I hope Timberwolves fans are enjoying the summer NBA playoffs, the latest reminder that if their team merely drafted and kept a reasonable number of the best players available to it in recent history, that team wouldn’t be in the midst of another rebuild.
Jamal Murray played like a superstar in lifting Denver to a series victory over Utah. Jimmy Butler is starring for Miami against Milwaukee. Robert Covington helped Houston eliminate Oklahoma City.
The Wolves employed Butler and Covington, and could have drafted Murray instead of Kris Dunn in 2016.
The Wolves’ historic blend of misfortune and misjudgment goes far deeper than even these playoffs reveal. As they decide what to do with the first pick in the next NBA draft, it’s time to hope that they won’t get too creative, or desperate. Because if in the past 15 years they had done nothing other than draft the way a typical fan would have drafted — taking the most productive and athletic players from established college programs — they would have won an occasional playoff series even after trading Kevin Garnett.
In fact, the Timberwolves’ decisions have created something of a reverse curse in the NBA. Since the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title in 2011 with wrongly fired former Wolves head coach Dwane Casey as their key assistant and J.J. Barea and Cory Brewer as role players, every NBA champion except the 2014 San Antonio Spurs has featured a Wolves connection or benefited from a Wolves draft-day decision.
In 2012 and 2013, the Miami Heat won with Ray Allen. The Wolves ended up with Stephon Marbury instead of Allen in 1996.
In 2015, ’17 and ’18, the Golden State Warriors won titles with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The Wolves selected Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn instead of Curry in 2009, and Derrick Williams over Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson in 2011.
In 2019, the Toronto Raptors won with Kyle Lowry at point guard. Former Wolves General Manager Kevin McHale scouted the regional played at the Metrodome in 2006. He watched Florida advance over Villanova in a regional that also featured Boston College and Georgetown.
He would acquire Villanova guard Randy Foye, Boston College forward Craig Smith and Brewer, a star for Florida.
Foye’s backcourt mate, Lowry, went with the 24th pick in the draft. He’s wearing a championship ring and still playing.
No organization aces every draft. But if, starting in 2006, the Wolves had merely built a reasonable batting average, they could have wound up with some of these players:
2009: Curry and/or DeMar DeRozan instead of Rubio and Flynn. (Rubio was a solid pick; the Flynn selection exposed new GM David Kahn as a fraud.)
2010: I was sitting in Madison Square Garden when the Wolves took Wes Johnson one pick before Sacramento took Kentucky powerhouse DeMarcus Cousins. I was close enough to Kentucky coach John Calipari to hear him laugh.
2011: Williams was a consensus pick at No. 2. But Walker and Thompson went with the ninth and 11th picks.
2012: The Wolves didn’t have a first-round pick.
2013: The Wolves maneuvered to acquire Shabazz Muhammad, who was taken at 14 by Utah. Milwaukee took Giannis Antetokounmpo at 15.
2014: Flip Saunders took Zach LaVine at 14. Full disclosure: I thought this was a bizarre selection, but Flip showed great insight with this pick.
2015: The Wolves selected Karl Anthony-Towns at No. 1. Again, Flip made the right call.
2016: Tom Thibodeau took Kris Dunn at No. 5. Shooting specialist Buddy Hield went at No. 6 and Murray went at No. 7.
2017: The Wolves selected Lauri Markkanen at No. 7 and packaged him with LaVine in the Butler trade. Donovan Mitchell went at No. 13.
2018: Thibodeau took Josh Okogie at No. 20. Smart pick.
2019: Ryan Saunders took Jarret Culver at No. 6. It’s too early to cast any definitive judgments on this draft, but Coby White, taken by Chicago at No. 7, had a better rookie season.
The Wolves’ draft mistakes led to the hiring of Thibodeau, the trade for Butler and the personnel errors that got Thibs fired.
Is there an obvious lesson hidden in the Wolves’ draft history for Gersson Rosas? Maybe not.
Rosas won’t make the obvious mistakes that Kahn made, he’ll work harder at scouting than McHale did, and he won’t be unduly impressed by players who excelled at defense in college, as was the case with Thibodeau.
This much, we know: If the Wolves miss on a star in this draft, that guy will eventually be asked for his ring size.