Timberwolves had a season of rebirth, and it only will get harder from here

Maybe this really is the start of something in Minnesota. Maybe the Timberwolves will use the disappointment from their playoff loss to Memphis as fuel to take big strides this summer and come back as a team that expects to be in the playoffs. Maybe Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns will learn from the letdowns late in games against the grizzlies and emerge on the other side with the composure and the feel for the game that will allow them to close out opponents when they are in position to beat them.

That could all happen. The Timberwolves could supplant the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Lakers as a team that opens every season with realistic goals of contending in the Western Conference, winning playoff series and chasing championships. For a franchise that has consistently languished at the bottom of the conference, it is a tantalizing, if wholly unfamiliar, role to play. It also may be an entirely different — not better or worse, but completely different — kind of fun than the team and its fans had this year.

This season was one of exceeding expectations, the franchise that always seemed to mess things up finally putting together seven good months of competitive, enjoyable basketball. In some ways it felt as if it came out of nowhere. The Wolves were projected to be in the running for a No. 9 or No. 10 seed at the start of the season. They fired their president of basketball operations days before training camp. Target Center was empty, and the Wolves were coming off of a 23-win season having made precious few changes to the roster to address that.

By the time the regular season closed, the Timberwolves had doubled their win total from last season and turned Target Center into the place to be. They went on to beat the Clippers in to thrilling Play-In Tournament game to earn the No. 7 seed and their first playoff appearance in four years and held a double-digit lead on the second-seeded Grizzlies in three of the playoff games they lost.

In some ways, it felt like a team coming out of nowhere. There is no way the fans could have anticipated seeing an energetic, likable, well-coached group deliver above and beyond expectations because the Wolves have routinely been so hard to watch, dropping the bar lower than a January wind chill. For once, they were a feel-good story. And the uniqueness of the emergence, that first real run out of the shadows and into the sun, brings with it a novelty and an intoxication that are purer than any other form of success in this league.

There is a joy in the rise, in the sensation that comes with understanding you are no longer the little brother who is easily pushed around. And you are still the fans’ little secret; only the die-hards who immerse themselves in the games, consume all the articles and listen to the podcasts get the first glimpse of how different you truly are, that there really is something here worth following, worth getting their hopes up to see just how far it can go.

It takes a while for the rest of the league to catch on, for the big shots to start understanding just how entertaining Edwards is or recognizing the brightness returning to Towns’ eyes or seeing the edge this historically passive Timberwolves defense has now, instilled by patrick beverley.

For most of the season, Wolves fans had this team to themselves, and it was fun. Each marker it hit — rebounding from a six-game skid under Chris Finch’s guidance, KAT returning to the All-Star game and winning the 3-point contestthe crowd responding to D’Angelo Russell’s challengea run of 10 wins in 11 games that really announced their arrival — ratcheted up the belief, brought a few more people into the arena and brought about the feeling that all of the suffering over the past 17 years was finally paying dividends.

And now as the Timberwolves scatter for the summer, they do so knowing it may never be this easy again. Practically every win they had this season was house money; each one over No. 23 pushed the misery of previous years further and further away. They made the playoffs but weren’t expected to win, so bowing out in six wasn’t the end of the world. But they will reconvene next fall with real expectations, with the belief that improvement in this league is linear, that because they took a big step this season, the next one will be coming.

The Timberwolves won’t be sneaking up on anyone next season, and that brings a new set of challenges from the ones that come with just trying to get out of gutter in the first place.

“We always expected to be in the playoffs all season long. We talked about it a lot in film and in practice and what it would take to be there,” Finch said. “Those were internal expectations. The external ones are ones that can oftentimes be more of an anchor. But, then again, you have to define yourself by what you expect from yourself rather than what others do.”


Karl-Anthony Towns rediscovered the joy in his game after a difficult two years. (Brad Rempel/USA Today)

Finch laid out the challenges for the Wolves next year. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George should be full go for the Clippers, Anthony Davis will be up and running again for the Lakers, jamal murray and Michael Porter Jr. will fortify the Nuggets, Damian Lillard will be back for Portland and Zion Williamson should be healthy enough to rejoin a Pelicans team that came on like gangbusters after acquiring CJ McCollum at the trade deadline.

Maybe the Utah Jazz, who could undergo a remodel after losing to Dallas in the playoffs, could fall back. But the conference as a whole figures to be daunting.

“We’ve got to take two steps forward while other teams take one step forward,” Sachin Gupta, executive vice president of basketball operations, said.

WithTowns, Edwards, Russell, Jaden McDaniels, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley all still young and improving and Beverley returning next season on the one-year deal he signed, Gupta said he does not believe the roster needs significant changes to take those two steps. Towns enters the offseason healthy and of sound mind after rediscovering joy in the game this season. Edwards took huge strides as a shooter in his second season, and Finch said the Wolves will try to help him round out his game even further. McDaniels was terrific in the Game 6 loss to Memphis and plans to work out this summer with Beverley and Leonard.

