Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A depressing walk through Timberwolves history

In their 20-year history, the Timberwolves have won two playoff series.

I thought of that tidbit last week while watching another Timberwolves loss, though it's not exactly a hidden piece of trivia.

Both victories came in 2004, one against Denver and a 7-game classic against the Kings. This is the team's 21st season. At 13-44, we can eliminate them from playoff contention, even if the league's mathematicians haven't given the official verdict. So this will be the 20th season in franchise history that ends without a playoff victory. It's almost improbable, the level of ineptness and despondence that afflicts the franchise and has hovered over the team since that first season in the poorly lit but spacious Metrodome.

Twins fans suffered from 1993 through 2000, as the Rich Becker and Marty Cordova Era replaced the Puckett and Hrbek clan, ruining the game for millions of baseball fans in the state. That was an eight-year span, bookended by a pair of World Series victories and a nine-year run that's seen the Twins become one of the most consistent franchises in baseball, even if each season end with a beating at the hands of the bullying Yankees. It's not just that the Wolves have been bad. What's been so depressing for an ever-shrinking fan base is that in many years, there hasn't even been any hope. The fans look to the future and see nothing but missed jumpers, blown defensive assignments and a siren call to howl during opponents' free throws. The fans are as beaten down as a wrongly convicted person looking at life in prison with no chance for parole. There's seemingly only darkness in the years ahead.

And the past is even worse.

But what was the most depressing year in Timberwolves history? Not necessarily the worst year in the record books - which is the 15-67 mark in 1992 - but the most disheartening season, the season that was repellent on the court with no hope for a better tomorrow. There is no shortage of candidates.

* 1989-90. 22-60. A horrid record, but actually an uplifting season. As an expansion team, the Timberwolves had no expectations. They were expected to fail and look bad doing it. But led by coach Bill Musselman, the Wolves developed a reputation as a tough defensive team, one that could keep the game close with a plodding offense led by Laker refugee Tony Campbell, who averaged 23 points a game. Many familiar names of Timberwolves lore played this year - Randy Breuer, Brad Lohaus, Sidney Lowe, Scott Roth, Tod with one d Murphy. No one expected that lineup to make a run at 50 wins the following year, but there was a sense that the organization had a clue and some type of plan. Another highlight that year: an NBA attendance record, as the Wolves attracted more than a million fans to the cavernous Metrodome, a stadium that was so big, sometimes the only players fans could see with the naked eye were the ones who were taller than 7-feet. Mark Eaton. He was visible.

* 2007-2009. Gonna combine these two seasons, since all 164 games sort of blur together, one loss indistinguishable from another. These were depressing seasons. They traded Garnett and won a total of 46 games, as the team's head coach did everything but legally change his name to the Beleaguered Randy Wittman. Al Jefferson and Kevin Love provided a few highlights here and there but overall there was little to excite a fanbase that now half-filled the Target Center. A long ways from the days in the Metrodome.

* 2002-03. They won 51 games. Made the playoffs. But still depressing. Eliminated by the Lakers, this was the seventh straight season the Wolves lost in the first round. By this point, it seemed that Garnett would not only never win a title with the team, but he wouldn't even get a single series victory. It seemed like the Wolves would be winning 50 games and losing in the first round until about, oh, 2011, when Garnett's knees would begin to give out. Instead, Sprewell and Cassell joined the team and 2004 was the best season in team history. And, of course, the only season with a playoff victory.

* 1991-1992. The 15-win season. On the NBA.com recap of the season, the headline is "A Rough Winter." Coincidentally, 1992 was a long winter in Janesville as well. I don't remember the details from that season in JWP girls basketball history, but I know it was a long one. I know this because the following year - 1993, my senior year - the gals again struggled. At the end of the year the head coach put a lot of work into a booklet for the girls, a collection of newspaper clips recapping the campaign. He also headlined it. And the headline? "Another long winter." Yes, yes it was. He saw no point in glossing over that fact with any propaganda that would talk about how hard the team played or how close the games were. Every game was a struggle, for the coach, the players and the fans. So might as well call it what it was. And if it was "another" long winter, it must mean that 1992 was a long one as well.

Anyway, for the Wolves the long winter included losing streaks of 10 and 16 games. Certainly a disheartening season - any season that includes the Twin Tower tandem of Luc Longley and Felton Spencer can not be considered a success - but still not the most depressing year.

* 1993-1994. My vote for the most depressing season in team history. Others will disagree and I could definitely be persuaded, such is the history of the franchise. They went 20-62, the second-worst mark for the team. The season started with five straight losses, eliminating any hope for the remaining 77 games. The season ended with 10 straight defeats, reminding everyone of just how horrid the year had been. Sidney Lowe coached the team. Lowe had been a short, bad player for the team its first season, and became a short, bad coach after retirement. Christian Laettner and Isaiah Rider led the team in scoring, a pair of joyless, good-but-not-even-close-to-great players who flummoxed fans from numerous franchises during their long careers. By this time, it'd become obvious that Laettner, while a dependable player, was not going to duplicate his college success. It was obvious that he would not be another Larry Bird, though he was at least a better player than Eddie Bird.

Doug West continued to plug away, averaging 14 points. Everyone loved West's work ethic and attitude but watching him for five years dulled the senses.

Here's the most amazing stat from that season, the number that drives home with the authority of a Gary Leonard dunk just how bad the Timberwolves were in 2004. Dallas defeated the Wolves in five of the six meetings between the teams. Dallas won...13 games that year. 13-69. But in six meetings against Minnesota, they won five times. There were probably calls for the team to be disbanded at the end of the year, and that actually almost happened.

It appeared the team was going to be sold to a group that planned to move the team to New Orleans for the following season. The NBA nixed the deal. Mankato's very own Glen Taylor came to the rescue, buying the team and keeping the franchise in Minnesota. In 1995, they drafted Garnett and things began to turn around, relatively speaking.

But 1994...that was a long winter. The most depressing winter.

There seems to be little hope with the current version of the Timberwolves, who did manage to win their 14th game tonight. But they have some good young players. Rambis seems like a good coach, provided he doesn't suffer a breakdown. In fact, the struggles of 2010 are really nothing when compared to the franchise's travails the past 21 years.

A 14-44 record that doesn't seem that bad in comparison to past seasons.

That's depressing.


rbeer said...

love the old lakers footage.

Jerry said...

I am thinking that the T'Puppies are pretty close to the Lakers in total losses - and it has taken them 30 less years to do it!! Success at last!!!!!