With the Timberwolves’ season opener tonight against Sacramento, there’s been a growing obsession around Target Center, or at least among those who frequent it, with a number. That number? The Timberwolves‘ likely victory total for the 2008-09 NBA regular season.
Thirty? Forty? Kevin McHale, Wolves vice president of basketball operations, dropped hints before and after his big draft-and-trade night in June that last year’s 22-60 bunch could make a caterpillar-to-butterfly leap to something approaching a .500 record. Head coach Randy Wittman, apparently unable to coax McHale in off that ledge, has tried for the past month to talk down anyone else tempted to join his boss out there.
Wittman understandably is inclined to talk about a Portland two-step; the Trail Blazers — the most promising young team in the NBA and thus, the most promising young team in the Western Conference and in the Wolves’ own Northwest Division — bumped from 21 victories in 2005-06 to 32 a year later.
Last season, even with future franchise guy Greg Oden — generally considered to be the best center drafted since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 — unavailable from start to finish, Portland won an additional nine games. The team reached that desirable .500 mark, a point from which talks of playoff berths and championship dreams begin to get taken seriously. At that, they still missed the postseason by nine games.
Lesser or more objective experts have been tossing out predictions where the bell curve bulges most, in the 31-36 range. Some of this represents local optimism, some of it basketball acumen and some of it is simply human nature; people generally aren’t comfortable planting themselves at the extremes of a situation.
The same reason so many of us think of ourselves as “middle class” is why so few prognosticators of, well, pretty much anything stake out the pole positions. It isn’t natural to predict 66 victories in 82 games, for example, which explains why so many folks underestimated the Boston Celtics’ last season. It doesn’t feel right, either, to suggest that a 22-victory team might stay right down there, winning 22 again. Or, OK, maybe 23.
Lots of factors combined for Wolves’ most improved season
Just the other day, a Star Tribune writer seemed offended that some national voice picked the Wolves to win just 20 games. Presumably, this umbrage had more to do with Xs and Os and the potential meshing of the names on Minnesota’s roster than it did with leftover Kool-Aid or any hometown boosterism. This local scribe predicted 36 victories which, it should be noted, would match the greatest single-season improvement (plus-14) in franchise history. That significant bump came in 1996-97, when the Wolves went from 26 to 40 victories and even made the playoffs, thanks to these upgrades and developments:
• Kevin Garnett, transitioning from the equivalent of a college freshman to a sophomore, went from NBA rookie to first-time NBA All-Star.
• The team solved its longtime problem at point guard by drafting and starting Stephon Marbury, in those rosy days when Marbury was part sidekick and part star and not the punchline he has become.
• Flip Saunders, who would become the winningest coach in franchise history, ran his first training camp (he got the job in December 2005) and worked his first full season.
• Tom Gugliotta had the best season of his career, averaging 20.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists and beating Garnett by a technicality to the West All-Star squad (coaches’ selection vs. injury replacement). People tend to forget just how good Gugliotta was during his Wolves’ stay — versatile offensively, improvisational even, with the ability to score inside or out, with great hands and a nose for the ball defensively and with an ego that still allowed the Wolves to flip the team’s keys to the kids.
• Isaiah Rider had been surgically removed in the summer of 1996 and the team played its first full season without Christian Laettner, who had been traded in February 1996. In Minnesota sports history, those two moves in the span of slightly more than four months might rank as the all-time addition by subtraction, surpassing even Les Steckel’s firing after his lone 1984 season as Vikings coach.
This year’s ‘enhancements’ less far-reaching
In other words, all of those positives happened from 1996 to 1997 — back when the NBA’s balance of power tilted eastward, with Chicago, Miami, New York, Charlotte and Atlanta as formidable teams — and the Wolves improved by 14 games. Compare, now, the improvements made to the current squad since last season:
• Big man Al Jefferson, on the brink of All-Star-dom himself, already was one of the league’s four 20-point, 10-rebound men last season. A few months shy of age 25, he should be mature and committed enough now for his game to take a giant stride.
• Sharpshooter wing man Mike Miller was brought in to spread the Wolves’ offense, unclogging the defensive middle where Jefferson works.
• Rookie forward Kevin Love has some of Gugliotta’s skill set, or at least did in his one season at UCLA, with a bit more bulk and a bit less athleticism. He is, however, miles from a finished product and maybe not close to starting.
• Guard Randy Foye is healthy, not hobbled by a knee injury that cost him the first 43 games in 2007-08. Foye has been challenged to become a complete player, particularly in running the team’s attack.
• Roster junk has been cleared, the switch from the Kevin Garnett era to the Jefferson age essentially done. None of it was as cancerous as Rider or Laettner, but it is helpful to know that the players on this roster are here for allegedly positive reasons, not leftover negative or contractual ones.
Still, that’s it. Those enhancements, while nice, aren’t nearly as momentous as what transpired 12 years ago. And the Western Conference is way tougher. For every Dallas, Phoenix or Denver that seems ready to slip, there’s a Houston or Portland poised to win 10 or 15 more than last season. Forty victories got the Wolves into the playoffs in 1997, but last spring, it took the Nuggets 50 to be the eighth and final seed.
So enough with the projected victory totals. Enough already with the number. In the NBA, either you’re contending for a championship, chasing a playoff spot or gathering yourself to do the above.
Winning 30 vs. 35 vs. 29 means next to nothing. For teams like the Wolves, what matters is the arrow — is it up, down or sideways? For now, it is up, as much because of the basement in which they dwelled a year ago as to any genius moves or breakthrough individual years.
That said, we offer this: 33-49.