The Timberwolves returned to the playoffs and the customers returned to Target Center for the 2017-18 season. They had the greatest full-season improvement in franchise history, soaring from 31 victories to 47, and attendance increased from 14,175 in 2015-16 and 14,809 in 2016-17, to 17,506 per game.
A franchise that had three sellouts in 2016-17 pushed that number to 16 last season, with two more in the playoffs vs. Houston. Those were the most sellouts in Target Center since the second season in the building, 1991-92.
The enthusiasm for the Wolves returned on June 22, 2017, when news broke that Jimmy Butler had been acquired from Chicago for the sizable package of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and a draft choice that turned into Lauri Markkanen.
The Timberwolves had been the team moving the major player in the previous decade, first superstar Kevin Garnett to Boston on July 31, 2007, and then standout Kevin Love to Cleveland on Aug. 13, 2014, and finally it was the opposite — the star was coming to Minnesota.
The dormant basketball crowd obviously was inspired by president/coach Tom Thibodeau’s bold move to acquire Butler, and raised the percentage of sold seats in Target Center from 73.2 only two seasons earlier to 89.9.
A share of that increase could be traced to a remodeling of Target Center and the long-awaited arrival of edible concessions, but most of it was based on the acquisition of Butler.
Considering the importance of a single star in hoops compared to hockey, bringing in Butler was the equivalent of the Wild bringing in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter as free agents on July 4, 2012.
The St. Paul hockey club was headed in a bad direction with its ticket buyers after the horribly dull season of 2011-12, and then owner Craig Leipold authorized the acquisitions of Parise and Suter, and it has been 102 percent of capacity for home games since then.
The Timberwolves had beaten the customers to a bloody pulp with 13 straight non-playoff seasons, and the task for Thibodeau to get the fans back in the building was much greater than anything faced with Leipold’s hockey club.
In an informal conversation last month, Thibodeau said: “I think what attracts fans is winning games. I don’t think it is constantly rebuilding.”
The man affectionately known as “Thibs’’ to his scores of admirers in the coaching business — from Bill Belichick with an NFL dynasty, to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, to a next-generation coach like Josh Pastner at Georgia Tech — didn’t stop with Butler last summer.
He upgraded with Jeff Teague over the oft-injured bricklayer, Ricky Rubio, at point guard. He signed the reliable Taj Gibson, and he missed on veteran shooting guard Jamal Crawford (a liability rather than an asset). He was bad-mouthed for signing Derrick Rose late in the season, and then sellout crowds were roaring for Rose when he entered for home playoff games vs. Houston.
Thibodeau has the toughest job in local professional sports — namely, trying to made headway in the NBA’s Western Conference, which got immensely better when LeBron James made his quick decision to join the L.A. Lakers.
The Wolves have brought back Rose and added Anthony Tolliver. “I liked the three-guard offense with Jimmy at the ‘4’ that we used when Derrick got here,’’ Thibodeau said. “Derrick and Tyus [Jones] played well together.’’
Tolliver shot the three-pointer efficiently and played the most minutes of his career for Detroit last season. To sign him, the Wolves withdrew a qualifying offer to Nemanja Bjelica, who was good for two or three weeks at a time, then subject to disappearances or injuries.
Tolliver and rookie Keita Bates-Diop will more than make up for Bjelica. The first-rounder, Josh Okogie, is the same type of player as Kris Dunn and could come close to the 17 minutes per game that Dunn played as a rookie in 2018-19. And Jared Terrell, the three-point marksman from Rhode Island, is another rookie who could get a hug from Thibs’ open arms for fresh talent.
The improvement continues for the Wolves and Thibodeau. They have a star in Butler, they have a former MVP in Rose, they have young mega-talents Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who never miss a game. They have worthy veterans Taj and Teague, and an improved Tyus ready for more playing time.
Yes, you would like to see Thibs light up his players after the occasional clunker, but he leaves that to coaches such as Mike Zimmer, Bruce Boudreau and Cheryl Reeve. He will express disappointment, but calling out a player publicly … Thibs just isn’t that kind of guy.
The Timberwolves will start training camp in late September. They won’t have the distraction of a trip to China to interrupt the preparation, as was the case last fall. That’s good, because the West is Mount Everest, and so far Thibs’ climbers have only made it to the Lhotse wall*.
*Yes. I looked that up. You can, too.