The expectations set in place for the Minnesota Timberwolves heading into the 2016-17 season were pretty freaking high. And there were valid reasons behind those expectations.
This group is loaded with talent — we all know that by now. Quite frankly, I have no doubt in my mind that this team can make a deep run in the playoffs in the near future.
But this season, the team is simply not ready to compete consistently at a high level. They show flashes of brilliance that foreshadow a promising future before falling apart at the seams shortly after. And it shouldn’t surprise many people — that will happen when a team’s top three players are barely old enough to legally buy a drink.
This was all on display Thursday night in Minnesota’s road loss to the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Huskies (er, Raptors). The Wolves blasted out of the gates strong and ended the first quarter on top by 10 points while keeping the dynamic backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in check.
Then, of course, another defensive lapse that allowed Toronto to tie the game at halftime. The combination of a lack of focus, effort and competency at a consistent basis for 48 minutes has plagued the Wolves in a vast majority of their 22 games.
When it was all said and done, the Wolves had fulfilled the storyline that has pretty much summed up the season — the Wolves generated plenty of oooohs and ahhhhs from the crowd, but came away with a double-digit loss.
Lowry and DeRozan came back to combine for 52 points on 15-for-34 shooting, 16 assists and 10 rebounds. Meanwhile, Jonas Valanciunas wreaked havoc on Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns in the paint all evening, tallying 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Zach LaVine continued his hot streak, pouring in 29 points in his typical effortless fashion on 12-for-20 shooting and 3-for-8 from beyond the arc. Andrew Wiggins added 25 points on 10-for-19 and Towns contributed 17 points and 11 rebounds. Oddly enough, the bench made positive contributions yet again by scoring 22 points and combining to register a +/- of 0, including a +8 from Shabazz Muhammad.
But the all-too-familiar theme of letting a game get away due to defensive lapses get away proved true once again, as Toronto pulled away late by pouring in open trey after open trey.
I know instructing fans to root a certain way is somewhat obnoxious and frankly none of my business. But in the gentlest of ways, I ask -- can we try being a little more patient?
Look, I get it. The 12-year playoff drought sucks a lot. And many of you were brainwashed by the popular national media narrative that the Wolves would suddenly jump 15-some wins from last season and end that drought.
Simply put, the circumstances surrounding this team don’t exactly favor a playoff run. The Wolves are now on their third head coach in three seasons after the tragic death of the man who drafted basically the entire team. The front office just underwent an overhaul. A tough-nosed coach is trying to drill in a brand new philosophy into an extremely young bunch.
Sure, the Oklahoma City Thunder made their breakthrough in just a couple of seasons with the Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden trio. And sure, the Golden State Warriors earned a winning season in Stephen Curry’s third season. I get all of that.
But these situations aren’t comparable to Minnesota’s situation. Not only is this Wolves team much younger than those teams were, but they’re also trying to learn how to win while adapting to their third head coach in a span of 18 months.
Asking this team to make the playoffs this season was a heavy task, and I’m not just saying that in hindsight. The circumstances just didn’t make it likely. Don’t get me wrong, there are some serious faults that need to be fixed. But it’s too early to make judgments about the future.
Make no mistake about it — once this group matures and gets accustomed to Thibodeau’s defensive demands, the sky is the limit.
Patience must persist.