On Monday, the Minnesota Timberwolves dropped their home opener to the Portland Trail Blazers, 106–101. It was the team’s first loss of the season. Afterward the Wolves’ sensational rookie forward Karl-Anthony Towns described himself as “drained from the beginning,” and with the week he and his teammates have had, that might have been an understatement. Last Sunday, Timberwolves coach and beloved Minnesota basketball legend Flip Saunders died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Wolves opened their season three nights later in Los Angeles and won a nail-biter against the Lakers; they then traveled to Denver and blew out the Nuggets. Coming off an emotionally wrenching 30-minute pregame tribute to Saunders, the team jumped to a 17-point lead against the Blazers, and in the final minute saw a game-tying Andrew Wiggins putback rescinded on a dubious offensive goaltending call.
The near-perfect start is illusory—both the Lakers and the Nuggets are terrible, and no one’s expecting much from Portland—but it should be a sign of things to come. This year, the Timberwolves will certainly win more games than their league-worst 16 victories in 2014–15, and in future seasons they should win a lot more than that. In the meantime you might want to find a way to start watching them as soon as possible.
Every now and then the NBA boasts a team that offers great television without necessarily offering great basketball, the sort of team you’re drawn to for thrilling moments on the micro-level rather than any real proficiency at the serious and staid business of winning. The 2015–16 Minnesota Timberwolves are very likely one of these teams. In Towns and Wiggins, the Wolves have the top overall picks in the past two drafts and two budding superstars. Point guard Ricky Rubio is a resurgent erstwhile prodigy with highlight-reel passing skills and a jump shot so erratic it deserves a subplot on Empire. Guard Zach LaVine is a freakish athlete who plays like he’s trying to take part in a slam dunk contest nobody else knows about and is confused as to why defenders keep showing up.
The Timberwolves are a work in progress, but they’re also the sort of team that prompts kids playing NBA video games to have wrestling matches over the controller. The first team I personally remember in these terms was the Run TMC Warriors of the early 1990s, a squad that featured the threesome of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin. That group burned brightest during the 1990–91 season, when Mullin, Richmond, and Hardaway averaged 25.7, 23.9, and 22.9 points per game, respectively. They lost in the second round of the playoffs, and Richmond was shipped off to Sacramento the next fall. A few years later the Dallas Mavericks offered up the high-energy and high-scoring triumvirate of Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn, and Jason Kidd, aka the “three J’s” (even if Kidd’s J, as the joke went, was usually missing), before being disbanded in 1996, undone by injury, ego, and (allegedly) R&B songstresses. The quintessential 21st-century version might be the 2001–02 Los Angeles Clippers, which boasted Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Darius Miles, Corey Maggette, and Quentin Richardson—all of whom were under 23—and genially swaggered through one of the most memorable 39–43 campaigns in league history. By 2002–03 Miles had been shipped off to Cleveland, Brand and Odom battled injuries, and the team regressed to a more typically Clippersian 27–55.
These teams don’t always end in dysfunction or premature dissolution, of course: In recent times both the Thunder and the Warriors have built championship-caliber teams that incubated as left-of-the-dial NBA League Pass treasures. Whether the Wolves go the happier way of those last two will largely depend on a front office with a less-than-illustrious track record of developing and keeping talent. The Timberwolves entered the league as an expansion franchise in 1989 and have never won a championship; their last franchise player, Kevin Love, left town in 2014 after six seasons without even seeing a playoff game. In their 27-year existence they have finished above .500 only seven times, and in a murderous Western Conference this season is not likely to be the eighth.
But the future will largely depend on Wiggins and Towns, upon whose immense and still-developing talents the team’s fortunes will either soar or be scuttled. After arriving from a trade with the Cavs last season, Wiggins won Rookie of the Year and seemed to only get better as the season progressed, averaging 20 points per game after the All-Star break and slightly more than 23 per game in the season’s final month. Wiggins is a monstrously gifted defender who’s often been compared to Scottie Pippen. But even more frightening for opposing players are sequences like this block-to-drive-to-dunk end-to-end play that carry distinct shades of Pippen’s more-famous teammate.
It’s too early to say if Wiggins has what it takes to be the top player on a championship contender, but he may not even have to be. Through his first three NBA games, Towns has been a revelation and already looks himself like a franchise player in the making. In just his second outing, Towns hung 28 points and 14 rebounds on the Nuggets. Monday night his box score line was a more typically rookie stew of 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 fouls, but in the fourth quarter he calmly drilled a three-pointer, blocked a Damian Lillard layup, then proceeded to play ravenous, space-devouring defense in the game’s final minutes. It’s difficult to determine which is scarier—how much vaster Towns’ potential appears to be than previously thought, or how rapidly he seems to be fulfilling it.
Feeding these two prodigies will (hopefully) be Rubio, who just a few years ago was considered one of the most electrifying young point guards in the NBA. Now entering his fifth season, Rubio’s biggest concern is health—last year he missed 60 games. Rubio’s second-biggest concern is shooting—a while back Zach Lowe noted in Grantland that Rubio was on pace to become the worst shooter in the modern history of the NBA, a trend he hasn’t yet done much to reverse. Through four seasons Rubio’s career field goal percentage was about 37 percent; last year he shot closer to 35 percent, while playing only 22 games. But hope springs eternal: In three games so far this season Rubio is shooting a surprisingly respectable 46 percent, including a 10-for-17 opening night performance that saw him net a career-high 28 points.
The rest of the team is … well, no one’s really sure. Third-year big man Gorgui Dieng is a solid bench player who Wolves fans hope is still improving; 20-year-old LaVine is a dazzling athlete who is currently not a very good basketball player. Swingman Shabazz Muhammad cannot play defense and may or may not remember Nirvana.
And then of course there is Kevin Garnett, 39 years old, prodigal son, and singular Timberwolf. Garnett signed a two-year contract over the summer, although he may hang it up sooner. There will (and should) be much written about him then, and hopefully before then, but for now there is a poignant symmetry to KG playing on this team. Once upon a team he was himself a member of one of the great youthful fantasy squads, back in 1997–98, when a 21-year-old Garnett and a 20-year-old Stephon Marbury took the Wolves to a 45–37 record, which at the time was the best mark in the history of the franchise. Flip Saunders was the coach of that team; current Wolves coach Sam Mitchell chipped in 12 points a game. The next season the temperamental Marbury forced his way out of town; by the time Garnett finally won a title it was as a member of the Boston Celtics, in 2008.
Now he’s back, and just in time. In the immediate wake of Saunders’ passing, Garnett posted an insanely moving photograph of himself to social media, staring at Saunders’ empty parking space; Monday night he was absent from the video tributes, apparently still too choked up by emotion to contribute. He played 17 minutes, took three shots, and missed all of them. It barely mattered—this is his team, as much as it was Flip’s, and always will be.