finished with the best regular season record in league history and are actually better than the team that beat LeBron and company in the Finals last year! The Wolves finished with a record of 29-53, again setting them up for a decent lottery pick in this year’s draft.

However, the day after the regular season ended, Glen Taylor quickly announced that Sam Mitchell would not be retained. And neither would current General Manager Milt Newton. Taylor was assessing the team and what he saw was probably the most talented young roster in the league. He wanted to pair that young roster with a top-tier coach to accelerate their window of opportunity and try to make the playoffs in the 2016-17 season. And, amazingly, because of the talented roster, there were a number of high-profile coaching candidates that were very interested in the job.

The number one candidate on the list was former Chicago Bulls coach (and former Wolves assistant coach in 1989) Tom Thibodeau. Many teams had had their sights set on “Coach Thibs” since he was fired from Chicago a year ago. His no-nonsense attitude, defensive genius and ability to coach up mediocre players into valuable starters made him the best coach currently on the market. And the scuttlebutt indicated he wanted the Wolves job, but that he wanted complete control of the team. He wanted to be the coach and the president of basketball operations, the same arrangement the Wolves had with Flip Saunders. Taylor was game and the deal was completed in record time. Less than a week after the season was over, the Wolves had hired Tom Thibodeau. The move was heralded around the league as a home run hire and NBC Sports said of the Timberwolves:

“They just became maybe the most interesting team in the NBA.”


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Vintage Tom Thibodeau

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Timberwolves Head Coach Tom Thibodeau

So, now more than ever, it seems the Timberwolves are poised for a whole new era. This team is replete with young, athletic talent. They have one and maybe two future all stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. That have a flashy and talented scorer in Zach LaVine. They have a fairly crafty but offensively stunted point guard in Ricky Rubio. They have some potential glue guys like Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng and others. They have the godfather, Kevin Garnett, still in the fold to mentor and player-coach if needed. And now they have a strong figurehead in Tom Thibodeau.

As a longtime fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves, I’ve stuck by them through the first round exits of the early KG days. I’ve cheered them on as KG, Cassell and Spreewell led the team to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. I’ve supported them through these last TWELVE playoff-less seasons as they’ve endured hardship after fiasco after hardship. Now, it really does appear that clouds are clearly away and this team is poised to actually make the playoffs THIS SEASON.

The Wild are in the playoffs now (about to be dismissed). The Twins are rising. The Vikings are possible contenders and I’ll always be excited for them. But right now, I absolutely cannot wait for Timberwolves season.

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Karl-Anthony Towns // Zach LaVine // Andrew Wiggins

Stray Observations: Super Bowl 50

Another Super Bowl has come and gone, but this one was brought to you with no roman numerals! Crazy. Here are a few random thoughts on this year’s big game.

The Game

I watched most of the game, but it was in a large house with a large number of small children making lots of noise. After a while, it just became a dull hum in the background. It’s fun watching the game with my sons though, even if they can only pay attention for about 5 minutes at a time. They both seemed to care very much about who won though. Our family decided early on that we were pulling for the Broncos and for Peyton Manning to go out on top. So every time the Broncos did something good or the boys noticed the score, they cheered loudly for “their” team.

Like many people going into the game, I thought the Panthers were the favorites to win. Their recent, lopsided playoff victories (in addition to their near-undefeated regular season) seemed to suggest they would overpower the Broncos and their small-scale offense. BUT, the same arguments were made two and a half weeks ago when the Broncos were getting set to play the Patriots. In that game, the Broncos came out with a surprisingly pass-centered offense to start the game and got on the scoreboard early. From there, their amazing defense went to work holding down their opponent and won the game. So I figured that if the Broncos could score first and get a 7-0 or 10-0 lead, the game was theirs. However, if the Panthers went up 10-0 or 14-0, Newton and company would hoist the trophy.

In the opening quarter, I saw the Broncos following their side of the script perfectly. The offense got a lead and the defense went to work making Cam Newton’s life miserable. It was a defensive struggle punctuated by fumbles, INTs and pass rushes. And, of course, in the end – Defense Wins Championships.

Peyton Manning morphed into the role of offensive caretaker quarterback and just kept the offense from making too many mistakes once they had the lead. Many, including Peter King of MMQB, thought that the most valuable offensive player was the Broncos punter! But Peyton won his 2nd Super Bowl, tying him with his brother Eli, who was so very happy about it.

