In a roller-coaster season for a franchise that has seen more downs than ups in its history, this question still needs to be asked: Have the Timberwolves reached a new low?
That’s probably a subjective question with an impossible answer, but we do know some pretty compelling evidence emerged from Monday’s loss to the Kings.
First, point guard Shabazz Napier used these exact words – “As low as you can get. This is it.” – to describe a 133-129 overtime loss to the Kings in which the Wolves somehow found a way to lose despite leading 115-100 with 2:05 to play in regulation.
But Napier likely meant the specific feeling about that specific game, and at most how he felt about it in the context of the season. Is this, though, a broader low?
I mean, it was the Wolves’ 10th consecutive loss, but that isn’t even their longest losing streak of the season. That honor goes to the 11-game skid in December, a plummet the Wolves ended finally by winning at Sacramento. The Kings looked to be playing the role of streak-buster again Monday … until they weren’t.
This is the 31st year of Wolves basketball. They have lost at least 50 games in half (15 of 30) of the completed seasons in their history, and 60 or more games in nine of them.
But in looking back at those mostly lean years, I found this: Never before had the Wolves had two different double-digit losing streaks in the first 50 games of a season – until this year.
Maybe that 50-game marker seems like a very specific cut-off point cherry-picked to make this year look really bad. I see it this way: Most teams, even those who eventually become non-competitive, can maintain interest for about that long into a year. Then things fall apart as the finish line of a lost season grows closer, the playoffs become out of the question entirely and/or good players are dealt away before the trade deadline to start a rebuild.
Many of the Wolves’ worst teams of the past have followed that pattern, being better at the start than at the end while closing with seemingly interminable stretches of losing. But this year’s team actually started out 10-8 and – even with all the talk of culture and systems – never gave the impression that it was actively going to “tank” for a high draft pick. Even if the process is more important than individual 48-minute results this season, two losing streaks of this length, this soon, represents a certain nadir.
We’re past the point of blaming injuries because the Wolves at this point are mostly healthy compared to what they have been and compared to other NBA teams. In fact, the most jarring stat of all might be this: Minnesota has now lost the last 14 games in which Karl-Anthony Towns played. He played in the first seven games of the 11-game losing streak and he’s played in the last seven games of the current 10-game losing streak. In between, he missed 15 games (in which the Wolves went 5-10, showing improved defensive acumen but far diminished offensive output).
Then there’s the other bit of inglorious history the Wolves made Monday. It’s been oft-repeated by now, but per ESPN Stats & Info: “The Kings trailed the Timberwolves by 17 points with 2:49 left in the 4th quarter. Since 1996-97, the first year of play-by-play data, NBA teams entered the day 0-8,378 when trailing by 17 or more in the final 3 minutes of the 4th quarter or overtime. The Kings won, 133-129.”
That stat tells you that the Kings’ comeback was next to impossible. How did it happen?
*Buddy Hield caught fire, scoring 12 points in the final 2:05 (including three three-pointers).
*It’s tempting to blame Ryan Saunders for emptying his bench too early, but honestly a lineup of mostly reserves should still be able to dribble out a 12-point lead with 1:39 to play. Still, if the young coach waits another 30-40 seconds of game time before deploying Kelan Martin, Jordan McLaughlin and Naz Reid, we’re probably not having this conversation today. By the time a lot of regulars checked back in, it was just a six-point game with 37 seconds left.
*De’Aaron Fox made a brilliant individual play to intentionally miss a free throw – fired hard off the rim – and score on the rebound to tie the game late.
But the two biggest collapses for the Wolves this season could have been footnotes if they had merely made one play at the free throw line: If Towns would have successfully MISSED a free throw during the infamous Chris Paul jersey tuck game, the Wolves would have won by a point. And if the Wolves had been aware enough to prevent Fox from grabbing his miss, they likely would have won Monday.
Both situations are examples of the Wolves reacting negatively to adversity – a theme for a team with two very long losing streaks they couldn’t stop earlier.
And that to me is the most troubling thing about what Saunders, Towns and the rest of the Wolves have accomplished through 47 games this year.
At 15-32, the Wolves’ overall record doesn’t put them anywhere near a pace to be among the franchise’s worst teams. But that doesn’t mean Monday didn’t feel like a low point.