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The dread zone: How a history of failure continues to sabotage the Wolves

After nine games, there is a growing realization that this Wolves outfit, perhaps more than any other, is corrosively affected by the franchise’s unparalleled legacy of losing.

Grizzles center Steven Adams and forward Brandon Clarke defending Karl-Anthony Towns during the second half of Monday night's game.
Grizzles center Steven Adams and forward Brandon Clarke defending Karl-Anthony Towns during the second half of Monday night's game.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

When Karl-Anthony Towns caught the ball from Naz Reid 40 feet from the basket, there was less than a second to go in regulation time Monday night at FedEx Forum in Memphis. Keeping the rhythm from his outstretched catch, KAT let it fly, with a high, arching shot that cascaded down into a perfectly banked bucket. 

KAT had been back-pedaling, shooting out his hands with hopeful body English as the ball soared. When it slammed off the backboard into the net, he turned to the Minnesota Timberwolves bench, right arm outstretched, index finger up, head wagging slightly, tongue stuck out through an ecstatic smile. He skipped toward the throng of teammates waiting to greet him, bumping chests with a leaping Josh Okogie, who went down on impact. Naz Reid and Taurean Prince were in the second wave, and as they surged to embrace him, KAT fell backwards over a prone Okogie. It was easily the most fervent celebration of the young 2021-22 season. 

The Timberwolves had temporarily avoided their fifth straight loss. 

The joy would be short-lived. On the Wolves first possession of overtime, KAT he was called for a three-second violation. On the second, he air-balled a 25-foot jumper that he later said was partially blocked. On the third, his two unsuccessful feints failed to give him adequate clearance and shot clock expired with the rock still in his hands. 

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Meanwhile, at the other end of the court, forward Jaden McDaniels fouled out for the third straight game. The Wolves replaced his 6-foot, 10-inch frame with Okogie, who is five inches shorter. Twice in the final 1:04 of overtime, 6-foot, 7-inch forward Brandon Clarke of the Grizzlies grabbed an offensive rebound amid Okogie and other Wolves and completed the putback to bump a one-possession Memphis lead back up to two possessions. The soul-numbing final was Memphis 125, Minnesota 117. 

Meet the Mockables

On paper, this is the best Timberwolves roster at least since Jimmy Butler bullied both opponents and teammates into Minnesota’s lone playoff appearance in 18 years, at the end of the 2017-18 season. The 2021-22 Wolves contain a trio of extraordinarily gifted scorers, and have mustered the franchise’s most diligent defense since coach Rick Adelman retired at the close of the 2013-14 season. 

But after nine games, there is a growing realization that this Wolves outfit, perhaps more than any other, is corrosively affected by the franchise’s unparalleled legacy of losing. The Timberwolves brand has been so toxic for so long that it is holding hostage the collective and individual reputations of anyone associated with it. 

In a modern era where NBA “superteams” are assembled like pick-up games at the high-school gym and our social media functions in a manner frighteningly similar to cafeteria gossip, the Wolves are the uncool kids, the Mockables. 

This is the franchise whose lone unimpeachable superstar never tires of lambasting the current majority owner of the team with acid-tinged vitriol; whose only other alpha player able to lead a Wolves team to the playoffs promptly demanded a trade while shredding the characters of the two teammates he was brought in to mentor; whose most recent non-interim president of basketball operations highlighted the franchise’s history of woe as a means of proclaiming that his regime was “going to do something that hadn’t been done before” and “build a sustainable winner” — only to leave two seasons later in personal disgrace with a professional winning percentage of 30.8. 

The fallout from this cruel dysfunction weighs heaviest on KAT, who entered his rookie season being spoon-fed the secret sauce that supposedly comes from playing beside the omnipotent Kevin Garnett; was subsequently one of the two young phenoms badgered and belittled by Jimmy Butler; and became the proclaimed cornerstone in Gersson Rosas’ blueprint for sustainability. 

Now on a maximum-salary contract in year seven with the Wolves franchise, he has become the chief Mockable: a magnet for snark and disrespect. As someone both duty-bound and temptation-vulnerable when measuring how much personal responsibility he bears for his fraught position, I was relieved by the plainspoken dignity he harbored during his postgame presser after Monday’s gut-punch defeat.

The word he invoked most was “hurt,” mostly in the contest of “it hurts so bad.” But there was a striking absence of self-pity in his tone, no escalation of the prevailing drama, no absurd bravado functioning as a smokescreen to cover uncomfortable truths.  