When Peyton won, he was quickly interviewed and said that he wasn’t thinking about retirement yet, he just wanted to kiss his wife and kids and drink Budweiser. Two things about this. First, before he kissed his wife and kids he kissed… Papa John!?

And second, does Peyton have an endorsement deal with Budweiser? They say “no”, but the truth is that Peyton owns some Budweiser distribution business. Oh and also, NFL commish Roger Goodell has banned players from directly promoting alcohol. So maybe this was a parting shot at the much-maligned commish from a retiring player? Or maybe Peyton just really likes boring macrobrew.

Also, why did Peyton receive a defective SB cap?!

What about the losing QB Cam Newton? Cam had a fantastic season. An MVP season. But when it came to the big game, he got handled by a fired up defense. They were chasing him all game long and forcing him into making some major mistakes (including a strip sack TD early). By the end, Cam seemed to have given up, opting not to dive for his fumble that basically sealed the game when Denver recovered it instead.

And post-game, he sat down for the required press conference and had very little to say before walking out.

Part of the walk out was probably due to the fact that he could clearly hear Denver players being interviewed and talking about how they had beaten Cam and forced him to all sorts of errors. That’s tough to listen to, but it’s part of losing and losing is part of the game.

My LVP of the game was Denver’s Talib, who incurred a bunch of violent and dumb personal fouls. Goodell is pushing a new rule where 2 personal fouls would trigger an automatic ejection. Talib would have been sent off early in this one. Dumb. Also…

But as the Panther’s Greg Olson said, “We picked a really bad day to kind of have a meltdown.”

Good game overall, though. I like seeing the defense be the talk of the game for once!

The Halftime Show

First of all, I really don’t like Lady Gaga, but she did  a pretty good job with the National Anthem. She’s got a good voice, why does she need all the other trappings?

I do like Coldplay, just not their more recent work. My dream playlist was mostly ignored in favor of other tunes, which is fine. They opened with their biggest recent hit and went from there into the single from their latest album. Still, the performance wasn’t very arresting. Chris Martin’s most memorable lyrics these days are apparently “oh oh ooohhh oh ooohh”.

Then Coldplay had a halftime of their own while Bruno Mars and Beyonce came out and actually got some real energy going. I remember when Bruno Mars headlined the show a few years back and I was actually surprised at how good he was. Again, he was great here. And Beyonce is good, but being the father of two young boys it was hard to feel good about all the scantily clad women and the suggestive dancing.

Coldplay returned from their halftime to join B&B for a mashup thing before everyone got lovey dovey with a remix of sorts of “Fix You” that felt like “We Are The World” or something. And maybe a same-sex marriage statement at the end?

So it was a mostly forgettable halftime show for me.

The Commercials

Some decent ones. I think that SB commercials that get the most reaction are the ones that are so weird that we love/hate them. You had the Doritos baby.

You had the Mountian Dew PuppyMonkeyBaby. I mean, it hits all the Super Bowl Commercial requirements!

I didn’t like the Prius series at all. Blah. And we’re cheering for bank robbers / car thieves?!?

My favorites were the movie trailers.

Jason Bourne.

Captain America: Civil War.

And X-Men: Apocalypse.

But maybe my favorite of all was Ant-Man vs. The Hulk.

Your Thoughts?

Coldplay Super Bowl Halftime Dream Playlist

So Coldplay is handling the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. It’s almost amazing that they haven’t played it yet as they are one of the most popular bands in the world. Still, their pop sound in recent years has gotten blander and blander. That said, I’ve put together a small playlist of songs that I’d love to hear from the band on Sunday. How many of these do you think they’ll actually throw into the set?

As you can probably tell, I like my Coldplay sleepy and dreamy. But I still like some of their classic hits too, just not much from the last 3-4 years.

I’m still holding out hope for a Sigur Ros halftime show in a few years. Or at the very least, how about a Minnesota-flavored show when we host the big game in 2 years! A big team up of Cloud Cult, Low, Polica, Atmosphere, Doom Tree, Trampled by Turtles, The Replacements (!?!), with an appearance by Prince himself!?! C’mon, that would be amazing!!!

