What the Wolves Can Glean From Phoenix and Milwaukee's Success

Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale (USA TODAY Sports)

What do you think of first when somebody mentions the NBA Finals? Maybe Marv Albert’s voice (and his toupee that hasn’t fooled anyone for 40 years), definitely Michael Jordan, and probably the handful of marquee franchises like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Miami Heat, battling it out for basketball supremacy every year. The finals are usually a very star-studded event with huge stars like LeBron James, Steph Curry, or Kevin Durant leading a big-market franchise to glory usually somewhere close to a beach.

This year is a bit different. Instead of the usual suspects, the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns outlasted the rest of the pack to make it to the finals. If this sounds weird to you, well it is. Milwaukee hasn’t been in the finals since 1974, when they lost to the Celtics. The last time Phoenix made the finals was in 1993 with Charles Barkley and Co., losing in six games to Michael Jordan and the Bulls. The Suns have never won the title, and this is only the third time in franchise history that they have made the finals (1976, 1993). Milwaukee won its only championship 50 years ago in 1971, led by NBA legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.

All of this might worry most of the more mediocre basketball pundits who shout at their viewers about the NBA’s ratings. But a Bucks/Suns NBA Finals is exciting news for long-suffering Minnesota Timberwolves fans.

Most would think Wolves have the longest-suffering fanbase in the NBA. That notion is folly. They may be the worst franchise over their 32-year existence, but both Suns and Bucks fans have endured longer, at times sadder, droughts than the begotten Timberwolves.

The Suns knew heartbreak almost from the moment they entered the league. After finishing their inaugural 1968-69 season in the basement of the Western Conference at 16-66, the Suns had a chase at the first overall pick in the 1969 NBA Draft. It was a kid out of UCLA who still went by the name Lew Alcindor, you might know him as Abdul-Jabbar. The only thing standing between Alcindor and Phoenix was a coin flip. Ironically enough, that coin flip that would decide the fate of the NBA for the next decade was won by the Bucks. Tails never fails, Alcindor became Abdul-Jabbar and won a championship with the Bucks two years later, becoming the best player the league had ever seen at that point. The parting gift for Phoenix was Neal Walk with the second pick, who is remembered more for being hairy than good at basketball.

Since that fateful day more than 50 years ago the Suns have been one of the more consistently good franchises in the league. They’ve made the playoffs 30 times, led by all-time greats like Paul Westphal, Barkley, and Steve Nash. But that success has come at a price. As much as Wolves fans will never get over the Joe Smith debacle, trading Ray Allen for Stephon Marbury, or David Kaaaaaaaaahn, Suns fans have their own trauma. There was the phantom Celtics timeout in the ‘76 finals, the Walter Davis travel in against the Seattle SuperSonics in ‘79, John Paxson’s game-winner in game six of the NBA Finals in ‘93, the Robert Horry hip-check that injured Steve Nash in ‘07, and Eric Bledsoe tweeting “I don’t wanna be here”.

It’s been 10 years since the Suns last made the playoffs, and in that time Phoenix was almost as abysmal as Minnesota. But the last few seasons should give hope to any Wolves fans that are on the brink of finally giving up altogether.

First, Phoenix took a chance on Devin Booker with the 13th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Booker repaid their faith by working his ass off to become a two-time All-Star and one of the best offensive weapons in the game. Then in 2018 they stuck to their guns and drafted Deandre Ayton first overall ahead of the wonderboy Luka Doncic and ascendant superstar Trae Young. After missing 25 games last season due to a PED suspension, Ayton figured out his role and is averaging 16.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per game on 71.1 percent shooting in his first playoffs. The final piece of the puzzle was trading for Chris Paul. Just two years ago, the Point God had what many people thought was one of the worst contracts in the league and was dumped on a rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder team. Now he’s two games away from his first championship after 16 seasons in the league.

Since the coin flip, the Bucks have been just as consistent as the Suns, making the playoffs 33 times. But they hadn’t made the finals since Nixon resigned and have had their share of heartbreaks in the last half-century. After winning the championship in ‘71 and making the finals in ‘74, Abdul-Jabbar pulled the ‘70s version of a Bledsoe. The superstar didn’t want to be there anymore and strong-armed his way to the Lakers in 1975. Julius Erving famously didn’t want to play there after the Bucks drafted him in 1972. And they traded prime Allen for 28 games of 34-year-old Gary Payton in ‘03.

In the last few seasons, the Bucks have hit the lottery with player development. They took a little-known international prospect with the impossible name with the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into the “Greek Freak”, a two-time MVP and one of the most dominant players in the league. In 2013 Milwaukee won the Brandon trade shipping Brandon Jennings to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Knight, Viacheslav Kravtsov, and a former second-round pick named Khris Middleton. At the time no one thought Middleton would be the prize of the trade, but here we are eight years and two All-Star appearances later with Middleton as a key piece in a championship-caliber team. The Jrue Holiday trade finally pushed the small-market Bucks into the big-time world of legitimate contenders.

In the era of super teams and superstar buddy team-ups, it’s heartening to see two franchises who built rosters organically face off in the finals. Even teams that have suffered for years, it only takes a new regime to nail a few key moves to build back better than ever. Success in the NBA might be the most market-dependent of the four major sports. Phoenix is the 13th biggest NBA market (just behind Boston), and Milwaukee is 26th. Guess where the Wolves are? Most would have you believe that Minneapolis-St. Paul is some Coen-esque snowscape without people or entertainment. In reality, the Twin Cities are one spot behind Phoenix, 14th in the NBA. That’s ahead of one of the glamour franchises: the Miami Heat.

Even though it’s not the smallest market in the league and should keep the Wolves forever (ARod if you’re reading this, don’t move the Wolves), Minnesota will never be a free agent destination; so drafting well, developing talent, and winning trades is the best way to build a championship contender.

The good thing for the Timberwolves is that they’re well on their way in two departments. The Wolves drafted two potential superstars No. 1 overall in Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. The dynamic duo is as good a base as any to build a contender from, making trades and talent development the key to filling out a playoff roster. Player development seems to be going well with guys like Jaden McDaniels and Malik Beasley coming into their own this season. Now all Gersson Rosas needs to figure out is how to protect future picks correctly in trades and the Wolves will be well on their way to building an NBA Finals contender to mirror those in Milwaukee and Phoenix.

NBA casuals might be upset that the finals isn’t featuring the Lakers or Celtics for 16 millionth time, but Timberwolves fans should be overjoyed because if Phoenix and Milwaukee teach us anything about basketball, it’s that anything is possible.

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