At the beginning of the season, as the Wolves added white dude after white dude to their roster, we discussed the team’s unprecedented racial makeup. We wondered about the potential interactions between these strikingly white Wolves and their mostly white fanbase. We discussed the Wolves’ potential as a kind of old school/new school hybrid, a stylistic melange that would incorporate and complicate nearly every archetype in the NBA pantheon.
More specifically, we wondered about Ricky Rubio’s recovery and whether his reunion with Kevin Love could possibly live up to our wild hopes. We wondered how Love would mold his newfound superstardom and how that stardom would interact with a new, suddenly competent, set of teammates and with a fuller expression of Rick Adelman’s offense. We wondered what moves Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved might bring to the dance. How would J.J. Barea’s antic freestyles play against Kirilenko’s humble, heavily structured game? What does a Shved/Rubio backcourt feel like? Does Brandon Roy even have knees? And what is a Shved anyway?
Some of these observations have turned out to be salient, some of these questions have been answered. Kirilenko has been even more valuable and fascinating that we could have possibly hoped. He has resurrected the vitality of his Defensive POY days and combined it with the vision and intuition borne of years internalizing Jerry Sloan’s systematics. He’s been a defensive destroyer and a kind of one-man improvisatory flex offense. For twenty games at least, Shved provided all of the brazenly swag that we could have possibly hoped for. Barea continues to freestyle. Brandon Roy has no knees.
But in general, the meaning and feel of this season has changed in ways that, back in September, would have been impossible to believe. The plague of injuries that has leveled the Wolves has prevented many of these conversations from ever taking shape. We don’t know how Love’s superstardom has evolved because he’s barely played, and when he has, he’s mostly been a shell of himself. We don’t know how Adelman’s corner offense looks with Rubio at the helm because the team has been too ragged and undermanned to run it consistently. There have been beautiful moments–usually provided by a Kirilenko backcut or a Rubio pick-and-roll, two moves generated as much by intuition and improvisation than any overarching coherence–but most of the stylistic possibilities that we hoped for have given way to sheer day-to-day survival.
Instead, the season’s predominant discourse has been one of fragility. We saw Love struggle against his subpar conditioning and his shooting hand’s persistent weakness and inflexibility. We saw Chase Budinger hobbled after just eight games. We saw Roy’s body betray him. We shared Rubio’s frustration when his knee refused to do the things it used to do. We saw a team wracked with injury and its consequences: fatigue, thin talent, players forced to do more than their abilities allow.
There have been recent Wolves teams far more appalling than this one. Those teams were contemptible for their callowness, or their apathy or their sheer incompetence–but, for us, there was a righteous indignation hidden away in that contempt. Watching extravagantly well-payed elites in any field fail miserably at their jobs brings a perverse pleasure. That gall we feel sustains our belief in ourselves as fundamentally competent and ok; we just “know” how much better we’d do if only given the chance. That’s nothing to be proud of, for sure, but it at least makes for a relatively satisfying fan experience and–maybe, possibly–slightly tempers the indignity of watching so much patently unwatchable basketball. (Not coincidentally, it also serves as an analog for the rage we feel at our pathetic political culture.)
But this Wolves team doesn’t even allow us that small measure of satisfaction. Their struggles and pains reflect our own. They contend with the weakness and fragility of the body, with outrageous misfortune, with disappointment, with life’s gross injustice. Great players and teams give us glimpses of physical transcendence. Underachieving teams allow us to indulge in virtuous anger. These Wolves remind us of our own mortality, of our own fragile humanness.
Sounds like an art-house film you might like but, suffice it to say: not what we generally look for when we watch sports. Luckily for us, though, the Wolves have managed to offer us small tastes of what is possible: Love’s brief runs of stat-stuffing majesty; Rubio’s recent signs of recovery; Kirilenko’s subtle, off-ball brilliance; Dante Cunningham’s glue-guy passion; even that eight-game glimpse of Chase Budinger’s perimeter scoring potential. These unconnected fragments offer us a measure of hope; and hope is the great narcotic of the fan experience. Followers of the Wolves know disappointment but we also know how to take solace in that old refuge of the brokenhearted fan: next year.