Even casual fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves have seen the ads, run regularly during Wolves telecasts, of the team’s coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders extolling the virtues of the recently opened Sports Medicine Center operated by the Mayo Clinic on the old Block E site across from Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.
The center specializes in injury prevention, rehabilitation and timely diagnosis and treatment. It dovetails nicely with an issue that has been a priority for Saunders ever since he returned to the Wolves as their new POBO in May of 2013: figuring out ways to reduce the number of games lost to injury by his players.
Indeed, at Saunders’ introductory press conference, he said he wanted to be “hands on with everything” in the organization, and immediately added that he specifically wanted “to find out a way to make it better for our players to either prevent injuries, not get injured as much or get back on the floor more.” He concluded that he would “turn over every rock we can to try and find out.”
And yet for the third time in the past four seasons, injuries have been the dominant factor in a disheartening and disappointing campaign by the Wolves. Three years ago, it was Ricky Rubio’s ankle. Two years ago it was Kevin Love’s wrist. This year, the team’s premiere playmaker (Rubio), shot-maker (Kevin Martin) and interior presence down near the basket (Nikola Pekovic) have all been sidelined since the third week of the regular season. And even as Saunders can be seen over and over again praising the recuperative prowess of the folks at Mayo — literally a world-class organization that draws emirs and billionaires from around the globe to its headquarters in Rochester for treatment — Wolves fans wonder what is taking so long to that crucial trio of players back on the court.
The specter — and allure —of “tanking”
Saunders himself may have provided an answer to that mystery in a comment to Star Tribune reporter Mike Kaszuba that closed Kaszuba’s story on the Wolves’ business fortunes last Friday. “The worst thing to be [is] mediocre,” Kaszuba quotes Saunders as saying. “You either want to be really good or you want to be really bad, because if you’re really bad you got a chance to get really good.”
“Tanking” is the word used to describe the action of teams that essentially give up on a season and start losing semi-purposefully in order to better position themselves for the next draft. Although it is alleged to occur far more frequently than it probably does, it is not hard to cite blatant examples.
The most notorious tanking incident in Wolves history occurred in the final game of the 2005-06 season. Having already sat superstar Kevin Garnett for the final six games for “injuries” that Garnett would have normally surmounted, the Wolves were still in danger of losing a protected draft pick if they triumphed in the finale over the Memphis Grizzlies. The game was close and the dire scenario — winning the game, losing the pick — a real possibility until little-used backup center Mark Madsen was deployed. Madsen, who hadn’t taken a three-point shot in more than two seasons, suddenly launched seven of them, making zero, in a nine-minute span late in the game to help seal the defeat.
This season, the NBA team that seems most obviously in the business of tanking is the Philadelphia 76ers, who for two years running have made their top pick a highly regarded collegian whose position in the draft plummeted because he was injured in college and no chance of playing in his rookie season. Meanwhile, the Sixers have dutifully stripped their roster of capable but relatively expensive players in the hopes that they will secure another high pick to pair with these two formerly injured stars-in-waiting.
The Sixers current record is 8-33, a half-game ahead of the Wolves, who are 7-33. Only the New York Knicks, at 6-36, are worse.
A Timberwolves team with Rubio, Martin and Pekovic healthy and playing alongside Rookie of the Year favorite Andrew Wiggins and veteran power forward Thad Young is an intriguing starting five that won two of four games and was ahead in the fifth one before the injuries mounted. Add in a bench unit that contains blossoming second-year players Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad, and current Western Conference Player of the Week Mo Williams, and you’ve got the makings of a pretty good eight-man rotation, one that could quickly point this downtrodden team upward. Toward mediocrity.
On the other hand, imagine one of the top two or three players in the draft being added to the aforementioned mix next season. True, you probably won’t have Williams, who is on a one-year contract, and perhaps Young, who has the option to leave or stay. But if you combine diligence, expertise and luck on draft night, odds are good that a bona fide star lands in your lap.
Beyond outright tanking for the highest possible draft choice, there are other reasons why the Wolves might not be in such a hurry to get their trio of starters back in action as soon as possible.
The team owes the Phoenix Suns its top pick if the results of the lottery have it falling outside the first 12 choices in the draft. The worst-case scenario for teams bad enough to participate in the 14-team lottery is that they get bumped back three spaces from “worst-record, first-pick” order. Consequently, the Wolves would have to finish no better than the 9th worst record among the 14 NBA teams missing the playoffs in order to guarantee that their pick remains among the top 12 in the draft. Right now the 9th spot is held by the Detroit Pistons with a record of 16-26, with the Sacramento Kings right “behind” them at 16-25. That is an eight-game difference in the standings, with over forty games left to play for Minnesota.
Now going from 9th to 12th is a near-impossibility. But it is a distinct possibility that all seven non-playoff teams in the East could finish with a worse record than the Wolves. Add in the Lakers, Jazz and Kings and the Wolves are suddenly 11th, needing to be bumped back just two spots. That is still a long shot, but, given Minnesota’s astoundingly bad fortune in the draft lottery (they have never improved their draft position and have frequently lost ground in the order), not out of the question for a healthy Wolves team to play well enough to put their draft pick in jeopardy. Under this scenario, the Wolves aren’t tanking to win the lottery, they are tanking not to lose the lottery.
