On Jan. 31, 2015, Flip Saunders came out of his office in a huff. Kevin Love was making his return to the Target Center, and the jumbotron had just welcomed former Minnesota Timberwolves “great” Mike Miller back to the Twin Cities. It was a seemingly innocuous gag: Both were members of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but Love’s return was the headliner that night.
It was hard not to snicker when Flip came out all worked up for his pregame availability. It was just after 5:00 pm. The game wouldn’t start for another two hours, hardly anybody was in the arena, and they literally could (and probably did) change the graphic before game time.
“Would the San Antonio Spurs do that?” he asked the media rhetorically, visibly worked up.
The point was that he was trying to set a tone. This organization was no longer what it became after he was fired during the 2004-05 season. He was going to get it back to respectability. He had a plan to bring Kevin Garnett back and eventually own the team with the only transcendent superstar the franchise ever had. He felt he was building a young core that was going to win sustainably for a long time.
We all remember his tragic passing and what has happened since.
In some ways, Gersson Rosas was trying his hand at cleansing the organization and building a culture. Unlike David Kahn and Tom Thibodeau, he was charismatic. It was hard not to take his ambitions to turn the Timberwolves into a family seriously when he sat with his wife and two children during his introductory press conference and had the team go on a trip to the Bahamas before the season.
But it’s fair to be a little cynical about the “Wolves family” when he jettisoned most of the roster halfway through the season.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t warranted. The team wasn’t good, Rosas didn’t build it, and there’s a lot of turnover in the NBA. He made a concerted effort to bring D’Angelo Russell — Towns’ best friend who had already been on two teams in four years — to Minnesota. When he traded for him, he got off Andrew Wiggins’ albatross contract, but it cost him a first-round pick in next year’s draft, which is supposed to be chock-full of talent.
He appeared to be building a team that would have great chemistry. He brought Rubio back on draft night, took the incredibly self-confident and charismatic Anthony Edwards at No. 1 overall, and had reunited KAT and DLo. This team was supposed to be fun and likable.
Trading away a first-round pick in a stacked draft is a win-now move, however, especially for a rebuilding team in need of high-end, affordable talent. The selection is top-3 protected, but in the current lottery system, Minnesota only has a 40% chance of retaining it.
The trade took away their ability to tank.
Kahn drafted Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry and didn’t sign Love to a max deal. Thibodeau traded for Jimmy Butler, who forced himself out of town, and drafted Kris Dunn over Jamal Murray. Rosas won’t ever top picking two players over Curry, and he inherited Wiggins’ contract, but trading out of a draft that could put a franchise player next to Towns might be his Kahn/Thibs moment.
Nobody could have seen this season going as poorly as it has for Minnesota.
First of all, the NBA should have begun the season in the bubble and moved it back into home arenas once the players could be vaccinated. But for the Wolves to start 2-0 and have Towns reinjure his wrist after a big win over the Utah Jazz, and then for him of all people to contract COVID, is a tough blow.
Their problems go beyond Towns, however. They didn’t have any depth behind him. They began the year without a power forward. They have too many one-dimensional players who accel at defense but don’t offer enough offensively, or vice versa.
The Wolves weren’t a team that was ready to go all-in.
Rosas’ inability to trade the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft showed the limitations of his ability to use trades to improve the team. It’s one thing to scrap a hapless roster. It’s another thing to move the first pick in a milquetoast draft and get value. The move was to trade down and take Tyrese Haliburton, hopefully scooping up a 2021 selection along the way, but it’s challenging to execute.
The problem now is that this team is in no man’s land, and tanking isn’t the surefire option.
It was in 2014-15 when the Wolves got off to a poor start. Flip dealt away anyone of value, started Zach LaVine at point guard, bottomed out, and selected Towns first overall. Worst-case scenario, he knew he’d get a good pick if he tanked.
Now the Wolves face Sophie’s choice. Either they try to stay near the bottom of the league and hope they can retain a top-3 pick, or they go all-in and try to win a one-game playoff to face one of the best teams in the West, knowing they’re likely to be swept in the first round.
Neither is a desirable option. There’s a strong argument that by tanking, the Wolves would get a chance to draft a franchise player and the roster itself isn’t worth preserving anyway. Trade away the players you can, and don’t worry about creating a culture of losing by bottoming out once again — it already exists.
On the other hand, this is an opportunity to go all-out and see what happens. KAT will eventually come back, and we haven’t seen him and DLo play extensively together. There are effort players like Josh Okogie and Jarred Vanderbilt who can build a strong culture. Suppose Minnesota finishes with one of the worst records in the league. In that case, Ryan Saunders is likely gone, even if he can’t be faulted for KAT’s injury or having players out with the coronavirus. If they can sneak into the 10th seed, he might get another chance.
At some point, the Wolves are going to have to try to build a winning culture. High draft picks offer the opportunity to get a franchise player like KAT, but they can also bring apathetic players like Wiggins or wild cards like Edwards. At some point, they have to learn how to win.
The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz crafted their teams without tanking. The Milwaukee Bucks got Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick. Popovich has committed to a culture of winning even though the players he won championships with have retired.
Yes, Flip tanked. But he had a plan to eventually escape the vicious cycle of constantly tanking. He also knew the value of professionalism in an organization. He knew he had to emulate the best teams to compete with them. That’s why he got so worked up about an image on a jumbotron two hours before tip that hardly anyone saw.
It wasn’t who he wanted the Timberwolves to be. It wasn’t what winners do.