If a major-league sports franchise in a sizable metropolitan area began play and no one was paying attention, would it make a basket?
Trees falling in unknown forests make more noise than the Timberwolves are making as they open their 21st season tonight against the New Jersey Nets at Target Center. Twenty-one in this case is more craps than blackjack.
The Wolves are as low-profile as any Twin Cities team in recent memory. In NBA terms? You’d have to go back to 1988, their inaugural year minus one, to find sports conversations so entirely devoid of pro hoops chatter. Wait — Bill Musselman was already on the payroll by then, head coach in waiting, his eyes ablaze as he talked of “wolves stalking their prey” to any power breakfast group that would have him.
Wolves, Clippers are mirror images
Maybe the NBA’s low point on the out-of-sight, out-of-mind scale came in 1960, about the time owner Bob Short’s moving vans were rolling Lakers gear into southern California. Los Angeles got Minnesota’s NBA team back then, while Minnesota eventually got in return … Clippers, Upper Midwest edition?
It feels that way lately, considering how surely the two star-crossed and management-marred franchises are in lock step to dysfunction and irrelevancy.
No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin suffers a fractured knee cap to spoil the start of his season? The Wolves can see that with Kevin Love’s broken left hand — and raise it with the similarly severe injuries suffered by their three previous lottery picks (Corey Brewer last year, Randy Foye before that, Rashad McCants in 2006).
It doesn’t help to disassociate the two hapless teams that Michael Olowokandi, Marko Jaric and Darrick Martin played for, that the guy making so many mistakes in L.A. (Elgin Baylor) was a Minneapolis draft pick or that the Wolves still owe the Clippers a first-round pick for the ill-advised Jaric-Sam Cassell trade three years ago. (There might be some consolation, knowing that whomever the Clippers select, that guy will either get hurt, be a bust or both.)
Like the Clippers shedding Baylor, the Wolves dumped their own Hall of Fame forward-turned-maddeningly unsuccessful GM. Kevin McHale is gone to NBA TV, the first season in 17 that he is not involved in Wolves business in one capacity or another. This is presumed, even trumpeted, as a good thing by those trying to spin the team’s image. It says here that McHale could be the latest in a long line of Wolves alumni who look good or fare better once they’re gone. As in: Flip Saunders, Kevin Garnett, Randy Foye (18 points off Washington’s bench in his debut Tuesday), Luc Longley, Cassell.
Hey, as long as we’re counting, let’s not forget Brandon Roy, who was traded minutes after the Wolves drafted him in 2006 and only got as sullied as tugging on a Minnesota cap.
“No McHale” is about as sexy a selling point as the Wolves have. But the absence of negatives isn’t the same thing as the presence of positives. When a critical new hire such as David Kahn, the team’s president of basketball operations and designated anti-McHale point person, can roll into town and preach patience to a fan base that has endured five consecutive lottery finishes — and not be greeted with torches and pitchforks — you can’t help but think of trombones, River City and Harold Hill.
Management gave Kurt Rambis a four-year contract as head coach because we’re going to have to wait for sufficient roster development to judge Rambis’ coaching acumen. Fans have been told to wait, too, for Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio — two years allegedly, more likely three years based on the leverage that would give him for a fatter contract. No wonder so many locals have decided to wait to lay down real folding money to witness, best-case scenario, what will be an incubation. Worst case, it could all be as much fun as the Inquisition.
A negative for every positive
Just about any positive one can cite for the Wolves is quickly countered by a minus. That’s why their fortunes in 2009-10 figure to be as flat as your job prospects or home value. Consider:
• Jonny Flynn has the look of a possible star at point guard, undersized but with enough Chris Paul flash to get Al Jefferson to comparing. But Flynn might wind up as a space holder for Rubio, and the odds are great that at least one of them won’t have a long career in Minnesota.
• Love looked ready to stifle critics for good and “ugly-game” his way to a strong second season. But his surgically repaired fourth metacarpal will set him back at the start of this season as much as Jefferson’s blown knee shredded the back end of last season.
• Ryan Gomes will continue to be underappreciated and, frankly, wasted in a losing situation. His overall “glue” game would help any contender, but Gomes might be drawing his pension before the Wolves become one.
• Ryan Hollins and Oleksiy Pecherov have shown glimmers of potential among the Wolves’ tall trees, but Jefferson still is going to log most of the minutes at center. Where he won’t fully thrive or, at least, be happy.
• Kahn’s informercial-worthy slicing and dicing of the roster will, in fact, free up payroll and create salary-cap flexibility next summer. But the team is deluding itself if it expects to be an alluring destination for NBA stars shopping their skills. Even in Garnett’s heyday, the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history probably is Mike James, which doesn’t inspire confidence. James, though soon traded, chose Minnesota because the Wolves agreed to overpay him for one year longer than any other club. Just as with Kahn’s mandate and Rambis’ four years, that style is great for the people cashing owner Glen Taylor’s checks, not so great for the fans who fund them.
What will all this one-step-forward, one-step-backward maneuvering mean? Look for the Wolves to finish 23-59, a game worse than last season. The bright side is that it will give them something to build toward, namely the 29-53 record Musselman posted in 1990-91 with spare parts and CBA refuges.
The Wolves, in other words, won’t just be wearing throwback uniforms in a half-dozen games this season. They’re giving us all a throwback team.