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Timberwolves 2017-18: Did We Have Fun?

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Another season is in the books. Things were achieved, but at what cost? Was it what we thought it would be?

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves won 47 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. It was their most successful season that did not involve Kevin Garnett in the history of the franchise.

But the questions that have been up for debate all season remain: Was it a fun season? How fun was it? Should we have enjoyed it more than we did? If we didn’t enjoy it much, why not?

We all have our own answers to these questions; our personal enjoyment is ours alone. And yet, we exist in a group with other fans who we influence and are influenced by. The sense I get from the fan base as a whole is that we did not have as much fun with this season as I would have expected.

I always imagined that, even for teams that went on to do greater things, the first year out of the wilderness, when things finally turn around from losing to winning, is perhaps the most enjoyable experience for longtime fans.

I think often of the 2012-13 Golden State Warriors, another team that won 47 games and made the playoffs for the first time in years. That team actually beat the third seeded Nuggets in the first round before falling to the Spurs in six games.

I reached out to our Warriors friends at Golden State of Mind to find out how they remember that season.

The 2012-2013 season was incredibly fun. Having only touched the playoffs once in over 10 years, it was refreshing to finally see things turn. So much was going on this season. We just had an influx of young talent with Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli coming through the draft. Stephen Curry’s inflection point from talented shooter to NBA superstar just began.

...Curry really had his biggest coming out party on the national stage in that Denver first round series. It was flashes of what we saw in his early years but what the global NBA reach hadn’t yet seen.

I think for me personally, the idea of going from being a lottery team to getting into the playoffs and then actually having an unexpected run by taking a few games in the second round in San Antonio got me to wonder what this team could be capable of in years to come...

—Greg Thomas

2013 felt like the beginning of something while having that same rush of the first round “upset” -- this wasn’t just the “ragtag group” with a chip on their shoulder, but young pieces to a core that you could really see as the foundation of something. I remember being in the arena for the second round in total disbelief that this young team that we had so much hope for in the future had already made it to the second round to play the Spurs. It might sound cheesy, but that felt like the beginning of a journey toward greatness whereas We Believe was just a release of years of frustration.

—Nate Parham

The Future Factor

That Golden State Warriors team featured a 4th year Steph Curry making a leap into stardom, a second year shooting guard who showed promise in Klay Thompson, and rookies Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli, and Harrison Barnes, all of whom played significant roles.

I don’t think at the time anyone realized what they would become, and I think there was still some hesitation about Curry staying healthy and whether this was a team that would emerge as a contender, but fans recognized a depth of young talent that had a chance to be something special.

Consider also the 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder. That team made a leap from 23 to 52 wins, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Still, that must have been an awesome season to have lived through as a fan. Even more starkly than the Warriors, this was a young team just dripping with talent finding their footing. Kevin Durant in his third year going for 30 a night, a second year Russell Westbrook, rookies James Harden and Serge Ibaka contributing. Harden and Ibaka came off the bench, and yet they still had a starting lineup whose oldest player was 26 year old Nenad Krstic.

And this is perhaps the biggest difference between these teams and this year’s Timberwolves, and a reason why many fans seemed to not have had as much fun. Those teams won because of the development of young talent. It feels like the Wolves made their leap from 31 to 47 wins mostly because of the addition of veterans. Last summer, they spent their assets on Jimmy Butler (28), Jeff Teague (29), Taj Gibson (32), and Jamal Crawford (37).

Butler is of course an All-Star level player, and well worth what they gave up for him, but he also is what he is; he’s not getting better. Similarly, Teague’s style and quality is well-established at this point. Gibson had a great year, perhaps the best of his career (at least offensively,) but will enter his decline phase soon. Crawford is Crawford.

Of course the Wolves do have some younger players, but they were really not the driving force of the team’s improvement. Without yet again litigating Andrew Wiggins, it’s fair to say he did not take a major step forward in his fourth season, and with his maximum contract kicking in, there is now significant public chatter about whether they should move on from him.

Karl-Anthony Towns made his first All-Star Game this year, and yet again improved his efficiency. He’s clearly the central figure of the Wolves’ future. And while I think this was his best season, I think it’s also true that he was not the key element in their improvement.

And so for fans who had a hard time fully enjoying this season, a big question is: Is this as good as it’s going to get?

This question is fair given how much they shifted to veterans, and their anticipated lack of cap flexibility in the near term. Of course, internal improvement is still possible, both individually from Towns and Wiggins (in addition to Tyus Jones if he is given opportunities,) and as a team as this group (presuming no big changes) enters its second year together.

But under the circumstances, with the franchise seemingly locked into several large contracts and by and large being a veteran squad, wondering if this is it, as opposed to the beginning of something, is a legitimate concern and something that I suspect stifled the enjoyment for many.

The Shape of the Season

The expectation among many for this Wolves season was that it might start off a bit slowly with three new starters and significant roster changes requiring adjustments, but should finish strong. Instead, the opposite happened. The Wolves peaked at 31-18 on January 22nd. On that day, they were fifth in the league in net rating (3.8) and were sitting third in the Western Conference.

They stumbled to the finish after that, going 16-17 the rest of the way with a 0.3 net rating. Some of this was the injury to Jimmy Butler, but not all of it. The defense, which was not great to start the season, got even worse down the stretch, and they faded down to the eighth spot and an impossible match up with the Rockets in the playoffs.

