Timberwolves are great on paper, but in Minnesota something always blows up
Wolves are an up-and-coming NBA squad, but this region knows heartache too well
MINNEAPOLIS -- This is a story about a basketball team -- a professional basketball team, and one with tons of promise and excitement surrounding it -- but I'm going to start with a story about a football team that just a couple years ago had a lot of promise and excitement too.
It was Jan. 10, 2016, and the Minnesota Vikings were playing the Seattle Seahawks in a wild-card matchup. I was in the press box that day, and I can confirm that it was indeed the third-coldest game in NFL history (minus-6 degrees Fahrenheit, and minus-25 degrees wind chill). Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings had the game in their hands when, with 22 seconds left, Blair Walsh lined up for a 27-yard field goal that would have put the Vikings up 12-10: The type of kick that sails through the uprights more than 95 percent of the time. You know how this story ends: Walsh missed, hooking it wide right and turning into another Minnesota sports goat.
What you may not know is what Minnesota sports fans were feeling as the Vikings lined up for that snap. It wasn't only an inkling of doubt that things may go off the rails. Instead, it was a feeling of certainty that things would go off the rails, that Walsh would miss that chip shot, because that is the story of Minnesota sports: There are always high hopes, and -- with the exception of the Twins' 1987 and '91 World Series wins -- those high hopes are always dashed in the most painful of ways. Gary Andersen misses the field goal, Adrian Peterson fumbles the football, Joe Mauer hurts his knee, the Timberwolves select Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn directly ahead of Steph Curry, Brett Favre throws the interception, the Wolves are stripped of five first-round picks for tampering with Joe Smith's (Joe Smith's!) contract. Bridgewater hasn't taken a snap since Walsh's missed kick; he tore up his knee the next training camp. This isn't Cleveland sports, where the bar is set pathetically low from the start. This is a history of being so emotionally scarred by the dashed hopes that define a city's sports history that, even when a kicker lines up for one of the most guaranteed plays in the sport of football, Minnesota sports fans felt a pit in their stomach. And that feeling in their stomach usually turns out to be correct.
All these psychic scars of sports life in the Northwoods add up to me preaching a bit of caution with this season's young, exciting, dynamic, well-coached and much-improved Minnesota Timberwolves. This roster is one of the NBA's most intriguing. Karl-Anthony Towns and recently acquired Jimmy Butler are borderline top-10 players in the NBA. Andrew Wiggins is close to becoming an elite NBA scorer -- he averaged 23.6 points last season -- and he is still only 22 years old. Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford are ideal additions to a team that attempted fewer 3s than any team in the NBA last season. The veteran leadership and toughness of Taj Gibson can only improve a defense rating that ranked 27th in the league last season.
I look at this team on paper, and I think about how much better the Wolves' youngsters will be when surrounded by veterans, and I think about coach Tom Thibodeau as one of the finest in his business, and -- well, I can't wait. This is a League Pass team. This team has the most exciting young core in the NBA. Last season, this team certainly was better than its 31-51 record. Remember, those young Wolves lost 22 games in which they had double-digit leads, and they had a net rating that ranked a relatively respectable 19th in the league -- and this year's Wolves are certainly older and definitely improved. This is the first time since 2013 when the Wolves begin a season with the same coach as the year before. Yes, the West is tough. But, on paper at least, shouldn't this team not only make the playoffs but finish among the top five in the West? Isn't this team primed to make one of the biggest year-to-year jumps in NBA history, from 31 wins to 48, or 50, or 52 (Vegas has set the Timberwolves' over-under at an optimistic 48.5)?
And yet...this is Minnesota.
Of course there are high hopes.
And of course those high hopes will be dashed.
There are basketball reasons, too, for why people like me ought to temper our expectations for these Timberwolves -- especially this season, as these new veteran pieces figure how to fit with the young core. Towns has not yet become the top-notch defender some expected when he was drafted No. 1 overall pick in 2015. It remains to be seen whether Butler and Wiggins will be able to jibe on the court; much of what Wiggins does well is replicated by Butler, just in a much better way. While Wiggins' offensive game has improved in each of his three seasons, the issues with the rest of his game -- his defense, rebounding, passing and overall effort -- are real, and they are concerning for a player soon expected to sign a max contract. Teague and Crawford certainly will help a team that struggled with floor spacing last season, but nobody knows how much.