Signs of Life – The State of the Minnesota Sports Union

 

Almost a year ago, I wrote up my first State of the Sports Union post and called it “Sports Scars”. Yes, Minnesota is one of the more tortured sports markets in the country due to a prolonged championship drought and a number of huge disappointments over the years. But I contended that things were finally starting to look up for all FOUR of our major sports franchises. Now that we’re almost a year removed from that outlook, how are we faring? Does my over-the-top prediction that Minnesota would have a championship parade before the end of 2018 still sound pie-in-the-sky? Let’s take a quick look around.

I’ll be honest, the wild are fourth on my interest scale for Minnesota sports teams. I’m just not a big hockey fan. However, this past season was a fun one to follow from a distance. The roster was looking very talented and poised to make a push into the postseason and win a series or two. The one area that was giving the team trouble was the goal tender position – it was just too spotty and unsettled. To their credit, the Wild didn’t sit idly by. They recognized that they may be one player away from a contender, so they went out and acquired someone they believed could be that player: Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk sparked a really great run for the squad and they made the postseason and won a series. But then they hit the Blackhawks train and were summarily crushed.

What now? Well, it most think that re-signing Dubnyk should be a priority. Get the band back together and try again, right? The hated Blackhawks won the Cup and may need to re-tool, so the window is not shut for the Wild. But Dubnyk and his agent seem to be playing hardball a little on the money side of things. If they can get it worked out, this squad should be right back in it next season. They are definitely Minnesota’s most likely championship team right now.

Twins

Since last we spoke, the Twins actually showed that they are no longer satisfied with the status quo and didn’t want to wait too long to turn things around. They fired manager Ron Gardenhire and installed Paul Molitor as the new manager. Most still believed that this roster still had to spend a few years building before getting back into the postseason discussion. But, to the surprise of almost everyone, the team has been quite decent so far this season. They had a fantastic month of May, putting together one of the best in the majors that month. Their offense was potent and their pitching was surprisingly not terrible. They are doing so well, they were willing to go ahead and call up Byron Buxton this month and start getting him into big league shape! The nostalgic pick-up of Torii Hunter is actually looking like a great one as he’s contributed mightily on and off the field. The club looks like they’re having fun together again – playing pranks and organizing laser-lighted and smoke machine-enhanced dance parties after home wins.

Things have cooled a bit in June and the Twins aren’t holding down first place the division anymore. Still, if they can start swinging the bats again like they did in May, this team may just put themselves in the Wild Card discussion in August, something that sounded preposterous a year ago.

 

Vikings

After a rough early season last year and a promising late-season surge, my beloved Vikings had a very, very weird offseason. The Adrian Peterson charges, the confusion, the reinstatement, the contract fiasco, the welcoming back, etc. I’m sick of talking about it. But all that seems to (finally) be in the rearview mirror. Adrian is back with the team and starting to say the right things about moving forward. Beyond AP, Teddy Bridgewater showed last year that he can be the real deal. He was poised and, more importantly, he learned from his mistakes without letting them get inside his head. Mike Zimmer has proved to be a great coach on and off the field, setting expectations for his players and also having their backs. GM Rick Spielman grabbed some great players in the draft including a play-making cornerback in the 1st round (Trae Waynes) and essentially traded old and slowed Greg Jennings for the flashy Mike Wallace. The table is set, the pieces are in place (copyright Brett Favre).

Now that the drama of last year is behind the team, they are calmly looking to the bright future. While last season should have just been a lost year considering all the distractions and injuries, there was a lot to like about how the young guns performed. Now, with the roster at full strength and roles more clearly defined, this team is on everyone’s list for a much-improved record and maybe even a Wild Card in the playoffs. The future is bright!

 

Timberwolves

And finally, my Timberwolves. Last season was supposed to be about starting over. We had a raw and talented roster peppered with veterans to help them grow. This squad was supposed to finish close to the 8 spot in the Western Conference based on the talent they had. Well, the injury bug bit and bit hard on this team. Ricky Rubio missed significant time, as did many others. So while rookies Wiggins and Lavine got lots of playing time under their belts, the team sunk deeper and deeper in the standings (maybe by design?). In the middle of the season, coach and GM Flip Saunders borrowed a page from Twins GM Terry Ryan and brought back old fan favorite Kevin Garnett via trade. KG’s first game brought an electric sell-out crowd to the Target Center. It was awesome. They Kevin wore down quickly and didn’t contribute much at all to the team the rest of the way. Wiggins won Rookie of the Year, Zach Lavine won the Slam Dunk Contest, and that’s about it. The Wolves finished the season with the worst record in the league and the best odds to win the draft lottery. But that never happens to the Wolves, right?

