Halfway Through the Season, the Minnesota Timberwolves are in a Familiar, Unfortunate Position

The thing that we talk to our young guys about is that they gotta approach every game like they’re playing a San Antonio or Golden State or a Cleveland — upper echelon teams. You just have to.
— Wolves head coach Sam Mitchell after a 125-99 loss to the Cavaliers on Jan. 8

In order to explain what is happening with his young, talented team, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell offers an anecdote about his friend, a professional golfer. “He hits the ball so much farther [than anyone Mitchell knows],” he says, noting that his friend is small in stature, but hits the ball 340 yards off the tees when the two play at East Lake Golf Club in Mitchell’s hometown of Atlanta, “and I ask him all the time: How do you do that? What’s the difference between you and Jordan Spieth and all those guys?”

The answer, his friend says, is focus. The best golfers in the world — Spieth, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy — all can stay focused five straight hours, or however long it takes to complete 18 holes. His buddy cannot. “‘They have this ability to where they can walk down the fairway and have a conversation with another player, but by the time they get to their ball and the caddie starts giving them information, their focus can change, they can get locked in,’” his friend tells him. “He can’t do that,” explains Mitchell.

Bringing it back to basketball, the interim coach, who offered this anecdote at a practice in early January, asks a rhetorical question. “Okay, so what’s the difference between Tayshaun [Prince] and one of our young guys?” he asks, referring to his 35-year-old forward, who entered the league in 2002. “Tayshaun understands, over the course of time, how to learn how to focus for two-and-a-half hours. Because that’s what it is. It’s not 48 minutes. It’s two hours and eighteen minutes that you gotta stay focused.

“And when you lose it, having the ability to get it back.”

Mitchell has emphasized gameday routine all season long. He said that people learned not to call him after 3:00 p.m. on the day of a game because he needed to avoid distractions. He constantly reminds the fans and media that we were all 19 once, and there were many things that got in the way of our professional or educational obligations. “It’s funny to me that all you guys out here talk about how crazy and irresponsible you were at 19, 20 years old, but they’re supposed to be different,” he said in late November before a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. “And y’all were broke.

“Think how crazy and irresponsible you woulda been at 19, 20 years old with $500 in your pocket, much less some of the money that they have in their pocket.”

His players have family obligations. They have friends who want in on the fun. Some stay up late playing video games. Others are already getting big-time offers on shoe deals and other endorsements. Karl-Anthony Towns has already been on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Shabazz Muhammad had his family life dissected before he entered the league. If you own a PS4, you can probably find Zach LaVine playing Destiny if you play long enough.

In many ways they’re just kids; yet, at the same time, they’re really not. They have adult obligations: They have to show up to work on time and they are expected to perform; and yet, they are paid up front and do their job in front of all of us. If they sleep through their alarm clock and miss part of practice, it’s bound to show up in the papers. If they float through a game, they’ve got 12,000 people in person and countless others on TV who know it. “They ain’t in AAU anymore,” says Mitchell.

Twelve-and-29 is not where this team wanted to be 41 games into the season. The 117-87 blowout of a struggling Phoenix Suns in Game 42 raised their spirits a bit, but it doesn’t counteract half a season of this team playing down to its competition. If they played the way they did against the Atlanta Hawks or the San Antonio Spurs (the second time), they’d be in the running for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Sure, making the playoffs only to be run over by, say, the Golden State Warriors is like finding a penny in the freeway and then being hit by a Mack Truck, but you know what they say — what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

In this case, the playoff experience would do wonders for this team. They will be a part of a sold-out atmosphere where teams like the Warriors dig deep and reach another level. It will sell tickets and help the team play in front of more crowds like they did when Garnett returned last year or when Wiggins squared off against Kevin Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The playoffs are where they want to go, so they might as well get a taste of it as soon as they can.

It seems far-fetched at this point, and their chances of making the postseason slip with every loss, but the postseason is still within reach if they play to their capabilities every night. It will also require a delicate balance by Mitchell: His young guys need the experience late in games, but the older players are more likely to close it out.

Against the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 26 he left the youth in and they got crushed late in a 102-88 loss even though things were pretty close right up until the end. Against the Utah Jazz four days later, his veterans closed out a 94-80 game that Mitchell determined a must-win. The team then went on to lose nine straight games after that before beating Phoenix. Included in those losses were teams like the Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers — bottom-feeders, basically, with young cores that are developing like the Wolves — and also an odd defensive battle with the Denver Nuggets where neither team scored 80 points.

Mitchell said something interesting in a two-part interview he did with Britt Robson of theMinnPost. He said his team could compete with teams like San Antonio or the Atlanta Hawks because they are so system-oriented, where free-flowing teams like Cleveland are able to just railroad them — even if the disparity in talent and experience isn’t huge between the Spurs and Cavs.

“We are not the biggest, most athletic team, but the reason we could play with Atlanta is because Atlanta is very system-oriented. So we can try to take them out of their system,”Mitchell told Robson. “Atlanta has to run its system. San Antonio has to run its system. If you can take them out of their system, you’ve got a chance.”

In the second half, the Wolves have to play spoiler, rather than try and tank it for a top pick. Another young player is just another project, a prospect that likely played in the AAU circuit and were one-and-done — situations where winning is often emphasized over fundamentals. They need to sneak a few wins against teams they shouldn’t beat, and then take advantage of situations when they’re playing the worst the league has to offer.

There’s more than enough young talent on the roster, now they need to play cohesively. And management needs to tinker, not overhaul. There is a latent fanbase ready to support the Wolves on a nightly basis, but it won’t come out of the woodwork until bona fide progress is made. There’s only so much the young players can improve upon in a year — becoming better shooters and adding weight tends to happen in the offseason — but for now they can work on pressure situations and disrupt system teams.

“I just think if we can build off of that,” Mitchell said of the loss to Cleveland in early January. “When we’re not playing Golden State or Cleveland or San Antonio — very elite, experienced teams — then we’ll play a lot better.”

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