As the preseason gets underway and we inch ever closer to the start of meaningful NBA basketball, there are two things I am noticing about how the Timberwolves are being discussed:
- People are excited to watch them play.
- That doesn’t mean people expect them to be great.
Consider what some of the best NBA minds have recently written.
In their preview series for SB Nation, Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller titled their Wolves post, “The Timberwolves Bright Future Will Still Have Growing Pains.” It’s a good piece worth reading, but the title speaks for itself. The bright future is exciting, but fans should tap the brakes and try not to get ahead of themselves.
For The Ringer, Jason Concepcion wrote, “The NBA Hipster Team Championship Belt.” This piece (probably my favorite NBA-writing thing of the past few months) is more “history of NBA fandom, for 30-year olds” than season preview, but it concludes by labeling these young Timberwolves as “The Next Hipster Team.” What makes a team hipster? According to Concepcion, “the hipster team is defined by dreams that are too wondrous to survive the rigors of reality.”
And no less of an authority than ESPN guru Zach Lowe ranked the Wolves fourth in his annual “NBA League Pass Rankings,” a post devoted to identifying the teams he most looks forward to watching. But in doing so, Lowe made it a point to distinguish between the “fun factor,” which should work in the Wolves’ favor, and the team’s likely merits on basketball alone.
“We’re all going to regret this, but for now, it’s fun to get carried away with Wolves Mania,” wrote Lowe to begin his segment on ‘Sota. (Emphasis mine.) He added later, “This team is thinner than the hype train realizes, particularly on the wing, but the nucleus of Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins inspires legit butterflies.”
Those two general themes — excitement and uncertainty — emanate from all three of these pieces. This makes sense in a lot of ways. The excitement stems from having reigning back-to-back Rookies of the Year, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, as well as the reigning back-to-back slam dunk champion, Zach LaVine. It stems from passing wizard Ricky Rubio and the recently-drafted Kris Dunn. It stems from Tom Thibodeau replacing Sam Mitchell on the sideline.
The uncertainty makes sense, too. This team only won 29 games last season after all, and it added zero players likely to crack the starting lineup. If the preseason opener last Saturday against the Heat is a reliable indicator, the Wolves will start Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns, and Gorgui Dieng. In other words, the Wolves will probably start three 21-year olds.
That last point cannot be repeated enough, if you’re trying to temper expectations for this year’s win total.
The Wolves will probably start three 21-year olds.
So this Big Hype/Tap-the-Brakes expectations dichotomy makes logical sense. What I’m curious about is if this strange dynamic might affect the season experience for either the fan base, the team, or both.
Let’s think about the fans first.
Fans can argue now and all season long about how many games the Wolves *should* win, whether they should make the playoffs or not, and — if so — how many rounds they should advance. Everybody will view them a little bit differently. Within bounds of reason (nobody can expect this team to be the best in basketball this year, nor the worst) how a given fan or pundit sets expectations will influence how much he or she enjoys the season. If a Timberwolves fan expects 44 wins and the team only produces 34, he or she will probably harbor some frustration — even if those 34 victories come packed with huge dunks, and even if 34 is 5 more than last year’s 29 wins. (Eds note: We did the math, and it would be.)
Conversely, if a fan — perhaps beaten down from the dozen years in a row that the Wolves have missed the playoffs — expects 34 wins and instead enjoys 44 (and that elusive playoff berth!), this season will be a blast. In Timberwolves history, there have been a couple like this. The rookie seasons of Stephon Marbury (1996-97) and Ricky Rubio (2011-12, before his injury) saw the Wolves playing .500 basketball for the first time in a long time. (In the former example, it was the first competitive season in franchise history.) I always view those as two of the three most enjoyable seasons in franchise history, of course along with the deep playoff run in 2004. Those two teams came into the season with hope and buzz (recall that Rubio arrived at the same time as Rick Adelman, who replaced Kurt Rambis) but modest expectations, and they managed to play better than what most anticipated. Fun was had.
For fans, there is a lot to be said for setting realistic expectations, even in the face of preseason excitement. This doesn’t mean forced pessimism as much as considering all of the facts, even the ones that weigh against the Wolves making the playoffs. There’s nothing wrong with leaving some room for a pleasant surprise. Say it with me one more time:
The Wolves will probably start three 21-year olds.
What about for the players and coaches themselves? Could a “Wolves Mania,” as Lowe described it, among fans and analysts make its way into the locker room and distort the team’s own expectations? If so, is that necessarily a bad thing?
