It’s already been over 2 years since the 2011-2012 season, when the Minnesota Timberwolves looked like one of the most exciting and promising teams in the league – an “NBA League Pass” team you would be drawn to watch highlights for night in and night out. Kevin Love had developed from “slightly awkward white guy” everyone was predicting to be the bust of the 2008 draft into a top 10 player, a rebounding behemoth who could get to the line and shoot 3s, Ricky Rubio had brought his passing wizardry overseas from Spain for a tantalizing rookie season and other young players with promise such as Derrick Williams and Nikola Pekovic were poised to take steps up within the next few years.
Fast forward to 2014 and the T-Wolves are an absolute mess. In a year where many expected them to contend for a playoff spot in the brutally stacked Western Conference, they currently sit in 10th place, 5 games back of the 8th and final playoff seed. On top of likely not making the post-season for the 10th straight year, the Timberwolves are also likely to lose their best player, Love, at the end of this season when his contract expires. The big question is, how did everything just fall apart so quickly in Minnesota? In a year with so many teams shamelessly tanking for an early pick in a stacked draft, the T-Wolves serve as a stark reminder that hitting on a lottery pick and landing a superstar does not automatically guarantee you a contender.
Let’s start with the obvious. Reason #1 the Timberwolves find themselves in this spot is GM David Kahn’s indefensible decision to hand Kevin Love a 3-year contract with an opt-out clause rather than the typical max 5-year extensions given to superstars coming off their rookie contracts, despite Love fully stating his willingness to sign a max deal and stay in Minnesota for the long term. While some moves can be looked at a lot differently in hindsight, this one was panned as a terrible move as soon as it was made, and time has just shown us a clearer picture of just how bad it was.
First, the reasoning behind giving Love the shorter deal was absurd to begin with. The Minnesota brass opted not to give Love the max 5-year deal because they wanted to save that designation for Ricky Rubio, who only had one season and change of NBA experience under his belt at the time of the signing. While Rubio had shown flashes of possible stardom, Love had well established himself as a perennial all-star caliber player, and there was no reason to save the max extension for a player who was still a question mark over the player who was already a sure thing. While the decision was highly questionable 2 years ago when it was made, Rubio’s failure to develop much in the 2 years since only makes the evaluation of the decision even harsher in hindsight.
Rubio entered the league in 2011 to much fanfare and great expectations. The #5 overall pick in the 2009 draft, Rubio possessed the court vision and passing skills of a Spanish Jason Kidd crossed with the marketability potential of a Spanish Justin Bieber. He was the type of player who could not only perform on the court, but sell tickets and create tons of buzz off of it. The biggest knock on Rubio when he first came over from Spain was that he was incredibly raw as a shooter, and people expected there to be some growing pains before Rubio figured out how to complement his immense talent as a facilitator with acceptable NBA level shooting. We knew he was going to start out as a weak shooter, but we did not expect that in the 3rd year of the Ricky Rubio experience, we could be looking at the absolute worst shooter of the modern era.
There are a few reasons as to why Rubio is such a bad shooter, and it starts with his painfully slow release. Rubio takes almost two seconds to get his shot off, which is more than twice as much as almost all good shooters take, which makes him incredibly easy to guard on midrange jumpers and 3-point shots from the wing. This is the reason why he is a well-below average shooter from every single common jump shot spot on the court with the exception of the two spots beyond the 3-point line at the break, where his passing ability gets him a higher volume of open looks. While it is very possible to be an elite point guard without a stellar jump shot (see Rajon Rondo), the problem with Rubio is unlike Rondo, he doesn’t possess the ability to consistently finish at the rim either. Not only does he lack the size to absorb contact and get to the line, he also hasn’t developed a reliable floater to nail those buckets over defenders from a couple feet out. All of this compounds with his weak jump shooting ability to give Rubio a historically bad career 36.0 shooting percentage, a number that hasn’t improved at all since his rookie season.
On top of Rubio’s inability to make strides and take the next step forward, Minnesota’s old GM was known for his puzzling moves, poor player evaluation skills and failure to create a direction for a franchise that has been starved of any postseason action. In David Kahn’s 4 year reign as GM of the Timberwolves before being ousted last year, he had done nothing to show his franchise player that this team was anywhere near contention, and the team will have lots of work to do cleaning up the mess of its old management.
While poor management and one very ill-advised decision play a big part in the hole the team is mired in, luck has also been a pretty big factor in the T-Wolves season, and we have to realize that there is always that luck factor when trying to build a contender. Year two of his contract was a lost season as Kevin Love missed all but 18 games with a broken hand and the Timberwolves were not close to competitive without their superstar. This season, perhaps one of the most crucial in franchise history, the T-Wolves have played much better than their record indicates. While their real record sits at a mediocre 30-29, Minnesota’s 4.1 point differential has been that of a very solid team, with their expected record being 9 wins above their real record at a perfectly acceptable 39-20. This would put them in firm control of 6th place in the playoff race and within just one game of 3rd due to the glut of teams in the middle of the pack in the West. Minnesota started the season with dismal luck in close games, and this put them in a hole that has become increasingly difficult to climb out of. If they had just gotten a bit better luck in such a crucial season, the outlook for the team could be drastically different.
What the struggles of the Timberwolves show is that becoming a contender isn’t as easy as simply landing a star in the draft lottery. It’s a lot more important to create a winning environment and show that star that it is worth staying on board for the long haul. With all the hype this year surrounding “Riggin’ for Wiggins” and “Sorry for Jabari” and fans actively pushing their teams to tank in this stacked draft, we must remember that simply getting that star does not guarantee a parade down the road. The Cleveland Cavaliers are another example of a small market team that landed a superstar (Kyrie Irving), but have not shown him they can build a team that can consistently win games and run the risk of losing him in the near future. It goes to show that in a small market, having a solid front office with a good vision is just as important as landing a star on the court, and that plays a big role in keeping that star happy and convincing him to stay. The Minnesota Timberwolves stand as a harrowing reminder that promise is just promise and nothing more, and it can easily fall apart as quickly as it came together. Having a little luck doesn’t hurt either.