The Timberwolves, in pursuit of a playoff berth for the first time since 2003-04, are well beyond the point of settling for moral victories. But they don’t seem to be beyond the point of playing for the long-term instead of the short-term — a noble pursuit, but one that feels a little out of place in a time of urgency.
In particular, the Wolves’ top decisionmakers — I would include Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler among them — appear to be OK gathering information right now, even if it makes their playoff chase more challenging.
This would be less upsetting to fans if the information they were getting and lessons they were learning were more positive.
Instead, Thursday night — with Butler dressed and listed as active in a critical game against Denver, but never leaving the bench in a 100-96 defeat that was both narrow and frustrating — the Wolves learned again that the two young players in whom they have the most invested still have a lot of growing to do.
Win or lose, it’s good for young players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play in games like this. But if the hope was that it would bring out the best in both, that was clearly not the case Thursday.
It starts with Wiggins, who was invisible at times, listless at others and sloppy with the ball when he was engaged. It added up to a nine-point game in which he was minus-13. Without Butler in the lineup for the 17th consecutive game, there were ample opportunities for Wiggins’ natural gifts to shine through against Denver.
The output was flat-out disappointing and unacceptable for a player of his talent level, not to mention a player who signed a max contract extension that kicks in next year. Wiggins has become a marginally better defender this season than in past years, but any defensive gains have been offset by offensive inconsistency.
Towns had a strong game Thursday, pouring in 26 points with 13 rebounds. The Wolves were 10 points better than Denver when Towns was on the court. The problem is he fouled out in the crucial final few minutes — and in the aftermath his body language (at least as it came through on TV) was that of a player more concerned with that perceived injustice than the rest of the game.
Wiggins’ on-court growth and Towns’ emotional growth were keys coming into the season, and they remain very much a work in progress.
Butler’s return might have been enough to put a Band-aid on both of those things, much as his overall excellence when healthy this season has transformed the Wolves into a playoff contender. His continued absence, even on a night where there was at least a decision to be made about whether he could play, showed a franchise still in information-gathering mode and one still very much dependent on its veterans for production and leadership.
There’s still time in both the short-term and long-term for this to change, but right now the Wolves can’t be happy with a lot of the lessons they are learning.