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Best Team to Never Win a Championship: 2003-2004 Minnesota Timberwolves

As part of SB Nation’s latest project, I took a look at one of the best teams to never win a ring: the 2003-2004 Minnesota Timberwolves.

Via David Sherman
NBAE via Getty Images

With the NBA still on hiatus, the crew over at SB Nation is unveiling a project this week that looks at the best teams to never win a championship. Inspired by Mike Prada, this project breaks down the 64 best NBA teams who failed to reach the summit, with each franchise having at least one representative in what will eventually become a tournament to ultimately decide the “best” of the “what ifs.”

The teams were seeded overall by Mike’s personal rankings, and the “regions” were created based on the following criteria:

  • “Flame Out” refers to teams that were favored to win or were on the doorstep of victory, but were upset or self-destructed. Check out the list of 16 teams here.
  • ”Overachiever” refers to teams that went further than their talent, record, and/or seed suggested they should. Check out the list of 16 teams here.
  • ”Not Good Enough” refers to the really good teams that unfortunately lost to even better teams. Check out the list of 16 teams here.
  • ”What Might’ve Been / They Were Robbed” includes a) teams that got jobbed by injury and/or the refs, and b) teams whose eras were cut short due to unforeseen circumstances. The list of these 16 teams will be released tomorrow.

This will hardly come as a surprise to anyone, but of the 64 teams selected for this “tournament,” the Wolves only had one lone representative in the entire field (the 2003-2004 team who finished runner-up in the Western Conference Finals). Below is a refresher of who exactly was on that team, analysis of their regular season, and details about their extremely disappointing post season flame out.

2003-2004 Minnesota Timberwolves

8-seed, “Not Good Enough” region

Depth Chart

PG: Sam Cassell / Troy Hudson / Keith McLeod / Darrick Martin / Anthony Goldwire
SG: Trenton Hassell / Fred Hoiberg / Quincy Lewis
SF: Latrell Sprewell / Wally Szczerbiak / Ndudi Ebi
PF: Kevin Garnett / Gary Trent / Mark Madsen
C: Ervin Johnson (not the magician) / Michael Olowokandi / Oliver Miller

Coaching Staff

  • Flip Saunders (Head Coach)
  • Greg Ballard (Assistant Coach)
  • Jerry Sichting (Assistant Coach)
  • Randy Wittman (Assistant Coach)
  • Don Zierden (Assistant Coach)
  • Gregg Farnam (Trainer)

Regular Season

Let me start this off by stating an irrefutable fact: the 2003-2004 squad was, without a doubt, the best Wolves team in franchise history (which is pretty cool and yet simultaneously depressing since it was almost two full decades ago). With a record of 58-24, Minnesota finished the regular season atop the Western Conference standings, and were only three games behind the Indiana Pacers (61-21) for best record in the league.

The ‘03-’04 team, led by that season’s Most Valuable Player Kevin Garnett, was simply superb on both ends of the floor. In terms of advanced stats, the Wolves sported the 5th best offensive rating (105.9) while also locking down the 6th best defensive rating in the league (99.7). Offensively, only two franchises attempted fewer threes than Minnesota (Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz), yet the Wolves finished the season with the 5th best 3P% (36% on 10.9 attempts per game). With Cassell and Hudson running the point for most of the season, the Wolves also had the second best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.81), trailing only the Steve Nash-led Dallas Mavericks (1.96)

While many Wolves fans are accustomed to extended losing streaks, this ‘03-’04 group was not, capping their longest losing streak at just two games and finishing the regular season winning 12 of their final 14 games (including 9 straight W’s as they entered the playoffs).

The “best team in franchise history” wouldn’t have existed without the “best player in franchise history,” who had far and away his best season of his career during the 2003-2004 campaign. The unequivocal “leader of the pack,” Garnett played and started in all 82 games, averaging 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.2 blocks, and 1.5 steals. The Big Ticket was hands down the clear cut choice for the Most Valuable Player award that year, tallying 120 of 123 possible first place votes.

