Minnesota’s Basketball Beginnings
It is 1947. The United States is two years removed from a second world war victory. Harry Truman is the president. The daily newspaper cost four cents. In the sports world, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. 1947 was also the first year that Minneapolis, Minnesota had a professional basketball team.
In the time spanning between 1947 and 1960, Minneapolis was in possession of a successful franchise. The team had made 11 playoff appearances, culminating in five NBA championships. The team also had the NBA’s first true star: George Mikan. Ranking in the top 25 all-time in career scoring average with 23.13 points per game and 13.4 rebounds per game, what would be 10th all time, Mikan was an all-around star that couldn’t be stopped. After his success faded and Mikan retired, the team’s success also faded. Hopes weren’t very high in Minneapolis, and the franchise would move out west, where the team has thus far won 11 more championships. This team is, of course, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Though the move proved to be extremely worthwhile for the Lakers, it left Minnesota without a truly successful sports dynasty. Sure, the Minnesota Twins would come along and win two World Series titles, but to be able to have five championships in a 13 year span? It hasn’t been duplicated to this date in Minnesota.
The Second Coming
Despite the absence of a dynasty, Minnesota had relative success with other sports in the area. So in 1989, Minnesota got another crack at an NBA team. The team held a vote for its name, and ‘Timberwolves’ had won. The other finalist for the team name was ‘Polars’, which was more applicable to the Timberwolves’ performance in their first season. Playing in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the same place where the Twins had won their first World Series championship in baseball two years earlier, the Timberwolves finished their first season with a 22-60 record. While that record is usually expected for an expansion franchise, it’s a tough pill to swallow when comparing it to the Lakers’ first NBA season in Minneapolis, when the Lakers finished with a 51-17 record and won a championship.
Despite their play, it is important to note that Timberwolves fans set NBA attendance records, being able to pull in over a million fans to their home games that season, highlighted by close to 50,000 spectators at the Timberwolves’ final home game of the season, where, to no surprise, the team suffered an 11 point loss to the Denver Nuggets.
The next couple of years would be a lot of the same for the new franchise, struggling to find an identity. The team’s misfortunes brought a lot of high draft picks, highlighted by the drafting of college basketball legend and 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” member Christian Laettner. His legend status playing for Duke didn’t translate to success in the NBA, and the Timberwolves kept racking up losses, and the future looked grim for the franchise. Then he came.
After finishing 21-61 in the 1994-95 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves took advantage of the fifth pick of the NBA draft to select a high school standout. This forward dominated at the Farragut Career Academy in Chicago, and was the player that the Timberwolves were in dire need of. His name was Kevin Garnett.
A Taste of Success
Garnett didn’t break out right away as a star, and the Timberwolves’ struggles continued, going 26-56 in Garnett’s rookie year. In the 1996-97 season, however, Garnett broke out, scoring 17 points per game and averaging eight rebounds. Garnett, along with teammate and forward Tom Gugliotta were selected to the Western Conference All-Star team that season, and the Timberwolves finished with a 40-42 record, making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Despite being swept by the Houston Rockets in the first round, making the playoffs was progress for this, up to this point, unsuccessful franchise.
Despite losing Gugliotta and star point guard Stephon Marbury during a lockout-shortened 1998 season, Garnett led the Timberwolves to playoff appearances every season between 1996 and 2003. Though it sounds promising, the Timberwolves faced first round exits in each of those seasons as well, despite having three 50 win seasons in that span as well.
The Timberwolves had seemed to be only a few pieces away from becoming a championship contender. In 2000, the team had two all stars in Garnett and forward Wally Szczerbiak. In trying to sign star player Joe Smith, however, the franchise had mishandled the signing, and the misconduct involved within it cost the team 3 first round draft picks and the services of General Manager Kevin McHale for an entire season. Though these circumstances are often the blame of the team’s shortcomings during the time period, one season saw Minnesota come within hand’s reach of the NBA finals.
So Close, Yet So Far
In the offseason prior to the 2003-04 season, the Timberwolves made major moves, adding guards Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell to their roster. The Timberwolves became a superpower, tearing through most of the Western Conference, winning 58 games and earning the top seed in the conference. The Timberwolves were finally able to escape the first round, defeating the Denver Nuggets in the first round and emerging victorious in a grueling seven game series against a powerful Sacramento Kings squad, led by the daunting trio of Mike Bibby, Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic. The Timberwolves had fallen in the Western Conference Finals to a team that was very familiar to the history of Minnesota basketball: the then three-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
After a season that saw the most success in Timberwolves’ history in a Conference Finals appearance and an MVP award for Kevin Garnett, the team looked poised to maintain dominance in the West, especially after the departure of Center Shaquille O’Neal from the Lakers. However, the team would crumble from within that season.
Contract disputes were the key issue for the Timberwolves during the 2004-05 season. Star players, headlined by Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, were not pleased with their roles on the team, and as the next three seasons progressed, the team fell apart. The Timberwolves missed the playoffs in 2005, and they lost Sprewell and Cassell that offseason. The Timberwolves were not able to recapture the magic of that ‘04 team, missing the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. After these disappointing seasons, Minnesota traded Garnett to the Boston Celtics. In their first season without the star forward’s services, the Timberwolves finished 22-60, while Garnett and the Celtics went on to defeat the Lakers to win an NBA championship.
Since that magical 2003-04 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been unable to make the playoffs. Since the departure of Kevin Garnett, the only bright spot the franchise had possessed was forward Kevin Love, who had dominated in both scoring and rebounding, albeit it didn’t translate to success for his team between 2010 and 2014.
The Climb Back
However, the trading of Kevin Love brought the beginning of a seed of hope for the Timberwolves to see the playoffs once again. They used the trade to acquire forward Andrew Wiggins, a player who so far has proven to be fruitful for the team on both offense and defense. In 2015, though, the Timberwolves were given the number one pick in the draft lottery. They used this pick to acquire the player whose features are very familiar to Minnesota fans.
Karl Anthony Towns is a dominant, young forward, much like Kevin Garnett. His effectiveness on the offensive side of the floor is unprecedented in the modern basketball era that lacks physical big men on the floor.
The breakout of Wiggins and Towns has been something to watch over the past two seasons, despite not being able to break the 13 year streak of the team not making the playoffs. The Timberwolves have slowly improved, much like the teams of 1996 and ’97 with the breakout of Kevin Garnett. Much like the offseason prior to the dominant 2003-04 season, the Timberwolves made big moves in the offseason leading to the current campaign for Minnesota. The acquisition of star defensive guard Jimmy Butler was much needed for the Timberwolves, bringing a composed presence with a couple of years under his belt playing in the NBA. To go along with Butler is household name Jeff Teague, another player that reconciles with the Timberwolves’ defensive woes. The Timberwolves also picked up a veteran and legendary sixth man in guard Jamal Crawford.
Together, this squad is the best Minnesota has had since their last playoff appearance in 2004. Their powerful lineup boasts a dominant offense in the post led by Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, while maintaining the pressure on defense with guards Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague. The Timberwolves are off to a good start, beginning the season with a 5-3 record, highlighted by boasting two victories over an imposing Oklahoma City Thunder team.
For the first time in a while, the Minnesota Timberwolves finally look like a threat in the Western Conference, and it feels great for Minnesota natives. Though an NBA championship is more than unlikely this season, there is still plenty of room for this young team to make noise in the league in the 2017-18 season. At the end of the day, all you have to do is look into the past to figure out that good things are in store for the future.