The Golden State Warriors delivered a message to the Timberwolves and so many other NBA teams during a postseason march that lacked every thrill the NHL playoffs provided:
With superstar Kevin Durant along for this championship run, the Warriors now have won two of the past three titles and appear poised to repeat as long as Durant, two-time league MVP Stephen Curry and All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green stay healthy and stay together.
So where does that leave the Wolves and probably 27 other teams who will begin next season without a prayer of winning a title?
Does it make them any less likely to trade the seventh pick in Thursday’s draft for a veteran who can help their young stars compete now?
“We’ve got to look at it as there has to be a third or fourth team,” Wolves owner Glen Taylor said, “and that third team has got to be us.”
The Wolves have miles to go before they even approach a team such as San Antonio, arguably the league’s third-best team, let alone challenge NBA finalists Cleveland or Golden State.
They can use that seventh pick in what Wolves General Manager Scott Layden calls one of the best drafts in many years — 10 or 11 players strong at the top, pundits agree — to add another talented youngster alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and injured Zach LaVine.
They could draft, among many possibilities, Florida State’s versatile Jonathan Isaac to address their defensive needs or Arizona’s 7-foot Lauri Markkanen to add much-needed shooting.
They could take one of five point guards expected to be chosen among the first 10 picks, either for themselves even though they have three already or as leverage with teams seeking one just behind them.
Or they could deal that seventh pick and/or oft-rumored Ricky Rubio for a veteran who meets the needs of President of Basketball Operations and coach Tom Thibodeau — those being leadership and toughness for a young team that lacks grown men.
“Right now, we look more like a college team,” he said.
The Wolves could trade their pick outright for a player or for a player and a pick later in the first round.
Thibodeau said he seeks players “6-7, 6-8, 6-9” who can play multiple positions in a league where teams now play two point guards or four perimeter players and a power forward together.
“That’s the way the league is going,” Thibodeau said. “You have to have the ability to play big and also play small.”
Step by step
Whatever the Wolves do, Thibodeau promises it will be done with the big picture in mind. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since Kevin Garnett led it to the Western Conference finals in 2004.
He also recalls where the Warriors were five seasons ago.
“You always measure yourself against the best,” Thibodeau said. “There are steps you have to take along the way. We all tend to forget how a team like Golden State was built, what their timeline was and how they developed their window. It wasn’t long ago they were a 23-win team and they quickly made their strides, but it was year by year. Cleveland was the same way.”
This season, Golden State won 67 regular-season games — after a record 73 a year earlier — and went 16-1 in the playoffs.
Right now, the Warriors’ window is wide open.
“That’s not a bad run,” Towns said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a better one ourselves when we make it there. Just to get the chance to compete against them is amazing. I want to compete against the best. What they were able to do is amazing.
“Absolutely, it’s a challenge we love to take. It’s a challenge we want. It goes without saying that we have to beat teams like that if we’re going to reach our goals.”
Asked what his team must add to approach that level, Towns said: “We just need to add ourselves. We need to do whatever we need to do to get to that level, whether that’s us getting more experience or us adding free agents. Whatever we need, we’ve just got to do it. We want to win now. I want to win now.”
After 14 months on the job, Thibodeau and Layden have yet to make a trade — by comparison, former Wolves boss David Kahn made 10 his first year — but Thibodeau repeatedly has vowed he will “look at everything” that improves his team.
Those options include keeping the Wolves’ lone draft pick, making a trade and being active with money to spend in a free-agency period that begins July 1.
Filling their needs
Thibodeau insists the Wolves could still take a point guard with that seventh pick even though they already have Rubio, Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones on their roster.
Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball likely will go 1-2 in the draft, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox is a top-five pick, and North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith and as France’s Frank Ntilikina are two more point guards expected among the top 10 picks.
And drafting just behind the Wolves, New York (eighth), Dallas (ninth) and Sacramento (10th) all need a point guard.
“Pretty darn good,” Thibodeau said about this point guard class. “Things go in trends.”
Thibodeau vows the Wolves will draft the best player left, even if that player duplicates their roster.
“Best available is what we need to do,” he said. “There will be a good player there. There are a lot of point guards, and if it happens to be a point guard, it’s a point guard. You’re seeing it all the time: Teams are playing two, even three point guards at the same time, so it’s just having the versatility. Obviously, we need shooting and we need defense. We’re looking for good players.”
When Taylor met with Thibodeau and Layden weeks after the season ended, the owner wanted to know why the Wolves won just two more games than the 29 they did for interim coach Sam Mitchell the season before.
When asked if he received the answers he sought, Taylor said: “I guess, I don’t know. I asked the question, yes, I got the answer, yes.”
The coach and GM told Taylor season-ending injuries to LaVine and Nemanja Bjelica played a factor. After patiently evaluating their team for a full season, Thibodeau and Layden also called this summer crucial for player development and roster improvement, particularly the team’s bench.
“I just look at them and say, ‘You’ve got to make sure it happens,’ ” Taylor said. “It is a big summer.”
Thibodeau, Layden and their staff have met for weeks leading to Thursday night, discussing just what moves they can and should make and on what timeline given the dominance demonstrated by both Golden State and Cleveland this spring.
Taylor and other smaller-market owners allowed the creation of a “super team” the likes of Golden State when they agreed during 2011 labor negotiations to a larger share of profit-sharing instead of a hard salary cap and a franchise-player tag.
Now he and the men he hired to run his team a year ago must decide just how far away they are from truly competing.
“That’s what you discuss,” Taylor said. “You can take one side of that discussion and see that’s really the way to go. Or you can take the other side and see that’s the way to go. I don’t think there’s an obvious one. But there’s certainly a good discussion on that.”