The Timberwolves came up three points short in their most crucial game of the season last night against the New York Knicks. The match was a nail-biter the entire way through, with neither team holding a lead of more than two points through most of the fourth quarter and overtime period.
Though the T-Wolves won the game, in doing so they squandered their chance to surpass New York for the prestigious honor of having the league’s worst record.
Why does this matter? Because the team with the worst record earns the highest odds (25 percent) at being awarded the number one pick in the June draft. Despite the NBA’s efforts to discourage this practice, known dubiously as “tanking”, it is still widely practiced by teams that have effectively given up on the season.
This year, the winner will earn the first choice to select one of the star college players on display in the NCAA tournament, such as Duke center Jahlil Okafor, Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell, or any member of the Kentucky freshman dream team.
While the T-Wolves came up short last night in their pursuit of the top pick, they cannot be faulted for a lack of effort. In a remarkable move in tanking lore, Flip Saunders de-activated basically all of the team’s players – Ricky Rubio, Kevin Garnett, Nikola Pekovic, Anthony Bennett and even Justin Hamilton – who would have provided a shot at winning.
Even more stunning, Flip signed a player, Sean Kilpatrick, from the Delaware 87ers of the D-League just hours before the game to meet the required minimum of eight players. Mr. Kilpatrick made the three hour drive to New York, arrived at the arena minutes before tip-off and suited up to play 10 full minutes.
The episode brings to recollection the epic tanking campaign of 2005-06, when the T-Wolves needed to lose enough games to achieve a top 10 slot in the draft order, lest their pick be shipped to the LA Clippers as part of the disastrous Marco Jaric trade.
The reliable and durable Kevin Garnett was deactivated for much of the games down the stretch for various insignificant injuries. The season came down to the final game against the Memphis Grizzlies, who were also tanking to land a more favorable playoff seeding.
In a game that nobody wanted to win, the T-Wolves prevailed – losing in two overtimes only after sending out Mark Madsen, the team’s worst shooter, to launch seven 3-pointers in the extra periods.
Not to be outdone, last night’s Knicks signed their own guy from the D-League, and were simply more determined to lose. Led by former T-Wolves castoff Alexey Shved, who missed a layup in the final seconds that would have won the game, the Knicks held on to lose 95-92, putting them in the driver’s seat to a league worst record.
The T-wolves record now stands at 15-53. They have just 14 remaining games to regain the 25 percent shot at the top draft pick. One of those games will be on April 10 against the LA Lakers, who are also putting together an impressive tank job this season.
If the T-Wolves finish with the league’s second worst record, they will have just a 19.9 percent chance at winning the top pick. But considering the team’s less than glamorous history with the NBA draft lottery, this all may be completely irrelevant.