Last season, many observers expected the Timberwolves to make the same jump that the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder did. This never happened for a couple of reasons. The first being that it’s hard for a core of three 21-year olds to win many games; and the second is the talent isn’t on the same level.
Jimmy Butler is the easy answer. The newcomer is enjoying one of the best seasons in franchise history and is the kind of player capable of setting the tone in the locker room. But then there have been players like Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford who have swung games in their favor. Improvement from guys like Tyus Jones and Karl-Anthony Towns have also improved the team this year.
Just how good have they been from last year? For starters, they are 12 games ahead of last year’s record. Last season’s Timberwolves were 12-26 after 38 games compared to 24-14 this season. That’s a 51-win pace and would be just the fourth time they’ve won 50 or more games in franchise history if they keep it up. According to Timberwolves PR, Miami and Philadelphia are second and third in terms of biggest turnaround.
However, Miami was probably always good. The Heat began last season slowly but came on strong at the end of the season. The fact that Kelly Olynyk was their major offseason move tells you that their roster composition isn’t much different. Or in short, the Heat were always good.
As for Philadelphia, they added J.J. Redick, got Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid healthy, and have been improved. Much like the Wolves, the Sixers were not a good team last season. Each of these teams found ways to add veteran talent to their stable of young talent and are now reaping the benefits.
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been six weeks since the Timberwolves have lost back-to-back games. In fact, they’re 10-3 in their last 13 games and have done so by building big, early leads. The team set a franchise record on Sunday with their 17-0 start against Indiana and had a 16-0 on Monday against the Lakers.
Per Alan Horton, the radio voice of the team, the Wolves have led by at least nine in their last six games. After Monday’s victory over the Lakers, the Wolves have now held a double-digit lead in four straight games after the first quarter.
Obviously, it’s better to jump on teams early than have to play catch up. A team is going to do both over the course of a season. However, learning to build and sustain respectable leads will be important.
Like we saw in Milwaukee last week, the Wolves will not win every game they hold a lead in. That’s a completely unrealistic standard, especially against a good team and playing on the road.
One possible reason for their ability to build leads is their success in the turnover battle. The Timberwolves are the sixth-best team at forcing turnovers in the NBA and also are the second-best in not turning the ball over. These extra possessions can become scoring chances and make it more difficult for the opponent to mount a comeback.
In case you were a Wolves fan worried that your team would now be the laughing stock of the four major sports, rest easy. The Seattle Mariners have gone 16 seasons without a playoff berth and carry the longest postseason drought in American professional sports.
After the Mariners, the Cleveland Browns have the next longest (15 years), followed by the Miami Marlins (14 years). That’s where the Wolves’ 13-year playoff drought ranks, currently.
As far as NBA teams go, the Sacramento Kings are second to the Wolves and have not made the playoffs in 11 years. If a team as hapless as the Bills can end their 17-year skid, then why can’t these Timberwolves? They have the superstar in Butler, rising star in Karl-Anthony Towns, and several useful veterans.
With a 3.5 game lead over the Thunder for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Wolves are carving our their place in the postseason. Unlike the Bills, it seems that the Wolves aren’t going to need any help on the last day of the regular season to get in.
Rooks played in 129 games in parts of two seasons in Minnesota. Unlike other big men who have made this column, Rooks was 25 years old when he was traded from Dallas for a first-round pick. That pick became Kelvin Cato, which is a pick I think we can all live with.
Rooks was a respectable talent who started 77 games in his Timberwolves career. His averages of 9.3 points and 5.3 rebounds on 47.3 percent shooting were solid. His best game as a Timberwolf was either 12/1/95 against Phoenix when he had 19 points in 18 minutes or 3/1/95 against Sacramento when he dropped 28 points, 13 rebounds, and two assists.
However, Rooks’ history, much like Calvin Booth last week, is connected to another more prominent player in team history. Rooks was dealt to Atlanta at the 1996 trade deadline with Christian Laettner in exchange for Andrew Lang and Spud Webb. Per Basketball-Reference, the Hawks received 29 future win shares from the deal while the Wolves got 1.0 win shares in return. That’s far from ideal for a former first-round draft choice.
After retiring in 2004, Rooks broke into the coaching ranks and worked his way up to being an NBA assistant coach with Philadelphia in 2014. Sadly, Rooks passed away on June 7, 2016, from heart disease.