Look at the last stretch of games for the Minnesota Timberwolves since the start of the second week of March and you can see that this team might actually be starting to make a little sense. They’re young and talented, with a starting lineup that’s beginning to gel, but are still inexperienced overall when it comes to playing with consistency, plus are saddled with a depleted bench that’s more raw than the starters. The results speak to this: A blowout loss to the excellent Spurs; a tightly contested win against a Thunder team ramping up into the playoffs; a tough loss to a Suns team they should beat; a strong win over the injury-wracked Grizzlies; a loss to the Rockets where Harden had 14 assists; a very well-played loss to possibly the best team in NBA history; and then, last night, a sloppy, ugly win over a Sacramento Kings team missing its best player, DeMarcus Cousins.
In short, against three playoff teams, one on the bubble, and two cellar dwellers, the Wolves went 3-3. If the Warriors loss was a moral victory, then the Kings win was the definition of a bad win. Sure, Minnesota shot 56.3% but they allowed the Kings — again, without Cousins and also missing Ben McLemore — to shoot 46.2%, including 40% from 3-point range. Rajon Rondo was 10-for-16, for crying out loud.
But the young Wolves also had themselves a game on offense. All of Minnesota’s starters except for Ricky Rubio shot above 58.3% and Andrew Wiggins had 23 points, Gorgui Dieng had 16 points and 11 rebounds, Karl-Anthony Towns had his now-routine 26 points and 11 rebounds, and Zach LaVine finished with 23 points after not scoring at all in the first half.
And then there were the highlights: Wiggins posterizing Willie Cauley-Stein, LaVine putting Marco Bellinelli on skates, and — maybe most tellingly — this light moment of horsing around between Towns and Wiggins on the bench:
What all of this points to — the good, the bad, playing up or down to your competition, LaVine working his way out of a funk, Towns and Wiggins goofing with each other — is a team on the way to becoming an actual team. There’s a distance left to go before that moment arrives, but here you can begin to see it, but it’s already causing some sections of the fanbase some concern.
A team with some solid pieces going from bad to being around .500? Sounds an awful lot like the 2013-14 team that had all that yet still underperformed and then blew itself apart. Even if these Wolves get to that point and then start actually making the playoffs, what’s to say they don’t get into that first round and keep getting bounced? Sounds like the Kevin Garnett teams before 2003-04. And what if they make some of the tough decisions about who to keep as contracts come up and then go get the right veterans to build around their core? Well, that sounds like the great 2003-04 squad that lasted all of one year before crumbling.
The point is that while fans are eager to see what this team can become, plenty of them are cautious simply because they’ve been burned before. How many times over the last 12 years have they heard that if things fall into place the Wolves should be in a position to contend in a few years?
But here’s the thing: Just because something didn’t happen, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t close to happening. That seems to be a hard lesson for people to accept. Consider it as applied to personal relationships: You could be with someone for years, thinking this is the person you’re going to be with for the rest of your life, and then one day it ends. You might spend months getting over it, not wanting to accept that something that was actually good could end. So you settle on believing that it wasn’t that good in the first place, that since it didn’t go the distance there was nothing there. And then you’re left feeling like you had nothing in the first place.
I get it. We get focused on things like closure, on moving on, on looking forward, not back. But there’s beauty out there for us right now, and if it doesn’t last, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful. Towns is already an incredible player in so many ways. Since the All-Star break, LaVine has looked terrifyingly legit, perhaps already more suited to a role of instant offense in transition and from the arc than Wiggins is to his presumed role as foundational wing. Wiggins might have the greatest distance to travel to his potential ceiling, but watching him work his way along the path should be at least half the journey.
There are so many things beyond the court that stand in the way of this Wolves team becoming what we think they should: other teams’ fortunes, questions about the coach, the front office, ownership, and then there’s free agency and injuries and on and on. Any of that stuff could play a part in derailing a Wolves team that looks so promising right now, as it has so often in the past. But we should remind ourselves that what’s happening right now with a team that’s a 50/50 proposition on any given night even with a depleted bench is most definitely real.