There are reasons for optimism but still many questions to answer. It starts at the top with Gupta, who replaced Gersson Rosas as the lead decision-maker in the front office after Roses were fired in September. The Wolves were purposeful in not giving Gupta an interim label, but did say they would evaluate the job he did after the season ended. He did not make a trade at the deadline, a move that could be considered selfless by not simply making a trade to look busy, but was integral in signing Beverley to his one-year extension and extending Finch, who enjoys a near-universal approval rating within the walls at Mayo Clinic Square.

Glen Taylor is still the majority owner and making the final call on personnel decisions. He has a reputation for loyalty and patience with those who work for him on the Timberwolves, which could be in Gupta’s favor, especially coming off of a rare successful season. Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez joined the ownership group last summer with the intent of eventually purchasing a majority share of the franchise by the end of 2023. They have input into major decisions like the one involving Gupta. They have spoken highly of Gupta’s ability to stabilize an unstable situation after Rosas’s ouster, but it remains unclear if the two younger owners would like to hire their own executive to lead the department or continue with Gupta.

Finch has made it clear where his preference lies.

“I’m a huge fan, and I’ve advocated for him to have his opportunity to be the guy to run this team,” Finch said of Gupta. “Nothing would make me happier than that.”

Towns will likely be eligible for a supermax contract extension if he makes one of the All-NBA teams, and offering him that deal should be a fairly straightforward decision for the team. Towns has said over and over again how happy he has been with the progress this year, the community and the organization helping him through the grief he has struggled with over the past few years.

Russell’s extension will be a more complicated process. He will make $31.4 million next season in the final year of a max contract he signed with Golden State. He had a very good regular season with the Wolves, but he averaged just 12.0 points, shot 33 percent from the field and spent the end of their playoff elimination game on the bench while Finch played Jordan McLaughlin instead. Russell did not go into details on his contract desires during his end-of-the-season press conference, but the Wolves could look to trade him if they ca n’t reach a satisfactory conclusion.

“We still think the fit is great,” Finch said. “His skill set, his playmaking, all that stuff hasn’t changed. We’ve just got to figure out maybe some different sets or structures that kind of accentuate those things, too.”

The Wolves have to add some size to address the huge deficiencies in defensive rebounding the Grizzlies series exposed. Even though Minnesota led the NBA in 3s made, you can never have enough shooting. But a lot of the plan will be internal development, pushing Edwards and McDaniels to make third-year leaps, Towns to continue to work on his composure and Beasley to report to training camp in better shape so he doesn’t get off to the slow start he did this season.

“We’ve all gotten a taste of it,” Gupta said. “We’re excited for a big summer.”

Nothing can be taken for granted. The excitement of this season will give way to the expectations of next. Will they be an anchor, as Finch said they can be, or a springboard? We already noticed a change in the temperature of the water in the playoffs. The Wolves played well for very long stretches of that series, so much so that some fans started to truly believe they were going to win. And when they didn’t, when they kept giving up lead after lead, the restlessness in the arena was palpable.

Towns put together the finest season of his seven-year career and put up some very strong performances in Games 1, 4 and 5. But he was locked down in Games 2 and 3, and his Game 6 performance was glaring. He went 6-for-19 from the field, a rare inefficient shooting night, was 0-for-3 from deep and missed four of his five shots in the fourth quarter. That’s just not good enough for a team that believed it had the Grizzlies dead to rights.

Edwards was brilliant in his playoff debut with 36 points, and he put up 30 in the finale, but his shot selection down the stretch of several games contributed to the offense slowing down and being unable to withstand the charges from Memphis.

“I think with the experience everyone’s garnered, especially our team being so young, I think instead of playing the game next year, we’ll be thinking the game more, and it’s going to lead to more wins, and it’s going to be leading to less mental errors,” Towns said.

After the Golden State Warriors defeated the Grizzlies in Game 1 of their second-round series on Sunday, outlasting another Memphis surge from 10 points down, Stephen Curry said they did so without the ejected Draymond Green because they have “championship DNA.”

The phrasing resonated because, in explaining the Wolves’ inability to close out the Grizzlies during their series, Finch said bad shot selection and hero ball were “baked in our DNA right now, and we know we have to learn from this. We’re not all just going to be able to save the day. But moving forward, we’ll learn, and we’ll have hopefully grown from it.”

The Wolves have so much work to do. All they have to do is look to the Atlanta Hawks for an example of a young team that could not handle success, that may have misunderstood that the next step is not a given, and all of a sudden they didn’t make it out of the first round one year after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.

It will only get harder from here. The kind of fun that happened this season, the fun that comes out of nowhere and lands in your lap, that’s gone now. If the Timberwolves can push through, grow and become a factor in what is expected to be a much-improved Western Conference next season, well, that is an entirely different kind of fun.

(Top photo: David Berding/USA Today)

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