Timberwolves 130, Jazz 136: What It’s Like to Not-Be on a Boat

Steve McPherson —  April 17, 2014 — 13 Comments

Gary Oldman Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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.

—Tom Stoppard

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:

GreenShved

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.

Steve McPherson

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13 responses to Timberwolves 130, Jazz 136: What It’s Like to Not-Be on a Boat

  1. I should’ve just treated the Houston game like the end of the season. Also, Shved isn’t a PG; the stats are clear about it, and his play last night was as well. As off-putting as this team’s performances were at times, I’d much rather be watching games than preparing for months of uncertainty on multiple fronts (the small chance they don’t have a lottery pick, the head coach, what they do with 3 2nd-round picks, getting a bench without overcommitting).

  2. Unbelievable. He really is Tom Green. He also really isn’t an NBA PG.

    I should’ve just stopped watching after the Houston game and called it a season. Either way, the somewhat off-putting nature of this team’s games is still better than the offseason, especially one with so much uncertainty about their draft, coach, and roster building.

  3. I did not enjoy the way they chose to end the season. You stick with a team all year through all kinds of disappointment and they can’t even be bothered to show up for the last game. I know 500 is a very minor and hollow victory, but in this season it would have been nice to end it on something positive. They didn’t even bother to show up. Nothing says “sorry we underachieved” like a final slap in the face.

    Luckily it is only a game. I am already choosing to believe that it will be turned around next year. Rubio will add a floater and be come a league average scorer, Pek/Dieng will become a very dangerous Center Rotation, Baraea will be doing whatever he does somewhere else, and an elite perimeter defender will allow Martin to slide to a 6th man role where he belongs.

    Hopefully the last one happens when Minny beats the odds in the lottery and adds Wiggins.

  4. The Infinite Jest ref made my night….but I’m on page 950 as I type this. I’m not expecting any resolution at all, but Don Gately doesn’t actually wake up, right? Don’t tell me!!!
    Go Wolves, and the Wolf among you!

    Kertwang!

  5. Steve McPherson April 17, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Ben W: I can’t believe I just got scolded for an Infinite Jest spoiler.

  6. Good post Steve, honestly much better than I had expected after how I had felt after that loss. I’ve said it for 9 years, I guess this makes 10. We’ll get them next year.

  7. Wow. I sound like a broken record, teams that can’t beat the teams they are supposed to beat aren’t playoff teams. This season I thought this team would at least be fun to watch. Early they were, then somehow Ricky stopped looking enthused and 4th quarters started being very sad.

    What does this team want, I would expect this team (from top to bottom including coaches and executives) wants to win. The rotations are weird and injuries to non-key players like Buddinger suddenly leave the team without scoring options when the bench mob enters. How is it that after watching the same fourth quarter fades in a large percentage of close games, there is no answer.

    This isn’t the type of season that convinces your all star to stick around to see if you can turn around a cold weather mid-market team. It might be that this is the start of another cycle of halfway rebuilding. But rebuilding around what? A point guard that I would think should have learned how to shoot by now (though he seems to be improving) and a strong but not elite center rotation? Because no one thinks that Love will be around. Maybe we can trade him to Danny Ainge for almost nothing. We will not be able to bring in decent free agents and our draft picks (if Shabazz is any indication) won’t give us much of a spark.

    We may always be a slightly less ugly Milwaukee Bucks, and in the West that isn’t close to good enough. You don’t need to be the Great Carnak to predict that in 2.5 years or less we will see Kevin Love scoring at will on Deng, won’t that be special.

  8. As always, a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. Thank you, Steve, and Zach, and William (and if there’s anyone else I’m forgetting) for your continually interesting Timberwolves coverage. It was a frustrating season, for sure, but there are signs of life here and hopefully we can build upon them. All of your thoughts, reflections, and questions—big and small—helped make this season (and in general being a Timberwolves fan) more fun and fulfilling. Keep up the great work!

  9. When are people going to look at some of the real reasons why the Wolves were so inconsistent. Look at the Spurs. Look at the Bad Boys (nice 30 for 30 last night). They are controlled by the players at the top. There’s a way they do things there.

    Interesting comment made in the Remix last night that players now look at their advanced analytics stats in favor of winning. 26/12/4 is great. 2000/900/160 is great. But, where’s the leadership? Where are the rules and accountability that whips the team into shape?

    Adelman’s rotations and penchant to trash motion in the offense for the 4th quarter is part of it. But, I don’t know if Love is the leadership answer for the team. Notice the 1 footed fadeaway from the elbow in the 2nd quarter and the half-assed job down the court? Wish that was the only time Kevin has not led by example.

    As in ‘Remember The Titans’, “Attitude reflects leadership, CAPTAIN.”

  10. Great job here this season. Probably better than the team deserved.

    (Oh, and Oldman and Roth are so wonderful in that film!)

  11. Am I the only one who is completely done and over Ricky Rubio? I’m not saying he’s absolutely trash, but he’s been riding on the coat tails of “potential” for awhile in my eyes. I’m sick of the un-timely turnovers, the aimless drives (where he loops around), coming off of screens and leaving his feet which leaves him throwing up poor passes and shots, him getting absolutely POUNDED on screens, his gambles on passing lanes leaving us out numbered defensively, and sick of how much his emotions dictate his game.

    Another year and another 25 games missed by Pek. Is he really worth almost 13 million a year?! Another year of Chase missing extended time – is a bench “shooter” really worth 5 million a year?

    A year of Flip Saunders preaching up and down every media avenue of wanting a “balanced” team – what he gives us is a team with 5 SFs (Brewer, Chase, Bazzy, Luc and Robbie), and no backup at the SG position.

    The team really doesn’t have an identity in my eyes. A big culture change is needed and it may be another 10 years till we reach the playoffs again gentleman.

    Again – here is to next year.

  12. Bray, I am in agreement with most of your comment. I think if Ricky gets his shot together you will see it effect other parts of his game. But I too can’t understand the leaving the feet before passing, I’ve seen it quite a few times, he’s not the only PG do do this, but I would hope that a pass first guy could avoid this error. I think it’s been overlooked that some turnovers can be attributed to the Wolves having poor spacing and defenses taking away Love during crunch time.

    As has been repeated in this blog all year, it is really hard to put a finger on what has been the issue this season. Sure Pek, Chase, and Rony were injured and with that we discovered that Deng was pretty good. But the team shouldn’t be so fragile to injury. Yes, Shved has collapsed in a big way, which was especially sad as he seemed to have so much promise. Barea did what he always does but with this team it seems so much less effective and frankly kind of destructive.

    It’s sad to think that the team has been put in the position where we will need to trade Love to get anything for him (thanks Kahn) and that will certainly demoralize not only the fan base but also the remaining players. It will also mean that we will not get full value for him.

    Even though the draft is deep it’s not mid-first-round-is-a-franchise-player deep and three second round picks mean we’ll get one serviceable player and two guys in the D league. So what will next year and the year after look like? My guess is that this franchise will continue to be at best a first round exit team and they will only achieve that if the West becomes weaker. We’re going to get to watch some other franchise (LA?) build around Love and show us how it could have been done.

  13. I thing the Wolves are closer to competing then they have been in 10 years. Really a second decent point guard (beyond Rubio ) and a good starting caliber SG/Wing player that can hit shots and defend. A motivated coach would be good as well.

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