Is the offseason over yet?
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Media Day is Friday, and it can’t get here soon enough. Once all the photos are taken, interviews given, and promotional videos shot, the team will hop on a plane and depart for a week of training camp in San Diego, CA, culminating in the team’s first preseason game on September 30th.
It’ll finally feel real – after a whirlwind offseason that saw the departure of Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Brandon Rush and Kris Dunn, and the arrival of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford – the Wolves will be a basketball team in practice (literally), and not just in theory. Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns will run pick-and-rolls together. Jeff Teague will throw lobs to Andrew Wiggins. Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng will try to assert their places in the scheme of things. Ditto for Nemanja Bjelica and Cole Aldrich. Bazz will hopefully learn the Ancient and Sacred Art of Bucket-Getting from Jamal Crawford.
But before the team jets off to California to begin to figure out how the pieces of this machine will fit together, let’s consider the league-wide landscape the team will navigate this coming season. Look at the photo above; that’s a newly-clean-shaven Kyrie Irving, who believes the Earth is flat, being introduced as a Boston Celtic, after forcing his way out of Cleveland, despite making three straight trips to the NBA Finals and playing alongside the best player on the planet. The other day, we learned Kevin Durant spends some of his free time on a burner Twitter account arguing with fans incognito. The Rockets now employ Chris Paul, who’s going to share a backcourt (and the ball, apparently) with James Harden, as curious a personality mashup as can be imagined. The Thunder have Paul George, somehow, for some period of time. Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade will play for teams they’d rather not play for, and teams who’d rather not pay them, but alas, everyone’s stuck and unhappy. Ricky Rubio has a new tattoo and a man-bun and will suit up for the Utah Jazz.
Point is, the overall NBA offseason was weird as hell. Of course, Minnesota’s wasn’t; as sad as most of us were to see Ricky leave, the majority understood the decision to deal him away. The excitement of adding Butler to the KAT/Wiggins core is still fresh. The outlook is sunny. Optimism reigns. This is the beginning of… whatever it’s going to be. It could be great; there’s a decent chance the Target Center will host an NBA playoff game for the first time since May 31, 2004. But we saw interpersonal issues and personality clashes decay and destroy teams, closing their windows prematurely, leaving their fans in the lurch and wondering why it had to go wrong. It happened to the Cavs this summer. It certainly happened to the Clippers this summer, and the Thunder a year ago, the Pacers in March of 2014. Something went wrong. Drama started, whispers snowballed into conversations, and suddenly trade demands became trade proposals and some of the league’s best players were on the move, leaving their previous teams to pick up the pieces.
The Wolves now employ one of the best two-way players in the league (Butler), the game’s best prospect under the age of 22 (Towns), and a demanding, exacting coach who’s considered one of the best in the business (Tom Thibodeau). Expectations are high. All three probably think the Wolves are “their” team, in some way, and are desperate to prove the future is as bright as proclaimed (Towns) or to acquit themselves of their past failures (Butler, Thibs). How is this going to work, exactly? And where does Andrew Wiggins fit into all of this?
Do the questions cause you to roll your eyes? It may seem frivolous and silly, but that’s the kind of stuff that subplots are made of, what drives the Pundit-Industrial Take Complex as well as the outsized egos of all involved. We’ll overreact and over-analyze, but at the center of all of it will be kernels of truth. The Wolves are going to try to figure it out, and we’re going to talk about it, and the echo chambers of media and social media will be there for the whole show.
Since Kevin Love departed, the Wolves have been, for the most part, drama-free. Even last season, when progress felt a bit stalled, the stakes were still low, because the principle actors were never in real danger of being shown the door (or asking to leave). Those days are probably over, now. The expectations of the team, and the combination of personalities in the locker room, guarantees consequences if the Wolves fail, and hell, given what happened to Cleveland, even if they succeed. Drama comes with their new territory.
That certainly isn’t a reason to be negative about the upcoming season. Winning will keep a lot of the noise and nonsense at bay. But if you’re far more interested in the basketball than soap opera storylines (i.e. “Kyrie wanted to get out of LeBron’s shadow and have his own team and was mad that no one asked HIM about social issues, and blah blah blah”), if you wish the latter would just never pop up, I’m with you. But that doesn’t seem likely.
If there are some growing pains, hopefully all involved can get past it without anything drastic happening. But there’s a chance we’ll all have to learn about some petty squabble, or hear a passive-aggressive quote after a tough loss, and trade whispers, and shake our heads, and sigh, and understand that this is what it’s like rooting for a team with real expectations, and this is what it means to have multiple stars in the room. And I suspect none of us would trade that mild annoyance for the resigned sadness of following a 50 or 60-loss team. The next year or two could be pretty straightforward; they could also be drama-filled and tumultuous.
So, what the hell. We’re ready. Let’s get weird (and hopefully win some games, too), Timberwolves.