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Monday Musings: Narratives

What stories about teams stand the test of time?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most appealing parts of sports, especially when writing about specific teams, is creating narratives based upon the successes and failures of the organization on a short timeline, like a single game, or over a much longer one such as several seasons.

This is often quite fallacious and the push back is notably exemplified in Steve Clifford's great recent interview after a loss in the playoffs where he discounted a reporter's attempt to weave a more causative story and simply stated the game was lost via the other team hitting shots they normally don't make. Meaning that the attempt to piece together a narrative about "playing hard" over a single game is similar to taking randomized dots on a screen and calling it a butterfly, or a Rorschach's test for what matters in basketball.

But these things do matter, across all sports. Teams quit on their coach over time, have bad body language reflecting poor team chemistry, or work against the public perception of "can't win in the playoffs." This is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental reasons why sports are so appealing. It allows us to project a narrative onto what is seen as a communally owned property by tribe, as well as to connect that story to our lives.

The organizational narratives are the ones I find especially interesting. As they serve as a reflection of any combination of factors from the owner, the stars, the coach, the fans, or even the stadium. How important is Lambeau Field to the story of the Packers? What is the Lakers' identity without Kobe?

In the case of the Timberwolves, it's hard not to ascribe the story of rebirth or rejuvenation. A downtrodden franchise stumbles across the best collection of young talent in the league since the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now we have found the proper leader in Tom Thibodeau, or a more widely respected one at least, and the team seems heir apparent to competing in the Western Conference playoffs

Even Flip Saunders' untimely passing plays a role in the story. This may seem facetious over an incredibly sad event, but I think it's incredibly important in terms of the story we tell about the Timberwolves team. If we are looking at the team through a Hero's Journey a la Joseph Campbell, then Flip was the mentor whose passing or exiting the story provides the key motivation for reaching the next step.

However, time has a habit of deleting the stories that don't make sense to the narrative anymore, something that is seen in history almost constantly. In the Wolves case, it's hard not to view the last decade or so as a continual failed rebuild, especially seeing the last two years as a critical formation period. But this story hasn't been necessarily true throughout. Even just last year, Flip initially planned on attempting to make the playoffs, as evidenced by trading that Miami pick for Thad Young.

That vision wasn't able to come to completion and we saw the resulting pivot, as the Wolves went full tank mode which ended up paying off handsomely as Karl-Anthony Towns joined the team as a result.

If this team does find success it will be interesting to see what memories of the bad years will stand the test of time. Already it seems like the Kevin Love era of competitive basketball (primarily the 2013-2014 year) with the Wolves is already slipping away. Will the decade between the Kevin Garnett era and Towns and Wiggins turn into a malleable mush of bad basketball only notable for the masochist fans' continued attention and support? It sure seems that way, especially with Garnett providing the important link between the time before and the future.

Sports seem to act as a more localized form of patriotism and as is often the case with the stories about our own country, it is more convenient to only remember the ones that connect together to create a cohesive narrative that fits the popular "idea" rather than the actual history. This may become the case with the Timberwolves and it will be interesting to see how this team is perceived and remembered moving forward.