As the NBA heads into the All-Star weekend, the Minnesota Timberwolves know one thing: They won’t lose a game over the next handful of days. Thanks to a nine-game losing streak entering the break, Minnesota currently sits at the bottom of the league standings with a record of 7-29.
Unfortunately, there’s not much going right for them at the moment. Newly appointed head coach Chris Finch has yet to secure his first win, the Wolves allow the third-most points per game in the NBA, and some leaders on the team are wondering where exactly this team is headed.
Growing up in the Twin Cities, I was taught to look at situations from a glass-half-full perspective. Despite never experiencing a championship run from a local men’s sports franchise in my 28 years of existence (thank God for the Lynx), I still am disconcertingly optimistic about Minnesota sports, specifically the T-Wolves.
In order to appease my hopefulness, I looked back at some teams of recent memory that had a successful rebuild. In order to try and understand what the future holds for the Karl-Anthony Towns-led squad, let’s take a quick peek and see how similarly constructed teams made the jump from worst to first.
Maybe the most obvious comparison considering the multitude of lottery picks on the roster, Philly has one of the craziest “started from the bottom now we here” sports stories in NBA history.
Brett Brown started his 76ers coaching tenure at the beginning of the 2013-14 season. In his first three seasons with the team, he won 47 games. Total. Think about that. Out of 246 basketball games, Brown’s team had the most points on the scoreboard at the final buzzer only 47 times.
After winning just 19 games in one season and 18 in the next, Philadelphia’s rock bottom came in the 2015-16 season when won — and I kid you not — 10 games. In the 10-win season, Jahlil Okafor and Ish Smith led the way offensively, and the 76ers were the fourth-worst team in the league defensively.
You know the phrase: Trust the process. The 76ers coined this phrase because they had no other option but to pray their draft picks developed into stars.
In the 2014 NBA Draft, the Sixers had an opportunity to turn their franchise around in a hurry with three lottery picks. They took Joel Embiid with the third overall pick, Nik Stauskas with the eighth overall selection, and Dario Saric 12th overall.
Outside of the ’14 draft, Philadelphia still had a couple of high draft picks as part of their process. Okafor was taken third overall in 2015, and they got Ben Simmons with the first overall pick in 2016.
Embiid didn’t play his first two seasons in the league because of foot injuries, and Simmons also didn’t play his first year in the NBA due to a foot injury.
When the dynamic duo of Embiid and Simmons were finally healthy and took the court together in 2017, the 76ers went 52-30 and were the third best defensive team in the NBA.
Going from a 10-win season to a 52-win season in just two years is mind-boggling and unrealistic to expect from any other rebuild. The good news, however, for teams that find themselves in the lottery year after year is that you can afford to swing and miss and still be okay in the long run.
Markelle Fultz, Okafor, and Stauskas didn’t pan out in Philly, but they nailed the Embiid and Simmons picks. Then they surrounded the young stars with veteran talent over the years: J.J. Reddick, Ersan Ilyasova, Al Horford, Marco Belinelli, and Tobias Harris.
Since their 10-win rock bottom season, Philadelphia has been competitive on both ends of the floor and will continue to be a force in the East for years to come.
Denver is a Western Conference team that resembles the Wolves in structure. The major difference? The Nuggets had winning records in each of the last three seasons — and they play defense.
So how did they get to where they are today?
In 2014 they had a franchise-changing draft. The Nuggets selected Jusuf Nurkic 16th overall, Gary Harris 19th overall, and Nikola Jokic 41st overall, (and, yes, Minnesota had the opportunity to draft The Joker in the second round but elected for Glenn Robinson III instead).
The season following that draft ended up being the low point for Denver. They went 30-52 and ranked bottom-five defensively (Minnesota was the worst, of course). Jokic continued to play in his home country of Serbia for the 2014-15 season, and Denver simply had no firepower. Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, and Wilson Chandler accounted for most of their buckets and they didn’t have a sniff of defense on the entire roster. Kenneth Faried was a young beast on the boards, but not necessarily the best defender.
After the abysmal year, Denver fired head coach Brian Shaw and brought in Mike Malone. Ever since that season, the Nuggets have progressed year after year, and they finally hit their stride in 2018.
Denver really didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. They hired the right coach in Malone and the coaching staff did a phenomenal job with player development starting in 2015. They let the young core grow together in Jokic, Harris, and Will Barton, and then slowly added pieces in both free agency and the draft.
Sure, they whiffed on some draft picks like Emmanuel Mudiay (seventh overall), but that didn’t stop them from continuing to build an impressive foundation. In the 2018-19 season, Denver went 54-28 and ranked as the 10th-best defensive team in the league.
Similar to Philadelphia and Minnesota, Denver has a phenomenal big man (Jokic) who has the fortune of being surrounded by talented wing players (Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Barton). The Nuggets did a great job developing their young talent and, unfortunately for the Wolves, will be a Western Conference foe as long as Jokic and Murray are on the team.
The Jazz found themselves with very little hope in 2014 and had a comparable trajectory to the Nuggets. Utah only won 25 games in the 2013-14 season and had the second-to-worst-ranked defense in the league. They were inexperienced with few playmakers on the roster.
Third-year forward Gordon Hayward led the team in points with 16.2 per game, and then the next two leading scorers were Alec Burks and Enes Kanter (yikes). So what did they do after the season? You guessed it, they fired head coach Tyrone Corbin and hired Quin Snyder.
The 2014 and 2015 drafts were not great by any means for the Jazz. They had three first-round selections in those two years and ended up missing on every pick. Dante Exum (fifth overall), Rodney Hood (23rd overall), and Trey Lyles (12th overall) never lived up to their hype coming out of college. Hood was a decent starter/role player for Utah at the beginning of his career, but the former Blue Devil has never been able to take his game to the next level.
Fortunately for Utah’s general manager at the time, the Jazz found some studs in the 2013 draft. Trey Burke, who peaked as a rookie, and Rudy Gobert, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, really helped dig Utah out of their losing ways after the 2013-14 season.
Over the next few seasons, the Jazz steadily improved. After making some free-agency acquisitions while also letting their young core grow together, Utah had officially arrived. They finished the 2016-17 season with a record of 51-31.
Franchise staples like Gobert, Hayward, and Derrick Favors led the team on both ends of the court, while veterans Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, and George Hill helped the young roster close out tightly contested games. The growth of Utah’s big men along with experienced role players allowed them to finish with the third-best defensive rating in the 2016-17 season.
Since that season the Jazz found a diamond in the draft in Donovan Mitchell (13th overall) and brought in players who fit their system extremely well (Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson). Now they’re another Western Conference team the Wolves will eventually need to overtake if they hope to make a deep playoff run.
Looking at the rebuilds above, two things stand out above all else: time and consistency. A team can’t progress and form a solid foundation if management tears the roster apart every offseason.
Absolutely, the last thing fans want to hear is the team just needs more time. But Minnesota has the youngest roster in the NBA, they just fired their head coach, and two members of their Big Three are out for the next month. So as frustrating as it may be, the roster really just needs time to grow and develop together.
The Timberwolves have yet to see what the team is truly capable of. When Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Beasley, and Anthony Edwards all take the floor together, then and only then can we really start to assess if the team is capable of a championship run.