WRONG! Through some kind of combination of quantum entanglement, dimensional transference, and magic, the Wolves won the #1 pick in the draft. Last night, they cashed that chip in on the highly touted Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is an immensely talented player with defensive chops and will fit perfectly with Wiggins and Rubio. It’s a dream come true for this team. And Flip wasn’t done! Now, stealing a page from Rick Spielman, he traded two second round picks to Cleveland (we have an in with them after the Love for Wiggins and parts deal) for the rights to their first round pick – which became Minnesota native PG Tyus Jones! The Wolves were coveting Jones and trying to move up to get him, Flip even said as much when announcing the Towns pick. Jones is very young and will be a fantastic backup to Rubio (who gets injured every year it seems) and a change of pace guard who can shoot.

People are calling last night the best night in the history of the Wolves franchise. Industry analysts see the Wolves as a team on the rise, worth watching even! With a very young core like this, the Wolves can build into something very special over the next 5 or even 10 years if they can keep them together. I’m so, so excited about this team right now.

 

Conclusion

Yes, yes I do. I think the Wild are the top prospect since they’re already a playoff team.

Our next best hope has to be the Vikings, with the coaching and talent to contend in the next two years I believe.

Third best hope is the Wolves, who look like they’re built to win closer to 2020 thank ’18. But in the NBA, a young roster can gel and get to the promised land fairly quickly (see the Warriors).

And I still believe the Twins are the farthest off just because baseball is hard to judge and the pitching still seems like it’s a tenuous situation. But who knows? I’ve been very surprised by their season thus far this year!

All in all, it’s a great time to be a Minnesota sports fan! It’s looking more and more like 2015 may be the year that the tide finally turns!

 

Our Kevin

I feel old pretty often these days. Sometimes I dwell on a vivid memory I have and then realize that that memory is from 20 years ago. For someone scratching their mid-30’s right now, that makes me feel old. And I felt it last week when I was having a conversation about how I felt when the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted a high school kid named Kevin Garnett in 1995. I was almost 14 at the time and that was the moment that I embraced the Timberwolves as my favorite Minnesota sports team. Up to that point I had been a Twins fan to the core (mostly due to the fact that the Twins had won 2 World Series in the last 8 years). However, the Twins had regressed since the ’91 series and the Vikings weren’t interesting yet. When Garnett was drafted, the buzz around the team really started building. Garnett was the player with the high ceiling who was going to push this team into the playoffs someday. It was just a matter of when.

Kevin Garnett came into the league raw. He was a tall, skinny kid with lots of potential but not much experience. In the early days he started slowly, averaging 10-18 points per game and 6-10 rebounds. But his competitiveness was obvious from the get go. This guy had the drive to win and the perseverance to work for it. The year after Kevin was drafted, the Wolves drafted who they hoped would become his long-term running mate: point guard Stephon Marbury. Together these two young stars-in-the-making made headlines around the NBA and the new dynamic duo who might take over the league when Jordan and the Bulls faded out. This was during the era of “NBA Inside Stuff” on NBC Saturday mornings and I remember watching all sorts of highlights from these two fun, young players! The two played together for 2 full seasons and made the playoffs both years before Marbury began griping. He wanted to lead the team and make more money than Garnett. The Wolves’ plan had backfired and they traded Marbury during his 3rd year.

Garnett continued toiling away, willing the Wolves into a low playoff seed each season and losing in the first round to more well-rounded teams. Garnett signed a massive contract with the team in 1998 and it looked like he would finish his career as a Timberwolf.

Somewhere in the early 2000’s, the fans started getting restless. Seven straight seasons the Wolves had made the playoffs and seven straight seasons they had lost in the first round. Following a 4-2 loss to the Lakers in 2003, Wolves management finally decided they needed to bring in some star power to run with KG. Their internal building schemes hadn’t worked and they needed to try something else. They went out and found two players who would change everything: Sam Cassell and Latrell Spreewell.

