Incompetence and Fortune: the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans

Photo Credit: Patrick Gorski (USA Today Sports)

They say that luck is what happens when hard work meets opportunity.

But a similar sentiment would rarely prove accurate if expressed with regard to organizational aptitude in professional sports. No, luck — as it relates to NBA franchises, at least — isn’t a combination of any two things. It’s just plain old fortune. When the New Orleans Pelicans realized a six-percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick in the lottery, it wasn’t a serendipitous sign from the world that they deserved some sort of solid.

Four inked ping-pong balls were just vacuumed from a machine in an order that proved beneficial for one representative or another.

Photo Credit: Patrick Gorski (USA Today Sports)

Much like the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans is a basketball city that’s rarely earned any luck; but unlike the Wolves, they’ve happened into it nonetheless.

For all intents and purposes, the Hornets — since re-named to the Pelicans — commenced their inaugural ‘era’ in southeastern Louisiana when they drafted Chris Paul in 2005. After that, they enjoyed their first run of home-grown success, making the playoffs during three of four seasons beginning in 2006-07.

But while Paul gave those squads a commanding floor general, the organization’s decrepit management created unnecessary hurdles in their championship pursuit. George Shinn, the majority owner at the time, was notoriously (and relatively) cheap; he’s the curious actor who, several years prior, traded 24-year-old All-Star Baron Davis in what was essentially a salary dump.

And after making it to the playoffs behind Paul’s brilliance on two consecutive occasions, Shinn fired head coach, Byron Scott, much to the dismay of his touted point guard. During the following season, then, the NBA took ownership of the team because Shinn had piled up a disqualifying amount of debt.

Newly installed decision makers flirted with the idea of trading Paul and, to make a troubling situation worse, were subsequently informed that he was not ready to sign an extension in New Orleans.

Paul was eventually sent to the Los Angeles Clippers. Without him, the Hornets finished the 2011-12 season with the league’s fourth-worst record and, thus, the fourth-best chance to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Memorably, they bucked the odds and nabbed the first selection. After stumbling through the early prime of Paul, they were rewarded with Anthony Davis — another Hall of Fame talent — falling in their lap.

Photo Credit: Derick E. Hingle (USA Today Sports)

By then, Tom Benson had purchased the Hornets from the NBA. Benson, who passed away in 2018, was the long-time owner of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. And soon after assuming control of the Hornets, he curiously selected Saints executive vice president Mickey Loomis to simultaneously serve as his basketball team’s boss. The two professional sports operations share offices, practice facilities and medical staffs to this day; throughout Davis’ tenure, they’ve predictably mismanaged the construction of their roster and a bevy of serious injuries to its players.

So, it was less than surprising when Davis demanded a trade, explaining that he’ll choose “legacy over money,” a reference to the millions he’d leave on the table by electing to sign his next contract elsewhere. The Pelicans proceeded to win 33 games in 2018-19 while their MVP-caliber center frequently watched from his couch. They eventually secured the seventh best odds of grabbing the 2019 draft’s coveted top pick.

Lo and behold, New Orleans vaulted past six similarly desperate teams in what was anything but a combination of hard work and opportunity. To those who more closely follow the Wolves, this reads like an alternative universe to the one owner Glen Taylor has presided over at Target Center.

The Wolves, like the Pelicans, drafted a Hall of Famer during their franchise’s infancy. Raw, scrawny and mean, Kevin Garnett made his debut in Minneapolis in 1995. The following season, the Wolves commenced the only memorable period they’ve enjoyed in their existence. You know the story: eight straight playoff appearances, seven consecutive campaigns with an above-.500 record and a trip to the conference finals to boot.

But the downfall is a tale that’s told just as often. A confounding covert operation to sign Joe Smith that lost the team a bounty of picks; David Kahn and Kurt Rambis’ consistent missteps; an inability to acquire a suitable supporting cast before it was all but too late. Garnett trudged through turmoil until he was traded in 2007 — in many ways, it was a more drawn out version of Paul’s stint in New Orleans.

The Wolves, though — third from last in the standings the season after losing Garnett — didn’t defy the odds during the 2008 draft lottery. They wound up third just like their record predicted. Then began an era of commendably infused incompetence and misfortune: the fifth worst record in 2008-09, the sixth pick in the 2009 draft; the second-worst record in 2009-10, the fourth pick in the 2010 draft; the league’s worst record in 2010-11, the second pick in the 2011 draft.

Sure, there were a couple of competitive seasons born out of a Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio core. Plus, things technically broke right when the Wolves held onto the pick that delivered Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015. But they’ve never enjoyed the sort of uncanny good luck that can kick-start success when mediocrity would otherwise be inevitable. And after securing the 11th overall pick in next month’s draft despite possessing the 10th most ping pong balls, it proved true that this time would be more of the same.

Photo credit: Patrick Gorski (USA Today Sports)

But if the situation in New Orleans is an illustration of a world where the Wolves occasionally hit the jackpot, it’s a fairly meaningless upgrade from what’s been a rocky reality. After all, while the Wolves are dead last (30th) as a franchise in playoff wins per season, the Pelicans’ (26th) history isn’t anything to envy. The dichotomy of these two stories is proof of the notion that progression in this league relies far more on competence than any amount of chance.

And that’s a fact that the Wolves may be beginning to embrace by onboarding executive talent with no ties to their past. Even the decision to hire Tom Thibodeau as head coach and president in 2016, though it failed in the end, was in many ways a constructive step toward structural improvement. Taylor outbid the market to hire a lauded basketball mind with an accomplished past, one he had no prior relationship with. To an extent, the owner’s desire to evolve was made increasingly clear, then, when he stayed outside of his famed comfort zone and selected Gersson Rosas to be his president of basketball operations last month.

Rosas, a long-time member of the Houston Rockets’ front office staff, has spoken adamantly about the “tangible change” that he hopes to impress on this franchise. The proof is in the pudding, of course, and after witnessing so many iterations of dysfunction this fanbase isn’t likely to be fooled. But tangible change — a more consistent demonstration of cohesion and expertise — is precisely what is needed for the Wolves to achieve sustained success. And if Rosas can be an embodiment of just that, he may wind up with the backing of some compensatory karma.

Statistically speaking, bad luck just can’t continue for much longer.

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