Timberwolves appear ready to take first step

Niesen: Even a brief playoff appearance would mean everything to the Timberwolves and their city.

MINNEAPOLIS – A few weeks ago, I got into the closest thing to a pro- Timberwolves argument I've ever spouted.

The Timberwolves have a chance at a playoff seed, I told a friend, even if it's seventh or eighth.

This friend said maybe. He wasn't quite buying it.

I then told this friend how much it would mean to Minnesota if the Timberwolves were to snatch one of those final spots. I explained how fun things were for that month last season, that even as an outsider, I could sense how much success would mean.

He scoffed. It's not like it's been that long, he said. (In fact, it has. The Timberwolves currently have the longest playoff drought of any NBA team, dating back to 2003-04.) I shrugged.

It would matter.

His counter: A playoff berth would likely just mean a beatdown in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City or even Denver. And I agree. But here's where my opinion differs. For some teams, a first-round loss would be a bad thing. For the Timberwolves right now, it would be the next step. It would be nothing to be ashamed of. It's also a long way off.

“You've just got baby steps," Dante Cunningham said. “Even if it is just going in there and playing the Lakers, you have that stepping stone for next year. You have that goal to match next year. It's something that a lot of guys don't have here."

Cunningham has been through this before, in a sense. He played last season with Memphis, a team that the season before had earned its first playoff berth in five years. Although he wasn't there for the beginning of the turnaround, he still saw the results. He saw the community support, the growing crowds and the gradual confidence that, yes, the team was for real. The Grizzlies haven't made it past the playoffs' second round since their resurgence, and even that one series victory was an upset, but that doesn't matter. They're taking those baby steps, which, though perhaps anticlimactic, are totally necessary.

The NBA is a unique beast in its illusion of competitive balance. That was the point of this new CBA, right, to distribute the wealth? (Excuse my stifled laughter.) Really, though, the league has a power structure reminiscent of the caste system in colonial India. The Lakers, Celtics and Spurs are the Brahmins, the Timberwolves of past years the pariahs. That's not to say there aren't fairy tales (Cinderella lives in Oklahoma City, apparently), but it takes more than one shot to crack that top of the social structure. Think of it this way: In the past 25 years, only eight franchises have won titles, and of those eight, only the Mavericks and Celtics have not won multiple over that time period.

No, a solid playoff thumping at the hands of the elite really wouldn't hurt the Timberwolves one bit.

So now we get to what all this means. From one perspective, it means nothing. It's a bunch of grown men running around after a bouncy ball in front of thousands of people with an irrational obsession with the path of said ball. But those people are paying to see a product whose impact can ripple through a city, and that investment has to be worth something. At some point, the Timberwolves need to be more than just a pretty tease. They can't just bat their eyelashes and then leave the party early like they did last season. They need to put out something tangible, something that represents sustained progress toward a goal.

“This is a reflection of us," Cunningham said. “So we have to kind of build a brand and make sure that our brand is what the community and the team and the organization wants."

Last season was progress, but it ended in regression. This season needs to move more linearly forward, to a playoff berth or at least toward one.

And in that respect, the Timberwolves have something to prove. In this little Minnesota bubble, there are expectations. There's buzz. But beyond it, crickets. Or at least questions. The eyes aren't here. There's little scrutiny, and for once, that's a good thing. Two years ago, scrutiny would have meant biting criticism, tired analysis that the team, frankly, made no sense. But this year, it might be different. This year, it would be welcome. But it's not here, and so for now, the Timberwolves can be a surprise.

And really, might that not be a bit more fun?

The talking has gotten tired. There's been enough projecting and hypothesizing. A good team will be good for Minnesota. A good team will fill seats and energize a community. A good team that can't go the distance won't get in the way of any of that. It's simpler here in Minnesota, simpler than wondering if one little tweak will cost a championship, a higher seed, a reputation. The Timberwolves don't need that nuance yet. They just need to win and win as much as they can. The details can come later, and the meaning.

At media day on Oct. 1, president of basketball operations David Kahn ushered in the tone that should set the season. His words are not usually the stuff of poetic predictions, but in this case, there's no better way to put it. “This becomes less about what if," he said, “than about what's occurring." That could be frightening, and to Kahn, it probably is, what with the flak he's taken and the hours he spent assembling this unconventional team.

But it's also refreshing. Stop talking, stop mourning what's impossible to change. Start doing. If there's one consensus now among the Timberwolves on the eve of this season, it's this: We haven't done anything yet.

The fan support can come. The impact can come. The boost to the franchise, the energy, the respect – it all can come. But first, the Timberwolves need to perform, and in this case, simply winning without any thought of its implications is perfectly enough.

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