The Minnesota Timberwolves have spent a long time in the wilderness - 13 years to be precise - the longest current playoffs drought in the NBA. In the years since the Wolves last made it to the postseason in 2004 there have been a few false dawns, but as the NBA gears up for the 2017/18 season, are the Timberwolves finally set to become relevant again?
Life for a Minnesota Timberwolves fan since the team’s inception in 1989 has been difficult, to say the least. The early years were characterized by the struggles almost all expansion teams face as the young franchise adapted to the intense challenge that is the NBA. In 1995, the drafting of Kevin Garnett catapulted the team into contention and between 1997 and 2004 the T-Wolves made the playoffs for eight straight years.
However, even this period of relative success was tinged with failure. It wasn’t until 2004 that Garnett and the Timberwolves managed to win a playoff series - bowing out in the first round seven years in a row between 1997 and 2003.
Finally, spurred on by a desire to win a championship, Garnett left the Timberwolves in 2007 and sent the franchise into a losing spiral it has been unable to correct. Kevin Love’s emergence as an All-Star provided hope but never translated into a winning record and Minnesota have been firmly rooted in the basement of the NBA for over a decade.
A new dawn
It was the decision to trade Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers back in 2014 that set in motion the Timberwolves' latest attempt to get back into playoff contention. In return for Love, Minnesota received Andrew Wiggins - the number one pick in the 2014 draft - and added explosive wing Zach LaVine with their own pick. In 2015, Minnesota drafted Karl-Anthony Towns first overall and had finally assembled a young and talented core.
Wins were still hard to come by, though, and after yet another losing season the Timberwolves brought in veteran head coach Tom Thibodeau - renowned for his tough defensive approach - to try and establish some discipline in the young and talented group. The 2016/17 season - Thibodeau’s first with the team - was certainly a disappointment - 31 wins was well short of the expectations the franchise had set for themselves.
Summer changes aplenty
Unfazed by the latest setback, Thibodeau and the Wolves' front office continued to add to the roster. Long-serving point guard Ricky Rubio was moved on and replaced with Jeff Teague, who will provide some much-needed shooting from the perimeter. Veteran and perennial sixth man of the year candidate Jamal Crawford will inject some scoring power into a bench unit which was one of the worst in the league last year. Veteran big man Taj Gibson was also reunited with his old head coach and along with Crawford will add some much-needed leadership to the young roster.
By far the biggest move Thibodeau made was trading for his protégé back in Chicago - three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler. The addition of Butler gives the Timberwolves what they haven’t had since the days of Garnett - an established star player who can anchor the team at both ends of the floor. To acquire Butler, Minnesota had to give up LaVine who is recovering from a torn ACL and 2016 first-round pick Kris Dunn, who never got going in his rookie season. However, this was a small price to pay for Butler, who is undoubtedly a top-ten player in the NBA and along with the mercurial talents of Towns and Wiggins should be able to lead the Timberwolves back to relevance.
Minnesota will have no illusions that the path back to relevance will be an easy one. The Western Conference is going to be brutally competitive this season with a cavalcade of stars moving from east to west. However, with Thibodeau at the helm and Butler on the floor, the Timberwolves should finally make it back to playoffs.
Will the Timberwolves make the playoffs this season?