To put it lightly, being a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves is not the most exciting thing in the world — the team has one winning record over the last fifteen years, has played only five total playoff games since 2004, is rarely a destination for potential free agents, and has never once gotten “lucky” in the NBA Draft (i.e. moving up in the draft order).
The most significant “victory” for the Wolves over the last handful of seasons probably came back on a spring night in 2015, when the NBA was holding it’s annual lottery to determine its draft order. As many of you remember, Minnesota entered that evening with the highest percent chance of securing the top pick (25%), but as you also know by now, the odds rarely work in the Wolves favor. Nevertheless...
And the #Twolves land the FIRST pick in the 2015 NBA Draft! pic.twitter.com/9Hko5otGhE— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) May 20, 2015
And don’t forget this:
With the NBA Draft Lottery tomorrow night, this video seems appropriate.— Kyle Ratke (@Kyle_Ratke) May 13, 2019
Flip Saunders watching as the team landed the No. 1 pick in 2015, which ended up being Karl-Anthony Towns.
"I'm selfish right now. Just give me one more!"
Miss that guy. pic.twitter.com/cUq6LD8Ic7
While the Wolves didn’t *technically* move up in the 2015 Draft, luck was on their side long enough to hold off all other competitors and secure the top pick in what was widely regarded as a loaded draft class. Despite early rumors and reports that summer that Flip Saunders (R.I.P. Flip) was focused on selecting Duke big man Jahlil Okafor with the first overall selection, Minnesota finally (and correctly) settled on the best player in the draft: Karl-Anthony Towns.
The rest is history.
But what if...
...the ping-pong balls on May 19, 2015 HADN’T aligned in the Wolves favor? What if the Los Angeles Lakers had moved up to pole position, dropping Minnesota (yet again) back a spot? Or what if the Denver Nuggets had struck gold, securing themselves the top pick and thus forcing the Wolves to maybe pick #3 or #4?
For starters, let’s review the top fourteen players selected back in 2015:
- Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves)
- D’Angelo Russell (Los Angeles Lakers)
- Jahlil Okafor (Philadelphia 76ers)
- Kristaps Porziņģis (New York Knicks)
- Mario Hezonja (Orlando Magic)
- Willie Cauley-Stein (Sacramento Kings)
- Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets)
- Stanley Johnson (Detroit Pistons)
- Frank Kaminsky (Charlotte Hornets)
- Justise Winslow (Miami Heat)
- Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)
- Trey Lyles (Utah Jazz)
- Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns)
- Cameron Payne (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Let’s pretend Minnesota did indeed slide down the draft order, swapping spots with either the Lakers or 76ers. For LA, it seems likely they would have selected Towns first overall, and marketed him as the “heir to the throne” once Kobe Bryant retired (if you remember, Bryant’s final season was the 2015-2016 campaign). By the time the draft rolled around in late June, KAT was the consensus #1 pick on basically ever big board in the country, so slotting him here seems safe.
What about Philadelphia? If they had jumped the Wolves and landed the rights to draft Towns, would they? The 76ers had just selected Joel Embiid a season earlier, and didn’t land their franchise PG until 2016 when they drafted Ben Simmons first overall. Would Philly have taken Russell first to pair with Embiid, or would Sam Hinkie (who was processing the team’s transactions back then) have taken the best player available (much like he apparently did at pick #3 when he selected Okafor)?
For argument’s sake, let’s give the Lakers the nod here because they rarely have good things break their way. A hypothetical “new” draft order could look like this:
- Los Angeles Lakers: Karl-Anthony Towns
- Philadelphia 76ers: D’Angelo Russell
- Minnesota Timberwolves: ???
The obvious pick here (in my opinion) would have been Jahlil Okafor. As mentioned previously, it was widely rumored that Flip loved Okafor’s old school game, and with Towns and D-Lo both off the board, it’s hard to imagine any player getting picked here OTHER than Okafor.
Which gets me to the heart of this article — how (bleeping) bad could things be today if this is how the top of the 2015 Draft had played out? I strive to be transparent with you, so I will admit — I was a HUGE Okafor fan coming out of college. You rarely see a big man as polished as he was in his freshman season, and I was blinded by the fact that most of Towns’ skills were hidden under John Calipari at Kentucky (hand up, that’s my bad). Nevertheless, it’s extremely apparent by now that only one of those two big men panned out — with Towns winning NBA Rookie of the Year and blossoming into one of the best shooting bigs of all time, while Okafor has struggled to live up to the hype and is currently on his third team in five years.
Back to my point — imagine a “big four” of Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, and Jahlil Okafor. Granted, the 2015-2016 Wolves didn’t exactly light the league on fire even with Towns in toe, managing to finish the season with a 29-53 record. The franchise also tragically lost Flip Saunders right before the season got underway, which eventually led to Tom Thibodeau taking over the reins just six short months later.
Again, while things still look somewhat bleak for the Wolves going forward, imagine how truly unpleasant things could be today if Minnesota wouldn’t have secured that one lone “victory” back in 2015. The hypothetical questions are endless:
- What if the Wolves had fallen to pick #2? Was Okafor still the consolation prize? Or would Flip have taken a chance at pairing D-Lo with Rubio? (Somewhere David Kahn is smiling)
- If Flip had indeed cooled on Okafor, who would he have selected at #3? Porziņģis? Mudiay? KAMINSKY?!
- Does Tom Thibodeau still agree to the job if Towns isn’t on the roster?
- If not Thibs, who exactly takes over as President of Basketball Operations back in 2016?
- Would the “KAT-less” version of the 2015-2016 Wolves been bad enough to secure a better pick in the 2016 Draft, meaning they may have landed Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown, or even Brandon Ingram?
- Are Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and Ricky Rubio all still living in Minnesota as of today?
- From a non-Wolves perspective, how does a potential Russell/Embiid pairing look in the early stages? Would it have been successful enough for Sam Hinkie to regain people’s trust?
- And what about Towns in LA? How does that affect literally everything that’s happened with that franchise (and the league in general) since Kobe’s retirement? Is it LeBron and Towns vying for a NBA title this year instead of LeBron and Anthony Davis?
- Where is Zion Williamson calling home?
- Is Jordan McLaughlin still a thing?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions, and I apologize for digging up some uncomfortable “what ifs” from the past (but in my defense, it was either this or a 5,000 word essay on the history of Crunch the mascot). Nevertheless, it’s a pretty crazy (and relatively unhealthy) rabbit hole to go down when you think about all the ramifications that *could* have occurred if Minnesota wouldn’t have lucked out back in the spring of 2015.
Either way, one’s things for certain — landing Karl-Anthony Towns was one of the lone “victories” for Wolves fans over the last handful of years, one that (hopefully) can lead to increased success for Minnesota going forward.