Timberwolves

Will This Be the Last Championship That Haunts the Wolves?

Photo Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Every Minnesota Timberwolves fan has gotten used to seeing Stephen Curry hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Maybe there’s still a hint of pain that the Wolves passed over him twice in 2009. Perhaps some people ask what could have been if they paired him and Ricky Rubio. But everyone has been there before. Everyone has built up Curry callouses.

But Andrew Wiggins holding the Larry O’Brien, beaming, with a cigar dangling from his mouth? That’s a new one.

The hardest thing to process about the 2009 draft is that many fans knew the Wolves were making a mistake when they passed on Curry. Jonny Flynn had led Syracuse to a six-overtime win over UConn in the 2009 Big East Tournament, but Curry had turned himself into a lottery pick at mid-major Davidson. Rubio and Curry made sense on the court together; Flynn and Curry did not. Curry turned a moribund Golden State Warriors franchise into a dynasty. Flynn injured his hip and was out of the league by 2012.

Similarly, fans expressed dismay about the Wiggins trade when Gersson Rosas made it. Sure, almost everyone got tired of the former No. 1 overall pick underachieving. But trading him to Golden State for D’Angelo Russell and a lightly-protected lottery pick looked risky at the time. Wiggins would never be the franchise savior he appeared to be when he was the Rookie of the Year in 2015. Still, the Wolves needed picks, and many fans weren’t sold on Russell.

A few things changed that made the Wiggins trade more lopsided.

The Wolves traded Wiggins to Golden State on Feb. 6, 2020. The NBA shut down a little over a month later due to COVID, and the Timberwolves were one of eight teams the league did not invite to the bubble. Therefore, Russell only played 12 games in Minnesota after the trade. Then, he and Towns were injured or had COVID and barely played together the following season. Towns only played 50 games in 2020-21; Russell, 42.

Towns and Russell were healthier last year. Towns played in 74 games; Russell, 65. But Anthony Edwards emerged as Minnesota’s star player by the end of the season. Trading for Russell to keep KAT in town makes sense if he’s the star player. It’s a star’s league, and GMs need to make sure their best players are content. But Russell arguably takes possessions away from Edwards, and Towns is functionally a highly-skilled complementary player to Edwards now.

Furthermore, the Wolves were worse than expected in 2020-21. Nobody had them contending a year after missing out on the bubble, but 23-49 was still pretty disappointing. Nobody would have been upset if they had relinquished a mid-teens pick to Golden State. But Minnesota passed the 7th overall pick to the Warriors, and Golden State took Jonathan Kuminga, an exciting young player.

Finally, fair or unfair, the way the Rosas era ended in Minnesota affects how we see this trade. Rosas took after Tom Thibodeau’s tumultuous reign and promised stability. He looked like a family man, balancing his children on his knees while promising a commitment to sustainable winning at his introductory press conference. Instead, we learned that things were chaotic during his time running the Wolves. Ownership fired him shortly before last season started because of an affair with someone who worked for him.

Did Rosas misevaluate Wiggins or mess up the protections on the pick because he was operating in a chaotic work environment? Maybe. However, that seems to be a stretch in logic. Nobody should be surprised that Wiggins became a luxury player for a team that can afford to max out their No. 3 or 4 star. Similarly, wouldn’t the Wolves have won more than 23 games in 2020-21 if Towns and Russell had stayed healthy? What if Finch had been able to hire Chris Finch immediately?

Regardless, Wiggins is an NBA champion, like Curry and Kevin Love before him. The Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers played each other in the Finals every year from 2015 to 2018. Therefore, Curry and Love were involved in each of those Finals. And the Minnesota connections go further than that.

The Toronto Raptors beat Golden State in 2019. Then Jimmy Butler led the Miami Heat to the bubble Finals, where they lost to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. In some ways, Butler justified his tumultuous exit from Minnesota, showing the world all he needed was a better culture and teammates committed to winning to reach the championship game.

A year later, Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks. In case you forgot, the Timberwolves drafted Shabazz Muhammad one pick before Antetokounmpo in the 2013 draft. To be fair, it was challenging to scout Antetokounmpo because of the Greek league he played in, and 13 other teams made the same mistake. But still, the Wolves missed out on him by one pick.

Fortunately, the Wolves are coming off a 46-win season. They have a coach who is creating a positive culture, a superstar in Edwards, and a solid supporting cast. Assuming Towns is okay being a complementary player to Edwards, and the Wolves continue to flood their roster with rangy 3-and-D players, they should be able to build a sustainable winner. It’s not unheard of for teams to see their former players go on to have success. It just matters less if they’re able to foster a competitive team every year. Now it’s on Tim Connelly and Finch to change that.

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Photo Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

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