And yet, as I sat at the Timberwolves media day Friday before the team embarks on an 18-day trip -- training camp in San Diego followed by exhibition games in China -- I couldn't help but ignore all that Minnesota psychic scarring and all those basketball questions and feel really, really, really pumped about this team.
The first words of an overflow press conference at media day? "There's a lot more of your guys this year than there was last year," big man Cole Aldrich said.
And why shouldn't there be? Every aspect this team lacked last season was addressed in the offseason. Butler adds energy and defense as one of the league's elite wing players. Teague adds shooting to the point guard position that Rubio lacked. Gibson adds defense. All these additions add leadership to a young locker room that lacked leadership after Kevin Garnett's departure.
Over and over at Friday's media day, Thibs used the word toughness. It was jarring to see a Thibs team last season that lacked toughness, lacked defensive fundamentals and lacked defensive effort. With several of Thibs' former players added to this roster, Thibs has already been drilling this team on defense non-stop.
"There were some things that we did well [last season], like our hand activity in tracing the ball was very good -- we were seventh in the league in deflections," Thibs said. "The way we finish on defense has to improve. The intensity of how we close out. Feet moving, back foot up, more square. Those are things that we have to get better at. The biggest thing is, when you go to college from the pros, there's a big difference in the way you close out on somebody. You have to have that understanding of the physicality of doing more than one thing. You can't rest on defense."
In the preseason, of course, everything always looks great. Players are always in better shape than they have ever been. But the optimism of September and October can quickly turn into hard realities in November and December. This time of year it can be difficult to discern the difference between preseason lip service and preseason realities. But to me, on top of a roster transformed with veterans, the Timberwolves young core feels like it will in fact make a huge jump. Towns spoke Friday about how he was thinking too much on defense last season as he was learning Thibodeau's system: "The system has you do this and that, this and that," said Towns, "and sometimes you forget you're a basketball player and you have to use what got you here, which is your instincts." This is a good sign.
Last winter saw perhaps the perfect metaphor for Minnesota sports. Towns was in the middle of a dynamic sophomore campaign when the Timberwolves mascot collided with a fan during a break in action during a random home game. The fan was Towns' father, the collision put him on crutches, and Towns' father reportedly considered legal options against the team.
In Minnesota sports, no matter how good the future looks, there's always the feeling that the next shoe is about to drop.
In the middle of the Timberwolves media day, the Vikings announced that quarterback Sam Bradford would not be playing Sunday, his second missed game in a row after being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 1. Media members saw the news and groaned. Bradford was heading to visit Dr. James Andrews for another opinion on his knee. It was bad news, but expected news if you're a Minnesota sports fan.
A few minutes later, Jimmy Butler walked out, enormous diamond studs in each ear, brimming with joy and confidence. He brought a workmanlike attitude to the press conference, the type of attitude that's exactly what this team needs. I asked him about what his charge will be in improving this team's moribund defense.
"If you want to guard, you're gonna guard," Butler replied. "People will say, 'You know what, I'll outscore my man,' look at it like that. But I think here what Thibs wants is, cool, outscore your man, but limit your man, limit your man to 'one long contested two,' as he would say."
It's preseason, I kept telling myself. Something will go wrong, I kept telling myself. This is Minnesota, I kept telling myself.
Then Butler spoke about how he looks at toughness, one of the biggest issues on last year's Timberwolves: "I may not be the most talented, I may not be this, I may not be that, but you'll never take my heart from me. You can't control how hard I play. I control that."
And there I sat, thinking about this fantastic young Timberwolves core learning under the tutelage of tough, tenacious veterans like Butler and Gibson. I was excited. I am excited. More than excited. I believe these Wolves will win more than 50 games, and that this group will grow together over the next several years and eventually challenge the Golden State Warriors at the top of the West.
You can remind me of Blair Walsh, and Joe Smith, and Brett Favre, and every other time when sports fans here have felt the exact same way.
I don't care.
Because it's always better to have high hopes.
Even if there's always something in the pit of your stomach telling you that you shouldn't.
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