The Timberwolves rolled out the basketballs on a new season Saturday morning, convening in a University of California-San Diego gym more than 1,500 miles away from their downtown Minneapolis training facility.
Why, you very well might ask?
Well, it’s sort of on their way to China, where they will play two preseason games against defending NBA champion Golden State next week.
It’s also a sunny and chic version of Mankato, Minn., — former training-camp home to both the Wolves and the NFL’s Vikings — and a getaway where they’ll drill during the day with the Pacific Ocean shimmering in the distance and bond at night.
Wolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau is a believer in such team-building time away and suggests a preseason European trip helped a new teammates Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce win the 2008 NBA title their first year together when Thibodeau coached in Boston.
A week in San Diego is no guarantee of a championship, of course, but Wolves veteran and part-time California resident Jimmy Butler approves anyway.
“I love that,” Butler said. “Why not go out to California for a bit, get yourself some sunshine and nice weather, then head over to China and play in front of those fans?
"It’s going to be fun."
The Wolves are scheduled to practice for seven days in San Diego, splitting their on-court time between UC-San Diego and San Diego State not far from their oceanside luxury hotel north of the city.
Shoot, they couldn’t have scheduled it at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. — just down the block from Butler’s offseason home — instead?
“Oooooh,” Butler said. “That would have been nice. I’ll take San Diego, too. I used to live out there as well.”
By the time the Wolves return from Chinese cities Shenzhen and Shanghai, they will have spent 18 days on the road and will have little more than a week to prepare for their regular-season opener at San Antonio because of a preseason shortened by a week to build more scheduling flexibility into the NBA regular season.
The Wolves play just three preseason games in that time, but Thibodeau considers equally important all that time spent together for a team reformed by trades and free-agent signees over the summer.
“It’s an unusual preseason and a short amount of time to start the regular season,” Thibodeau said. “That’s going to be our challenge. We have to maximize the time we do have. I do like that we’re going to be overseas together. We’ll be practicing, playing games, but at night we’ll have the opportunity to go to dinner and spend some time together. I think that will help each player know each other a lot.”
Next week’s China trip will be veteran guard Jamal Crawford’s third trip with teammates there in the past six years. He and his Los Angeles Clippers visited in 2012 and again in 2015 and the Crawford still has a memento from his first trip there, courtesy of new teammate Grant Hill after a trip together to a bustling market.
“I didn’t really know him well, but he helped me get a suit I needed for an event,” Crawford said. “He kind of pieced one together for $100; he was right there, helping me. You don’t forget, those things stay with you. We were running around everywhere in the market because the market is the best and Grant was like a connoisseur of all things. So he was like, ‘Let go to the market, we’ll get you a suit.’ I was like head to toe $87 or something. It was good.
”Those moments, that’s when you form those bonds. It’s just you guys. We’re a family. When you’re going across the country, going out of the country actually, that’s where those dinners, those two-hour bus rides, all those different things are when you really get to know somebody.”
The Wolves have made preseason trips before to such destinations as Istanbul, Paris and London and have played regular-season games in Mexico City and Tokyo.
“The NBA sends you somewhere every year,” said new Wolves point guard Aaron Brooks, an 11-year NBA veteran. “I’ve been to London, played in China. I believe in team building. I don’t know how you do it. I think this will definitely help, though. It didn’t help us last year for sure, going to London in the middle of the season.
Brooks and new Wolves teammate Jeff Teague played for the Indiana Pacers in a regular-season game against Denver last January at London’s O2 arena.
“That’s a pretty long trip, it’s not fair,” Teague said. “We went in the middle of the season, which is worse. I didn’t like that at all. This one is going to be challenging. But, hey, the NBA is all about challenges, right?”
The way Butler figures it, the Wolves are going to have to get to know each other one way or the other. So why not sooner rather later?
“Like it or not, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time with each other,” Butler said. “If we don’t like it, we’ll get over it fairly quickly because we’re still going to have to spend a lot of time with one another. When we get to China, we’re still going to have to spend time a lot of time with one another. So I think we’ll love spending a lot of time with one another before it’s over with.”
Some of them might even return home with something useful, too.
“I still do have the suit,” Crawford said. “I still wear it, too.”