Nearly 25 years ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves took the floor at Metrodome for the first time as an NBA franchise. Fitting enough that the first home game was against Michael and the Bulls and despite 31 points from Tony Campbell, Chicago won 96-84 behind 45 from MJ.
Over 35,000 packed the dome to watch the Twin Cities newest professional franchise. Sure the Bulls had Jordan and Pippen, but we boasted Campbell and a rookie named Pooh. Those were great times because the Wolves had zero expectations and yet head coach Bill Musselman and his band of no names won 22 games.
Over the next six seasons the Wolves toiled in the cellar winning a combined 130 games and finishing no higher than 5th in the Midwest Division. The Wolves employed a two year coaching strategy and saw Musselman replaced by Jimmy Rodgers replaced by Sidney Lowe replaced by Bill Blair before finally settling on a former Golden Gopher.
When Flip Saunders took over the struggling franchise during the 1995-1996 season, playoffs were never a possibility, Flip along with Kevin Garnett turned that into an expectation and for the next seven seasons, the Wolves made the postseason only to be bounced in the first round.
In the summer of 2003, the franchise went all in adding Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell and along with KG, the Wolves finished first in the Midwest Division and won their first playoff series advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Shaq and Kobe led Lakers in six games. Garnett was the league MVP and it appeared that the Wolves had turned the corner.
Spree complained about needing to feed his family in a contract dispute and in August of 2005, the team traded Cassell to the Clippers for Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers. The 2005 and 2006 seasons were marked by a pair of trades with Boston that saw the Wolves acquire the majority of the Celtics roster for Wally Szczerbiak and up until that point the only face of the franchise Garnett. After nine seasons on the bench, Saunders was let go and the two year coaching carrousel picked up right where it left off. Dwayne Casey, Randy Wittman and Kurt Rambis lasted two full seasons or less as the team won 143 times over six seasons.
Rick Adelman took over in 2011 and won 26 games followed by 31 last year with an injury ravaged team. Adelman, one of the best x's and o's coaches in NBA history returns for his third season and when he finishes the year, will be only the second coach in franchise history to complete three full seasons on the bench. Saunders is the other and with Flip back in the mix as the President of Basketball Operations, the Wolves have assembled their deepest roster since the 2003-2004 season.
9. They can score, but can they stop anyone?
Adelman preaches defense and the mantra heading into the season. Offensively, they have options and the talent to put the ball in the basket and truth be told, no one plays defense during the regular season. In the post season, can they get a stop when they need it? Nikola Pekovic isn't a "protect the rim" center and despite his big body, isn't exactly fleet of foot. Ricky Rubio's knock coming in was defensively. He proved last season that he is more than capable of controlling the floor on both ends and Kevin Martin adds some quickness up top. Corey Brewer returns to Target Center and after playing the role of sixth man in Denver will likely start even though Adelman would like to keep him in the role he flourished in with the Nuggets. Brewer is a solid shut down defender more than a scorer which will strengthen the overall team defense.
8. Can they stay healthy?
It is the one thing in sports you can't prepare for and when the team didn't have depth, the continuous flow into the training room took its toll. Injuries continued to mess with Adelman's lineups and the big three of Rubio, Kevin Love and Pekovic played a combined 13 minutes together on the floor. Chase Budinger reinjured his knee before camp started and had his second surgery in less than a year. Saunders has said he is ahead of schedule, but the team is in no hurry to bring him back to quickly.
7. Do they have 3-point shooters?
Kevin Martin who played for Adelman in Sacramento and Houston enters the fray as a three point gunner. He shot nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc last season and gives the Wolves a consistent outside threat. Martin finished the pre-season 10-for-23.
6. Are playoffs in the future?
Right now they are, but as we found out last year there are other factors that can play a huge part. They have depth and a balanced roster which is a great thing when it comes to having players step in due to injuries.
5. Is Kevin Love engaged mentally?
As of now he seems to be, but he has distanced himself from the media. This is a huge year for Love and his future in Minnesota. Rumors of a Los Angeles reunion with Russell Westbrook have already started, but as we know winning solves many issues and getting the all-star to stay in Minneapolis might be based on how this season plays out.
4. Do they have the depth?
The starting five appears to be Rubio, Martin, Brewer, Love and Pekovic meaning the second unit of JJ Barea, Alexey Shved, Dante Cunningham, Derrick Williams and Ronny Turiaf all of which have significant minutes played on past teams either here or other places. The rookies weren't even mentioned meaning Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng can learn the ropes of the NBA without having too much pressure on them to contribute immediately.
3. Can they get off to a fast start?
Four of their first six games are at Target Center and with a big conference collision against Oklahoma City on Friday night, a quick start is a must. The Wilves will play back-to-back road games against New York and Cleveland. Home games include Orlando, OKC, Golden State and Dallas.
2. Who are the 8 Western Conference playoff teams?
As we gaze the landscape during the opening week, here are my predictions.
1. What will the Wolves regular season record be?
Vegas has the Wolves winning 41 games and to me that seems a tad light but not by much. If I were setting my over/under I would put it at 45 and feel good about it. Last season, 45 wins is what it took to get into the playoffs in the Western Conference. Upside they could win 50, but I'll be conservative and say 48 which is a 17 win improvement over last season.