July 26, 2011

There's room in the middle

And no, that's not a reference to cheese curds.


In the summer of 2007, Kevin McHale decided he didn't want professional basketball to succeed in Minnesota. This was preceded by three awful years of futility, and followed by something even worse: irrelevancy. He traded away the only true superstar the team has ever seen, and replaced him with marketing nightmares. "Come see Al Jefferson stand by while people dunk!" - "Hey kids, come on down and see Sebastian Telfair throw the basketball into the stands!" It was clear in July of 2007 that the Wolves would be occupying the basement for sometime. The team, though the expectations were extremely low, still managed to underperform. The future was dark then, completely black without hope. Now? There's a glimmer. And it has nothing at all to do with the Wolves.

In the 2000s, the League suddenly got frighteningly good. The Lakers began the decade with dominance, and managed to peak again towards the end. The Spurs took 3 titles in 5 years. The Mavericks have been a 50-60 win team for the entire decade, and the Kings only recently fell off. The Suns were fantastic in the middle, and the Magic emerged in the later half. Detroit went to the conference finals for SIX consecutive seasons. The Celtics, of course, got lucky because Deadzo likes to trade good players for not-good ones. Then there's the Cavs, and now the Heat. Let's not forget the bottom of the upper crust... teams like Denver and Chicago, who have spent a few years toying with the greats. Amidst all of this, there was absolutely a zero chance for the Wolves to compete. None. Even the teams in the middle: Atlanta, Memphis, Utah, Portland... these teams were LIGHT YEARS ahead of Minnesota. Dark future indeed.

So what has happened recently? First, ever since Pau Gasol started it (and LeBron kicked it into full gear), we've seen a definite movement in top-shelf talent towards already successful teams. Chris Paul will do it too. The underside of these kinds of moves is personified in Amare and Carmelo... two guys who decided it was in their best interest (and certainly NOT for the money) to go to a New York team that had absolutely no recent success, and would have absolutely no surrounding cast to offer them. They did this, presumably, because playing in New York is more fun than winning basketball games. And if Stern wasn't such a homer, and will undoubtedly be granting them every trade exception and signing loophole under the sun, they would suck for the next decade.

The second thing that happened was good old Father Time, that stubborn sumbitch who's dragging us all down to the Void. He slowly took out the Spurs, he's started in on the Lakers and Celtics, and he'll turn his sights to Dallas and Orlando next. These older players are not being replaced with the kind of talent that came along in the 2000s. OJ Mayo is not Dwyane Wade. As the olds fade away, the young guys haven't yet developed into top-flight talent.

Ok, so this is all fine and dandy, but what does it mean for the Wolves? Well, look at Phoenix. They were firmly in the middle for the last 3 years, getting by with an aging Steve Nash, solid Amare, and some complimentary pieces. Now Amare disappears, Steve has no one to throw the ball to, and those complimentary pieces suddenly aren't nearly as good as they used to be. Welcome to mediocrity! The exact same thing happened to Denver, and will soon happen to New Orleans. This exodus of talent from mid-level teams, combined with the gradual decline of the veteran teams, creates a wide-open middle class in the NBA. Suddenly, teams like Oklahoma City are leaping right past the middle on their way to the upper crust. Portland is like one good move away from a title run. But yet Utah, Phoenix, Houston and San Antonio run the risk of not being good for a decade. Take a look at two of the last #1 seeds: San Antonio and Cleveland (two years ago). Oy. It happened in Cleveland... it's going to happen in San Antone. It might be slower, but it's going to happen.


If the Wolves are looking for a model, they need look no further than Memphis. There was no discernible difference between the Grizz in 2006 and the Wolves in 2009. 22 wins, a roster steeped in young talent, a bad coach with bad players. Then they traded their best player for young pieces, and just kept acquiring younger players, drafting well, and keeping salary low. In the summer of 09, they make their move, going after Zach Randolph (a decision that was, how to say, mocked by this blog here). And what has happened? By toppling San Antonio and getting to the Conference Semifinals, they have firmly announced their arrival to at least the middle, if not the lower reaches of the upper crust. And all it took was a good 5 year plan, quality drafting, and taking one chance at a big contract.

This could happen in Minnesota. They are in position. Guys like Zach Randolph are out there... guys who have worn out their welcome with a specific team, but still have something to contribute. Guys like Arenas, Baron Davis, Rip Hamilton, etc. I'm not endorsing anyone in specific. That's another blog post. But one move could be all they need to at least get to the middle.

And once you get to the middle? Well, it's amazing how success can sometimes breed success. Look at Portland, Memphis, Chicago. You get on a roll, suddenly you can get the right kind of free agents, at appropriate prices, and teams want to deal with you.

Nothing's worse than the bottom. Nothing's worse than that dark night, lasting forever, sans hope. If you can get off the mat and compete for the 8th spot in the playoffs, hey, at least a few games a year actually mean something. That's better than we've had since 2005.