For the first time since I was 13 years old the Minnesota Timberwolves are headed to the playoffs. That long gap spanning half my life sucked since I grew up in the Kevin Garnett era and watched the Timberwolves make the playoffs eight straight years from 1996-97 to 2003-04. I thought that as long as Garnett was on the team they would be contenders forever. But those dreams came crashing down as they missed the playoffs the season after making it to the Western Conference Finals. After that they traded the greatest player in franchise history for Al Jefferson and a bunch of nobodies. That’s when I figured out it was time for a rebuild, but I had no idea that rebuild would take well over a decade to complete.
The one thing that comes to mind during 14 years between playoff appearances, other than god awful basketball, was really crappy drafts. I always got excited for the drafts, especially when the Wolves had high picks, because it meant a new era could possibly start. They had some seemingly nice drafts from 2006-2008 drafting Brandon Roy, but trading him for Randy Foye in 2006, drafting Corey Brewer in 2007, and taking O.J. Mayo, but flipping him for Kevin Love in 2008. Put those guys together with young star Al Jefferson, and you would have thought the Wolves were on a decent track. Both Foye and Brewer had a few mediocre years before departing, but Kevin Love turned into a star and future building block. Then the most infamous draft in recent history happened. Minnesota had three first round picks in the 2009 draft. Seemingly ready to add some major talent to its team, David Kahn made what will go down as one of the biggest draft day blunders of all time. He chose Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio with the 5th pick, then turned around and took another point guard, Jonny Flynn with the 6th pick (and a third point guard, Ty Lawson with the 18th pick). It seemed like a huge draft at the time. Rubio and Kevin love could be the dynamic duo that the Wolves needed to get back to prominence, while Flynn and others could form a solid supporting cast. But there was one name in the draft that will forever be linked to the Wolves futility in the 2000s, that being Steph Curry. The NCAA tournament darling out of Davidson wasn’t supposed to be a great all around player. He might provide some shooting help, but couldn’t be a point guard and run a team is what scouts said before the draft. As we all know Curry went on to win two straight MVP awards and lead the Golden State Warriors to two NBA Championships in the past three years, while becoming one of the biggest superstars of this generation. The Wolves had two chances to nab the five time all-star, but instead got a huge bust in Flynn, and had to wait two years for Rubio to come from Spain and become a slightly above average NBA player. That draft alone set the franchise back several years. Minnesota had a string of first round busts in the years afterwards. They picked Wes Johnson fourth overall in 2010, Derrick Williams second in 2011, and traded Trey Burke for Shabazz Muhammad in 2013. Minnesota struck out in the draft more times than any other franchise, and I began to think we would never had another superstar again. Finally some hope emerged when The Wolves traded disgruntled star Kevin love to Cleveland for their two straight number one overall picks (Anthony Bennett from the 2013 draft, and Andrew Wiggins from the 2014 draft). This excited me as Wiggins was dubbed Maple Jordan and was one of the most highly anticipated phenoms in recent years (we all knew Bennett was terrible already).
Another major reason for the decade and a half long struggle was the absolute inability to find a decent coach. After the conference finals run in 2004, Flip Saunders returned with largely the same team. After going just 25-26 through the first 51 games, he was fired and replaced by executive turned coach Kevin McHale, who for his efforts went 19-12 down the stretch, albeit failing to make the playoffs. Dwane Casey stepped in the next season going 33-49. The Current Toronto Raptors head coach actually had the Wolves off to a decent start in the 2006-07 season, but was fired to give Randy Whittman a crack at the position. The Wolves finished an abysmal 12-30 under Whittman to close out the season 32-50. He was back again next year and somehow got worse as the Wolves went 22-60 in his only full season. He only got 19 games of the 2008-09 season before enough was enough. He went 4-15 and was replaced by McHale again, who guided the team to another terrible 24-58 record. Then there was hope for the 2009-10 season, and hopes name was Kurt Rambis. Rambis was a hot commodity in the coaching world having been an assistant for the Lakers for four championships, including the previous season. That hope fizzled quickly as he amassed an amazingly bad 32-132 record over two season and was fired. After that even more hope for the franchise came in it’s next coach, Rick Adelman. Adelman was one of the greatest coaches in NBA history when he took over the struggling Timberwolves. He made his name guiding the early 90’s Trail Blazer squads to perennial playoff appearances, and did the same with the Chris Webber led Sacramento Kings teams of the early 2000’s. Most Timberwolves fans, including myself figured he would be the one to get us back to the playoffs. While he may have had the best run for a Timberwolves coach since Flip Saunders, it wasn’t enough to get into the playoffs. Minnesota won 26, 31, and 40 games in Adelman’s tenure thanks to the rise of Kevin love, and he was fired after three seasons. The white night of the franchise, Flip Saunders returned for another go with the Wolves, taking up a position as head coach after already becoming the President of Basketball Operations the previous year. Minnesota bottomed out at 16-66 that year but thankfully got the first overall pick.
For the first time in franchise history the Timberwolves were awarded the number one overall pick in the 2015 draft. After some debate over who to pick it became obvious that Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns was the selection. They took Towns and planned to start him slow, but after putting up rookie numbers not seen since Tim Duncan, Wolves fans finally had some hope for the future. Tragically Flip Saunders passed away in October 2015, just before the season began. Sam Mitchell took over, guiding the young Wolves through some growing pains to a 29-53 record. Another turning point came that offseason when former Chicago Bulls head man Tom Thibodeau was hired as the head coach. Thibs led the Bulls to the playoffs in all five years he was there. Finally the Wolves had a blueprint for success. After they only managed 31 wins in the 2016-17 season though, enough was enough and it was time for the Timberwolves to make their biggest splash since trading away Kevin Garnett ten years prior.
The 2017 NBA draft was huge for the franchise not because of who they picked, but a blockbuster trade that changed the entire landscape of the league. The Wolves traded Kris Dunn, Zach Lavine, and the 7th overall pick (that would become Lauri Markkanen) for Butler, and the 16th overall pick (Justin Patton). Butler was a three time all-star, and one of the league’s top two way players. The excitement around the team was the highest since playing the Lakers in the 2004 Wester Conference Finals. With Butler, Wiggins, Towns and later additions of Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford, the playoffs were finally in sight.
Many thought the Wolves could compete in the West right away. They were chosen to be the fourth or fifth best team in the conference by many experts. They started to look the part right away, reaching as high as the three seed in the West. But Butler injured his knee, and the Wolves sputtered without him going 8-9 in his absence. Luckily he came back just in time to lead Minnesota into the playoffs with an overtime win against Denver in the regular season finale, in which Butler scored 30 points with five assists and five rebounds. The 8th seed isn’t glamorous, and isn’t quite where hopeful Wolves fans saw this team ending the regular season, but a playoff berth is a playoff berth in the eyes of fans waiting a generation for their team to get back in the postseason.
Now hopefully they don’t get embarrassed by the Rockets in round one. My prediction: Wolves steal a home game, but the Rockets blow them out for three of their four wins and take the series in five games.