The Timberwolves’ perpetual future finally yields to a precious present now that Tom Thibodeau’s summertime trades and signings have added age and experience — not to mention three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler — alongside young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Following where Western Conference foes Memphis, Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah all went before them this past decade, the Wolves made urgent moves intended to elevate a young, adrift team from 20-something-victory seasons toward 50 victories and to the playoffs, which they have not reached since 2004.
To do so, the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations must meld his team’s youth with its experience. He also must find bipartisan defensive commitment as well as a late-game pecking order between one All-Star in Butler and two future ones in Towns and Wiggins.
All of it requires sacrifice from both the young and older, starting Wednesday night in San Antonio.
By adding Butler, three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and playoff-tested Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, the Wolves have gone from always playing for next year to the here and now.
That’s a place the franchise hasn’t been since Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell last took it to the playoffs, 13 long seasons ago. That’s by two years the NBA’s longest such streak.
“I’m not limiting it to that,” Butler said. “I’m not going to say, ‘Hey, if we make the playoffs, what a great season.’ A success for me? I want to win a championship. I’m not settling us short on just making the playoffs or winning ‘X’ amount of games.”
But it would be a nice start, as any long-suffering Wolves fans will tell you. Or as a couple did tell Crawford and his kids at a Dave & Buster’s the other day.
“That would be a step in the right direction,” said Crawford, who hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2012. “I’ve forgotten what it’s like not to be in the playoffs, and these fans deserve it. They’ve had the longest streak. Every time I’m out somewhere, they come up.”
Do as they do
The Grizzlies transformed themselves by 16 victories in one season once upon a time by adding physical veteran Zach Randolph next to young Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The Thunder drafted fortunately and wisely, developing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into two of the NBA’s top 10 players. They more than doubled their victory total to 50 in 2010 before they sprinkled such champions as Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher around them during a run to the 2012 NBA Finals.
The Clippers became a perennial playoff team after they acquired All-Star guard Chris Paul to play with No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin. Most recently, the Jazz supplemented a young core it had nurtured with veterans Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw and reached the playoffs’ second round last season after a 51-victory season.
“For us older guys, it’s really about taking care of your body and showing these guys right and wrong,” Johnson said.
Now Thibodeau has obtained in Butler a workout fiend and self-made offensive closer for a team that last season lost double-digit leads 22 times. He also is one of the game’s best two-way players and a willing passer who at age 28 is just reaching his prime.
Butler also gives the Wolves an alpha and the ringing voice that Thibodeau says all great teams need.
“I love that, I love holding everybody accountable,” Butler said. “If you’re doing something wrong, it’s not personal. Everybody just wants to be great here. Everybody wants to win. That’s why you play this game. If I’m doing something wrong, point your finger at me and tell me what I have to do better. I’m going to do the same thing with everybody else. You can’t be scared of a little conflict.”
Butler, Crawford, Teague, Gibson and Aaron Brooks have played a combined 272 playoff games. The only other player on the Wolves’ roster with playoff experience is reserve center Cole Aldrich, who has played 11 games.
“The fact they’ve been through things helps a lot,” Thibodeau said.
The right fit
So, too, does Thibodeau’s familiarity with the veterans he has chosen to complement his two young stars. Butler, Gibson and Brooks all played for him in Chicago.
“The concern any time you add guys who are going to be a valuable piece of your team is do they fit in?” ESPN/ABC analyst and former Golden State coach Mark Jackson said. “What type of person are they? What type of player? What type of competitor? That’s the concern because you can get guys who people rave about, but they can destroy your culture by not buying in.
“The advantage [Thibodeau] has is he went and got guys he can trust, guys who can relay his message in the huddle, on the bus, on the plane, on the bench. That’s a tremendous advantage.”
An assistant coach with Boston a decade ago, Thibodeau watched veteran stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen sacrifice daily for each other and come together in one season to win the 2008 NBA title. Nine years later, he watched Kevin Durant join Golden State and do something similar, winning a title with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green during Durant’s first year there.
LeBron James won a title in his second year with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and the same with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love back home in Cleveland.
