The Minnesota Timberwolves went into Sunday night's showdown against the Los Angeles Lakers believing the time was ripe to shatter a 15-game losing streak against the former denizens of their fair city. The setup seemed perfect. Los Angeles was on the back end of a back-to-back while the Wolves spent Saturday resting up. Minnesota had won five of seven to climb within one game of .500, while L.A. had dropped four of five. The Wolves hadn't beaten L.A. since Kevin Garnett was still around, but that was supposed to change on Sunday.
It didn't. The crowd at the Target Center was treated to an outstanding game, but in the end it was just another loss to the franchise that abandoned the Twin Cities and headed for the Pacific in 1960. (Taking with them a nickname that no longer made any sense. Oh well.)
A key sequence in the third quarter on Sunday was telling: Kobe Bryant had heated up from the field, as he is wont to do, and the Lakers moved out to an 18-point lead. After a Michael Beasley 3 cut the lead to 14 and threatened to swing the momentum, Bryant spotted up unguarded at the 3-point line, took a pass from Derek Fisher and seemingly killed Minnesota's run with a flick of the wrist.
But these aren't the same sad-sack Timberwolves. With Ricky Rubio directing the show, Minnesota streaked back into the game and led in the fourth quarter before faltering down the stretch. There were behind-the-back passes from Rubio, spot up 3s from Beasley, Kevin Love crashing the offensive glass, Anthony Randolph dunking off lob passes. Even though the Wolves ended up losing, there were some positives. For example, Minnesota outscored the Lakers 16-0 on fast-break points and 32-10 on second-chance opportunities. Sunday's game gave fans a glimpse of where the Timberwolves might be headed, but also demonstrated why they still have plenty of work to do to get there.
The tone of the "Diagnosis" series is typically negative. After all, you aren't ever diagnosed with something when you're healthy. This week is a bit of a departure because we're looking at the league's most improved team. Therefore, we're asking what Minnesota needs to do to continue its climb up the NBA's proverbial ladder. With the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks getting old, the West could be wide open in the years ahead. The Oklahoma City Thunder might emerge as a perennial power. Could we someday see an Oklahoma City-Minnesota rivalry at the top of the West?
There really is no easy answer for a team still in its gestation period. The Timberwolves play fairly fast, but reside in the middle of the efficiency pack on both ends of the court. That's good news. Great news, in fact, because Minnesota has ranked in the bottom third of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency in each of the past five years. Right now, the Timberwolves are mediocre with a bullet.
Certainly, with the talent and youth they feature, the Timberwolves should continue to improve and will remain fun to watch. However, to eventually become an elite team, how much do they need to tinker with their roster?
The rise of the Thunder is the perfect path for Timberwolves general manager David Kahn to follow. Turns out, he's already been mimicking OKC, though few have seemed notice. Minnesota has basically been a year or two behind Oklahoma City every step of the way. The similarities are striking.
Rebuilding invariably starts with losing a ton of games, but you also have to get lucky. In Seattle, the Thunder/Sonics lost 51 games in 2006-07. Not a good year, and just four teams lost more often. It took plenty of luck to get the Thunder/Sonics the second pick of the 2007 draft. It took more luck to get Kevin Durant with that pick after he was passed over by Portland in favor of Greg Oden. Similarly, Minnesota lost 60 games in 2007-08, setting it up for getting Love in a draft-day swap with Memphis for O.J. Mayo in 2008. That's worked out nicely.
So after Year 1, both teams had their franchise cornerstones. Yet the losses kept coming in bunches. For the Thunder, the continued futility allowed them to draft Russell Westbrook at No. 4 in 2008. For Minnesota, it meant Rubio at No. 5 in 2009. Rubio's overseas commitment prevented him from jumping into the fray right away, as Westbrook did with Durant. That and the flurry of non-Rubio point guards drafted by Kahn obscured the overall picture taking shape in Minnesota and slowed the process a bit.
Both Oklahoma City and Minnesota also stockpiled draft picks. Beginning in 2007, the Thunder drafted 15 players in four drafts. Many of those players never played for the Thunder, but instead were moved to add incremental pieces and assets to the organization. General manager Sam Presti drafted Glen Davis, Carl Landry, Rodrigue Beaubois and Quincy Pondexter, among others, and moved them all for trinkets like expiring contracts, cash, more draft picks and even actual basketball players. Kahn has adopted a similar strategy, taking 16 players over the past four drafts, just five of which are on this year's roster.
You even have each team hitting on an international big man beyond the lottery. Oklahoma City took Serge Ibaka at No. 24 in 2008. Minnesota got Nikola Pekovic at No. 31 in that same draft.
Let's assume that Minnesota's current Pythagorean record (the forecasted mark based on point differential) is the team's true talent level for this season. Over an 82-game season, the Wolves' differential would typically get you 45 wins. In 2009-10, Oklahoma City jumped from 23 to 50 wins. The Timberwolves would be jumping from 17 to 45 wins -- basically the same improvement. They're a few wins behind Oklahoma City's pace from a couple of years ago, but, then again, Durant is a step up from Love.
The key here for Kahn is to recognize the path his team is on and just get out of the way. Stay the course. Let his core mesh. Let his fans enjoy the improvement while coach Rick Adelman sorts out his roster. Wayne Ellington, Martell Webster or Wesley Johnson ... who's a keeper, who's redundant? Can Beasley learn to accept a supporting role? Can Derrick Williams become more than an athletic marvel? Does the progressing Pekovic have the defensive chops to be a starting pivot in the NBA?
The Timberwolves might not have a first-round choice in the 2012 draft, depending on what happens with a pick that might be coming from the Utah Jazz. (Minnesota's own 2012 pick was traded way back 2005 to the Clippers along with Sam Cassell, but the Jazz owe a pick to the Timberwolves that would be moved this year if Utah makes the playoffs.) That doesn't mean the Wolves can't add talent. If a clear Love-Rubio-Williams triumvirate is set at the end of this season, complementary pieces can be added via free agency. Or perhaps one of the other young players on the roster emerges, as Ibaka did with the Thunder.
No, there is no fix for Minnesota per se. Kahn just needs to keep doing what he's doing. The improvement for a roster this young will come from within. That's what happened with Oklahoma City.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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