May is typically the month that the Kentucky Derby, basketball and hockey playoffs and, more recently, the NFL draft reign supreme in the sporting world.
But in Minnesota, two venerable late-spring sporting traditions have risen above all competition: Walleye fishing opener and the Timberwolves losing out in the NBA draft lottery to much more charismatic and likeable teams.
For a team that has made 10 straight appearances in the annual gaggle of the league’s 14 worst squads, the lottery has come to symbolize the bitter plight of a franchise whose quarter-century existence has been marred by bad talent, awful coaching, terrible management and even worse luck.
But after a successful tanking season that earned the T-Wolves a 25 percent shot at the top pick, birthed a future superstar in Andrew Wiggins and brought Kevin Garnett home, there is reason to believe the NBA zeitgeist is now hovering over the Target Center.
Securing the top pick would give the T-Wolves their shot at either Karl Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor – both of whom are big men that could take over for the perpetually injured Nikola Pekovic and provide a dominant inside force to pair with Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio and the rest of the cast. Give this cast a year or two to gel and the team will surely find itself in contention in a hurry.
But any optimism must be tempered with a dose of reality. Despite being one of the most frequent participants in the lottery over the past quarter century, the T-Wolves have not once gained draft position through the lottery process; they have either remained situated or lost slots in every campaign.
The years in which draft position was lost were especially painful – robbing the team of chances to select potential franchise players. Equally discouraging are the limitless instances of surprise teams that vault into the top three picks, such as every time the NBA decides the Cleveland Cavaliers need a shortcut to improving or luring LeBron back.
Rightly or wrongly, lottery history has convinced me to take a conspiracy theorist approach. I now assume that the lottery is rigged (at least against the T-Wolves), and I cannot change my position unless presented with compelling evidence that it is not.
In 2011, the last time the T-Wolves finished with a league-worst record and the highest odds at the top pick, the team had its eyes on Kyrie Irving – widely regarded as the best overall player in the draft. Yet, in a moment the NBA surely made just for TV moment, Cleveland – represented by its owner’s chronically sick child – miraculously leapfrogged the T-Wolves into the number one slot.
In 1992, the T-Wolves also finished with the league’s worst record and were in position to nab either Shaq or Alonzo Mourning – either of whom would have turned the team into instant contenders. Not so. After falling to the third slot, the team was forced to select Christian Laettner. Other players the team missed out on because of lottery misfortune have included Anfernee Hardaway and Grant Hill, and that doesn’t even include passing on Stephen Curry twice in 2009.
But let’s not forget that Andrew Wiggins was indeed the top overall pick in 2014 and appears to be the franchise player this team has lacked for a decade. Sure, to get him we had to give up Kevin Love (who was going to leave anyways), but he was a shoe-in for rookie of the year and even made the NBA All-Rookie First Team – putting him in the same league as former T-Wolves rookies Pooh Richardson, Laettner, Isaiah Rider, Wally Szczerbiak, Randy Foye and Stephon Marbury.
Clearly, these are not guys with whom we want Wiggins to be lumped in with, as he has far more skill and potential than any of them. But should the powers that be within the NBA decide that they owe the T-Wolves reconciliation for past wrongs, this year’s draft could get real exciting, real quick.