The comeuppance has arrived. It’s a little sooner than even the more cynical among us had expected, before the “mid-season” break for the NBA All-Star Game this coming weekend. But the Minnesota Timberwolves, who entered the 2013-14 season with a legitimate opportunity to end their decade-long drought from playoff competition, have wadded those aspirations into a soggy little ball that is currently on a downward trajectory toward the trash bin.
With 30 games left on the 82-game schedule, the Wolves are seven games away from the eighth and final playoff spot in the 15-team Western Conference—and closer, at six-and-a-half games, to the conference cellar.
They have lost six of their past seven games, for thoroughly understandable reasons. Injuries have sidelined behemoth center Nikola Pekovic for all of those contests, and their most accurate three-point shooter, Kevin Martin, for the past two. Their superstar, Kevin Love, has not suited up in two of the past four games, and is currently beset by a welter of strains, stiffnesses and bruises that make his mucking style of achievement especially arduous.
But rare is the team whose campaign is not challenged by a spate of injury-related losses at some point in the season. The Wolves are currently bereft because they did not pay their insurance premiums for this rocky interim with inspired, capable play when the roster was at relatively full strength. They sacrificed eminently winnable games to Cleveland, Washington, and Denver, twice, in the month of November alone. Five weeks ago, with their starting lineup intact and key reserves Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger added back into the mix, they were embarrassed, at home, against wretched Sacramento. They earned this predicament.
Less than the sum of their parts
The Wolves are comprised of literally marvelous individuals who possess a seeming surfeit of virtues and galvanized attributes. Love is a bonafide superstar—the debate should be whether he is among the top five or the top 10 players in the NBA—who wheedles points from all over the court and thrives on personally choreographed collisions. Pekovic is a treasured crowd-favorite, a balletic bear of a man who mocks the terrifying gothic tattoos festooned on his body with a perpetually impish grin on his movie-villain visage. Point guard Ricky Rubio is the patron saint of passes, delivering the ball to his teammates with impeccable timing at impossible angles and sleights of hand, then magnetizing the nonchalant dribbles and lazy tosses of opponents into his own mitts to stand as the current NBA leader in steals.
Even the lesser lights have their twinkling. The statisticians dutifully note that Martin, for all his maddening flaws, most especially his appeasement approach to defense, is one of the most efficient scorers in the history of the game. Corey Brewer has the stretched frame and antic temperament of a greyhound, easily gulled into wasted motion and revving his synapses beyond the level where they can be properly coordinated, but seemingly inexhaustible nonetheless, saving himself from himself on an endless loop of burning rubber.
But as a team, it is difficult to discuss the 2013-14 Timberwolves in polite company. When a ball club meshes its talents in a manner that consistently synergizes those skills and surprises observers with successful outcomes—like the current Phoenix Suns, for example—we say they are a team of strong character and fiber, plucky and resilient.
For almost this entire season (the loss to Cleveland happened in the third game), the mesh of the Wolves has been moldy and threadbare, fine when the wind is at its back to carry some of the weight, but liable to rend and disintegrate under pressure and adversity. They are, until proven otherwise, a team of weak character and flaccid fiber.
Minnesota outscores its opponents by more points in the first quarter than any other team. They are 7th in second-quarter point differential and 6th in third-quarter differential. But in the fourth quarter, a.k.a. crunch time, or winning time, they are 29th, or next to last, behind only the Detroit Pistons, who fired their coach over the weekend. This is fueled by a whopping disparity of minus 122 points in the first six minutes of those fourth quarters, a time when Love is frequently resting.
Pieces of a dream, revisited
This recent swoon, even as their rivals currently eligible for a low playoff berth are surging, has landed this chronically floundering franchise—and their die-hard fans, bless them—in a familiar set of circumstances.
Love, the superstar, has a Get Out of the Gulag Free card, courtesy of Wolves management, who denied his request for a five-year contract extension and instead gave him the option of leaving after three years, which kicks in at the end of next season. With no playoffs likely for his sixth straight season in Minnesota this year, it would be prudent to plan for the possibility of Love exercising that option, which means the team must somehow enhance the inducements for him to stay, and/or calibrate the highest return they can get for trading him.
Rick Adelman, who has coached five different teams to more than 1,000 wins in this league, is 67 and presumably highly desirous of crowning his Hall of Fame resume with an elusive championship. With his wife still precariously close to last year’s scary batch of undiagnosed seizures, his formerly trustworthy instincts on player substitutions and motivations proving to be a miserable failure most of this season, and the team losing the scent of the playoffs, let alone a championship, his future, too, is in doubt. Indeed, when he missed Monday night’s loss to Houston due to “personal reasons,” it was hard not to mull the possibility that he was suddenly finished with his three-year tenure in Minnesota.
These are ways Wolves-watchers will increasingly invest their time and conversations. Is Love leaving? What can and should we get in a trade, either for his services or to help him stay? Is Adelman leaving? Who should replace him? How many minutes should we play raw rookies like Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng? Who should we pick in the upcoming college draft, provided we don’t sacrifice the pick by finishing ahead of 12 other teams? (If this last hypothetical is unclear, you don’t need to, or want to, wade into it just yet.)
For the die-hard optimists, there is still that roster studded with individual skills; the rationale that the Wolves’ 1-12 record in games decided by four points or less is a matter of chance that will revert to the mean; and a really soft part of the schedule in early March that could fuel a surge that returns Minnesota to playoff contention.
But the reality is that this has been the most disappointing Timberwolves season in nearly a decade because the standard litany of excuses isn’t tenable. The 2013-14 Wolves aren’t rebuilding, aren’t wracked by an unusual amount of injuries, and can’t point to one villain or cause or aspect of the game that spells the difference between success and failure.
And yet, for those who simply love pro basketball, the game abides. I won’t insult the intelligence of readers by putting a smiley face on the fact that, even at 24-28, this is the Wolves’ best record after 52 games since 2004-05. And I won’t pretend that wins and losses don’t matter.
But neither can I pretend that I don’t want to go see the unique likes of Love, Pekovic, Rubio, and contagiously joyous performers like backup center Ronny Turiaf, testing their skills against a wide variety of opposing styles and skill sets. The Wolves have 30 games left in what is becoming a season where disappointment will most likely lead to dramatic changes. Not all the memories these Wolves are leaving behind are good ones, by any means. But a lot of them are vivid, and many of those are, after all, to be cherished.