That night, before a sellout Target Center crowd of 18,978, marked what felt like the beginning of a new era for a franchise that had suffered through more than a decade of near-unprecedented NBA futility. Before the game started, Jimmy Butler -- for whom the Wolves had traded two players who'd been recent lottery picks, plus the rights to one more lottery pick, the seventh pick in the 2017 draft -- took the microphone and gave a speech to the Minnesota crowd. His words have been lost to history (or at least I couldn't find them on YouTube), but I remember it as the rousing type of motivational speech that you'd expect from Butler. He was thrilled to be out of a losing situation with the Chicago Bulls, and the Timberwolves and their long-suffering fans were thrilled to have him: A perfect match. The Wolves' future seemed as bright as it had since the height of the Kevin Garnett Era. Wiggins had just signed a max deal. Towns was on his way to his first All-Star appearance. Speaking to the fans that night, Butler promised them hard work, dedication and a new brand of basketball in Minnesota.
On the first night -- really all through that first season -- Butler delivered. He only scored 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting that first night, but he had five steals, and that tenacious defense set the tone. They held the Jazz under 100 points, which the Wolves hadn't done to an opponent in any of the final 19 games of the previous season, when they ranked 27th in the NBA in defensive rating. And even though there were a surprising amount of defensive issues all season -- the Wolves only ended at 25th in the NBA in defensive rating -- the Butler-led Wolves still turned in a pretty damn good season, especially by their recent standards. Despite an anachronistic offense that relied on 3-point shooting less than any team in the NBA, the Wolves still managed the fourth-best offensive rating in the NBA, and broke the franchise's NBA-worst playoff drought at 14 years. And it could have -- it should have -- been even better, if not for a meniscus surgery that sidelined Butler for most of the season's final two months. Remember: The Wolves were in third place in a brutal Western Conference when Butler was injured.
The Jimmy Butler era, of course, was shorter than anyone could have imagined. On Wednesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans -- one of the many NBA teams who tried and failed to consummate a trade for Butler in the drama-filled past two months for the Timberwolves -- the Wolves started a new era. It's not the Robert Covington Era, although Covington was quite good in his first game for the Wolves: 13 points, seven rebounds, two steals and lots of excellent perimeter defense in his 41 minutes. And it's not the Dario Saric Era, although Saric was quite good in his Wolves debut as well: nine points, a couple steals and one big 3-pointer in his 20 minutes off the bench.
This era began a few years ago, when the transcendent and unique Towns was drafted No. 1 overall, but it was slowed by a full season of Butler's presence -- as the unquestioned alpha dog in the locker room, and as a ball-dominant star on a team that never seemed to maximize Towns' offensive potential. The Wolves were a better team with Butler, but Towns' development may have stalled, and so may have Wiggins'. It didn't help that head coach and Tom Thibodeau always seemed more wedded to Butler than he ever did his two younger stars.
So after 48 minutes of really impressive basketball with these newer-look, Butler-less Wolves, let's jump to some too-fast conclusions: After a 107-100 win over the Pelicans, the team officially felt like it belonged in the modern era. Covington's and Saric's versatility and switchability were on display; at times, the floor looked as well-spaced as it ever has for Towns.
"You get a feeling when you're coaching against players," Thibodeau said after the game. "I remember last year, playing against them, those guys -- I like their mental toughness. What they were a part of in Philadelphia, they went through some really dark days there. They just kept going and going and going. Even last year, I think they were 25-25, and then all of the sudden, they just clicked and they took off. And they were a big part of that. Being mentally tough when you face adversity, I love what Covington has done, to go undrafted and then become first team all-defense – that says a lot. Dario, I've followed him from his international play. He plays hard, and he plays smart."
Despite being plagued by foul trouble, Towns maximized the freed-up space with 25 points. He added 16 rebounds and two blocked shots, including a resounding one against a driving Anthony Davis with two minutes left. After that block, Towns shouting at his bench, "GIMMEE THAT (STUFF)!" The bench laughed as the team darted down in transition, and Wiggins threw down a thunderous dunk that lit the Target Center on fire. He basically planted one foot on the chest of Nikola Mirotic and took off (Mirotic, somehow, was called for the foul). At that point, the bench went wild. Wiggins' 23 points on 4-of-9 3-point shooting was impressive, but not as impressive as his non-stop aggression on both sides of the floor, not exactly a hallmark of his game. Wiggins notched three steals, including one that came with four minutes left, when the Timberwolves had fully squandered a 21-point lead. Wiggins had just hit a 3 when he thieved the ball off Wesley Johnson near midcourt, then got fouled in transition.
The only thing more notable than the Wolves' energy was the joy with which they were playing. That has been hard to come by all season, especially during their recent 0-5 road trip, but also before that. When the Timberwolves got obliterated by the Bucks at home three weeks ago -- Butler played in that game, by the way, and he was awful -- it was one of the most down-and-out environments I've ever experienced during a sporting event. But from pregame warmups to final buzzer on Wednesday night, it felt like the Wolves remembered to enjoy basketball again. Gorgui Dieng was teasing Jeff Teague during warmups about how he could guard him one-on-one, and then he did it, successfully. Towns was in Saric's ear all through warmups -- the new Wolves only had one morning shootaround under their belts with their new team -- and then, when Saric muscled his way up for a bucket in the restricted area, Towns joyfully congratulated the new guy during a timeout.
"It was fun, it was fun," Wiggins said. "It's fun when all the guys are playing together. Not really a fresh start -- we know we dug ourselves a little hole -- but when we're playing well, we're happy."
A fan sitting directly behind the Wolves' bench wore a t-shirt with a photo of Towns and Thibodeau, and with the words, "I believe in TOM THIBODEAU." The number of those who feel the same way have been dwindling in the Twin Cities in recent months. Ever since Butler's trade request became public in September, fans have turned their ire on Thibs. He's been booed before every home game this season. Attendance is way down -- the Timberwolves ranked dead last in the NBA in average home attendance heading into Wednesday's game, attracting nearly 3,000 fewer fans per contest than a year ago. Fans in Minnesota took the quick turn in fortune with a degree of fatalism. After all, this is a city of fans scarred by Gary Anderson missed field goals and Blair Walsh shanked field goals, Joe Mauer poorly thought-out contracts and Joe Smith flat-out illegal contracts. In sports, bad things tend to happen here, usually just when things seem to be going well.
And so a one-game sample size with the players acquired in the Butler trade likely won't shift minds any time soon.
In the hallways of the Target Center after the game, ESPN announcer Jeff Van Gundy scolded me for thinking that way.
"Don't jump to conclusions -- the biggest problem with the media is they want instantaneous analysis," Van Gundy said. "The good thing about NBA basketball, there's a lot of games, and you can watch. You don't have to guess. You can look and see. They looked good tonight. They played much harder defensively. And that's a great start against a really good team."
And yet Wednesday night was about more than just one win. It was about a new feeling around this Timberwolves team. Do they have more talent now that Butler is gone? No. You never get more talented when you trade away a top-15 player. But could they end up becoming a better team, or a more modern NBA team, or at the very least a team that's enjoying themselves a whole lot more?
"It's about having fun, playing with love and enthusiasm," Towns said after the game when I asked whether there was a different feeling on the floor tonight.
And that, at least, is a pretty good place to start.