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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
Vintage Tom Thibodeau
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.
Karl-Anthony Towns // Zach LaVine // Andrew Wiggins