Last night’s horrific loss to the visiting Phoenix Suns couldn’t have looked any further removed from the Timberwolves’ other nationally televised game, their 101-98 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers back on January 20. That was the game that shot the Wolves into the national consciousness, that ended with back-to-back threes by Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Here, in the dog days of the NBA, with teams tanking and jockeying for playoff seeds, the Wolves entered last night’s game limping from a five-game losing streak and a series of injuries that began with the loss of Rubio for the season and proceeded through lost games for Nikola Pekovic, Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, and Michael Beasley. And it was an atrocious game to watch.
The Suns are in the mix for the last playoff spot in the West, a spot that at one time was the Wolves’ to lose. And lose it they did. Now Phoenix is in a tussle with Utah, Denver, and Dallas for the right to lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. And Wolves fans can’t help but look at that and say, “That was supposed to be our chance to lose in the first round.” For all the debate around the basketball Internet about tanking, tanking won’t even help the Wolves now since New Orleans owns the team’s first round pick. The best fans can hope for is Utah making the playoffs so the Wolves get theirs. Which isn’t much.
And so all that’s left is to play for pride, for some nebulous idea of finishing strong, of setting the tone for next year. It’s a familiar script for the Wolves’ faithful, a group that seems ready to throw the towel in pretty quick. Through March, Love put up historic numbers (leading the league in points, rebounds and three-pointers—something no other player has ever done) in an attempt to put the team on his back, but it’s become clear that most of the team’s heart just isn’t in it, and it’s affecting Love. He looks exhausted, frustrated. And so the rumblings have started about how dissatisfied he must be with the team, how he must look at the contract extension he signed and wonder how he even gave the Wolves three years to figure this out when the team is so terrible.
This is what you hear a lot, but is it really what Love is thinking? I wouldn’t blame him if he were, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s managing to take a longer view than the typical fan. When this team was firing on all cylinders this year, with Rubio controlling the point and Love and Pekovic destroying teams down low, they looked better than they have in years. When it was working, it was a little easier to overlook the startling weakness of the wings, to excuse Martell Webster’s often head-scratching play, to believe that all Anthony Randolph needed was Rubio to make him the player he always seemed like he could become. That team, the team from February and early March, looked like a solid foundation to build on.
The thing is, beneath the injuries, it’s still there. You can hardly lay Rubio’s injury at the feet of management—it’s just that that injury and the others have exposed management’s other missteps. Take Ridnour, for example. As the team’s starting PG, he was just all right. But put into the role of the secondary point guard on the floor and he put up quietly impressive numbers. There’s just no way you trot out J.J. Barea and Malcolm Lee in your backcourt and expect them to produce like Rubio and Ridnour. Any player needs to find a role that suits him and Barea needs to come off the bench and be a firecracker. Ask anything more and the whole thing starts falling apart. At times, Beasley even looked like maybe he had found his niche off the bench. But now that the discipline of the team has eroded, Beasley has looked lackadaisical. And of course there’s the problem of Wes Johnson, who seem to keep slipping further and further from being a useful basketball player.
So is Love pissed? Clearly and justifiably. But I sort of doubt he’s really throwing in the towel as readily as fans are ready to throw it in for him. With Rubio, he was changing the culture of the team but it didn’t get to marinate long enough to soak all the way down. Consider people who’ve been in a series of disappointing relationships. When they find someone they genuinely connect with, they go all in, shoving their chips into the middle of the table. They last three, maybe four months. And then when it ends through no fault of their own, through no fault of anyone’s but just through circumstance, it hurts a hundred times as much as when those more insubstantial relationships ended. Both the team and the fans went all in for the team they wanted to be, knew they could be. But a couple months of wins, the dubious milestone of reaching .500, none of this can truly change the bedrock insecurity and resignation of a fanbase and team so often beaten down. It’s going to take time.
There’s every reason to believe that Rubio comes back next year as good as ever. He might not be all the way back right away, but fortunately his game is predicated on vision, smarts, and length, not quickness and athleticism. It seems unlikely that Love or Pekovic will regress, and it’s likely that at least some of the players who’ve been disappointing towards the end of the season will be culled: if the Wolves don’t pick up any options, Beasley, Webster, Randolph and Tolliver won’t return. Brad Miller has announced his retirement.
There’s no denying that the Timberwolves are painful to watch right now, but I don’t see them as a fatally flawed team so much as one where the constituent parts are out of balance. Starters are hurt and playing too many or too few minutes in light of that; bench guys are playing out of position and playing too much. They’re like a five-piece rock band trying to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony right now. This season that started with so much promise actually lived up to it at times, and that’s a lot more than we can say for any of the last few seasons. This feeling right now is familiar: the feeling of things not working out, of being out of control. But the Timberwolves and the Wolves fans just need to get back out there next year and get something on the rebound. Luckily, we have one of the game’s best on the boards for at least three more years.