Twenty-six years after the Minnesota Timberwolves played their first NBA game (they lost to the Seattle Supersonics in 1989), they find themselves in an unenviable and unexpected position, littered with contradictions and paradoxes. Organizationally, they are a franchise in mourning. The death of Flip Saunders was a cruel blow. How exactly do they sort through the somber reality, it’s only been a few days. How do they treat their wounds and turn the page when they don’t have the luxury of time. The new season demands full attention, no rest for the weary, engagement, persistence, focus and attention to detail. But grief demands the very same thing: full attention, no sleep for the weary, engagement and attention to detail.
It wasn’t that long ago when the Timberwolves franchise was invigorated, particularly Saunders who organized the Andrew Wiggins/Kevin Love trade last season, then mulled over who to select as the number one pick, Jahlil Okafor or Karl Anthony Towns, this season. That Saunders selected Karl Anthony Towns meant the Timberwolves were clearly changing their basketball fate from one of misery to one of potential. Towns is a natural fit in this hybrid era of skill, athleticism and shooting. He’s a versatile power forward/ center, athletic enough to block shots and protect the rim, skilled enough to step back and shoot a ten footer, dominant enough to finish at the rim and he has excellent court vision and is a willing passer. But Towns hasn’t played one NBA game so his potential is unknown.
The sheer luck of the ping pong balls bouncing their way and the selection of Towns was reminiscent of the selection of Kevin Garnett in 1995. With Garnett, Saunders and the Timberwolves knew something special was on the horizon, all that was needed was patience. Sadly, everything that Towns will become Saunders will experience only in absentia, in memory. It’s hard to emphasize how vast an impact Saunders had on the organization, how much he was both beloved and needed.
Someone once said, People change, things go wrong and life goes on. It is the only true thing about the Timberwolves this opening night which is televised nationally. Things go wrong. Life goes on. Who would have imagined the Timberwolves on national television but here they are, no longer sitting at the kids table. They have the reigning Rookie of the Year in Andrew Wiggins. They have an athletic super freak in Zach LaVine who has to learn how to shoot the ball efficiently. They have good pieces such as Nikola Pekovic and Shabazz Muhammed. I’m not sure where Rubio fits in here. With Towns passing skills the Wolves can get by with a competent guard making far less money. Rubio is a one-dimensional player, excellent passer, horrible shooter, worthless defender.
The Wolves brought in veteran Tayshaun Prince who may be their starting power forward as Wiggins moves to shooting guard. At the time of the Prince signing no one anticipated they would have to lean on the 35 year old to help in this transition period, from grief to acceptance to whatever it is the Wolves can hope to accomplish this year with such a heavy burden.
Of course, it begins and ends with Kevin Garnett. He is the eternal flame that keeps it all together because Garnett has been through this before, this is the second time for him with a broken heart, a Wolves family member stricken before his time. In Garnett’s fifth season, friend and teammate Malik Sealy was killed in a head on collision after leaving Garnett’s 24th birthday party. Sealy was struck by a wrong way driver who would end up going to prison for the death. Garnett was devastated. And so here he is, 15 years later. It is not as suddenly shocking, Saunders had cancer and with cancer, death is always a lingering alternative. But Saunders was a life force in the Timberwolves organization. Like oxygen, he was a person everyone depended on.
Now that page is turned to Garnett. Garnett is the type of person others both admire and emulate, blessed as he is with a gifted ability to bring others together.
And so this young team in Los Angeles tonight, the team with the Flip Saunders patch on their jersey, the team with the #1 draft pick, the team with the point guard from Spain and the shooting guard from Canada and the center from Yugoslavia and the small forwad from Compton, this team will start over with this very bright future and this very sad past and someone special watching over them.
photo via llananba