Doug Wolter: With Timberwolves, skepticism comes with the territory
If only the Minnesota Timberwolves had had a few more competitive years in the historical record, they might have more die-hard fans today.
As it is, I suspect many Wolves fans see themselves more as detached critics than invested fanatics. When your club has never really made a significant run at greatness (or even respectability), it's hard to take them seriously.
The Timberwolfies completed their part in another National Basketball Association draft last Thursday, and nobody is going to predict that it will turn around a franchise that, since its inception, has been known throughout the basketball world for (a) middling to disastrous draft choices, and (b) sheer ineptitude on the court. In those odd years where fate gives the Wolves a few good players to build around (as in the 2012-13 edition with Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic leading the way), add (c) injuries, to the list of debilitating crises.
I've always been fascinated at how difficult it is for some NBA franchises to build a winner.
It should be an easier task than it is in the National Football League, where you have to put 11 people on the field on offense, 11 different people on the field on defense, and assemble a special teams unit as well. Just by the sheer numbers involved, you'd think that going from pathetic to powerful in the NFL would take longer than it does. But, alas, NFL teams seem to routinely go from last place to playoff contention almost overnight.
Major league baseball teams, too, seem much better at turning their fortunes around than the weakest NBA teams. Usually it takes two or three years to do it, but by picking off a few big-time free agents and stuffing lots of cash in their pockets, even the worst franchise can be headed in the right direction in no time flat.
Except, maybe, if you're the Cubs.
Critics are quite naturally out in full force today taking pot shots at the Timberwolves' 2013 draft. What the Wolves did, of course, was to select Michigan point guard Trey Burke --who won the Wooden Award as the NCAA's most outstanding player --and trade him to the Utah Jazz for selections No. 14 (UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad) and No. 21 (Louisville shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng). Suffice to say, Muhammad will need to prove himself to the skeptics, who are always legion when you are the Timberwolves.
The consensus on Muhammad appears to be this: One-dimensional. Selfish. Troublesome. And lazy. He will shoot, but he won't pass. He won't play defense. He was temporarily suspended last year for accepting illegal travel and lodging accomodations. After UCLA won a big game on a last-second shot put up by a teammate, he refused to join a spontaneous on-court celebration, reportedly because it was somebody else who attempted the game-winner. In UCLA's poorly-played NCAA tournament game against the Minnesota Gophers, Muhammad was particularly disappointing. In fact, he seemed disinterested. Disinterested in the NCAA tournament?
In choosing Burke for the Jazz, the Timberwolves made Jazz fans very happy. One writer, S. B. Jackson, said getting Burke --a high-motor, highly productive player who averaged 18.6 points and 6.7 assists per game last year --was one of the gutsiest moves of the 2013 draft.
The Timberwolves pulled off a gutsy move, too. Theirs is a long history of gutsy, disastrous moves.
Minnesota's new president of basketball operations, Flip Saunders, was determined to get a shooter in the 2013 draft. And he got one in Muhammad. Nobody questions the UCLA product's willingness to fire up shots. It seems to be about the only thing Shabazz actually does care about. He averaged less than one assist per game at the storied West Coast school.
When you've got a history like the Timberwolves have got, there are those who say it's better to draft for players of a different mental makeup. Players who have already impressed others with their professionalism, their desire, their work ethic. But it's fair to suggest that if Muhammad comes pre-packed with so much baggage upon joining the NBA, the chances that he will quickly become the player Minnesota wants and needs is fairly minimal.
I love Saunders' justification of the pick. "Here's the thing that's misleading about Shabazz," he said. "When we sat down and talked to him, he owned up to anything in his previous history that he dealt with. And a lot of it didn't have to do with him. Maybe it had to do with some other people involved, the AAU, his dad or whatever. Not only did he own up to it, but I felt he had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder because of where everything was at."
Now, some might say Flip is a terrific amateur psychologist, and that Muhammad will become the steal of the draft. I say that when the person who chose you feels the first thing he has to do is make excuses for you, that doesn't inspire confidence.
But, hey, just look at it this way. For a team that still considers Christian Laettner one of its best-ever first-round draft picks, maybe it could be worse.