Timberwolves

Tim Connelly Won the Tim Connelly Bowl

Photo Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

It’s official, the Minnesota Timberwolves are going to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in franchise history after beating President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly’s former team in seven games. In Zach Lowe’s reaction to the series on the Lowe Post Podcast, he noted a few key takeaways, including that there’s “some vindication on the Gobert trade.

“The Tim Connelly Bowl is won by Tim Connelly — Tim Connelly’s team.”

The concept of Connelly winning his bowl against himself is funny. But it’s also an extremely rare, if not unheard of, situation. Connelly left a championship-level team to go to another a few steps behind and build it up strong enough to defeat that former team within two years. How the Wolves got to this peculiar timeline is just as unique as how they won Game 7. 

Two years ago, the new Timberwolves owners (or minority owners for now) Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez made a list of five Presidents of Basketball Operations whom they considered the best in the league and proclaimed they would hire one of them. The concept seemed far-fetched at first, especially given that a few of the names on the list were about as untouchable as possible. The list initially included Pat Riley of the Miami Heat.

However, the list also included one Tim Connelly, who turned out to be the perfect combination of ultra-talented and underpaid to be willing to listen when Wolves ownership called. The Kroenke family, who own the Denver Nuggets, have a history of allowing their front office members to walk rather than give them a competitive raise. Masai Ujiri won Executive of the Year with the Nuggets in 2013 and left for the Toronto Raptors that offseason because they gave him a considerable pay raise.

At the time, ESPN reported, “Denver has a history of paying its front-office architects below-market salaries, from Kiki VanDeWeghe to Mark Warkentien and Ujiri, who was one of the league’s lowest-paid GMs with an annual salary south of $1 million.”

While I don’t know how much ownership (or money) affected Connelly’s decision from the outside, it seemed to allow Minnesota to be in a position to hire him away with the right offer. That right offer came from Timberwolves ownership, doubling Connelly’s yearly salary while giving him bonuses based on the team’s growth — but not an ownership stake as initially rumored.

I’d like to say it all went happily ever after from there, and now the Wolves are in the Western Conference Finals for the second time in franchise history. However, we all know that’s not exactly how it went. When Connelly joined the Timberwolves, the bones of the current roster were already in place. Gerson Rosas signed undrafted free agents Naz Reid and Jordan McLaughlin in 2019 and drafted Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels in 2020. Rosas also hired Chris Finch from the Toronto Raptors assistant coaches room late into the 2021 season, with a hiring process rightfully criticized by the NBA media and the National Basketball Coaches Association.

Chris Finch has been a great coach for the Timberwolves. However, Rosas’ hiring process seems to be part of how he created a “toxic work environment” and why the Wolves ultimately fired him. So when they hired Connelly, he already had a highly talented core of Ant, Jaden, Naz, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Connelly also had a coach who had helped the young Wolves make the playoffs in 2021-22 for the first time since the epic Jimmy Butler saga ended. All he had to do was tweak the roster, and it could be a perennial playoff team.

Then, on July 1, 2022, Woj dropped a bomb from the Twittersphere onto the Timberwolves fanbase, exploding many minds and inciting mass pandemonium and confusion. Months after taking over the job, Tim Connelly’s first big move as Timberwolves GM was to trade all the future first-round picks they had available to them (four plus Walker Kessler, who they had just drafted in the first round) and a handful of role players that were a big part of what made the 2021-22 playoff team so fun, for Rudy Gobert, one of the most polarizing players in the league.

The NBA media and fans panned the trade. At the time, Bill Simmons called it “the worst trade of all time.” For almost an entire season, it looked like he was right. Even die-hard, perhaps overly optimistic Wolves fans began to lose hope and start wondering once again if they were cursed to live a tortured fan existence. However, Connelly and the front office firmly believed that Gobert would be a good fit for the team.

While many did not see Gobert as an elite franchise player, Connelly and the Wolves’ front office did. They got their guy and decided to figure out the rest later. That’s when Connelly’s true genius trade happened. Connelly acquired Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker from the Utah Jazz in the D’Angelo Russell trade. The front office thought Conley could help unlock Gobert offensively and make him feel more comfortable in Minnesota.

Not only did that come true, but Minnesota Mike impacted the team in many other ways. He has been an excellent teacher for Anthony Edwards, a coach on the court, and a calming veteran leader who has never gotten a technical foul in his storied NBA career. For a team that had many talented but still raw (and occasionally hot-headed) young players, Conley was the perfect fit to help usher in a new era of maturity for Minnesota’s growing roster.

After the Wolves went just 42-40 after an all-in trade and lost in the first round to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets, it seemed likely that massive changes could happen to the team in the off-season. However, Connelly, Finch, and seemingly everyone on the Timberwolves staff saw something they liked and believed in during the final stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs. They won a game against the eventual champs after Naz broke his wrist on the rim and McDaniels broke his hand on a wall behind a curtain in the stadium. The team seemed as though it was genuinely starting to click and occasionally looked dangerous.

In the face of heavy criticism, Minnesota’s front office believed in themselves, their roster, and their process and ran it back. Or perhaps they didn’t have much choice but to run it back after sinking so many future assets into the vision. Either way, it worked, and the team greatly exceeded most people’s expectations. They had the best defense in the NBA all year, with separation (shout out Marc Lore), and held the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for much of the regular season until falling just one game behind the Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They faced the Phoenix Suns in the first round, the team they seemed least prepared to play, and swept them. The Timberwolves entered the second round with extra confidence. They squared off against Tim Connelly’s former team, the Denver Nuggets, in what became the Tim Connelly Bowl.

Tim Connelly won the Tim Connelly Bowl against himself (and, of course, Dell Demps). However, he also left it with many media members saying things like, “Whoever wins this series will be my pick to win the championship this year,” and calling the series “the de facto NBA Finals.”

While the Dallas Mavericks and potentially the Boston Celtics will dispute that idea, Connelly was the primary architect of the two biggest powerhouses in the West this season. Even though I’m sure he has his sights set on a championship this year and deserves praise for building and believing in a team that could defeat the defending champs.

Here are some key plays that Conley and Gobert made in Game 7 to help bring the Wolves to victory:

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Photo Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

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