MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Timberwolves are entering the season without lofty external expectation. Our friends out in the desert have set their expected win total somewhere between 34 and 36 wins, depending on which friend you ask.
Trying to label a season a success based strictly on wins and losses seems like a difficult thing to do, particularly with this bunch. If the Wolves finish with the exact same record – 36-46 – as last season, it would feel drastically different. In fact, if the Wolves finish this upcoming season with fewer wins than last season, it would feel like a step in the right direction, rather than whatever last season was.
When the Wolves hired Gersson Rosas to lead the basketball operations department this past spring, they knew that change was on its way. The team needed to get younger and begin to align itself with the timeline of All-NBA center Karl-Anthony Towns. And that’s exactly what this offseason brought. Gone are the likes of veterans Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, and Luol Deng, and in are the likes of Jordan Bell, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Treveon Graham, and Shabazz Napier.
The team is much younger than this time last year and with that will come growing pains. That includes with Ryan Saunders – the NBA’s youngest head coach – taking over on a full-time basis. This isn’t a team that’s ready for the bright lights right now, but it’s a team that hopes those days are in the not-so-distant future.
That’s what makes judging success a bit more difficult than just looking plainly at wins and losses. It’s unfair to the organization and unfair to the consumer. But if it’s not wins and losses that’s being used to judge, there has to be something else.
“The wins and losses, you want to win every game,” Saunders told SKOR North. “You also understand what you’re against, too. We understand what the West is, we get it. We want to be a team that is sustainably successful over time. With that, we need to improve our style of play, we need to improve our defense. That can go from schemes, that can go to what we value on the defensive end, what we feel we may have to give up a little bit to take care of those other things. I say that recognizing that our 3-point percentage defensively needs to improve. Things like that.”
Judge this team on how it grows during the regular season, how Towns continues his ascension into the NBA’s elite, whether or not Andrew Wiggins pieces things together, if Jarrett Culver looks the part of a game-changing lottery pick, and whether or not they’re better at the end of the season than they were the start.
Those are all things that can’t necessarily be told strictly on wins and losses. They’ll tell part of that story, the Wolves know that, but it won’t be the entire story.
“Record is a reality, wins and losses are a reality in our world,” Rosas told SKOR North. “What we’re building is different and special. What we want to have going through this year, is build a foundation, who are our core? Invest in our young players, we need our guys to take steps forward. We want to identify, not only who we are going to be on offense and defense, but who are our leaders moving forward, and what players we can take into the future as we build this into the future as we build this into a successful, winning, playoff, championship contention organization. That takes time, effort, and evaluation.”
Those goals aren’t short term ones. The Wolves aren’t going to become a championship-caliber organization overnight. That doesn’t happen anywhere – LeBron James is the exception to this – in the NBA. These things take time and the Wolves know that. That’s why they’ve preached about building a new culture, building a timeline that fits Towns, and actions over words.
“For us, we’re going to invest everything in our players. We’re going to be super thorough and super aggressive in any way possible to improve this team. We’re building a foundation of identity, who we are on the court, who we are off the court and how we can continue to grow and be the best team we can be.”
The best version of the 2019-20 Wolves shouldn’t be as good as the best version of the 2020-21 Wolves, and so on and so forth. The Wolves’ plan is to continually improve, even if the finish line isn’t as close as some would like it to be, it does exist.
“If we’re improving those things, and we’re getting better on a daily basis, and we feel like we’re taking steps, and we’re not skipping steps, then I feel good about things,” Saunders said. “I feel like the wins will take care of themselves whenever that time comes.”