The most frustrating thing about the Timberwolves right now has nothing to do with playing time, the ability of stars to coexist or really any other on-court matter.
Rather, it is this: At a time when they have their most promising core in more than a decade, it’s next to impossible to imagine their ceiling of accomplishment is any higher than it is currently situated: making the playoffs and striving for a first-round win.
As the Wolves started to gain traction, Golden State stood looming and casting a giant shadow. Then last year the Rockets joined the Warriors as playoff locks and legitimate title contenders. Now LeBron James is in the West with the Lakers — not to mention a host of other teams with realistic 50-win aspirations.
Put LeBron on any marginal team and it instantly becomes a contender (as we witnessed in Cleveland last season). So LeBron on the Lakers virtually assures that even with a first-round playoff series victory, a team is going to face the Warriors, Rockets or Lakers in the second round depending on how the seeding shakes out.
That suggests the Wolves need to be patient this year and attempt to improve from within and convince the core of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins that improvement is possible and a championship in three or four years is attainable if they all stick together.
That might be the prudent play regardless of circumstances in the West, but if the conference were truly wide open as it was before Golden State turned into the Western Conference All-Star Team — back when the Spurs were always going to contend while the Mavericks, Lakers (and later the Thunder) were going to contend but nobody was unbeatable — there would be one go-for-broke move that could launch the Wolves into immediate championship contention.
The deal: Send Wiggins, future picks and whatever else it takes to the Spurs for one year of Kawhi Leonard.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted about the Wolves in a recent piece about Leonard and possible “mystery suitors” for him in a trade: “This is interesting. Wiggins is a divisive player. He probably carries negative trade value on his max-level deal. But he’s 23 and undeniably skilled, and the Spurs still have a jones for midrange jumpers. Toss in a couple of picks, and the Wolves could make a compelling offer.”
Leonard and Butler can both become free agents after the upcoming season, so it’s hard to think about rolling the dice to that extent. But it would be far less difficult if the West weren’t piled so high.
In normal times, a team with Leonard, Butler and Towns would have a legitimate chance to win a championship. With Golden State, Houston and LeBron standing in the way? It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be highly unlikely. And then it could all fall apart if Butler and Leonard left.
Therein lies the biggest frustration for the Wolves. Even a team that can win 50-plus games next year if things break right — and could win even more with one megadeal — is still more or less playing for the future.