With the Wolves win over the New York Knicks on Friday night, they clinched a winning season. For most franchises, this would not be that big a deal, but for the Wolves, it marks the first winning record since 2004-2005. It’s really amazing when you think about it: 13 years between seasons in which they won more than they lost; you would think it would have happened by accident somewhere along the way.
To give you a sense of this: That season, the Wolves missed the playoffs by one game to the Memphis Grizzlies. Their best player was Pau Gasol. Hubie Brown coached the first 12 games of the season for the Grizz, Mike Fratello took over for most of the year. Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello!
Anywho, a couple of seasons later, things fell apart in Memphis, they traded Gasol, and rebuilt (after three poor seasons—three!) around Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph. Eventually, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol became their best players, and the Grizz went on a seven season playoff run that will only end this year.
Meanwhile, the Wolves have not seen a winning record since.
Or another one: The Portland Trail Blazers also missed the playoffs in 2005. In the intervening 13 seasons, they have rebuilt more-or-less successfully three times: First around Brandon Roy who they got in a trade with the Wolves(!). When they lost him (and Greg Oden) prematurely to injury, they rebuilt again around LaMarcus Aldridge, a rookie Damian Lillard, and quality wing shooters. When Aldridge left, they made Lillard the indisputable centerpiece and found a second star in C.J. McCollum.
Meanwhile, the Wolves have just lost.
At any rate, 2005.
The Wolves were coming off their most successful ever season. They reached the Western Conference Finals in 2004, falling to the Shaq-led Los Angeles Lakers in six games, in part due to an unfortunate injury to point guard Sam Cassell.
The 2004-05 campaign began with hope, but ultimately was the beginning of the end of the greatest era in Timberwolves history, that led by franchise icon Kevin Garnett. The 04-05 Wolves were never able to capture the magic of the previous season, as Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, who had been brought in prior to their WCF season to push the franchise forward, both regressed in 2005. Cassell played only the first 59 games of the year before getting hurt, and neither could replicate the veteran savvy and clutch play-making they exhibited the prior year.
Kevin Garnett was again his unique, inimitable self, and was again perhaps the best player in the NBA, but he was not enough to stave off the regression of the rest of the roster. The starting lineup was unsettled throughout, with ten players starting 14 or more games, compared to the previous year when four guys started a minimum of 74.
This showed up especially on defense, where the lack of roster-wide commitment surrounding Garnett was most obvious. They remained strong offensively, but their 6th rated defense in 2004 gave way to a mediocre 17th rated unit in 2005. The lack of continuity and roster-wide passion was evident.
Head Coach Flip Saunders, who had led the team for nine seasons, could not find the right formula for this iteration of the Wolves. They got off to a decent start, and were 15-8 after 23 games, but things started to deteriorate from there, ultimately costing him his job when his longtime friend and partner in running the franchise Kevin McHale fired him when the team sat at 25-26. McHale himself, at the behest of owner Glen Taylor, descended from the front office to coach the team over the final 31 games. They made a gallant charge to the finish, going 19-12 over that stretch, but ultimately fell short of the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns were revolutionizing the way the NBA game was played. Their seven-seconds-or-less offense, devised by Mike D’Antoni and executed by league MVP Steve Nash, dominated the league to the tune of 62 wins and the top record in the NBA. Their 24.7 three-point attempts per game was tops in the league, as was their 39 percent conversion rate. (That per game attempt number, as well as their league leading 95.9 pace, would both be in the bottom third of the league this season, though still ahead of the Wolves in both cases.)
It was not to be for the Suns, however, as the experienced San Antonio Spurs excused them in five hard fought games. Amare Stoudemire dominated offensively, but the Spurs just ground them down late in several of their wins, dominating the glass and getting to the line to off-set the pace and shooting ability of the Suns. The Spurs would go on to beat the Detroit Pistons in a seven game Finals in which only one team in one game (Pistons in Game four) managed to clear 100 points.
For the Wolves, the summer following this disappointing campaign brought changes that only hastened their decline into what we have witnessed over the past decade. They traded an unhappy Cassell to the Clippers (with a first round pick!) for the legendary Marko Jaric. They let Sprewell go in free agency. They drafted Rashad McCants 14th overall, passing on Danny Granger who I thought they were going to take. They hired Dwane Casey as head coach, and his premature firing midway through the following season haunts the franchise to this day.
Later at the trade deadline in 2006, they spent a first rounder (that they later got back in the Garnett trade) to dump an out of favor Wally Szczerbiak and others in exchange for Ricky Davis and others. This was a desperation move by a team clinging to the idea of relevance. They were .500 on the day they made the trade, and wound up going 15-31 the rest of the way to finish 33-49 and clearly signal the end of their one stretch of modest success.
Although 2004-2005 was their last winning season, longtime fans do not remember it with fondness. It was apparent at the time, and even more so through the lens of years, that season was the end of something.
Our hope is that our newly minted 2017-18 winning season is instead the start of something.