I admit that it’s hard to look at Ricky Rubio’s injury as anything but a disaster when it comes to the Timberwolves, but hear me out, because it may be a big part of the reason we’re looking at Budinger, Kirilenko and Roy out there and not Webster, Beasley and Johnson. Engage in the following thought experiment with me.
Ricky Rubio does not tear his ACL on March 9, 2012 against the Lakers. Instead, they continue on the pace they’d established in their previous ten games and win 70% of their remaining games, finishing with a record of 37-29. They get the 7th spot in the playoffs and face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder, whose regular season record against the Wolves was a perfect 3-0, handily dispatch the Timberwolves in a gentleman’s sweep of 4-1. (I’m giving the Wolves at least one win based on how close that double OT game against the Thunder was.) So now, looking at an offseason after the team’s first trip to the playoffs after a seven-year drought, what do they do?
Well, first of all, they don’t have the 18th pick in the draft since they made the playoffs and forced Utah out of the eighth seed in doing so. So there’s no trade for Budinger. As problematic as Beasley, Randolph, Webster, and Johnson looked in the regular season once Rubio went down, it’s easy to forget that Rubio even made Randolph look good for a stretch there. In our alternate reality, the success of the team has helped Johnson find himself as an athletic defensive wing, helped Beasley acclimate to coming off the bench as the kind of killer sixth man Jason Terry became in Dallas, and the double PG lineup with Rubio and Ridnour has begun to look like near-genius with Ridnour hitting threes and running secondary pick and rolls. Let’s even say that Randolph and Webster are a complete loss, having never gotten with the program. Their contracts aren’t renewed, and Darko is amnestied. But Beasley signs for his qualifying offer, Johnson’s contract isn’t shipped off, and all those moves they cleared room for—like signing Brandon Roy and Alexey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko—can’t happen because there just isn’t room. Maybe they get Roy or Shved, but not both. And with Johnson and Beasley rotating at SF, there’s less need for Kirilenko in any case.
And that’s the thing that dominates the offseason conversation: any discussion about roster upgrades always happens in the shadow of this roster having made the playoffs. Sure, they didn’t get far, but now the dominant question is about how to tweak this roster most effectively, not how to change the culture of the whole team.
I asked Kahn about this at Media Day, about whether in some ways the team’s meltdown after Rubio’s injury made overhauling the team easier than if they had made the playoffs but gotten bounced in the first round.
“I’ve made that comment to several people,” he said. “It’s an interesting thought and … I’ve wondered to myself: Would we have had quite the urgency in the offseason to change since we might have been in an upswing at that point and people would have been saying, ‘Everything’s fine’—much as they were earlier, before everything happened [with Rubio’s injury]. So I think it is an interesting possibility. It’s quite possible that because of the way we ended [last season], it added an extra layer of intensity in terms of trying to address things and trying to make them better immediately for this season as opposed to letting the natural process play out.”
There is, after all, some precedent to look at. In 2002-03, the Cleveland Cavaliers finished 17-65, dead last in the Eastern Conference. The next season, with the help of LeBron James, they more than doubled their win total and finished 35-47, just behind the 8th seeded Celtics at 36-46. Then they were 42-40 the next season and just out of the money behind the Nets, with whom they tied for record. When they at last broke through to the playoffs in 2005-06, it was with a record of 50-32 and a roster that since James had come on board had been largely tweaked through the draft and bringing in supporting elements. From then until James’ departure, the Cavs were perennial contenders who never captured the crown.
The Sonics/Thunder over the last several years tell a slightly different story. In Durant’s first year, they were even worse than they’d been the previous year with a record of 20-62. Their reward was Russell Westbrook, but his rookie year they were 23-59. For that, they got James Harden. And then, suddenly, they were 50-32 and still improving.
As of right now, it’s hard to tell what path the Timberwolves are on, and Love’s injury will only complicate it. The Cavs got their transformative player in James, then spent years tinkering. By the time they started looking at overhauling the roster, it was too late. The Sonics/Thunder’s struggles even with Durant and then Westbrook in the lineup mean they’ve now assembled the best young trio of players in the league. The Timberwolves should take note: As starved as the team and their fans are for a taste of the playoffs, there might just be something to not getting good too quickly. Slow and crappy might just win the race.