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Zulgad: What progress? Timberwolves again facing an uncertain and bleak future

MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves ended a 13-year playoff drought nearly a year ago with a thrilling 112-106 overtime victory over the Denver Nuggets in a loser-go-home regular-season finale at Target Center that appeared to signify progress for this woebegone franchise.

The fact the Wolves won only one game in losing to top-seeded Houston in the first round was considered part of the process of growing out of being a long-time NBA doormat. That’s why you had to wonder what was going through the mind of owner Glen Taylor — not to mention the long-suffering Wolves fans who have put up with the organization’s ineptitude — on Tuesday as the Los Angeles Clippers mostly rolled to a 122-111 victory before an announced crowd of 13,176 at Target Center.

The Wolves were officially eliminated from the playoff picture last Friday  — there are now eight games left in the regular season — and the progress of a year ago feels like a distant memory. The Wolves are playing out the remainder of the season without Robert Covington (right knee bone bruise), Luol Deng (sore left Achilles’), Derrick Rose (right elbow surgery) and Jeff Teague (left foot inflammation). Taj Gibson (strained left calf) also sat out Tuesday for a third consecutive game.

One of the players whom this franchise was supposed to be built around, Jimmy Butler, managed to make life so miserable for basketball boss and coach Tom Thibodeau that he was traded to Philadelphia in November after Minnesota got off to a 4-9 start thanks in part to Butler’s willingness to be such a divisive influence. The bellowing Thibodeau was then fired in early January, after the Wolves had improved to 19-21 with a victory over the Lakers. He was replaced by assistant Ryan Saunders, the son of former Wolves coach and executive, Flip, who died in 2015 from complications of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Reports continue to circulate that Ryan Saunders will have the interim label removed from his title and that he will be named the Timberwolves’ permanent coach after the season. The 32-year-old Saunders likely would embrace the opportunity, but one has to wonder if he will be leading a team that can make a postseason run after a disappointing season, or if he will find himself coaching a franchise that again has no direction.

The positive would be that Saunders has a marquee player in Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns, who had an off night Tuesday in which he still had 24 points, 13 rebounds and three assists, is a tremendous talent who will enter the first season of a max contract in 2019-20. He is absolutely the type of guy a franchise can be built around.

But that’s the catch with the Wolves.

Who is going to be in charge of building this franchise and making sure Towns wants to stay in Minnesota for years to come? The fact Taylor has made so many missteps with this franchise makes it difficult to have any confidence in his decision making. Is rewarding Saunders (14-19 since taking over for Thibodeau) with the job before hiring a general manager really the best idea? Is Taylor tempted to keep Scott Layden as his general manager, despite the fact Layden was brought on board by Thibodeau?

Remember, the Wolves had Layden and chief executive officer Ethan Casson deliver the news to Thibodeau that he had been fired, while Taylor was in Florida. Now, that is dysfunctional.

There also is the issue of a veteran roster built by Thibodeau that likely will look very different when training camp opens next fall. Gibson, Deng, Rose, Jerryd Bayless and Anthony Tolliver all are in the final seasons of their contracts and could be gone. Tyus Jones will be a restricted free agent and Teague has a player option.

Andrew Wiggins, meanwhile, is completing the first season of a five-year max contract that whoever ends up running the Wolves undoubtedly would love to get out from under. Saunders spent time after Tuesday’s game lauding Wiggins’ play of late — he had 22 points, three rebounds and three assists in 35 minutes — but the reality is that the first-overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft is a bust and everyone knows it.

Sadly, that’s fitting considering the history of the Wolves franchise. A year ago, it appeared that might be changing and Towns’ presence still makes that a possibility. But unless Taylor surprises everyone and makes some astute decisions, the Wolves’ present and future looks pretty bleak at the moment.


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