If the Minnesota Timberwolves want to have a successful season, it will have to start at home. The team’s first three games are in Minneapolis, which includes seven out of the first eight. The notoriously ravenous Target Center home crowds will have the first say in dictating the course of the season.
Well, that’s the dream, anyway. It is well-documented that the Wolves boast some of the lowest attendance numbers in the NBA. They were dead last in average attendance last year, after ranking 28th in 2019 and 21st in 2018. The decline has been expected in the wake of Jimmy Butler shattering the team’s reputation in the media’s eyes at large.
While perhaps not as prevalent in basketball as in other sports like football or soccer, home-court advantage is both a tangible and intangible factor for teams to gain an advantage. Think back to last year’s playoffs and how any non-Milwaukee arena would count to 10 in about six seconds every time Giannis Antetokounmpo shot a free throw. Giannis talked about how much of a reprieve it was to play at home because he could focus during his free throw attempts. Most arenas are not as pointedly aggravating as many were towards the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, but having the support of 18,000-plus living, breathing human beings on any given night is an unquestionable plus.
The Wolves’ rapidly dwindling attendance numbers have done little to quell concerns about the team relocating. Despite new minority-share owners Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore stating their intent to keep the team in Minnesota, the outside noise has been deafening as cities like Las Vegas and Seattle get their arenas prepared to host teams in the future. While the NBA has said that it would rather expand than have any teams relocate, some genuine and consistent support from the Minnesota faithful would go a long way in showing Rodriguez and Lore that Minnesota is deserving of a successful NBA franchise.
Proving that sentiment will start in the first eight games of the 2021-22 NBA season. The Timberwolves open their campaign against the Houston Rockets, a team that is somehow in more dire straits than the Wolves right. Anything less than a comfortable 10-15 point win at home against the lottery-bound Rockets would not be ideal.
After the Houston game, the Wolves have two more at home against the New Orleans Pelicans, who are at a similar “make it or break it” juncture with their current roster construction around Zion Williamson. Missing the playoffs last year can only be seen as a massive failure by a team that has Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball. With the Pelicans in a desperate position and lacking as much high-end talent as the Timberwolves, these should be two wins as well.
If I were a mathematician (of which I am not), I would predict that these first three home games should show a correlation between the team’s performance and the involvement of the home crowd. The better the team plays, the more involved the fans will be. I speak for a large contingent of Timberwolves fans when I say we are hungry for successful basketball in this state. There are so many reasons to come out to Wolves games beyond the free tickets you’d snag at your kid’s middle school. Karl-Anthony Towns is still an All-Star level talent, Anthony Edwards is one of the most exciting young players in the NBA, and the team finally has a head coach in Chris Finch who appears to know how to use his players effectively. If the post-All-Star Break Timberwolves were any indicator, the team should be set up to see a great deal of success this year.
Of course, all of this media hype is meaningless if the Timberwolves can’t win any games.
As the team goes, so too will the fans in the Target Center. I may be young and new to the whole NBA world, but I’ve heard all of the stories about how much the Target Center would be rocking for the Timberwolves playoff appearances in the early 2000s with Kevin Garnett. I was in the lower bowl for the Wolves’ lone playoff win against the Rockets in 2017, and that was one of the most electric crowd experiences I have ever been a part of. Hell, I remember in the early days of the 2019 season when Andrew Wiggins took over in the fourth quarter against the Miami Heat, sealing a win with some ridiculous three-point shooting. I thought the entire arena was going to ascend into heaven. The passion for the team is there, but it tends to lie dormant under the layers upon layers of mediocrity, losing, and mismanagement.
Ultimately, the fans will not come unless the team gives them a reason to. The Wolves PR team (bless their hearts) can boast about the young and hungry team all it wants, but that has seemingly been the MO for the last decade with nothing to show for it. If the team doesn’t have a shot at winning most games, why waste a night being angry when you could do anything else in the world?
The declining attendance of the last four years, COVID protocols notwithstanding, is indicative of a team that is not giving the general fanbase anything to care about. That has to change, and the early stretch of the season will have a great deal to do with reeling the fans back in.
After those first three home games, the Timberwolves are away at Milwaukee, which will surely be a loss. They return home to an interesting stretch of four games, playing against the Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic, and two against the Los Angeles Clippers. A win over Denver may be tough, but there is a chance that the Wolves sneak out a win at home against one of the best teams in the West if the team is still without Jamal Murray. A win over the Magic is also a must, especially after what happened last year when Cole Anthony shattered the hearts of Wolves fans everywhere.
If (and this is a big IF) Minnesota can remain competitive in losses and not allow as many heartbreakers like that Magic game during the early throes of the season, it will do wonders to keep the fanbase engaged and interacting with the team. This will go beyond simply attending games, as social media engagement and merchandise sales are also tangible metrics through which one can measure the relative success of a franchise.
However, the bottom line is that this social success will not materialize without team success and a consistent winning culture. Anything less than the playoffs will be a disappointment for the Timberwolves this year. With consistent wins, fans will flock to the Target Center like they’ve been dying to do so for years, this time with actual purpose and passion at the heart of their ventures.
The Timberwolves are in a unique position to recapture the hearts of their fanbase this year. Let’s hope they capitalize on it sooner than later.