Recency bias is real, and certainly a factor here. The last couple of months of the season were a slog, and until the last three games of the season, the Wolves hadn’t won three in a row since the end of a five game winning streak on January 14th. The overtime win over the Nuggets on the season’s final day to get into the playoffs was a fantastic moment for the franchise, and we all reveled in it, but even that occurred in the context of needing that win to get in when they were in possession of home court advantage just six weeks earlier.

Because it’s more recent, we tend to focus on the difficult last couple of months of the season more than the more successful early part of the year. When we look forward, too, we wonder if the late season bit suggests limited room for improvement.

Tom Thibodeau and a Lack of Joy

Tom Thibodeau is not, from my distance and apparently any distance a warm, happiness inspiring personality. His constant screaming on the sidelines is the most public manifestation, and seemed to turn off a segment of the fan base.

More importantly, however, it appeared as if the players themselves were not enjoying it. Certainly a big factor of Thibs’ reign in Minnesota is his roster use and lack of obvious support for certain players.

Clearly, guys not in the starting lineup were and are frustrated with their opportunities and lack thereof. Gorgui Dieng saw his minutes essentially cut in half with the signing of Taj Gibson. It’s no secret that he’s unhappy and would likely not mind a fresh start elsewhere, a sentiment I’m sure the organization shares given his contract, but something easier said than done. More to the point, Thibs’ has managed to turn a useful if limited player who developed with the Wolves into what now looks like an albatross contract.

Nemanja Bjelica is a restricted free agent and seems unlikely to return. One of the oddities of Thibs’ rotations is that when he started in place of Jimmy Butler, and when Tyus Jones started in place of Jeff Teague, they both played 34 minutes a game and had terrific success with the rest of the starting group. (In fact, the starting lineup with Jones instead of Teague was more successful, and replacing Butler with Bjelica was only a small downgrade.)

However, when the normal starter was available, both guys were afforded extremely limited playing time.

Jamal Crawford publicly spoke about his lack of minutes despite being the most consistently used reserve.

Not only does this alienate players, and make recruiting more difficult, but it also puts immense pressure on segments of the roster, and potentially wore certain players out over the course of the season. It also seemed to have had an effect on fans, many of whom picked up on the frustration of favorites like Dieng and Jones.

More than the bench guys at times seemed unhappy. Andrew Wiggins is tough to get a read on, and despite having the second highest usage rate among the starters still felt like a third option for most of the season, and I do not believe that is what he envisions for himself. Our own John Meyer has suggested that the joy franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns has exuded in previous seasons often seemed absent this year under a barrage of somewhat odd and unhelpful criticism from the coach.

Of course this is all without mentioning that Thibs eagerly traded away the Wolves’ exemplar of joyful and stylish basketball before the draft.

Thiboeau espouses a rather brutalist approach to the game. The Wolves were in the bottom third in the league in pace, 25th in fast break points, and last in three point attempts and makes. They were successful offensively in part because the didn’t turn the ball over, but even that has its aesthetic downside: they averaged the 4th fewest passes per game in the league, which given their slow pace is even more remarkable.

While this is not important to all fans, I do think some were turned off by the particular aesthetic and sensibility of this iteration of the Timberwolves.

Organizationally, it’s also clear that the owner, Glen Taylor, is not happy with the way things are going. However, he locked into Thibs with a long contract to be both coach and president, which likely means we are stuck with the status quo for at least a while longer.

This sort of organizational dysfunction, in which not everyone is pulling in the same direction, is certainly not new to Wolves fans, but it’s frustrating nonetheless, and puts a bit of damper on the season.

Bad Luck

Look, the Wolves won 47 games. With a tiny bit more luck, they would have been somewhere between the third and sixth seed, with a much more favorable playoff match up. (Of course, with a tiny bit less luck, they would have missed the playoffs altogether.) The Warriors team I wrote about earlier also won 47, but grabbed the sixth spot that year and won their first round series. Had the Wolves managed something similar, there might very well be a different mindset for many fans.

So what are my answers to the questions we started with?

Winning is fun, and they did more of that than any recent Timberwolves team. We got to watch Jimmy Butler play for our team, which was a fantastic show of desperation and urgency to succeed. We got to watch Karl-Anthony Towns achieve milestones very few big men have ever reached.

All of that was great, and much more enjoyable than previous seasons of trying to fool myself that they were better than they really were.

Still, all of the things I’ve written about here matter. I am no longer a believer that Tom Thibodeau is the right man for either of his jobs. I think the future has been compromised and limited by his maneuverings in both his roles. I am not a championship or bust fan, and a Grizzlies-like run over the next several seasons could be quite enjoyable. But the freshness of winning is a bit dulled by it’s obvious limits.

I admit I was frustrated, perhaps too much so, by Thibs’ failure to build or use a bench, by his refusal to try things unless it involved his ex-Bulls, and by the lack of defensive improvement. I doubt there is a player on the roster (other than perhaps Derrick Rose due to a couple of outlier playoff performances) that is more valuable now than nine months ago.

This frustration is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that all of it was fairly clear before the season even started. The lack of wing depth, shooting, and rim protection were things many were concerned about, and Thibs’ apparent disinterest in addressing them, or even seeing them as problems, merely adds to the concerns. We got the sense during his first year here that his tendency to overuse certain guys had not changed in his off-year, adding to the sense of disquiet.

Overall, making the playoffs, being part of the Western Conference conversation all year, was terrific. But there undoubtedly was a cost, perhaps one higher than we should have paid.

What about it? How fun was the season for you?