The Thunder’s next foe is attempting to spend its way to relevance

The Thunder’s next foe is attempting to spend its way to relevance

The Minnesota Timberwolves are off to a hot start. Here’s how they decided to spend in the hopes that success would follow.

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

| Nov 28, 2023, 12:00pm CST

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

Nov 28, 2023, 12:00pm CST

Ask a Thunder fan what their favorite playoff series victory was, and they may need a moment to decide.

Maybe it’s one of the series against the Spurs. It could be one of several epic battles against the Memphis Grizzlies. Some could argue that getting playoff revenge against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in 2012 is their favorite. Since relocating to Oklahoma City in 2008, the team has given fans a slew of playoff series victories to savor.

Now ask the same question to a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that has existed since before the Bill Clinton administration. Those fans have exactly two playoff series victories to choose from, and both came in the same playoff run twenty seasons ago.

The Thunder and Wolves meet up on Tuesday night for the first time this season. It’s also the first meeting between the two since Minnesota ended Oklahoma City’s season in a play-in game last season. Months later, the two teams face off as teams atop the NBA’s Western Conference. 

Postseason disappointments aside, the Wolves and their fans have endured worse. The team almost relocated to New Orleans in 1994. Popular swingman Malik Sealy was tragically killed in a car crash in 2000 while returning home from a birthday party for franchise superstar Kevin Garnett. The team was heavily punished for salary cap circumvention involving journeyman forward Joe Smith. While being run by David Kahn, the Wolves passed not just once, but twice on the chance to draft Steph Curry in 2009. In 2015, head coach and team president Flip Saunders passed away after a brief battle with Hodgkin lymphoma.

Even when it seemed Minnesota was on a good path, star forward Jimmy Butler forced his way out of town in dramatic fashion in 2018.

The Wolves and owner Glen Taylor tried many ways to become relevant over the years, yet nothing was able to stick for long. With ownership in the process of changing to a group headed by Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, a decision was made to go bold. The Wolves are trying to spend itself into relevancy.

The most recent franchise makeover began during the 2020-21 season, when coach Ryan Saunders — the son of Flip — was fired and replaced with Chris Finch. In the summer of 2022, Minnesota lured Tim Connelly away from the Denver Nuggets with a lucrative deal to take over basketball operations.

The spending didn’t stop there.

 

After a 46-win campaign in 2021-22 — a season that ended in yet another first-round playoff exit for the franchise — the Wolves decided to push in. An offseason trade that sent multiple prospects and future picks to the Jazz for center Rudy Gobert sent shockwaves across the NBA, and not necessarily in a positive way.

The trade was polarizing but the rationale was sound: with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards on the team — and given the team’s past futility — a big trade was needed even if it meant skipping a few steps in the team’s development.

The initial returns were not promising. The Wolves regressed to 42 wins last season, thanks largely to an awkward adjustment period and a calf injury that limited Towns to only 29 games. The Gobert trade had all the makings of being an all-time bust, especially after an argument during the final game of the season led to Gobert punching Anderson

The narrative is shifting now. Minnesota enters Tuesday night’s game atop the Western Conference with a 12-4 record. They have the league’s best defensive rating. Edwards has taken another leap this season. Towns has adjusted to being the team’s co-star. Gobert looks a lot more like his former self, a player that’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner.

As currently constituted, the Wolves are on track to have payrolls above $187 million in the next two seasons. Some serious limbo maneuvers could nudge the Wolves under the luxury tax in those seasons, but it seems unlikely. Those payroll figures don’t account for starting point guard Mike Conley or key reserve Kyle Anderson, both of whom could be free agents after the season.

It’s an interesting reversal on how to build a team. Typically, teams ramp up spending over time in alignment with playoff success. Minnesota decided to spend in the hopes of escaping its past. 

If it works, Oklahoma City just might have another obstacle in its path back to the top of the West.

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