Playoffs: First Round

As mentioned above, the Wolves finished the regular season on a nine-game winning streak, which allowed them to secure home court advantage in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers, who finished runner-up to the Wolves in the regular season, actually hit their stride with a ten-game winning streak towards the end of March, before losing three of their final six games entering the playoffs, allowing the Wolves to leapfrog them in the standings.

To get things started in the 2004 NBA playoffs, Minnesota hosted the 8th seeded Denver Nuggets, who were led by Rookie of the Year candidate (and eventual runner-up) Carmelo Anthony. Despite balanced production from all five Nuggets starters (which included not only Carmelo, but other talented players like Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard, Marcus Camby, and Nenê Hilário), the Wolves made quick work of their Midwest division foe, bouncing the Nuggets out of the playoffs in five games. Garnett finished the first round series averaging nearly 42 minutes a game while leading the Wolves in nearly every major statistical category, including points (25.8), rebounds (14.8), assists (7.0), and blocks (2.0). In the famous words of LeBron James, “Sheeeeeeesh.”

Playoffs: Second Round

After knocking off the Nuggets, the Wolves faced a much tougher second round opponent in the Sacramento Kings, who were led by a star-studded lineup that included Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojaković, Doug Christie, and Vlade Divac. The Kings had just come off back-to-back seasons that ended in disappointing fashion, having been bounced out of the Western Conference Finals in 2002 and then the Western Conference Semifinals in 2003. Entering the 2003-2004 season, the Kings were actually the third biggest favorites to win the title (+500), only behind the Lakers (+140) and San Antonio Spurs (+400). Conversely, the Wolves were +1200.

As you know by now, the Wolves and Kings would go on to combine for one of the most memorable seven game series in NBA history, capped off by a thrilling 83-80 Wolves victory in Game 7 on their home court. As was the case in the first round, Garnett barely came off the floor against the Kings, averaging 44.6 minutes per game and tallying 23.9 points, 15.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 3.4 blocks, and 1.7 steals. While The Big Ticket once again lived up to his nickname, he also got some much needed support from the other members of Minnesota’s “Big Three,” with Cassell and Spreewell combining for 36.9 points, 9.1 assists, and 2.7 steals in the seven contests against Sacramento.

Simply put, this was the most memorable stretch of Timberwolves basketball in the history of the franchise. The seven game series between Minnesota and Sacramento had everything you’d want in a big playoff series — clutch shots, physicality, career nights, insane finishes, and even a 13-rebound game from the Mad Dog himself. Kings’ head coach Rick Adelman (remember him?) had his team playing at such an elite level during this playoff run, and at times it seemed inevitable that Sacramento would finally break through and reach the NBA Finals with this group of guys. And yet, every time the Kings seemed posed to take down Minnesota, the regular season MVP came through again, and again, and again, leading the Wolves to their first ever trip to the Western Conference Finals.

If you have spare time, I’d highly recommend watching the (somewhat) condensed replay of Game 7 below. Garnett delivered one of the best performances of his career (on his birthday no less!), dropping 32 points, 21 rebounds, 5 blocks, 4 steals, 2 assists, and 1 iconic jump on the scorer’s table. The final minute of this game still takes years off my life, no matter how many times I watch it.

Playoffs: Third Round

As fun as it was to go back and watch old games from the second round matchup against the Kings, looking back at the 2004 Western Conference Finals is far, FAR less enjoyable.

After failing to win their fourth straight championship a year prior, the Los Angeles Lakers loaded up in the summer of 2003, signing Gary Payton and Karl Malone, both of whom took considerable pay cuts to play with LA in hopes of winning their first NBA title. Despite some off-the-court legal issues for Kobe as well as his declining relationship with Shaq, the Lakers entered the 2003-2004 season as heavy championship favorites, with many expecting the Spurs to be their only real hurdle to claiming another Larry O’Brien.

