The way Timberwolves coach and chief decisionmaker Flip Saunders sees it, there exists two divergent roads to lasting NBA success and his team definitely followed one of them in this long, lousy season when it has won only 16 games with one yet to play.
“In this league, you either have to be real good or real bad,” he said. “If you’re in the middle, it’s tough to improve. You get better by getting better players. You get better by getting superstar players.”
If measured by victories or too many games lost to injury, the Wolves’ first season in the post-Kevin Love era was an exhibition of pain — some of it self-inflicted — with a purpose. The Wolves have lost their past 11 games, often playing with only seven or eight healthy, available players and own the league’s worst record.
When judged by the real bad-is-real good theorem, it delivered superstardom promise from Andrew Wiggins’ near-certain Rookie of the Year performance and the possibility of adding another such player with a top-five lottery pick in the June draft to a young core that also includes potential star Zach LaVine as well as Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne, Anthony Bennett and Robbie Hummel.
Complementary players and personalities, Wiggins turned 20 years old in February and LaVine did so in March. Saunders refers to them “country mouse and city mouse” while Sacramento coach George Karl simply calls them “scary athletes.”
Guaranteed the NBA’s worst record and the May draft lottery’s best chances if they lose to Oklahoma City in Wednesday’s finale, the Wolves could come away from this summer’s draft with either Duke’s Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns. Each gifted big man is 19.
“We feel we’re on the right path,” Saunders said. “We’ve got corner pieces. We’ve got guys we know are going to be good. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take for those guys to be good.”
It’ll likely be enough to convince Saunders to return as coach for another season unless he can make a home-run hire and likely convince veteran star Kevin Garnett to return for his 21st NBA season, even though he has played only five games after February’s homecoming trade because of what the team called a sore knee.
To travel successfully down that path will require the kind of good health that eluded the Wolves at every turn this season. It also will require resolutions to the recurring foot pain that sent starting center Nikola Pekovic to a North Carolina surgeon last week and to a persisting ankle injury that sent starting point guard Ricky Rubio to a Los Angeles surgeon on Monday.
Changing the plan
When the season started six months ago, Saunders believed a decidedly “blended” team of youngsters and veterans could win as many games as they lost and perhaps compete for a Western playoff spot, just like Monday’s opponent New Orleans has all year.
That all changed in the season’s opening month, when Rubio tore ligaments and bruised a bone in his ankle a week into the season, Pekovic’s ankle pain resurfaced and veteran Kevin Martin broke his wrist. Suddenly, the Wolves reversed course to what Saunders called “development” mode in which he handed Wiggins and LaVine the franchise’s keys by trading away veterans Corey Brewer, Mo Williams and Thaddeus Young before all three players likely walked away free at season’s end.
Wiggins used the word “cursed” when speaking about a season in which Rubio, Pekovic and Martin each missed two months or more. Every player except for Wiggins was sidelined at one time or another. Only Wiggins is poised to play all 82 games.
“I told our guys we’re not going through what we went through this year again,” Saunders said.
He is hopeful the franchise’s new partnership with Mayo Clinic and consulting the country’s top specialists will help address an injury issue they do not have alone. He is also hopeful Wiggins will usher in a new era of transformational success, much like Garnett did as a rookie 20 years ago.
Saunders made Wiggins the prized centerpiece when he was forced to trade away unhappy three-time All Star Kevin Love last summer, considering him the best singular piece available in such a defining deal. Forced by season circumstances to grow up faster than he would have otherwise, Wiggins has answered emphatically scouts’ question of whether he’s assertive enough to become a star and delivered a season that Saunders grades an “A-plus” and adds there’s “no discussion” about who is the league’s Rookie of the Year.
“I watched him in college,” New Orleans coach Monty Williams said. “I don’t know if it was the system or if he was a bit more reserved in college. But watching him now, I’m like, ‘He’s going to be a superstar.’ ”
Wiggins also could be the one who most changes a culture that had the team’s television crew last week challenged when it tried to decide upon the season’s top five games for a broadcast from L.A.
“You got five?” Saunders asked. “When you only win 16 games, there are not many highlights.”
But stay tuned, that soon could change.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s going to come pretty quickly,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said recently. “Flip’s a good coach. They’ve got a pretty good roster — I’m looking at Kevin Martin, Ricky Rubio, Dieng, Pekovic — just sitting on the injured list. Then Wiggins is going to get better just by maturation and LaVine is a handful. You’ve got a lot of good pieces sitting over in that locker room. It’s just a matter of time.”