Other than the Los Angeles Clippers and the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies, it’s tough to think of a franchise that’s faced more hardship (both as a result of their own doing as well as bad luck) than the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In their 21-year history, the Timberwolves have made eight appearances in the postseason, all of them consecutively. However, sandwiching this period of relative prosperity are two stretches of futility, defined by misfortune, missteps by management (Joe Smith was worth how many first rounders?), and unrealized potential.
What’s worse is that it seems like every source of optimism for this franchise comes with strings attached.
The team’s early years were not atypical of an expansion franchise’s early days. Though wins were difficult to come by (average 21.7/season; high of 29), the team hit big on some draft day selections (Christian Laettner and Isaiah Rider) but missed on others (Felton Spencer and Luc Longley). The problem?
Even when they got it “right,” the Wolves wound up with a pair of bad teammates and a budding criminal not-so-mastermind in Rider.
After six difficult seasons to start the 1990s, the Timberwolves managed to reinvent themselves with a single, (at the time) daring draft pick. With the fifth pick in the 1995 draft, the Wolves rolled the dice on a gifted big man that was attempting to become the NBA’s first “preps to pros” star in two decades: Farragut Academy’s Kevin Garnett.
The team continued to struggle in Garnett’s rookie season (1995-96), managing just 26 wins, but his emergence in 1996-97 gave the franchise its first (and only, to date) legitimate superstar. In a dozen years in the Twin Cities, Garnett cemented his place as not only the greatest player in Timberwolves’ history, but as one of the greatest power forwards ever to grace an NBA court.
After that first, difficult year, KG teamed with a variety of talented supporting players to lead the Timberwolves to eight consecutive playoff appearances, the only postseason trips in franchise history. Before the start of the 1996-97 season, a draft day trade landed PG phenom Stephon Marbury in Minnesota.
Optimism was sky-high with Christian Laettner and talented problem child Isaiah Rider gone, and Garnett now teaming with newly-acquired PF Tom Gugliotta and Marbury. The trio initially had the look of a budding powerhouse, leading the Wolves to the postseason in each of Marbury’s first two seasons and producing the Wolves’ first-ever-winning season in 1997-98.
However, the euphoria and optimism would be short-lived. Rather than teaming up to transform the franchise, petty jealousy over a massive contract extension for Garnett led to the deterioration of Marbury’s relationship with the franchise. He was dealt to New Jersey early in his third season in a deal that would bring Terrell Brandon to the team.
In three seasons with the Wolves, Brandon picked up where Marbury had left off, teaming with Garnett to lead the Wolves to three more .500+ seasons, the franchise’s first 50-win season, and three more playoff appearances. Irrespective of flux at that point, the Timberwolves were now a consistent winner and a perennial playoff team.
The problem(s)? First, by 2002, Terrell Brandon’s career had been brought to an abrupt end thanks to injuries.
And that’s not even the bad part. In the summer of 2000, the Wolves made an illegal, under-the-table agreement with free agent Joe Smith (Really? You break the rules to sign Joe Smith?), which was voided by the NBA who, upon ruling that the deal violated league procedure, fined the team, suspended GM Kevin McHale for a year, and stripped the team of three first round picks (2001, 2002, & 2004).
Following Brandon’s retirement, the Timberwolves made another pair of playoff appearances (though they still had yet to win a series) before teaming Garnett with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. This was the best collection of perimeter talent he’d had in his career. The talented trio would produce the franchise’s best-ever season in 2003-04, winning 58 regular season games and advancing to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell to the Lakers in six games.
At the time, no one would have guessed that Wolves’ trip to the NBA's top-tier would be so short-lived. However, this was a fleeting high water mark from which the Timberwolves have fallen precipitously.
In the years that have followed, the Timberwolves have produced just one winning season (44-38 in 2004-05), failed to make the playoffs, elected to trade the only superstar in franchise history rather than risk squandering the remaining years of his prime, and have failed to win more than 24 games in a season since.
As an NBA fan who’s rooted for the Wolves in the past and actually married a Minnesotan, I desperately want to paint an optimistic picture of this franchise’s future. However, recent moves by management (GM David Kahn’s PG Tourette syndrome in the 2009 draft, the alienation of Ricky Rubio, and the decision to trade away the legit 20-10 big man received in exchange for Garnett for no actual players) have not exactly impressed.