Niesen: Wolves’ development period is over

MINNEAPOLIS – When your star player is halfway across the world and speaking out about what will happen if he doesn’t win and win soon, it’s easy to panic. Natural, even.

The Timberwolves without Kevin Love oh no oh no what are we going to do this is terrible he’s abandoning us just like Kevin Garnett how will we ever recover I need a psychologist.

But before those hasty and incoherent thoughts start racing through every Minnesota fan’s mind, wait just one frantic breath. Realize that the people who could have panicked didn’t. From where we sit on the cusp of August, it appears that David Kahn and the team took in Love’s comments – basically more intense versions of what he’d been saying all season – with a notion of calm. They didn’t just latch onto the notion of winning and begin building willy-nilly; they determined what kind of winning might be feasible and built for that.

We may not still be saying this come March, but that’s the heartbreaking beauty of sports. For now, when nothing has yet been subject to the whim of luck and injuries and split-second decisions, this looks good.

When Scott Brooks and the Thunder came to the Target Center in April, they were fighting for a No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoff standings. They were arguably one of the best teams in basketball and logical contenders for a championship – all that just three years after posting a 23-59 record in 2008-09.

Although Brooks and his team eventually fell short in the NBA Finals, in April, they were still the league’s wunderkinds. Brooks fielded questions about whether his team had skipped a step, whether it hadn’t yet paid its dues of sufficient time as a playoff team transitioning into a true contender.

The questions were irrelevant, really, but they brought up an interesting notion. Is there a timeline to winning? There are stages, no doubt, but how quickly can a team transition? It’s equal parts philosophy and basketball, but it’s something that the Timberwolves must have in mind this offseason.

There are many ways to build. Teams can aim for the longer-term future like the Hornets did this offseason, accumulating some veterans but pinning success to two teenagers. They might not make the playoffs next year, but barring catastrophe, they’ll be creeping in soon.

Teams can bank on a championship immediately like the Rockets have been trying to do since June, by stockpiling draft picks and holding far too many players under contract in the hopes of enticing the Magic to deal Dwight Howard and his expiring deal.

And then teams can do some variation on what the Timberwolves have been attempting this offseason, with one part realism and one part resolve. It’s what Kahn called a healthy urgency, and the team is banking on its strategy to get it where it needs to go in the near term in order to preserve its base.

There are three factors that pin the Timberwolves to the promise of success: Rick Adelman, Love and Ricky Rubio. They’re the three men this team is built around, and two seem to have pressing expiration dates. Adelman is 66. This team might be his NBA swan song, and he’s not going to put up with too much more of what went on last season. Then there’s Love, who at 23 and with four full seasons behind him feels a similar notion of aging – as a player. He got his option for the fourth year of his contract, and he’s even spoken out about demanding a trade sooner if the team can’t win.

The Timberwolves don’t have the luxury of building something from the ground up. They tried that, with Love, Wes Johnson, Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio as their young core, and it failed. They also don’t have the money, cache or structure in place to bank on being immediate championship contenders. But they’re one step ahead of where the Thunder were in the 2009 offseason; they already got a hint of success that their 26-40 record last year obscures. Right now, the team needs to focus on building to make the playoffs, building realistically so that down the line it can grow into a championship contender and attract the pieces it needs to get there.

This offseason, the Timberwolves made a concerted effort to eschew youth for experience. It was too young last year, with a 23-year-old as its leader and little presence of veterans who were still in their prime. When the Timberwolves dealt their first-round draft pick for Chase Budinger in June, Adelman was clear that the last thing the team needed was another teenaged player whom it would have to develop and wait for. So instead, they’ve focused on the right kind of age and experience. They’ve acquired players like Budinger and Greg Stiemsma and Alexey Shved who are still young and improving, but past the point where they’re raw. They’ve signed Andrei Kirilenko, who might be past his prime but still seems to have plenty to offer. They’ve lured Brandon Roy out of retirement to provide a spark on the bench, his health questions overshadowed by the leadership he might provide.

A quick glance at the Timberwolves’ roster last year revealed some household names and a budding promise, but the success never materialized. This year’s roster boasts three more players with postseason experience, an older average age and the sense that putting it together required some informed thought. Where last season, the team was building from something close to scratch, its expectations nil, this year it’s answering the questions that last season left lingering. It’s answering them, and it seems to be answering them well.

The Timberwolves are building to retain Love. They’re building to entice Adelman to complete his task in Minnesota and bring the team into playoff-bound half of the league. But they’re not deviating from a reasonable path to please the two men. They’re building with a method, with a natural progression in mind. It may not be Dwight Howard. It may not be Anthony Davis. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be exciting.

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