Team building is really difficult in professional sports. Drafting, signing, and trading for the right players is one thing. Then there is putting a good infrastructure of coaches and management to develop and maximize them.
Doing all of these things correctly doesn’t guarantee success — injuries or plain bad luck can undercut even the best laid plans. The teams most capable of adapting to these circumstances are able to overcome these obstacles.
For example, take the early 2010’s Portland Trail Blazers, who had both Greg Oden and Brandon Roy’s careers cut short due to devastating injuries. Rather than make excuses, Portland flipped Gerald Wallace to New Jersey for a first-round pick that eventually became Damian Lillard in 2012. Instead of a lengthy rebuild, the Blazers quickly changed their fortunes and have a perennial playoff team ever since (including a recent trip to the Western Conference Finals).
Conversely, teams like the mid-2010’s Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. Factors like injuries and bad timing caused those franchises to take a step backward, and neither franchise has truly been able to regain their footing in the Eastern Conference ever since.
A Trying Season
When it comes to team building, the situation is rarely perfect. The Minnesota Timberwolves are in this spot with their latest rebuild. Karl-Anthony Towns has missed significant chunks of 2020 and 2021. D’Angelo Russell returned to the lineup after missing 26 games on Monday, the same day Malik Beasley was announced as out 4-6 weeks with injury. This is after Beasley served a 12-game suspension earlier this season.
This is now two seasons where the core players won’t get to play together. Towns and Russell have seldom played with each other. Russell and Edwards played together before Russell’s surgery, but Edwards had a smaller role then. Of course, Edwards couldn’t play with Towns while the big man was healing from a broken wrist.
Having a team’s core play so little together is far from ideal. While it’s true the team does need time to play with each other and build chemistry, these circumstances alone should not prevent the Timberwolves from making important decisions now.
Sure, the Timberwolves are working with an imperfect sample. They haven’t had the chance to see all of Towns, Beasley, Edwards, and Russell together. Yet, how many teams get an ideal sample before having to make decisions about their future? The answer is not many.
That’s not to say the Wolves must move key pieces, but more so that their present circumstances shouldn’t stop them from a move that improves their long-term trajectory.
Why Not Wait It Out?
Kicking the can down the road is rarely a smart strategy, and in the case of the Timberwolves, does very little to help them dig out of their current predicament. When Gersson Rosas replaced Ryan Saunders with Chris Finch as head coach, the focus shifted to the front office. “Well, they haven’t seen their guys together” would be an easy out. If the team gets a two-year mulligan, then when is an acceptable amount of time— 20, 40, or 82 games next season?
That’s a long time for a fan base that has one playoff appearance in 17 seasons. For the Timberwolves, they have Karl-Anthony Towns in his prime. Towns alone should mean the time is now. For example, while the team may like how a guy like Malik Beasley fits on the roster right now, if someone offers a package for him this summer that improves the team in the short and long term, they have to seriously consider it.
There is no indication (at least publicly) that the team plans to sit idle until they’ve seen their core together for however-many-games. Yet, the wait-and-see approach is easy to fall into this season. The Timberwolves are not the first team to face significant obstacles and be forced to make decisions in the face of them. Situations like this are why teams put smart people in charge — sometimes you have to make choices with the information you have and not all the information you want because it may never truly come.
Yes, the Timberwolves have had unbelievably bad luck this season — between injuries and suspensions to key players, it’s hard to imagine a less ideal scenario. Nonetheless, the Timberwolves will have to show an ability to adapt to their circumstances and use what they do know to move forward.