MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves improved to 10-8 on the season with a 12-point victory over San Antonio on Nov. 27 to continue the optimism that maybe things wouldn’t be as bad as many had expected. The Wolves’ personnel didn’t necessarily fit the style they wanted to play, but coach Ryan Saunders had his team playing hard most nights and the jump in performance by Andrew Wiggins was considered a major positive.
Unfortunately for the Wolves four days after they beat the Spurs the month of December arrived. It began with an ugly eight-point loss against Memphis at Target Center and continued with a 127-116 setback on Wednesday before a sparse gathering in the same building.
It marked the Wolves’ sixth consecutive loss, including four in a row on their recent road trip in which Minnesota gave up 121, 139, 142 and 125 points. These are the Wolves many expected to see when the season began — not the team that won three in a row to open. Honestly, this has to be what Gersson Rosas also expected when he took over as the Wolves president of basketball operations last May.
The fact Wiggins has made strides does provide encouragement for the franchise and everyone wants to see the 33-year-old Saunders succeed as he coaches the same team his father, Flip, led on two different occasions before he tragically passed away in 2015.
But there is a ton of work to be done here — I know, I know, Wolves fans have heard this for too many years — and the instant success the Wolves experienced to start 2019-20 was more a mirage than anything else. Ultimately, this Wolves team has no business hanging around the Western Conference playoff picture, just as the Wild have no business getting into the postseason in the Western Conference of the NHL.
Both teams play incredibly long seasons that will feature some hot streaks, some brutal stretches and, for both, plenty of marginal play that should put them in position to be in their respective league’s draft lottery.
This space was used to make a case a few weeks back, when the Wolves were still playing pretty well, that the team needed a playoff berth more than another high draft pick. That feeling hasn’t changed. The plethora of empty seats at Wednesday’s game spoke to the apathy that continues to surround the Wolves when it comes to getting fans into Target Center.
The Wolves missed eight of their first 10 three-point attempts Wednesday and finished 9 of 26 from behind the arc. Nonetheless, they entered halftime tied with the Jazz at 59. Utah pulled away in the third quarter, outscoring Minnesota 38-24, dropping the Wolves to 3-8 at home.
Jeff Teague came off the bench to lead Minnesota with 32 points and Wiggins had 26, but the Jazz got a combined 53 points from starting guards Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell. Karl-Anthony Towns finished with 21 points, making 6 of 15 from the field and only 2 of 9 from three-point range. The Wolves were 15 of 41 on three-pointers; the Jazz finished 16 of 35.
Rosas and the Wolves’ new regime will have plenty of decisions to make in the coming months as they become the latest group to try to retool a roster of a franchise that has made the playoffs only once in the past 15 seasons.
Is Wiggins’ improvement something he can sustain or would it make sense to try to trade him while his value is rising? Is veteran Robert Covington a keeper or would it be wise to spin him off to a contender for younger pieces and draft picks? What players, outside of Towns and Wiggins (assumed he stays), fit the style the Wolves want to play?
Right now, Saunders is focused on trying to get his defensively challenged team turned around and end this losing streak.
“I’ve mentioned a number of times about the NBA season, so I’m sure people get sick of it, but in the NBA season there are a number of different tough times and this is one of them for us,” Saunders said. “We are a team that focuses on the daily task and wants to get better and wants to improve and understands that. That’s our goal. But then again you also want to have that winning feeling, too. You don’t sleep well, the food doesn’t taste as good, you don’t want to go out much to get dinner (when you’re losing). That’s just how it is. That is something I think affects us or any team that is going through a little bit of a slump.”
Unfortunately for Saunders, it’s unlikely that slump will end on Friday when the Wolves play host to Kawhi Leonard and the 19-7 Clippers. The good news is Saunders is in no trouble if the losing continues this season and the only thing Rosas is judging right now is how to improve this team for the future. Wolves fans might not like that but it’s the reality of the latest rebuild going on at Target Center.