Building a serious contender around one superstar power forward named Kevin wasn’t working for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It didn’t work with Kevin Garnett ultimately, despite a string of eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1997-2004. And it surely didn’t work with Kevin Love, whose six-season stay in the Twin Cities merely extended the Wolves’ postseason drought from four years to a full decade.
So now Minnesota is trying another way. It’s going to raise a litter of Timberpups and hope there is success in numbers.
By acquiring Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett on Saturday in the long-awaited, two franchise-shifting trade of Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and adding him to their own 2014 lottery pick Zach LaVine, a still-young Ricky Rubio (24 in October) and last year’s first-rounders Gorgui Dieng and, er, Shabazz Muhammad (for the moment, tick tock), the Wolves have youth and hope and dreams. But mostly youth.
They have it in numbers, too, as if seeding their organization for a bountiful harvest in a few years. Oh, Flip Saunders, the team’s president of basketball operations and its coach, will talk about excitement and development in the meantime – he is, after all, a masterful amateur magician talented in the sleight of hand.
But the real payoff, if it comes at all, will come between the games as his group of raw, talented players coalesce around each other.
Synchronizing things has always been a problem for Minnesota.
It snagged Garnett in a dice-roll Draft decision 19 years ago and had a dozen years to assemble a championship-caliber team around him, but never managed to fully do so. The initial vision of Garnett and Stephon Marbury as a new-millennial Karl Malone-John Stockton (or at least Shawn Kemp-Gary Payton), with first Tom Gugliotta (and then Joe Smith) as third stars, never achieved full focus. Gugliotta left, Smith was no more than a role player and Marbury torpedoed his own career in one of sports’ many examples of $100 million airport, $10 control tower.
Kevin McHale, the Wolves’ basketball boss, kept patching around Garnett and got them as far as the 2004 Western Conference finals by hiring mercenaries Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. That approach had no better legs than Sprewell and Cassell themselves, though, and after the usual death spiral – coaching changes, contract squabbles, missing the playoffs in Garnett’s last three Minnesota seasons – the big guy participated in the trade to Boston that got him his ring. And left the Wolves as, well, the Wolves.
The Love years were even worse. McHale got the UCLA forward in a Draft night switcheroo with Memphis for O.J. Mayo and seemed to be the perfect mentor for Love.
But McHale’s own tenure in Minnesota was out of sync with his new young big, and when Wolves owner Glen Taylor dumped McHale in favor of David Kahn, bad downshifted to worse. Erratic Draft picks and personnel moves followed, along with an uneasy atmosphere – or creepy culture, if you go by some Wolves insiders – during Kahn’s four lost seasons in charge.
It’s quicker to note what went right in that time than what went wrong – the Wolves didn’t pass on Rubio, Love developed himself into an All-Star and Rick Adelman stabilized the coaching position for a time – but it wasn’t enough. By the time Saunders was brought back 15 months ago to do some serious sweet-talking, Love already had one foot and half of his other out the door.
So now they’ll try it this way: Round up as many young players as possible, fold in a key veteran or three (new acquisition Thad Young, plus current Wolves Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin until they can shed the contract), and bake.
“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to build not an individual, we’re trying to build a team,” Saunders said Saturday. “That’s the thing that we’ve sold to the players or anyone that we bring in here.”
For an outpost franchise like Minnesota, a big part of the plan is that the players – in growing up together – see ways in which their whole can end up greater than the sum of their parts. The risk is that someone feels slighted by being a spot or two down in his own ideal pecking order – if Bennett or LaVine feels stunted because of Wiggins, or if Rubio locks in on max-contract dreams when he hasn’t earned one yet – and blows up the blueprint.
That’s akin to what happened in Oklahoma City, which took a similar approach until James Harden chafed at being neither Batman nor Robin. He wound up with his own team in Houston, but at least the Thunder reached The Finals once and have managed to stabilize the roster since his departure.
Then again, maybe OKC proves that it all eventually comes full circle. And building around a superstar forward named Kevin really is the way to go.