By: Alex Berg
After seven seasons of failing to reach 27 wins, the Minnesota Timberwolves -- led by young stars 19-year-old rookie Stephon Marbury and 20-year old second-year Kevin Garnett -- went 40-42 to earn its first playoff playoff berth in franchise history in the 1996-97 season.
The young Wolves followed up their breakout season with a modest five-win improvement and a second consecutive first-round exit in the postseason, but things were finally looking up for the first time in the franchise’s brief existence. Garnett averaged 18.5 points and 9.7 rebounds, while Marbury added 17.7 points and 8.6 assists per game. The team maintained its playoff pace in the second half of the season, despite the absence of leading scorer Tom Gugliotta - who missed 41 games and the playoff series with an ankle injury.
The following summer, the 29-year-old Gugliotta turned down an opportunity to make more money in Minnesota for a deal with the Phoenix Suns, where he would not have to take a backseat to a couple of up-and-coming kids.
No, losing Gugliotta was not the straw that broke the camel’s (or wolf’s) back. But the ensuing events might have.
Not only were the Wolves losing their leading scorer, but the frontcourt depth behind Garnett was thin with Sam Mitchell (he may come up later) and Tom Hammonds. The Wolves brought in point guard Bobby Jackson, along with big men Dean Garrett and Joe Smith to add depth and help fill the 21-point per night void Gugliotta’s departure opened.
The most notable of those three acquisitions of course was Smith. The player the Wolves infamously signed for well below market-value, but had an “under-the-table” agreement to pay him more so the team could sign other players to stay below the league’s salary cap. Obviously, once the Wolves were caught they were rightly punished with a massive $3.5 million fine and forfeited four first-round draft picks.
These punishments came shortly after Taylor, General Manager Kevin McHale and the Timberwolves broke up their young, exciting duo. Let's rewind.
Marbury, who most assume, wanted to be the “guy” and not have to share the spotlight with Garnett, reportedly turned down the max contract of 6-years, $71 million from the Timberwolves in the 1998-99 season. After losing Gugliotta without compensation the previous offseason, Taylor admitted the team was “kind of forced” to move Marbury. In return for their star point guard, the Wolves landed a package that was centered around point guard Terrell Brandon and draft picks.
Brandon’s career with the Wolves was very solid, but was cut short by knee injuries. He retired in 2002.
In just a handful of years Taylor saw his promising core dissolve into what essentially became Garnett and a revolving door of sidekicks. The revolving door was good enough for consecutive first round playoff appearances with one exception, the 2003-04 season that made the Western Conference Finals.
The lack of continuity continued to be an issue throughout Garnett’s first stint in Minnesota and it did not get any better after that. Former Wolves star forward Kevin Love even commented on it in his infamous tell-all interview with Adrian Wojnarowski. Here is what he said:
“You walk into the locker room every year, and it’s completely turned over,” he said. “There’s new guys everywhere. And then it happens again and again. You start to wonder: Is there really a plan here? Is there really any kind of a … plan?
“Look at different teams around the league. Look at a San Antonio that continues to add talent around [Tim] Duncan and [Manu] Ginobili and [Tony] Parker. Look at what happens in Oklahoma City, the players they continue to add around their star players. Even the trade they had where they lost [James] Harden, they still added players that were going to fit well in their system. And speaking of small markets, look at a team like Memphis and all they’ve been able to accomplish. They’re getting the most out of their entire organization.”
He wasn’t wrong. The team never really seemed to have a plan. That was until Flip Saunders returned.
We all know what happened next, how Flip managed to acquire consecutive top-overall picks to pair with existing young talent, and how he tragically passed away before he could carry out his plan. But that was the beauty of it, by all accounts, Flip had a plan. For the first time in well over a decade it seemed as if the Minnesota Timberwolves had a clear vision of what it wanted to become.
Taylor now finds himself in a similar situation, yet very unique, that he did back in the late 1990’s. He has two of the best young players in the NBA. This time the talent surrounding his duo is younger and arguably more talented. 18 years ago he had McHale and Saunders as his GM and head coach. Both were guys he trusted to make and execute the basketball decisions. Now, in 2016, all Taylor has is Milt Newton and Mitchell, both who are still essentially on an “interim” status with the team. In fact, Taylor recently said in an interview on WCCO, that Newton would handle offseason responsibilities such as the draft and free agency and would be further evaluated at the end of the summer.
THAT IS NOT HOW FUNCTIONAL NBA TEAMS DO THINGS!
It’s been weeks since he said this and it still baffles me how anyone thinks this is remotely logical. This franchise desperately needs to develop a sense of continuity and the best place to start is at the top. Either fully commit to Newton to handle basketball decisions or find someone to fully commit to. This team is not a state where it can afford a “wait-and-see” approach in its braintrust.
What if Newton acquires a player or hires a coach and is replaced just a month later? What if the newly acquired asset is not a part of the new guy’s plan? More importantly, what if one or more of your young players look up and want to get as far away from the dysfunction as he possibly can? These are not risks the Timberwolves can afford to take.
Everyone wants to talk about who the next coach will/should be, but I think the first step should clearly be to take a step back and find out who is in charge. Whether it be Newton or a new GM. Let that man make the decision. Or, hiring an established head coach who will want full control of both operations and coaching is an option. Nonetheless, Taylor must decide who he feels is the right person to take control of the organization and he needs to trust that person.
It is fairly easy to see how Taylor could be afraid to trust bringing in a “new face” after the debacle otherwise known as David Kahn. But at least he tried. I would rather have him try and fall flat on his face again than this half-assed approach of waiting to see if something will work out. You can only wait so long.
The Timberwolves are in an ultra-rare state (for this franchise anyway) of having young talent, money to spend and may actually be a destination for some free agents to want to come to. Did I mention the Western Conference is finally letting up and the entire Wolves “core” of players are under affordable contracts for at least another season?
The biggest test moving forward for Taylor and the Timberwolves is going to be developing a winning culture that will make this young core want to stick together in Minnesota. Although the teams in the 1990s were “winning” (I’ll use that term loosely when referring to a 45-win team,) it still was not enough to make Gugliotta or Marbury wait and see things out. With so much young talent and only so much money to spend (although that will be increasing,) it can be easier said than done to keep a young core together. Just ask Oklahoma City. I believe the first step in this process has to be having a clear vision and developing continuity.
By all accounts from the outside, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are both a lot more “mature” than Marbury was when he and Garnett were in this position. Plus it genuinely seems as if this duo, along with Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio all enjoy playing together. However, that doesn’t mean Minnesota should take anything for granted. If Taylor fails to capitalize on this opportunity, history just may repeat itself.