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Minnesota Timberwolves hope long journey will lead to big rewards

Young stars look to bond with veteran arrivals during training camp, which includes trip to China

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

MINNEAPOLIS – China’s cool and all – there’s that wall, don’t cha know – but the journey the Minnesota Timberwolves are about to embark on interests Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau way more.

“I’ve been to China many times. I went with the Rockets there,” said Thibodeau, recalling his time as a Houston assistant to Jeff Van Gundy. “You’re concerned about the travel – it’s not an easy trip to make.”

Mind you, Thibodeau is no ingrate. He knows it’s an honor for the largely undecorated Wolves franchise – as in, no playoff appearances in 13 years – to be invited abroad as part of the NBA’s Global Games. He sees positives in having to face the defending champion Golden State Warriors twice in four days, first in Shenzhen (Oct. 5) and then in Shanghai (Oct. 8).

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And Thibodeau certainly respects the fact that one of his bosses, Lizhang (John) Jiang, 16 months ago became the first Chinese minority owner of any team among the major U.S. sports leagues. That added incentive for the Wolves to make this trip.

Still, Thibodeau will save his greatest enthusiasm for what comes afterward.

Minnesota’s preseason can be broken down into four distinct parts: There’s Media Day Friday at the practice facility in downtown Minneapolis, with the Wolves getting the customary head start accorded teams booked for overseas travel. Then there’s an afternoon flight to San Diego for seven days of training camp, with the first workout set for Saturday morning at the University of California-San Diego.

After facing the Lakers in a tune-up game in Anaheim Sept. 30, the Wolves will head to China for more than a week. Then they’ll return to the Twin Cities to stage a mini-camp of sorts before opening the 2017-18 season Oct. 18 at San Antonio.

That’s when Phase 5 kicks in, by which time Thibodeau, his staff and Wolves fans hope to know as much as possible from a whirlwind four weeks.

“We’re playing seven regular season games in October,” said the coach-slash-president of basketball operations. “So,you have to move everything up just a little bit. It’s not exactly like it has been.

“When we come back, we’ll have an intrasquad [scrimmage] which will be like our fourth preseason game. And once we’re back, we only have nine days to get ready for the regular season. And our arena is not ready – I would have liked to have played another game.”

An inside-and-out, head-to-toe $140 million renovation of Target Center still is being completed. So Thibodeau will try to turn the team’s temporary displacement – and all those air miles and hotel nights – into more than just something to endure. He wants to make it valuable.

With at least eight new faces on this season’s roster – including Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford, minus players such as Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn – the Wolves want to fast-track their “Hi, my name is…” process. Thibodeau cites a happy precedent for this sort of thing: the Boston Celtics’ preseason trip to Rome and London in 2007-08.

That came after the Celtics rebuilt on the fly, corralling Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce in what became an insta-championship squad by June. Then as well as now, members of that club pointed to the time spent together in Europe, away from life’s mundane activities and distractions in and around Boston, for the quick start and extreme camaraderie of that group.

Boston went 29-3 by Jan. 5 that season, en route to a 66-16 finish. By the time the Celtics weathered 26 playoff games to snag the Larry O’Brien Trophy, hardly an NBA fan alive had missed hearing about Doc Rivers’ “Ubuntu” concept and how tightly it had drawn the team’s circle.

As Pierce said in 2012 when the Celtics were hoping for a similar effect from their preseason trek to Istanbul and Turkey: “When you brought a new team together and when you go abroad and you’re in a place that’s foreign to you, guys have a tendency to come together. … That sort of bond really helps a team in the long run, and I think that was instrumental in our run and our championship the first year.”

Said Thibodeau: “I loved the benefits that we got from that trip with the Celtics in ’07. In terms of the team bonding and a new group getting to know each other. When you travel like that, I think it’s the best way to get to learn and understand your teammates. Also, the amount of time we’ll be able to practice and do things as a team [is greater].”

Minnesota clearly is in a more formative stage than those Celtics. Its stars – notably Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins – are younger. Its expectations are more modest, i.e., ending the postseason drought that began three years before Garnett was traded.

The Wolves have been League Pass darlings at times during the dry spell, owing to Kevin Love, Rubio and a few disappointments such as Derrick Williams, Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley. But their ambitions are more straight-forward now and finally realistic, fueling the hope that they’ll come back from China with more than a lousy T-shirt.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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