Tonight yet another Wolves season will come to an end, their 12th in a row without reaching the playoffs. I was thinking last night that two major events shaped the Wolves season and their near and medium term future. Other things were and are important, but two things will stand out when I think about this season.
First, the death of Flip Saunders. This was obviously a huge and significant blow to those who were personally close to Saunders, especially his family and friends, but that also includes many in the Timberwolves organization, from players and coaches to front office personnel and owner Glen Taylor. I can't really speak to the human loss — I didn't know Saunders and wouldn't presume to know what he meant to the many people in his life.
From a basketball standpoint, however, it meant huge change. Flip was in control of the entire basketball operation for the Wolves. As both president and head coach, he was responsible for the roster construction, player development, and on-court product for the Wolves, to say nothing of his marketing flair. The Wolves and their future were entirely imagined as Flip's grand vision, for better or worse.
His death installed new people in charge of the team: Milt Newton as general manager and Sam Mitchell as head coach, at least on an interim basis. Both of them were Flip's hires, but as we get further away from his passing, inevitably the team will drift away from whatever vision Flip had for them, perhaps in small ways, but ultimately in bigger ways as well.
It was only three years ago that Saunders was introduced as president and part-owner of the Timberwolves, and there was every reason to believe that he would be the guiding force of the team for the foreseeable future. It was two years ago that he installed himself as the head coach as well as president. Now the organization is in flux, and Glen Taylor has the opportunity to once again reshape basketball operations. How that plays out, whether it means keeping the current operators or finding new ones, will make a significant impact on the Wolves going forward.
The second major thing I will remember from this season is the rookie year of Karl-Anthony Towns. Drafting Towns, and more to the point how great he has been as a rookie is by far the most important on-court aspect of this Wolves season. He will be the unquestioned and deserving rookie of the year, and it's hard to imagine him not becoming a superstar. Franchise changing talents are extremely difficult to come by, as any longtime Wolves fan can attest, and getting hold of a player who looks capable of that kind of performance is a massive boon and probably the most important factor in becoming a good or great basketball team.
Of course the story is not yet written — Towns' is just finishing his rookie year. But his play at 20 years old is comparable only to the very best big men in modern NBA history at that age. Names like Duncan, O'Neal, Robinson, and Olajuwon are the ones that appear when looking for statistically similar rookies.
It remains to be seen if he ultimately reaches those heights, but for the first time since 1996, the Wolves have a young player who looks capable of being one of the handful of best players in the NBA in coming years. Which gives them a huge leg up on building a team that can compete at the highest levels. As we saw with Kevin Garnett, nothing is guaranteed, but having a player of that quality is an advantage over most of the rest of the league.
Many other things, big and small, happened this season, and many will happen this summer. We will have plenty of review and analysis of the season ending as well as looks ahead to the summer and beyond. But the death of Flip Saunders and beginning of Karl-Anthony Towns' NBA career will be the defining events of the 2015-16 Timberwolves season.
We'll see you tonight for one final game thread.