Wild, Wolves showing they want to win now
MINNEAPOLIS – In sports as in life, it's impossible to love without complaining.
When the going is rough, the complaints are no more real than when times are good. There's always a gripe, between contracts and injuries and the thousands of coaching decisions that each fan among millions can disagree with during every game. There's always a could've and a should've, a decision with too many moving parts for any outsider to understand but that's critiqued regardless.
Now, just days into NBA and NHL free agency, Minnesota is becoming familiar with a new kind of complaining. Minnesota is learning to dig for problems, but more than anything, it's navigating this sense of how to be grateful to its teams and their owners, even proud of them. In recent weeks, the Timberwolves and the Wild have done wonders to shake up the local sports scene. They've reminded a city that's become resigned to the sports status quo that they, too, believe winning doesn't happen by doing nothing.
On July 4, the Wild put Minnesota pro hockey back in the spotlight when they signed not only Zach Parise but also Ryan Suter, a package deal that's unprecedented in the team's 12-year existence. Instead of lamenting a weak finish to the season, Minnesota fans can now complain about contract lengths and amounts (13 years and $98 million each), things that should help the team win in the near term, not impede it. Really, that's about as long as the worry list can be this summer.
Since late June, the Timberwolves have also been active. They've been included in rumors and talks about names as big as Ray Allen and Pau Gasol, which is itself a feat. They traded for Chase Budinger, a value player familiar with Rick Adelman's system who fit the bill for everything the team needed. They have agreed to sign three-time All-Star Brandon Roy, who bad knees and all is still proof that they're thinking big, and they're engaged in an all-out war with Portland to acquire Nicolas Batum. Maybe they'll get him, maybe they won't. Regardless, they've given the acquisition a wholehearted effort without hinging their postseason acquisitions solely upon it.
The complaints will be that the Batum deal could have been done — if it fails. That might be true, but if the Trail Blazers demand more than the Timberwolves deem wise to give, it's their prerogative to back out. If the acquisition happens in one form or another, it'll likely be to a chorus that the team gave up too much money. Regardless, fans will be watching. They'll be creating complaints instead of picking which vein of lamenting to dwell on. And, as sports in Minnesota have conditioned them to do, they'll be praying for the playoffs while silently steeling themselves against inevitable heartbreak.
That's the thing about sports in Minnesota: they're one part passion, one part resignation, a unique blend. They're fans who purchase ticket packages every season without grand hopes of winning, who will talk about how no team but the Lynx has captured a championship in two-plus decades as they tailgate for hours outside the Metrodome. There is devotion, love, even worship, but expectations have at times been so disparate from the emotional and financial resources that fans invest in these teams.
Perhaps those expectations are the scariest thing about the past few weeks. For the first time in years, they're real, and for the Wild and the Timberwolves, they're even more terrifying in light of last season's doomed forays into relevance. In mid-December, the Wild had the NHL's best record. The Timberwolves were flirting with a playoff berth, competitive for the first time in years until their season snowballed in March. These moves and the expectations they've bred are borne of little more than heartbreak and its aftermath. The taste of winning proved too much to not try again, and this time around, these teams want to be contenders, not surprises.
No matter how these moves pan out, whether Parise is hoisting the Stanley Cup next season or still leading a team in transition, they represent the right kind of response. When a team loses the way the Wild and the Timberwolves (and the Twins, and the Vikings, and the Gophers) did last season, it should hurt. It should cause some sort of visceral response, and in some past cases, it hasn't. Teams lose for a reason, even when their rosters boast such stars as Kevin Love, Adrian Peterson, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. This can't always be about the stars; teams can't simply market themselves on their bright spots and gloss over the losing. They can't make excuses and expect that to wash away problems both past and present. They need to ignore what they have, no matter the talent or star power, and concentrate on what they don't. And that, at its core, is what the Timberwolves and the Wild have done.
Of course there's been chatter about what a talented coach Mike Yeo can be, about Love's selection to the Olympic team and Ricky Rubio's recovery. But those are constants, and right now, Minnesota's teams need to solidify their variables. For the Wild, that meant acquiring stars. For the Timberwolves, it's a mix of potential starters and role players, but that doesn't make their efforts any less important.
Teams can talk so much about shaking things up. They can make minor moves and shuffle their pieces, but it takes the hectic, stomach-churning, even risky gambling that the Wild and Timberwolves have embraced this offseason to truly change. Success comes with a price beyond just money – the cost of each risk and wager can be steep – and these teams know they can't hesitate if they want to win. That attitude, more than anything, might be the most crucial acquisition of 2012, and it ought to become contagious.
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