The waiting really is the hardest part.
When Zach LaVine landed badly in Detroit Friday, shearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee, fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves (and plenty within the organization as well) couldn’t help but think the worst. It wasn’t LaVine’s injury per se that put so many of them out on the ledge, it was LaVine’s bad fortune as the latest in a succession of setbacks for a franchise too long in the spinning of its wheels.
The Wolves own the NBA’s longest drought between playoff appearances – barring some major churning in the Western Conference standings, this will make it 13 seasons since Minnesota last reached the postseason. And they own it both on merit and as a result of misfortune some locals have taken to calling a “curse.”
From poor draft decisions and free-agent flameouts to injuries and life’s real knockdowns (Flip Saunders’ death 16 months ago), the Wolves have run a gauntlet of hiccups and challenges, all leaving them with their noses pressed against the league’s happy glass. From the end of their 2004 run to the West finals through Monday’s fourth consecutive defeat, a 115-113 loss to Miami, this team has been 324 games under .500.
None of Minnesota’s various “eras” -- the Kevin Love, the David Kahn, the Kurt Rambis, the Derrick Williams, the Rick Adelman, the Saunders-Kevin Garnett Reset -- has panned out. And the latest, built around new coach Tom Thibodeau and a trio of magnificent young players, got knocked on its collective backside with LaVine’s season-ending (and next season-limiting) injury.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of losing LaVine on the Wolves’ performances and plans. Basketball, particularly on the offensive end where the athletic shooting guard with impressive 3-point range made his greatest contributions, immediately got harder for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. No longer can they rely on LaVine to draw out defenders as a threat from the arc or to get them easy buckets by slicing to, and above, the rim. Opponents already were daring Ricky Rubio to shoot and beat them when LaVine was around as an option; now they can pack around Towns and Wiggins with even greater impunity.
In terms of overall ambitions, the Wolves’ and their fans’ vision of playoff basketball this spring at Target Center suddenly turned cloudy. It isn’t so much the current 19-33 record – Denver, in eighth place, is 23-28 – as it is the five teams between Minnesota and that final West playoff berth. With LaVine’s 18.9 points, 37.2 minutes and 38.7 percent 3-point accuracy off the table, it is the team’s 13-11 stretch from mid-December through the end of January that looks more like the aberration than the 6-18 start.
All of which is, or at least will be, fine. And not even the cartoon-dog-sitting-in-a-room-ablaze variety of fine.
If anything, losing LaVine should take some pressure off the players and the organization to qualify for the playoffs this season. It was an elusive goal anyway, fueled by the mediocrity of the teams vying for the bracket’s lower berths. The Wolves remain improbably young – its three core guys are all 21 years old, with backup point guard Tyus Jones 20, rookie Kris Dunn 22, Shabazz Muhammad 24 and Rubio still just 26.
The gains in individual development and cohesive, intelligent team play can be made more significantly over the 30 games left on the regular-season schedule than in four duck-and-cover drubbings against the Golden State Warriors in late April. This is something, more than win-win-winning, that seems to seep from between the lines of even Thibodeau’s comments these days. His dual role as Minnesota’s chief basketball executive appears to have leavened his pedal-to-the-metal coaching mentality.
There are developing NBA teams for whom a taste of the playoffs is the next logical step: Milwaukee, Denver and Sacramento come to mind, with Orlando overdue already. A couple – Detroit and Portland – need to snag spots to avoid regressing. But Minnesota still is so young, like the Lakers and Philadelphia, that postseason dreams should be another year or two on the horizon.
Can Thibodeau throttle back enough over the next two months to be satisfied with a building year, his first (the Bulls went 62-20 in his Chicago debut year) but the Wolves’ umpteenth? Can the organization’s marketing and sales departments handle the lack of playoff payoff (there were thousands of empty seats at Target Center Monday for the Heat’s visit)?
More important, could another year of drought do any harm to the principal players? And, though there’s no wiggle room in this one, does the layoff awaiting LaVine set back his growth to any alarming degree?
He is, after all, still more athlete than seasoned player, a bundle of raw skills whose first two seasons were devoted largely to fundamentals. The blossoming of his game over this season’s first three months is something Minnesota doesn’t want to lose, any more than fans want to see him lose his spectacular hops.
“He’s going to be OK,” said one longtime NBA coach, who didn’t want to comment publicly on the Wolves. “Mentally, he’s a strong kid. He loves basketball – really loves it. All this is going to do is drive him to work hard in rehab. I feel like he’ll get back to 100 percent.”
But what of Towns and Wiggins, who might press now in trying to divvy up LaVine’s production? It was too early to know how Thibodeau planned to cover long-term for his young guard’s absence from the rotation: starting veteran Brandon Rush in his spot, shifting Muhammad or Nemanja Bjelica into the starting lineup while moving Wiggins to the backcourt, or using another guard (Dunn, Jones) next to Rubio.
Both Towns and Wiggins have been prone occasionally to trying to do too much. They combined for 43 shots against Miami but zero assists, with Wiggins missing in isolation at the end on a shot to tie. That will be on Thibodeau, his staff and the two young stars to manage going forward, but in a macro sense, figuring out how to play offensively without LaVine could be helpful.
“This is just another part of them growing and becoming pros,” said the coach cited above. “Injuries are part of the game. Everything they’re going through now, this is new for them. It’s part of learning.”
Hard lessons are nothing new for the NBA folks in Minnesota. What’s so trying is how many of those lessons there have been, and how long.
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