If you follow the Minnesota Timberwolves (which, let’s face it, why are you here if you don’t?), you’re probably at least passingly familiar with the Minnesota Lynx. You know, the only actually good professional sports team in the Twin Cities: In 15 years of existence, the Lynx have two championships; in 183 combined seasons, the Wolves, Wild, Twins and Vikings have won the same number. For the last several years, the Lynx have boasted one of the most talented cores in the WNBA in Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore. They lost center Janel McCarville when she opted not to rejoin the Lynx for the 2015 season, but All-Star center Sylvia Fowles held herself out of the first half of the season with the Chicago Sky until they would trade her to the Lynx — the only team she wanted to play for.
In short, they are a destination team, one of the very best in the WNBA, and they are owned by Glen Taylor.
This is interesting chiefly because for a lot of people concerned about the Wolves’ inability to build a winning team and winning culture, the bottom line is that Glen Taylor is a terrible owner, beholden to an old-boy network and a parochial approach that does more to comfort him than push the franchise toward greatness. To this way of thinking, any good player the Wolves draft or acquire, any Hall of Fame coach they get can only do so much because of Taylor’s bottom line.
Examples of this include (but are not limited to): Hiring Kevin McHale as GM (who was born in Minnesota and went to the University of Minnesota); hiring Flip Saunders as coach and later GM (who also went to the University of Minnesota); drafting Tyus Jones (a Minnesotan who starred at Apple Valley); Rick Adelman’s sons David and R.J. getting jobs with the franchise; Flip Saunders’ son Ryan doing likewise.
Nepotism, parochialism, a country club approach: any of these moves can (and often should) be defended on their own merits, but taken as a whole, it certainly conveys a sense that the job is not so much going to the best person for it as the person closest to home.
What’s weird is that the Lynx are run in somewhat the same way.
Lindsay Whalen was born in Hutchinson, Minnesota, and starred for the Gophers. The departed McCarville also went to the U, plus hails from Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Assistant coach Jim Petersen was not only born in Minneapolis and went to the University of Minnesota, but he’s the color commentator for Wolves broadcasts. The Lynx’s head athletic trainer went to UW-LaCrosse; their assistant trainer went to Minnesota State-Mankato.
It might not mean anything. Although they’re both playing basketball, the NBA and the WNBA are very different leagues. The WNBA at this point in its history is a lot closer to the regional roots of the NBA than the NBA is, so it’s not all that surprising that their training staff would come from the region where the team is based. The highest paid players in the WNBA make $107,000 a season; the highest paid NBA players will make on the order of $23 million next year, or roughly 215 times as much. Thus, while money is obviously a professional concern, it has a better chance to be balanced against more abstract concerns — WNBA players, after all, really make their money overseas in the WNBA offseason. The allure of glamor markets like Los Angeles and New York is just not the same in the WNBA as it is in the NBA, and so it’s not surprising to find a player like Fowles prizing a proven winner above all else.
It certainly doesn’t mean that Taylor’s approach as owner of the Wolves hasn’t often hampered the development and growth of the team, but it does point to the fact that the owner is maybe less of a bottom line here then we tend to believe. The angst over ownership is a particularly intractable one for fans in sports because it so rarely changes. Bench players change every season; stars hopefully stick around for several years; coaches (or at least good ones) can last a decade or more. But owners tend to hold the purse strings for decades on decades. Anyone looking for a scapegoat for a team’s shortcomings will inevitably come to rest on ownership, but there’s little hope for change there, and so whatever appears to ail the team from that direction looks intractable. As opposed to owners like the Mavericks’ Mark Cuban and the Kings’ Vivek Ranadive, Taylor is largely hands off and that’s probably for the best.
Ultimately, the Lynx’s success and the Wolves’ failure are not tied directly to how Minnesotan they are or try to be, how parochial, how regional. Lindsay Whalen would be a superlative player on any team. If Tyus Jones finds his niche with the Wolves, some will say it’s because he’s playing at home; if he fails, some will no doubt decry the moves the Wolves made to get him as more misguided parochialism. Maya Moore grew up in Georgia, went to school in Connecticut, and has warmly embraced the Minnesota fans; Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine have all shown signs of doing the same in their young careers. In short, transformative talent like Moore can make questions about homerism fade into the background. Even if the Minnesota basketball teams sometimes put a premium on where you’re from, what’s important is where they’re going.