On the eve of basketball season in the Great White North, the Minnesota Timberwolves are in a familiar place, which is within only the deepest recesses of most non-Minnesotan NBA fans’ minds.
The Timberwolves — two years ago a blossom on the verge of bloom, last fall a smoldering husk — aren’t even a conversation piece this autumn. There will be no Rachel Nichols sitdown interviews. There will be no magazine covers. There will likely be little note at all, barring an injury or scandal. The Minnesota Timberwolves are back where you can usually find them, which is nowhere.
This is normal for the franchise, which has one playoff berth since 2004 and which has won exactly two playoff series (both in the same postseason) since being founded in 1989. But it’s also a far cry from the recent and glorious past, when for a brief moment in time the Timberwolves were something close to the center of the basketball universe.
In 2018, one very long year ago, Butler detonated. He took the reputations of his young co-star Karl-Anthony Towns and his would-be protegé Andrew Wiggins out with him. He took dear Thibodeau’s career out with him. He took the Wolves’ newfound status as a serious franchise out with him. He turned the darlings of the NBA into the most entertaining training camp disaster scene in the league.
The Wolves traded Butler on Nov. 12. The Wolves fired Thibodeau in January, admitting the failures of their grand architect. The Wolves finished 35-47, slipping into familiar mediocrity like the warm bathrobe of failure it was.
The sportsbooks have the over-under line for Minnesota wins this season at 35.5, which is a little too perfect. Not atrociously bad. Not even close to good. Just ... blah: the Wolves’ natural state.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You could argue that it is this way only because Glen Taylor remains one of the least effective franchisees in the NBA.
Taylor bought the Wolves in the mid-90s, so he can’t be held responsible for the inglorious early years of the franchise. His arrival just predated that of Kevin Garnett, a foundational superstar who along with sage coach Flip Saunders led Minnesota to eight straight postseasons from 1997 to 2004. The end of that successful era came with the decision of longtime general manager Kevin McHale or Taylor or both to fire Saunders after a slow start in 2004-05, right off the heels of the Wolves’ lone long playoff run. McHale took the bench and righted the ship enough to just miss the playoffs.
McHale and Taylor hired Dwane Casey, gave him a season and a half of leash, and replaced him with Randy Wittman. The team dove right into the dregs under Wittman. McHale took the bench again, floundered, and himself got fired by Taylor.
Taylor then made perhaps his biggest mistake of all: he hired David Kahn.
Kahn famously took Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back (leaving Stephen Curry for the Warriors) and followed that galaxy brain effort a year later by taking Wesley Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins. He and Taylor entrusted this team (which already had McHale holdover and budding star Kevin Love) to Kurt Rambis for two years, to predictable results (by which I mean a 32-132 record, and no, that’s not a typo). Kahn alienated Love, almost constantly made everyone paying attention cringe, and paid out some of Glen Taylor’s cash to acquire a second round pick to use on a 26-year-old, who happened to be ineligible for the draft on account of being 26 years old.
What a profound example of poor judgment for Taylor to have hired Kahn and then give him four years in charge when he proved from the very beginning he was not qualified to run even a moribund, mediocre NBA franchise.
Taylor’s Wolves, under the inept guidance of Kahn, demurred on paying Love what he deserved. Love was the first and second and maybe third reason Minnesota flirted with success in 2013-14 (Rick Adelman, Ricky Rubio, and Kevin Martin deserve credit too), going 40-42. Love was approaching free agency, though, and a reinstated Saunders had to trade him. Minnesota started back at deep mediocrity in the fall of 2014, landing Towns in the 2015 draft and building toward that brief flash of legitimacy with Butler.
And now we’re back down there with them again.
Taylor is the common thread. Taylor’s lack of judgment let Saunders slip away in the mid-2000s after Saunders helped hoist the Wolves to their apex. Taylor’s lack of judgment let McHale continue cycling through coaches until Garnett’s wick of patience had burned short. Taylor’s lack of judgment is responsible for Kahn and all he wrought, including the sour parting with Love. Taylor’s lack of judgment led to the volatile potion Butler’s impertinence and Thibodeau’s carelessness brewed. Taylor’s lack of judgment led the Wolves back to where they always end up: out of the picture.
It’s a shame and it should be Glen Taylor’s shame. There’s new blood in the front office (general manager Gersson Rosas, a Daryl Morey comrade), and a Saunders (Flip’s son Ryan) on the bench. Fortunately, Towns is signed for a very long time. Unfortunately, so is Wiggins.
But so long as a familiar name runs the organization, a familiar dread is inescapable here. Let us hope for the sake of good Minnesotans and the poor souls who would be Timberwolves fans that the cycle of doom and ennui can be broken not just for moments, but for good.