On March 23, head coach Flip Saunders returned to the locker room to celebrate with his team after pulling off a win in Utah ... in overtime ... with only seven dressed players.
At that point, Saunders looked at his phone and saw he had received over 20 texts from individuals telling him the Jazz television announcers had said the Wolves were tanking. The coach was, to put it lightly, not happy. He said the following in response:
"That's totally irresponsible; we're not tanking games. If that's so, then [Utah] got beat by a team who was tanking [...]. We're playing to win. Our guys are out there. We won two games ago at New York, we lost in the fourth quarter against Charlotte last night. We're not tanking games. It is irresponsible for them to go on TV saying that. If you work at ESPN, you get fired for saying stuff like that."
Some may feel that Saunders overreacted, and maybe he did. But I get it--a coach is going to get defensive of his team, especially when it's being falsely accused of something.
A lot of this admittedly boils down to one's actual definition of "tanking" and what that looks like. However, here are my thoughts...
The Wolves are not intentionally losing games. If they were, they would not be playing their star rookie Andrew Wiggins as many minutes as they are. Saunders could absolutely play the "resting him" card to sit Wiggins, but he doesn't--because each game is an effort to win.
Sure, you have to look at both sides. The season is already a wash, so when it comes to risking further injury to Ricky Rubio--who just signed the big contract--or Nikola Pekovic, it's not worth it. In that sense, it is more practical to sit the starters.
Are Saunders and the Wolves being cautious and practical in light of the season's inevitable outcome? Most definitely.
Are they trying to win every game they can with 100 percent effort of the player available? I guarantee you, they are.
I asked some of our other media friends to give me their take on the situation. Here's what they said:
Phil Ervin, Fox Sports North
"This would be an easier discussion if we all agreed on what exactly 'tanking' is in the first place. I take it as 'losing games on purpose,' and with that in mind, I don't think the Minnesota Timberwolves are tanking.
There's a difference between an action's intent and its byproducts. For example, if I'm scraping food off a plate and accidentally scratch it, that doesn't automatically mean I was trying to damage the plate. My original intent was to clean it. I might have known I risked damaging the plate, but that doesn't mean I set out with the sole, premeditated purpose of doing so.
With that in mind, I don't think the Wolves are losing games on purpose. They have traded away three veterans, have some other ones that are out but might play during a playoff push, and have built a young core for the future, yes. But there is a mammoth gap between all that and outright trying to lose games while they're happening. Minnesota may certainly have conceded the season at some point--perhaps a form of 'tanking' at the organizational level. But then you're getting into a semantics argument that to me isn't really worth much time.
Jon Krawzcynski, Associated Press
"Not tanking. It's hard to accuse a team of tanking when the team's biggest hope for a brighter future - Andrew Wiggins - is playing 48 minutes a night. Why risk burnout or major injury that way? The lineups out there are trying to win, but they are just to short-handed. And it makes no sense to push injured players like Rubio, Garnett and Neal to play and possibly set themselves up for long summer rehabs. Add to it that Glen Taylor was one of those owners pushing for lottery reform before the season, and the evidence suggests that the Wolves are not tanking."
Darren Wolfson, KSTP
"I feel like I know Flip [Saunders] pretty well, and I feel confident in saying that outright 'tanking' is not something he's doing. Guys are playing hard and are really engaged. Not like Flip wanted [Zach] LaVine to commit that foolish foul at the end of the Lakers game. I know how messed up Gary Neal's ankles are, for example. These injuries are legit. Could Ricky Rubio play if these games had incredible meaning? Maybe. I say 'no' on all others. Flip would be the first to cite that the worst team rarely finishes with the first pick."
Mark Remme, former Timberwolves.com reporter
"I think more than anything injuries have created this situation for the Wolves. Look at the people in street clothes on the bench compared to the healthy ones in uniform. They literally have more injured players than healthy ones, and that technically includes four starters if you count Garnett. My biggest concern now is not wins and losses, but how many minutes Wiggins is racking up as a rookie. He's averaging a ton of minutes, and it's because the team has no viable scoring or defense to replace him with. It's a tough situation, but it's injury-inflicted. This young team needs to learn a winning culture. Tanking wouldn't accomplish that."