MINNEAPOLIS — It’s one of the darkest yet brightest junctures in the largely painful Minnesota Timberwolves’ existence.
Repeated failures have wrought changes at the top of the organization. A success-starved city’s cynicism is spiking. Poor luck piles on top of a growing heap of shortcomings.
Yet hope endures, primarily in the form of a big-time talent at the forward position and a man named Flip taking command.
It’s not May 17, 2013. It’s December 18, 1995.
Flip Saunders just assumed the coaching reins from Bill Blair, who directed a job-costing 6-14 start. Kevin Garnett’s a rookie on the verge of becoming a perennial all-star.
What comes next is the golden age, so far, of professional basketball in the Twin Cities.
Eight straight playoff appearances — the only ones in franchise history — culminate in a Western Conference finals berth in 2004. Garnett, who’s yet to be matched as the organization’s all-time defining athlete, wins league MVP honors that year.
With owner Glen Taylor pumping ample resources into his product, Minnesota has neared the cusp of NBA success. Starting in 1995, the team’s coach, general manager, and front office are working in effective harmony.
Fast forward 18 years, and it’s early. Very early. But there are pieces in place similar to those glory days, the ones Timberwolves fans crave.
The new Kevin, Love that is, is expected to return fully healthy this season. The takeover ability that made Garnett so prolific has yet to germinate, but there are enough complementary pieces in place to set him up in the post and from the outside. Love’s ability to score from both spots and tear down rebounds earned him the description of “the most unique player playing in the NBA” from his new team president.
And Love’s not being asked to be the next Garnett. Just the highest-caliber Kevin Love possible.
Garnett had a top-notch point guard to help kickstart his career, too. Stephon Marbury spent his first two years in Minneapolis; today, Ricky Rubio looks like much more of a mainstay.
But it took some masterful moves at the top to sustain the Saunders-directed run and build around the stars. Team president Kevin McHale went hard after guys like Wally Szczerbiak, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, and Saunders must do the same. Cohesion between him, Taylor and coach Rick Adelman is essential to filling the organization’s current needs, and there are a sizeable handful of them entering the draft and free agency.
That starts with a 3-point shooter. Locking up center Nikola Pekovic is a lofty priority. And an unproductive draft like so many under former president David Kahn could set things back even further.
This season will be the Timberwolves’ 24th. In that time, there’s only one period they have to look back on for some in-house example.
It was the first occasion Saunders and Taylor synthesized, and the results were more fruitful than any others in team history. And though past precedent doesn’t at all guarantee future success, Minnesota has reverted to a model similar to that of its most luminous era.
Just like in the mid-1990s, it’s up to Flip, Kevin, Taylor and company to ignite the lamps once again.