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Timberwolves Stuck in a Losing Cycle: When is the Draft Lottery Again?

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A dysfunctional organization leads to failure on the court. It's the same old story for the Minnesota professional basketball franchise. But we still watch.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Moribund
adjective: in terminal decline, lacking vitality or vigor.

This was site member feral's word to describe the Timberwolves yesterday, and it strikes me as particularly apt.

I don't want to write this column. In part because when I write like I'm about to, I tend to get a lot of abuse. I can live with that, but it isn't a lot of fun. More to the point, I don't want to feel like I'm doing a disservice by not writing this column. I don't want to watch my team and see nothing but confusion and lack of intent. I don't want to observe the organization that runs the team I root for and feel bereft of optimism that the people in charge are equipped to turn things around.

Let's start here:

the right way to go for this team is to just suck up through 2016 and hope you can hit on the next two drafts, then you'd have a lot of flexibility and options as Martin and Pek would be expiring and theoretically Bennett and Budinger would be off the team (I bet we could trade Budinger in the offseason this year if he continues to play like he has a pulse)

--VoodooMagic

This comment was posted on the site yesterday, and is one of the ways I know the Timberwolves franchise is moribund. VoodooMagic has been posting regularly on Canis Hoopus since the spring of 2011 (follow him on twitter @JustinPinotti. Never say I didn't do anything for you Voodoo!), and he would tell you that he has posted substantively similar comments multiple times every season since he joined us.

He isn't wrong.

And this is what a failed franchise looks like. Constantly forcing its remaining fans to kick the can down the road two years at a time.

Steve McPherson, in a typically excellent article for Rolling Stone, analogizes watching young players, Andrew Wiggins in this case, evolve to a parent watching a child. He correctly points out that the joy is often found as readily in the struggles as it is in the successes.

While I would suggest he revisit this theory when his daughter, an internet sensation named Maggie, is a teenager, I don't begrudge the point. He's right. Watching a young player like Wiggins take the first tentative steps on his NBA journey is a source of joy.

Unfortunately, it's just about the only source of joy Timberwolves fans have. Steve also writes briefly about teams:

I watch it...for the way a group of players struggle to become a team, for the ways they succeed at these things but also for the ways they fall short.

A noble sentiment to be sure, but here we part company. I, of course, am writing from the perspective of a Timberwolves fan--one who hasn't seen his team enjoy even a modicum of success for a decade and counting. I also write as a parent, to extend the analogy. You never stop loving your child; after 14 years that much I know. You apparently never stop loving your basketball team either, but after 10 years of failure, of cataloging "the ways they fall short," it stops being so much a source of joy and wonderment as a sense of inevitability and numbing disappointment.

And yet, here we are.

Moribund.

Target Center was certainly lacking in vigor and vitality last night, both in the (mostly empty) stands, and on the court, where the Wolves once again got routed by a below .500 squad; their third straight home loss to a less than average opponent, and their 12th loss in a row overall.

This column is not about the Timberwolves players. There is no way they can consistently win with the current roster. They are too young, and too lacking in well-rounded NBA talent to be a good team. But the constant losing can't be good for anyone involved. When a group of guys who are trying to make names for themselves in the NBA show such little visible enthusiasm, it's worrisome. And it's not their fault.

Zach LaVine looks terrible out there; he is terrible out there. But it's not his fault. He shouldn't be out there, at least not at point guard for 30 minutes a night. I don't question his effort; I don't question any of the Wolves effort. But because of organizational flaws, they are being forced into a situation that is untenable, and what's worse, they don't seem to be getting any better in a team sense.

This speaks to mismanagement, poor coaching, and a lack of accountability. And here's where the rant begins.

The injuries have obviously been a huge hindrance to any success the Wolves might have enjoyed this season. But. Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin have all been out for at least seven weeks and 23 games. Yes, Thad Young also missed some time after the death of his mother, Mo Williams missed a few games with back trouble, and Corey Brewer was traded, but the core group has been more or less intact since Martin went down following the win over the Knicks in November.

Despite that, they have not demonstrably improved in any way as a team. We've had a couple of individual performances to sustain us--Shabazz Muhammad emerged, and while he's cooled off some still shows evidence that he could be a successful scorer in the league, probably as a 6th man. Andrew Wiggins has looked much better over the last half dozen games or so than he did earlier in the season. Those are good things, and things it's still possible to get pleasure from watching. But team wide, there have been no discernible steps forward.

And that's on the coach, who has to answer to the President of Basketball Operations. Both of whom are named Flip Saunders.

My (least) favorite example is the Wolves' utter lack of transition defense. This has been a problem all season, and shows no sign of getting better. I strongly feel that it's not a matter of effort, but of understanding. There seems to be no system for determining who crashes the offensive glass, and who is responsible for tracking back as soon as a shot goes up. If there is a system, the players are failing to execute it, and again, that's on the coach. Getting a bunch of young, presumably hungry, guys to understand and execute something relatively simple should be within the competency of an NBA coach, and if it isn't, he probably should not be coaching.

That's merely an example of what I perceive as a complete lack of progress. There are many. The defense as a whole seems to be actually getting worse, something I would not have thought possible. There own shooting remains among the worst in the league. But the transition defense speaks most clearly to a systemic failure to instill a culture of improvement.

I have, in the past, bemoaned the hiring of Flip Saunders, both initially as President, and then last summer as coach, after the "search" for Rick Adelman's replacement came up empty. We could, have, and probably will again in the future criticize more of the specific decisions Saunders has made in both roles, and it remains my firmly held belief that he should not be the coach of this team. He should not be doing both jobs, and nothing this season has shown him to be an asset as head coach.

But ultimately, this resolves back to ownership, another long-standing complaint. And why, to return to McPherson's point, it isn't a lot of fun for me to revel in the ways they fall short.

Each iteration has its own specifics--players, coaches, personalities. Sometimes those are distracting and interesting (Ricky Davis! Nikola Pekovic! And his tattoos!) , sometimes banal and unpleasant (Kurt Rambis. David Kahn). Your mileage may vary on what and who you find interesting, but over the last decade, it's been the consistently frustrating decision making of the owner that has remained in place.

It leaves me with the unfortunate sense that any success this team has will be more a matter of luck than the result of the intelligent implementation of a well-considered plan. That's OK, I'll take it. But the truth is, Glen Taylor is not serious about winning. He might think he is, but his choices show that he is not.

Here's what I wrote last month after the Wolves lost to the 76ers:

A decade of terrible basketball. A half full arena to watch a team with nothing discernible going for it. A POBO/coach who doesn't distinguish himself at either job, and an owner who didn't want him to coach but thought himself powerless to stop it.

At what point does Glen Taylor look in the mirror and realize that he's the problem? That the way he runs this thing is not conducive to winning? That hiring old friends and making nobody accountable isn't a strategy? That the modern NBA requires something more than the good old boys?

Those paragraphs continue to ring true, as they have for years now.

And yet, we continue to watch. Some of us, anyway, because there is pleasure in it. There is pleasure in watching the individual struggle of young players. There is hope that things will go right for once. There is joy in the companionship of fellow fans.

However, I say this more as a son than as a father: When you see the same struggles for the same reasons time after time, year after year, the joy you get from them is sapped. Just ask my parents.