Heading into the NBA restart, two teams attracting the most attention are the Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans in their fight for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Both teams are comprised of exciting young players who seem poised to ascend into superstardom in the NBA, headlined by the two leaders for Rookie of the Year in Ja Morant and Zion Williamson.
Not too long ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves were viewed similarly to how the Pelicans and Grizzlies are today. It was a fair argument of which team had the better “young core,” between the Wolves and the Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. After Karl-Anthony Towns’ second season, he was voted the “best player to build around” in the annual NBA GM survey, winning a higher vote percentage than Giannis and LeBron James, which is quite the oversight in hindsight.
We all know the broad strokes of what happened, as the Jimmy Butler-Thibs combination spectacularly combusted, Andrew Wiggins’ development stagnated, and Towns never capitalized on his potential as a two-way star. Now, one would be hard-pressed to find many believers in the Wolves, as Towns reputation is sliding towards the next coming of DeMarcus Cousins rather the new Anthony Davis.
But the Wolves had a shot, which makes it so frustrating when the Grizzlies and the Pelicans are now gearing up for their first of many playoff runs. What makes those teams so much better?
The Pelicans are perhaps the aptest comparison for the Wolves’ early years. We do not have to squint too hard to find analogs between Ricky Rubio and Lonzo Ball, as well as Andrew Wiggins and Brandon Ingram. After all, many were as down on Ingram as we became on Wiggins, as he showed flashes of greatness on the Lakers, but never settled into sustained success. But now, in Ingram’s 4th season playing on a much better team, he is a real Most Improved Player candidate and his advanced statistics bear out a massive improvement. Funnily enough, it was Wiggins’ 4th season on the Wolves team with Butler that made the playoffs. Where Ingram grew into a more defined role on a better team, Wiggins stagnated and failed to adapt to a smaller role.
So perhaps that’s a good enough reason, but it feels too simple to pile on Wiggins and blame the failures on his lack of development. Although perhaps it points to another option, which is that developing teams get one shot to take a leap. The Wolves chance was with Butler and it simply backfired.
But the Grizzlies’ success suggests that is too simple of a narrative. The Pelicans arguably have assembled a more talented roster than any the Wolves put together. It is hard to make the same argument for the Grizzlies, who have made use of Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas around Morant, Jaren Jackson, and Brandon Clarke. Hardly world-beaters.
Why has the Grizzlies team fared so much better than the early Wolves iterations? Towns’ rookie season is perhaps the best comparison, coming off of Wiggins’ Rookie of the Year campaign and the Zach LaVine point guard experiment. It’s hard to argue that the Wolves had a less talented roster, as Gorgui Dieng was about as effective as Valancuinas is today. Sure Zach Lavine tore his ACL, but the Wolves still finished 31-51 in comparison to the Grizzlies .500 effort. Perhaps the cause is the long-standing Wolves defensive woes, as the young Wolves were terrible on defense, finishing with the 27th rated defensive rating, while the Grizzlies are at least ranked 20th.
Of course, there are more depressing comparisons abound. The 76ers young core has flourished while the Wolves’ stagnated. Dallas found two young players that have already reached higher levels than the Towns-Wiggins tandem. The Nuggets have vaulted light-years ahead of the Wolves. Rather than putting together a winning roster, the Wolves have continued to find themselves in the dregs of the NBA with the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings, both of which are arguably more excited about their rosters than the Wolves and there is much more of an open conversation about evaluating Towns in comparison to Devin Booker and De’Aaron Fox, which would have been laughable a season ago.
It is likely that the Grizzlies and Pelicans will find that the next stage in their development is even harder, as the Nuggets and Jazz can attest to the difficulties of moving from an exciting young team to a real contender. But it is certainly worth noting that the Wolves struggled every step of the way to contention, as their young team was significantly worse than the Grizzlies, and their attempt to capitalize on their young stars saw stagnation and personnel problems overtake a promising foundation.
We can only hope this go-around will be different, but the recent track record does not inspire much hope as we watch the NBA restart in jealousy of other team’s promise.