Minnesota Timberwolves fandom finally paying off
The Minnesota Timberwolves will no longer be the trivia answer in the category of “longest playoff drought in the NBA.” With their 112-106 victory over the Denver Nuggets on the last day of the regular season, the Timberwolves clinched their first playoff appearance since the 2003-2004 season.
Yes, you read that correctly. It’s been 14 long years since the Wolves (or puppies as they’ve commonly been referred as, due to their timid nature) made an appearance in the postseason. To give you an idea of how different of a world we lived in at the time, Twitter hadn’t been invented yet, gas was $1.75 a gallon and the song “Yeah” by Usher was the no. 1 song in the U.S.
However, that season was also important because it marked the first time I fell in love with the team. My first game was November 1, 2003, against the Vince Carter-led Toronto Raptors. I don’t really remember anything from that game, and I think we may have even left at halftime. The final score was 73-56, a score that is almost impossible to imagine in today’s fast-paced game with an emphasis on the three-pointer. Kevin Garnett led the team with 20 points and 7 rebounds in a year when he went on to win the MVP award and give the Wolves a no. 1 seed. The team fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the Western Conference Finals, but everyone assumed they would be back the next year.
But they weren’t. The team missed out on the playoffs by one game to the Memphis Grizzlies, and it was all downhill from there. Garnett left the team two years later, taking with him the only success the franchise had ever seen. While he was winning an NBA title in 2008 with the Boston Celtics, the Wolves were finishing season with records of 24, 15 and 17 wins in consecutive seasons. This year’s team, with a record of 47-35, was the first to have a winning record since 2004-2005.
Trades have made and broke this franchise, most notable with Garnett’s departure. A Kevin Love era came and went without a playoff appearance, which probably hit me the hardest. A player that came in as a beefy post turned into a three-point threat, finally giving me something to cheer about as a fan. However, like most players who have spent too many cold Minnesota winters in a losing effort, he eventually wanted a change of scenery. The trade in 2014 that netted no. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins was the moment that began the four-year road to the postseason.
Wiggins and two-time dunk contest winner Zach Lavine brought a fun and exciting feel back to the franchise that had been missing for years. Growing up, I’d always wanted to start a collection of memorabilia, but I never really had the chance or funds. However, my senior year of high school started a rapidly growing collection of basketball cards, autographed items (a 1989 inaugural season ball signed by the whole team) and a huge collection of bobble heads (now totaling 24). Flip Saunders, the coach from the 2003-2004 team, also returned in an attempt to turn around the franchise.
Saunders sadly passed away the next season after a battle with cancer, but not before he drafted the Timberwolves’ first ever no. 1 overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns was only 8 years old the last time the franchise reached the playoffs, but his determination to make the team relevant and make his first all-star appearance were both achieved in his third season. Towns recorded 68 double doubles this year and was only the second player in the history of the NBA to average over 20 points per game, 10 rebounds per game, shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the three-point line and 85 percent from the free throw line.
However, there’s no doubt who the leader of the pack truly is. Jimmy Butler was traded to the Timberwolves this offseason as a three-time all-star. He has been clutch in fourth quarters, shown the desire to play defense every night and not be afraid to tell the media the team isn’t trying hard enough. The Wolves were 10-13 when he was hurt this season and 37-22 when he was healthy. If it wasn’t for a knee injury in the first game back after the all-star break, the Wolves would’ve had a chance to be as high as the three seed.
But what they are is an eight seed. The Wolves play a seven-game series against the no. 1 seed Houston Rockets this week, the same team Butler was injured against. The Timberwolves are facing a huge uphill climb, but as the team’s slogan says, they have to continue to focus “all eyes north.”
If you didn’t suffer through the last fourteen years of heartache with the ups and downs of this franchise, I don’t blame you for not staying interested. If you missed watching Jonny Flynn be selected over two-time MVP Steph Curry in 2009, or you didn’t watch the joyless 15 and 17-win seasons led by washed-up veteran players, you didn’t miss much. Not all fans need to be tapped in at all times to the team to be “true fans.” While I may consider myself a diehard Wolves fans, I appreciate those that get excited and start paying attention when there is a truly exciting product on the court.
The Wolves sold out 16 games this season, more than the last five years combined. So instead of focusing on the bleak past, let’s look towards the future of the franchise. Let’s see if they can give a 65-win Rockets team a run for their money. We can look fondly upon the good times, like Love’s 30-point, 30-rebound game, Towns’ franchise-record 56 point-game or Lavine’s high-flying moments. My favorite moment of all-time is still the Garnett buzzer-beater I watched at Target Center against Portland in 2007. With two all-stars and a whole city finally starting to believe again, maybe it’s finally time to turn around a tragic 29-year story.
Zach Dwyer is a student at UW-River Falls.