Minnesota hasn’t been to the NBA playoffs since George W. Bush was running for re-election in 2004. The late Flip Saunders was their coach and they went to the Western Conference Finals only to lose to the last hurrah version of Shaq and Kobe. It left a bitter taste for a team that nearly won 60 games. When their season ended on the last day of May in 2004, a 96-90 loss in Los Angeles because Shaq and Kobe had 45 points, no one expected that would be their last playoff appearance. They had Kevin Garnett.
Garnett was traded three years later to Boston and the Timberwoves have been gasping for playoff relevance ever since. This looked like their year. It was a lock, more of a reality than the 76ers. Towns had experience and was an All-Star, Wiggins was in his fourth year, and Jimmy Butler was going to show leadership and clutch shot making. But here we are.
Minnesota has 7 games left. They are one and a half games in front of the Clippers as an 8th seed. The Clippers have 8 games left. With their disaster against Memphis, it’s hard to pencil the Wolves in as a winner for any game.
They play Atlanta tonight which should be a win but the Hawks shocked Utah in Utah, a team that hasn’t clinched a playoff berth yet. Then it is Dallas in Dallas, the Jazz at home, in Denver, and a tough back to back in Los Angeles who aren’t tanking because they don’t have a lottery pick this year. The Wolves will have their revenge on the Grizzlies and end up on the last day of the season with the Nuggets who may be eliminated by then or may be figthing the Wolves for that last spot. If they make the playoffs, the Wolves look to get rolled by the Rockets.
How did the Wolves end up like this, so desperate and pretty much choking when they were comfortable in the 4 seed?
Their defensive ranking is 27th. They play slow. They take the fewest threes in the league. They rebound like a team tanking. They don’t move the ball or have a rim protector. They are next to last in field goal percentage defense. And they don’t have Jimmy Butler to cover up their flaws. Their kids haven’t developed the way many expected. Jimmy Butler hid the weakneses that have continued to haunt. Oh, and their bench is unwatchable.
The Wolves are a mediocre 8-7 since February 15th when they beat the Lakers by 8 points. The Lakers are 9-7 in that same time frame which means the Wolves are playing worse than a team who has only won 32 games.
Since mid-February, the Wolves lost four in a row to playoff teams: Rockets, Blazers, Utah, Celtics. They beat the Warriors and Wizards which made it seem like they were making progress. Then they lost to the oh so average Spurs, the Rockets again, Philly and that horror show against Memphis where they allowed an atrocious Grizzlies team without one of their best scorers (Tyreke Evans) who was sitting it out so Memphis could tank- this is a team that lost by 60 the week before- to shoot 48% from three. The tanking Grizz had 25 assists and 8 steals. Their bench outscored the Wolves 46-17.
The thing about the NBA is that leadership and toughness can’t be directed from the bench. It has to come from players on the floor. Without Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and KAT are imposters. They are not leading their team in toughness and want to. They say they want to be in the playoffs but their play says otherwise. Against Memphis, Towns shot 38% and Wiggins missed 4 of 5 threes.
With the meaning of games mattering more than ever, the pressure is going to get worse and not better. The Wolves mistakes have to disappear or they will get humiliated again. The Wolves are the cautionary tale. It’s why veterans who want to win titles shudder at young players. They don’t know what it takes to win, not yet. They are failing the mental game.
The Wolves schedule is tough, not because they are playing title contenders but because they are on the road in places you have to bring your A game to win. Teams are going to relish ruining their season. But that is far more credit than other teams deserve. The Wolves are ruining themseles, minute by minute. Just imagine the catastrophe and carnage if the Clippers without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin make the playoffs and the Wolves with KAT and Wiggins don’t. That is going to be a tough summer with a lot of questions about the two kids. I mean Embiid and Simmons are carrying the 76ers to the playoffs and they have less NBA experience. Andrew Wiggins has played twice as many games as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons combined. But he can’t lead his team?
The schedule is friend and enemy. A friend if you play the right way, an enemy if you remain immersed in bad habits. This is what awaits them: Dennis Schroder dropped 40 on the Jazz. Any game in Denver is brutal and a back to back in L.A. is no joke. Dallas doesn’t quit. Utah is well balanced and they defend like a mother. The Grizzlies already embarrassed the Wolves once. A second time doesn’t scare them. In fact, the Wolves scare no one.
Every team on the Wolves calendar is going to compete hard, but are the Timberwolves going to match the effort. The Wolves have a gut check and in 15 days we will know what they are made of. Paper or rock.