The Timberwolves will begin their regular season on Wednesday against Detroit as they have started so many other seasons in franchise history: With a list of built-in reasons provided by many of us for why they will miss the playoffs yet again. The Western Conference is too difficult. There isn’t a third star to pair with Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. And on and on our excuses go.
But as Gersson Rosas enters his second full season as the Wolves’ president of basketball operations and Ryan Saunders begins his second full season as coach, one has to wonder how long the lack of expectations will be allowed to continue? This is a team that has made the playoffs once in the past 16 seasons and was 19-45 last March when the coronavirus shut down things. That record didn’t get the Wolves an invite when the NBA season resumed in a Florida bubble last summer, causing a collective shrug from Minnesota sports fans who long ago accepted that this franchise never gets invited to events with the cool kids.
Rosas’ roster makeover last season was a sign of just how much work he felt needed to be done. Towns and Josh Okogie are the only two players left from when Rosas arrived in the spring of 2019. Rosas bailed on the continuing effort to try to get the most from Andrew Wiggins and sent him and his contract to Golden State in a trade that brought back Towns’ good friend, Russell. Rosas also reobtained point guard Ricky Rubio, who was shipped out by Tom Thibodeau.
Rosas’ efforts to retool the Wolves are admirable, but it remains to be seen if this franchise finally will become competitive again. That’s important considering the Wolves’ current situation off the floor. News broke in late July that Glen Taylor is looking to sell the team and while it remains uncertain when that might happen, it does appear as if Taylor is serious about no longer being the majority owner of a franchise that he saved from possible relocation in the mid-1990s.
Forbes has placed a value of $1.375 billion on the Wolves and the sale of the Utah Jazz was recently completed to 42-year-old tech billionaire Ryan Smith for $1.66 billion. That sale was agreed to during the coronavirus pandemic, showing the value of NBA franchises.
Assuming the Wolves’ price tag is the same as the Jazz, or even more, it’s safe to say the new ownership group isn’t going to have a lot of patience with watching their new toy struggle to win games. New owners often like to spend time observing the operation and then begin making changes. After buying the Vikings in 2005, Zygi Wilf allowed Mike Tice to coach that season and then fired him maybe an hour after the regular-season finale against the Bears.
Rosas has made numerous moves to try to bring the Wolves into the modern NBA world, including an emphasis on three-pointers and analytics, but will the new owner give him and Saunders the benefit of the doubt? Taylor already is stipulating that a new owner must keep the Wolves in Minnesota, so if that’s going to be the case that person(s) is going to want to get this franchise out of its long funk as quickly as possible.
When the NBA season was put on hold last March, the Wolves were averaging 15,066 fans in 32 games at Target Center. That ranked dead last in the league. Their average of 15,305 the season before was 28th in the 30-team league.
Rosas and Saunders are trying to change that and there’s a chance that with Towns and Russell leading the way, and maybe playing at least a little defense, that can begin to happen. But if it hasn’t happened by the time Taylor sells, the new owner is going to look at the fact Towns is 25 and in his sixth season and Russell is nearing 25 and also in his sixth season, and wonder why these two aren’t dominating the league. From a business perspective, their nightly presence on the floor should be selling tickets and generating revenue.
The revenue that comes with that will be necessary for anyone who pays Taylor what he wants and does so either during a pandemic or coming out of one. That means continued failure at Target Center — or rebuilding, if you want to call it that — soon won’t be an option.