It should be mentioned that the Wolves had their own fireworks during the summer of 2003, with Vice President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale acquiring both Cassell and Spreewell via trades, while also signing key contributors such as Hoiberg, Hassell, and Madsen. After years of not surrounding KG with competent talent, it finally seemed as if the Wolves were providing the necessary ingredients for a championship run.

Despite not having home court advantage, the Lakers were still considered considerable favorites to advance past Minnesota, especially after knocking off the rival Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference Semifinals. As the series got underway, the Lakers took care of business relatively easily in Game 1, powered by a superhuman performance by Shaq (27 points, 18 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 blocks). The Wolves never really had any answer for Shaq (nor did anyone in the NBA at the time), but it was even more apparent in Game 1 as he just bullied whoever Flip Saunders threw at him — Olowokandi, Johnson, Madsen, and even KG.

The Wolves did make some necessary adjustments prior to Game 2, resulting in a 89-71 victory, but it was a classic case of “win the battle, lose the war,” as Sam Cassell suffered a hip injury just 45 seconds into the game and never returned.

Between stealing home court and the injury to the Wolves point guard, the Lakers could clearly smell blood in the water as they returned home to LA. While Cassell did somehow come back to play 26 minutes and notch 18 points in Game 3, the injury to his hip was just too much to overcome, resulting in the 2004 All-Star playing only 6 total minutes in Game 4, which would sadly be his last action of the Western Conference Finals. Kobe & crew would go on to win both games at home by a combined 18 points, taking a fairly commanding 3-1 lead in the series as they headed back to Minnesota.

Despite no longer having their starting point guard, Minnesota displayed real pride and grit in Game 5, forcing the series back to Los Angeles, before ultimately having their playoff flame distinguished back at Staples Center in Game 6.

In the end, the Western Conference Champion Lakers would go on to play the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, falling in just five games in what would eventually be a far less appealing (and far less competitive) series than experts and fans had originally predicted.

Final Thoughts

Since their inception as the Minnesota Timberwolves back in 1989, there have been plenty of “what if” moments in the franchise’s history, but most of them pale in comparison to the “what if Sam Cassell DIDN’T get hurt in the 2004 Western Conference Finals?”

Could the Lakers still have knocked off the Wolves, even with a healthy Cassell on the floor? Absolutely. Would they have done so as quickly and easily as they did when Cassell was knocked out? My honest take, to this very day, is (BLEEP) NO. That Lakers squad was undoubtedly stacked, not only with the Kobe and Shaq duo, but with a deep roster that included a young Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Devean George, and Luke Walton. With that said, the team’s chemistry was already deteriorating at a rapid speed during their 2004 playoff run, and eventually came to blows that summer when the Lakers traded Shaq to the Miami Heat.

If Sam I Am doesn’t get hurt, and the Wolves steal back home court advantage in Game 3, do the Lakers cave? If they do, and the Wolves take Game 4 as well, do we see another epic Lakers meltdown like what happened in the 2011 playoffs when Andre Bynum tried to decapitate our good friend J.J. Barea?

It may seem like homerism to simply pencil the Wolves into the NBA Finals if Cassell stays healthy, but after watching how easily the Pistons crushed the Lakers’ spirits in five short games, it does really make you think. I have no idea how the Wolves would have fared against DETROIT BASKETBALL (that Pistons team was NASTY on defense), but having a trip to the NBA Finals on the franchise’s resume would make this whole “I’m a Minnesota Timberwolves fan” a lot easier to explain to some of my friends.

What do you think? Could the Wolves have beaten the Lakers with a healthy Sam Cassell? If yes, could they have also beaten the Pistons in the Finals? How would a (possible) NBA championship have changed the narrative for the franchise (and professional sports in Minneapolis)? I’m interested in getting everyone's opinion on this, so please feel free to chime in below.