Armed with these two talented, but flawed players, the Wolves FINALLY won a playoff series in 2004 – beating the Nuggets in round 1. In the next round, they ran up against a very talented Kings team and battled them to a game 7. I remember watching games in this series at a bar on Grand Avenue eating potato skins with friends. It was amazing that the Wolves were actually good. Garnett was the league MVP. Spreewell was the salty sharpshooter and Cassell was the weird and effective slasher and distributor. That series was heart-poundingly good and the Wolves won game 7 by 3 points. It was on to the Western Conference Finals.

In the WCF, the Wolves met another re-tooled squad: the hated LA Lakers. The Lakers, after winning 3 titles in the early 2000’s, had decided to add more veterans and picked up Gary Payton and Karl Malone, two almost aging players in search of titles on their way out of the league. Garnett was primed for the series and averaged 23.7 points and 13 rebounds, but Spreewell and Cassell looked like they’d given all they had in the Kings series and had nothing left. Cassell’s legs were giving out and that ineffectiveness cost the Wolves dearly. They lost the series in 6 games.

This was the pinnacle. The run was amazing. It seemed like Garnett finally had his supporting cast the way it was supposed to be. This was the time to push for the title. But it was not to be. In the offseason, Spreewell went a bit crazy talking about needing more money to “feed his family”. Cassell wasn’t happy and backup PG Troy Hudson wasn’t either. The Wolves made the decision mid-season to fire beloved coach Flip Saunders who had presided over the recent success.

Soon, the familiar pro-sports trope emerged: the Wolves needed to trade Kevin Garnett now or risk losing him in free agency and getting nothing in return. In short, the window was closed and it was time to his the “reset” button on the team. Team GM Kevin McHale made the decision to trade Kevin to a team that he himself had history with: the Boston Celtics. The Wolves got a boatload of players in the deal, but the centerpiece was a promising young player named Al Jefferson.

The Celtics were in “win now” mode with superstar Paul Pierce in his prime. Beside acquiring Garnett, they went out and got sharpshooter Ray Allen. And guess what? They won the NBA Finals. Garnett, Pierce and Allen each won their first NBA ring. Amazing.

Meanwhile, the Wolves began probably the most painful stretch in franchise history. Jefferson didn’t work out. He was eventually traded. McHale was fired and replaced with the amazingly inept David Kahn. Kahn’s blunders were historic as he wasted high draft picks on bad players like Johnny Flynn and missed out on drafting Steph Curry. However, he did manage to get a hot Spanish point guard named Ricky Rubio to Minneapolis. We drafted Kevin Love and enjoyed his immense talent, but he eventually soured on the organization and fought it way out. That’s when things turned around.

It was none other than Flip Saunders, the once fired coach, who returned to the franchise as the GM and flipped Kevin Love to the LeBron-led Cavs for the #1 pick in the 2014 draft: Andrew Wiggins. Flip started building from the ground up with high upside players like Wiggins, Zach Lavine and others. It was time to hit “reset” one more time, but with more vision this time around. And that’s where Kevin Garnett re-enters the story.

Last week, Flip Saunders talked Garnett into allowing a trade to bring him back to Minnesota. Garnett had left Boston and played the last couple of seasons in Brooklyn, but there was no connection or future there. Now, he’s the veteran leader this team desperately needed for their young talent to learn from. He’s the no-nonsense competitor that will elevate the team, not by his MVP talent level, but by his sheer competitiveness and drive to excel.

On the night he first returned to the court as a member  of the Wolves, the Target Center sold out. The crowd was in a frenzy. Video tributes were played, old friends were highlighted and Kevin stood in awe of the reception. He quickly realized that this community never stopped respecting him.

And why should we have? Kevin gave it his all here in his first stint. He never quit on the team, ever. And when he won with the Celtics, he even gave a shout out to his people back in ‘Sota! Are you kidding me?

And after seeing the outpouring of love and support for his return last week, Garnett personally bought 1000 tickets to a home game this week and gave them all away to fans as a thank you.

There is no one like Kevin Garnett. And I for one am overjoyed that he’s back with the Timberwolves.