Rarely has a pro sports team experienced such a difference in drama levels from the start to finish of one season that these Minnesota Timberwolves did.
As the Timberwolves wound down the second half of their schedule that was as dull as the first part was eventful, they were outspoken in their desire to establish a healthier and steadier environment for 2019-20 in which the excitement would be confined to contention for the playoffs instead of off-the-court issues.
“Stability is such a big key component in winning in the NBA,” All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns said this week. “So hopefully this summer we can find that stability in our coaching staff and everything and find a way to come back ready to go and have a head start this time.”
Soap opera status was achieved before training, when Jimmy Butler’s wish to be traded after just one season in Minnesota became public. Tom Thibodeau, one of the rare dual-role president-coach authorities remaining in the league who acquired Butler the summer before as the key piece to his defense-and-toughness-driven plan, tried to keep the disgruntled All-Star as long as possible until pressure from owner Glen Taylor and a 4-9 start triggered the deal with Philadelphia.
Then after some mild improvement mixed with more inconsistency over the next two months, Thibodeau was fired. General manager Scott Layden became the leader of the front office, and 32-year-old assistant Ryan Saunders was promoted to interim head coach .
The most memorably positive moment of the season came in his debut two days later when the Timberwolves pulled out a two-point win at Oklahoma City and doused the son of the late and beloved Flip Saunders with water in a boisterous locker room celebration . The Wolves went only 17-25 under Saunders, but any evaluation of his strategic acumen would be incomplete and unfair considering the injury decimation of the roster.
During their loss at Denver in the finale, the Wolves suited up only one of their highest seven per-game scorers: Andrew Wiggins. Robert Covington (knee), Derrick Rose (knee, ankle, elbow) and Jeff Teague (ankle) all missed more than 30 games. Luol Deng (Achilles), a healthy scratch for most of the time under Thibodeau, was held out of the last 21 games after Saunders had begun to use him successfully. Tyus Jones (ankle) and Taj Gibson (calf) were each absent for 10-plus games. By the end, debridement was a more relevant term to the team than defense, given the joint cleanup surgeries done to Covington, Rose and Teague.
At any opportunity, though, Saunders and the players spoke highly of the improved team dynamic that emerged down the stretch. Subtracting intense personalities of Butler and Thibodeau didn’t produce a better winning percentage, but the communication process was after what Towns referred to as “the situation” was clearly on the right track.
“I’ve seen the team heading down and not in the best of spots and then seen it in a good spot,” Towns said. “So I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Said Saunders: “Ultimately, what I’ve wanted to try to reinforce is just the relationship part of things. We’re together as a team and as a staff more than we’re with our families during the season. With that, you’ve got to find ways to really enjoy each other.”
Here are some of the most pertinent angles that developed during the season and will remain relevant through the summer:
NEW HIERARCHY: Taylor, who turns 78 next week, will first hire a new president of basketball operations to replace Thibodeau but keep the job separate from head coach, with Saunders widely expected to keep the job behind the hearty endorsement of his players. Layden could keep his spot between the two, but the new president will have significant input about that.
ON GUARD: Covington, who came in the Butler trade with Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless, was an All-NBA Defensive Team pick last season. His absence was a big blow to the team’s ability to contain opponents’ best perimeter players. The Timberwolves barely improved in the league’s defensive ratings, from 25th to 24th.
“There are certain special guys in the NBA that have that defensive ability, and RoCo is one of them,” Towns said.
STILL BLOOMING: Rose is one of five unrestricted free agents, along with Gibson, Bayless, Deng and Anthony Tolliver. When he was healthy, the 2011 NBA MVP was plenty viable as either a starting point guard or a scoring sixth man, as proved by his 50-point performance against Utah early in the season.
STATS AND STUFF: With a 36-46 record, the Wolves actually posted their 12th-best mark in the franchise’s 30 years. Jones, who started 23 games with all the injuries, set an NBA record with a 6.96 assist-to-turnover ratio. From 3-point range, the Wolves made 10-plus baskets 46 times, blowing away last season’s record of 22.
EMPTY SEATS: The average announced attendance fell to 15,305 fans, the third-lowest in the league ahead of only Phoenix and Brooklyn, and because that figure reflects the number of tickets distributed there were on many nights crowds much smaller than that. Last season, the Timberwolves averaged 17,056 fans per game, good for 21st in the league. Still, the Wolves went 25-16 at home, compared to just 11-30 on the road.