The 82-game schedule opened Oct. 30 with a return to the playoffs after a nine-year absence as the only acceptable result for the Timberwolves. When that possibility went away with a thud in early February, the feeble consolation prize was going to be a winning season.
That option disappeared as two more leads went away this week at Sacramento and Golden State, leaving only a .500 record to target in this season of diminishing goals.
There were two factors in play Wednesday night that figured to favor the Wolves: The Utah Jazz were in town with the worst record in the Western Conference, and Minnesota’s Rick Adelman was presumed to be coaching his last game in an illustrious career.
Neither of these proved inspirational to the Wolves, as they played a first quarter that bordered on the repulsive and fell behind 31-17. Those sad eyes of Adelman’s were even sadder than usual as he signaled for his team to take one (missed) shot in the final 20 seconds.
In the end even that last pathetic goal, a .500 season, wasn’t reached because of a 136-130 double-overtime loss to the Jazz.
Against all odds, the Wolves finished at 40-42 — a ninth consecutive losing season despite having the 10th-best points differential in the league, outscoring opponents by an average of 2.7 points.
Six of the teams that finished above the Wolves in this category reached the playoffs in the West, as did two teams below them: Dallas (plus 2.4 points) and Memphis (plus 1.6).
How does a team manage to be out of playoff contention for the last two months with that statistical evidence of competence? By losing its first 11 games decided by four points or fewer.
How does a team outscore opponents at a level superior to 20 of the 30 NBA teams, and finish nine games out of the playoffs? By settling in at 8-8 on Nov. 25 and losing 10 consecutive games with a chance to get back above .500.
Mark down this as a more disappointing winter than any of the losing years that preceded it, even those of utter ineptitude. This was worse because the Wolves showed brilliance on a score of nights, yet wound up making everyone feel empty — including a weary old coach.
• Kevin Love is only 25, but Minnesotans might have seen his career season. He was in full health and energy, averaging 26.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. And if these weren’t the best numbers Love will ever post in the NBA, the expectation by most is that they were the best we’ll ever see from him in Minnesota.
• Halfway through the season, there were tributes being offered to center Nikola Pekovic’s ability to stay healthy and earn the $60 million contract he had been given. And then Pekovic missed 28 of the final 38 games — including Wednesday’s — and it’s now clear the Wolves have committed a huge amount of money to a part-time center.
• Guard Kevin Martin came in on a four-year deal with a reputation of being a shooter with little regard for defense. His first season here didn’t change a thing.
• Adelman convinced Flip Saunders to trade forward Derrick Williams, the No. 2 overall draft choice from 2011, with a promise he would make good use of veteran defender Luc Mbah a Moute. Adelman didn’t, and Williams (flawed as he was) was given away.
• On the bench, J.J. Barea had a bad year, and Chase Budinger isn’t the same player after his knee injuries, and Alexey Shved looks like he belongs in Europe, and Ronny Turiaf was injured, and Dante Cunningham … well, he won’t be back.
• Shabazz Muhammad, acquired with the No. 14 overall selection, didn’t play enough to draw conclusions on his future as a scorer. What’s obvious is the rookie is a graduate of the K-Mart School of Defense.
What is there to feel good about after this ninth consecutive losing season? Rookie center Gorgui Dieng has demonstrated he’s going to be an asset, and Ricky Rubio turned aggressive and re-established himself as a point guard of high value.