MINNEAPOLIS — Think back, way back in the annals of recent sports history. Before Tim Tebow was a Jet and Kevin Love was an Olympian. Before a unibrow was trademarked and the Wild landed the two biggest free agents in the NHL offseason. It’s before Lebron was a champion and Jeremy Lin was anything more than a Harvard grad.
Remember January 4? Probably not. It was the day the Timberwolves lost to the Grizzlies, 90-86, at the Target Center, snapping their fairy-tale two-game winning streak over the Mavericks and Spurs. It was the day the Timberwolves boasted a starting lineup of Kevin Love (of course), Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Luke Ridnour and Wes Johnson.
Ricky Rubio wasn’t allowed to start yet, not when so much about him was uncertain and he’d yet earned nothing.
Nikola Pekovic didn’t play a minute, not one. He’s listed on stat sheets as “DNP — COACH’S DECISION” after beginning the season injured, and even if he was healthy by that point, Rick Adelman had no convincing reason to play him.
On January 4, the point guard who would eventually start and transform the Timberwolves’ offense was nothing more than a Spanish prospect whose play had fallen off in the two years since he was drafted. On January 4, the center who’d emerge as one of the league’s most improved players was coming off a season in which he’d committed a foul every 4.9 minutes and averaged just 5.5 points.
On January 4, the Timberwolves needed surprises. And for the good part of the next two months, they got them. Not only were there Rubio and Pekovic, but Love also exceeded expectations, becoming one of the league’s premier power forwards and adding a much-improved perimeter shot. The Timberwolves rode those surprises to a 21-19 record on March 7, their last game before Rubio’s injury, the last day that surprises were a good thing.
For a few months, it was exciting. It was unexpected. There was widespread belief that this team was only getting better as it jelled, that it might be able to cling to the eighth playoff seed that it was tenuously grasping. The Timberwolves dealt in the currency of good surprises.
This year, that all changes. The surprises will be harder to find on this more carefully assembled squad. These players are more proven, for the most part, and the team doesn’t quite need a shocking breakout to be good. In fact, it’s hanging its hopes on players like Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko playing at a higher level than some might expect them to. The cast that’s assembled isn’t nearly as shaky as last year’s, but so many expectations depend on players who have excelled in the past returning to that form. It’s far from a sure thing, but the body of work is there.
This year’s Timberwolves might not have last year’s shock value. Their ceiling might not be so uncertain, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Last year’s surprises are memorable, but it’s easy to remember the good. It’s so simple to forget what came with those surprises: the worry they wouldn’t last, the jolt of realizing that no one could fill Rubio’s shoes, the feeling that any notion of depth early in the season had been smoke and mirrors. Those issues seem to have been addressed, and stability might not be quite so boring when one remembers the lows as well as the peaks.
The surprises might not end, but they’re unlikely to be as impactful. The biggest upside, though, of this year, might come with the normal. The pace will not be so frantic. The goals seem clearer and also more doable. And, for the first time with the Timberwolves, Adelman will have the time to put his system in place.
The Timberwolves coach is in many ways the last of a generation. He’s one of the few remaining coaches who really knows how to teach the game, player development coach Shawn Respert said, and that urge to instruct was evident throughout last season. The reality, though, was that there simply was no time.
Now, Adelman can teach. The man so methodical and routine-oriented that he wears some variation on the same black polo and pants before every game can finally try to impose that kind of consistency on his team. He can stop trying to put his system in place piecemeal, attempting to prioritize something that’s best digested whole. He can hold practices — what a novelty! — and the hell of back-to-back-to-back games will fade into distant memory.
Adelman is the kind of person who knows better than to hold too much stock in surprises. He’s too methodical for them, too invested in the process to revel in such instant and unexplained results. That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy last season’s treats, but just that he can do this without them. If the Timberwolves learned anything last season, it’s that shock comes in all forms, from wonderful to demoralizing.
So as 2012-13 looms and the surprises have become building blocks, Adelman’s Timberwolves are far better off. A sustained measure of success is what the team is working toward now, and in that, it’s chasing last year’s most fleeting surprise.