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Trading fan favorites can be difficult but necessary for NBA teams to thrive

Timberwolves fans haven’t had much to hold on to. There have been no title runs and one deep postseason run. As you’re reading this, you’re probably saying, “But 2004!” in your head.

This clashes with the idea of fandom. Fandom being an emotional attachment requires something to grab on to. If your favorite team doesn’t have many memories of success or lovable teams for an extended time, you latch on to players you like.

Unfortunately, nothing is guaranteed in professional sports. Coaches can be fired and players traded. This uncertainty puts fans in a difficult position if the team still isn’t winning.

Sometimes, this change is necessary.  Consider the Golden State Warriors and their decision to trade Monta Ellis over Steph Curry in 2012. Debating moving Curry over Ellis is a ludicrous idea now but fans were irate when the deal went down.

Ellis had become one of the league’s most prolific scorers but it was also becoming clear that this Curry kid had potential. Curry was in just his third season and recently missed time with an ankle injury. Yet, when healthy, the former Davidson star was already one of the greatest shooters in the game.

Golden State’s unpopular choice ultimately led to the berth of the Warriors dynasty. Andrew Bogut, whom they received in exchange for Ellis, fortified the paint– something the former roster was lacking. When Bogut went down early in the 2015 season, it forced Steve Kerr to start Draymond Green.

From there, the Warriors would win the most games in a single season and multiple titles behind now-multi-time MVP Steph Curry. What was an unpopular move gave way to something far greater than fans could have imagined with the status quo.

Timberwolves have had one all-star since Kevin Garnett. Even then, Kevin Love’s relationship with the fans soured after a couple of seasons. Being a fan of Love the player was far from a bad thing. He was a great player and one that enhanced the relevancy of a team otherwise in the league’s blind spot.

Ricky Rubio is a solid comparison. Fans loved Rubio’s selfless play and pleasant disposition. He was a very likable player and person (from what we could see). If Ellis’ biggest flaw was his defense, Rubio’s was his shooting. Despite Rubio’s facilitating and playmaking abilities, teams could sag off Rubio late in games, essentially creating a power play for the opponent. Additionally, Rubio played just 71 percent of his games over six seasons.

The best season the Timberwolves could muster with either player was 40 wins. That’s six seasons of banging your head against the wall with each player hoping to finally break through.

Tom Thibodeau gave it one season before deciding to shake things up. After moving another fan favorite, Zach LaVine, for Jimmy Butler, Ricky Rubio was sent to Utah for a first-round pick. From there, Jeff Teague was signed to be the starting point guard and the team makeover was well underway.

This was understandably difficult for many to stomach. Unlike Love, LaVine and Rubio were beloved by the fanbase. LaVine’s dunk contest victories were the closest things to an all-star the team had had since Love. Unless you count having back-to-back Rookie of the Year award winners.

Fans had become attached to these players because, again, there was little else. No one hangs a banner for winning 25 games, after all. Having won just two more games with Thibodeau than the previous season didn’t help. Not only were two of their favorite players gone, they weren’t seeing the wins. This is a fan base that has been sold false hope numerous times in the past 13 years and some began questioning the veracity of the Thibodeau way.

A lot can change in six months. Despite the upheaval, the trust from the Target Center faithful is paying off.

The Timberwolves as of this weekend were 12 games ahead of their pace a year ago and were 10 games over .500 for the first time in a decade. Moreover, the team has been entrenched in the fourth spot in the Western Conference for the majority of the season. They’re on pace to have a 50-win year halfway through the season. This is the type of tangible progress people have been hoping to see since that storied playoff run.

A big reason for that is Jimmy Butler. After a deferential start to the season, Butler has asserted himself as the team’s go-to option. He’s been everything he was advertised to be: a scorer, defender, facilitator, rebounder, and vocal leader. His work ethic and approach to the game sets a great example for the team’s young players.

This has made life easier for Karl-Anthony Towns. On a team bereft of 3-point shooting, Towns hitting 40.3 percent of his 3.8 attempts per game is huge. Butler’s presence hasn’t stopped Towns from averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds once again.

Additional veteran presences like Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford have added invaluable support to the frontcourt and bench throughout the season. Gibson is another steady rebounder down low who shoots efficiently and is an effective defender. Crawford has been the type of playmaker that the team had hoped Shabazz Muhammad would be.

None of this would be possible without the bold moves made last offseason. At least not this season. This isn’t to say that the Wolves are on track for Warriors-level success. But it’s important to remember that even after the Ellis trade that it took a few years and a few more key moves — like drafting Klay Thompson — to go deep in the postseason.

It’s funny that Ellis himself admitted the Warriors wouldn’t have achieved the same success with him.

Are Warriors fans still seething over trading Ellis now? No, but that has taken both time and success. It will be the same for Wolves fans and their former favorites. For the first time in ages, it seems that this team will be one worth investing in, not just one or two players.


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