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Instead, explaining how the Wolves continued their recent habit of blowing double-digit leads — including a 16-point advantage with seven minutes left to play in regulation on Monday — KAT said, “It is all of us, including myself. We just didn’t do enough to win, and when we were given a chance to take the rope and put the opponent away, we hit cruise control and that never works for us.”

Later, he added, “I’m not going to sit up here and tell you, ‘Oh I’ve got the answers,’ because I really don’t. You want me to be real? We’re being paid millions of dollars. We’ve got to figure it out. No off day tomorrow. We are going to have practice. We are going to get in the gym and dig ourselves out of this hole through work. I think the vibe and everything will be much better once we post one in the left [win] column.”

But the most revealing of his postgame remarks was in answer to a question from Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press, who asked if the team switches modes, from playing their game to protecting their lead, when things are going smoothly. “That’s a fair assessment,” responded KAT. “Sometimes, when I’ve looked at tape, I feel we are a team looking not to lose, you know, we’re not playing to win.”

When your own incremental droplets of incompetence are added to what was already a large and ugly stain that persistently shrouds your environment, “looking not to lose” feels like the more realistic, attainable priority. When the Wolves have the chance to, as KAT put, “take the rope and put the opponent away,” the opposite of cruise control happens. The team lurches, mentally and physically, like a driver who can’t operate a stick shift, all the while gunning the motor. The grease of teamwork is burned away in a belabored frenzy to forestall failure, made more visceral by how loudly the coming collapse will resonate, and refuel the narrative of the ever-mockable Wolves.

When KAT hit the Hail Mary 39-footer to end regulation on Monday night, the Wolves celebrated like they’d just won a playoff game. But the joy and revelry was genuine because they’d temporarily dodged dishonor and staved off embarrassment. That the celebration hindered the composure and preparation required for winning an overtime game on the road was a bridge too far in the current arc of their development. 

And if you think this is all so much armchair psychology, you haven’t watched the Wolves very often over the past decade or so. Dread is an impediment, perhaps more now than ever before. 

Overcoming the dread of the Wolves status quo

KAT is at the top of this chain-collision, but no one connected to the organization is immune. The team’s other max-salary player in year seven, D’Angelo Russell, was traded three times in his first five seasons and hasn’t even logged the equivalent of a full NBA season with the Wolves (he’s at 1797 minutes over 61 games). On balance he’s been a disappointing tease, with so much to prove and a pivotal season clinging precariously to relevance within its opening month. 

With the top of the pecking order shaky, faith swings to a more promising tier of Edwards, McDaniels, and head coach Chris Finch. But all have recently reminded us that they are neophytes in some sense, and can only be the repository of so much hope. 

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We shouldn’t be shocked that 20-year old Anthony Edwards is sabotaging himself and the team with wretched shot selection. Or that McDaniels, a 185-pound combo forward who had his first legal drink less than two months ago, is susceptible to fouls when being bullied by chiseled 242-pound dudes like Jaren Jackson Jr., his opening matchup on Monday night. 

In my opinion, Finch remains the Wolves best coach since Adelman, but Monday night was his 50th game running an NBA sideline, which helps explain his poor decision to unsuccessfully challenge a borderline call in crunchtime that also deprived the Wolves of their final time out in regulation. That time out would have been a handy safety valve when the team couldn’t inbound the ball because Finch had called a slow-germinating scheme to free up a specific player. The turnover cost them two points and made KAT’s last-second heave a tie instead of a win. 

With his charismatic grandiosity and keen sense of marketing, Rosas understood that promising to relegate the Mockables narrative to the dustbin rather than the billboard of history would have irresistible allure to the fanbase. And before him, Thibs could justify all his idiosyncratic paranoia and short-term maneuvers on the premise that someone has to slay the beast of Timberwolves ineptitude. 

In a similar vein, the 2021-22 season should represent another crossroads on how and when the Wolves should fish or cut bait as the organization is currently configured. Is there a positive identity to be found within the main components of this roster, this front office, this ownership structure? 

The easy answer, the obvious answer, is no. The more complicated answer is: What are the alternatives? As a longtime curmudgeon on the Wolves beat, I still surprise myself being tugged by Finch’s postgame optimism Monday night: “I still think we’re a good team and we have good basketball in us and I think we have good basketball in our future.”

Good enough to overcome the dread of Wolves status quo? Not without a stirring metamorphosis. And as of Monday night in Memphis, not yet.