Minnesota State University-Mankato, Mankato, Minnesota. Some time in the near future. It is the opening day of training camp for your 2014-2015 Minnesota Timberwolves. Inside the locker room, as the players dress, someone has snuck an old Earth, Wind & Fire tune onto the playlist: “Oh woh woh after the love has gone/What used to be right is wrong/Can love that’s lost be found?”
The Love has definitely gone. Kevin Love, All-Star power forward, bearded giant who in the past four seasons has averaged 23.5 points and 14.2 rebounds per game, has been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for rookie Andrew Wiggins, second-year player Andrew Bennett and a protected first-round pick in 2015. Even though both Wiggins and Bennett were the No. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft in 2014 and 2013, respectively, the T-Wolves’ den is a forlorn place.
“You’ve abandoned me/Love don’t live here anymore,” the speakers blare as the next song plays. Rookies and veterans sluggishly lace up their shoes while a few wonder who downloaded a 30-year old Madonna tune. Probably the Euro point guard, Ricky Rubio.
Enter first-year Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, who presses the “Off” button on the iPod and gathers the team around him. They are so young, he thinks. The six-foot-eight Wiggins and fellow rookie Zach LaVine, a six-foot-six guard whom the T-Wolves selected with the 13th pick in June, should both be entering their sophomore years of college. Bennett, six-foot-eight, Shabazz Muhammad, six-foot-six, are both second-year players who should be entering their junior seasons.
So young. Saunders gazes at this quartet and imagines that he has the nucleus of a team that could go deep in next spring’s NCAA Tournament. But in the NBA playoffs? Not now. Not yet. “Gentlemen,” he says, “do you mind if I play a tune of my own? It’s old-school soul, going back to 1971 and recorded by the right Reverend Al Green. His message is simple. It’s the title of the track. Let’s stay together.”
The four players lean in to listen, as does six-foot-eleven Gorgui Dieng, another second-year player who, like them, is also a former first-round pick. The horns kick up, followed by Green’s soft tenor: “Whether times are good or bad or happy or sad…”
What a beautiful moment this would be, potentially, as a minute later the entire roster--even the non-roster invitees-- join in the chorus: Let’s stay together… The reality, though, is that most would tune out Saunders, literally, each donning his Beats by Dre headphones to listen to Wiz Khalifa or Ca$h Out.
With the exodus of Love, however, the Timberwolves as a franchise and those four college-aged players (as well as Dieng) are embarking on what could be a gleaming new chapter. While none of the players alone may be the next Kevin Love, how many NBA teams possess five first-round picks from the last two years? What might be the ceiling if this nucleus remained together for the next four to five seasons?
Chances are, we’ll never know. In the past 19 seasons, the Timberwolves have drafted a pair of players, both power forwards named Kevin, who easily should have become cornerstone talents upon which to build NBA Finals-caliber squads. Kevin Garnett was selected in 1995 and Kevin Love in 2008. Both bloomed into perennial All-Stars but neither led their TImberwolves to a game in June. Love, as you probably know, has yet to appear in a playoff game. Garnett took Minnesota as far as the Western Conference finals in 2004, where the Wolves succumbed to the Lakers, four games to two (and dearly missed injured guard Sam Cassell).
Perhaps partly due to the franchise’s inability to lure top-tier free agents and partly due to SAD (Seasonal Affect Disorder), the latter of which no doubt has a supreme influence on the former, the Kevins spotted the glass ceiling through the snowflakes and left. Minnesota will never be Miami, and by the time it is, Miami would be under several feet of ocean water anyway. The model employed by a small-market team such as Oklahoma City, which is to draft a gem such as Kevin Durant and bask in his loyalty to an adopted metropolis, is not a reliable one.
Hence, if you are Minnesota, the more viable gambit is to mold a team of young, talented and, let’s be blunt, captive players and hope the ingredients marinate into a tasty stew. The NBA Rookie Wage Scale allows teams to retain a drafted player for as long as four seasons if they desire -- or, as Wiggins just found out, for as little as eight weeks.
Hence, the Timberwolves have the fiscal ability, and the legal right, to keep Wiggins, Bennett, LaVine, Muhammad and Dieng all on the same roster for at least the next three seasons, through the spring of 2017. By that time, Rubio may have even become a 40% shooter from the field--though I would not count on it.
If these young T-Wolves think of their time in the Twin Cities merely as a purgatory to endure until their first free agency, the next three winters may indeed be even chillier. However, if they were to look at the positive example of the San Antonio Spurs --and granted, none of them will ever be Tim Duncan -- or the negative example of the Oklahoma City Thunder, a franchise that would probably have advanced to another Finals in the past two years if it had kept Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden together, they may actually forge something special.
The most likely outcome? The two rookies, Wiggins and LaVine, will eclipse Bennett and Muhammad. If Saunders can keep the two rookies happy and develop a sense of partnership between them (think of Bradley Beal and John Wall in Washington, or Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at Golden State), there’s a future here. And keep an eye on Dieng, whose defensive prowess and selflessness make him a keeper.
Back in Mankato, someone downloads the theme to an iconic Minneapolis-based sitcom from yesteryear: “Love is all around/No need to--” Well, no, he’s not. But the Timberwolves, maybe they’re going to make it after all.