After the 1994-95 NBA season, the Washington Bullets faced a crossroads. The team had been sub-par going on 15 years, ever since the days of Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Bobby “Greyhound” Dandridge. The ‘95 campaign ended with the Bullets having two obvious strengths and one glaring hole. Their frontcourt was stacked between Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, both only 21. Their starting point guard was Scott Skiles, who was 30. Skiles led the Bullets in win shares that year, but with the Fab Two in tow, it was obvious the future belonged to the young. Washington needed its new era floor general.
The Bullets held the fourth pick in a draft that featured a stud point guard out of Arizona named Damon Stoudamire. Everything broke their way: the top three picks were a power forward, another power forward and a swingman. Stoudamire was there for the taking. The Bullets, helplessly themselves, drafted another power forward, Rasheed Wallace. Stoudamire fell to Toronto with the seventh pick.
It didn’t work out very well, for any of them. Rasheed lasted a year in D.C. before being traded to Portland (for OAKAAKUYOAK Rod Strickland). Webber would be gone after his third year in Washington, shipped to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond. Howard had a nice stretch of years for the Bullets, but wasn’t near the level of the other names we’re talking about here. Stoudamire didn’t last three years in Toronto before a certain front office fool got rid of him and the second overall pick from the 1996 draft, Marcus Camby. Isiah Thomas traded his two magic beans for 29 games of Chauncey Billups and Charles Oakley.
Lotta talent in the names up above. Webber and Richmond are Hall of Famers. Sheed was a four-time All-Star. Billups earned three All-NBA selections. Camby was named to four All-Defense teams and once won Defensive Player of the Year. Yet with all those accolades, the Bullets choosing Sheed meant the greatest player in that draft — the only draft in NBA history where the top five picks all played at least 15 years — fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves at number five.
(Here’s some fun trivia: Who is the Timberwolves’ all-time leader in win shares by a player whose name doesn’t start with a “K”?)
Before Garnett arrived, the Wolves had never won a playoff series. Never come close. Since trading him in 2007, they’ve never won a playoff series. Never come close; their best showing was last year, when they forced Memphis into a very uncomfortable six-game opening round.
The reason for all the backstory is this: you can’t make sense of today’s Timberwolves without knowing where they’ve come from. The seemingly on-the-upswing squad of a year ago were led by one of the league’s great offensive centers in Karl-Anthony Towns, a potential All-NBA wing in Anthony Edwards and a perfectly cromulent point guard in D’Angelo Russell. KAT was 26, Russell 25 and Ant just 20. After years of losing, the future looked promising. So many franchises would have killed to be in that position.
But no other franchise loses like these Wolves. In 33 seasons they’ve won a playoff series once. Just once! Can you imagine? The hunger that builds? The desperation? So when new ownership is on its way — one whose public face is an infamous liar/cheater — and that ownership is desperate to make its mark hitting a fairly modest target — win a playoff series — you can imagine the fans talking themselves into it. What choice do they have? Even if the new ownership’s bold new vision is the same dumb shit the Bullets did 30 years earlier.
Like many of the names at the start of this article, the one the Wolves traded for last summer is a big, bold one. A Hall of Famer, someday. Rudy Gobert is a three-time DPOY. He’s been on six All-Defense teams and earned four All-NBA honors. In a vacuum, who wouldn’t want that kind of player? And yet while Minneapolis is cold, tis no vacuum. And while Gobert has mostly kept on doing what he does, he’s 30 and most of his success in the Twin Cities has come apart from Towns, out since November with a right calf strain. A year into their Twin Towers experiment, Minnesota doesn’t have enough info to know whether it works. From the limited evidence we have so far, it’s not promising.
The big-picture is cloudy. Towns missed just five games his first four years as a pro; in the last four he’s missed over 100. Edwards continues to develop into a star, but struggled when Towns and Gobert were both healthy. Getting KAT back seems a no-brainer — word is he’ll be back in a few weeks — but if that retards Edwards and/or reduces Gobert’s impact, is that addition? Or subtraction?
You’re a Knicks fan, pro’ly, so let’s zoom-in to the Wolves as tonight’s opponent. As a Western conference team, they are, like all WC teams, a game out of sixth while only a game and a half out into the lottery. Having dropped eight of 12 games, the Wolves are a losing proposition both on the road (15-20) and against the East (10-17). Their last game was a Sunday loss to a Raptors team missing Camby and Stoudamire.
Minnesota likes to play fast; they’re sixth in the league in pace. They shoot well inside the arc (third-best) and nowhere else (17th on 3s; 23rd at the foul line). There’s some chaos energy to them: they’re top-five in steals and blocks and eighth in opponents’ two-point accuracy. Here’s a fun one for ya: the Wolves give up more free throws than any other team, but their opponents shoot the worst percentage of any team’s once there.
Last year Minnesota was Charlie Brown running toward the football with such confidence you couldn’t help but think they were onto something. This year they’re flat on their back and Lucy didn’t even bother standing over them to gloat. What foul poison did original co-owner Marv Wolfenson ingest before acquiring this cursed franchise? Whatever it was, he knew it wasn’t Tic-Tacs.
(Trivia answer: Wally Szczerbiak, behind KG, KAT and Kevin Love. If you’re looking for the most win shares for a Wolf with no “K” anywhere in their name, it’s the next man on the list: Sam Mitchell)