Loitering outside Trader Joe’s in St. Paul last night while my wife finished grocery shopping with our kids, I had one of the more enjoyable interviews in recent memory.
ESPN’s Doris Burke called exactly when she was supposed to, but what I had promised would only take a few minutes went far longer as she gave thoughtful answer after thoughtful answer about her new role as a full-time ESPN NBA game analyst — making her the first female to hold that post on a national level in the NBA.
The majority of that part of our conversation will appear online and in print in Q&A form later this week. By the end, the conversation shifted to the Timberwolves. It started with a question from me, but Burke turned the tables at one point. After transcribing all of it, it seemed interesting enough to share as somewhat of a meditation on this upcoming Timberwolves season. Here we go:
Rand: The Timberwolves should be an interesting team this year for the first time in a long time. How do you see all the pieces fitting together, since it seems like there is an awful lot of optimism for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for 13 years and won just 31 games last season?
Burke: I’m anxious, always, when you add personnel to a group, what is the effect of that particular individual? And obviously the biggest addition is Jimmy Butler. This is a person who has proven himself to be an elite two-way player. One of the things I remember Jimmy saying about Tom Thibodeau that he so appreciated is that everything had to be earned with Tom. He wasn’t going to give you anything.
I remember the first game Tom went back to Chicago (last season) as a coach with the Timberwolves, Jimmy and Taj Gibson said essentially the same thing: They were so anxious to prove to Tom that they were making strides as players. They took such pride in their work habits that there were significant strides being made. That just spoke volumes to me about Tom, and I’m curious to see what impact Jimmy has.
One thing everyone knows about the NBA is that it’s very difficult for young players to win at a high level. We’ve seen this with the Timberwolves in the past — closing games, figuring out how to win. They could compete for maybe 36 or 42 minutes, but then it would be closing time and they might struggle. That’s a process that has to play out. I’m anxious to see what effect Jimmy’s presence has on that.
And then obviously, there are two incredibly talented young players in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s interesting, I remember sitting in a pregame meeting with (Thibodeau) last year. I don’t know Tom especially well, but things that strike me about him are 1) he doesn’t suffer fools lightly and 2) He would not hand out compliments indiscriminately. I remember thinking to myself, “gosh, he’s really impressed with their offensive ability and their talent level.” If the NBA teaches us anything, you have to have talent to win. And while there were lessons to be learned, Tom was excited about their talent level and potential there. The thing about it is they’re in the Western Conference, which is absolutely unforgiving.
(Pause for a couple seconds).
So let me ask you: What is the take on the team there, what is everyone talking about and what are you thinking about?
Rand: Well, it’s a very interesting team. I’ve been following this team since I was a fan in college, really, which is more than 20 years now — through the whole Kevin Garnett era — and plenty of bad as I’ve followed them professionally. There is a cautious optimism that comes from pretty much any fan base in Minnesota because with the exception of the Lynx who have been exceptional, things have not come easy for any of these pro teams here lately — particularly the Timberwolves. So I feel like there’s this mode here where people feel like this could be the start of something special, but they’re waiting.
And I feel like if there’s one huge story line aside from — or really connected to — the question of whether the Timberwolves are finally going to get it together, it’s the question of what exactly they have in Andrew Wiggins. I think we know more about Towns at this point than we do Wiggins, which is sort of strange since Towns has only been here two years and Andrew has been here for three. Certainly I’m interested in Jimmy Butler’s impact and what he brings to the team. But if you’re looking for the difference between a team that might win 40 or maybe 45 games and one that might be really on the way to something special it’s Wiggins. Is he just a scorer, or is he really going to be a star. I just get that feeling. I think Thibs likes him, and they’re going to give him the money, but I just don’t know yet.
Burke: Yeah, I know. There are moments where you can be seduced by Andrew Wiggins. … There was a moment, and for some reason Andrew Wiggins popped into my mind last year at this moment, with Jeff Van Gundy. We were covering a Utah Jazz game, and we hadn’t heard much from Gordon Hayward for maybe a 3-4 minute stretch, and I remember Jeff saying that Gordon has all the physical ability to be successful — the work habits, the frame, he’s developed his game — so every piece of stardom is there and looks like it’s ready to make the next step. But the reality is there’s a level of responsibility that comes with that kind of NBA star, where you have to deliver night after night after night whether you feel good, whether you don’t, whether you’re a little banged up. These sorts of questions for me have to unfold for the Minnesota Timberwolves. I know Jeff was referencing Gordon Hayward, but it’s funny how your mind flashes to other players in the league, and Andrew popped into my mind at that moment.
Me: Besides the scoring, he needs to bring more to the table. Some of his weaknesses might get hidden by Butler, and Towns is amazing, but if this Wolves team is going to be special they need Wiggins.
Doris: We can project and formulate, but we need to put eyeballs on these teams. I can’t wait.