Danecdotes: Wait, are the Timberwolves actually good?
We are officially in the middle of summer. The grass is green, the air is warm and the lakes sparkle with sunlight.
So let's talk about a winter sport, shall we?
Just about all of Minnesota's pro sports team have a big question mark attached to them at the moment (Can the Twins continue to overachieve and hang on for a playoff spot? Are the changes made to the offensive line and running game enough to put the Vikings back in contention?) but no team in this state has a bigger "what if" attached to them than the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The team hasn't made the playoffs since 2004, when Kevin Garnett and the gang made it to the Western Conference Finals. In the past few years they have built a core of young, promising athletes anchored by 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and 2015 No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
They made the biggest headlines at the NBA Draft in late June, and it had nothing to do with who they drafted.
On draft night, they traded to acquire all-star forward Jimmy Butler, who for the past three years has averaged 20 or more points per game while also being named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in each of those years. In exchange, the Wolves sent Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to the Chicago Bulls, sacrificing some of the team's youth for sure-fire scoring and defensive prowess. The two teams also swapped first-round draft picks.
Butler played for Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and flourished in his system - evolving from a bit player to the Bulls' primary scoring option.
Then, they shipped off point guard Ricky Rubio - who has been a lot of fun to watch because of his Pete Maravich-esque passing ability but is a rather subpar shooter - to the Utah Jazz for a first-round draft pick. After sending Rubio to Utah, they signed Jeff Teague to replace him. In my opinion, Teague was the second-best point guard on the free agent market. At the very least, he is the best scoring option at point guard the team has had in a long time.
Minnesota has always been at a disadvantage as prominent free agents usually want to go to big markets (Boston, New York), cities in beautiful climates (Miami, Los Angeles), a team that has recently proven successful (San Antonio, Golden State) or the region where they grew up, but Teague told his agent he wanted to go to Minnesota, even though that market is none of those things. He just saw an on-the-rise team acquire Butler and wanted to be a part of what happens next. That's pretty cool, if you ask me.
But the summer fun doesn't stop there for the Wolves.
The same day they added Teague, the Wolves signed veteran forward (and Thibodeau-era Bull) Taj Gibson to a two-year deal. Gibson provides a defensive presence off the bench and will likely provide a sort of mentorship role for Towns as he attempts to become a high-level two-way player. Plus, he's already familiar with Thibodeau's coaching style. Consider me on board.
The Wolves followed that up by signing Jamal Crawford - a three-time winner of the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award - to a two-year deal. Crawford, at 37 years old, is likely in the twilight of his career, put has provided a great scoring touch off the bench for the L.A. Clippers in recent years. Who is to say he won't do that in Minnesota?
The Timberwolves have gone from a young team with no bench waiting to mature and hit their stride to a balanced team of veterans, hopeful stars, a little depth and one top-20 athlete in his prime. I don't know if they have ever had that combination in their nearly 30 years - maybe in the Kevin Garnett/Stephon Marbury era, but I would argue neither were in their prime yet at that point. Before anyone shouts about the 2003-04 team, that team did not have any really promising, superstar-in-the-making young players at the time, certainly not at the level of Wiggins and Towns.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited, but my prediction for the coming season is slightly pessimistic: The Timberwolves will finally snap out of their long, torturous postseason drought, and that's it - first-round exit.
They will have a winning record, make the playoffs and shake off a decade in the basement. However, I think they are a No. 5 seed in the Western Conference at best. I think this will be their best year since the Kevin Garnett era, but I don't think they can win a seven-game series against the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Houston Rockets or the San Antonio Spurs.
If this team can stay together - and stay healthy - for the next few seasons though, I truly think they can match or even exceed the success of the 2003-04 Timberwolves team, which is far and away the best season they have ever had.
This season, however, the team may be able to vie for Northwest Division supremacy with the Thunder, but I think there are far too many obstacles in April and May. I'm looking forward to the possibility of them still actually playing in May though.