Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor saved the franchise back in 1994 when the team was close to moving to New Orleans under the ownership of Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner.
Since that purchase, he has done all he can to keep the team competitive — giving huge contracts to stars such as Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns while also trying to find the right combination of coaches and front-office executives to improve the franchise.
But the Wolves still are trying to build consistent winners.
The combination of coach Ryan Saunders and President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas might turn out to be the right men for the job, but for now Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, is having to deal with another underperforming season.
The Wolves’ 133-129 overtime loss to the Kings on Monday at Target Center, where they led by 17 points with just under three minutes left, is only the latest difficult moment in a season that started with a lot of promise after a 10-8 start. The Wolves are 5-24 since.
What makes the downward spiral even more confusing is that last year — in the midst of all the turmoil with trading Jimmy Butler, dismissing Tom Thibodeau and hiring Saunders as interim head coach, the team went 25-16 at home.
This year the club is only 6-18 at home, tied with Cleveland for the worst home mark in the NBA, and attendance has dropped to 14,569 per game, the lowest in the league. Last season the Wolves averaged 15,305 per game and in 2017-2018 they had averaged 17,056.
Lost key players
The offseason decisions to let go of Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones and Taj Gibson also really hurt this club. The players brought in to replace them aren’t nearly as good.
Rose is leading the Pistons, averaging 18.9 points and 6.0 assists per game. Gibson is just averaging 5.4 points and 4.3 rebounds for the Knicks, but his defense and leadership are missed.
Jones hasn’t seen as much playing time as expected in Memphis because rookie Ja Morant is setting the world on fire. But still Jones is averaging 6.3 points and 4.5 assists while playing only 18.8 minutes per game.
But even with those players gone, the Wolves should not be this bad.
Butler big mistake
The biggest reason for the Wolves’ slide was their decision to trade Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and No. 7 pick Lauri Markkanen for Jimmy Butler and No. 16 selection Justin Patton on draft night in 2018. It turned out to be a huge mistake.
Thibodeau wanted to make a big splash, and he sold the farm to get Butler.
And while they were able to deal Butler and Patton to Philadelphia the next season for Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless, you have to believe having those original younger players would have served the team better.
LaVine has become one of the best scorers in the NBA.
He leads the Bulls in scoring at 25.1 points per game, which ranks 12th in the NBA. He has scored 35 or more points 10 times this season.
Dunn is proving to be a defensive stopper at point guard who does a little bit of everything. He is averaging 7.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game. The only other player in the NBA averaging at least seven points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals per game is Ben Simmons of the 76ers.
Markkanen, meanwhile, is only 22 and averaging 15.0 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Losses have built up
But the fact is the Wolves’ troubles seem to happen no matter who is running or coaching the team or what players they have.
Since the 2004-2005 season, they have posted a 458-802 record, the worst mark in the NBA.
The next-closest team is the Knicks, who have gone 481-780 over that same stretch, but they have also made the postseason three times in that run and won a playoff series. The Wolves, meanwhile, have only reached the playoffs once in that stretch, and won only one game in their series against the Rockets two years ago.
What’s incredible is that from 1997-2005, the Wolves had the seventh-best winning percentage in the NBA — trailing only the Lakers, Spurs, Jazz, Pacers, Heat and Kings.
And while the club only had one playoff run during that stretch — reaching the Western Conference finals in 2003 before losing to the Lakers in six games — they were still posting strong regular seasons on a consistent basis.
Some bright spots
The Wolves have gotten acceptable play from guards Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie, and the club has to feel good that their two most recent top draft picks have been improving.
After averaging 7.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game through the first 30 games of his rookie season, Culver has come on of late.
He is averaging 12.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game over his past 16 games, including 15 starts.
This season, Okogie — the Wolves’ top pick in 2018 — has increased his scoring (7.7 to 8.0), rebounding (2.9 to 4.5) and assists (1.2 to 1.6) and posted higher field-goal (38.6 to 39.6) and free-throw (72.8 to 76.1) percentages.
He has been the Wolves’ best bench contributor of late, averaging 8.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game over his past 15 games.
Still, this club has a lot of things to figure out if they’re going to compete.
The good news is that Wiggins has shown a lot of improvement this season.
His 22.9 points per game are good for 17th best in the league and is the second-highest mark of his career. His 5.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 0.9 blocks per game are all career highs. And he has improved his field-goal percentage (41.2 to 44.8) and free-throw percentage (69.9 to 72.1) from last season.
Towns, averaging 26.9 points and 10.7 rebounds, continues to be one of the best offensive players in the NBA. Only he and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, who could win his second consecutive MVP award, are averaging at least 26 points and 10 rebounds.
Wiggins and Towns will make a combined $59 million next season and the team already has $105 million in salary committed to 10 players in 2020-2021.
This year the salary cap was $109 million.
That means the Wolves are going to need to find a way to add to this roster, or Towns and Wiggins are going to have to take over the team if they’re going to have any shot of turning this franchise around.