In thinking about these questions, I make a (possibly foolish) connection to things I’ve read about human psychology in the context of performance and skill development. I say it’s possibly foolish for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not a psychologist. So there’s that. Second, a basketball team isn’t one person with one brain. While some of the best teams have what we call “good chemistry” and come close to uniting for a sole purpose, the reality is that each player thinks and feels differently about anything that happens in the course of a season.
But humor me for a moment, because I think some general concepts carry over into this discussion.
Analyzing human performance, psychologists sometimes refer to “flow,” which Wikipedia defines as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
Energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process sound like things that would make for good basketball-team performance. The opposite of those things would be lazy and distracted, partially engaged, and pissed off. The former sounds better than the latter.
In his book, The Organized Mind, psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes flow and how it can result from finding the appropriate level of task difficulty:
“Flow states don’t occur for any old task or activity. They can occur only when one is deeply focused on the task, when the task requires intense concentration and commitment, contains clear goals, provides immediate feedback, and is perfectly matched to one’s skill level. This last point requires that your own skills and abilities are matched in a particular way to the level of difficulty before you. If the task you are engaged in is too simple, holding no challenge, you’ll get bored. That boredom will break your attention to the task, and your mind will wander into the default mode. If the task is too difficult and holds too many challenges, you’ll become frustrated and experience anxiety.”
Levitin’s description of flow as it relates to task difficulty brings to mind some recent Timberwolves seasons.
Last year and especially the year before that, the team artificially lowered expectations in the interest of developing new young players and tanking for the draft. While this technically made winning games more difficult, it transformed the entire nature of the exercise. Instead of competition, the Wolves were engaging in development. (This was especially true two seasons ago.) It was easier to go out there, play hard, and try stuff, than it would have been to seriously try to win each game in a fair fight.
Tangibly, this was a massive success. Without this manipulation of the “macro” season challenge (by playing extremely-young players and holding out better, older ones) the Wolves would not have Karl-Anthony Towns and Kris Dunn on the roster. But in executing this strategy they sometimes looked less than engaged. On defense in particular, Wiggins and LaVine saw their development stall. Flip Saunders described it as an “AAU mentality,” like they were playing so many games that any single one lacked the importance that it was due. In a five or ten game losing streak, who can blame them? Had they not been tanking but instead trying to win each game with realistic lineups, it is possible that Wig and Zach would’ve kept better focus.
Setting low expectations can be harmful.
We saw the opposite dynamic in 2013-14, when expectations were high. Entering that season, with Kevin Love, Rubio, Kevin Martin, and a healthy Nikola Pekovic, all of the talk was playoffs. Love had been here five years and never sniffed a postseason, but this group was better than any others and — most importantly — it was healthy for the first time in a long time. If it didn’t happen now, it was never going to happen. Rick Adelman nearly retired in the previous offseason and many viewed this as his farewell tour.
When they hovered right around the .500 mark all season long (in a deep Western Conference) everybody knew this was not good enough. That team blew fourth quarter leads and took on the identity of a disappointment. It was clear the team carried with it a collective anxiety. They had high expectations, they were falling short, and that disconnect seemed to — at least partly — have an effect. The failure beget more failure.
Basketball-Reference has a metric that measures the “expected win-loss” record based on overall season performance. That team’s was 48-34. Their real record was 40-42. They underachieved, and I think it’s fair to wonder if that was partially due to the pressure of needing to make the playoffs. All of this was compounded by Love’s contract situation and the feeling that his Timberwolves career was winding to a close. Lasting memories include Love and JJ Barea bickering at each other, and Adelman sighing his way through post-game pressers.
Setting high expectations can be harmful.
This is the part where I should propose some type of solution, but I am not even sure that there is a “problem,” so much as an interesting preseason dynamic. I am curious to see how it will shake out. Knowing what we do about Thibodeau, the likelihood that his Expectations Meter will err on the “low” side seems laughable. When he joined the Celtics as associate head coach in 2007, they literally won the championship in his first season. When the Bulls hired him as head coach in 2010, they won 62 games, which was TWENTY ONE more than they did in 2009.
This is a man who comes in and fixes things. He is a perfectionist. He will not be satisfied by a modest improvement from 29 wins up to 32 or 33.
But yet again:
THE WOLVES WILL PROBABLY START THREE 21-YEAR OLDS.
Something’s gotta give.
Here’s hoping for a pleasant surprise.