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Earlier today I posted a piece on my personal blog also called “Knowing Which Doors to Prop Open and Which to Leave Closed” in which I talked about the risks that come with waiting too long to rebuild, except with a Wizards focus. I wanted to incorporate the Timberwolves, but figured I could just do that here since I’d have plenty of material for such a post. Here is the Timberwolves version.
We all know the story of the 2003 Timberwolves who made it to the playoffs seven consecutive times since ’97, but failed to get out of the first round. Coming off of a 51 win season in which Kevin Garnett was reaching his peak, Wolves GM Kevin McHale went all-in bringing in Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell, and Ervin Johnson to make a deep run. While the plan worked, the Timberwolves were done in by injuries to Cassell, Wally Szczerbiak, and others before bowing out to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
Going into the ’04-’05 season, there was some hangover to be expected, and the Wolves started out 25-26, costing Flip Saunders his job. And while McHale led them to a 19-12 finish the rest of the way, the team would end up missing the playoffs.
Here is where the Wolves went wrong by opting to re-tool instead of re-build. The Wolves let Sprewell go to find another means of feeding his family, and brought in Eddie Griffin. They infamously dealt the 35-year old Cassell (good move) for Marko Jaric (bad move) and extended him there after (worse move). And in an effort to inject fresh blood, the Wolves eventually dealt Szczerbiak, Michael Olawokandi, Dwayne Jones, and a 1st round pick to the Celtics for Mark Blount, Ricky Davis, Marcus Banks, Justin Reed and two 2nds. .
Now, the Wolves were stuck with an inflexible roster thanks to the cumbersome contracts of Jaric, Trenton Hassell, and Troy Hudson. It’s also a strange practice for should-be rebuilding teams to be dealing first round picks. Rebuilding teams shouldn’t be taking on long-term money, and build around the young players they get in the draft. Instead, the Wolves tried to force their door of opportunity open with overpaid veterans, while mortgaging some of their future by trading draft picks. Had they been patient, they probably could’ve expedited the process with Garnett’s presence while finally surrounding him with cheap talent, finally.
Looking back, the Wolves almost certainly should’ve rebuilt after the ’03 season. It made sense after 7 consecutive first round exits, but they chose to make one more go at it. It almost worked, and when it all began to unravel the next season, they should’ve jumped at the chance right away (Think of what the Blazers did this past trade deadline). Who knows if they could’ve avoided the two separate rebuilding projects that would follow that ’04 run had they put in a concerted effort to rebuild early on.
Heck, they may not have had to trade Garnett, either.
Seriously, look at their $60 million+ payroll for the ’04-’05 season, and tell me there weren’t things that could have been done. There is no good that comes from toiling away in the middle of the lottery as the 10th seed in the conference; you’re not good enough to make the playoffs, but you’re also not bad enough to land a top incoming talent. To put it simply: Make a run or bottom out if you’re not on the way up.
Would it have taken the Timberwolves 7 years to even get a direction for the franchise if they had rebuilt sooner? Maybe. Would it have helped if they hadn’t burned through 6 coaches (Saunders, McHale, Casey, Wittman, Rambis, and Adelman) in that time? Probably, a little consistency goes a long way. It’s all in hindsight, I know, but there are some lessons to be had here (See: Spurs, San Antonio).
The Wolves could be in a similar situation (yet again) should Adelman decide to call it quits, Love decides to test the market, and Rubio decides to walk. Would they panic and try to keep the door open, or let it shut and find a new one? God forbid that scenario plays out that way, but I’m curious to see how they’d handle it.
Derek can also be found on Twitter: @DerekJamesNBA