Eloquent speeches have been made about the life and legacy of Flip Saunders, but the purest homage paid to the Minnesota sports legend is being written this season by Zach LaVine. The rising prodigy is proof that Saunders was one of those basketball savants who could see what the rabble could not.
LaVine is in the midst of the best week of his basketball life, having looked comfortable on the same court as LeBron James and transcendent on the same court as Russell Westbrook.
Like Westbrook, LaVine left UCLA an undeveloped physical anomaly. Like Westbrook, LaVine on Wednesday night showed the ability to score at the rim or far from it, shooting moving three-pointers with the ease of a kid tossing Nerf balls at a rim hanging off a door frame.
We’ve never seen a Timberwolf perform exactly the way LaVine did Wednesday. For all of the quality point guards who have played here, we’ve never seen one effortlessly make long threes and overpower defenders at the rim in the same game. This might be the best development in a season dedicated to just that.
Saunders saw potential greatness in LaVine and chose him with the 13th pick in the 2014 draft, and shrugged at the ridicule he received from a fan base too often burned by illogical draft decisions. LaVine’s rise could alter even the most optimistic outlooks about the Timberwolves. He could give them a third superstar.
This, then, could be the greatest test of the Timberwolves’ perceived curse. They have never been more talented or promising. If they can’t win big with LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, it will be time to burn Target Center to the ground and try Wolves employees as witches.
The owner is looking to sell. The general manager is on a make-good trial. The coach is carrying the interim tag like a backpack filled with bricks. In terms of leadership, the Wolves are as unstable as ever. For once, they might have too much talent to fail.
On Monday in Cleveland, Towns, Wiggins and LaVine became the first trio of teammates under 21 to produce at least 20 points in the same game in NBA history.
On Wednesday at Target Center, LaVine scored 35, the most ever by a reserve in Wolves history and the most by a reserve in the NBA this season.
Success in the NBA is complicated. Coaching matters. Offensive systems matter. Relationships — player to player, player to coach, agent to player, shoe company to agent, front office to coach, front office to player — all matter. There are talented teams that fall short of their goals, like the modern-day Los Angeles Clippers and many of James’ teams.
The Wolves are blessed to not only have three remarkably talented, remarkably young players, but to have them together, under contractual control, and to have three young players who are coachable.
The front office will have to find a few useful role players who are in their prime to complement the kids. Having a bench filled with older players who might not be available or productive on any given night won’t work going forward, as games increase in importance. The Wolves will have to find playing mentors who can show as well as tell.
The Wolves have lost 25 of their past 31. They are losing at the highest rate possible for a team of this capability. If LaVine continues to play like this, and Mitchell allows them to run, it would be almost mathematically and physically impossible for the Timberwolves to fail to be a playoff team by next season.
Towns is the best of an exceptional rookie class. He is a future superstar. Wiggins is right on time in his development. He should be a star, and if he becomes the Wolves’ closer, he could become a superstar.
LaVine was always more of a mystery. Is he a developing point guard or a pure scorer? Is he an athlete or a basketball player? The answer now seems to be all of the above.
LaVine could make the Wolves an irresistible force, an unstoppable scorer who, in the right offensive system, makes the Wolves something like Warriors East.
And if anyone in this organization — player, coach or executive — seems to be slowing their progress, that person needs to be excused as soon as possible.