It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. While this is admittedly a bit of an oversimplification, if we’re going on definitions alone, a healthy portion of NBA franchises are, then, insane. The theory that teams are just a sum of their parts – and thus the higher profile and more talented the parts, the better the team – has been disproved time and time again. Sure, having a superstar or two is incredibly helpful (and maybe even necessary) for summiting the highest heights of NBA success, but it’s not a the-more-All-Stars-the-merrier proposition. One needs look no further than the smoldering pile of rubble that was the hopes for a championship of the Big Three in Brooklyn, or last year’s disastrous Los Angeles Lakers, for evidence that more isn’t always more when it comes to superstar talent. And yet, despite its definitively unsatisfactory track record, teams seem to try this method time and time again.
The most recent example of this insanity-borne-out can be found in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis. The Minnesota Timberwolves have been, to put it mildly, a historically underwhelming franchise. Entering the 2021-22 season, in fact, the Wolves held the discomfiting crown of being the all-time losingest franchise in North American sports, nudging out the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the dubious distinction. The expectations for the team, at the time, were about as low as possible, which made for an all the more feel-good story as the suddenly gelling Timberwolves stacked improbable wins – and, markedly, enjoyed the hell out of themselves – leading to one of only two playoff appearances for the team since the halcyon days of Kevin Garnett in 2004. The Wolves’ No 1 overall draft pick in 2021, Anthony Edwards, seemed to be especially thriving, with a new coach in Chris Finch and a roster that, while lacking in defense, facilitated his growth and gave him the space to do what he does best, most notably dunking on people within an inch of their lives.
Their other No 1 overall draft pick on the roster, Karl-Anthony Towns, also had a stellar regular season last year (tempered by an underwhelming playoffs showing), resulting in a third All-Star Game appearance, even going on to become only the third big man to win the three-point contest. All and all, even considering that they lost a hotly contested series to Memphis (in sometimes head-scratching fashion), it was hard not to consider the season a resounding success. On top of this, after years of calling for the head of Glen Taylor – the franchise’s nearly universally unpopular steward – Timberwolves fans had gotten their wish: a gradual changing of the guard to a new ownership group helmed by Marc Lore and onetime embattled MLB superstar Alex Rodriguez that began shortly before the 2022 season started. All around, the future seemed eminently bright in the land of 10,000 lakes.
Shortly after the Timberwolves were eliminated from the playoffs, at the conclusion of the aforementioned first-round series with Memphis, the new ownership group made their first big chess move: coaxing GM Tim Connelly away from his longtime post with the Denver Nuggets. The hiring marked the beginning of what would be an aggressive off-season for the team. They were perhaps a little high on their own supply of good vibes: the whiff of success they’d gotten mixed with the excitement of new ownership propelling them into a summer of decision-making that seemed to be predicated on both a “win-now” mentality and a faith that ascending superstar Edwards was ready to be the number one offensive option.
What happened next was the result, it seems in hindsight, of an error in judgment, compounded by several other errors alongside it. To break them down one by one: the first blunder appears to be the assumption that Edwards’ electrifying postseason debut occurred in spite of, and not in part because of, his supporting cast– several key members of which were shipped off to Utah in the eventual trade for Rudy Gobert, including Patrick Beverley, who literally cried tears of joy when they qualified for the playoffs. The second, that Edwards was ready to be The Guy – 28 games of evidence thus far seems to imply that maybe the 21-year-old could have used another year of development. The third, the hubris that one year of overachieving was so promising that it warranted a bold “upgrade” (in quotations in light of the results thus far) to the roster. The final, and indeed most devastating mistake, brings us back to the insanity component: the hefty wager that swapping out several key role players for a big-name superstar was bound to make the team better, despite questions about fit, and, as we already established, years of evidence to the contrary.
That swap for a superstar came with a historic price tag: to acquire Gobert, the Wolves parted with four first-round picks (three of which are unprotected), a pick swap, the promising young talent Jarred Vanderbilt, Beverley, Malik Beasley, Leandro Bolmero, and their 2022 draft pick in Walker Kessler. That’s quite a mortgage for a player who, yes, was named Defensive Player of the Year three times with as many All-Star selections, but who, in eight years in the league, has never made it even as far as the conference finals, and who has come under fire for his lackluster playoff performances (even on the defensive end on which he’s made his name in the regular season).
The early returns on the gamble have not been great. Pre-season hype about the newly minted attempt at a superteam prompted chatter around the league of a surefire playoffs spot, and maybe even a chance at a finish near the top of the Western Conference. But after Wednesday’s loss to the LA Clippers, the Timberwolves are two games below .500 with a 13-15 record, and the natives (fans) are growing restless. The team has looked disjointed, often lackadaisical, and downright devoid of the galvanic chemistry that propelled them in their Cinderella story last year.
In something of a departure from the ‘Minnesota Nice’ trope, those fans are not being shy in expressing their displeasure with the team’s performance, prompting several players to acknowledge the epidemic of booing at home games to the press – though the contrast in their responses feels telling. Edwards seemed to look inward in response to the booing, saying after a loss to the San Antonio Spurs early in the season: “We’re getting booed at home, it’s crazy. We gotta find ourselves … but the fans are not wrong. We look bad.” Gobert took a less introspective approach, speaking on the fans to Jon Krawczynski about a month later after a home loss to the Heat elicited more jeering from the crowd: “There’s no team in NBA history that only had good moments, so if you’re not going to support us in the tough moments, just stay home.”
Many of the losses came even before Towns went down with a calf sprain at the end of November (he’s expected to miss a month or more). Chemistry and fit issues – and, by extension, issues with effort and intensity – have clearly plagued the team all season, and the Towns injury is, in some ways, the least of their problems. I asked head coach Chris Finch after a particularly demoralizing loss at home to Golden State how he felt about the state of the team’s chemistry, and he didn’t mince words. “I don’t think we have great chemistry right now,” he admitted. “I think we’re trying to figure it out. But I just think on any given night we don’t really know how it’s all going to fit together.”
For a team that seemed to be having the time of their lives last year, it’s pretty stark and, quite frankly, depressing as hell to watch them be veritably joyless just a season later. It’s especially troubling with Edwards, as developmental years like these can have such a profound impact on the trajectory of an emerging superstar. And the angsty mess is made all the more frustrating by how utterly avoidable it was, had the team just taken a more patient approach, valued the role players who gave them identity, and given more consideration to personnel alchemy instead of shiny new toys and broad strokes. Because as much as NBA owners and GMs like to believe otherwise, successful teams aren’t math: they’re science. Chemistry, to be exact. And doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on the contrary? Well, that’s just lunacy.