The Timberwolves went into their game with Golden State on Wednesday night with a 7-3 record, their best start since 2001-02 when they went 9-1 en route to a 50-32 season.
It might not seem like a significant mark, but when you consider that in 27 previous seasons the Wolves were 7-3 or better through 10 games only twice — in 2001-02 and in 1998-99, when they started 8-2 — it’s easy to see why people are excited about this team.
One of the key contributors on a team that added Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson in the offseason has been returning 6-10 power forward Nemanja Bjelica, who has been shooting the ball as well as anyone in the NBA.
Last season Bjelica was really coming into his own before a foot injury suffered in a 117-104 loss to the Celtics in Boston on March 15 hampered him the rest of the season. Going into that game, the Wolves were 28-38 and had won seven of their past 10 games against some of the best teams in the NBA.
But after Bjelica got hurt, the team fell apart and finished 3-13.
He is playing better than ever this season. Last year he averaged 6.2 points on 42.4 percent shooting, including 31.6 percent on three-pointers, in 18.3 minutes per game. This year he is averaging 8.2 points per game playing just 15.5 minutes per game. He is shooting 63.6 percent from the field, including a league-best 62.5 percent from beyond the arc and 91.7 percent from the free-throw line.
It might be difficult for the Wolves, however, to keep Bjelica next season. The 29-year-old is a restricted free agent, meaning any team can make him an offer and the Wolves can match it, if they have the money. The problem is the team already has $122.1 million in salaries locked up for next season.
Owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, has been a big fan of Bjelica and talked about the challenge of trying to keep him. Bjelica is making $3.95 million this season in the final year of a three-year contract.
“I’m not really sure, just because I don’t know the amount of money that it may require,” Taylor said. “We think he is really valuable to our team, and we’d love to keep him. We are in a situation right now where we are paying a number of our players really high salaries and we have only so much. So our hope is that we can keep him, and we hope he has a great season, but it will depend on what value other teams put on him.”
Plenty for fans
The Wolves are averaging 16,382 in attendance through five home games, compared to 14,809 last season. Taylor said it demonstrates there is a market for good basketball in the Twin Cities.
“We have the fan base, we just have had too many years here where we have had disappointing results at home,” Taylor said. “Now we have to show the fans that if they come, they’re going to have great entertainment every game.”
The Wolves rank first overall in percentage increase in attendance. Their TV ratings are their best in four years, up 62 percent from last season. Taylor also has been happy with the newly remodeled Target Center.
“I think there are some more things we’re going to do next year that we’ll do for our customers, but we got everything as planned and we’re on schedule,” he said. “But I think in future years, there are some other smaller areas we’ll fix up for our fans.”
The Lynx, also owned by Taylor, won their fourth WNBA championship this season. Even though the team had to play at Xcel Energy Center and Williams Arena while Target Center was remodeled, Taylor said they turned a profit again this season.
“We lost money up until the last couple of years; now, because of our attendance and sponsorships, we are running on a profitable basis,” he said.
Taylor said the Lynx paid about $200,000 to the University of Minnesota to use Williams Arena during their playoff run, and he ended up paying about $1 million to air-condition the arena.
Taylor has never skimped on paying his players or staff, but when he signed Tom Thibodeau to a five-year, $40 million contract to run the basketball operations before last season, there was no doubt that results were expected.
And even when the Wolves finished with a 31-51 record, Taylor approved a number of big moves.
The Wolves traded for Butler, who had a potential $60 million left over three years of his contract. They signed Andrew Wiggins to a five-year, $148 million extension. They signed Teague to a three-year, $57 million deal. They added Gibson for two years and $28 million.
“I know we have the potential,” Taylor said. “There is no reason we can’t do really well. But also I think it’s obvious to everybody there are lots of good teams out there fighting for the top spots in the Western Conference, especially, and we are one of them.
“We can’t just let some games get by, where we’re the better team and somehow the other team pulls it out. I’m excited about [the Wolves] and I have confidence in them.”
But having all these large contracts limits the Wolves’ salary cap space. And that’s before next season, when Karl-Anthony Towns will most likely be offered a similar extension to Wiggins.
“[Towns] is potentially lined up to get the same type of contract,” Taylor said. “He is an outstanding player. He has more potential to grow, and we certainly want to keep him. We’ll see how his year goes. I have every reason to believe that he would get a similar contract. It will be based on what he produces this year.”
Early signing period
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck said this week that when the 72-hour early signing period starts Dec. 20, the team expects to sign the bulk of its 2018 class. It’s the first time his sport has had this early signing period, and Fleck said it will forever change college football.
“You’re going to see [athletic directors] making quicker [coaching] decisions,” Fleck said. “You already see coaches being released, ADs are working behind the scenes right now to bring in coaches. It’s going to happen a lot faster. … You might even start to see, as seasons go on, coaches leave programs towards the end of the [regular] season. It’s one of those things we haven’t been through in college football, so nobody knows how it’s going to be affected.
“… You’re going to see a lot of things happen, a lot of trial and error, and people saying, ‘They should have done this or they should have done that.’ But when you have a new rule, those are the things that kind of make it exciting at the same time.”
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org