How Sustained Success Will Affect Basketball Fan Culture In Minnesota

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent press conference, Karl-Anthony Towns said that this year was “championship or bust” for the Minnesota Timberwolves. While I agree that the Wolves should have championship aspirations, I think the “championship or bust” mentality is unrealistic at this point in their journey. Since the Wolves joined the Association in the 1989-90 season, only three teams have won the title without a player who had previously won MVP: the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, 2003-04 Pistons, and the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors had Kawhi Leonard on their roster, who finished second and third in MVP voting in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Ben Wallace finished top 10 in MVP voting for the Pistons in three consecutive seasons before Detroit’s championship run. The 1990 Pistons were a special case; Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, and even Adrian Dantley had received MVP votes throughout the ’80s — Thomas had the highest finish, placing fifth in 1984.

I know that historical analysis is not entirely predictive, but I find it informative because patterns exist until they are broken. This pattern suggests that to win a championship, a team needs an MVP-caliber player. Though Rudy Gobert has some fans that have given him a handful of late-ballot MVP votes, he doesn’t quite meet the criteria. So when it comes to “championship or bust” for the Minnesota Timberwolves, KAT doesn’t need to worry about that pressure until he or Anthony Edwards wins MVP.

Regardless, the Wolves are positioned to be very good for the foreseeable future. The team is set up for the type of success this city hasn’t seen since Kevin Garnett donned a Wolves uniform. The first time around, that is. But, even with KG, the team’s success never actualized outside of their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. Will the current Wolves have sustained success in a way that no group has in the history of the franchise? If so, how do Wolves fans even handle that type of legitimacy?

It was very cool to see the Wolves make the playoffs last season. I used the word cool specifically because the Timberwolves have not been cool in a long time. In fact, the Wolves have spent much of the past two decades being incredibly uncool. The team has been bad. The uniforms have been ugly, and the constant state of turnover on the roster left many fans feeling hopeless. But of course, things are different now.

As I move through the city, I see more and more Wolves gear pop up. More hats, jerseys, and t-shirts. I’ve watched jakesgraphs transform from a niche Timberwolves meme account on Twitter to a wildly popular Wolves apparel brand. His gear populates the Target Center nearly as much as jerseys from the team store.

For the first time in my Timberwolves fandom history, the Wolves are cool. This coolification is in no small part due to Edwards. He has quickly become a league-wide favorite. His suave, confidence, goofiness, and jaw-dropping athleticism have propelled him into early star status. I work at an elementary school, and I like to keep my pulse on who are the most popular NBA players by asking kids who their favorite players are. In all my years, the only Timberwolves player I’ve ever heard anyone mention as their favorite was Jamal Crawford, which I still find shocking to this day. Now, more and more kids are saying their favorite player is Anthony Edwards, which is all the proof I need that this city thinks Ant is the coolest.

But all the coolness in the world doesn’t equate to success on the court. Tim Connelly has added Gobert to the mix to help ensure that winning basketball fuels Ant’s energy. Although Gobert has never been known as a particularly cool player, he is very good at basketball. Ant can hold up the Timberwolves’ cool status on his own, but few players can carry that same weight on the basketball court. The height of the Wolves’ success may be contingent on Ant’s ascension, but the foundation is held together by those around him. At the end of the day, nothing is cooler than winning games, and Gobert is going to help the Wolves win a lot of games for years to come.

All of this could not have come at a better time. New ownership is taking over the Wolves, and the fans are hungry for competitive basketball. Last season the Target Center became a raucous arena as typically quiet, unassuming Minnesotans packed the stands to root for a winning basketball team they thought they might never see again. After the Jimmy Butler fiasco, the Andrew Wiggins trade — which resulted in the Wolves sending the No. 7 pick to the Golden State Warriors — and ownership dismissing Gersson Rosas from the front office, it was starting to feel like the franchise was in dire straits.

Yet the Wolves have been able to pull themselves out from the mud and emerge as a legitimate force in the Western Conference. Sure, this roster hasn’t played a minute of basketball yet, but there is a feeling about the organization that they have turned a corner unturned by Wolves teams of old. The city itself seems more than ready to embrace the success to come. The fans have lain in wait for a successful team. They’re at the ready for the call within the darkness of the Twittersphere.

Now that the Wolves have put together a contender, look for the Target Center to be loud every night this season. Minnesota is desperate for a successful franchise. Even if the Wolves can’t win it all, sustained winning will mean so much to this city. With Ant and KAT as the faces of the franchise, the pieces are finally in place for Minnesota to have an NBA team they can get behind.

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