The Timberwolves’ latest swoon seemingly supports Kevin Love, their former three-time All Star who forced a trade to Cleveland 17 months ago, because he believed he’d never play for a winner in Minnesota.
Love returns to Target Center on Friday for the second time as a Cavalier, this time with LeBron James and an Eastern Conference-leading team aimed at reaching the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season and with the Wolves, barring a sudden turnaround, headed for the draft lottery for a 12th consecutive season.
But before you lose all hope once again for a team that now has lost eight of its past nine games, just remember where the Wolves were two summers ago — when Love threatened to leave via free agency without his team receiving any compensation — and where they are today.
Even if the Wolves had been able to soothe Love’s hurt feelings over 2012 contract negotiations and his concerns about the franchise’s ability to construct a winner around him, they would have had a team built at best simply to reach the playoffs. Love’s move to Cleveland — where last summer he signed a five-year, $109 million contract extension to stay — has shown he is the third piece on a championship contender behind James and Kyrie Irving, not the centerpiece around which you build one.
Shoved against the proverbial wall, Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders was able, through a combination of patience and good fortune after James unexpectedly returned to Ohio, to swap Love in a deal for No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Saunders then guided his team through a tumultuous 2015-16 season that led to lottery luck for the first time in franchise history and another No. 1 pick, center Karl-Anthony Towns.
Suddenly, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004 has acquired two young, gifted players whom Detroit GM and coach Stan Van Gundy calls the “real deal.”
“They’ve got great talent with those two guys,” said Van Gundy, who has chosen to rebuild his team around center Andre Drummond and point guard Reggie Jackson, “which is what you’d expect when you can have two No. 1 picks.”
But history shows there are No. 1 picks such as Michael Olowokandi, Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Bennett and then there are No. 1 picks such as Wiggins and Towns, whose NBA arrivals have been awaited since they were 14 or 15 years old.
Last April, Saunders surveyed a just-completed season that yielded a league-worst 16 victories and said, “I don’t want to get to the playoffs. I want to build a team that can win in the playoffs. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Believe it or not, that time is coming. It’s just going to take another season or two, and some pain before it arrives.
To be sure, much still must be done while Wiggins and Towns learn the NBA game and grow into their bodies: The franchise must find direction with its management in a transitional period shaped both by Saunders’ October death that left the franchise reeling and by owner Glen Taylor’s pending sale of one-third of the team to Los Angeles private-equity investor Steve Kaplan. General Manager Milt Newton and interim coach Sam Mitchell essentially are auditioning for their jobs permanently in a season when both young players and the team must show growth.
Wiggins must find within himself the will and work ethic that transforms his athleticism and skill into greatness now that, as he discovered in Wednesday’s loss to Denver, opposing defenses will send as many as three defenders at him. Towns must grow stronger and smarter defensively.
And despite having young, talented other players such as Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad with which to surround Wiggins and Towns, the Wolves still desperately need more and better shooters as well as a rugged power forward, a veteran wing scorer and improved point-guard play in a league dominated by scoring point guards.
But look around at all the many young teams aimed at the future and none has the collection of young talent, anchored by two such players, possessed by the Wolves.
“I’m not saying light years, but they are way ahead of us when it comes to their roster,” said Philadelphia coach Brett Brown, whose franchise has spent three years acquiring draft picks and other assets. “I think they’ve designed their program well. I hear Karl speak and I hear Andrew speak and they are articulate, well-spoken studs. You can see what they’re going to be.”
But each is 20 years old. So, too, is LaVine. Rookie Tyus Jones is 19. One of the team’s most relied-upon veterans, Ricky Rubio, is 25.
For the Cavaliers, that August 2014 trade will be considered a success if Love plays a valuable role in delivering a championship this season or next. For the Wolves, time ticks more slowly.
“You can’t deny the young talent they have,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “Now, young talent can be very frustrating because everybody wants it yesterday. You’re going to have nights they look great and nights where they look like 20-year-olds. You get there by going through the pains of the NBA. You set a good culture, you put good veterans and a good staff around them and you let them learn the game. They’ll get it, but it’s frustrating in Minnesota, it’s frustrating in Denver right now.
“I was with the Warriors five years ago and we were a lottery team our first time. Fast-forward five, six years later and they’re world champions. So it takes time and people have to have patience.”