Then there is the question of insurance money. Different teams structure their insurance different ways, and policies on individual players are going to vary according to their injury histories. The Wolves aren’t about to divulge the intimate details of their insurance policies.
But it stands to reason that there are policies that pay off if a player misses a sizable chunk of games, a period of time meaningful enough to affect the team’s attendance and other bottom-line revenue factors. For example, half of an NBA season is 41 games. The Wolves have currently played 40 games, including the last 30 without Martin, 31 without Pekovic, and 35 without Rubio. If the insurance was pro-rated to time missed, and clicked in at 41 games, the Wolves could theoretically recoup half of Martin’s $7 million, Pek’s $12 million and Rubio’s $5 million with three more weeks of inactivity—or if any of the three were reinjured and missed more time.
As I mentioned earlier, this is fairly wild speculation — I have no idea what codicils are involved in any of these insurance deals. But it is fair to say that at some point, probably in the near future, if deadlines haven’t passed already, millions of insurance dollars will be at stake. The Wolves have routinely sold off second-round draft picks for much less.
The distinct possibility of proper caution
When you are a fan and your team is way down in the dumps and the cost of your season ticket continues to burn in your memory, if no longer your wallet, it is tempting to indulge in tanking conspiracy theories.
But there are good, sound reasons, based in medicine and common sense why the Wolves are taking a cautious approach with their injured starters, especially the most valuable one, Rubio.
To begin with, Minnesota has just invested an enormous amount of money in Rubio’s future, inking him to a four-year $55-million contract on October 31, that will kick in at the beginning of the 2015-16 season. Secondly, this abbreviated season more than any other has demonstrated how valuable Rubio’s presence is to this current roster under the system deployed by coach Saunders. It wouldn’t make sense to rush him back in a season where hopes for the playoffs have already been transformed from fanciful to doomed. Especially if he were to aggravate his severely sprained ankle to the point where it affected him next season.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider the injury history of the current MVP favorite Stephen Curry of Golden State, whose desire to return prematurely from his own ankle sprain cost him games and on-court effectiveness for parts of two seasons earlier in his career. The Wolves simply can’t afford a similarly lingering injury from the player they have anointed their cornerstone for the next four seasons.
At the other end of the spectrum is Martin, who fractured his right wrist in the course of scoring 34 points in a win over the Knicks in mid-November. Martin has been chomping at the proverbial bit to return to action, and has been steadily upgraded from “out” to “doubtful” to “questionable” on the Wolves’ pregame injury reports. There was even speculation that he might play on the team’s recently concluded four-game road trip.
Martin wants to play in order to showcase himself before next month’s trading deadline. He is a 31-year old shooting guard in his 11th season, who will be paid approximately $7 for the next two-and-a-half seasons regardless of what team he is on. Naturally, he wants to be on a playoff contender before he is too far removed from the prime of his career.
One would imagine the Wolves might also be interested in trading Martin. The difference is, if Martin returns too soon and has to be shut down again, he still gets paid. The Wolves, on the other hand, lose a trading chip as well as a serviceable player. It is thus in the team’s interest to be more cautious than Martin.
Which brings us to Nikola Pekovic, the big enigma. It seems fairly certain that Pek has a chronic foot injury that is exacerbated when he plays. He has missed chunks of time for that and other maladies for most of his career. The Wolves tried to be proactive, instructing him to take it easy in the off-season and then playing him sparingly in the pre-season. Even so, he lasted less than ten games.
There has been some weird intrigue since then. Pek was obviously hobbling, unable to defend rudimentary movements, in his final game thus far this season, in Dallas a game before Martin went down. But initial reports listed the reason for his absence as much for a sprained wrist as for the foot. Pek dutifully showed up with a plastic brace on the wrist, which didn’t prevent him from high-fiving teammates when they came off the court.
The brace is long gone and Pek, like Martin, has been participating in full practices with the team for more than a week now. The most recent news is that he is still experiencing pain but feels he can play. There are rumors he may even play tonight against Dallas. But it seems as if neither Pek nor the Wolves sure if he will ever be able to play in regular rotation again. Even more than with Rubio’s sprain, let alone Martin’s fracture, there is no cut-and-dried treatment timetable that will yield confident predictions about eventual results. It seems significant that at a time when the team sorely needs a backup point guard, they have continued to use their final roster spot on a backup center to Dieng.
What’s clear is that a lot of people want to see this ball club at full strength, beginning with the fans who heard the marketing department’s siren song that this was an exciting “Eyes of the Rise” team that would blend young talent with established veterans and make a run for the playoffs. It likely also includes the folks at Mayo, who watch the guy who runs the basketball operations of the team they sponsor continually extolling their ability to heal athletes; even as three of his top performers languish indefinitely from injuries that, at least in the case of Pekovic and Rubio, seem to be healing at a very slow pace.
Last but not least, it includes fans of NBA basketball in general, who want to see burgeoning talents of Wiggins enabled by the majesty of Rubio, while Pek bangs bodies down in the paint and K-Martin splashes from long range. They want to see promise fulfilled, for a change.