By: Alex Berg
After 12 straight seasons of missing the playoffs, and a disappointing 6-17 start to the 2016-17 campaign, the last thing anyone in Minnesota wants to hear is to “be patient.” Unfortunately, that is what I’m going to tell you to do. So you might want to go read something else.
When the Timberwolves hired Tom Thibodeau this offseason, I thought it was a clear commitment from everyone involved that they were in it for the long run. The key part was long run. I thought 35-40 wins was realistic, but I wasn’t ready to anoint this team as a playoff team. As it grew closer to the season, admittedly, I gave into the hype. I saw the vegas projections, I saw them in the preseason and I played with them on 2K (I clearly have a great barometer how to judge basketball teams.) I was all in on them winning 42-45 games and ending the playoff drought.
I threw away all of my sane logic to buy into hype. When the Thibodeau hire was official, I expected early season regression from last spring -- when the team actually looked like a good basketball team at times -- simply because of the complete 180 in coaching styles from Sam Mitchell to Thibodeau. When I looked at the schedule and saw Philadelphia, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn, Denver, Sacramento, Phoenix, Orlando, New Orleans and a banged up Memphis team three times in the first 15 games of the season, I really thought it was likely the Wolves could capitalize and start -- say 11-4 -- and have a head start on the field by the time they grew into a better team. Obviously, that didn’t work out. Now what?
Well, for me, there isn’t much more to do than be patient and in the words of former great general manager of the 76ers Sam Hinkie, “trust the process.”
At this point, the Wolves organization went all in on Thibodeau and his system, It would be extremely rash for anyone to jump ship after 23 games. I think if everyone takes a step back, breathes and remembers the team still has three 21-year-olds averaging over 20.0 points per game; things will seem better than the 6-17 record reflects. The team still has the best young core in the NBA, and it is surrounded by the good contracts of Gorgui Dieng, Ricky Rubio and Cole Aldrich. Things could be a lot worse. Things have been a lot worse.
“Things could be a lot worse” is a pretty tough sell to a suffering fan base. I get that. But, it’s the truth. As tough as the 6-17 start has been to watch, I still wholeheartedly believe this team will be a very good basketball team sooner rather than later. In fact, my biggest fear about the Wolves not reaching their ceiling is simply lack of patience. From Thibodeau, to the players and to the fans.
I’m most worried about the patience level of the man calling the shots. Thibodeau clearly isn’t known for his patience. The thought of Thibodeau panicking and selling Zach LaVine for an average, veteran player is very real and terrifying to me. I think Thibodeau was clearly sold on the ceiling of this core when he took the job and came to Minnesota, but he might not wait as long as most for it to develop.
One thing I would like to see Thibodeau do differently is simply just improve his body language and let his players breathe a little more. When watching the games, it is apparent to me that the players are afraid to make mistakes. It also seems apparent to opposing teams. It seems as if the Wolves’ opponents are waiting for them to make a mistake and for them to crumble mentally. It happens almost every game. I know Thibs isn’t one for change and his methods have worked in the past, but this is one area I would like to see him compromise in due to the build of the current roster.
Second, I am worried about the players losing patience with the direction of the team. The expectations were so high from both the outside and the inside. Players were talking about the postseason all of last offseason and it is already looking like that realization will have to wait at least one more year.
For as long as anyone can remember, Minnesota has never been a preferred destination for basketball players. This team -- mostly assembled by Flip Saunders -- looks like it was ready to break that mold. Especially late in last season, it looked like the team genuinely enjoyed playing together and wanted to spend their professional career in Minnesota. I’m afraid another sub-.500 season could tarnish that and -- at the very least -- make other pastures seem greener.
We already heard reports during the summer of Ricky Rubio wanting to be traded if the team did not make the playoffs. While this hurts to type as the biggest Rubio supporter on this side of the world, losing him would not be the worst thing in the world. But that attitude could quickly trickle down to Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns.
I am much more confident in the Wolves young players staying bought into the process of growing into a team than Thibodeau, but it is not entirely unlikely in this era of the NBA for a young player to want to try to win somewhere else.
Lastly, I am worried about the fans losing patience. The Wolves home attendance already seems more embarrassing than last season’s. Starting 6-17 certainly is not helping.
Realistically the fans being impatient does not directly have a huge impact on the direction of the team (aside from financial stuff,) but it can certainly speed up the impatience in people who do make decisions for the team.
I cannot and will not tell fans they need to spend their money to watch this team play this year. Even with its new scoreboard the Target Center is far from a desirable venue to watch a game and the hassle of FlashSeats can outweigh the joy of going to the game. All I can ask of the fans is simply breathe, and maybe not suggest to trade half the roster after each bad game.
Where to go from here
This seems to be the big question everybody has. And for me, there is no answer needed; other than to simply let this season unfold and hope for improvement. All of the pieces are in place. Whether they are the right pieces or not, may remain to be seen, but it seems ridiculous to me to judge a product with a completely new regime after just 23 games.
Ideas I have seen from fans have ranged from firing Thibodeau, to trading Andrew Wiggins for draft picks (because that will speed things up!) to tanking again for yet another top draft pick. The only idea I would endorse is evaluating the commitment level to Rubio -- and his level of commitment to the team -- and making a decision what is role projects to be sooner rather than later. Other than, I would not rush to make any shake-up with the roster any time soon.
Realistically, I expect the winning percentage to dip even lower in the coming month. Takes will get hotter and computer screens may melt. But, if everyone remains patient, I believe the team will start looking like a good basketball team by the last 20-25 games and it will be a sign of what to actually expect next season.
Again, as someone who has watched this team play and lose for 12 seasons, I get it is a tough sell to wait a little longer, but this roster has the making to be a very good team eventually. If a core of Wiggins, LaVine and Towns is not going to work, it just might not ever work in Minnesota.