What a Roller Coaster of a Season it Was for Minnesota

Season recap of the roller coaster of 2017-18.

This team can’t shoot. They have horrible rotations with unhealthy minute distribution. The defense is pathetic and doesn’t deserve to make the playoffs. Thibs has lost control of the team and should not just lose his front office role but also his coaching job. Andrew Wiggins can’t shoot and doesn’t deserve the contract extension. These were all things that were said about this team throughout the season by fans, analysts, writers, and myself in some instances. The doubt was at an all-time high but was nothing unexpected to the fans in Minnesota. After the Vikings' playoff heartbreaks in 1999, 2010, 2016, the Timberwolves Conference Finals loss in 2004, and the Twins lack of playoff success since 1991, missing the playoffs seemed not just inevitable but appropriate. After spending most of the year jockeying for the third seed, the Timberwolves found themselves in a must-win situation in the final game of the season. As the clock ran down in a tie game against the Nuggets the Timberwolves were one made basket away from missing the playoffs for the 14th straight year. Thanks to some stellar defense from Taj Gibson and clutch late-game free-throws, the Timberwolves held on for the win, their first playoff appearance since 2004, and ending their streak of being the best team in the league at something. So is this really a new chapter for this organization? Have they turned the corner and changed the culture of a historically losing franchise? How did we get here?

It all started last summer when Minnesota traded Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick to the Bulls for Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick. Tom Thibodeau was reunited with his star wing that he helped develop in Chicago. As we entered free agency Minnesota took a path that has been unheard of for them in past seasons, they actually spent money and signed impact players. Within just a month this young, rebuilding team with future potential quickly turned into a veteran-laden team with a win-now attitude. The starting line-up became Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, and Karl-Anthony Towns with some interesting pieces coming off the bench. Thibs appeared to be building a better offensive version of his past Bulls teams with the expectation of improved defense with the Butler and Gibson additions.

While this is a great looking team on paper, the season got off to a rocky start. Like any team that goes through a large roster overhaul, there were clear signs that they had yet to gel and understand the intricacies of each other’s game. Despite this, they were still winning games and most notably, they were winning a lot of close games. These were always games that the Timberwolves tended to lose so the fact that the opposite was happening was an encouraging sign that things were beginning to turn around.

As we entered the All-Star break Minnesota had posted a 36-25 record and was on their way to having their best season without Kevin Garnett. They had posted multiple five-game win streaks, one of the top offenses in the league (one of the worst defenses too but we’ll ignore that for now as this is going to be mainly a positive read), and were playing together as a team. Minute loads were high and there was some concern regarding Jimmy Butler’s knee soreness but none of it seemed to be anything to truly worry about until disaster struck against the Rockets and Butler collapsed holding his knee. He tore his meniscus. Of course, he did because when things are going well for Minnesota sports these are the things that tend to happen. Losing your best player, or really any player for that matter, to a serious injury is heartbreaking. Butler decided to have the meniscus removed instead of repaired which gave him a timeline of about six weeks instead of the entire season to return. The good news was that he would likely return, the bad news was that the Timberwolves were absolutely awful in the previous six games that Butler didn’t play in. Without Butler, Minnesota had posted a 2-4 record and had -52 point differential.

The stretch of games that Minnesota was about to enter was by no means a cake walk but they had built up a big enough cushion that they had to still make the playoffs right? They instead said hold my beer and watch us try to tear your heart out for the 14th straight year. They proceeded to go 8-9 and free fall in the standings as teams like the Jazz, Pelicans, and Trail Blazers ripped off long winning streaks. Minnesota was able to steal a few big wins against the Warriors and Clippers (then close to playoff contention) but gave away an easy win to a sad Memphis team. With three games left in the season, we saw the much-needed return of Butler. He was limited to just 22 minutes in his first two games back (yes Thibs was still coaching these two games) and then had the restrictions taken off in the final game that would see the winner make the playoffs.

So should this season be considered a success? It absolutely should. Could they have finished as a higher seed? Yes. Were some of the coaching and rotation decisions frustrating? Sure. Did some players leave us wanting more from their performance? Probably. Did they change the culture and end their league-leading 13-year playoff drought? Yes and this is the only thing that matters. In an age where losing games can be just as valuable as winning we tend to often forget what just making the playoffs can do for a team. It can convince the owner to spend money on valuable role players in free agency. It can give young stars motivation and confidence to continue to develop. It can make the city a place players want to be. It can ignite a fan base that has had their passion for the game doused for years. Making the playoffs this year was an absolute must and would have been a devastating blow if they had failed. For the first time in years this team was expected to win, they were expected to make an impact on the league, and they were expected to take that next step. For the first time since Kevin Garnett, they lived up to expectations.

This year Jimmy Butler was performing like an MVP candidate. He took over the team and led by example. Andrew Wiggins was met with a lot of criticism after signing his max extension but did show some improvement. He was one of the best scorers in the league when slashing (91st percentile) or posting up (71st percentile) while also improving his defensive rating. Karl-Anthony Towns continued his development as one of the most talented scoring big men while improving his defense to earn his first All-Star selection. He became the first player in NBA history to record 5,000 points, 2,500 rebounds, and 250 made threes in their first three seasons. He also took a big jump on defense, after a really bad start, to record a lower defensive rating and improving his awareness. As these improvements carry over into next season there is a lot more to look forward to.

Enough about the future though because this season isn’t over yet. There are still games to be played and heartache to be had. The Timberwolves will be matched up against the one seeded Houston Rockets. This was arguably the worst case scenario, besides missing the playoffs, for the Timberwolves. In the regular season, the Rockets blew up (sorry for the bad Rocket pun but I couldn’t help myself) the Timberwolves beating them all four times and outscoring them by a total of 63 points, 15.75 average margin of victory. The Timberwolves struggled mightily on defense allowing at least 120 points in three of the four games. They were exposed when the Rockets were able to get them to switch so they could abuse the mismatches in isolation. Butler will have his work cut out for him as he will need to stay attached to James Harden all game every game. When Butler was the closest defender to Harden, Harden shot just 33 percent. The odds of the Timberwolves stealing this series are slim but I wouldn’t be surprised by any means if they take this to six games. Anything more than a sweep needs to be considered a success for a team that has their star player playing at less than 100 percent and has played some of the worst defense in the league.

This season has been an absolute roller coaster for the Timberwolves. It was composed of a total roster overhaul, a blockbuster trade, key free agent signings, impressive winning streaks, hair pulling losses, injuries, improvement of young stars, and a playoff appearance for the first time in 13 years. The fans passion and excitement have been reignited and the team is delivering for the first time in years. To those trying to diminish this season’s result, get over yourself and go back to your sad corner of the internet where you root for others to fail. Basketball in Minnesota is fun again and the future is bright.

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