“Great players always figure out how to play off each other and then they all share the responsibility to make plays, to make the game easier for others,” Thibodeau said. “They not only have the responsibility to play their best themselves but to bring the best out of the team. They all have a chance to shine, but they have to put the team first and sacrifice for each other.”
Just like Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in Oklahoma City and Irving and Gordon Hayward in Boston now, the Wolves themselves must figure out how exactly the puzzle pieces fit and if one basketball is enough.
“If we want to win big, we’re going to have to do the same thing,” Thibodeau said, referring to the 2007-08 Celtics and last season’s Warriors. “Jimmy, Karl, Wig, they’re all going to have to share and put the team first. They’re all great players, but you can’t win big in this league without playing for each other.”
Doing the hard things
Garnett, Allen and Pierce all were in their 30s and still seeking their first championship a decade ago. James was 28 when he won his first title and 31 when he won his third.
Crawford has played 18 seasons, Gibson eight, Butler six. Teague has reached the playoffs in each of his eight seasons.
All four just might have an appreciation by now of the opportunity that awaits them together.
“That’s what experience teaches you,” Thibodeau said. “The longer you’re in the league, the greater understanding you have about what wins. I think that’s where those guys are.”
Wiggins just signed a five-year max contract before he starts his fourth NBA season, and Towns is due to do the same before the 2018-19 season. Both are offensively gifted befitting contracts that approach — and in Towns’ case may surpass — $150 million, but neither yet has shown the drive and aptitude to change the game at the floor’s other end.
“Wiggins just got paid, Towns is going to get the max as well, but the trade-off is they can’t just talk about winning,” said ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, Thibodeau’s close friend and former boss. “They’ve got to do the winning things. So the winning things are the hard things, like defending, rebounding in space, taking charges, hitting the floor for loose balls, sharing the ball. They’re major things when you add this many more weapons. You may not be putting up the numbers that you have in the past because you’re sharing the ball and the spotlight even more.
“Those are all hard things, and they’re even harder when you’re younger. To me, the whole development of the Timberwolves is based around Wiggins’ and Towns’ ability to commit to doing the hard things with much greater consistency.”
When asked the day he signed how he intends to earn such an enormous contract, Wiggins said he still has so much to accomplish, namely being part of a Wolves team that reaches the playoffs this spring.
“We’ve got to play unselfish, play to win, make the right plays,” Wiggins said.
Just win, baby
Wiggins says all the right things. So, too, does Towns, who says his past demonstrates no one need worry he won’t share and sacrifice for the common good.
“I went to the University of Kentucky,” Towns said. “If you want to see how unselfish I can really get, go look at my stats there. I barely shot the ball, barely averaged anything. I understand what it takes to win. Everyone has to make a sacrifice. I had multiple games in college when I had zero shots.
“It’s never about who has the basketball. It’s about what the basketball does.”
For the record, Towns averaged 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 39 games that season in which Kentucky started 38-0 before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. He didn’t attempt a shot once and took just one two other times that season.
Starting point guard on an Atlanta team that won 60 games three seasons ago, Teague credits conversations with veteran Mike Bibby when he was a rookie for a career in which winning has trumped all in his mind.
“He told me he never made an All-Star team, never really got a lot of credit, but he always won and his teams in Sacramento were really good,” Teague said. “He said if you’re a winner, you’ll be around. So that’s all I ever think about. When we get on the floor, if we can win the game, all the accolades will come. That’s what I was just telling the young guys, Karl and them.
“If you averaged 25 last year and didn’t make the All-Star team, you probably should have. But if you maybe average 22, maybe sacrifice a little bit and we win, you’ll get all that stuff.”
As Thibodeau often says, the magic is in the work and the mystery is in the personalities and talents of the players he has assembled. In Butler and Towns, Thibodeau has two of the top 20 (or maybe 15) players in the NBA, and Wiggins might not be far behind.
That is, if they all together can find both the magic and the mystery.
“These guys can play,” Brooks said after signing last month. “I’ve been on good teams before where it didn’t come together, where it didn’t work. So I know there is a lot of talent, and I know Thibs is a good coach. I just hope it works.”