Karl-Anthony Towns has been on a good Timberwolves team that didn't last long because personality clashes got in the way of building a sustainable winner.
Towns heads into this offseason liking what he saw down the stretch, as the Wolves ended 16-25 under Chris Finch after a 7-24 start under Ryan Saunders.
After injuries and COVID-19 got in the way, Towns finally got to play alongside D'Angelo Russell, and the two went 11-9 in 20 games they played together over the last six weeks.
“It's been rocky times. It's been real rocky times, you know? And even times where they were going to take the jersey off my back. So I just really am happy that I'm still able to be here playing for this amazing city and state and be able to stay here and effect change in the community.”
The emergence of Anthony Edwards from struggling rookie to potential franchise cornerstone has Towns excited like everyone else associated with the team. During his season-ending video conference Monday, Towns, citing Magic Johnson, said the Wolves can't get in each other's way as they get better.
"It's pretty simple. We can't just let egos get in the way," Towns said. "One of the things that made Magic Johnson so special was while he was given the spotlight by the media and stuff, he was right away to share it with everybody, and we've all got to be willing to do that."
Towns has spoken multiple times about the team's need to surround Edwards with the right support structure as he learns the ropes of the NBA. He was a quick learner, averaging 23.8 points after the All-Star break on 45% shooting and earning his third consecutive Western Conference rookie of the month award to close out the year.
"He's showed exactly why he's the No. 1 pick and why he's the Rookie of the Year," Towns said. "So we've got to put our egos to the side at all times. We cannot let that get between us. We cannot let that be a story of amazing talents coming together and not making it work."
Helping to keep everyone on the same page this year was Ricky Rubio, one of only two players on the team in their 30s, and someone who wasn't afraid to lend his voice when he felt the team needed to hear it.
"They trust me, they know who I am, and I can talk to them real honest," Rubio said. "Sometimes too much. But at the same time I'm not going to go around it. I'm not going to point anybody out, but at the same time I'll talk to them individually and say you got to step up."
That accountability also comes from the coaches, and Rubio said coach Chris Finch hasn't been afraid to let anybody on the team know, including the top players, when they need to improve.
"One of the things I noticed from Day 1 is he don't care who you are, he only cares about how you perform on the court," Rubio said. "And that's really special for [his] first time as a head coach. Really not being afraid of calling nobody out, even superstars."
They also have to call each other out.
"It starts with three guys being healthy — D-Lo, Ant and KAT — and them holding each other accountable and holding us accountable, and we holding them accountable," Rubio said.
If the Wolves have designs on being a winning team, the leadership ultimately has to come from their best players in Towns, Russell and Edwards. But leadership in the NBA doesn't happen instantly. It can take several years before guys are ready to be at the point Rubio has reached in his career. It's something President Gersson Rosas is aware of and is trying to address.
"We can't wait for them to develop leadership. We can't wait for them to figure things out," Rosas said. "We got to get them there. A lot of that is going to fall on our culture, our environment, our system until they get to that point. I preached since I got here, it takes time to develop these players."
Time is a precious commodity in the NBA. Take too much of it and a superstar could get disgruntled and want out. There will always be whispers and rumors on social media to create noise, but Towns has been steadfast in his public comments about wanting to build a winner in Minnesota.
“We can't just let egos get in the way. One of the things that made Magic Johnson so special was while he was given the spotlight by the media and stuff, he was right away to share it with everybody, and we've all got to be willing to do that.”
The Hall of Fame ceremonies this past weekend reinforced that for Towns as he watched the inductions of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant and the legacies they built with one team.
"I'm just happy that I'm able to stand strong here in Minnesota," Towns said. "It's been rocky times. It's been real rocky times, you know? And even times where they were going to take the jersey off my back. So I just really am happy that I'm still able to be here playing for this amazing city and state and be able to stay here and effect change in the community."
Things will change when the Wolves reconvene next fall. Rosas has pledged to address the power forward spot on the roster and expectations to crawl out of the NBA basement after two lackluster years will be high. Most of the team Rosas wants is in place now.
How will they all get along?