Watching Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery was a strange experience for most Timberwolves fans. For over a decade, the large plastic drum containing hundreds of ping pong balls held the team’s fate.
And in almost every case, this process didn’t help them. The Timberwolves still have yet to move up in the lottery, and have only once gotten the No. 1 overall pick — a year when they finished with the worst record in the NBA.
But after a 2017-18 season that included two All-Star participants and a playoff berth, it was clear that things were changing, at least in the short term.
Yes, the lottery is yet another example of “the first time in 14 years the Timberwolves did something good.” After a while, those facts and figures can get monotonous and tiresome after a while, but it still matters.
No, not on the floor.
The players might bring up the importance of breaking the playoff drought — Karl-Anthony Towns championed its importance several times throughout the season — but it won’t equate to anything significant on the court.
And the players know that.
It doesn’t help the front office or coaching staff, either. Breaking the streak doesn’t add cap space, draft picks or automatically improve the team’s young core players.
In fact, making the playoffs halted the Wolves’ chances of having two draft picks this year. They gave up a lottery-protected first rounder in the Adreian Payne trade of 2015; had they missed the playoffs, they would have had picks 14 and 20, giving them much more flexibility to make more attractive trade offers.
So in that sense, there is more technical, tangible value in avoiding these “firsts” until the team is in a more stable position to compete for a longer stretch of time, both financially and developmentally.
But long-term, these firsts do matter, even if it isn’t completely tangible.
In the 14-year stretch the Timberwolves missed the playoffs, the idea of the Wolves attracting a quality free agent — without overpaying — was next to impossible. In the stretch the Wolves went playoff-less, the highest-profile free agents they acquired were Mike James (2006) and Kevin Martin (2013). Both were solid-but-flawed players with winning qualities, but both signed to take on bigger roles than their skillsets allowed at the time.
James was essentially brought in to be the score-first All-Star caliber point guard the Wolves had lacked since the trade that sent Sam Cassell to the Clippers. James had averaged 20 points per game on a bad Toronto team the year before, but had never put up big numbers on a winning roster. And even though the Wolves struggled just like Toronto, James’ play fell off as Garnett — and Ricky Davis, too — took the reins on offense.
Martin showed up seven years later to a franchise that had grown accustomed to losing by then. He showed an ability to hit his 3s and get to the free-throw line at a high rate. In Sacramento, he was an efficient go-to scorer and helped the Kings uphold decent offensive output. But his defense was always the problem, as it was for the Kings as a whole.
He scored the way fans hoped for the first half of his first season, but that fell off quickly. He never developed a consistency next to Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio the way he did in Sacramento.
A fear of inconsistency was always the risk taken when taken players like James and Martin, but it was also as good as it got.
When Tom Thibodeau acquired Jimmy Butler in 2017, the potential for higher-quality targets changed almost immediately.
Suddenly, rumors that Minnesota was a favorite destination for then-trade requester Kyrie Irving were a thing. Paul Millsap considered Minnesota, and even took a meeting over the summer. Now that they’ve backed up the hype by actually making the postseason — all with Butler missing 23 games — interest from upper-echelon players shouldn’t waver much.
Now that Andrew Wiggins is signed to a max extension and Towns is almost certainly right behind him, it will be impossible for a player of Millsap’s financial value to sign in Minnesota. But, as Dane Moore mentioned last week, there are plenty of mid-level exception targets that the Wolves could target this summer — assuming Derrick Rose and Nemanja Bjelica don’t take anything from it, which is far from a guarantee.
And with Jamal Crawford reportedly opting out of his deal to become a free agent, the chance for the Wolves to add a substantial perimeter defender — that can also shoot from deep — is readily available in theory.
Had they missed the playoffs, those same guys would be equally as available. Butler would still be there to “recruit” free agents, and the allure of playing with a young star like Towns will appeal to any free agent.
But the exposure the team gets from actually making the playoffs could mean something to free agents. Instead of talking to a team that fell below expectations and missed the playoffs despite having two All-Stars and a No. 3 seed in March, they’d be speaking to a team that beat Houston by double digits in the first round and showed real promise for a future in the postseason.
Making the playoffs does more than get the fans going. It does more than get a monkey off Glen Taylor’s back. It does more than add national television exposure and extend the season. It gives the Timberwolves a chance to alter the norms that have plagued them for over a decade.
But in order for any of this to matter, it has to be the beginning of something greater.
Avoiding the Draft Lottery this season was good for short-term pats on the back, but avoiding it for five straight years sends a message to the league that the Timberwolves have stability and a plan that works and has worked. That becomes attractive to everyone — prospective free agents, trade targets with leverage and even (if it comes to it) coaching candidates.
Bringing up all these firsts — playoff berths, multiple All-Star bids, avoiding the Draft Lottery — might get old for now, but the second they’re no longer noteworthy is a sign that things are going right.
Once these firsts have turned into streaks of their own, we won’t have to talk about this stuff anymore. Until then, it’s important.
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