Rosencrantz: We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no … Death is … not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no, no — what you’ve been is not on boats.
There’s a natural tendency for us to want endings to resonate. It’s why we put so much stock in things like the finales of Breaking Bad or True Detective or Lost. An ending is supposed to cast light back on what came before, to contextualize an experience, to put a punctuation mark on it. Even those of us who are pretty much okay with ambiguous endings like the fade at the end of The Sopranos or Don Gately waking up alone on a beach on the last page of Infinite Jest can still get suckered by that craving for some kind of final chord, whether resolved or suspended, a giant crash of three pianos playing a giant E at the end of “A Day In the Life.”
When this kind of closure fails to appear in sports, it’s doubly troubling. Every team — like more or less every person — likes to imagine themselves at the center of whatever story is being told, but the truth is that every season is only going to offer up one main character, one triumphant hero. There’s a reason Sports Illustrated puts out a handsomely bound edition that collects everything written about the Super Bowl or World Series or NBA Champions. Collected into a narrative that ends in crowning victory, everything starts to make sense.
But along the way, major supporting characters, minor supporting characters and extras all fall under the blade in service of that bigger story. If the eventual NBA champion is the hero of The Odyssey, enduring detours and overcoming challenges on the long road home, the runner-up is the hero of Hamlet, coming tantalizingly close to victory only to be felled at the last moment.
Which makes the 2013-14 Minnesota Timberwolves sort of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Killed offstage for little reason other than expediency, the generally innocuous boyhood friends of Prince Hamlet pass through Shakespeare’s original almost unnoticed. But Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead puts them centerstage, even if they can’t figure out what they’re doing there. They’re characters in someone else’s story, and so they spend a lot of time trying to figure out where they came from when they actually have no origin or existence outside of this other story.
“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said, ‘No.’ But somehow we missed it,” says Guildenstern at the end. “Well, we’ll know better next time.”
But will the Timberwolves? Last night, they played their final regular season game against the Utah Jazz, a team they had so far gone 3-0 against, winning each game by an average of 19.3 points. They had a chance to (presumably) send Rick Adelman into retirement with a bang, a chance to build on the solid victories they’ve recently had against playoff teams, a chance to provide a good final feeling to Kevin Love and to the organization going into an offseason in which both will be dogged with questions about the former’s future. A chance to post the franchise’s first non-losing record since 2004-05.
But “non-losing record” isn’t much to hang your hat on, continuing the pattern of a season where the team’s overarching goals just haven’t had weight for the team, it seems: to make the playoffs, to convince Kevin Love to stay, to get over .500, and on and on with diminishing returns on each new halfway goal. And maybe that right there is the nugget of the problem with where the Wolves found themselves this season, if we can move beyond strictly basketball things like crunch time scoring or a reliance on foul calls and not fouling or other actual things.
The journey for a team from godawful to contending passes through this place where the goals are halfway ones, where there’s very little deep emotion in just making the playoffs. When Rubio says something like getting to .500 means everything, I’m like, “Does it?” When Kevin Martin says, “You find personal motivations this time of the year when you are out of the playoffs besides being a professional which everybody in this room is,” it feels kind of corporate and constructed. We’re all professionals: Woopty-do.
Over at CBS Sports, Matt Moore had a great post yesterday about tanking that drew a bright line between the kind of constructive moves Philadelphia and Orlando have made to rebuild and the abject failures of franchises like Detroit and Milwaukee. “They did something with their seasons,” he wrote about Philly and Orlando, “instead of having something happen to them.”
It feels like this season happened to the Timberwolves. That’s what makes this ending feel like Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s endings and not Hamlet’s or Odysseus’. Prior to the season I had the Wolves pegged for something like 45 wins and a low playoff seed, with likely a first-round exit. And here they are with 40 wins and no playoffs. That’s not such a huge difference, yet the fact that things have so often felt out of control has made it feel much bigger.
This isn’t the recap I meant to write when I sat down. I have notes here wondering about Alexey Shved’s unexpectedly primary role last night, about why J.J. Barea didn’t play. Notes about the Wolves’ flat start and then roaring fourth quarter that tied the game and gave us two overtimes (aka THE PLAYOFFS). In spite of making just four shots from the field, Kevin Love neared triple-double status yet again with 19-10-9, and so did Gordon Hayward, with 23-10-9. Love also became the first player in the NBA to have 2,000 pts, 900 rebs and 100 3-pointers in a single season, which is definitely a collection numbers. I have this picture here that proves that Alexey Shved has become Tom Green:
Ricky Rubio can still Rubio some things:
But more than usual, it seems like all this stuff is just going to dissolve and fade as Adelman’s fate takes center stage for some fans while others will shift their attention to the playoffs or, as I like to call it, Act V.
Exit Minnesota Timberwolves, pursued by a bear.