Days of Future Past
The Minnesota Timberwolves are preparing for another season as questions remain about Jimmy Butler’s fate, with the all-star guard recently requesting a trade. Butler’s trade demand coincided with a bizarre, if not entertaining, social media beef between Butler, teammate Andrew Wiggins’, Wiggins’ brother Nick and former NBA player turned analyst Stephen Jackson.
And though Wiggins and Butler apparently have no intentions of forming their own banana boat crew any time soon, the reported frosty relationship between Butler and center Karl-Anthony Towns is the biggest contributing factor to Butler’s departure.
Minnesota is Towns’ team. The front office declared such by signing Towns to a five-year, $190 million super-max extension just days after the Butler news was made public.
And while the inevitable Butler trade will garner the most attention, the story is Towns.
Like Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love before him, Towns is the third franchise player in the Timberwolves’ history; the literal center of the Minnesota basketball universe. Can Towns succeed where Garnett and Love ultimately fell short and win with the Timberwolves? Or, like his predecessors, will he decide to move on?
In Garnett’s case, “fell short” is a bit unfair. Minnesota was still in its infancy when it landed Garnett in the 1995 NBA Draft. There are no manuals on how to manage the career of a generational talent, but Minnesota did its best.
There were growing pains, (including trading Stephon Marbury to the New Jersey Nets in 1997 in a move that parallels the current Butler situation in some ways), but the T-Wolves tried to do right by Garnett. Problem was Garnett played his prime in a historically loaded Western Conference. Add to that the fact that Garnett competed in the most talented era for power forwards, and Minnesota found itself struggling to break into the upper echelon of Western Conference teams.
The best season in franchise history came in 2003-2004 when Garnett teamed with the likes of Sam Cassell, and Latrell Sprewell and led to the T-Wolves to the Western Conference Finals where they eventually lost to the Los Angeles Lakers. Garnett was named league MVP that year. He would move on to Boston in 2007, helping the Celtics capture title number 17 with the help of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Minnesota seemed to catch lightning in a bottle a second time when it landed Love in 2008. Love quickly established himself as a double-digit machine, posting impressive numbers in both points and rebounds. But whereas Garnett seemed to be banging his head against a historically competitive conference, Love toiled on a team that was never any good.
The best season in the Love Era was the 2013-2014 season when Minnesota finished 40-42, good enough for 10th in the West that year. Love would join LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, where after struggling to fit in, he delivered “The Stop” in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State. Love now has a second chance as leading man as he is now the focal point of a revamped Cavs team.
Now it’s KAT’s turn. Towns, the only number one overall pick between him, Garnett and Love, is the latest basketball savior for the Twin Cities. His experience to this point has ironically been a blend the Garnett and Love Tenure.
Like Garnett, Towns is competing against historical talent headlined by an all-time great team in Golden State and the arrival of the game’s best player with James’ decision to join the Lakers in free agency. And like Love, Towns’ numbers have been impressive, posting career averages of 21 and 12 thus far.
Perhaps Towns’ tenure in Minnesota can become the perfect blend of the best of Garnett and Love. A true desire to succeed in Minnesota coupled with the game to make that desire a reality. Management will have to do its part to keep Towns happy which fundamentally means keeping Minnesota competitive.
The early returns have not been promising. Last year was Minnesota’s first trip to the playoffs since drafting Towns, a trip that was helped in large part to the addition of Butler. Butler will be gone soon. This is Towns’ team now. These things take time. Does Towns have what it takes to see it through? Is it worth it?
Prior to the summer of The Decision in 2010, Garnett was asked if he had any advice for James regarding the star’s impending free agency. Garnett replied, "Loyalty is something that hurts you at times, because you can't get youth back. I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I'd have done it a little sooner."